Archive for September 7, 2018

August 16, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — As Afghanistan’s Shiites mourned their dead and held funeral services Thursday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the horrific suicide bombing in Kabul that targeted a Shiite neighborhood the previous day, killing 34 students.

Grieving families gathered to bury their dead but even amid the somber atmosphere there was no respite from violence, underscoring the near-daily, persistent threats in the war-battered country. Two gunmen besieged a compound belonging to the Afghan intelligence service in a northwestern Kabul neighborhood early Thursday, opening fire as Afghan security forces moved in to cut them off. The standoff lasted for nearly six hours before police killed the gunmen and secured the area. The Islamic State group, in a posting on its Aamaq News Agency, claimed more than 200 people were killed or wounded in Wednesday’s suicide bombing.

The bomber, who had walked into a classroom in a one-room building at a Shiite educational center in the neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, where he set off his explosives, was identified as “the martyrdom-seeking brother Abdul Raouf al-Khorasani.” Afghanistan’s IS affiliate is known as The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, after an ancient name of the area that encompassed parts of present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The bombing also wounded 57 students, according to Health Ministry spokesman Wahid Majroh. Earlier on Thursday, the ministry revised an earlier death toll from the attack down to 34, not 48. Most of the victims were young men and women, high school graduates preparing for university entrance exams in the Shiite area’s educational center.

Kabul hospitals were completely overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack as officials collected data on the casualties, leading to the confusion and the initial wrong toll. The Dasht-e-Barchi area is populated by members of Afghanistan’s minority ethnic Hazaras — a Shiite community that has in the past been targeted by similar large-scale attacks.

IS, which considers Shiites to be heretics, frequently targets them, attacking their mosques, schools and cultural centers. In the past two years, there have been at least 13 attacks on the Shiite community in Kabul alone.

Fifteen of the victims’ bodies were taken Thursday to a Hazara community compound in Kabul where a mass funeral service was being held. The remaining victims were taken to their villages to be buried there, said Gulam Hassan, the cousin of one of the victims.

The attack, which came at the end of more than a week of assaults that have left scores of Afghan troops and civilians dead, shows how militants are still able to stage large-scale attacks — even in the capital of Kabul — and undermine efforts by Afghan forces to provide security and stability on their own.

Amnesty International on Thursday denounced the attack on the Shiites, calling it a war crime. “The deliberate targeting of civilians and the targeting of places of education is a war crime,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty’s South Asia campaigner. “Mounting civilian casualties show beyond any doubt that Afghanistan and, in particular, its capital, Kabul, are not safe.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also condemned the “terrorist” attack on the Shiites that “martyred and wounded the innocent” — students attending class — and ordered an investigation to determine how the bomber had managed to sneak into the compound, which has its own guards.

Survivors on Thursday struggled to come to terms with the bombing. In a Kabul hospital, Anifa Ahmadi sat by the bedside of her 17-year-old daughter Sima, who was wounded in the attack. Sima was in the front row of the classroom in the single-room building where the explosion occurred.

“I had told her and told her, ‘Don’t go to school. We are under attack everywhere. No place is safe for us.’ But she said ‘No, no, no’,” the mother said. Sima appeared undeterred despite injuries to her legs and arms and said she would go back to school. “I won’t let anyone stop me, I will resist all terrorist attacks to have the future I want,” she said.

Nahida Rahimi, a doctor at Kabul’s Isteqlal Hospital, where some of the wounded are being treated, said a mother told her she had lost a son in Wednesday’s bombing after already losing another a year earlier in another suicide bombing, also in Kabul, that targeted Shiites.

“We were both crying,” the doctor said. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, four policemen were killed and four were seriously wounded late Wednesday when they tried to defuse a car bomb they found in southern Kandahar province, according to Zia Durrani, provincial police spokesman.

Kandahar was the religious heartland of the Taliban during their five-year rule that ended with the 2001 invasion by U.S. and NATO forces following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.

August 15, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber targeted students preparing for university exams in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 48 people and wounding 67 in an attack blamed on the Islamic State group, officials said.

The bombing was the latest large-scale assault on Afghanistan’s Shiite community, which has increasingly been targeted by Sunni extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics. It comes amid a particularly bloody week in Afghanistan that has seen Taliban attacks kill scores of Afghan troops and civilians.

The bomber detonated his explosives inside a private building in the Dasht-i Barcha area of Kabul where a group of young Shiite men and women, all high school graduates, were studying for university entrance exams.

The spokesman for the public health ministry, Wahid Majroh, said the casualty figures were not final and that the death toll — which steadily rose in the immediate aftermath of the bombing — could rise further.

Majroh did not say if all the victims were students and whether any of their teachers were also among the casualties. The explosion initially set off gunfire from Afghan guards in the area, leading to assumptions that there were more attackers involved. Officials later said all indications were that there was only one bomber.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Jawad Ghawari, a member of the city’s Shiite clerical council, blamed IS, which has carried similar attacks in the past, hitting mosques, schools and cultural centers.

In the past two years, Ghawari said there were at least 13 attacks on the Shiite community in Kabul alone. Abdul Hossain Hossainzada, a Shiite community leader in the western Kabul neighborhood, said the bomber apparently targeted the course, which had young men and women studying together.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied his group’s involvement in the attack. Meanwhile, a Taliban assault on two adjacent checkpoints in northern Afghanistan late on Tuesday night killed at least 30 soldiers and policemen, officials said.

The attack took place in northern Baghlan province, in the Baghlan-I Markazi district, said Mohammad Safdar Mohseni, the head of the provincial council. Dilawar Aymaq, a parliamentarian from Baghlan, said the attack targeted a military checkpoint and another manned by the so-called local police, militias recruited and paid by the Interior Ministry.

Abdul Hai Nemati, the governor of Baghlan, said at least nine security forces were still missing and four others were wounded in the attack. He said reinforcements have been dispatched to help recapture the checkpoints.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the assault. Also Wednesday, life was gradually returning to normal in parts of the eastern city of Ghazni after a massive, days-long Taliban attack, though sporadic gunbattles was still underway in some neighborhoods.

Afghans emerged from their homes and some shops reopened in Ghazni, where the Taliban launched a coordinated offensive last Friday, overwhelming the city’s defenses and capturing several neighborhoods. Afghan forces repelled the initial assault and in recent days have struggled to flush the insurgents out of residential areas where they are holed up.

The United States and NATO have launched airstrikes and sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces as they fight for the city, just 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Afghan capital with a population of some 270,000 people.

Arif Noori, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said Wednesday that “life is getting back to normal” after at least 35 civilians were killed in recent days. But he said wounded people were still arriving at the city’s only hospital, which has been overwhelmed by the casualties.

Hundreds of people have fled the fighting in Ghazni, which has also killed about 100 members of the Afghan security forces. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked a police checkpoint in the southern Zabul province early Wednesday, killing four policemen, according to the provincial police chief, Mustafa Mayar, who said another three officers were wounded. He said seven attackers were killed and five were wounded during the battle, in which the Taliban used artillery and heavy weapons.

The Taliban have seized several districts across the country in recent years and carry out near-daily attacks targeting Afghan security forces. The assault on Ghazni was widely seen as a show of force ahead of possible peace talks with the U.S., which has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years.

Also on Wednesday, six children were killed when they tinkered with an unexploded rocket shell, causing it to blow up, said Sarhadi Zwak, spokesman for the governor of the eastern Laghman province. Zwak said that the victims were girls, aged 10-12, who were gathering firewood on Wednesday.

He blamed the Taliban, saying the rockets they fire at Afghan security forces often harm civilians. Afghanistan is littered with unexploded ordnance left by decades of war. It is also plagued by roadside bombs planted by insurgents, which are usually intended for government officials or security forces, but often kill and maim civilians.

August 13, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Four days of ferocious fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban over a key provincial capital has claimed the lives of about 100 Afghan policemen and soldiers and at least 20 civilians, the defense minister said Monday.

The staggering numbers provided by Gen. Tareq Shah Bahrami were the first official casualty toll since the Taliban launched a massive assault on Ghazni, the capital of Ghazni province, last Friday. The multi-pronged assault overwhelmed the city’s defenses and allowed insurgents to capture several parts of it. It was a major show of force by the Taliban, who infiltrated deep into this strategic city barely 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the capital, Kabul.

The United States has sent military advisers to aid Afghan forces. The fall of Ghazni, a city of 270,000 people, would mark an important victory for the Taliban. It would also cut off a key highway linking Kabul to the southern provinces, the Taliban’s traditional heartland.

Bahrami, the defense minister, spoke to reporters at a press conference in Kabul on Monday. He said the casualty figures are not yet definite and that the numbers might change. He didn’t offer a breakdown of the casualties but Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak said nearly 70 policemen were among those killed.

Bahrami said about 1,000 additional troops have been sent to Ghazni and helped prevent the city from falling into Taliban hands. He also said 194 insurgents, including 12 leaders, were killed — with Pakistani, Chechen and Arabs foreign fighters among the dead.

The attack on Ghazni began on Friday, with insurgents infiltrating people’s homes and slipping out into the night to attack Afghan forces. The Taliban also destroyed a telecommunications tower on the city’s outskirts, cutting off all landline and cell phone links to the city and making it difficult to confirm details of the fighting.

Afghan authorities have insisted that the city would not fall to the Taliban and that Afghan forces remained in control of key government positions and other institutions there. Najib Danish, the Interior Ministry’s spokesman, said earlier on Monday that reinforcements have been sent to Ghazni to clear the remaining Taliban.

Col. Fared Mashal, the province’s police chief, said the majority of the insurgents fighting in Ghazni are foreigners, including Pakistanis and Chechens. “The Taliban have failed in reaching their goal,” Mashal added.

Over the past months, the insurgents have seized several districts across Afghanistan, staging near-daily attacks on Afghan security forces, but have been unable to capture and hold urban areas. The United States and NATO formally concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but have since then repeatedly come to the aid of Afghan forces as they struggle to combat the resurgent Taliban.

The United Nations has expressed its concerns for the civilians caught up in the fighting in Ghazni. Ghazni’s residents “have seen their city turn into a battlefield since Friday morning, with fighting and clashes reportedly still ongoing. We have received initial reports of a number of civilian casualties and of people trying to reach safe areas outside of the city,” said Rik Peeperkorn, acting U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan.

Ghazni’s hospitals are running out of medicines and people are unable to safely bring casualties, Peeperkorn’s statement added. Electricity, water supply and food are also running low, the statement said.

“Parties to the conflict need to ensure that access to medical services is not denied and respect for medical facilities and staff is upheld,” Peeperkom said. Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association jointly put out a statement condemning the violence in Ghazni and attacks on journalists there.

Media technician Mohammad Dawood was among those killed in Ghazni, the statement said, and also condemned the torching of Ghazni’s radio and television station.

Associated Press reporter Mohammad Anwar Danishyar in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

July 23, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber carried out an attack near the Kabul airport Sunday, killing 14 people and narrowly missing Afghanistan’s vice president, who was returning home after living in Turkey for over a year, security officials said.

The blast occurred near Kabul International Airport shortly after the convoy of the controversial vice president had just left the airport, Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said. Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Uzbek warlord, and his entourage were unharmed, said Danish.

Danish said that 14 people, including both civilians and military forces, were killed in the attack and 50 others wounded. The Islamic States group’s local affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack on its Amaaq News Agency website, claiming it had killed and wounded over 115 people.

In a statement from the presidential palace, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani strongly condemned the attack. Dostum had been undergoing medical treatment in Turkey, and is now well and ready to resume work, said presidential spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri.

Dostum left Afghanistan in 2017 after the attorney-general’s office launched an investigation into allegations that his followers had tortured and sexually abused a former ally turned political rival. He has since reportedly been barred by the government from returning to Afghanistan.

It was not immediately clear whether Dostum will now face any charges. “The judiciary in Afghanistan is an independent body and will carry out its duties and responsibilities as it deems appropriate,” said an official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue.

Dostum, accused of war crimes committed after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, has also been criticized by the United States for human rights abuses.

August 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — An explosion in northern Syria killed at least 36 people Sunday and wounded many others, but the cause of the blast wasn’t immediately known, opposition activists said. The opposition-run Syrian Civil Defense, first responders also known as the White Helmets, said the blast occurred in the village of Sarmada near the Turkish border, killing 36 people and wounding many others. The explosion collapsed two five-story buildings, burying many of the victims, it said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 39, including 21 women and children. An opposition media collective known as the Smart news agency, said the dead included civilians as well as members of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee.

The Observatory said an arms depot in the basement of a building had detonated. It said the depot was run by an arms dealer close to the Levant Liberation Committee. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces fighting rebels in Idlib province have sent more reinforcements ahead of a potential offensive on the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.

The pro-government Al-Watan daily said Sunday that huge military reinforcements have reached the outskirts of Idlib province as a preliminary step to launch a wide-scale offensive. Quoting military sources, the paper said that troops have reached the northern countryside of the neighboring Hama province as part of military preparations to recapture Idlib province.

The expected offensive on Idlib comes after government forces captured major rebel strongholds earlier this year near the capital Damascus and in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra. The paper said that the battle would be “comprehensive” starting from Hama’s northern countryside to the southern countryside of Aleppo, adding that the target of the battle is to seize Idlib City.

Government airstrikes on the province on Friday killed dozens. Pro-government activists said on social media that the elite Tiger Force, led by Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, arrived in northern Syria to spearhead what they called the “Dawn of Idlib” operation.

August 04, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — For nearly three years, green buses have filed into Syria’s Idlib province, bringing those evacuated from other opposition enclaves that fell to government forces — thousands of defeated rebel fighters, wanted activists and civilians who refused to go back under President Bashar Assad’s rule.

They now face what is likely to be the last showdown between Assad’s forces and the opposition. Assad has vowed to retake the province, and pro-government media promise the “mother of all battles.” If it comes to an all-out assault, it could bring a humanitarian crisis. Filled with displaced from elsewhere, the province in Syria’s northwest corner is packed with some 3 million people, the most deeply irreconcilable with Assad’s government and including some of the world’s most radical militants. They have little option but to make a stand, with few good places to escape.

“Currently, all (opposition) from around Syria came to Idlib. The only solution is to fight. There is no alternative,” said Firas Barakat, an Idlib resident. The 28-year old said that for years he has dedicated himself to civilian opposition activities, but now he must take up arms.

The opposition capture of Idlib in 2015 signaled the low point for Assad’s government during the course of war that is now nearly 8 years old — a time when rebels controlled large parts of two main Syrian cities, major highways, border crossings, dams and oil resources.

Russian and Iranian backing enabled Assad’s military to claw back territory. Most recently, it scored a victory with heavy symbolic resonance in the south, recapturing Daraa, one of the first places to rise against Assad’s rule in 2011.

Around a third of the country still remains out of government hands in the north and east, most of it held by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces that wrested it from the Islamic State group. But Idlib stands as the last significant enclave of the armed opposition that rose up dedicated to ousting Assad.

“When we saw the resistance collapse in the south— and we thought it never would give it was the first to resist the government — fear really prevailed here,” said Barakat. Squeezed, the opposition is desperate. But its forces are not small, and their territory is not tiny and sealed off as other opposition holdouts were. That portends a complex and difficult battle.

The number of fighters in Idlib is estimated at several tens of thousands, including thousands of battle-hardened militants from al-Qaida-linked groups and from China’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority.

Although the al-Qaida-linked group dominates, other non-jihadi factions have maintained their presence, including some of the earliest forces to take up arms against Assad. With Turkey’s backing, they have formed a “National Liberation Front,” excluding al-Qaida.

Idlib has seen a wave of lawlessness and assassinations among the various factions, including shootings and car bombs. Saeed al-Nakrash, a rebel leader originally from near Damascus, was kidnapped and held for 50 days. He blamed al-Qaida-linked militants and said his family paid $75,000 for his release.

The opposition-held area abuts the Turkish border on the north and west. Though Turkey has built a wall, the border remains porous, providing a supply line for fighters. That wall could be overwhelmed if massive numbers try to flee Idlib.

To the east is an enclave held by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, a possible escape route for anyone fleeing, though it is already overwhelmed by displaced. Rumblings have started. Activists report government reinforcements arriving at Abu Dhuhur air base in eastern Idlib, which Assad’s forces seized early this year. Troops have been shelling Jisr el-Shughur, a strategic opposition-held town overlooking the government stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

Just how ferocious an offensive turns out to be depends on diplomatic maneuvering among the power players — particularly Russia. It appears reluctant for an all-out assault. Russia is juggling between longtime ally Syria and its new friend Turkey, which has become central to the political process Moscow is leading to try to resolve the conflict.

Assad vows to restore all of Syria to its control. Turkey fears an assault will send a flood of refugees — and militants — swarming to its border. Under a deal with Russia and Iran, Turkey has deployed around 1,000 troops at 12 observation points around Idlib to monitor a cease-fire, effectively standing between government forces and the opposition. It is part of a “de-escalation” zone in the province that ultimately aims to root out al-Qaida-linked groups as a basis for a future political process.

Turkey warns that a wide-scale offensive will wreck Russia’s efforts. Its deployment in Idlib is a “trip wire that will start to tug at the (agreements with Russia) if you try to walk through it,” said Aron Lund, a Syria expert with the Century Foundation.

From the other side, the Syrian government is testing the Russia-Turkey relationship. During the latest meeting in Russia in July, Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari blasted Turkey, saying it has failed to weed out extremists from Idlib.

Jaafari said Damascus encourages reconciliation with rebels, but not with al-Qaida militants — adding that it is Turkey’s responsibility “fight terrorism.” “If Idlib returns in reconciliation, this is well and good. And if it doesn’t …the Syrian army has the right to restore control over Idlib by force.”

That makes Russia’s stance critical, said Sam Heller, a researcher with the International Crisis Group. “Ultimately what determines the survival of Idlib may be external, and they relate to these geopolitical considerations,” he said.

Russia has already said no wide offensive is expected. That has raised speculation over a limited operation to control Jisr al-Shughur or the main highway running through Idlib. Wael Olwan — a spokesman for one of the strongest Turkish-backed Syrian factions, Faylaq al-Sham — said Turkey working with Syrian allies can “dissolve” the al-Qaida-linked factions.

But, he said, “I am not optimistic that Russia can hold back the regime forces long enough for Turkey to dismantle the radical groups.”

Tuesday 31/07/2018

BEIRUT – Barrels of oil, sacks of sugar, crates piled with fruit: goods worth millions of dollars criss-cross Syria’s battlefronts daily, waved through by bitter enemies who have become business partners.

Syria’s regime, rebels, Kurds, and even jihadists are linking up with well-connected businessmen to turn a profit at crossings connecting otherwise divided territory.

Multiple sources from rebel-held parts of Syria including military commanders, businessmen, fighters, and residents have described a sprawling, quasi-official network of deals and arrangements on cross-country trade.

Critics say they have allowed armed groups and businessmen, some linked with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, to profit from the divisions tearing Syria apart.

Sweet deal

One key junction where business takes place is Morek, between the northwestern province of Idlib — which is held by various rebel and jihadist forces — and government-controlled Hama.

On the rebel side, Morek is managed by Al-Qaeda’s onetime Syria branch Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), with the other side run by government forces.

Year round, vegetables, biscuits and clothes leave Idlib, while fuel, sugar, and spare car parts are trucked in through Hama from across swathes of government-held territory, sources at the crossing and others familiar with operations there said.

“Morek is the most important crossing between rebels and the regime, given the trade coming and going through there,” said Abu al-Huda al-Sorani, who administers the border for HTS.

“It’s an official transit point recognized by us both, and it’s the money that makes things move.”

Sorani said Morek “was opened with the mediation of businessmen who have links with the regime.”

“One man monopolizes the trade on the regime side,” he said.

Sorani declined to provide a name for the businessman, but multiple sources familiar with operations at the crossing pointed to a mysterious businessman known only as Ghawar.

One source in opposition-held territory with close knowledge of the crossing said Ghawar pays Syrian government forces at least $1 million (850,000 euros) every few months for exclusive use of a stretch of the M5 highway leading to Morek.

The source and others spoke on condition of anonymity fearing a backlash from rebel or regime forces for revealing details of trade operations.

Ghawar, who acts as a frontman for regime-linked businessmen, also sets duties paid by each truck passing through loyalist checkpoints before they reach the crossing, the source said.

On the other side, HTS monopolizes sugar sales in opposition zones and bans female livestock from leaving Idlib to maximize breeding in rebel areas and keep the regime dependent on them.

“No one can trade in sugar unless they’re covered by HTS, because of its high revenue,” the source said.

HTS also sets export fees. On July 8, stonemasons protested near Morek after duties per truckload jumped from $400 to $1,500. Ultimately the demonstrators managed to force prices back down.

Coming and going

“With zones across Syria controlled by various forces, border trade between them has become a fait accompli,” said Ayman al-Dassouky, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Center.

“It brings mutual benefit to the warring sides who have allied themselves with businessmen taking advantage of the current situation to boost trade,” Dassouky said.

The crossings were “generating millions for the forces which hold them and businessmen who trade across them,” he said.

They provide rebels with a vital source of revenue, he said, “especially with the dwindling external support to them, mainly from the Gulf.”

But trade across the front line is also crucial for the regime.

“Its forces and loyalist militias make a profit which ultimately guarantees their loyalty, and big traders close to the regime benefit from deals on duties,” said Dassouky.

The phenomenon of enemies doing business together is widespread across conflicts, said Bassam Abou Abdallah, who heads the Damascus Center for Strategic Studies.

“In all wars, not just in Syria, these guys become the warlords. A web of interests is spun between the warring sides because of economic benefits,” Abou Abdallah said.

Business at Morek is so good that rival Islamists wanted a slice, and have tried in recent months to set up their own crossing from Idlib into Hama.

Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline faction once allied to HTS but which has fought against it since last year, attempted to establish trade through the Qalaat al-Madiq crossing it controls, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of Morek.

HTS objected and so far only a limited number of goods are passing through the Madiq crossing.

“HTS forbade large trucks from reaching the Madiq crossing so Morek would remain number one for trade,” said a rebel commander based near Madiq.

Wealth from war

Despite being bitter enemies, Kurds and Turkish-backed rebels are also running crossings linking territory under their control.

The Hamran junction in Aleppo province is held by Kurdish militiamen on one side and the Levant Front, rebels loyal to Ankara, on the other.

Up to 60 crude oil tankers transit through Hamran from Kurdish areas daily to be refined in opposition zones, a rebel official at the checkpoint said.

Trade moves in the other direction too, with Ankara ultimately dictating what goes from rebel areas to Kurdish territory, he said.

“Fertiliser is banned because it can be used to make explosives, and cement and metal too because they’re used for blast walls against us,” the official said.

Crossings are cash cows for well-placed businessmen, especially those bringing goods to besieged areas.

The Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus was surrounded for a half-decade by regime troops, with residents inside dying from lack of medicine or proper nutrition.

Government forces recaptured it in April with an assault that killed more than 1,700 civilians. But during the siege, one man controlled what trickled in.

Dairy mogul Muhyeddin al-Manfoush enjoyed exclusive access to Ghouta’s market, said rebels and local businessmen.

Manfoush’s “informal monopoly” over Ghouta began in 2014, said Aron Lund, a Century Foundation researcher who has written extensively about Ghouta.

“Working with both rebel and regime commanders, he quickly emerged as a pivotal figure in the area’s political economy,” Lund wrote in Foreign Policy last year.

The key to Manfoush’s grip on Ghouta’s market was the Wafideen crossing, which officially was only for regime-approved humanitarian aid.

‘Bill Gates’ of siege

Only Manfoush was allowed to deliver barley, rice, and sugar to Ghouta, paying loyalist checkpoints up to 2,000 Syrian pounds ($4) per kilogram to let products in, multiple sources said.

“Anything he brought in was forbidden for other traders,” said one businessman who paid Manfoush to bring non-food items into Ghouta.

Rebels also dealt with Manfoush, charging their own duties, the sources said.

Yasser Dalwan, an official from the Jaish al-Islam opposition faction which once controlled much of Ghouta, said rebels had no choice but to deal with the businessman.

“The regime permitted goods to enter through Manfoush. He was the designated trader,” Dalwan said.

The vast wealth Manfoush was rumored to have acquired from trade earned him the nickname “the Bill Gates of Ghouta” from residents and fighters.

And many, like rebel Abu Haytham who left Ghouta for rebel territory further north as government forces took over, are still bitter months later.

“He got rich off the siege and people’s hunger,” Abu Haytham said.

Source: Middle East Online.


Sunday 29/07/2018

The commonly held assumption that Iran, Russia and other friends of the Syrian regime stand to make a fortune rebuilding the war-torn country is wide of the mark.

With the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad set to regain the remainder of the country not controlled by Kurdish factions, there’s been much talk of the huge sums to be spent — and made — rebuilding the hundreds of towns and cities destroyed in the fighting. Figures from $250 billion-$400 billion and even $1 trillion have been bandied around.

There have been headlines about Russian, Chinese and Iranian companies rubbing their hands at the prospect of making millions off the back of gleaming new apartment blocks in eastern Aleppo and international hotels in Damascus.

There’s just one problem: Those towers and hotels will never be built.

Assad has been in control of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, for four years, offering a window into how a nationwide rebuilding effort may take shape. How has the reconstruction effort gone there?

Aside from some privately funded efforts to rebuild churches and a Chechen warlord paying to renovate the as-yet-unfinished Khalid Ibn al-Walid mosque, the only completed project is the city’s Old Souk.

Who funded that? The Russians? Iran? Not a chance. It was the United Nations, the only organisation with nothing to lose, financially or otherwise.

Russia and Iran are likely to look for a return on their huge investment in Syria rather than spend more. Jesse Marks, a Herbert Scoville Jr Peace Fellow at the nonpartisan Stimson Center, wrote for the Defense One website that Moscow is an estimated $4 billion deep in Syria and Iran is thought to have spent up to $35 billion keeping Assad standing.

Of course, there is a chance that sections of Syrian real estate will be handed to state investors from Iran and Russia but beyond such symbolic gestures, the broader conditions for privately led investment are not there. As a report from the International Crisis Group surmised: “Russia and Iran have displayed their military prowess but can they back it up long-term with the required financial resources? This is highly doubtful… They may have the will, in other words, but they appear not to have the ability.”

While Assad attempts to drum up business and sell reconstruction as potentially a huge windfall for his friends, it will never happen as long as he is in charge. The traditional construction powerhouses in the region — the Gulf countries and European multinationals — won’t or can’t return to Syria because of international sanctions and political antagonisms. Washington has introduced the No Assistance for Assad Act to prevent US companies working on reconstruction in areas under Assad’s control.

There’s another issue that’s largely flown under the radar: Who does the regime see staying in its yet-to-be-built luxury hotels and apartment buildings? Where would the Syrians shopping in the proposed state-of-the-art malls find work?

It’s possible that a small number of regime apparatchiks may take on some major reconstruction works. Ambitious shabiha gangsters, already investing in restaurants and cafes in central Damascus and west Aleppo, might look to move their profits into bigger projects. But what international credit agency, be it Russian, Chinese, Iranian or otherwise, would risk giving loans to ex-militias on the scale required to rebuild entire neighborhoods and towns?

There’s Syria’s thriving war economy, which functions in a very different manner to the free movement of goods and services. Real growth requires free movement and the war economy throws up another impediment.

The reality is the decay that saw Syria an economic backwater for the entire 40 years of Hafez Assad’s regime is back. For “Syria 2020,” read “Syria 1970.” Anyone who lived through those days would shudder at the thought that Syria’s future would look like that again.

The more unfortunate reality is that it did not have to be this way. Before 2011, Syria was booming. Though, with the Assads at the helm, the collapse and violence that followed were always possible.

Source: Middle East Online.


July 18, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Talks to cede the largest opposition holdout in southwestern Syria to the government have failed, triggering an intense overnight bombing campaign on the densely populated town that killed a dozen people and injured over a hundred, activists and rescuers said Wednesday.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an overnight ‘frenzied’ bombing campaign continued into Wednesday, with at least 350 missiles lobbed into Nawa and its surrounding areas. The Observatory said at least 12 were killed as rescuers struggled to get to the casualties.

Khaled Solh, head of the local Syrian civil defense known as White Helmets, said only one ambulance was able to access the town and civilians relied on their cars to bring out at least 150 injured. He said the only hospital in the town was struck in the overnight campaign, rendering it non-operational. He said one of the last orthopedists in the town was killed in the strikes.

In less than a month, Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital that was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad more than seven years ago.

They have stepped up their military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region that includes Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Alongside the military offensive, the government has resorted to “reconciliation” agreements whereby it negotiated capitulation deals in a number of villages to restore government control in the localities that have been in rebel hands for years.

Talks to hand over Nawa, one of the most densely populated towns in Daraa province, have been ongoing for a couple of days. This has encouraged displaced civilians to return in droves to Nawa, said a local activist who goes by the name Selma Mohammed. But the talks faltered, triggering the overnight onslaught.

Mohammed said the bombing triggered a new wave of displacement, with hundreds leaving the town again. On Wednesday, the bombing focused on towns and villages surrounding Nawa, making the road in and out of town deadly, Mohammed said.

The Observatory said warplanes and ground forces have also targeted with a barrage of missiles the southern tip of the region, which is held by a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State group.

With most of Daraa under control, government forces have turned their focus to the area near the frontier with Israel, to clear the last pockets of the opposition. The offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open from the onslaught. Jordan said it will not take in new refugees and Israeli soldiers have shooed away dozens of protesters demanding protection who approached the frontier Tuesday.

Saturday 14/07/2018

DAMASCUS – Syrian rebels in the southern city of Deraa were surrendering their heavy weapons to government forces on Saturday, state media said, under a deal brokered by regime ally Russia.

State news agency SANA said opposition fighters in the neighborhood of Deraa al-Balad, a district in the city’s rebel-held southern half, handed over heavy ammunition and other equipment.

It came a day after the regime and rebels began dismantling the dirt barriers that had divided the city for years.

The agreement reached on Wednesday will see Deraa city — the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising — fall back into government control.

Negotiated by Moscow, it provides for rebels to hand over heavy- and medium-duty weapons and to “reconcile” legally with the government, according to state media.

Those who rejected the deal would be allowed safe passage out of the city.

The terms mirror a broader deal announced on July 6 for the entire province of Deraa, which would be implemented in three stages: the eastern countryside first, then the city, and finally the province’s west.

While rebels have handed over weapons to government forces in dozens of towns, no transfers of fighters or civilians to the opposition-held north have taken place yet.

The Deraa deals are the latest in a string of so-called “reconciliation” agreements that typically follow blistering military offensives.

After using the strategy to secure Damascus and other strategic parts of Syria since 2015, President Bashar al-Assad turned his attention to the south.

Beginning on June 19, Syrian and Russian bombardment pounded rebel areas in Deraa and the neighboring province of Quneitra, ostensibly protected by an internationally agreed ceasefire.

The onslaught came to an end with the July 6 ceasefire.

Regime forces now hold more than 80 percent of Deraa province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor that relies on a network of sources inside the country.

Some western areas of the province remain under opposition control, and the deal excludes a southwestern patch held by an affiliate of the Islamic State jihadist group.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.