Archive for December, 2016

Syria opposition creates ‘Army of Aleppo’ to fight Assad regime

December 1, 2016

All the armed Syrian opposition factions in the besieged districts of opposition-held eastern Aleppo have decided to dissolve their individual organisations, and will now instead reform as a newly created “Army of Aleppo”, opposition forces have declared.

The announcement means that there no longer exists a multitude of different factions in Aleppo who opposed the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and their unification comes following gains the Assad regime have made over the past week.

The creation of the Army of Aleppo comes after the first major territorial upset suffered by the Syrian opposition in the divided northern city since 2012. Using barrel bombs laced with chemical agents, the Assad regime has advanced into a number of neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo, previously inaccessible to them.

Although the opposition has previously united their command structures, notably leading to a brief breaking of the regime’s siege on eastern Aleppo, this is the first time that they have completely unified as a single entity.

The unification comes at the request of the people of Aleppo who live under opposition control but fear what may happen to them by a vengeful Assad regime should eastern districts fall.

The collapse of the opposition frontline in Aleppo has led to concerns that regime forces and allied Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan may commit a sectarian massacre on an unprecedented scale.

It remains to be seen whether now unofficial divisions between the previously disparate groups will resurface, though it seems unlikely that will happen in the short-term considering the very real danger the Assad regime poses to neighborhoods under opposition control.

Calls to established a safe corridor for civilians

Meanwhile, the president of the Aleppo local council issued calls pleading for the Syrian regime assault to pause and for a corridor to be created to allow civilians wishing to flee the violence in Syria’s largest city safe passage.

“The civilians are calling for the world to help. In the name of humanity, let the civilians leave the city. Help the civilians! Protect the civilians!” said Brita Hagi Hasan at a joint press conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitor, accused the Assad regime of detaining hundreds of civilians who were forced to flee their homes and neighborhoods as a result of the offensive.

Hasan said that the regime and allied Iran-backed militias were committing reprisals against civilians. “We have documented evidence, proof of executions and reprisals,” he said, adding that men under the age of 40 were being especially targeted by the regime.

Commenting on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo, Ayrault said: “We shall see what members of the Security Council can do to save lives. Everyone is against the wall, but we can’t look the other way.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.



Syrian opposition keeps up resistance

December 1, 2016

Syrian opposition on Wednesday vowed to fight on in east Aleppo in the face of sudden government advances that have cut the area held by the opposition by a third in recent days and brought insurgents in the city to the brink of a catastrophic defeat.

Gains by the Syrian army and its allies since last week have brought whole districts back under government control and led to a human exodus as thousands have fled their pulverized neighborhoods near the rapidly shifting front lines.

With the opposition now reduced to an area just kilometers across, the leaders of Russia and Turkey, two of the most powerful supporters of the opposing sides in the war spoke by phone on the need for a ceasefire, according to sources in Ankara.

The army and its allies said they had taken the Sheikh Saeed district in the south of the city on Wednesday. Opposition denied this, saying the government’s advance had been repelled. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the insurgents retained a third of Sheikh Saeed.

The Observatory reported that the government was detaining and questioning hundreds of those fleeing opposition-held areas for the comparative safety of state-controlled districts.

A Syrian military source denied this, saying there had been no arrests, but adding that displaced people whose identities were not known were being moved into “specific places” in the areas of Aleppo where fleeing civilians were found.

In their attack on Wednesday, government forces stepped up the use of air strikes, including in Aleppo’s Old City, according to an opposition official. Rescue workers in eastern Aleppo said 45 people were killed in an artillery bombardment.

The UN’s aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, told a Security Council emergency meeting on Aleppo that dozens of humanitarian staff were trapped in Aleppo and that warring parties must protect civilians before the city becomes “one giant graveyard”.

After a year of gradual advances for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias, the taking of Aleppo would represent a huge stride forwards in his efforts to end the opposition after nearly six years of conflict.

For the mostly Sunni Muslim opposition groups, the fall of Aleppo would deprive them of their last big foothold in a major city. A leadership council of the opposition groups in Aleppo called on all men able to bear arms to “defend the oppressed”.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful international ally whose air force has pounded opposition for more than a year, said it hoped the Aleppo situation could be resolved by the end of the year. Opposition in the city have vowed no surrender.

No Withdrawal

While opposition lines collapsed unexpectedly in parts of eastern Aleppo at the weekend, sources on the government side say the next phase could be more difficult as they try to take more densely populated areas of the city.

Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim opposition group, told Reuters that opposition groups in the city had rejected any withdrawal.

“This is the decision of the factions. I spoke to them about everything that was tabled and they said they would not withdraw, and other things may also happen,” he said from Turkey, without giving further details.

With tens of thousands of people remaining in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, many say they would rather risk death than surrender to a government they have been trying to overthrow since protests against Assad began in 2011.

Thousands of people who have fled the fighting have gone into the Kurdish-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud district rather than hand themselves over to a government which UN investigators have accused of secretly detaining activists and civilians.

Salem Abu Mudar, an east Aleppo resident reached by Reuters, said that although he had never taken up arms against the government, “I fear the regime will not let me go and I will end up in one of its many prisons”.

Damascus says such reports of arbitrary detention and torture are fabricated.

The Syrian military source said reports of detentions in Aleppo were intended to scare the people into staying under opposition rule, and that identities of people leaving the area had to be checked to ensure they were not militants.

The army has urged Aleppo’s opposition factions to accept a surrender under which they would abandon the city. In previous deals between the government and opposition, insurgents have been given safe passage to the opposition-held province of Idlib.

Renewed assault

Rescue workers in the opposition zone said renewed artillery bombardment had killed more than 45 people, mostly women and children, on Wednesday and injured dozens more, including some of those who had fled from front line areas. The Observatory put the toll from that attack at 26.

“Today there was another massacre, I witnessed it. The displaced people were coming at 6:30 am. There was artillery shelling while they were walking in the streets. Really, it was so, so horrible,” said Aref al-Aref, a nurse and photographer in an opposition-held part of the city.

Footage sent by the Civil Defense rescue operation, purportedly of the aftermath, showed people lying in the street in pools of blood, including a woman dressed in black who had been carrying a large backpack. Reuters could not independently verify the date or location of the video.

Opposition shelling of government-held districts in western Aleppo killed eight people, including two children, and wounded seven, the official SANA news agency reported, citing a source in the city’s police force.

With diplomatic efforts to resolve the war in deadlock, and uncertainty over the position that the next US administration will take on Syria, Moscow said it had been in contact with President-elect Donald Trump’s team on the matter.

Russian soldiers helped distribute food aid to displaced people who had fled eastern Aleppo to government areas, handing out packages stamped with the Russian flag and the slogan “Russia is with you” in Arabic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan agreed in a telephone conversation on Wednesday on the need for a ceasefire and provision of aid to Aleppo, sources in Erdogan’s office said. Moscow did not immediately comment on the call.

But Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the Security Council: “We share the grave concerns of the plight of civilians in east Aleppo, but easing their suffering won’t happen by ceasing the counter terrorist operation.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to meet his Turkish counterpart in the Mediterranean city of Antalya on Thursday.

The fighting has displaced around 50,000 people in the parts of east Aleppo where fighting has occurred, the Observatory said on Wednesday.

Speaking in Paris, Brita Hagi Hasan, president of the local council in opposition-held Aleppo districts, said the government should set up a safe corridor for civilians to leave.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Top South American university to host Palestine conference

December 5, 2016

A top South American university will host a conference on Palestine tomorrow, bringing together politicians, academics and activists from the region and Middle East.

“Brazilian Perspectives on Palestine in a changing Middle East” will be held at Brazil’s University of São Paulo (USP), and is timed to coincide with this year’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, which fell last week.

The conference is a joint project of the Center for Arab Studies of USP, the Institute for International Relations at USP, Middle East Monitor (London) and Common Action Forum (Madrid).

The aim of the meeting is to examine current perspectives and inform the political discourse on Palestine in Brazil; intellectually expose and unpack prevailing myths about Palestine; and energize public opinion to hasten the decolonization of Palestine.

Speakers at the event will include Wadah Khanfar, former director general of Al Jazeera Media Network and President of Common Action Forum, Professor Arlene Clemesha, USP-based historian, and Professor Nur Masalha, editor of Holy Land and Palestine Studies from St Mary’s University in London.

There will also be an address by Representative of Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The panelists will address topics such as: “The unfinished business of decolonization: Reinstating Palestine on to the world agenda”, “The rise of global civil society in the quest for Palestinian self-determination” and “Palestine: Shifting the paradigm from the hegemony of vested interest to genuine democracy”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


New UN chief says Syria peace is top concern

Tuesday 13 December 2016

UNITED NATIONS – The next head of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said on Monday that ending Syria’s war trumps other concerns in comments that suggest a greater willingness to accept a victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

As Guterres spoke at UN headquarters in New York, Assad’s troops, backed by Iranian forces and Russian air power, continued operations against rebel holdouts in Aleppo that would mark a decisive government success in the long-running conflict.

“This a war in which nobody’s winning, this is a war in which everybody’s losing,” Guterres, 67, told reporters after taking the oath of office to replace Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general on 1 January 2017. “It’s high time to put an end to this nonsense.”

The UN Security Council has often been deadlocked on Syria, with Russia backing Assad’s government while US armed rebels said the dynastic autocrat had butchered his own people and must step aside.

But with the six-year-old war shifting in Assad’s favour and with US president-elect Donald Trump signalling he is more amenable to Moscow, Guterres spoke of playing an “honest broker” in the elusive quest for peace.

“Whatever the contradictions that exist between member states, whatever the different perspectives that exist, I think there is a value that is above all,” said Guterres, who was elected in October in a series of polls.

“The value of peace in Syria corresponds to a necessity for us all, and I hope I will be able to help bring people together to this understanding.”

‘Surge of diplomacy’

Guterres promised a “surge of diplomacy” when he takes over from Ban. The South Korean diplomat’s second five-year term ends this year after making gains against poverty and climate change but without any diplomatic breakthroughs on Syria.

Ban was often at odds with Russia over Syria. Analysts say that Guterres may be more open to Moscow’s position that Assad’s government is the only legitimate and viable force against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group and other militants.

In Aleppo, anti-government rebels faced another night of heavy bombardment.

Lieutenant General Zaid al-Saleh, head of the government’s Aleppo security committee, said the Syrian army and its allies were in the “final stages” of recapturing Aleppo after an advance that had pushed rebels to the brink of collapse.

“The battle in eastern Aleppo should end quickly. They [rebels] don’t have much time. They either have to surrender or die,” Saleh told reporters in the recaptured Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo on Monday.

Guterres will start work just weeks before Trump’s inauguration as US President. The Republican billionaire has indicated he is willing to cut deals with Russia in an effort to extricate America from foreign military entanglements.

Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma scholar, said Guterres’s appointment comes at a turning point in the six-year-old conflict that has claimed more than 400,000 lives and uprooted more than half of Syria’s 22 million people.

“It’s a good time to have a new director in the UN, because the world is coming around to the idea that al-Assad will win this battle, either imminently or in one or two years’ time,” Landis, an expert on Syria, told Middle East Eye.

“There are no powerful militias to replace the Syrian government; the UN will be put in a very difficult but important position of finding a way to deal with Assad and smoothing the return of Syrian refugees to an Assad-run Syria.”

Handling the refugee crisis

Landis pointed to Guterres’s experience managing the UN refugee agency from 2005-2015 as preparation for the UN task of helping some 4.8 million Syrians who fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Europe and elsewhere to return home.

“One of the thorniest issues is guaranteeing that rebels associated with the Syrian opposition will be able to return home again and not face prison, torture or death,” Landis told MEE, adding that the “vast majority of refugees” are non-combatants who simply fled the violence.

“For them to go home, Syria has to rebuild. The West has placed a complicated maze of sanctions to hobble Syria’s economy. The return of refugees requires a new dialogue between the West and Syria, and that’s where the UN must set a new tone.”

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar from the World Policy Institute, a think tank, said both the UN and US are ceding influence on Syria’s conflict to Russia, which would likely result in fresh attacks on civilians designed to boost refugee flows and “destabilise Europe”.

“Guterres won’t be able to get anywhere near a genuine cease-fire in Syria, but he will make a difference in how the international community handles the refugee crisis more than in solving the problem at the source,” Cristol told MEE.

“Russia will be more willing to work with Guterres so long as he focuses on technocratic aspects of the refugee crisis rather than solving the miniature world war that is happening in Syria right now.”

Assaad al-Achi, executive director of Baytna, a Syrian civil society group, said hopes of creating a post-Assad transitional government will be “dead and buried” once government forces have taken eastern Aleppo.

Guterres and his team need “out-of-the-box creative ideas,” al-Achi told MEE.

“There is no military solution even if the regime forces take over the rest of Syria militarily, it will not be stabilised or pacified, there will be pockets of resistance for a long time and if we thought Daesh was violent, we’ll see Daesh 2.0,” al-Achi added, using another name for IS.

The election of Guterres has energised UN diplomats who see him as a skilled politician, able to overcome divisions that have crippled the UN. Trained as an engineer, he entered politics in 1976 in Portugal’s first democratic election after a revolt against five decades of dictatorship.

Source: Middle East Eye.


Syrian forces press on in Aleppo, as attacks kill civilians

November 30, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A barrage of artillery fire struck a housing area for displaced residents in rebel-held eastern Aleppo Wednesday, killing at least 21 civilians, activists said, as another eight civilians were killed in shelling on the government-held western side of the city, according to state media.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which maintains a network of contacts in the war-torn country, said it was the second time the Jub al-Quba neighborhood in eastern Aleppo was struck in two days. An airstrike killed 25 civilians Tuesday. Thousands of east Aleppo residents have moved to Jub al-Quba and other such neighborhoods fleeing a government advance on the rebel-held east.

The Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group operating in eastern Aleppo put the toll at 45 killed. Images published by the Civil Defense showed bodies strewn on a debris-filled road in an attack they It blamed on government forces.

Syrian Observatory chief Rami Abdurrahman said he predicts death tolls will spiral in east Aleppo as the internal displacement creates more residential density. Syrian state media said two children were among the eight killed in shelling on the city’s western neighborhoods, which it blamed on the rebels.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in Aleppo as pro-government Syrian forces press on with their campaign to reclaim the divided city. The Observatory said more than 50,000 out of an estimated quarter-million inhabitants have been displaced by attacks on rebel-held eastern Aleppo over the past 4 days. Many of them fled to safer ground in areas under government or Kurdish control. The International Committee of the Red Cross says around 20,000 people have fled.

The Lebanese Al-Manar TV channel reported from the Aleppo countryside that pro-government forces were advancing in the southern portion of the city’s rebel enclave. The government has seized much of the northern half of the enclave in a swift advance that began Saturday.