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À partir d’avant-hierMiddle East Eye

Turkey and US in talks to end 'unacceptable' Syria Idlib crisis

Par MEE and agencies
Turkey and US in talks to end 'unacceptable' Syria Idlib crisis
Vice President Fuat Oktay says Turkey 'cannot overlook cruelty' in Syria
MEE and agencies Sat, 02/15/2020 - 09:41
Turkey has warned it will push back against Syrian government if another Turkish soldier is killed (AFP)

Turkish leaders have been in talks to end the brewing crisis in northwestern Syria, where Turkish forces are facing a standoff with the Syrian government. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to his US counterpart Donald Trump "on ways to end the crisis in Idlib without further delay," according to his office. 

Turkey has insisted however that it has not betrayed its commitments set out in a 2018 deal with Russia and Iran to set up a de-escalation zone in Syria. 

Erdogan's office said he told Trump "the [Syrian] regime's most recent attacks are unacceptable."

Syrian rebels shoot down second government helicopter in a week
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Earlier his deputy Fuat Oktay said Syrian forces had overrun some of the Turkish observation posts established under this deal. Thirteen Turkish soldiers have been killed since the Syrian offensive on Idlib. 

"We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbour," said Okat, adding that Turkey, which hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, cannot handle a new migrant wave from Idlib where hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

Around 800,000 Syrians have been displaced by the Syrian government's push on Idlib. 

Earlier in the week Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey has flouted deals it made with Moscow and aggravated the situation in Idlib. The Kremlin said Ankara had failed to neutralise militants there.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russia's Sergei Lavrov both said differences between the countries will not affect their relations.

"We can not change the principle-based positions we hold or our politics over individual disagreements with one country or another. We must not allow the problems in Syria to undermine our co-operation and relations," the TASS news agency cited Cavusoglu as saying after meeting Lavrov on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference

Oktay told broadcaster NTV that Turkey was determined to stop Syrian government advances in Idlib and Ankara had clearly conveyed its position on Idlib to Moscow during the talks.

In an apparent response to Russia's criticism on Thursday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey would use force against rebel groups violating a 12 January ceasefire in Idlib and said Ankara was sending reinforcements to control Idlib.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday during the Munich Security Conference, the Interfax news agency reported.

Recent events have prompted Turkey to flood more troops, vehicles and equipment into Idlib, and double down its support for rebels, who have lost 600 square km in a matter of weeks. Syrian government and Russian aircraft have rained bombs down on Idlib, with some 350 civilians killed so far.

On Tuesday, a Syrian government helicopter, a Russian-made Mi-17, was shot down by the rebels near the town of Neirab. Several sources on the ground interviewed by Middle East Eye said that the air defence system that hit that aircraft was provided by Turkey.

“Aircraft that target civilian residential areas won’t be able to move freely any longer. We will chase regime forces on the ground out of the borders we designated,” Erdogan said.

In an apparent rebuke to the Russians, the president also said Ankara would no longer wait for the results of endless meetings.

Russian state news agency Ria Novosti reported that Erdogan made a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin early on Wednesday before his fiery speech and discussed the Idlib crisis. “The importance of the full implementation of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements ... was noted," the Russian presidency said in a statement.  

  • 15 février 2020 à 10:41

Houthis claim responsibility for Saudi jet downed in Yemen

Par MEE and agencies
Houthis claim responsibility for Saudi jet downed in Yemen
Thirty-one people were killed in air strikes on Yemen later on Saturday, the UN said, victims of apparent Saudi-led retaliation
MEE and agencies Sat, 02/15/2020 - 11:59
Yemen's Houthi rebels claim they downed a Saudi jet (AFP/File photo)

A Saudi planed crashed during an operation in Yemen, the official Saudi Press Agency announced on Saturday, with Houthi rebels claiming responsibility and the Saudi's apparently responding.

Quoting Colonel Turki al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the SPA said a Saudi Tornado fighter crashed before midnight on Friday while providing air support on a mission. 

The Houthis, who have fought a five-year conflict with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, claimed on Friday night that they had shot down a Saudi plane using an air-to-ground missile in the city of al-Jawf, according to the group's Al-Masirah TV.

Thirty-one people were killed in air strikes on Yemen later on Saturday, the United Nations said, the victims of an apparent Saudi-led retaliation, AFP reported.

"Preliminary field reports indicate that on 15 February as many as 31 civilians were killed and 12 others injured in strikes that hit Al-Hayjah area... in Al-Jawf governorate," the office of the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen said in a statement.

Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has been using warplanes to strike the Houthis, who they accuse of being a proxy for Iran.

Fighting has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, displaced millions and sparked what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The US navy announced on Thursday that it had seized weapons it says are of Iranian "design and manufacture", including more than 150 anti-tank guided missiles and three surface-to-air missiles on a traditional sailing vessel in the Gulf.

Iran did not immediately comment on the US military's accusation.

In December, a US warship seized advanced missile parts believed to be linked to Iran from a boat it stopped in the northern Arabian Sea.

Under a United Nations resolution, Iran is prohibited from supplying, selling or transferring weapons outside of the country unless approved by the Security Council. 

A separate UN resolution on Yemen bans any country from supplying weapons to Houthi leaders.

  • 15 février 2020 à 12:59

Qatar says talks to end Gulf blockade collapsed in January

Par MEE and agencies
Qatar says talks to end Gulf blockade collapsed in January
Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said his country was 'open to any offer' from blockading neighbours
MEE and agencies Sat, 02/15/2020 - 16:21
Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani speaks during the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany (AFP)

Talks to end the blockade of Qatar by neighbouring states were suspended in January, the country's foreign minister said on Saturday.

A number of Arab states severed political, trade and transport ties with Qatar in mid-2017, accusing the country of supporting terrorism.

Discussions began in October with an aim to ending the stand-off.

However, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said the talks had not succeeded.

"It's been almost three years," he said. "We were not perpetrators and are open to any offer to resolve this problem."

"Unfortunately efforts did not succeed and were suspended at the beginning of January and Qatar is not responsible for this."

Saudi Arabia along with its allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut all diplomatic, trade, and transport ties with Qatar in June 2017.

The four nations accused Doha of backing militant groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and seeking closer ties with Saudi arch-rival Tehran - allegations Qatar vehemently denies.

  • 15 février 2020 à 17:21

Sudanese activist risking deportation from Lebanon could be tortured

Par Kareem Chehayeb
Sudanese activist risking deportation from Lebanon could be tortured
Activists warn Sudanese activist was tortured last time he was deported to Sudan
Kareem Chehayeb Sat, 02/15/2020 - 16:45
Refugees in Lebanon protest over lack of progress on asylum applications (AFP)

A Beirut-based Sudanese activist is at risk of being deported to Sudan despite threats to his safety there, activists have warned. 

The Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a grassroots movement of Lebanese activists and migrant workers, said on Friday that Mubarak Ibrahim was detained by Lebanon’s General Security Organisation. 

They said he was given his deportation orders on 13 February, following unsuccessful attempts at seeking asylum with the United Nations's refugee agency (UNHCR). 

He has been in Lebanon for 21 years.

Ibrahim was previously deported as a legal resident from Lebanon in 2016. In a filmed testimony in January, Mubarak Ibrahim said he was handcuffed and detained upon his arrival in Sudan. ARM added he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

ARM’s Advocacy and Communications Manager Zeina Ammar said Ibrahim is subject to “evident political persecution”, and that UNHCR should reopen his case, “given all the human rights violations committed against Mubarak by the Sudanese authorities.” 

In response to MEE’s inquiries about Mubarak Ibrahim’s case, UNHCR said they could not comment on individual cases “for reasons of confidentiality”.

“We assess every single case thoroughly and individually, in accordance with international law,” they said. “Individuals are always counselled and kept informed throughout the process.” 

Ibrahim is one of almost 2,000 Sudanese asylum seekers and registered refugees in Lebanon.

“We have cases of defected military [personnel], human rights activists, and politicians who have damning information on war criminals,” Bilal*, a Sudanese activist told MEE. “They have not been recognised as refugees so far, and there has been neglect in providing protection.” 

“There has been negligence in providing them with protection,” he said, adding that the key grievances of African refugees in Lebanon are healthcare and protection.

UN protests

Sudanese and other African refugees and asylum seekers have held protests at the UNHCR’s Beirut headquarters.

Some Sudanese saying they have been seeking asylum since 1997 and claimed Syrian and Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers applications for resettlement have taken precedent over theirs.

The UN agency, in response, says that all portfolios are treated equally regardless of nationality. 

They say that they have been left to wait with no response, no right to legally work and no access to healthcare and other means of support. 

Lebanon's new government - just the same old bankers' regime
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Prolonged protests and sit-ins took place towards the end of last year and escalated after police officers took down their tents and arrested 10 protestors.

Even registered Sudanese and other non-Syrian refugees have been deported by the Lebanese General Security, the security institution that oversees the entry and exit of non-Lebanese nationals. 

According to Human Rights Watch eight were deported in 2017, followed by seven in 2018. 

Alongside ARM and other Lebanese organisations, Human Rights Watch said in a 2018 joint statement that arbitrary detentions have been commonplace with no right to appeal and with little to no access to legal representation. 

Lebanon hosts over 900,000 Syrian refugees, approximately 180,000 Palestinian refugees, and 18,000 registered refugees of other nationalities.

It has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, but is obliged under international law to adhere to non-refoulement principle, which prohibits states from returning an asylum seeker or refugee to a country where they risk facing persecution.

*Bilal’s name was changed for his protection. 

Beirut
  • 15 février 2020 à 17:45

Iraq PM-designate vows new independent cabinet within week

Par MEE and agencies
Iraq PM-designate vows new independent cabinet within week
Protesters are wary as Allawi promises cabinet of 'independents', a key demand of influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
MEE and agencies Sat, 02/15/2020 - 18:29
Mohammad Allawi, a former communications minister and lawmaker, reading the decree to appoint him as Iraq's new premier during a meeting with President Salih (AFP)

Iraq's premier-designate Mohammad Allawi announced on Saturday that he would submit his cabinet to a parliamentary vote within days, promising it would be stacked with "independents", a key demand of influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The country's capital and Shia-majority south have been rocked by demonstrations since October demanding an end to corruption and a total overhaul of the ruling class, AFP said.

For the past four months, Iraqis have been protesting in Baghdad and nine Shia provinces in southern Iraq, calling for basic services and more jobs, leaders to be held accountable for corruption, new electoral laws and the end of foreign interference. More than 550 demonstrators have been killed and about 25,000 injured.

Allawi, a two-time communications minister, has until 2 March to propose ministers to parliament, which must grant them a vote of confidence. 

REVEALED: The deal made in Iran that brought Iraq's new PM to power
Read More »

Iraqi officials have quietly expressed scepticism that he would be able to complete it in time. Still, Allawi surprisingly announced he would submit the lineup early.

"We're nearing a historic achievement: completing an independent cabinet of competent and impartial people, without the intervention of any political party," Allawi said on Twitter. 

He pledged to "submit the names of these ministers within the current week", which begins on Sunday in Iraq. 

"We hope members of the parliament will respond and vote on them in order to start implementing the people's demands."

Parliament is due to be in recess until mid-March and the speaker, Mohammed Halbusi, has not scheduled an extraordinary session. 

Allawi was nominated on 1 February as a consensus candidate among Iraq's fractured political parties and has only been publicly endorsed by Sadr, who has a cult-like following across the country.

Sadr is attempting to end the anti-government demonstrations to uphold a broader agreement that guarantees Allawi as Iraq’s new prime minister, three Shia heads of political blocs involved in the deal told Middle East Eye last week.

The agreement, made in Qom in Iran last month, was one Iraqis widely understood to have been made, stirring protesters who resent the lack of transparency as the country’s future path is forged in backroom deals.

The cleric first backed the demonstrations but split with the main protest movement after endorsing Allawi, who demonstrators consider too close to the political elite that has governed Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. 

Since then, cabinets have been formed through sectarian power-sharing, which lends itself to widespread horse-trading among various sects and parties.

The country's Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions are likely to hold on tight to their shares of the current cabinet and hope to carry them over into the next cabinet.

  • 15 février 2020 à 19:29

Libya faces financial crisis amid Haftar oil blockade, PM Sarraj says

Par MEE and agencies
Libya faces financial crisis amid Haftar oil blockade, PM Sarraj says
NOC has warned oil output may decline to 72,000 barrels per day if blockade continues, from about 1.2 million bpd before it started
MEE and agencies Sat, 02/15/2020 - 19:38
Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord, speaks at news conference in Tripoli on Saturday (AFP)

Libya will face a financial crisis and a budget deficit in 2020 because of a blockade of oil shipping terminals and oil fields by groups loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar, the head of Libya's internationally recognised government said on Saturday.

The North African country's oil output has fallen sharply since 18 January, when the blockade started. State-run National Oil Corporation (NOC) said on Thursday that crude output had dropped to 163,684 barrels per day (bpd), Reuters said.

The NOC warned earlier that oil output would fall to 72,000 bpd if the blockade continued, from about 1.2 million bpd before the blockade. It also said in January that production would ultimately fall to zero because storage would fill up and oil fields would need to be idled, Oilprice.com noted.

Libyan refiner stops operations amid lack of crude oil
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"Certainly, in light of the continued closure of oil facilities, the 2020 budget will face a deficit and it will drop to its lowest levels," Tripoli-based Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj told reporters in Tripoli.

Sarraj echoed the NOC figures, saying that the country had lost more than $1.4bn since the start of the blockade.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Haftar and forces aligned with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli have been fighting since April last year for control of the capital.

Sarraj warned that foreign backing for Haftar would only serve "to prolong" the conflict in the North African country, AFP reported. The UAE, Egypt and Jordan have bolstered Haftar, while the GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar. Russia is alleged to have sent several thousand mercenaries to support Haftar, a claim that is denied by Moscow.

Fighting has continued despite a call for a truce by Russia and Turkey starting on 12 January and an international summit on Libya in Berlin on 19 January aimed at reducing international interference.

Analyst Viktor Katona, writing in Oilprice.com, earlier this week was sceptical about ceasefire negotiations and said it was beginning to look “like there might only be a military end to see the blockade lifted once and for all”.

"We warned against using oil as a pressure card," said Sarraj, adding that his government had started legal action to hold those who blockade the oil accountable. He gave no further details.

  • 15 février 2020 à 20:38

Qatar's wage protection laws are proving ineffective, HRW says

Par MEE and agencies
Qatar's wage protection laws are proving ineffective, HRW says
HRW says one unidentified Qatari company failed to pay managers for five months and labourers for two months
MEE and agencies Sat, 02/15/2020 - 20:42
Foreign labourers have been working for several years on construction of football stadiums for Qatar's 2022 World Cup (AFP/File photo)

Qatar’s effort to ensure the payment of workers’ salaries in the gas-rich emirate "falls short" of international standards, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Saturday.

Most of the country's 2.75 million residents, 90 percent of whom are foreigners, are from poor developing countries working on projects linked to the 2022 World Cup.

Officials established a wage protection scheme (WPS) in 2015 to detect non-payment of salaries following criticism of its labour rights record from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch among others, AFP reported.

Still, HRW said one unidentified Qatari company failed to pay managers for five months and labourers for two months, highlighting issues in the labour ministry's monitoring of wage non-payment.

Confusion mounts over Qatar's new exit permit regime
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The company's projects include a World Cup stadium in Doha and road construction. It employs about 6,000 people and some workers' outstanding salaries were only paid after a number of affected staff staged protest action, HRW said.

Unauthorised public protests and trade union activism are illegal in Qatar. 

Still, Qatar is currently scrapping key aspects of its controversial "kafala" labour rules, including the requirement for some workers to obtain employers' permission to change jobs and exit permits to leave the country.

Houtan Homayounpour, a spokesman for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), recently told Middle East Eye that while domestic workers must inform their employers they plan to leave, they will not have to seek their permission for an exit permit.

"Qatar has passed some laws to protect migrant workers, but the authorities seem more interested in promoting these minor reforms in the media than in making them work," said HRW's deputy Middle East director Michael Page.

More than 500 managers, including engineers, surveyors, and supervisors, had gone without pay since last September, according to seven managers canvassed by HRW.

Most have now been reimbursed with the rest expecting to receive their back pay by 16 February, the managerial staff said, while labourers had been brought up to date by 7 February.

"The findings expose a systemic failure that has a bearing on all employers operating in Qatar," HRW said.    

A joint report issued by the labour ministry and the UN's International Labour Organisation in June 2019 said "wage abuses... are still far too common".

The issues, four years on from the introduction of the scheme, were shown "by the rate of non-compliance... and the number of complaints lodged".

Still, “the WPS has led to more timely payment of wages and reduced a range of wage abuses," it added.  

  • 15 février 2020 à 21:42

Tunisia PM-designate forms new government that quickly encounters obstacles

Par MEE and agencies
Tunisia PM-designate forms new government that quickly encounters obstacles
Proposed government must be approved by deeply fragmented parliament in two weeks or there will be new election
MEE and agencies Sat, 02/15/2020 - 22:38
Tunisia's parliament in recent session (AFP)

Designated Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh proposed the line-up of a new government on Saturday and then said negotiations would continue after the Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament, rejected it.

Fakhfakh was tasked by Tunisia's president to form a government after a previous list proposed under the leadership of Ennahda was rejected by parliament after October legislative elections, AFP said.

The proposed government must be approved by the deeply fragmented parliament in two weeks or there will be a new election, Reuters reported.

Several of the ministers chosen by Fakhfakh to join the cabinet are from the ranks of the moderate Islamist party. But even before he officially announced the line-up, Ennahda said it was pulling out of the government.

Tunisian president chooses former finance minister to be PM
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Ennahda, with 53 seats, said it would only join a unity government that brings together parties from across Tunisia's political spectrum.

Heart of Tunisia, the second-biggest party with 38 seats, also said it would not back the government after Fakhfakh excluded it from the coalition.

In addition to its political crisis, Tunisia is struggling to meet the expectations of its population, while an assistance package started by the International Monetary Fund in 2016 ends in April.

Tunisia faces a series of long-term economic challenges which threaten to undermine public trust in the young democracy, and which demand political decisions that could be unpopular.

Since the 2011 revolution, unemployment has been high and growth low, while the government has sunk further into debt with a series of big-budget deficits that foreign lenders demand it bring under control.

"Ennahda's decision places us in a difficult position," Fakhfakh said. He said he had agreed with the president to search for a solution through legal and constitutional means, implying that his line-up may be modified.

Fakhfakh had already promised to name a government that would draw only from parties he considered aligned with the goals of the revolution and committed to rooting out corruption.

Fakhfakh, 47, was appointed minister of tourism in 2011 before serving as minister of finance from December 2012 until January 2014.

He became involved in politics again after Tunisia's 2011 revolution, joining the Ettakatol party, which had allied with Ennahda.

  • 15 février 2020 à 23:38

Iran and Najaf struggle for control over Hashd al-Shaabi after Muhandis's killing

Par Suadad al-Salhy
Iran and Najaf struggle for control over Hashd al-Shaabi after Muhandis's killing
Khamenei and Sistani's rival religious authorities compete to fill the power vacuum left by paramilitary head's killing in Baghdad
Suadad al-Salhy Sun, 02/16/2020 - 08:57
Head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces Faleh al-Fayyadh speaks during the forty days memorial, after the killing of Iran's Quds Force top commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (Reuters)

Newly leaderless, the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary is being strained by a struggle for control between factions answering to two Shia religious authorities: Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Long overshadowed by Khamenei’s influence from the Iranian holy city of Qom, the Sistani-led religious authority based in Iraq’s Najaf is using a power vacuum to assert its own influence, and seize the powerful paramilitary umbrella group’s levers of power.

The tussle for power began seven weeks ago, with the killing of Hashd al-Shaabi leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

Soon after, pro-Iran factions in the paramilitary nominated one of their leaders to be the chief of staff and director of operations for the Popular Mobilisation Authority (PMA), the body that oversees the Hashd al-Shaabi, and replace Iranian ally Muhandis.

Who was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis?
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Such a move was expected. However factions associated with Najaf threatened to withdraw from the PMA if the government did not work to limit Iranian influence within the body, several Shia commanders told Middle East Eye.

Sistani himself was responsible for encouraging the Hashd al-Shaabi’s formation in the first place, by issuing a fatwa in 2014 calling on Iraqis to mobilise and volunteer to fight the Islamic State group, who at that time had seized almost a third of Iraq.

That sparked the mobilisation of dozens of armed groups, which coalesced alongside older factions to create the Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella group, a governmental organisation protected by law.

Iranian-backed factions, such as the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah, are the most powerful groups under the PMA. But the Hashd al-Shaabi’s true legitimacy lies with Sistani’s fatwa.

Analysts have suggested if forces linked to Sistani withdraw, the Iran-backed groups remaining will lose their ability to repel local and international criticism, and accusations of humanitarian abuses and wide-scale corruption.

“Najaf seeks to limit the penetration of Qom’s arms into Iraqi government institutions, in an attempt to distance Iraq from regional and international conflicts. So this is part of the ongoing struggle between Qom and Najaf," Iraqi analyst Abdulwahid Tuama told MEE.

“[Sistani] sees the vacuum created after Soleimani and Muhandis’s killing as a great opportunity to regain control of an important military institution and extract it from the hands of leaders who believe in Wilayat al-Faqih [clerical rule by Khamenei], returning it to Iraqi authority in the process."

Time for change

Muhandis was considered Iran's point man in Iraq, and was granted singularly vast powers by Khamenei and Soleimani to make important decisions of both a military and religious nature.

Apart from founding many pro-Iran Hashd al-Shaabi factions, he also held the position of PMA deputy chairman until September 2019. 

Muhandis used the financial and human resources of the authority to tighten his control over the factions and subjugate them to his influence. Although a government decision abolished his position and stripped him of any official financial or administrative powers five months ago, he remained in control of most of the PMA's forces and directorates up until his death.

Members of the paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi take part in their graduation ceremony at a military camp in Kerbala (Reuters)
Members of the paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi take part in their graduation ceremony at a military camp in Karbala (Reuters)

Regaining control of the PMA and its forces, especially those loyal to Iran, was one of the biggest challenges facing both the governments of former Iraqi prime ministers Haider al-Abadi and Adel Abdul Mahdi in the last six years.

Attempts at reform aimed at bringing the Hashd al-Shaabi under control of the central government were repeatedly blocked by Muhandis and Soleimani.

The killing of the pair at the same time - and the inability of the Iranians to replace them with figures with the same leadership skills - has relaxed Iran's grip on the PMA and created room for leaders loyal to Najaf to try and fill the void, Hashd al-Shaabi commanders told MEE.

Fearing “the outbreak of Shia-Shia fighting”, Najaf has largely stayed quiet about Iran’s domination of the body, commanders said. But no longer.

A delegation headed by prominent Sistani representative Sayyad Ahmed al-Safi and leaders of the four largest armed factions loyal to Najaf - the Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas Division, the Imam Ali Division, the Inssar al-Marjiyaa Brigade and the Ali al-Akbar Brigade - have met with PMA chief Faleh al-Fayyadh to issue their demands.

According to two commanders who attended the meeting with Fayyadh, among the demands submitted was a list of top positions the delegation wanted filled by Najaf-backed leaders.

The list included: secretary of the commission, the second most powerful financial and administrative position; assistant chief of staff for operations, the figure tasked with managing ops; the reserve forces manager, which oversees fighters linked to holy shrines and religious guidance; and the leadership of operations in the Middle Euphrates, Ramadi and Mosul regions.

"We are trying to get things back to normal,” one of the attendees told MEE. Like the majority of sources spoken to, the attendee spoke only on condition of anonymity.

According to the attendee, the PMA needed to be pro-Iraq first and foremost, and the Hashd al-Shaabi "should be exclusively subject to the Iraqi leadership, away from corruption, economic gains and regional agendas".

“We believe that this is the right time. We can do it now and we will do it," he said.

The Soleimani 'vacuum'

As head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was responsible for Iranian field operations in the Middle East, but his reliance on his personal skills and relations with faction leaders has made it difficult to find a replacement.

To overcome the vacuum left by Soleimani, Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has redistributed the briefs that he was working on, "until the final decision regarding the nomination of the person in charge of each brief is made by Khamenei”, a prominent Iraqi Shia commander close to the IRGC told MEE.

According to the new instructions, the Syria portfolio was handed over to the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the Lebanon file was handed over to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, while Iraq, "which has no current local leader", has been split in two.

'The Iranians have informed a number of faction leaders that they will not pay any money or weapons to any of the factions anymore'

- Iraqi Shia commander

Iraq's political portfolio has been handed over to the former Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Danaei Far, while the military file was handed over to Hamid Abdallahi, commander of the Quds Force special operations unit and Soleimani’s former aide in Iraq.

The moves by Sistani loyalists have not gone down well in Tehran.

"The Iranians have informed a number of faction leaders that they will not pay any money or weapons to any of the factions anymore,” the commander told MEE.

He added that they had been told to steer clear of any physical confrontation with US assets in Iraq, and stick to applying political pressure where possible instead.

“Unfortunately, the state of fragmentation and chaos now experienced by the factions is the worst since they were established," he said. 

"Some of them have begun to witness internal splits."

Two commanders of Iran-backed factions confirmed to MEE these new instructions had been issued.

The end of the Hashd al-Shaabi?

In an attempt to heal the rift left by Muhandis’s death, Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi leaders formed a seven-member committee tasked with taking urgent decisions.

The committee tasked itself with reevaluating the PMA’s priorities, re-deploying forces and parcelling out the directorates that were personally managed by Muhandis, two members of the committee told MEE.

The most important task, they said, was deciding who will succeed Muhandis, serve as Hashd al-Shaabi chief of staff and maintain Iranian control over the PMA.

The seven-member committee included Abu Fadak, secretary-general of Kataeb Hezbollah; Abu Ali al-Basri, head of PMA operations and one of the Badr Organisation’s leaders; Abu Jaafar al-Assadi, leader of Jund al-Imam Brigades; Abu Alaa al-Walai, head of Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades; Laith Khazali, as a representative of Asaib Ahl al-Haq; Abu Iman al-Bahli, intelligence chief of the PMA; and Abu Muntazir al-Husayni, security advisor to the Iraqi prime minister.

The committee has held intensive meetings in and outside of Iraq over the past seven weeks, which has helped to restrict the competition between Abu Fadak and Basri, a number of commanders told MEE.

They also, the commanders said, led to the choice of Abu Fadak as Muhandis’s heir.

EXCLUSIVE: Iran tasked Nasrallah with uniting Iraqi proxies after Soleimani's death
Read More »

The real name of Abu Fadak - known as the "uncle" - is not publicly known. But he has been prominent ever since joining the founding core of Kataeb Hezbollah fighters back in 1997, which carried out operations against Saddam Hussein’s government from the marshes of southern Iraq.

He was close to Muhandis and is known for his military prowess, confidence and tribal affiliations. He is also a follower of Wilayet al-Fiqh "and does not move without a fatwa", a member of the committee said.

According to an Asaib Ahl al-Haq commander, leaders of the armed factions had been anxious that the "chaos" following Muhandis's death could have meant the "disintegration and the end of the Hashd al-Shaabi", which is why they were keen to quickly unite around Abu Fadak.

“Abu Fadak is strong and a true leader with honourable positions and good relations with all," he said.

“We all chose him, and Sayyad Khamenei has supported our option."

Despite the optimism over Abu Fadak's appointment, the pro-Iran factions still face an uncertain future.

The Najaf-backed factions’ threat to withdraw from the Hashd al-Shaabi and regularise forces under the defence ministry, or form an independent body tasked with protecting holy shrines, has swung open the door for fighters to defect from Iranian-aligned groups.

Many Sistani loyalists are already enlisted in Iran-backed factions, which promised them greater organisation and better pay, which newly regularised Najaf-aligned factions could offer as well.

This would strip Iranian-backed factions of their most prominent strengths amid constant calls to demobilise their fighters and dissolve the PMA following IS’s defeat, commanders told MEE.

“The withdrawal of the pro-Sistani factions would embarrass everyone and push everyone into a corner, including the Iraqi government,” said a senior national security official familiar with the meetings with Fayyadh.

“The remaining forces will be the factions associated with Khamenei, which have no legal or religious cover that legitimises their activities inside Iraq or guarantees continued funding from the Iraqi government," he added.

“Once Sistani raises his hand from the PMA its purpose is no longer valid, and it must be abolished and its associated forces demobilised.”

Baghdad
  • 16 février 2020 à 09:57

Rockets hit Baghdad military base used by US

Par MEE and agencies
Rockets hit Baghdad military base used by US
US blames Iran-backed militias for attacks on soldiers and embassy
MEE and agencies Sun, 02/16/2020 - 09:43
The US embassy in Baghdad and its surroundings have been targeted in rocket attacks (AFP)

An Iraqi military base used by American troops was hit by several small rockets that reached inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on Saturday night, a coalition spokesman said. 

There were no casualties from the latest in a flurry of attacks on US forces in Iraq and around its embassy in Baghdad, which the US blames on Iran-backed paramilitary groups. 

An attack last month hit the US Embassy compound itself, and a rocket attack on a military base in the north in December killed a US civilian contractor.

Footage from the protesters in Tahrir Square at the moment of the rocket attacks on the green zone which houses the #US embassy in #Baghdad, the sound of sirens can be clearly heard. #Iraq pic.twitter.com/pLg8Pz0gql

— Lawk Ghafuri (@LawkGhafuri) February 16, 2020

There have been no claims for the attacks.

Tension between Iran and the administration of US President Donald Trump has mostly played out on Iraqi soil in recent months.

The United States killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike in Baghdad last month, after which the region braced for full-scale conflict. Iran launched its first direct missile attack on two bases hosting US forces in response.

Speaking in Tehran on Friday, the head of the Harakat al-Nujaba militia, Akram al-Kaabi, said his group would be resuming "covert operations" against US assets and said there was a "countdown" until American troops were ejected. 

Sunday's attack, before dawn, was carried out with "small rockets" and caused no casualties, the coalition spokesman said in a statement on Twitter. He provided no further details.

An Iraqi military statement said three Katyusha rockets had hit the fortified Green Zone which hosts the US Embassy, other foreign missions and Iraqi government buildings. It said a fourth hit a nearby logistics base for Iraqi paramilitary groups.

Iraq, caught between its two allies Washington and Tehran, also faces an unprecedented domestic crisis as months of anti-government unrest continues.

Protesters, whose numbers have reduced from the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in October, are still demanding the overhaul of Iraq's political system and ruling elite which they say are corrupt.

Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi said on Saturday that the formation of a new government would take place in the coming week.

He said his appointments would consist of independent ministers free from the influence of parties, including Iran-backed Shia groups, that have controlled cabinet posts and state institutions since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. 

  • 16 février 2020 à 10:43

UN peacekeeper request highlights dispute between Sudan civilians and military

Par Mohammed Amin
UN peacekeeper request highlights dispute between Sudan civilians and military
Concerns are growing about dispute within Sudan's power-sharing government
Mohammed Amin Sun, 02/16/2020 - 11:34
Sudan's prime minister has requested UN peacekeepers to help with the peace process (AFP)

Sudan's power-sharing civilian and military leaders could be facing a stand-off over a request to bring in UN peacekeepers to ease the country's peace process. 

The move could potentially create another public confrontation only days after civilian leaders accused the military head of the ruling Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, of violating agreements by meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without their knowledge.

Opponents of a peacekeeping presence have warned it could impinge on Sudan's sovereignty while pro-democracy protesters argue it would safeguard the transitional government but questions have also been raised about whether consensus among civilian and military leaders is breaking down. 

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Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok requested the UN Security Council establish a special political mission to assist the peace process and help the country mobilise international financial assistance, Hamdok's press secretary Elbarag Alnazir said.

Alnazir said the request is also aimed at filling the gap expected to be created after the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur, which the Sudanese military has been pushing for. 

According to the document seen by Middle East Eye, the request asks for support in the peace process and in implementing constitutional agreements made after the ouster of three-decade ruler Omar al-Bashir and to help in peacebuilding and disarmament.

Sudan is currently in talks with rebel groups on various fronts who fought the state under Bashir, who was accused of excluding marginalised groups and minorities and genocide in the Darfur region. 

The head of the Sudanese rebel coalition, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), Alhadi Idriss told MEE that Hamdok’s move was a sign of goodwill.

“Such steps increase confidence and help accelerate the peace process,” he said.

UN expert Ali Saeed Ali told MEE the request would give more credibility to the government and to the entire process. 

“This decision is ensuring political will from the senior leadership of the state and giving a positive sign to the rebels and to the international community,” he said.

A sign of trouble

A former leading member of Bashir's dissolved ruling National Congress Party party, Sana Hamad, claimed Hamdok was a failure and had surrendered the country to Western powers. 

“How can a leader call for foreign forces to come to his country?” she said. “There are no reasons at all for this letter. There is no real war in the country, there is no natural disaster, no famine."

Former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, who was deposed by Bashir, also called it "an unnecessary step that would deepen the disputes [within the government].”

Sudanese political analyst Osman Mergani believes Hamdok's request reflects a deep mistrust between the civilians and military. 

“This letter seems to be a direct result of the disputes that erupted between the military and the civilians after the meeting between Burhan and Netanyahu, so it looks like Hamdok is suspicious of the army's role,” he said, suggesting the disputes are deeper than they may appear. 

Can South Sudan's men of war lead the country to peace?
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“It’s more or less about the balance of power between the civilians and the military and that there is serious competition." 

There are also concerns that neither the agreements made between civilians and the military after months of protest last year nor the military-led peace talks being held in South Sudan have significant safeguards against failure or international recognition. 

“The constitutional declaration agreement itself was a political deal that needs guarantors and follow-up mechanisms or otherwise the region may suddenly find itself in need of another mediation,” said Horn of Africa analyst Abdul Moniem Abu, highlighting how the negotiations relied heavily on the intervention of Ethiopia. 

SRF head Alhadi Idriss also said he believed the peace talks in South Sudan's capital Juba need more external support. 

“If you also look to the Juba forum you will immediately realise there hasn’t been much recognition from the regional and international community because even Juba has repeatedly failed to make any breakthrough in domestic peace.

“The forum needs regional and international financial support to ensure the implementation of any peace agreement is possible."

Khartoum
  • 16 février 2020 à 12:34

Egyptian authorities deny torturing detained activist

Par MEE and agencies
Egyptian authorities deny torturing detained activist
Egypt's public prosecutor's office said that no 'visible injuries' were observed on Patrick Zaky
MEE and agencies Sun, 02/16/2020 - 13:10
A photo of Patrick Zaky from social media (Twitter)

Egypt has denied torturing detained activist Patrick Zaky while on a trip visiting his relatives.

The postgraduate student at Bologna University was arrested on 7 February at Cairo airport upon arrival for a family visit.

According to his lawyers the 28-year old Zaky was beaten and electrocuted by security forces while in custody.

However, on Sunday Egypt's public prosecutor's office denied that any mistreatment had taken place.

"He (Zaky) did not testify to suffering any harm or abuse during his arrest or detention," they said in a statement.

"The public prosecution also did not observe any visible injuries."

Zaky was detained on a warrant issued in September after he had left the country to pursue his studies.

He faces accusations including disseminating false news and misusing social media to disrupt public order, charges he has denied, according to the prosecutor's statement.

On Saturday, authorities rejected a motion for his release and ordered he remain in custody until he faces the prosecutor next week, said the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

'Escalating attacks'

Rights groups have regularly accused Egyptian security services of practising torture, allegations the interior ministry has denied.

Amnesty International has called for Zaky's immediate release, while Italy has also demanded that the researcher be freed.

His arrest has revived painful memories of the 2016 disappearance and murder of an Italian researcher in Cairo, a case for which Italian authorities are still seeking answers.

Doctoral student Giulio Regeni, 28, disappeared in January 2016 in Cairo, where he was carrying out research on Egyptian trades unions.

His badly mutilated body was found in a suburb of the capital a few days later, bearing the marks of torture.

On Sunday, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms said it had requested an independent probe into the allegations that Zaky had been tortured.

Critics of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his government are regularly targeted in an ongoing crackdown since the 2013 military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. 

The clampdown has led to the arrests of thousands of Morsi's Islamist supporters as well as secular activists, journalists, lawyers and academics.

"The escalating attacks on human rights defenders... show that Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a place where those who defend human rights do so at grave risk to themselves," Human Rights Watch said last week.

  • 16 février 2020 à 14:10

US ambassador to Israel to lead committee on annexing the West Bank

Par MEE and agencies
US ambassador to Israel to lead committee on annexing the West Bank
US President Donald Trump announced the committee last month to implement his 'deal of the century' vision
MEE and agencies Sun, 02/16/2020 - 16:02
US ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks with Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Israeli Prime Minister, as they attend a ceremony commemorating the eve of the 18th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks in New York City (AFP)

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman will lead a joint US-Israel committee on annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the US government confirmed on Sunday.

The committee was announced last month by US President Donald Trump in the wake of his much anticipated "deal of the century" to end the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

The annexations proposed, detailed in a map issued by the White House, would leave a disconnected archipelago of Palestinian controlled areas in the West Bank.

Trump said the new committee's goal would be to "convert the conceptual map" into a "more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved.”

According to Haaretz, the other members of the committee will include Friedman’s policy adviser Aryeh Lightstone, Scott Leith, a National Security Council expert on Israel, Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.

Trump's proposals for the region give Israel a US green light to annex key parts of the West Bank, including in the strategic Jordan Valley. 

The Arab League has rejected the Trump plan, saying it did not meet the "minimum rights" of the Palestinians.

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The plan, seen as overwhelmingly supportive of Israeli goals, has been firmly rejected by the Palestinians and triggered protests in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including isolated clashes with Israeli forces.

Following the announcement of Trump's proposals, Friedman said Israel could annex the Jordan Valley immediately.

But Trump's advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the architect of the peace plan, has urged Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to hold back at least until after the country's elections, which are set for 2 March.

According to polls in the Israeli press, most Israelis are in favour of annexing the territory, where some 10,000 settlers and around 65,000 Palestinians live, according to Israeli rights group B'Tselem.

Around 450,000 Israeli settlers live in some 150 settlements across the West Bank, according to the government's latest figures.

  • 16 février 2020 à 17:02

Syrian government forces consolidate grip around Aleppo

Par MEE and agencies
Syrian government forces consolidate grip around Aleppo
Turkish and Russian officials will discuss Assad's Idlib offensive in Moscow on Monday
MEE and agencies Sun, 02/16/2020 - 18:58
Syrian rebels fire from position in countryside of Idlib towards government forces on Sunday (AFP)

Syrian government forces made new gains on Sunday in their offensive against the last major rebel bastion in the northwest, seizing villages and towns around the second city Aleppo, state media and a monitor said.

Backed by Russian air strikes, government forces have kept up the assault on the Idlib region and areas of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces since December, AFP said, a day before a new round of talks between Turkey and Russia on the escalation in the area.

On Sunday, government forces "were in control of all the villages and small towns around Aleppo for the first time since 2012", the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The move enabled forces of President Bashar al-Assad to push back rebels from the vicinity of Aleppo and "secure the city", it added.

The Syrian government's recent advances in the northwest have upset fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict but have collaborated towards a political solution to the war, Reuters said.

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Turkey, which backs rebels looking to oust Assad, has been outraged since Syrian attacks in the Idlib region killed 13 Turkish troops. It has urged Russia to stop the attacks, warning it would use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of the month.

Still, the Observatory said about 30 villages and small towns were captured by Syrian government forces that "advanced rapidly in the north and west of Aleppo province after insurgents pulled back".

"In day one, they took an area where for eight years they could not take a single village," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the UK-based Observatory.

Syrian state television confirmed the report and said army units "have liberated all the villages and small towns west of Aleppo city".

It also broadcast footage purporting to show Aleppo residents celebrating the army's advance.

Government forces have for weeks been making gains in northwestern Syria and chipping away at territory held by rebel groups, focusing their latest operations on the west of Aleppo province.

The Observatory said the drive aims to establish a "security belt" around Aleppo, which government forces fully retook from rebels in 2016 but is still targeted by rocket fire.

UN: Syrian government offensive displaces more than 800,000 in Idlib
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Last week, government forces seized control of the strategic M5 highway that connects the capital Damascus to the former economic hub of Aleppo, which is economically vital for the government.

On Friday, they captured a key base lost to the rebels in 2012 just west of Aleppo.

Backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, Assad's forces now control more than 70 percent of Syria and the president has repeatedly vowed to retake the entire country.

On Sunday, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani was in Damascus where he held talks with Assad who, according to the presidency, insisted on the people's "determination" to "liberate all of Syria".

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday that he told his Russian counterpart attacks in Idlib must stop immediately and a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved.

"We told Russia... that the aggression in Idlib must stop and that a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved now," Cavusoglu told reporters during a briefing at the Munich Security Conference, adding that Turkish and Russian officials will discuss the issue in Moscow on Monday.

The offensive has triggered the largest wave of displacement in Syria's civil war, with about 800,000 people fleeing since December, the UN says. During the same period, more than 380 civilians have been killed, according to the Observatory.

More than 380,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out almost nine years ago with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

  • 16 février 2020 à 19:58

Lebanon airline scraps plan to accept only US dollars amid backlash

Par MEE and agencies
Lebanon airline scraps plan to accept only US dollars amid backlash
Country is in throes of economic meltdown and liquidity crunch, with local currency depreciating and banks imposing stringent controls on withdrawals and transfers abroad
MEE and agencies Sun, 02/16/2020 - 20:00
Middle East Airlines is majority-owned by Lebanese state and administrated by country's central bank (AFP/file photo)

Lebanon's state-owned carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA) revoked a decision to accept payment only in US dollars after a backlash on Sunday, Lebanese media said.

The country is in the throes of an economic meltdown and a biting liquidity crunch that has seen the local currency depreciate and banks impose stringent controls on withdrawals and transfers abroad, AFP said.

News of the decision, which was first reported late Saturday, drew dozens of people to MEA's ticket office at Beirut airport where they tried to buy tickets in Lebanese pounds before the decision was due to take effect on Monday, Reuters reported.

Former foreign minister Gebran Bassil declared the decision illegal. Writing on Twitter, parliamentarian Fouad Makhzoumi said the move put the Lebanese under effective "house arrest" and must be cancelled. President Michel Aoun said airfares should be priced in Lebanese pounds in line with the law.

REPORT: #MEA revokes decision to require payment in dollars (Video)
| https://t.co/Fgp2GuGYNs | #Lebanon

— LBCI Lebanon News EN (@LBCI_News_EN) February 16, 2020

The decision also triggered an angry backlash online.

"MEA: A national airline that does not accept payment in its own national currency. Logic redefined," one Twitter user wrote.

Another posted in response to the news: "Middle East (MEA) belongs to the Lebanese state, it's a flagrant violation of the law. We're not heading for collapse, we're in the middle of it."

Hours later the MEA, which is majority-owned by the Lebanese state and administrated by the country's central bank, backtracked on the controversial decision.

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"At the request of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, the management of MEA has decided to cancel its decision to sell tickets only in dollars," said a statement published by local media.

The Lebanese pound has been officially pegged at 1,507 pounds to the US dollar since 1997, and the two currencies are used interchangeably in the small Middle Eastern country.

Informal currency controls imposed since late last year have caused public outrage in the protest-hit country, where an anti-government movement launched on 17 October has grown increasingly angry at banking policies, decades of corruption and bad governance.

All this has left Lebanon grappling with its worst economic and political crisis in decades, following months of protests that forced the previous government to resign. The pound is losing value on the black market as shortages of foreign exchange paralyse businesses and threaten to tip Lebanon into default, according to Bloomberg News.

Major banks in Lebanon began tightening controls this month, halving the amount of dollars depositors are allowed to withdraw every month.

The central bank chief said in January that he agreed with money exchange houses capping the parallel rate at 2,000, but the price of dollars at some exchanges continues to rise.

  • 16 février 2020 à 21:00

Car bomb kills two in Turkish-controlled Syrian town

Par MEE and agencies
Car bomb kills two in Turkish-controlled Syrian town
Blast occurs in Tal Abyad, which has been held by Turkish forces and their Syrian allies since Ankara launched military operation against Kurdish militia last October
MEE and agencies Sun, 02/16/2020 - 21:16
Pro-Turkish Syrian fighters carry away victim of car-bomb explosion last November in Tal Abyad, which has seen several such attacks (AFP)

A car bomb attack on Sunday killed two people and wounded five in a Syrian border town controlled by Turkish forces, Turkey's Defence Ministry said.

The explosion occurred in Tal Abyad, which has been held by Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies since Ankara launched a military operation against a Kurdish militia in October 2019, AFP reported. The town has since seen several car blasts that have killed dozens of civilians.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing. Still, the ministry blamed the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara sees as a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The PKK is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and its western allies, though the West worked closely with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

"The perpetrator was captured alive, along with another terrorist who came to the area with a bomb-rigged vehicle for a second attack," the ministry said, as quoted by Reuters.

Since Turkey's offensive, there have been multiple car bombings in the border region blamed by Ankara on the YPG in which numerous civilians and Turkish soldiers have been killed.

  • 16 février 2020 à 22:16

Kashmiri and Palestinian activists stand against Indian envoy at Harvard

Par Umar A Farooq
Kashmiri and Palestinian activists stand against Indian envoy at Harvard
Chakravorty speaks at university conference after urging Hindus to create settlements on Muslim land in Kashmir
Umar A Farooq Mon, 02/17/2020 - 00:04
Rally is joined by Kashmiris and organisations working to end Israeli occupation of Palestine (MEE/Umar Farooq)

On a chilly Cambridge afternoon, a group of Kashmiris and Palestinian activists came together in solidarity for Kashmir and to protest against a talk by an Indian official at Harvard University.

The protesters gathered at Harvard Square in front of Aldridge Hall, where Indian envoy Sandeep Chakravorty was speaking, and set up banners reading "Stand With Kashmir" and "Settler-colonialism is barbarity".

In unison, they chanted for freedom:

Hum kya chaatai? Azaadi! Azaadi! Hai haq humaara. Azaadi! Azaadi! Pyaari, pyaari Azaadi! Mehki, mehki Azaadi! 

(What do we want? Freedom! Freedom! It is our right. Freedom! Freedom! Lovely, lovely freedom! Sweet, sweet, freedom!)

Kashmiris hold banners in protesting Indian government.
Rally began with a handful of people and grew to about 60 (MEE/Umar Farooq)

Chakravorty is the Indian consul general in New York. He came under heavy criticism after he made comments urging Kashmiri Pandits, an ethnic group of Kashmiri Hindus, to create settlements on land owned by Kashmiri Muslims and compared that process to Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

"It has happened in the Middle East. If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it," Chakravorty told Kashmiri Pandits and Indian nationals at a private event in New York City in November.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank have long been deemed illegal under international law.

The demonstration was joined by Kashmiris under the organisation Stand With Kashmir, a Kashmiri diaspora-driven grassroots group.

Other groups on campus also joined in, including some working on ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a cause often paralleled these days with the plight of Kashmiri Muslims.

On 5 August, the Indian government placed more than seven million people in Kashmir under a communication blackout and went on to illegally abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, effectively ending the state's semi-autonomous status.

"We look up to places like Harvard for everything, like academic excellence, and we look up to these institutions for their ethics, for what they stand for," one protester, who requested to remain anonymous, told Middle East Eye. 

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The protester went on to say that the institution's reputation is harmed when "they support panels like these, where a person calls for building Israeli-type settlements in Kashmir".

"They bring a person like him to speak and have no critical session on Kashmir, where for the last seven months people have had no communication," the protester added.

India's actions have drawn condemnation from US lawmakers and human rights groups and prompted two congressional hearings.

In December, the Indian government also passed the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), which makes faith a basis for holding Indian citizenship.

Rights groups argue that the exclusion of Muslims violates India's secular constitution by making religion a basis for citizenship.

"Thank you for making it clear what the Hindutva fascist government in India wants in Kashmir," Miriam Alphonsus, a student with the group Harvard out of Occupied Palestine, said to the demonstrators.

"No longer can they claim that what they want is an era of development. What they want is an era of Hindu colonisation."

So far, two US cities have passed resolutions against India's CAA: Seattle, Washington, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, just last week.

Sultan Chaudhry, one of the participants, said he had grown despondent over the past 30 years, seeing Palestinians and Kashmiris both deprived of their rights and their lands. "It makes me very disheartened," Chaudhry told Middle East Eye.

Harvard's India conference

Chakravorty was appearing at a conference at Harvard University focused on India and its relationship with the United States.

The two-day conference was organised by Harvard students, according to its website, and is bringing top figures from India's business and political world to Cambridge.

Still, once they found out Chakravorty would be speaking, the Kashmiri organisers decided to write letters to try and stop it.

"This event does not support me," said Zarka Shaber, a Kashmiri student at Harvard Law.

"It's been six months since I left my home and haven't seen a single photo of my parents."

'Pyaari, pyaari Azaadi! Mehki, mehki Azaadi!'

- Chants from the protesters

The demonstrators sent letters outlining their complaints to multiple deans on campus, including the deans of Harvard's business school, the Kennedy School of Governance, and the dean of diversity.

The response was disappointing but expected. Some replies said they were allowing the event on the merits of free speech, but would pass on the message to the students putting the conference together.

"Hate speech is not free speech," Arshad Iqbal, one of the principal organisers of the demonstration, told Middle East Eye.

The conference has yet to respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment.

One Kashmiri protester, who requested anonymity, said that many people were aware of the Israeli lobbying presence in the American capital, but not so much of its Indian counterpart.

"What people aren't really aware of is the immense Hindu lobbyist group in America that often comes from a business sector that almost directly funds, not surprisingly, Trump and Modi," the protester said.

Ordinary people 

As the demonstration began to wrap up, organiser Iqbal began pouring participants hot cups of Kashmiri tea, a pink milk-based tea that is traditionally taken with salt rather than sugar.

He was wearing a grey and black checkered Pheran - a traditional Kashmiri dress.

The hot beverage brought much-needed warmth to the demonstrators, many of whom had been standing in the cold for hours.

A man pours in tea into paper cups.
Arshad Iqbal pours Kashmiri tea for demonstrators (MEE/Umar Farooq)

Iqbal is an average Bostonian. He has a career of design engineering behind him, designing specialised computer hardware, and most recently quantum circuits. By no means does he consider himself an activist.

And yet, since 5 August, he has been leading all of the rallies and demonstrations on Kashmir in the area.

Iqbal is among many Kashmiris in the greater Boston area who are not politically inclined, but have been forced to take a stand as the Indian government has increasingly encroached on the rights of their people.

"All ordinary people who are ordinary professionals, who just do their day jobs, they have to wake up to this and speak out because today it's me or him or some other person, and the next day it will be them," Iqbal told Middle East Eye.

While the rally began with a handful of people, it soon grew to about 60. And while the first response to the participants' chants of "Free Kashmir" was a conference-goer yelling "End Islamic atrocities!", after a half-hour or so the demonstration began to gain new followers.

"While there are a lot of things that I may not connect or agree with, I appreciate and acknowledge the fact that they have the right to express their dissent," said Ashwanath, one of the Indian conference participants. He did not give his last name.

"Whatever is happening in Kashmir, six months of lock-down is not democracy," he said.

A conference participant stands alongside demonstrators.
Conference participant joins demonstrators and stands in solidarity with Kashmir rally (MEE/Umar Farooq)

As groups of conference participants exited the building and walked by the demonstration, some stopped to take photos. Some began to mouth the word azaadi  (freedom) in unison with the chanters.

Two conference participants went so far as to join in and stand with the demonstrators.

"I was so heartened to see some of the people who were at this conference joining us; that tells you there must be something going on in India," Iqbal said.

"Indians are realising that the situation they are in with this regime, it's not leading them anywhere."

Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • 17 février 2020 à 01:04

Israeli aircraft flies over Sudan for first time, says Netanyahu

Par MEE and agencies
Israeli aircraft flies over Sudan for first time, says Netanyahu
Move follows talks between Sudanese leader and Israeli prime minister in Uganda earlier this month
MEE and agencies Mon, 02/17/2020 - 10:24
The new air corridor will also take planes over Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, and Chad (File pic - Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that an Israeli civilian aircraft had flown through Sudanese airspace for the first time, in what is being seen as another example of warming ties with formerly hostile Arab states.

"The first Israeli airplane passed yesterday over the skies of Sudan. This is quite a change," Netanyahu told American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday evening. "Now we're discussing rapid normalisation."

Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying that the plane was "a private Israeli executive jet".

Israeli and Sudanese leaders meet in secret, agree to start normalising ties
Read More »

Khartoum said on 5 February it had given Israeli planes initial approval to fly over its territory, two days after Sudan's military leader Abdul Fattah al-Burhan met Netanyahu in Uganda.

Sudan has been part of a decades-old Arab boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and its illegal occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands.

In the wake of the 1967 Middle East war, in which Israel occupied the Palestinian territories and seized the Golan Heights from Syria, Arab leaders gathered in Khartoum to announce what became known as the "three nos": no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel.

Israel previously considered Sudan a security threat because it suspected Sudan was a conduit for Iran to smuggle munitions over land to the besieged Gaza Strip. In 2009, regional sources said, Israeli aircraft bombed an arms convoy in Sudan.

'Vast changes are coming'

Netanyahu met Burhan two weeks ago for what the Israeli premier's office described as talks aimed at normalising ties.

A Sudanese government spokesman said later that Burhan "did not give a promise of normalising or having diplomatic relations".

Normalising relations with Sudan would allow Netanyahu to burnish his diplomatic credentials just ahead of Israel's 2 March election.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that visible signs of a thaw in relations with Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries were only the tip of the diplomatic iceberg, AFP reported.

"How much is above the surface in an iceberg? It's about 10 percent, he said. "What you're seeing is about 10 percent. Vast changes are coming."

Khartoum's interim leadership seeks to be removed from a US blacklist and crippling international sanctions. As the administration of US President Donald Trump has pushed its controversial plan for Israel and Palestine in the past month, critics have suggested that the thawing relations between Sudan and Israel could be tied to the removal of US sanctions.

Repatriation of undocumented Sudanese migrants

Gulf Arab countries have made a number of recent moves hinting at warmer ties with Israel, prompted largely by a shared enmity towards Iran.

Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018 and frequently says the boycott of his country is ending, despite the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinian leadership.

Egypt and Jordan are so far the only Arab states to have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

The new air corridor will also take planes over Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, and Chad, which in 2018 restored long-severed relations with Israel, Reuters reported.

Netanyahu said the new route cuts some three hours off flights from Israel to South America.

Israeli commentators have speculated that the new contacts with Khartoum could allow for the repatriation of undocumented Sudanese migrants in Israel, and that Israel could in turn lobby the United States to improve Sudan's standing in Washington.

  • 17 février 2020 à 11:24

‘No one is listening’: Pakistani mothers jailed in Saudi Arabia call for help

Par Suddaf Chaudry
‘No one is listening’: Pakistani mothers jailed in Saudi Arabia call for help
A year ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the release of 2,100 Pakistanis from Saudi prisons. It's unclear how many have actually been returned
Suddaf Chaudry Mon, 02/17/2020 - 10:30
On the outskirts of Lahore, Babar holds a photo of his family including his mother, Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017 (MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)

Mohamed Saeed sits on a bed, looking at pictures of his mother who has been held in a Saudi jail for the past three years. 

For years Saeed’s mother Zohra Naveen, a housewife, had been desperate to perform umrah, a Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, but was unable to afford the trip. 

'I knew that if I spoke, my son would be harmed'

- Zohra Naveen, housewife held in Saudi prison 

So when Naveen met a woman named Pomi at a local clothing store who said she could cover the entire cost of the journey, Saeed and Naveen’s friends say she jumped at the chance.

“Zohra is a sweet-natured woman. She only saw the good in people,” Riffat, a neighbour, tells Middle East Eye. “She was duped.”

It was only when Naveen was en route to Saudi Arabia that someone travelling with her revealed that she had drugs in her bag and that her son, Salim, was being held by Pomi's associates back in Pakistan.

Speak up when they landed, she was told, and put Salim's life at risk.

(MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)
Zohra Naveen had dreamed of visiting Mecca for years. When she was offered a free trip, she jumped at the chance (MEE/Suddaf Chaudry)

“I was not screened or questioned in Islamabad, but I suspected something was wrong. I knew that if I spoke, my son would be harmed,” she told MEE from Dhahban Central Prison in Jeddah where she is permitted to make regular calls home.

Naveen is among 3,240 Pakistani prisoners currently being held in Saudi jails, according to the latest figures released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Many of those, say human rights campaigners, are people like Naveen who went to the kingdom to fulfil religious duties or pursue jobs, but instead ended up in prison, often as a result of serving as unwitting drug mules.

One year later

These prisoners are clearly on the radar of both Saudi and Pakistani officials. During a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad a year ago this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the plight of the prisoners and, while still in the country, the crown prince ordered the release of 2,100 prisoners. 

But so far, it is unclear exactly how many have come back.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says that 2,080 have returned while the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis puts the figure at 1,790. Both ministries say their totals are based on lists shared by the Saudi government.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan greet one another in Islamabad last February (AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan greet one another in Islamabad last February (AFP)

MEE repeatedly asked officials in both ministries why their figures are different, but could not get clear answers.

Frustrated by the confusion and what they describe as the government's hands-off approach, relatives and rights campaigners are pushing for greater action and more transparency.

Sarah Belal is the executive director of the Lahore-based Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit which has taken legal action to force the government to do more and has been attempting to verify the figures released by the ministries.

“Less than 5 percent of Pakistanis have been repatriated since the crown prince’s royal pardon,” Belal says her organisation has established. “It is unclear what the hold up is.” 

Billions at stake

For decades, Pakistanis have been heading to Saudi Arabia in search of employment opportunities. Currently, 2.7 million Pakistanis live in the kingdom and reportedly sent back more than $3.7bn in remittances last year. 

In addition to remittances, the kingdom has become increasingly important to Pakistan’s economy after offering $6bn in loans in late 2018 to avert a balance of payments crisis. 

Imran Khan: Pakistan cannot afford to snub Saudis over Khashoggi killing
Read More »

Three months later, during the Saudi crown prince’s visit to Pakistan, the kingdom signed another $20bn in investment deals. 

Caught in the middle of all this are Pakistani prisoners in the kingdom who fall into a no-man’s land of bureaucracy and language barriers once behind bars, say campaigners.

“If you are a foreign national in any jail, you are at a huge disadvantage because they do not understand the legal system,” said Belal. 

Under an international treaty signed in the 1960s, there are a specific set of obligations required of a host state and a state with visiting citizens in these kinds of situations. But reality works out a bit differently than what’s on paper, she said.

“The constraints on resources to engage lawyers or legal aid means the entire process itself is stacked against inmates because the detainee does not have a network of support. Therefore, they are inherently at a disadvantage,” she said.

According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, Saudi officials frequently failed to inform Pakistani consular officials when Pakistani citizens were arrested, leaving the burden on detainees and their family members.

Zohra and 18 other Pakistani inmates with whom she is being held told MEE that they have not been contacted by any Pakistani government officials since they entered prison. They have been working with Justice Project Pakistan to initiate a dialogue with the government, but so far to no avail.

Swallowing stones

In rural Kasur on the outskirts of Lahore, Babar, who declined to give his last name, tells MEE about his mother, Bilqis, who was arrested in Jeddah in 2017 after customs officials found drugs in her system.

Babar didn’t speak for long: soon Bilqis rang for her weekly call to her family from prison. Her ordeal, she said, started at the factory where she worked and befriended a woman named Shagufta.

'She claimed the capsules contained precious stones. I had to swallow them in order to avoid excise duty'

Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017

Shagufta, in turn, introduced Bilqis to her friend, Wassim, and the two offered her a free pilgrimage to the holy land. The only catch? She would just need to swallow some capsules ahead of her flight which would be given to a contact in Saudi Arabia once they were passed.

“She claimed the capsules contained precious stones. I had to swallow them in order to avoid excise duty,” Bilqis said.

“I know what you think. I’m not crazy. I honestly believed this woman and her husband were helping me fulfil my wish as a Muslim to go to Mecca.”

Barbar jumps in. “Why was my mother not screened at the airport in Lahore? She has been in jail for two years after falling victim to this criminal couple,” he said.

If his mother had been questioned in Pakistan, he said, she would not be in the mess she is in today. “We have no access to legal aid or a lawyer. I don’t know what will happen. I'm terrified for her future,” he said.

Bilqis was arrested along with two young boys and another couple, all Pakistanis who were on the same flight. The young boys, Abdul Nohman and Abdul Oman, were returned to Pakistan in 2018. 

When they came back, the boys now aged nine and five years old, couldn’t explain what had happened in Saudi Arabia easily because they only spoke Arabic.

Pakistani children released from Saudi prisons wait for relatives in Islamabad (AFP)
Pakistani children released from Saudi prisons wait for relatives in Islamabad (AFP)

“The boys were very traumatised. They received no after care from authorities,” said Sohail Yafat, a Justice Project Pakistan investigator.

“Many families, once they receive loved ones back, do not want to discuss the issue any further due to threats and concern that the situation may repeat itself.”

Fuzzy figures

Even now, a year after Imran Khan raised his concerns for prisoners with Mohammed bin Salman, there is a lingering discrepancy among Pakistani officials over just how many of the country’s citizens remain in Saudi prisons.

MEE asked Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, minister of overseas Pakistanis, why his ministry – which says that 1,790 Pakistanis have been released – has different figures than the foreign ministry claims that 2,080 have come home.

He insisted that it was a complex situation, and that the delay and confusion had been caused by Saudi Arabia.

“I do agree with the NGOs that the Saudi authorities were slow at the beginning. They needed a mechanism in place,” Bukhari said.

'Neither the prime minister or the crown prince understand or know the real details on this issue'

- Sarah Belal, Justice Project Pakistan

MEE asked Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to comment on the discrepancy in figures, but he declined to comment.

MEE also repeatedly asked the Saudi embassy in Islamabad to answer a series of questions, including why there is confusion over the official number of Pakistanis in Saudi jails and why so many are being held, but embassy officials declined to comment.

Belal says that after a JPP investigation, her organisation believes that 500 prisoners who are being counted by both ministries had actually already returned before the Saudi crown prince’s pardon. JPP has filed a petition in court to further investigate the government’s list. 

“Now the ball is in the Pakistani government court to approach the Saudi authorities to get some clarity on the issue. There was no sustained follow up by the government to verify the list that was shared by the Saudi authorities,” she said.

“I think given the fact the Saudis released a list of 500 and the Pakistanis accepted, neither the prime minister or the crown prince understand or know the real details on this issue. I think that if they did, they would be incredibly embarrassed on both sides.” 

The upper hand

Pakistan is currently awaiting approval from the Saudi government for officials with the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis to visit prisons in the kingdom, but officials have said they expect to make their trip this month. 

As time passes, analysts say it is becoming clear that Islamabad lacks the power to effect real change in the situation. 

Talat Masood, a retired three-star Pakistani general and political commentator, told MEE that the stalled efforts cast the country’s leadership in a poor light. 

“It is not a good reflection on Pakistan that so many prisoners are languishing in the jail of a friendly nation. The Saudis would be concerned that this move to return Pakistani prisoners does not set a precedent that rules can be broken.”

I tell him, ‘I am not a smuggler’. I ask him, ‘Please, tell the Pakistani authorities’, but I worry that no one is listening

- Bilqis, held in a Saudi prison since 2017

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center, said Saudi Arabia has the upper hand.

“I don’t think Islamabad is in a position to complain about any perceived delay, given that Saudi Arabia is still releasing prisoners, albeit not at the pace that Islamabad would prefer,” Kugelman said.

The Saudis are also, he added, “providing extensive financial support to Islamabad as Pakistan struggles through economic distress. So there is a leverage factor that works in Saudi Arabia’s favour”.

These points, however, are moot for prisoners like Bilqis and her family, left in limbo. At the end of her weekly call, she begins to cry.

“I am neither alive or dead in this jail. There are women from all over the world. Some have been sentenced to over 15 years. I will only be released if someone pardons me,” she said. 

“The Saudi embassy sends an adviser, but he does not document my case or listen. I tell him, ‘I am not a smuggler’. I ask him, ‘Please, tell the Pakistani authorities’, but I worry that no one is listening.”

Lahore, Pakistan
  • 17 février 2020 à 11:30

Pro-Assad forces bomb hospitals in rural Aleppo as clashes intensify

Par Harun al-Aswad
Pro-Assad forces bomb hospitals in rural Aleppo as clashes intensify
Turkish officials in Moscow seeking ceasefire, as Damascus vows to push on with offensive
Harun al-Aswad Mon, 02/17/2020 - 11:21
A rescue worker in an Aleppo countryside hospital bombed by pro-Syrian government forces (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

Relentless bombing by the Syrian government and Russian forces has targeted towns, villages and two hospitals in northwest Syria, as Turkish officials in Moscow desperately seek a ceasefire.

Territory in the Idlib and Aleppo countrysides is falling fast to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, which on Monday said they had captured dozens of towns as they continue to push ahead with an offensive.

The fighting's frontline is mainly in the western Aleppo countryside, where the town of Darat Izza and two hospitals were heavily bombed. 

Adnan al-Imam, an activist from the outskirts of Aleppo city, said Russian jets were believed responsible for the eight missiles fired at the hospitals.

"The attacks directly targeted the hospitals. Rescue teams evacuated the wounded and the hospital staff," Imam, who visited the scene of the attack, told Middle East Eye.

'Al-Fardous hospital provides its services to more than 300,000 people, and its disruption increases the suffering of thousands of displaced civilians'

- Obaida Dandush, Syrian Organisation for Relief and Development

The Syrian Civil Defence, a search-and-rescue organistion also known as the White Helmets, said that the Russian air strikes had put the hospitals out of service.

"We have evacuated two wounded people, one of them is the hospital guard," Ibrahim Abu al-Laith, head of the White Helmets office in Aleppo, told MEE.

"The hospitals are located in close proximity to each other. We have secured the evacuation of all hospital staff."

These two hospitals were the last operational medical centres in western Aleppo, according to Obaida Dandush, an administrator in the Turkey-based Syrian Organisation for Relief and Development (SRD).

The Kinana hospital specialised in general surgery, while the al-Fardous hospital, which receives support from the SRD, is dedicated to gynaecology and children.

"Al-Fardous hospital provides its services to more than 300,000 people, and its disruption increases the suffering of thousands of displaced civilians in the surrounding area," Dandush told MEE.

On Sunday, Syrian government forces took control of large areas west of Aleppo and declared full control of the city, after a rebel collapse in Khan al-Asal, the last western neighbourhood in opposition hands. Civilian flights will resume to Aleppo's airport this week for the first time since 2012, state media said.

Russian jets also on Monday targeted the town of Ariha, south of Idlib city, activists said. Ariha, a town on the coveted M4 highway, has been largely emptied of its residents by the bombardment.

"The raids extended to the vicinity of Ariha towards the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, and violent clashes erupted south of the area," Hudhaifa al-Khatib, a displaced activist residing in the city of Idlib, told MEE.

"The rebels retook the town of Kafr Sajnah, which government forces has seized yesterday."

map

Nearly a million people have been displaced by Syrian government forces towards the Turkish border since the offensive began in December, with over 300 civilians killed.

Around 82,000 of those are living in tents pitched in exposed fields, subject to freezing winter temperatures, the UN said last week. More than half of the displaced are children.

Turkey, which backs rebel groups holding out in northwest Syria, is anxious that hundreds of thousands of displaced people might pour over its border, joining the 3.5 million Syrian refugees already hosted by the country.

In recent days Ankara has poured arms, men and vehicles into Idlib province, the Syrian opposition’s last redoubt, with more coming across the border on Monday morning.

Turkey's threats against Damascus and support for rebel groups has also increased, with the two sides’ artillery clashing last week with deadly effect.

In pictures: Idlib's empty Ariha
Read More »

Anti-aircraft weapons have been provided by Ankara to rebel fighters, who last week shot down two Syrian government helicopters, which previously were able to freely bomb civilian areas.

Turkey has held several meetings with Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally and partner on the ground, hoping to reach some kind of ceasefire, though all attempts have been unsuccessful.

Turkish officials are currently in Moscow for talks. “We hope to reach a joint vision to reduce tensions in Syria,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

Monday's dialogue concluded without results, with the two sides set to convene again the next day.

"Our delegation highlighted that the tensions on the ground should quickly be reduced and humanitarian situations shouldn’t be worsened," a Turkish diplomatic source said.

"We exchanged opinions on measures on how to completely implement the Sochi agreement and prevent violations."

On the ground, however, pro-Syrian government forces are showing no sign of letting up. The Syrian army said in a statement it would continue its "sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organisations wherever on Syria's geography they are found".

Damascus’ chief objective currently is securing the area around the highly strategic M5 highway, which runs from the Syrian capital to Aleppo via the cities of Homs and Hama.

According to al-Watan, a newspaper close to the Assad government, civilians are expected to be able to use the recently seized sections of the highway by the end of the week.

Ragip Soylu contributed to this report.

  • 17 février 2020 à 12:21

Report: Shamima Begum says 'whole world fell apart' when stripped of UK citizenship

Par Areeb Ullah
Report: Shamima Begum says 'whole world fell apart' when stripped of UK citizenship
Speaking to ABC News channel, Begum criticised how UK officials informed her of the decision to remove her citizenship
Areeb Ullah Mon, 02/17/2020 - 12:21
The Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled against Begum and said former UK home secretary's decision to revoke her citizenship did not make her 'stateless' (Reuters)

Shamima Begum, the British woman who at 15 travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group, has told a US news outlet that her "whole world fell apart" when she lost her UK citizenship - in an interview yet to be aired.

Pictured for the first time without her black abaya, as part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces deradicalisation programme, Begum said she was dismayed by the decision.

"When my citizenship got rejected, I felt like my whole world fell apart right in front of me [...] especially the way I was told. I wasn't even told by a government official. I had to be told by journalists," Begum told an ABC News journalist, who shared excerpts of the interview on social media. 

Earlier this month, Begum lost the first stage of her appeal against former UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid's decision to strip her of her citizenship. 

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) ruled that Javid's decision did not render Begum "stateless" and said she could apply for Bangladeshi citizenship, where her parents are originally from. 

Begum was stripped of her citizenship in 2019 after she was found in a detention camp for suspected IS members and their families by a journalist from the Times newspaper. 

From the UN blankets they're given, they've made a small sofa. And Kimberly has knitted cushions with the flags of the countries that seem not to want them anymore, for each of her friends. Signs and pictures of loved ones are out on display.

9/23 pic.twitter.com/vgtxqJa9XZ

— James Longman (@JamesAALongman) February 16, 2020

While held in captivity, her son Jarrah died at three weeks old. Prior to Jarrah's death, Begum had given birth to two other children in Syria, both of whom also died. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rebel group moved Begum to the al-Roj camp after other inmates had allegedly threatened her inside the al-Hol refugee camp. When asked about previous comments she made to the Times about IS, Begum said she was "afraid for my life".

Pictured in a maroon headscarf and jeans, with a Union Jack flagged pillow in the background, Begum said: "I had just come into the camp. I had just given birth. I was hearing all these stories about women threatening other women, you know, folks uncovering their faces [...] or speaking to men or doing interviews or anything like that." 

'Hanged' if taken to Bangladesh

SIAC ruled against Begum, now 20, on three grounds and said Javid did not expose Begum to human rights abuses by leaving her in the Kurdish-controlled camp in northern Syria where she is currently detained. 

However, SIAC acknowledged that Begum was unable to mount an "effective appeal" due to her current incarceration. 

In 2018, judges at the SIAC ruled that the British government had wrongly determined that two British men of Bangladeshi descent were Bangladesh nationals and ordered their citizenship to be restored. The government is appealing those cases.

Bangladesh's nationality laws say that any individual who has parents with Bangladeshi citizenship is also automatically deemed entitled to citizenship. 

The law, however, states that this entitlement expires if the individual has not claimed it before the age of 21. 

Last year, Bangladesh's foreign minister, Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, said that Begum could face capital punishment and be "hanged" if brought to his country.

Speaking to ITV News, Abdul Momen reaffirmed Dhaka's stance that Begum was not a Bangladeshi citizen. 

  • 17 février 2020 à 13:21

EU agrees on new mission to enforce Libya arms embargo

Par MEE and agencies
EU agrees on new mission to enforce Libya arms embargo
Foreign ministers announced new operation in the Mediterranean to uphold a UN arms embargo that is routinely flouted
MEE and agencies Mon, 02/17/2020 - 13:55
Italy's foreign minister said that the mission would include a naval element, which had been a sticking point for some EU member states (AFP)

EU foreign ministers said on Monday that they have agreed to launch a new mission in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce a United Nations arms embargo on Libya that is currently routinely flouted.

"We all agreed to create a mission to block the entry of arms into Libya," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said.

Di Maio said that the mission would include a naval element, which had been a sticking point for some member states.

The news was confirmed by his German and Austrian counterparts, AFP reported.

Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) are battling fighters from eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

Haftar's forces launched an offensive in April to take the capital Tripoli, but are being held back by the GNA forces.

'The arms embargo has become a become a joke'

Libya has been under an arms embargo since the 2011 uprising that led to the removal and killing of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The arms embargo has been regularly violated by different groups, according to the United Nations.

Since 2014, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have provided the LNA with military equipment including aircraft and helicopters, while Moscow has provided mercenaries.

Libya's UN-backed government receives military hardware in spite of arms embargo
Read More »

The support has helped the Haftar gain the upper hand in Libya's eight-year conflict, according to previous UN reports.

The GNA is being supported by Qatar and Turkey, which has sent as many as 2,000 fighters from Syria.

On Sunday, Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya, said the UN-backed arms embargo had become a joke and the country’s financial position was deteriorating rapidly, after foreign ministers met in Munich to try to enforce a ceasefire between the two warring sides.

Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for enforcement of the arms embargo and a ceasefire.

Williams said: “The arms embargo has become a become a joke. We all really need to step up here. 

"It’s complicated because there are violations by land, sea and air, but it needs to be monitored and there needs to be accountability.”

  • 17 février 2020 à 14:55

Arabic press review: Bahraini who burned Israeli flag jailed for three years

Par Mohammad Ayesh
Arabic press review: Bahraini who burned Israeli flag jailed for three years
The raising of fuel prices in Saudi Arabia sparks popular anger and Yemen's government agrees to a prisoner exchange with Houthis
Mohammad Ayesh Mon, 02/17/2020 - 14:45
A Bahraini who set fire to an Israeli flag, as seen here in Lebanon in October 2019, was jailed after his appeal was rejected (AFP)

Bahraini appeal over flag burning rejected

A Bahraini man who burned an Israeli flag during a pro-Palestine protest was jailed for three years, Al-Bilad reported.

The Supreme Court of Appeal in Bahrain rejected an appeal lodged by the Bahraini man, who was convicted of organising an illegal gathering and rioting. 

The court upheld the three-year sentence, and said the man "intended to endanger people's lives and properties, to destabilise public security and to disrupt traffic".

The verdict sparked a wave of indignation among Twitter users, who claimed that it was the first time in the history of the Arab world that a person had been punished for burning the Israeli flag.

A well-known Bahraini journalist tweeted: "It is the first time that Bahrain punishes citizens for burning the Israeli flag. It is striking that it is the same punishment prescribed in the Israeli Penal Law (3 years imprisonment)."

Bahrain, like other Gulf countries, has no official diplomatic relations with Israel. However, visits by Israeli officials to Bahrain and reports of ongoing talks suggest improved ties between Tel Aviv and several Gulf countries. 

Saudi Arabia fuel price rise sparks popular anger

A decision by Saudi state oil company Aramco to raise fuel prices has sparked widespread anger on social media, according to a report in the New Khaleej.

Twitter users said the fuel price rises were "unacceptable" as global oil prices continue to fall. Some justified the anger towards the price rises as commodity prices are set to rise with the introduction of VAT across the Gulf kingdom. 

Aramco said in a statement that the monthly price hikes will be announced on the tenth day of every month, while the application of the new regulations will be on the morning of the 11th day, in accordance with procedures for pricing adjustment of energy and water products.

Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer worldwide, as it produces about 10m barrels of crude oil per day. Fuel prices, however, remain low in Saudi Arabia compared to neighbouring countries. 

Yemeni prisoner swap deal agreed in Jordan

The Yemeni government has reached an agreement with the Houthi movement in Jordan and agreed to exchange prisoners and detainees, Asharq Al-Awsat reported.

The Saudi-backed newspaper quoted Yemeni and UN sources and said the agreement came after a week of consultations. 

Maged Fadail, deputy minister of human rights in the Yemeni government and member of the government negotiating team, stated that “the interim agreement would eventually lead to the release of all detainees in exchange for the other party’s prisoners”.

The Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement praising the efforts of the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, tasked with reaching an agreement to release the prisoners.

* Arabic press review is a digest of reports that are not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye

  • 17 février 2020 à 15:45

Qatar should 'amend, change or withdraw' laws that impede free speech: EU

Par MEE and agencies
Qatar should 'amend, change or withdraw' laws that impede free speech: EU
Special representative for human rights raises concerns after Doha recently enacted a 'vaguely worded' fake news law
MEE and agencies Mon, 02/17/2020 - 16:35
Rights groups have criticised Qatari authorities for encouraging self-censorship among publishers (AFP)

Qatar has been told to scrap several laws that impede freedom of speech and expression after the gas-rich nation recently enacted a "vaguely worded" law that criminalises the publication of "false" news with up to five years in prison.

Speaking in the Qatari capital on Monday, Eamon Gilmore, the European Union's special representative for human rights, said he was "concerned about some pieces of legislation which relate to freedom of expression and freedom of the press".

Gilmore, who was attending an event in Doha promoting the online rights of activists, raised specific concerns over a cybercrime prevention law passed in 2014 which carries a three-year sentence to anyone convicted of creating a digital platform for "fake news".

'Freedom of expression is a very important part of the way in which the European Union sees human rights'

- Eamon Gilmore, EU special representative for human rights

The penalty was recently increased to five years in cases where "ill intent" could be proved.

However, no definition of what constitutes "fake news" was given in the act.

"We urge that those laws be amended, changed or withdrawn," Gilmore said.

The laws were also flagged as problematic during Qatar's most recent Universal Periodic Review, the scrutiny process which all 193 UN countries must undergo approximately every four years, he added.

Gilmore said he raised the concerns with the foreign affairs ministry and the National Human Rights Committee which is staging the two-day conference.

"Freedom of expression is a very important part of the way in which the European Union sees human rights. We attach a very high priority to it," he said.

Independent UN experts have previously warned that Qatar's strict "lese majeste" laws, which prohibit disrespect of the ruler or other officials and carry custodial sentences, could amount to arbitrary detention because they violate free speech rights.

Mashrou' Leila

Earlier this month, Qatar was criticised after a talk to be given by Mashrou' Leila - a popular pro-LGBTQ Lebanese band - at Northwestern University's campus in Doha was cancelled.

Northwestern University released a statement stating that both the band and the university "mutually agreed" to change the venue to the university's campus in the US state of Illinois over safety concerns.

Qatar Foundation challenges university's reason pro-LGBTQ band event cancelled
Read More »

However, the university's local partner, Qatar Foundation (QF), challenged Northwestern's allegations, with a spokesman implying that the event was axed because it did not comply with Qatari laws and culture. 

"We place the utmost importance on the safety of our community and currently do not have any safety or security concerns," a QF spokesman told Reuters. 

Rights groups have repeatedly criticised Qatari authorities for encouraging self-censorship among publishers as the tiny Gulf nation prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.

On Saturday, Human Rights Watch issued a stinging rebuke of Qatar, saying efforts to ensure the payment of workers' salaries were falling "short" of international standards.

  • 17 février 2020 à 17:35

'It wasn't a mistake': Palestinian boy loses eye after being shot by Israeli police

Par Sondus Ewies
'It wasn't a mistake': Palestinian boy loses eye after being shot by Israeli police
Malek Issa's father says an Israeli policeman shot his eight-year-old son between the eyes in an unprovoked attack
Sondus Ewies Mon, 02/17/2020 - 17:27
An undated photo of Malek Issa, along with a photograph taken at the hospital after Israeli police shot him in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet (Social media)

An eight-year-old Palestinian boy lost his left eye on Tuesday, a few days after being shot by Israeli police with a rubber-coated steel bullet after he stepped out from a restaurant in occupied East Jerusalem.

According to the boy's family and eyewitnesses, Malek Issa was deliberately shot between the eyes on Saturday after he bought a sandwich in the East Jerusalem village of Issawiya. 

Medics said the impact of the shooting was so severe that Issa may have suffered brain damage.

"Malek is awake but his condition is difficult. The shot has caused fractures to the skull and face, and brain haemorrhage," Issa's father, Wael Issa, told Middle East Eye.

Eyewitnesses said there were no violent protests or stones being thrown when Israeli forces started firing.

Wael said Israeli forces had come to the area to detain a man, and when they saw a crowd begin to gather, they started firing at random.

Israeli police, meanwhile, said its officers had employed "riot control measures" during an operation in Issawiya.

However, footage from the scene contradicted the Israeli account, showing normal activity in the street moments before the shooting.

Israeli police have said the incident is being investigated.

The shooting comes after months of frequent raids on Issawiya, which resulted in more than 750 arrests among Palestinians. 

'It wasn't a mistake'

Wael said a bus had dropped Malek and his sisters at a stop 200 metres away from their home. Their mother said they could walk home since weather conditions were suitable.

Malek went into the shop to buy a sandwich and was shot on his way out, his father said.

The officer who shot Malek claimed he was not aiming at him but rather at a wall to calibrate his sights and that he thought the boy was hit by a stone thrown by a Palestinian, according to Haaretz newspaper.

But Issa's father rejected his claims and said the officer was clearly targeting Malek.

"It wasn't a mistake. The policeman knew that he was aiming between the eyes from a close distance. It was 100 percent intentional," he told Middle East Eye.

Mohammed Abu al-Homs, a member of an Issawiya community committee, said Israeli forces have been present in the village every day for the past 10 months.

"The constant pressure on [us] is a part of a continuous policy by the occupation against all the people of Jerusalem," Abu al-Homs told MEE

An undated photo of Malek Issa (Social media)
An undated photo of Malek Issa (Social media)

In November, schools in Issawiya were shut down to protest the arrest of a 16-year-old student from school grounds.

Residents saw the incident as a breach of an agreement reached between locals and the Israeli police earlier that year stating that the latter would not operate near schools during teaching hours.

Abu al-Homs said the agreement has been violated several times.

Abu al-Homs believes that one of Israel's pressure tactics is targeting children in areas such as the head and the eyes "in order to scare and deter the young generation of Palestinians".

"This is political pressure and a barbaric targeting of children, specifically those aged between 10 and 12 who do not pose any threat," he said.

"They want to pressure this generation, particularly the students, in order to hinder the education of Palestinians, especially in Issawiya."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Issawiya, occupied East Jerusalem
  • 17 février 2020 à 18:27

Saudi Arabia to 'upgrade' relations with Israel after peace deal is reached, says minister

Par MEE staff
Saudi Arabia to 'upgrade' relations with Israel after peace deal is reached, says minister
Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud's comments come after Adel al-Jubeir praised Trump's controversial 'deal of the century'
MEE staff Mon, 02/17/2020 - 18:26
Israel has been building relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to create a large anti-Iran bloc (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has said the kingdom will develop relations with Israel once a peace deal has been struck with the Palestinians.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said on Sunday, "Upgrading relations with Israel will occur only when a peace agreement is signed and is in accordance with Palestinian conditions."

The comments came shortly after Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's state minister for foreign affairs, said there were "positive elements" in the Trump administration's plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last month, when the Trump administration unveiled its controversial "deal of the century", Saudi Arabia was one of the main supporters of the plan.

'Upgrading relations with Israel will occur only when a peace agreement is signed and is in accordance with Palestinian conditions'

- Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, Saudi foreign minister

Since it was unveiled, the plan has been repeatedly condemned by the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Iran but praised by Gulf countries along with Egypt.

The heavily-maligned deal allows Israel to keep all of its settlements in the occupied West Bank and annex about a third of the territory in exchange for a dwarfed, disjointed Palestinian state with no sovereignty over its airspace, territorial waters or borders.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Arab states have increased their engagement with Israel, raising concerns that they are seeking to normalise ties and sideline the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

As Middle East Eye has previously pointed out, plans have been underway since 2018 to present Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as a peacemaker in the mould of the former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

A source told MEE at the time that the Saudi crown prince was "keen" to take on the role.

Last week, Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom reported that the US was attempting to convene a summit by early March that would host a historic meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS.

  • 17 février 2020 à 19:26

US think tank report ignites concerns over new military coup in Turkey

Par Ragip Soylu
US think tank report ignites concerns over new military coup in Turkey
RAND Corporation report for the US army says Turkish defence minister is particularly close to American military
Ragip Soylu Tue, 02/18/2020 - 09:00
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar chats with his US counterpart Mark Esper at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week (AFP)

A US think tank report on Turkey’s foreign policy has caused controversy in the country after it suggested a new military coup attempt was plausible and that the Turkish defence minister was extremely close to the US military.

Released last month, the report by the RAND Corporation for the US army alleges that the Turkish government’s decision to expel hundreds of officers after a failed coup attempt in 2016 caused huge discontent in the Turkish military.

“Mid-level officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership and concerned about being removed in the continuing post-coup purges,” the report said.

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“This discontent could even lead to another coup attempt at some point, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan appears to take the threat seriously.”

Police still routinely carry out raids targeting coup suspects, with Turkish prosecutors ordering the arrest of nearly 700 people, including military and justice ministry personnel, on Tuesday.

Since the report’s release, several officials have deliberated in closed-door meetings on the possibility of such a coup, but the overwhelming feeling in Ankara was that it was just a rumour, nothing more.

However, several pro-government columnists have taken the report's findings seriously and fired off articles saying that a coup might be in the making.

Hasan Basri Yalcin, an academic columnist at Turkey's Sabah newspaper, wrote on Monday that everyone needed to take the report seriously because Rand was working directly for the US Defense Department.

“No one should look at this issue as a conspiracy theory,” he said. “If you don’t see how all of these are finely scripted and coordinated from one single centre, I have nothing to add. Don’t get surprised if a coup attempt emerges.”

Yusuf Kaplan, a conservative writer at Turkey's Yeni Safak newspaper, predicted on Monday that instead of being undertaken by followers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the next coup would be perpetrated by Kemalist and secularist groups within the military.

Gulen is accused of masterminding the coup on 15 July 2016, a charge he denies. Kemalists uphold the values of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secularist Turkish republic and was the country's first president. 

Defence minister in awkward situation

Erdogan, too, delved into the issue over the weekend. Without directly talking about the report, the president said that the Turkish people’s resistance to the 2016 coup attempt should be a lesson for everyone.

“Our people have earned a great and serious experience,” he told journalists accompanying him on a visit to Pakistan on Saturday.

Turkey ramps up Gulen crackdown with nearly 700 arrests
Read More »

“Next time they won't even question whether to go out [to resist]. Everyone will pour out to the squares.”

In a speech at a party event on Sunday, Erdogan pointed out that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had the highest number of members in Turkey with 10 million people.

Ferhat Unlu, a government-aligned writer, said on Twitter: “Isn’t it meaningful that Erdogan highlighted his party’s membership number as coup rumours are heightened by the RAND report?"

The report also put Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar in an awkward spot by describing him as the go-to person for US-Turkey relations in a country where around 90 percent of the population currently hold anti-American views.

“Throughout this turmoil, Hulusi Akar has remained a key interlocutor for the US and other foreign militaries,” the report said.

“His retention of his position as TGS (Turkish General Staff) chief in 2017 and subsequent appointment as minister of defence in July 2018 in the first presidential decree under the new executive presidential system suggest that he will continue to be the leading figure in Turkish defence affairs for some time.”

In a statement released earlier this month, after several weeks of silence, the Turkish defence ministry said the report was unreasonably ambiguous and the comments referring to the Turkish military were baseless and unserious.

“We are saddened to see that some expressions in the report have been consciously, or unconsciously, twisted and used in the country,” the statement said.

Turkish military’s 'insular culture'

The report also claimed that the Erdogan government had established the National Defence University as the ultimate educational body for the military after the coup attempt in order “to break down the Turkish military’s insular culture as guardians of secularism”.

In response, the defence ministry said the Turkish military and its units were following the country's laws and regulations, and its commander-in-chief, the president.

In what was seen as a further attempt to address the criticism, Akar himself talked about the issue last week.

“I received the [RAND] report with sadness that the statements [in the report] about myself, the Turkish military and the National Defence University were scripted disingenuously to be used by circles to put a wedge between us,” he told a Turkish newspaper.

Some have claimed the whole debate was started in order to control the narrative within the Turkish media and public as the government battles domestic and foreign problems such as the economy and war in Syria.

“New coup allegations are scripts written by the government to save itself from its woes,” said Alican Uludag, a reporter on legal affairs at the secularist Cumhuriyet daily.

“Yes, this government will leave. However with an election, in a democratic way.”

Istanbul
  • 18 février 2020 à 10:00

Turkey ramps up Gulen crackdown with nearly 700 arrests

Par MEE and agencies
Turkey ramps up Gulen crackdown with nearly 700 arrests
Those arrested over alleged links to group accused of attempted coup in 2016 include military and justice ministry personnel
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 09:39
Nearly four years since the attempted coup, the police still routinely carry out raids targeting suspects (File pic/AFP)

Turkish prosecutors on Tuesday ordered the arrest of nearly 700 people, including military and justice ministry personnel, intensifying moves against a network accused of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt.

Authorities have carried out a sustained crackdown on alleged followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen since the failed bid in July 2016, in which about 250 people were killed.

Nearly four years on, the police still routinely carry out raids targeting suspects.

US think tank report ignites concerns over new military coup in Turkey
Read More »

The size of the latest operation marked an escalation by police against alleged supporters of Gulen, a one-time ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who subsequently became his arch foe.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, has denied any involvement in the attempted coup.

In the latest moves, prosecutors ordered the arrest of 157 people, including 101 serving officers, in an investigation of the Turkish armed forces, state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

About 100 people have so far been detained in this operation, the private Demiroren news agency reported.

In the capital Ankara, 71 people were to be detained in an investigation targeting alleged Gulen supporters in the justice ministry, Anadolu said.

It subsequently reported that prosecutors had issued arrest warrants for another 467 suspects across the country over links to Gulen as part of an investigation into corruption in police examinations held in 2009, Reuters said.

'Parallel state'

Erdogan has for years accused Gulen's supporters of establishing a "parallel state" by infiltrating the police, judiciary and other state institutions.

Since the coup attempt, about 80,000 people have been jailed pending trial and some 150,000 civil servants, teachers, military personnel and others sacked or suspended from their jobs.

Last month, a US think tank report on Turkey’s foreign policy caused controversy after it suggested a new military coup attempt was plausible.

The report by the RAND Corporation for the US army alleges that the Turkish government’s decision to expel hundreds of officers after the failed coup caused huge discontent in the Turkish military.

“Mid-level officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership and concerned about being removed in the continuing post-coup purges,” the report said.

“This discontent could even lead to another coup attempt at some point, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan appears to take the threat seriously."

Turkey's Western allies, including the European Union, as well as rights groups, have criticised the scale of the crackdown, while Ankara has defended the measures as a necessary response to the security threat.

  • 18 février 2020 à 10:39

Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight others acquitted in Gezi Park trial

Par MEE and agencies
Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight others acquitted in Gezi Park trial
Defendants were accused of attempting to overthrow the government by organising nationwide protests in 2013
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:09
Kavala has been in custody for more than two years and the case had drawn strong criticism from Turkey's Western allies and rights groups (AFP)

A Turkish court acquitted leading businessman and rights activist Osman Kavala and eight other defendants on Tuesday following a controversial trial over the anti-government "Gezi Park" protests of 2013. 

Kavala and two other defendants had been facing life sentences without parole, while the other defendants were accused of aiding them in attempting to overthrow the government by organising the protests.

Turkish philanthropist faces life in jail over 2013 Gezi Park protests
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The judge said there was "not enough concrete evidence" against the suspects as he delivered the landmark verdict, which was followed by loud cheers from supporters when Kavala walked free from the courtroom.

The case of seven further defendants - who are abroad and were being tried in absentia - was separated, but arrest warrants for them were lifted, Reuters said.

One lawyer said they were also expected to be acquitted.

Philanthropist Kavala has been in custody for more than two years and the case had drawn strong criticism from Turkey's Western allies and rights groups.

In December, the European Court of Human Rights called for his immediate release, saying there was a lack of reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offence.

Erdogan denounces Soros over jailed Turkish philanthropist
Read More »

According to the indictment, the defendants had prepared for the Gezi Park protests since 2011 and were "top management" organisers.

The 2013 protests originally began as a demonstration against the demolition of one of the last green spaces in Istanbul, but quickly spiralled into an expression of opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule.

More than three million people were involved in the demonstrations across the country.

'Who is behind him?'

Kavala was chairman of the Anadolu Kultur (Anatolian Culture) foundation, a non-profit organisation founded in 2002 that aims to "develop mutual understanding and dialogue and overcome regional differences and prejudices" in Turkey and the wider region.

He has repeatedly been accused of having links to the Hungarian-born financier George Soros, blamed by some governments for fomenting unrest and promoting "globalist" politics.

"Who is behind him? The famous Hungarian Jew Soros," said Erdogan in November, 2018.

"This is a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them. He has so much money and he spends it this way."

That same month, Soros's Open Society Foundations said it would cease activities in the country following Erdogan's comments.

  • 18 février 2020 à 13:09

Egypt building new wall along Gaza border

Par Adam Khalil
Egypt building new wall along Gaza border
The new construction, both above and below ground, is being carried out with Hamas consent to stem the use of cross-border tunnels with the blockaded strip
Adam Khalil Tue, 02/18/2020 - 12:24
A photograph taken from the besieged Gaza Strip shows Egypt construction machinery across the border working on building a wall (MEE/Adam Khalil)

Egyptian security and military forces are working around the clock to build a new concrete wall on the Egyptian side of the border with the besieged Gaza Strip which they aim to have completed by mid-2020, Palestinian sources told Middle East Eye.

Egypt embarked on the first stage of construction on 27 January in the area extending from the Karm Abu Salem commercial crossing to the Rafah crossing. The wall is set to extend along two kilometres in its first stage, and stand six metres tall above ground and five metres deep below it.

Security expert in the Hamas-run Gaza Interior Ministry Muhammad Abu Harbeed said that the Palestinian leadership in Gaza understood Egyptian security needs, adding that the construction of the new wall enhanced the "security interests" of both sides.

But the move has not been welcomed by all in the besieged Palestinian territory, where some view the timing of the construction as suspicious given the recent unveiling of a US plan for Israel and Palestine that has been categorically rejected by the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.

Monitoring progress

The border between Egypt and Gaza is some 14 kilometres long in total.

The new wall is about ten metres away from an existing wall built by the Egyptian army after Palestinians stormed the border in early 2008, MEE was able to observe from the ground.

'Sinai is our Vietnam': Horror stories Egyptian soldiers tell from the front line
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According to available information, the second stage of construction of the wall will focus on tightening control of separate border sections that extend from the Rafah border crossing to the Mediterranean Sea - sectors which the Egyptian army believes are weak points used for infiltration and smuggling in and out of Gaza.

A Palestinian officer working for Hamas’ security forces in Gaza revealed to MEE that Egyptian engineers and security and military experts have been periodically monitoring the progress of construction work from the Palestinian side of the border.

An Egyptian engineering and technical delegation visited Gaza Strip on 13 February and made a field tour along the border. 

This visit came after a similar tour a few days earlier by an Egyptian security delegation led by Palestinian Major General Ahmed Abdel Khaliq, a member of Gaza’s General Intelligence Agency, on 10 February.

The Palestinian security officer, who requested anonymity, said that the construction of the wall and the Egyptian tours have been coordinated with Hamas, the de facto ruling party in the blockaded Palestinian territory, within the framework of new security arrangements with Egypt to prevent the infiltration of militants into the Sinai Peninsula.

Crackdown on tunnels

The decision to build a wall reaching deep into the ground is no accident, as Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has sought to shut down tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Province.

Only a few hours after five Egyptian soldiers were killed by an explosive device near the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid on 3 February, the Egyptian army announced that it had discovered a tunnel three kilometres long between the Palestinian and Egyptian sides of Rafah - a city which was split in two following Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. 

'Leaving hell to live in hell': The bribes and checkpoints from Gaza through Egypt
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Egyptian security sources said at the time that the tunnel was intended “for the infiltration of terrorists from the Gaza Strip to plant improvised explosive devices on the Egyptian side and transporting weapons and explosives".

Since then-president Mohamed Morsi was deposed in a military coup in July 2013, Egyptian authorities have intensified their security and military operations in the Sinai, particularly cracking down on smuggling tunnels to Gaza.

The Egyptian army has largely succeeded in destroying hundreds of tunnels that Palestinians have dug to circumvent the suffocating siege imposed by Israel on the small coastal enclave since 2007.

In addition to destroying tunnels or flooding them with sewage water, Egypt has established a 1.5-kilometre long buffer zone along the border.

Hamas’ relationship with Egypt, which had been strong under Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi’s rule, suffered after army chief Sisi rose to power.

But the Palestinian movement has since been able to somewhat mend its ties with Cairo by taking a series of measures that included establishing a 100-metre buffer zone along the border and clamping down on tunnels - in exchange for fewer closures at the border crossings with Egypt.

Egyptian security

While Egypt seeks to enhance its security in the Sinai by building the wall and taking new security measures and arrangements, Hamas sees the move as beneficial to its fight to eliminate drug trafficking, prevent criminal activities, and get rid of extremists on both sides of the border, according to Abu Harbeed, the Palestinian security expert.

“The operations of the Egyptian army on the Egyptian side of the border do not stop, and the construction of this wall falls within the context of a complete Egyptian security plan to impose security in the Sinai by strengthening some security-weak sections on the border, and ending the phenomenon of tunnels that are no longer necessary in light of an Egyptian commitment to open the Rafah crossing for individuals and basic needs of the population,” he said.

Hamas security services have thwarted several attempts by members of groups believed to be affiliated with or inspired by the Islamic State (IS) group to smuggle out of the Gaza Strip into the Sinai.

But an informed Palestinian security source revealed to MEE that a number of militants had succeeded in entering the Sinai recently, leading Hamas to commit to take more stringent security measures on both sides of the border as part of its agreement with Egypt.

Abu Harbeed said that Hamas and Egypt have passed the stage of exchanging accusations of responsibility for infiltration, and have reached a stage of understanding and agreement on the need for joint control.

According to Abu Harbeed, Egypt provided security forces in Gaza with equipment and other means to help them tighten control on the Palestinian side of the border in line with Egyptian security needs.

REVEALED: Trump's 'deal of the century' map for a future Palestine, Israel
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But Ibrahim Habib, a lecturer at the al-Rebat police academy in Gaza, does not see the value of building the new wall in terms of security.

He described the timing of the construction as "suspicious" given the US administration’s unveiling in January of its controversial plan for Israel and Palestine, saying the proposal known colloquially as the “deal of the century” was “forcing the resistance in Gaza to accept the status quo”.

The construction of the wall and new security measures on both sides of the border coincide with US President Donald Trump's proposal to expand the Gaza Strip by adding to it new lands in the Negev desert adjacent to the Egyptian Sinai - while formalising the annexation of East Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and large swathes of land in the occupied West Bank, and creating a demilitarised, fragmented Palestinian state with little to no sovereignty.

Habib wondered why Egypt has focused on its short border with Gaza, while there are many entry points for the infiltration of militants, whether by sea or through Egypt’s long land borders with other countries.

“Hamas has been making great efforts for years to protect Egyptian national security through security reinforcements from the deployment of additional forces and new buildings on the Palestinian side of the border," he said.

"I do not think that this wall has a real security dimension. Its construction is in line with the [Israeli] occupation’s policy of building walls.”

Abu Harbeed, however, refused to link the construction of the wall to the Trump plan: “It has nothing to do with the deal; it’s all about security for Egypt.”

Rafah, besieged Gaza Strip
  • 18 février 2020 à 13:24

Egypt just banned ‘mahraganat’ music: Listen to five of the most popular tracks

Par Nadda Osman
Egypt just banned ‘mahraganat’ music: Listen to five of the most popular tracks
Singers of the electric folk style music, mahraganat, have been warned they will be penalised, along with any establishments that work with them
Nadda Osman Mon, 02/17/2020 - 16:55
Mohamed Ramadan (L) and Mohamed Oka (AFP and Instagram)

Egypt’s musician’s union has banned the popular street music mahraganat after one song was deemed too "immoral" for the Arab world's most populous country. 

The head of the Musicians Syndicate, singer Hany Shaker, said on Sunday that mahraganat singers would no longer be allowed to work in Egypt, and would be denied licences to perform anywhere in the country. 

“This type of music is based on promiscuous and immoral lyrics, which is completely prohibited, and as such, the door is closed on it. We want real art,” he said in an interview with pro-government host Amr Adeeb. 

Mahraganat, Arabic for "festivals", is a style of electronic folk music that originally started out in some of Egypt’s most impoverished districts and quickly gained prominence, with artists amassing millions of views on YouTube and SoundCloud. 

The style of music, which can be described as "electro shaabi" (popular working-class music) is typically played in taxis, tuktuks and more recently, weddings. 

In a press release that has circulated widely on social media, the syndicate warns all tourist establishments, including Nile cruises, nightclubs, fairs and cafes, not to deal with mahraganat singers. 

The decree also states that the syndicate would take all legal measures possible against the singers and the establishments that deal with them if they violate the decision.

The ban came after a Valentine’s Day concert held in Cairo Stadium, where popular mahraganat artists Hassan Shakoush and Omar Kamal perfomed the song "The Neighbour's Daughter", whose lyrics notably include: “If you break up with me... I will drink alcohol and smoke weed”.

Alcohol and marijuana are considered taboos in Egyptian society. 

Mahraganat
The statement from Egypt's Musicians Syndicate, warning establishments not to engage with mahraganat singers (Social media)

The genre of music started in poorer slums and areas of Cairo around 2006, when DJs and music artists started combining influences of grime and rap with Egyptian shaabi music.

It quickly became a way for people to express their feelings about politics and the ongoing turmoil in the country, particularly during the 2011 revolution which ousted long-time president Hosni Mubarak. The music, fast and loud, was made using cheap computers at home by people who could not access expensive studios.

Since then, mahraganat has commonly been used by young, burgeoning artists to highlight social issues.

The style of music is considered to be "lower class" or vulgar by more traditional or conservative listeners, due to its use of explicit language and favoured topics, some of which include drugs and violence. 

Initially, the genre was not given attention or airtime within Egyptian society nor on radio stations. However its rapid growth in popularity has resulted in a rise of music producers capitalising on its success. 

Hakim singer afp
Egyptian singer Hakim is known as the 'Sheikh of Shaabi' music, a style of working-class song that is sometimes played at weddings (AFP)

The banning of the music style has caused outrage on social media, with people posting satirical posts and suggesting that this is a threat to Egyptian culture and society. 

Social media users have criticised Shaker for the decision, claiming that banning the genre of music will only make people want it more. 

Popular mahraganat singer Mohamed Ramadan, who has amassed more than eight million subscribers on YouTube, caused controversy last year, when he posted a rap video entitled "They Want Chaos" - taking a subtle swipe at actor-turned-whistleblower Mohamed Ali.

In the music video, the singer claims that Ali is a failed man and knows nothing about life on the streets because he is too busy in cabarets. 

Here are some of the top mahraganat songs that have gained prominence in Egypt in recent years: 

1. ‘Bent el-garan’ (The neighbour's daughter) by Hassan Shakoush

2. ‘Hagarein al-shisha’ (Two coals on a shisha) by Hoba

3. 'Elaab Yala' (Play, dude) by Oka Wi Ortega 

4. ‘Bayza eshti’ (My life is ruined) by Hamo Bika

5.  'Wedaa ya donya, wedaa' (Farewell world, farewell) by Hamo Bika

  • 17 février 2020 à 17:55

UK says Israel-Palestine position unchanged despite welcoming Trump deal

Par MEE staff
UK says Israel-Palestine position unchanged despite welcoming Trump deal
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Trump's proposals for the region needed 'genuine and fair consideration'
MEE staff Tue, 02/18/2020 - 13:00
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) greets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside 10 Downing Street in central London (AFP)

The UK government's position on Israel-Palestine is unchanged in the wake of Donald Trump's new proposals for the region, but the US president's plan should be given "genuine and fair consideration," Prime Minister Boris Johnson was revealed to have said on Tuesday.

In response to a letter from leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson said the British government would not be altering its position regarding the status of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

"The UK’s position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is clear and has not changed," he wrote.

"These settlements are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace, and threaten the physical viability of a two-state solution."

He added that the UK would continue to fund the UNRWA refugee agency - unlike Trump, who ended American funding last year - and said London would continue to support a "just, fair, agreed and realistic" solution to the question of Palestinian refugees and their right to return to their ancestral homeland.

Johnson’s reply about Trump's Middle East plan flies in the face of reality. Palestinians unanimously rejected the plan, and Johnson’s letter shows the UK government’s own positions contradict it. So the PM can't seriously claim Trump’s plan offers a route to genuine peace talks. pic.twitter.com/JCsHPRQ04V

— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) February 17, 2020

However, the letter stopped short of criticising Trump's recently revealed "deal of the century", which is widely seen as a one-sided blueprint for Israeli annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank.

"Only the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories can determine whether the US-led proposals can meet the needs and aspirations of the people they represent," the letter read.

"We encourage all to give these plans genuine and fair consideration, and explore whether they might prove a first step on the road back to negotiations."

Trump's plan was unveiled on 28 January to much criticism from Palestinians, the Arab League and the international community.

The plan will see the recognition of the vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and allow the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which makes up around a third of the territory.

The right of return for refugees expelled from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948, as well as during subsequent conflicts, will also be denied.

Corbyn said Johnson's letter flew "in the face of reality."

"Palestinians unanimously rejected the plan, and Johnson’s letter shows the UK government’s own positions contradict it," he tweeted.

"So the PM can't seriously claim Trump’s plan offers a route to genuine peace talks."

  • 18 février 2020 à 14:00

Netanyahu's corruption trial to begin 17 March

Par MEE staff
Netanyahu's corruption trial to begin 17 March
Proceedings to start while prime minister may be attempting to negotiate with parties to form a government
MEE staff Tue, 02/18/2020 - 13:57
A woman walks past a banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the words "Crime Minister" outside the Justice Ministry (Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial is set to begin on 17 March, a fortnight after the country’s parliamentary elections, the justice ministry said on Tuesday.

He is the first sitting prime minister to be indicted, and his trial on three charges of corruption will commence at a time when he may be negotiating with parties to form a government – and fighting for his political survival.

In January, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit formally indicted Netanyahu in three cases: Case 1,000, Case 2,000 and Case 3,000.

Netanyahu was charged with breach of trust and fraud in all three corruption cases, as well as bribery in one of the investigations.

In the most significant case, dubbed Case 4000, the premier is accused of making decisions benefiting Bezeq - Israel's largest telecommunications company - in exchange for positive coverage on the website Walla News, which is controlled by the company's former chairman.

Netanyahu is accused in Case 1000 of receiving gifts from Israeli-born filmmaker Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer in exchange for political favours, including promoting their business interests and helping them obtain visas. 

Finally, Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu struck a deal with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth to receive favourable coverage from the Israeli newspaper.

Netanyahu's corruption cases

+ Show - Hide

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing potential charges in three cases focused on corruption, known by their codes 4000, 1000 and 2000. 

Case 4000: Netanyahu accused of granted regulatory favours to Israel's leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for positive coverage of him and his wife Sara on a news website controlled by the company's former chairman.

Case 1000: Netanyahu and his wife allegedly wrongfully received gifts from Israeli filmmaker Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer, including champagne and cigars.

Case 2000: Netanyahu suspected of negotiating a deal with the owner of Israel's best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for legislation that would slow the growth of a rival daily newspaper.

Netanyahu could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if he is found guilty of bribery.

He could face three years in prison for fraud and breach of trust.

The prime minister had sought to pass a bill through parliament that would give him immunity from prosecution, though he dropped it last month as it became clear it would not get the support he needed.

Israelis head to the polls on 2 March for the third time in a year, following two inconclusive elections that have left Israeli politics in limbo.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main challenger and head of the Blue and White party, has ruled out joining any Likud party-led government while the prime minister is facing corruption charges.

The prime minister has rejected the charges, and described them as a "witch hunt".

  • 18 février 2020 à 14:57

Oil giant BP accused of racism in Mauritania after overlooking black students

Par Amandla Thomas-Johnson
Oil giant BP accused of racism in Mauritania after overlooking black students
At least nine out of ten BP-sponsored scholarships went to Arab-Berber students in the majority black nation
Amandla Thomas-Johnson Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:38
Just two of the scholarship recipients were women (Social media)

BP has been accused of contributing to "state racism" in Mauritania after awarding at least nine out of ten study abroad scholarships to students drawn from the country’s minority Arab-Berber group, with none appearing to go to the majority black population.

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The London-based oil giant, which has stepped up its investments in the West African country in recent years, also came under fire for the few women awarded the scholarship. However, it insists the students were chosen on merit.

The controversy, which erupted online after BP posted a photo of the recipients, has added to an ongoing debate about diversity in a country where racism and slavery persist, with Mauritanians pointing to governmental discrimination as a factor.

BP made the announcement last Tuesday, posting a photo to Twitter and Facebook showing nine of the 10 students sitting in traditional garb. 

“We are happy to announce that we have sponsored 10 Mauritanian students for a four-year baccalaureate in France, Tunisia and Morocco!” a short message read. “Congratulations to them, we wish you a lot of success.”

But social media users soon piled in.

One Twitter user posted a picture of Mauritania’s multi-ethnic football squad for the 2020 Under-20 Arab Cup beside the BP photo. “This is Mauritania,” the tweet said in French, referring to the first image.

“But for BP and others, we blacks are not Mauritanian.”

Faut bien regarde la première photo

C’est ça la Mauritanie
Mais pour BP et les autres nous noirs l. est pas Mauritanien pic.twitter.com/cRW9elF8II

— Nebame sireme (@MamadouRella1) February 12, 2020

One Facebook user, writing under the name Malkom Xamsa Fall, wrote: “Thank you BP for your contribution to state racism in Mauritania.”

Speaking to Middle East Eye, some Mauritanians blamed the government, which has been dominated by Arab-Berbers since independence in 1960.

Speaking from Nouakchott, the nation's capital, Marieme Mbaye, a 27 year-old agronomy student, said: “The government wants to eliminate the other communities by giving all the positions of responsibility to a single community, which do not represent the majority of people.”

Speaking from France, Koundou Soumare, a 41-year-old blogger, said: “There is an unequal educational system at the grassroots level and a system of nepotism based on your social and family networks that benefits some to the detriment of others. Mauritanian authorities must urgently grant equal opportunities for all citizens without distinction of race or community.” 

Middle East Eye has asked the Mauritanian government for comment.

'Thank you BP for your contribution to state racism in Mauritania'

- Facebook user

An estimated 70 percent of Mauritanians are black. Yet Arab-Berbers, who make up just 30 percent of the population, dominate every sphere of society - from government, to business, to religious leadership.

Among the black population, Haratins, the Arab-speaking descendants of black slaves that were once owned - and in some cases still are owned - by Arab-Berbers, make up 40 percent of the population. Others belong to a number of black African ethnic groups.

Aggressive "Arabisation" policies enacted since Mauritania won independence from France have solidified the Arab-Berber hold on power, to the detriment of other groups, while the country projects an exclusively Arab image abroad.

“Traditional social structures and cultural prejudices continue to marginalise the Haratin and black African (Halpular, Soninke and Wolof) communities, particularly in terms of access to education, employment, housing, health care, social services, land and natural resources,"  a UN report said in August.

BP have hit back, telling MEE that students were chosen on merit rather than based on race or ethnicity. 

“For BP, equal opportunity is a matter of fairness, respect and dignity,” the oil company said in a statement. “Everywhere we work, BP ensures its decisions are based on merit - not on race, colour, national origin, religion, gender and others.”

The initiative, BP said, was based on a partnership with the Ecole Superieure Polytechnique, an elite engineering school based in Nouakchott, with the students taking up scholarships to study at universities in Tunisia, Morocco and France.

'For BP, equal opportunity is a matter of fairness, respect and dignity'

- BP

The partnership was struck in order to “develop the talent pipeline” for Mauritania’s fledgling oil and gas industry, BP said, adding that two recipients were women but that only one was able to take part in the photograph released online. 

The announcement of the scholarships came in the same week that BP agreed to buy all the liquefied natural gas from Greater Tortue Ahmeyim, an offshore gas field it is exploiting in waters belonging to Mauritania and Senegal that the company estimates could yield more than 15 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. 

The field is among a series of lucrative finds made off Mauritania’s Atlantic coast in recent years, which look set to transform the country’s economy.

The Senegalese portion lies within the Saint-Louis Offshore Profond block, the subject of a BBC investigation last year that alleged BP had agreed to pay Frank Timis, an Australian-Romanian businessman, up to $10bn for a stake in the coveted gas field, raising concerns the London-based company had engaged in corruption. BP denied the claims.

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In a statement, the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights, said it was prepared to launch legal action against BP if it did not “take into account the ethnic diversity of Mauritania” when recruiting.

“Until now, foreign companies had been particularly distinguished by their efforts to take into account the country's ethnic diversity in their recruitment, unlike the Mauritanian authorities,” the US-based organisation said.

“Mauritanian Network for Human Rights calls on BP Mauritania to immediately review the selection criteria for sponsored students and to take into account the ethnic diversity of Mauritania in the recruitment of all its staff throughout the country," it added.

“Our organisation is also considering further legal action if no measures are taken by BP to ensure transparency in its future recruitment.”

Dakar, Senegal
  • 18 février 2020 à 15:38

Libya is 'world's largest theatre' for drone attacks: UN

Par MEE and agencies
Libya is 'world's largest theatre' for drone attacks: UN
Libya also has the world's largest uncontrolled ammunition stockpile, as conflict between warring sides continues
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:39
Since 2016, there has been a gradual build-up of Emirati infrastructure and aircraft, including drones, at Libya's al-Khadim air base (AFP/File photo)

The United Nations has described Libya as the "world's largest theatre for drone technology," and warned that the nine-year conflict was taking an "incalculable" toll on civilians.

Yacoub el-Hillo, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said that the protracted conflict was "severely impacting civilians in all parts of the country on a scale never seen before", with nearly 900,000 people needing humanitarian assistance.

'Everyone has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems'

- Yacoub el-Hillo, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya

"The increasing use of explosive weapons has resulted in unnecessary loss of life," Hillo said in a video briefing to journalists from Tripoli.

And when it comes to the use of drones: "Everyone has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems."

Despite a UN arms embargo against Libya, foreign actors have repeatedly been accused of transferring arms to forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Since 2016, there has been a gradual build-up of Emirati infrastructure and aircraft, including drones, at Libya's al-Khadim air base, which is about 105km east of Benghazi.

Last month, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) said an attack on a military school, which caused the deaths of 30 students, was carried out by a Chinese-made Wing Loong II drone belonging to the UAE.

'Serious violations'

Libya has been wracked by violence since 2011 when a Nato-backed uprising overthrew longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, multiple foreign powers have become involved in the country.

Following disputed elections in 2014, the country has been divided between competing administrations, with the UN-recognised GNA based in Tripoli trying to fend off an offensive by forces loyal to Haftar. 

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On 19 January, a peace plan for Libya was agreed to by 12 key leaders in Berlin, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia's Vladimir Putin, France's Emmanuel Macron, and Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Still, Hillo pointed out that the 55-point road map for ending the war in Libya had seen "serious violations" in the last 10 days, with fighting escalating in and around Tripoli.

Hillo said that by the end of 2019, more than 345,000 people had fled their homes, with nearly 900,000 Libyans in need of humanitarian assistance.

"Unless we speak so bluntly and openly ... unless we start naming and shaming, we will have the resolutions but the reality on the ground will remain appalling," Hillo said.

Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure have doubled since 2019, resulting in at least 650 civilians either killed or wounded.

'It's going pretty well'

On Tuesday, heavy smoke could be seen billowing from Tripoli's port after a warehouse was hit by forces loyal to Haftar.

The attack happened as representatives of the parties prepared to meet for a second round of talks in Geneva under the auspices of the UN.

Both sides refused again to sit in the same room, UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told reporters, although he said he was hopeful of making progress.

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"So while the situation on the ground remains a situation where the truce is very fragile... nobody has so far reneged on the principle of accepting the truce and the political process is trying to find a way to move forward," he said.

He added that a ceasefire was not a precondition for advancing on other matters such as how to better distribute state revenues from oil, saying economic discussions were going "pretty well".

"It is going pretty well on the economic side, but it is harder on the military side," he said.

Salame said he had received conditions from tribesmen allied to eastern forces to lift a blockade of eastern oil export ports, but said they were quite general and would have to be tackled through UN-led dialogue.

Tribesmen and other groups allied to the LNA joined with Haftar's forces a month ago to block major ports in eastern Libya and the southern Sharara oilfield, reducing oil output by more than 1 million barrels a day.

Salame had spoken to some tribal leaders to hear their conditions to end the blockade. A further round of discussions is planned in Geneva next week.

  • 18 février 2020 à 15:39

Second Lebanese protester dies after succumbing to wounds

Par MEE and agencies
Second Lebanese protester dies after succumbing to wounds
Ahmed Tawfiq was reportedly shot in the stomach during protests in Tripoli in November
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 14:51
Tawfiq was buried in the town of Qabreen in Akkar on Tuesday (Screengrab)

A Lebanese man has become the second person to be killed by gunfire during the country's protests, nearly three months after he was shot in the stomach in Tripoli, according to Lebanon's Al Jadeed television station.

Al Jadeed's website reported that Ahmed Tawfiq, who was in his twenties, died of his wounds overnight Tuesday having undergone several surgical operations since being wounded.

It is unclear who shot Tawfiq on 19 November in the Gemayzat area of Tripoli, with both security forces and the bodyguards of a former MP blamed on social media.

Demonstrators in Tripoli have called for a "day of rage" in the northern city, which has witnessed largely peaceful protests since they erupted in October in response to endemic corruption and governmental mismangement.

Tawfiq was buried in the town of Qabreen in Akkar on Tuesday.

On 12 November, protester Alaa Abu Fakhr was shot dead by a soldier, who was trying to open a road closed by demonstrators, in Khalde, a coastal town south of Beirut.

Hundreds of protesters have been wounded during the demonstrations, amid demand for the wholesale removal of the country's political class, which the activists condemn as inept and corrupt.

  • 18 février 2020 à 15:51

Saudi Arabia detains more Palestinians in latest arrest campaign

Par Adam Khalil
Saudi Arabia detains more Palestinians in latest arrest campaign
The arrests come a year since the Gulf kingdom first started cracking down on Palestinian residents with alleged or confirmed ties to the Hamas movement
Adam Khalil Tue, 02/18/2020 - 16:09
Mohammed al-Khoudary and his eldest son Hani have been detained by Saudi authorities since April (Screengrab)

Saudi security forces have launched a new wave of arrests of Palestinians living in the Gulf kingdom, sources told Middle East Eye.

Sources in the Palestinian community in Saudi Arabia said Saudi authorities had arrested dozens of people since 10 February, the majority being children and relatives of those arrested in earlier waves of arrests since February 2019.

On 12 February, Prisoners of Conscience - a group which denounces Saudi incarceration of individuals for political reasons - was the first to report on social media the latest arrests.

🔴BREAKING 🔴
We confirm that Saudi authorities have arrested a new group of Palestinians residing in KSA on the grounds of their support to the "Palestinian resistance and Hamas". Some of them are relatives of the detained people who were arrested for the same reason last April. pic.twitter.com/iPQCQEEfNe

— Prisoners of Conscience (@m3takl_en) February 12, 2020

A Palestinian citizen living in the Saudi city of Jeddah told MEE on condition of anonymity that Palestinians were currently living in a state of anxiety and terror in the Gulf country.

"Everyone has become concerned that the arrest campaign will target them, in light of a situation of extreme incitement against Palestinians, which has escalated since the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince," she said.

Since its inception more than 30 years ago, Hamas has been keen to preserve a balanced relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the two sides’ differing policies on various issues over the past decade - but bin Salman’s rise as crown prince has been accompanied by unprecedented Saudi overtures to Israel.

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The woman added that she knew a number of Palestinians who had left Saudi soil before the first arrests campaign in anticipation of the changing atmosphere in the country. She added that others, fearing arrest, have since left the country illegally through the land border with Yemen, and settled in other countries.

While the Geneva based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor has reported that some 60 Palestinians have been detained by Saudi Arabia in the past year, others estimate that the number is much higher.

Saudi Arabia detained a dozen Palestinians in February 2019, before launching another campaign in April which saw dozens of Palestinian businessmen, academics and students arrested.

An official source from the Hamas movement in the besieged Gaza Strip, who requested not to be identified, stressed that the majority of the detainees were Hamas members.

The official said those arrested had resided in Saudi Arabia for decades, arguing their detentions were unjustified and accusing Saudi Arabia of “now targeting everyone who is linked with resistance” against the Israeli occupation.

Court hearing

In September, Hamas revealed in an official statement that one of the most prominent detainees was veteran Hamas middleman Mohammed Saleh al-Khoudary, 82, who had been responsible for managing the relationship with Saudi Arabia for two decades.

Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Hazem Qassem, said the Palestinian movement had contacted several unspecified parties and diplomatic contacts over the past few months in order to resolve the situation, to no avail.

'He does not deserve to end his life in this humiliating way'

- Abdul Majid Khoudary, brother of Mohammed Saleh al-Khoudary

The new arrests coincide with news that Khoudary and his eldest son, Hani Khoudary, would be among 14 other prisoners to stand in front of the Riyadh criminal court next month.

Khoudary's brother Abdul Majid, who lives in Gaza, said that his brother and nephew's lawyer had yet to be informed of what charges were being levied against them, adding that the indictment would only be announced on the first day of the trial.

Abdul Majid Khoudary said his brother had been in Saudi Arabia for three decades serving as an “ambassador of Hamas” with a close relationship to Saudi authorities, adding that his sons were born in the country.

He expressed concern that his brother has been held in solitary confinement in Dhahban prison for some three months, only being allowed a family visit for the first time in July for only an hour.

“He does not deserve to end his life in this humiliating way,” Abdul Majid told MEE.

According to Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Saudi Arabia holds thousands of prisoners, including many on political grounds, in Dhahban, where human rights activists say many detainees are subjected to torture, humiliation and abuse.

Gaza City, besieged Gaza Strip
  • 18 février 2020 à 17:09

Aleppo hospitals bombing may be a war crime, UN warns

Par MEE staff
Aleppo hospitals bombing may be a war crime, UN warns
Pro-Syrian government forces pursue relentless bombardment of western Aleppo countryside, where two medical facilities were shelled the day before
MEE staff Tue, 02/18/2020 - 17:21
Syrian army soldiers gesture in town of Kafr Hamrah in Aleppo province, Syria (Reuters)

The United Nations on Tuesday condemned pro-Syrian government forces’ bombing of two hospitals in western Aleppo province as a possible war crime, as towns and villages in the rebel-held region continued to have bombs rained down on them.

The Kinana and al-Fardous hospitals near the town of Darat Izza were struck by eight missiles the day before, which activists and rescue workers said were fired by Russian warplanes.

Around 300,000 people relied on the facilities which had now been put out of action, aid workers told Middle East Eye.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian air power, have been concentrating attacks on rebel-held urban areas of the western Aleppo countryside in recent days.

The assault is part of a broader push to clear the opposition’s last stronghold in Syria’s northwest, an operation that has retaken more than 600 square km since December.

"The sheer quantity of attacks on hospitals, medical facilities, and schools would suggest they cannot all be accidental," UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said, adding that the attacks could constitute a war crime.

map

Meanwhile, shelling on Tuesday killed one civilian in Darat Izza and an air strike gouged a huge crater into the popular market in the Aleppo province town of Atarib, activists said.

To the southeast, pro-government forces struck areas in and around the Idlib province towns of Termanin, al-Dana, Sarmin and Maarat al-Naasan, where local media said one civilian was killed.

Pro-Assad fighters were also reportedly killed in western Aleppo province by rebel missile fire, one of them a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to Iranian state media.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Turkish officials met with their Russian counterparts for a second day, with discussions adjourned without any agreement on a ceasefire.

Faced with nearly a million displaced Syrians fleeing the offensive toward its border, rebel-backer Turkey has ploughed men, arms and vehicles into northwestern Syria in recent days, and sought promises from Russia that it will restrain its Syrian government ally.

Turkey’s representatives stressed in Moscow that Ankara’s military was prepared to engage Syrian government forces if they continue to advance. The two sides’ artillery already clashed last week with deadly effect.

“We said in the meetings with Russians that we made necessary military preparations to push Assad regime forces back if they don’t withdraw,” Omer Celik, a spokesman for Turkey's ruling AK Party, said.

'We said in the meetings with Russians that we made necessary military preparations to push Assad regime forces back if they don’t withdraw'

- Omer Celik, Turkish spokesman

Increasing numbers of Syrians are being forced to flee day by day, with roads choked with vehicles packed with people and belongings.

Temperatures are bitterly cold, and at least 82,000 people have been forced to sleep out in the open.

Around 500,000 children have been displaced since December, according to the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF. Seven have died in the freezing temperatures in recent days, Save the Children said.

“We now believe 900,000 people have been displaced since 1 December, the vast majority women and children,” Mark Lowcock, UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, said in a statement.

“They are traumatized and forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because camps are full. Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold,” he added.

“The biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century will only be avoided if Security Council members, and those with influence, overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first. The only option is a ceasefire.”

Russia has repeatedly vetoed Security Council motions on Syria since the conflict broke out in 2011.

In eight years, around half a million people have been killed and half of Syria’s pre-war 22 million population displaced.

  • 18 février 2020 à 18:21

‘Assad’s bombs chase us’: Syrian forces target refugee camps near the Turkish border

Par Husam Hezaber
‘Assad’s bombs chase us’: Syrian forces target refugee camps near the Turkish border
Government forces targeted IDP camps near Turkey's border area after a warning from an Assad insider
Husam Hezaber Tue, 02/18/2020 - 17:13
A child walks past a burnt down tent after Syrian government shells struck Faheel al-Izz camp near the town of Sarmada (MEE/Mohamad Aldaher)

Abu Mohammed, a 30-year-old father of four, was resting for the first time in days. 

Like thousands of Syrians, Mohammed and his family fled north towards the Turkish border, hoping to stay alive. 

The Mohammeds' had fled al-Rafa, east of Idlib city, assuming the Turkish border area would give them a break from the ongoing military assault by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

'We never imagined Assad would strike us near the Syrian-Turkish border'

- Abu Mohammed, displaced father of four

But when Mohammed sat down on Friday with his extended family, hoping to escape the winter chill in the Faheel al-Izz camp for internally displaced people (IDP) near the town of Sarmada, the shelling began. 

“The first shell fell fifty metres from our tent. I took my family and children to a nearby shelter,” Mohammed told Middle East Eye. “When we got to the shelter, we went underground to the basement. But another shell landed directly on top of us. Everything we owned was destroyed.

“We never imagined Assad would strike us near the Syrian-Turkish border.”

The attack on Faheel al-Izz injured three civilians and burnt down several tents in the camp. 

A day later, the Syrian government bombed another camp, al-Muthanna, in the West Aleppo countryside near the Turkish border, this time killing one civilian and injuring four, according to eyewitnesses and Syria-based Thiqa news agency

For Mohammed, the bombing of Faheel al-Izz was unexpected but not out of the blue.

Earlier on Friday, Omar Rahmoun, a former revolutionary turned government insider, had called on refugees to flee camps near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. 

“Anyone in camps inside Bab al-Hawa or east of Bab al-Hawa must leave immediately,” Rahmoun, who heads the Assad-backed National Reconciliation committee, said in a Twitter post

Rahmoun’s warning created panic and uncertainty inside the camps, with many of the displaced puzzled by the idea that the Syrian government was targeting areas near the Turkish border. 

Children run through tents that were burnt down after Syrian government shells struck the camp near Sarmada city (MEE/Mohamad Aldaher)
Children run through tents that were burnt down after Syrian government shells struck Faheel al-Izz camp (MEE/Mohamad Aldaher)

Last week’s attacks on IDP camps near the Turkish border marked the first time in years the area near Sarmada was attacked by pro-government forces, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights

Earlier this week, the United Nations said nearly one million people had been displaced multiple times since December trying to outrun Assad’s offensive, with UN human rights chief Michele Bachellet warning that "no shelter is now safe".

'We are talking about a population the size of Marseille in France moving within a few weeks to the middle of nowhere'

- Isham Kateb, executive director, Kesh Malik

“The displacement is immense. We are talking about a population the size of Marseille in France moving within a few weeks to the middle of nowhere, to an area that lacks the services needed,” Issam Khatib, executive director of civil society organisation Kesh Malek, told MEE. 

While Turkey has said it will not host the displaced, Syrians are fleeing as fast as they can hoping to escape the cold and Assad.

The level of displacement has led to informal settlements popping up in spaces across the border area within Syria. 

Yakzan Shishakly, executive director of the US-registered non-profit Maram Foundation, noted the increase in informal settlements emerging across Idlib, with civilians carrying their tents and possessions with them as they flee the military onslaught. 

"People are worried about shelling and afraid for their lives, especially with reports that the regime will head north."

Impact on aid delivery

A major concern raised by attacks in areas near the Turkish border is the impact it will have on humanitarian agencies delivering aid to the displaced. 

Selim Tosun, a Syria coordinator for Turkish NGO IHH, warns that government attacks near the border will “interrupt” operations and “cut off the road between the Afrin and Idlib”.

“If that happens, the refugees would be stuck in the border area,” said Tosun. 

Khatib said that the military targeting of camps has led to a "paralysis" of aid being delivered to the displaced population near the Turkish border. 

"Airplanes are targeting anything that moves between these areas, making the possibility of responding to the needs of a million people, which involves huge resources and logistics, very hard," said Khatib.  

'I can bear the cold, but how can my children? I don’t want to see them die from the cold'

- Abu Mohammed, displaced father of four

A spokesperson for the Red Cross told MEE that the scenes unfolding in northwest Syria were “some of the worst” it had seen since the start of the Syrian conflict in terms of displacement and dangers faced by civilians. 

The spokesperson also noted how existing shelters were unable to accommodate the rising number of displaced and said it "remains very challenging for humanitarian organisations to reach them and address their needs." 

Since 2012, Bab al-Hawa has been a major crossing for aid agencies, providing aid through Turkey to Syrians displaced because of the fighting. 

Shishakly feared the “targeting of IDP camps near Bab al-Hawa will hinder our work and prevent us from accessing key sites".

"It puts us on edge knowing the regime can be so close, but the real issue is ensuring displaced people - most of whom are women and children going through multiple traumas - have a safe place to go," he added.  

For Mohammed, his immediate priority is now protecting his family, hoping they survive both the bombs and the cold. 

“I can bear the cold, but how can my children?" said Abu Mohammed, as he held his children close to stay warm. "I don’t want to see them die from the cold. But wherever we go, Assad’s bombs continue to chase us. There is nowhere to go.” 

Additional reporting by Ragip Soylu in Turkey. 

Idlib, Syria
  • 18 février 2020 à 18:13

Meet the progressive Democrat running for Congress in the heart of Arab-America

Par Umar A Farooq
Meet the progressive Democrat running for Congress in the heart of Arab-America
Solomon Rajput, a medical student and congressional hopeful, is seeking to take down one of the longest-standing political dynasties in the US
Umar A Farooq Tue, 02/18/2020 - 17:23
Rajput began his journey into US politics when he campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016 (Solomon for US Congress)

Congressional hopeful Solomon Rajput says his early morning commute to school, more than 20 years ago, left an indelible mark on his political outlook.

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a school bus would pick him up from his family home and take him on a journey through some of the city's less-developed neighbourhoods and pothole infested roads.

Looking out from the windows, shops would be closed and their windows boarded up.

But within a matter of minutes, the journey would begin to get smoother and far less daunting.

'We're the richest country in the world, we have so much money and we are acting like we're a developing country'

- Solomon Rajput, congressional candidate for Michigan's 12th district

The smell of freshly cut grass would fill the air as the bus, now on freshly tarmacked roads, drove past split-level houses adorned with perfect patches of green lawns - an idyllic vision of the American dream.

"Our bus route went through trailer parks and then through neighbourhoods that had like hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars," Rajput told Middle East Eye.

In a city where more than 20 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, Rajput, a 27-year-old medical student at the University of Michigan, says it's because of these early morning commutes that he's standing for Michigan's 12th District in the US Congress later this year.

The son of Pakistani immigrants, Rajput has spent the past few months campaigning on a platform that includes cancelling student debt, Medicare for all, affordable housing and a progressive approach to climate change.

"We're the richest country in the world. We have so much money and we are acting like we're a developing country," Rajput said, referring to US healthcare and the higher education system.

Michigan Resistance

Rajput began his journey into US politics when he campaigned for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary elections.

After Hillary Clinton won the ticket, he says he was forced to make a choice: either not support Clinton and enable her Republican rival Donald Trump to win the race for the White House, or throw his energy behind Clinton's campaign.

Ultimately he chose the latter.

"As a Muslim, it was of the utmost importance for me to figure out how we could try to defeat Donald Trump even if Hillary Clinton didn't necessarily align with my progressive stance," he said.

After Trump won the election, Rajput says his frustration gave birth to a new grassroots, progressive campaign: the Michigan Resistance.

Rajput, who had become one of Michigan's top three campaign organisers at the time, led confused Clinton campaign volunteers into action, mobilising them to stop certain bills from passing. He says they were bills that would have made it easier for dark money to be in US politics, would have cut healthcare from firefighters, and rolled back environmental regulations.

More than 1,000 phone calls later, Rajput says Michigan Resistance has helped stop a dozen bills from being passed.

Solomon Rajput standing in a nature path.
Rajput said the Muslim community has been very supportive of his campaign (Solomon for US Congress)

The Muslim vote

Growing up in a Muslim household to Pakistani immigrants, Rajput says some of the standout moments from his childhood were from communal celebrations when children in the community finished reciting the entirety of the Quran - something which is usually done over a prolonged period of time and not in one sitting.

As he grew older, he realised this was not necessarily a tradition practised in all Muslim cultures, and this helped him developed a better understanding of how diverse the Muslim community is.

"It was a really great experience growing up there because you had the Muslim community, the Pakistani community and you were exposed to all different kinds of walks of life."

Rajput believes that his engagement with the Muslim community will help him capture the district, which also contains Dearborn, a city that boasts one of the largest populations of Muslims and Arabs in the United States.

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Out of Dearborn's population of nearly 100,000 people, more than 41,000 are of Arab origin, according to the 2010 US Census.

But Arab-American advocates say the number is even higher because the census, which considers people of Middle Eastern origins to be white, undercounts the Arab population.

Several Muslim candidates have faced problems in the past when trying to activate the Muslim vote. When campaigning, they often encountered trouble in their traditional Muslim communities, where they had thought they would have strong support for sure.

A report co-published by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Emgage, and Jetpac said that a majority of Muslim candidates had faced these issues.

Rajput, however, said he's an anomaly. He told MEE that the Muslim community had been very receptive to his campaign.

"When we go and knock on doors there (Dearborn), the response has been tremendous. It's been very exciting."

While Islam is an important part of his identity, Rajput said his campaign was more about him being a progressive candidate, who happens to be Muslim.

"My community, my district is more than just Muslim people," Rajput said. "The thing is, the issues that I'm fighting for are issues that affect everyone."

The Dingell dynasty

In order to win the district, Rajput is going to have to take down one of the longest-standing political dynasties in modern America: the Dingell family.

For the past 87 years, a part of Michigan has always been run by a Dingell. John Dingell Sr was first elected to the state's 15th district in 1933, where he served until his death in 1955.

His son, John Dingell Jr, won a special election that year for his father's seat and after that went on to become the longest-serving congressman in United States history. He had served continuously as a congressman in Michigan, representing the 15th, 16th, and most recently, the 12th district.

'The beautiful thing is that the grassroots way is the most effective way. When it comes to big organising versus big money, big organising wins'

- Solomon Rajput

He passed away in 2015, and his wife, Debbie Dingell, has since replaced him as Dearborn's newest Dingell representative.

Still, Rajput believes he can take down the incumbent at the congressional primary election on 4 August through a grassroots campaign.

"Congresswoman Dingell is a perfectly nice person, but she's not out there representing the values of our progressive district," he said.

He emphasised that the 12th district has been a "bastion of progressive values" that was shown, partly, in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary election.

In 2016, Washtenaw County, which contains Ann Arbor, voted heavily in favour of Bernie Sanders in the primary election.

Still, Wayne County, which holds Dearborn, voted in favour of Hillary Clinton.

Grassroots over cash

Rajput believes with a progressive wave brought on by two Muslim congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both of whom support Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primaries, he will be able to swing the 12th district in his favour.

"[Rashida] won through intense organising. And that's how we're going to win too," he said.

While this may be the case, Dingell's incumbency is not the only hurdle for him, she also has far more financial capital behind her.

Dingell has had nearly $2m banked for her campaign, and currently has over $500,000 left on hand to spend. Rajput has less than $20,000.

When discussing the issue of finances, Rajput pointed to personal conversations with the community, whether in person or over a phone call, saying they were worth more than a paid advertisement.

"The beautiful thing is that the grassroots way is the most effective way. When it comes to big organising versus big money, big organising wins," Rajput said.

Even with the odds stacked firmly against him, Rajput, with beaming smile, maintains that he's more than able to gain the Muslim vote and come out on top.

  • 18 février 2020 à 18:23

'Calculated cruelty': Turkey re-arrests Osman Kavala hours after acquittal

Par MEE and agencies
'Calculated cruelty': Turkey re-arrests Osman Kavala hours after acquittal
New warrant was issued in relation to 2016 coup attempt, hours after the philanthropist was acquitted of attempting to overthrow the government
MEE and agencies Tue, 02/18/2020 - 22:21
Osman Kavala, a philanthropist known for his civil society work, has been in custody for more than two years (AFP)

Turkish businessman Osman Kavala has been detained by police for alleged links with a 2016 failed coup attempt, hours after he was acquitted for his alleged role in the 2013 Gezi Park protests.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported late on Tuesday that prosecutors had accused Kavala of "attempting to undermine the constitutional order" in relation to the 2016 coup attempt which Ankara has blamed on Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. 

The announcement appeared to have dashed hopes for Kavala's freedom, a philanthropist known for his civil society work, who has spent the last 840 days in prison.

'It is time for Turkey to end the relentless crackdown on dissenting voices'

- Milena Buyum, Amnesty

Emma Sinclair Webb, the head of the Turkey office of Human Rights Watch, described the new warrant as "lawless" and "vindictive", adding that it showed that Turkey's justice system was "under tight political control". 

Meanwhile, Amnesty International slammed Kavala's "cynical and outrageous detention" and called for his immediate release.

"This decision smacks of deliberate and calculated cruelty," Amnesty''s Turkey campaigner Milena Buyum said in a statement.

"It is time for Turkey to end the relentless crackdown on dissenting voices."

'Not enough concrete evidence'

The fresh detention request by Istanbul prosecutors came as scores of people including MPs, other defendants and supporters were waiting for Kavala to be released at a roadside restaurant near the Silivri prison complex where he was held. 

Earlier on Tuesday, a court near Istanbul said there was "not enough concrete evidence" against Kavala and eight other suspects when they were acquitted on attempting to overthrow the government by organising the Gezi Park protests.

All denied the allegations, but only Kavala had been kept in custody while the trial proceeded.

The 2013 protests originally began as a demonstration against the demolition of one of the last green spaces in Istanbul, but quickly spiralled into an expression of opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule.

More than three million people were involved in the demonstrations across the country.

Critics of Erdogan's government have repeatedly questioned the independence of Turkish courts, especially since a crackdown following the failed 2016 coup attempt.

Since then, around 80,000 people have been jailed pending trial and 150,000 civil servants, military personnel and others have been sacked or suspended.

Last month, a US think tank report on Turkey's foreign policy caused controversy after it suggested a new military coup attempt was plausible.

  • 18 février 2020 à 23:21

US threatens to cut aid to Houthi-held areas in Yemen

Par James Reinl
US threatens to cut aid to Houthi-held areas in Yemen
Washington says it could cut aid to the rebel-held north by as early as March, unless the Shia movement stops hampering the work of aid groups
James Reinl Tue, 02/18/2020 - 23:19
Displaced Yemenis receive humanitarian aid, donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) in cooperation with the Danish Refugee Counci ( DRC), in the northern province of Hajjah (AFP)

The United States has warned it could stop sending aid to northern areas of Yemen from as early as next month, unless Houthi rebels who control the region stop hampering the work of aid agencies.

Addressing the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Kelly Craft, Washington's envoy to the UN, said that Houthi moves to slap taxes on aid projects and hinder the distribution of life-saving supplies could see Washington pull funding to the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, and northern areas under their control.

The US is "extremely concerned by mounting Houthi interference with the work of aid partners in northern Yemen, which limits the ability of the UN and other humanitarian organisations to deliver assistance to the most vulnerable Yemenis," said Craft.

'We may be forced to consider suspending or reducing our assistance in northern Yemen as early as March unless undue Houthi interference ceases immediately'

- Kelly Craft, US envoy to the UN

"We may be forced to consider suspending or reducing our assistance in northern Yemen as early as March unless undue Houthi interference ceases immediately and access to vulnerable populations improves."

Last year, the US was the second-biggest donor to Yemen after Saudi Arabia, with more than $746 million pledged in the annual response plan to what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Yemen has endured years of chaos since 2014 when Houthi rebels seized the capital and ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power.

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in March 2015 to prop up Hadi's beleaguered government, and have since carried out nearly 20,000 air attacks, with one-third striking non-military sites, such as schools and hospitals, according to the Yemen Data Project

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), an American NGO, has reported that more than 100,000 people may have died as a result of the war.

'Disrupting assistance'

At the same meeting, the UN's aid chief Mark Lowcock described severe and unfair restrictions being placed on humanitarian aid in Yemen and singled out the Houthi rebels as the main offender.

Lowcock, the world body's emergency relief coordinator, said the Houthis - who control much of the populous north - had stepped up attempts to divert and control aid flows in recent months.

"Last year, they issued more than 200 regulations on humanitarian action. By the end of the year, the number of reported incidents disrupting assistance had risen by a factor of six," Lowcock told envoys in New York.

Yemen's Houthis drop threat to tax humanitarian aid: UN official
Read More »

"About half these incidents constrained movements of relief supplies or staff, and about a quarter involved attempts to influence decisions on who receives help or otherwise interfere with programs."

Restrictions on humanitarian teams are a problem across Yemen, said Lowcock, but while some 30 per cent of projects get blocked in the south, aid workers see 40 per cent of their schemes stalled in Houthi-run areas.

"Ansar Allah authorities asked NGOs to sign agreements that would not be consistent with humanitarian principles," said Lowcock, using a formal name for the Zaydi Shia movement.

"It has also been-suggested that NGOs pay a 2 percent tax to fund the authorities' aid coordination body. The situation is unacceptable. Stopping the world's largest aid operation would be fatal for millions of people."

Houthi officials dropped their threat to tax humanitarian aid earlier this month, after a meeting with aid agencies and major donors in Brussels in which delegates said aid operations in Yemen were at a "breaking point".

Yemeni boys released from detention

The UN council met on Tuesday against a backdrop of escalating violence in Yemen, where almost six years of war have left 24.1 million people - or 80 per cent of the country’s population - needing handouts.

The UN peace envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths described an "increasingly dire" military situation as the US-backed Arab coalition fighting to restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government stepped up strikes on Houthi targets.

Hungry people in Yemen's Hajjah raid WFP warehouse, find food rotten
Read More »

Griffiths and Lowcock warned of escalating fighting in Jawf, Marib and Sanaa governorates as well as the strategic, rebel-held port at Hodeidah, which handles some two-thirds of Yemen’s humanitarian and commercial imports.

Still, peace negotiators have made some progress. The UN agency for children, Unicef, told Middle East Eye that Houthi rebels freed 68 Yemeni boys from detention in Sanaa last month under a UN-assisted release scheme.

"Although they were allegedly associated with armed groups, they are children first and foremost and are victims of the ongoing conflict here," Unicef's representative in Yemen Sara Beysolow Nyanti told MEE on Tuesday.
 
"They need time to recover from their traumatic experiences and [have] a chance to explore the future they want when they return to their families."

The agency is working with Yemeni officials to ensure the freed youngsters receive "psychosocial support, medical care and a return to learning" added Nyanti. "We continue to be on standby to meet their needs."

United Nations
US threatens to cut aid to Houthi-administered areas in Yemen
  • 19 février 2020 à 00:19

US official who replaced 'Islamophobic' councilman denounced for anti-Muslim posts

Par MEE staff
US official who replaced 'Islamophobic' councilman denounced for anti-Muslim posts
Member of municipal council in Indiana resigned over accusations of Islamophobia; now his replacement is facing similar charge
MEE staff Tue, 02/18/2020 - 23:26
Muslim-American protesters at the Women's March in Washington, 23 January 2019 (MEE/File photo)

If you're subscribed to the emailing list of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), it is common to receive statements calling for the resignation of officials who have made Islamophobic statements. 

But on Tuesday, the civil rights group sent out a press release with an additional dimension that demonstrates the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry around the country.

"CAIR calls for resignation of Islamophobic Indiana GOP official who replaced resigned Islamophobic official," the headline of the statement said. 

It all started in January, when Greg Jones, a Republican member of the Kokomo Common Council - the municipal body that runs the Indiana city of 57,000 people, resigned after an outcry by Muslim groups over his past Islamophobic posts on social media. 

It fell on the local Republican Party to find Jones replacement after the fallout. After a primary caucus, Roger Stewart, a 911 dispatcher with no previous political experience, was chosen to take up the seat.

Stewart was aware of the roots of Jones's ordeal and the ramifications of one's online behaviour. 

"It reminds me we need to be aware of what we say and do, and be careful how we express ourselves," he told the Kokomo Tribune earlier this month. 

But it appears that the newly appointed council member was not aware of some of his own past posts on Facebook.

Meet the progressive Democrat running for Congress in the heart of Arab-America
Read More »

On Monday, the Kokomo Perspective, another local paper unearthed somewhat recent anti-Muslim statements that Stewart had shared.

"I refuse to bend, twist or change to make Muslims feel comfortable in MY COUNTRY," reads a "meme" he shared from a group called "Trump memes" last year. 

Weeks earlier, he had shared a post accusing Muslim elected officials who take the oath of office on the Quran of treason.

"Let me say about the QURAN, if you take the Oath of Office on a book recognising Sharia Law swearing to defend honour and uphold the United States Constitution, then you have committed treason," the post said.

Stewart has since deactivated his Facebook page, but the Perspective had captured screenshots of the posts.

He told the newspaper that he does not recall sharing those statements, disavowing the content.

"I don't feel that way as far as, I feel like everybody has the same rights as anybody else. Why I would have done that, I have no idea," Stewart said, according to the Tribune.

CAIR, which had welcomed Jones's resignation weeks ago, is now calling on Stewart to also step down.

"Just as we called for the resignation of the previous Islamophobic official, we urge Mr. Stewart to resign from his post and for a person who understands constitutionally-guaranteed religious freedoms to be appointed in his place," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement. 

The Muslim-American group also noted the "spike in bigotry targeting American Muslims, immigrants and members of other minority groups since the election of Donald Trump as president."

  • 19 février 2020 à 00:26

Bernie Sanders calls Saudi Arabia's rulers 'murderous thugs'

Par MEE staff
Bernie Sanders calls Saudi Arabia's rulers 'murderous thugs'
Sanders says he would bring Tehran and Riyadh together to resolve issues, promising a more balanced policy in the Middle East
MEE staff Wed, 02/19/2020 - 02:54
Sanders described Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman as a 'billionaire dictator' (Reuters/AFP)

Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic frontrunner for the US presidency, lambasted Saudi Arabia's leadership during a town hall meeting on CNN, reaffirming his promise to pursue a more even-handed foreign policy in the Middle East. 

"For years, we have loved Saudi Arabia - our wonderful ally. The only problem is, the people who run that country are murderous thugs," Sanders said on Tuesday. 

The Vermont senator added that instead of "being really cozy" with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - whom he described as a "billionaire dictator" - Washington should try to resolve the issues between the kingdom and Iran to bring peace to the Middle East. 

"We can bring the Saudis and the Iranians together, tell them that we're sick and tired as a nation [of] spending trillions of dollars on endless wars," Sanders said. "They're going to have to get their act together. And we have the resources to help bring that about."

US election 2020: Where does Bernie Sanders stand on Middle East issues?
Read More »

The senator, who won the popular vote in the first two Democratic contests, also reiterated his stance that the United States should not ignore Palestinians' needs while being supportive of Israel.

Sanders pledged to protect the independence and security of Israeli citizens without being supportive of the "right-wing racist government that currently exists in Israel".

He also pointed to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza where the youth unemployment rate is near 70 percent.

"What American foreign policy has got to be about in the Middle East is bringing the Israelis, bringing the Palestinians together under the banner of justice," Sanders said. 

"We have the wealth to do it. It cannot just simply be one that we're just pro-Israel and we ignore the needs of the Palestinian people. We've got to pay attention to both."

The senator made similar remarks during a presidential debate in December when he said US foreign policy cannot be only pro-Israel, but must be "pro-Palestinian" as well.

  • 19 février 2020 à 03:54

Tripoli government suspends Libya talks after Haftar's forces shell capital's port

Par MEE and agencies
Tripoli government suspends Libya talks after Haftar's forces shell capital's port
Government of National Accord halts ceasefire talks in Geneva after three people killed during attack
MEE and agencies Wed, 02/19/2020 - 08:11
Haftar has been trying to take Tripoli in a near year-long campaign which has displaced at least 150,000 people (AFP)

Libya's internationally recognised government on Tuesday suspended talks hosted by the United Nations to halt warfare over the capital after eastern forces shelled Tripoli's port, killing three people and almost hitting a highly explosive gas tanker.

The UN has been hosting ceasefire talks in Geneva between officials from the Tripoli government and the eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA), led by commander Khalifa Haftar. 

Haftar has been trying to take the capital in a near year-long campaign which has displaced at least 150,000 people.

The LNA on Tuesday shelled Tripoli port, saying first it had attacked a Turkish vessel bringing weapons but saying later it had hit an arms depot. Three civilians were killed and five wounded, the Tripoli forces said.

The attack came just as the US ambassador Richard Norland was visiting Haftar in the first trip by a US envoy to eastern Libya since the killing of the US ambassador in a raid in 2012, Reuters reported.

In a response to the LNA attack, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) said in a statement that it had suspended its participation in ceasefire talks "until firm responses are taken against the attacker, and we will respond firmly to the attack in appropriate timing".

"Negotiations don't mean anything without permanent ceasefire guarantees returning the displaced people and the security of the capital and the other cities," it added.

UN condemnation

A source close to the talks told Reuters that UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame was trying to convince the Tripoli delegation to stay in Geneva and resume the indirect talks.

Jean El Alam, a spokesman for the United Nations Libya mission, also said: "Delegations are still here (in Geneva) and Dr Salame has a meeting today with the head of the GNA delegation.

Libya is 'world's largest theatre' for drone attacks: UN
Read More »

"The mission leadership is in contact with the GNA in Tripoli and member states to keep the momentum going."

In a separate statement, the UN mission said it was "expressing its strong and renewed condemnation of the bombing of Tripoli’s seaport yesterday by the Libyan National Army".

However, a defiant Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, visiting the shelled port on Wednesday, rebuffed calls to return immediately to the negotiation table.

"There must first be a strong signal from all international players who are trying to talk to us," he told reporters, saying this also applied to parallel discussions focused on political and economic issues.

Suggesting fighting was likely to continue, he added: "We have an even stronger signal than that, which is defending our people."

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Haftar and they agreed a political settlement is the only option for Libya, Russia's RIA news agency said on Wednesday.

The Geneva talks had been agreed by foreign powers backing the rival parties at a summit in Germany a month ago.

Western countries have largely watched passively as Libya fell apart since helping remove Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, opening the door for regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey to back rival camps fighting for control.

Large black holes

The port is a major entry gate for wheat, fuel and food imports but also a supply base for Turkey which has been sending arms, drones, trucks and soldiers to help Sarraj fend off the LNA.

Photographs showed containers in the port with large black holes in them.

State oil firm NOC said it had urgently evacuated all fuel tankers from the port after a missile struck metres away "from a highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas tanker discharging in the port".

"The city does not have operational fuel storage facilities... the consequences will be immediate; hospitals, schools, power stations and other vital services will be disrupted," NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla said in a statement.

Since January, Turkey has sent several ships carrying arms and heavy trucks to Tripoli and Misrata, another western port allied to the Tripoli government, diplomats say. 

It has also sent around 2,000 fighters from Syria's civil war to defend the capital.

The LNA is allied to a parallel government in eastern Libya supported by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Russian mercenaries. France has also given some support.

Eastern ports and airports are out of range of the Tripoli forces and its Turkish drones.

Talks with tribesmen

Tuesday's attack on the port unfolded as officers from the Tripoli forces and the LNA held a second round of indirect talks in Geneva to establish a permanent ceasefire. 

Both sides refused again to sit in the same room, the UN's Salame said.

EU agrees on new mission to enforce Libya arms embargo
Read More »

Salame added that he had received conditions from tribesmen allied to eastern forces to lift a blockade of eastern oil export ports, but said these were quite general and would have to be fleshed out in more UN-led talks in Geneva next week. 

On Monday, EU foreign ministers said that they had agreed to launch a new mission in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce a UN arms embargo on Libya.

On Sunday, Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya, said the UN-backed arms embargo had become a joke and the country’s financial position was deteriorating rapidly.

Williams said: “The arms embargo has become a joke. We all really need to step up here. 

"It’s complicated because there are violations by land, sea and air, but it needs to be monitored and there needs to be accountability.”

  • 19 février 2020 à 09:11

Turkey says Idlib operation is 'imminent' as talks in Moscow falter

Par Ragip Soylu
Turkey says Idlib operation is 'imminent' as talks in Moscow falter
Erdogan said that negotiations with Russia would continue, despite huge differences with regards to solving the crisis
Ragip Soylu Wed, 02/19/2020 - 08:44
'The Idlib operation is a matter of timing,' Erdogan said on 19 February (AFP/File)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that a comprehensive military operation against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “imminent”, as the latest round of talks between Russia and Turkey to find a solution to the crisis in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib have collapsed.

“We are issuing our last warnings,” Erdogan said during a parliamentary group meeting of his ruling AKP party. “Turkey has done every sort of preparation to carry out plans for an operation in Idlib. As we have said in past operations, we can suddenly show up overnight.

"To be clearer, the Idlib operation is a matter of timing."

'If we don’t hold this line, tomorrow 3.5 million people will be left at the regime’s mercy'

- Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesperson

Turkey has been deploying more elite troops, howitzers, armoured vehicles and tanks to Idlib over the past three weeks.

Several officials in Ankara told Middle East Eye that the current build-up some six kilometres outside Idlib city was unprecedented in any past Turkish operations in Syria.

Reacting to Erdogan's statement, a senior Russian official said a Turkish military operation against the Syrian army would be "the worst case scenario".

"If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic and armed forces of the Syrian republic, this would of course be the worst scenario," said Russian presidential spokesperson Dimitry Peskov.  

A Turkish delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal met Russian officials in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday. Russia has been a stalwart ally of Assad throughout the nearly nine-year war.

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesperson, told journalists that the negotiations didn’t bear fruit and Turkey refused a new Russian proposal for the fate of Idlib, including a new map.

“We won’t change the locations of military observation stations and we will continue to send reinforcements to Idlib,” Kalin said on Tuesday night. “If we don’t hold this line, tomorrow 3.5 million people will be left at the [Assad] regime’s mercy.”

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEE that the Russians had proposed that new borders be drawn north of the strategic M4 and M5 highways.

A separate Turkish source said the proposal would leave 60 percent of the Idlib province under Assad control and require the relocation of Turkish military stations to the new demarcation line, while joint Turkish-Russian patrols would be maintained on the highways. 

Differences 'too big'

Erdogan said that negotiations with Russia would continue, but that the differences between the two countries were too big to be bridged.

Turkish sources expect that a third round of negotiations will continue in Ankara next week, as the deadline looms for an Erdogan ultimatum calling on pro-government forces to withdraw from recently seized territories by the end of February.

A UN assessment has estimated that a Syrian government offensive backed by Russia and Iran has displaced nearly 1 million people in Idlib, the last rebel-held Syrian enclave, since December.

On Wednesday, Erdogan called on the Syrian army to withdraw from areas it captured beyond the so-called Sochi line.

“We won’t leave Idlib to the regime and its backers, who don’t understand our decisiveness on this issue,” Erdogan said. “Whatever the cost, we are adamant about transforming Idlib into a secure area for the region’s people and Turkey.”

Ankara
  • 19 février 2020 à 09:44

Syrian activists say pro-rebel propaganda campaign may have been counterproductive

Par Harun al-Aswad
Syrian activists say pro-rebel propaganda campaign may have been counterproductive
Covert western backing for Syrian opposition-aligned media was required to counter state media and Russian and Iranian influence, journalists say, but some admit feeling duped
Harun al-Aswad Wed, 02/19/2020 - 09:01
A Jaish al-Islam fighter pictured in besieged Eastern Ghouta in 2015. Journalists told MEE they earned $800 reporting from the rebel-held enclave (AFP)

Syrian opposition-aligned journalists and activists have defended their involvement in media projects covertly backed by western governments, telling Middle East Eye that they were heavily reliant on foreign funding to report on the country’s civil war.

They say that western support has helped them to counter pro-government reporting by Syrian state media and from Russian and Iranian media, and to continue working even while living under siege and bombardment.

Others said that support for the opposition had not gone far enough, speculating that a decisive international military intervention earlier in the conflict could have brought down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and averted years of bloodshed.

'The projects fit the ideas of more than 11 million Syrians who believe in the revolution and toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad'

- former opposition media director, Istanbul

But some said they felt deceived after learning about the extent of western backing for grassroots media activism, which was often concealed from those involved in the work on the ground, and described the consequences as “calamitous” for the country.

One senior activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, also questioned the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign, suggesting that it had been counter-productive because the often heroic depiction of Free Syrian Army fighters in the media did not reflect reality.

“Initially, the FSA fighters who had defected from the Syrian army were seen as heroes leading the armed struggle, but corruption spread among their ranks,” said the activist, who was involved in organising protests in Damascus in 2011.

“Media projects continued to portray the FSA as superheroes which led to a loss of confidence among the locals. The news had become contrary to reality so it had counterproductive results.”

Middle East Eye approached Syrian journalists and activists for comment after obtaining leaked documents which reveal how the British government established a covert media network within Syria with the aim of reinforcing popular opposition to both the government and hardline militant groups.

REVEALED: The British government’s covert propaganda campaign in Syria
Read More »

Most would only speak on condition of anonymity or declined to speak because of the sensitivity and secrecy surrounding the work.

The project documents, which date from 2014, involved the “selection, training, support and mentoring of Syrian opposition media activists”. Other documents show that British contractors were involved in training spokespeople and running media offices for opposition groups.

The US and Canadian governments also provided funding for the projects, while other western countries were involved in backing opposition-aligned media, according to journalists spoken to by MEE.

Many Syrians turned spontaneously to media activism as anti-government protests were brutally quashed in 2011, pitching the country into civil war and prompting calls from western nations for Assad to step down.

Syrian state media initially denied that protests were taking place, so activists instead posted photos and videos on social media.

'No independent work in Syria'

The former director of one opposition outlet in Istanbul told MEE that the aims of the British-backed initiative were in tune with the aspirations of millions of Syrians opposed to Assad’s rule.

“The projects fit the ideas of more than 11 million Syrians who believe in the revolution and toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," he told MEE, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'We need support in order to be able to live. It is not necessary to take sides in the financiers' agendas. Is there an independent media outlet in this world?'

- former reporter in Eastern Ghouta

The director of another US-funded media outlet, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEE that he sometimes met with US diplomats to discuss the work.

“They pay a lot, and it is natural that they want to know where their money goes,” he said.

“The goal is to build an [independent] media that is anti-Assad and anti-extremist, and this fits my company, regardless of the objectives of the supporting country.”

Several journalists told MEE that they had little choice but to work for western-funded outlets, but defended the integrity and independence of their work.

Samer al-Aswad, the director of the US-based Step News Agency, told MEE that there was “no independent work inside Syria”, but said it was possible for organisations to set their own agenda with bold reporting and by financing themselves through advertising revenue.

“When the number of followers increases, you become strong, and then you can control the funders,” he said.

Eastern Ghouta
A man takes a picture of members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent as they distribute vaccines in Eastern Ghouta in January 2015 (AFP)

One Idlib-based reporter for a US-backed radio station said that reporters based in Eastern Ghouta, a formerly opposition-controlled area on the outskirts of Damascus that was besieged for years until falling to government forces in early 2018, had been earning about $800 a month.

"I have a family and children. We need support in order to be able to live. It is not necessary to take sides in the financiers' agendas. Is there an independent media outlet in this world?” she said.

The director of another news agency that received US funding in Eastern Ghouta said that many involved in media work had become dependent on inflated wages even while not knowing who was paying them.

'We thought these organisations were independent and revolutionary. Please do not mess with our memories'

- Idlib-based journalist

“First there is the blockade and rising poverty, and then funding makes you a wealthy man,” he said.

“Then the financing stops and you fear losing your wealth and your status. And when this happens you find unknown entities that finance you according to their whims.”

The British documents acknowledge that journalists working on the projects could be exposed to danger if the identities of their backers were known.

One journalist told MEE she had no idea that the media outlet she worked for in 2012 had received funding from the UK.

“We have been deceived,” said the Idlib-based journalist. “We thought these organisations were independent and revolutionary. Please do not mess with our memories.”

Several directors complained that western support had decreased as the balance of power in Syria had tipped in favour of the government following Russia’s entry into the war on Assad’s side in 2015 at the exact moment when an effective opposition counterpropaganda campaign was most needed.

They said that confidence in locally-run media projects has also been undermined by reports of corruption and mismanagement.

“My company received training from British academics. We ran a good business, but the trust of the financiers was undermined by the presence of fake local media outlets that wasted funding,” said the former director in Istanbul.

“It is illogical for international support to continue to shrink, because this has created a vacuum that has strengthened the role of Russia. We are facing massive media outlets, governmental, Russian and Iranian, and we really need more support.”

But he said was aware of at least 10 local media outlets in Syria still benefiting from US funding.

“Projects are currently being prepared targeting the Iranian role in the Middle East,” he added.

Some journalists questioned where resources which were supposed to buy media kits for reporters on the ground had ended up.

One journalist in Daraa in southern Syria told MEE that he had worked for two years with equipment which he had bought himself because he had not been provided with kit by the western-backed agency for whom he was working.

'No protection plan'

Activists and journalists have been threatened by all sides during the war, with many tortured and killed by state security, others abducted and killed by the Islamic State group and other hardline militants, and many forced to flee the country and seek asylum.

Mazen Darwish, the head of the French-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, which supports Syrian journalists, said his organisation had received 715 requests for legal support in 2019.

Aswad, the director of the Step News Agency, said that IS had killed two of its journalists while four others had been arrested by militants in Idlib.

"The risk increases when journalists report violations by all the parties to the conflict," Aswad said.

Eastern Ghouta tank
A still from a YouTube video showing Syrian opposition fighters riding a Syrian army tank in Eastern Ghouta in August 2012 (AFP)

But several journalists told MEE that they did not consider the dangers of their work to be any greater than those faced by other civilians.

"Obviously, there has been no protection plan for journalists or civilians. Everyone has been exposed to death and arrest," said a journalist in government-controlled Hama.

"Most people in Hama know that Assad could only have been toppled with a comprehensive international military solution, which could have saved the country from destruction," she added.

Some journalists also said that the rise of media activism had fuelled the conflict, because it encouraged people to post material on social media without checking whether it was accurate, as well as providing a platform for sectarian and divisive views.

“Someone comes and takes pictures and publishes the news unconsciously without the slightest criteria of responsibility,” a Syrian journalist from the government-controlled southern city of Sweida told MEE.

“Citizen journalism is one of the biggest calamities that has hit the country.”

Istanbul
  • 19 février 2020 à 10:01

REVEALED: The British government’s covert propaganda campaign in Syria

Par Ian Cobain
REVEALED: The British government’s covert propaganda campaign in Syria
Documents obtained by MEE reveal how British contractors recruited Syrian citizen journalists - often without their knowledge - to promote 'moderate opposition'
Ian Cobain Wed, 02/19/2020 - 09:01
Anti-government protesters in Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood in 2013. British objectives in Syria included "promotion of the moderate values of the revolution" (AFP)

The British government covertly established a network of citizen journalists across Syria during the early years of the country’s civil war in an attempt to shape perceptions of the conflict, frequently recruiting people who were unaware that they were being directed from London.

A number of leaked documents seen by Middle East Eye show how the propaganda initiative began in 2012 and gathered pace the following year, shortly after the UK parliament refused to authorise British military action in Syria.

Syrian activists say pro-rebel propaganda campaign may have been counterproductive
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Drawing upon British, American and Canadian funding, UK government contractors set up offices in Istanbul and Amman, where they hired members of the Syrian diaspora, who in turn recruited citizen journalists inside Syria.

These journalists, many of them young, were commissioned to produce TV footage, radio programmes, social media, posters, magazines and even children’s comics.

While many Syrians turned spontaneously to media activism from the start of the war, the documents describe the way in which the British government sought to guide some of their output, seeing citizen journalism as a way of covertly influencing Syrian audiences.

The papers also make clear that those people who were recruited were often unaware that they were part of a British propaganda initiative.

Document

Some of those who were recruited have defended their involvement, however, saying that they were reliant on western support in their efforts to counter pro-government reporting in Syrian state media, and in Iranian and Russian-backed media.

At a time when the last opposition-held enclave in Idlib province is under assault by pro-government forces, they questioned whether western countries could have contributed more material support to moderate rebels.

Some Syrian journalists complained that western support for their work was decreasing even as it was most needed, after Russia's entry into the war in 2015 tipped the balance in favour of President Bashar al-Assad.

The documents were drawn up as blueprints for the initiative by an anthropologist working in counter-terrorism at the foreign office in London. They were issued in late 2014 to a small number of communications companies that were invited to bid for three contracts to deliver the work.

One says: “The objective of the project is contribute [sic] towards positive attitudinal and behavioural change.”

This was further defined as: “Reinforcement of popular rejection of the Assad regime and extremist alternatives; promotion of the moderate values of the revolution; promotion of Syrian national identity.”

'Reinforcement of popular rejection of the Assad regime and extremist alternatives; promotion of the moderate values of the revolution; promotion of Syrian national identity'

- British government documents

The documents show that the over-arching aim of the citizen journalism project – and a series of interlinked British propaganda initiatives – was to promote the UK’s strategic interests in Syria and the Middle East.

These are defined in the leaked papers as “a more stable and democratic Syria that better meets the needs and aspirations of its people”, support for a political solution to the conflict, the alleviation of humanitarian suffering, and enhanced UK security.

As well as developing grassroots journalism aligned with British government values, the UK and other western governments were at the same time attempting to build civil society in areas controlled by some of Assad’s opponents, financing and training police forces and civil defence teams.

The anthropologist’s blueprint makes clear that this was being done not just to help maintain law and order and provide humanitarian assistance, but “to build confidence in a future Syria free from extremist rule”.

However, the documents acknowledge the risks to the young journalists who had unwittingly been co-opted by the British government.

“Media coverage of the project will be distinctly unwelcome due to the risks to Syrian employees and to project effectiveness that it would generate,” says one.

“The implementer is not permitted to speak publicly (to the media or at academic conferences) about their work without the explicit permission of HMG [Her Majesty’s Government]. This will be enforced by a Non Disclosure Agreement.”

A number of young Syrian citizen journalists were detained and murdered by the Islamic State (IS) group after it began capturing territory in the country in 2015.

The group frequently denounced its victims as western “spies”, and some Syrian citizen journalists were pursued across the border to Turkey and killed.

Whilst many of the victims were not thought to be involved in British-sponsored projects, MEE is aware of two who were.

Three-pronged campaign

The British government’s citizen journalism project was part of a three-pronged propaganda initiative that was developed in London and was, according to the documents, intended to “have a synergistic effect”.

The first strand, named Syrian Identity, sought to “unite Syrians through positive affirmation of common cultures and practices and to restore trust between neighbours, while illustrating Syrians’ strength in numbers,” according to the blueprint.

The documents explain that the second strand, called Free Syria, “seeks to build confidence in a future Syria free from extremist rule".

Document

It "amplifies the work of the ‘free’ police, civil defence teams and wider public service provision and broader developments in civil society and seeks to unite the moderate opposition (civil and armed) to work for a common future”.

The third, known as Undermine, “seeks to degrade the effectiveness of VE [violent extremist] networks in Syria by undermining the credibility of VE narratives and actors and isolating VE organisations from the populace.”

The document goes on, using a different acronym for IS: “ISIL is an explicit and named focus, Al Nusra Front (due to its current popularity within Syria) is addressed indirectly through its behaviour.

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“The purpose of the project to directly ‘Undermine’ (degrading the effectiveness of) VE networks in Syria through the delivery of media product, the emboldening and empowering of moderate voices, and supporting community coalescence around a vision of a tolerant, pluralist Syria. Ultimately, active Syrian rejection of VE is the requirement.”

The documents add that the research underpinning the initiative “will need to be able to draw upon open source material, jihadist discourse and, in particular, a network of assets inside Syria”.

Military intelligence officers

Individuals familiar with the project say that around nine companies were invited to bid for the contracts. They included a number of firms established by former British diplomats, intelligence officers and army officers.

Although the contracts were awarded by the UK’s foreign office, they were managed by the country’s Ministry of Defence, and sometimes by military intelligence officers.

These companies set up offices in Amman, Istanbul and, for a period, at Reyhanli in southeast Turkey. From here they would employ Syrians who would in turn recruit citizen journalists inside Syria, who were under the impression that they were working for the media offices of Syrian opposition groups.

“It was a shady, shady business,” says one person involved in the work, adding that frequently the individual journalist would believe they were working for an opposition group, and have no idea that a British communications company was running their media office, under contract to the UK government.

A second person involved with the initiative added that if you hired Syrians “to pump out propaganda, inside Syria and outside”, attributing their work in any way to the British government would have undermined its effectiveness.

Document

Many of these citizen journalists would be using equipment that they believed was being supplied by opposition groups but which had in fact been bought using funds supplied by the UK government as part of the contract.

Some would be paid a retainer of between $250-$500 a month, while others were paid for individual pieces of media – around $50 for each picture or $200 for a short piece of video.

These would then be distributed to Arabic language media organisations, through what purported to be the press offices of Syrian opposition groups.

Favoured video clips might be film of fighters from the moderate opposition handing out food, or using sophisticated weaponry to good effect.

“Then that would go to Sky News Arabia, BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, those sort of outlets,” said one person involved.

Whenever British government officials wished to discuss the work, meetings would be held away from the newly established offices, to avoid contact with the locally hired Syrians.

British staff running the offices would also be expected to prepare reports on their meetings with Syrians, which would be passed back to the foreign office.

Opposition social media accounts

Meanwhile, other leaked documents seen by MEE show that the British government had awarded contracts to communications companies, which selected and trained opposition spokespeople, ran press offices that operated 24 hours a day, and developed opposition social media accounts.

British staff running these offices were told that their Syrian employees were permitted to talk to British journalists – as spokespeople for the Syrian opposition – but only after receiving clearance from officials at the British consulate in Istanbul.

One of the responsibilities of the press offices set up covertly by the British government under the terms of these contracts was to “maintain an effective network of correspondents/stringers inside Syria to report on MAO [moderate armed opposition] activity”.

In this way, the British government was able to exert behind-the-scenes influence over conversations that the UK media was having with individuals who presented themselves as Syrian opposition representatives.

Document

People involved with the operation say that some prominent British journalists visiting Istanbul would be introduced to Syrians acting as opposition spokespeople, who had been prepared for the encounter by British handlers.

They say they would brief the Syrians before the meeting, and avoid any face-to-face contact with the visiting journalists themselves.

The propaganda initiative was primarily aimed at Syrians, living both inside and outside Syria. The blueprint explains that “radicalised UK citizens are not an explicit focus (target audience) for this work,” adding: “Those efforts are the responsibility of another government department.”

It adds: “Nevertheless, it is accepted that some C-VE [countering violent extremist] material may reach the UK information space.”

Furthermore, UK audiences could on occasion be “a specified target” of some media being produced as part of the initiative, with the permission of British officials in Istanbul.

The different strands of the propaganda programme were evaluated by a scientist from the UK’s Ministry of Defence, looking for evidence of “behavioural and attitudinal change”.

The companies bidding for the contracts were told: “Behavioural changes linked… to campaign activity will be especially highly valued.”

During 2015, Free Syria, Syrian Identity and Undermine were funded in both British pounds and Canadian dollars, with the equivalent of around £410,000 ($540,000) being spent each month.

Some Syrians who became involved in the programme say that the money they received was the only means by which they could hope to support their families. "I have a wife and family," said one. "We need support in order to be able to live. Is there an independent media outlet in this world?"

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The British government appears to have regarded its propaganda initiative as being in part a way to maintain a presence in Syria until it was able to become militarily engaged, with the blueprint saying that it should have “the capability to expand back into the strategic as and when the opportunity arises, to help build an effective opposition political-military interface”.

Around the same time that the initiative was being developed, the British government “loaned” a number of its pilots to the US, French and Canadian air forces, enabling them to take part in combat missions against Syrian targets, despite the county’s parliament having voted against such action.

British government enthusiasm for much of the work appears to have begun to wane as it became increasingly clear that the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies were winning the civil war, and funding for contracts began to dry up.

Early in 2019, the Free Syrian Police, a British-backed organisation, finally ceased operations following a militant takeover of Idlib province, much to the dismay of civilians and civil society activists. 

The Turkish government is also said to have become less tolerant of the propaganda initiatives being co-ordinated from its territory.

One British contractor is understood to have been expelled after the Turkish authorities discovered she had entered the country on a tourist visa.

  • 19 février 2020 à 10:01

Iran upholds lengthy prison sentences for eight environmentalists

Par MEE staff
Iran upholds lengthy prison sentences for eight environmentalists
The prosecution, allegedly based on false confessions, has been condemned by Iranian officials and rights groups alike
MEE staff Wed, 02/19/2020 - 10:40
The environmental activists convicted of 'espionage' in Iran this week, from top left: Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh (Campaign poster/#anyhopefornature)

An Iranian court has upheld prison sentences ranging from four to 10 years against eight members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, despite criticism by rights groups.

According to Iranian judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili, a court of appeal on Tuesday convicted seven defendants on charges of “cooperating with the hostile state of the US”, and sentenced them to between six to 10 years in prison.

Another environmentalist, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, was sentenced to four years on charges of “assembly and collusion to act against national security”.

"The appeals court endorsed and finalised the sentences of the suspects in the so-called environmentalists' case, as we believe it to be a case of acting against national security," Esmaili said.

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday condemned the sentences as “unjust” and said Iranian authorities “failed to produce any evidence to support their charges”.

How much prison time should conservationists serve for peacefully doing their jobs? #Iran's appeals court today sentenced a group of wildlife conservationists to 4-10 YEARS behind bars on baseless charges.#Conservation is not a crime: https://t.co/krb2tbUafc. pic.twitter.com/YX5oHgcuKE

— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) February 18, 2020

A ninth environmentalist, Canadian-Iranian sociology professor Kavous Seyed Emami, died in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison weeks after his arrest in January 2018. The Iranian government claimed he committed suicide, but did not accept his family’s demands to investigate his death.

‘Espionage’

Esmaili said the appeals court upheld 10-year sentences for Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz, accusing them of receiving “illicit funds”.

Prior to her arrest, Bayani worked as the programme manager for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. A graduate of the McGill and Columbia universities in the United States, she previously served as a consultant with the UN's Environment Programme.

According to HRW, the court ordered Bayani to return $360,000 of salaries she allegedly received from the UN Environment Programme in her six years of working there. 

Two other defendants, Houman Jokar and Taher Ghadirian, were sentenced to eight years on charges of “cooperating with the hostile states of the US and Israel through spying against the Islamic Republic and in favour of the foreign intelligence services of the CIA and Mossad”.

Three others, Amir Hossein Khaleghian, Sepideh Kashani and Sam Rajabi, received six-year sentences on the same espionage charges.

The defendants were initially charged with “sowing corruption on earth”, a crime punishable by the death penalty in Iran. But their charges were later amended to espionage with Israel and the US.

Iranian officials, including the ministers of intelligence and environment, have emphasised on various occasions that the charges against the conservationists are baseless.

بنابر اطلاع رسیده شورای عالی امنیت ملی نیز پس از بررسی کارشناسی پرونده متهمان محیط زیستی فعالیت متهمان را مصداق جاسوسی تشخیص نداده است.

— محمود صادقی (@mah_sadeghi) February 3, 2019

Translation: Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeghi: "According to the Supreme National Security Council, after examining the environmental defendants' case, they have not been identified as spies."

Last February, Bayani said during her trial that defendants including herself had been subjected to psychological torture that led to forced confessions.

The defendants have not been allowed to hire their own lawyers, according to HRW, and were forced to be represented by lawyers pre-approved by the judiciary.

Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, an environmental advocate, has expressed solidarity with the detained activists, saying the camera traps they used "are not spying tools" as alleged by the Iranian judiciary. 

"Houman Jowkar and Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi worked with the government, not against it, and local rangers worked with them in the field," he wrote on Instagram.

"They were not operating on their own. They are patriots dedicated to saving one of Iran’s most powerful natural symbols from extinction."

  • 19 février 2020 à 11:40

'Too late for thousands': Yemen mercy flights present little relief for country's sick

Par Charlie Faulkner
'Too late for thousands': Yemen mercy flights present little relief for country's sick
Flights to Jordan to treat patients have been hailed as a 'diplomatic breakthrough' - but their capacity is too small for the scope of the crisis in Yemen
Charlie Faulkner Wed, 02/19/2020 - 10:42
Shahad al-Harethi suffers from congenital heart disease and says she longs for the day when she can play with her brothers and sisters without struggling to breathe (MEE/Charlie Faulkner)

Thirteen-year-old Shahad al-Harethi’s fragile-looking frame appears even smaller beneath the white sheets in the big hospital bed, yet she still manages to welcome visitors with a beaming smile. 

The teenager is among 29 Yemenis flown to Jordan on two mercy flights – the first civilian flights to leave from the north of Yemen since the start of the war in 2015. 

The patients arrived in Amman earlier this month, many requiring life-saving medical treatment currently unavailable in Yemen. 

First 'mercy flight' leaves Sanaa, but Yemeni patients worry it won't be enough
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The move has been heralded as a positive step in the agonisingly slow peace negotiations between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition - but with a further 29 million people caught amid the five-year war and unable to leave the country, these handful of people are just a drop in the ocean.

Harethi suffers from congenital heart disease and says she longs for the day when she can play with her brothers and sisters without struggling to breathe or suffering from extreme exhaustion. 

She will undergo the open-heart surgery she so desperately needs while in Jordan. 

The young girl is chatty and good-natured despite her condition. She says she enjoys school and her favourite lesson is English. When she grows up, she wants to be a TV presenter or a journalist. 

This opportunity felt like a miracle, her father Khaled told Middle East Eye, as he gestured with his hands to express the feeling of bursting with happiness.

“I’ve only ever had a bad feeling twice in my life - when I got married and when I got on that plane,” he said teasingly, sat next to his wife. 

All jokes aside, he said when their first flight in October was cancelled amid a breakdown in negotiations, he and his wife hit their lowest level of despair. 

“We had to go back home and all our hope was lost,” he said. 

Illegal blockade

The family are from Ibb, a city 194km south of the capital Sanaa. 

Before the war, Khaled worked as a civil servant - but it has been four years since he received his salary due to the country’s economic crisis and the war.

This was not the family’s first attempt at seeking treatment overseas; they travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2015, but they were told to return to Yemen because of the war before Shahad was able to undergo surgery. 

They were meant to fly back to Saudi Arabia two weeks later, but that trip never happened as the coalition imposed an air blockade against the Houthi rebels who controlled the capital Sanaa. 

Yemen’s healthcare system was already fragile prior to war, however the conflict that has decimated the country for the last five years has left less than 50 percent of hospitals and medical facilities fully or partially operational. 

Public sector employees, including healthcare workers, have not been paid salaries in several years and rely on incentives paid by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Meanwhile, conditions such as cancer, kidney disease as well as others are now killing more people than the war due to limited treatment options available inside the country. 

The coalition-imposed sea, air and land blockade on Yemen began in March 2015. 

It has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians and is a violation of international humanitarian law, according to Human Rights Watch. 

A staggering 19.7 million people desperately require access to healthcare, according to the WHO.

'It’s hard to be away from my children'

Another patient to have been flown in on the mercy flights is 43-year-old Daulah, who did not give her surname. 

She has thyroid cancer but has no idea how serious her condition is because of the lack of medical equipment in Yemen. 

Following the cancelled flights in October, WHO thought it best to keep the patients in Sanaa in case flights once again became possible. 

Yemen's Houthis drop threat to tax humanitarian aid: UN official
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Daulah and her husband ended up living in a hotel away from their children for four months. 

“I’ve cried a lot because it’s hard to be away from my children," she tells MEE.

"My youngest is 10 years old. They could visit but they were too far away and weren’t able to get to the hotel. 

"My husband convinced me to stay. Once we were in the air I was overwhelmed with happiness. 

"Now I just want to get better so that I can get back to my children.”

'Diplomatic breakthrough'

In a statement in response to news of the mercy flights, the Norwegian Refugee Council's Yemen country director Mohammed Abdi said the agreement “comes too late for thousands of Yemenis who died waiting to leave the country for urgent life-saving care”. 

The warring sides “need to end their political wrangling and fully reopen Sanaa airport for commercial flights”, he added.

Sultana Begum, the NRC advocacy manager in Yemen, called the move a “diplomatic breakthrough”, but stressed that it was a tiny step.

“According to government figures up to 32,000 people have died in the last three years while waiting for specialised treatment, although that’s not a figure we’re able to verify,” she told MEE, adding the NRC’s biggest focus is opening Sanaa’s airport to commercial flights once more.

Begum highlighted the length of time negotiations concerning the mercy flights have taken – discussions having first begun in October 2018. 

“There was a de-escalation of violence in the country last year," she said.

As part of the Stockholm agreement, air strikes were stopped in Hodeidah where there have been lots of civilian casualties, and diplomatic backchannels and ceasefires were established in various locations.

“There was a really positive change last year, which created the space needed for an agreement about these mercy flights," said Begum.

"The Saudi-led coalition gave the go-ahead as a goodwill gesture and to indicate some kind of progress.”

In addition to a lack of progress in resolving the conflict in Yemen, the UN and its agencies in the country have been embroiled in corruption allegations – from diverting donated food, medicine, fuel and money.

In 2018, armed Houthi rebels confiscated computers from UN investigators as they waited to board their flight, after a WHO staffer had tipped off the rebel group in a bid to protect herself after she had allegedly stolen aid funding.

Referring to these issues, Bilqees al-Lahbi, a researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, pointed out the need for positive publicity for the UN, as well for Saudi Arabia, following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Lahbi said she was also concerned that the Stockholm agreement has led to the Houthis being legitimised, giving them a greater reach to the international community.

'Narrow window of opportunity'

An agreement was also made to allow humanitarian aid into Taiz governorate.

“But while getting bogged down with making the Stockholm agreement work, more violence has erupted in other parts of the country,” said Begum. 

“There is a narrow window of opportunity to have a nationwide ceasefire and start political talks but we’re really concerned this escalating violence will be damaging to the constructive talks that have already taken place.”

US threatens to cut aid to Houthi-held areas in Yemen
Read More »

Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at Oxford University, said allowing 29 people to receive medical care they otherwise would not was of course welcome, but added that to consider the move as anything substantial in bringing the conflict to the end was “delusional”.

“It needs to be multiplied by 1,000 to make any difference," Kendall told MEE.

"The fighting is getting worse and that’s why the United Nations and everyone else clings to positivity, which is understandable after five years of efforts and very little to show for them. 

“But the fact it has taken so long shows just how difficult it is to get these sides aligned on something as obvious and uncontroversial as allowing sick children to receive treatment. 

"We need Sanaa airport to be fully open,” she said.

The hope is for a ceasefire, Kendall added, but pointed out that even if confidence-building exercises between the Houthis and the coalition delivered in the form of the mercy flights were successful, there remained a myriad of warring parties to be taken into consideration. 

“There are huge power struggles simmering beneath the surface,” she said. 

Additional reporting by Asmahan Bkerat.

Amman
  • 19 février 2020 à 11:42
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