United Nations, Jan 31 (AP/UNB) — The U.N. humanitarian chief urged Syria's warring parties on Wednesday to ensure the delivery of desperately needed aid to Syrians stranded near the border with Jordan and warned again that a major military operation in extremist-controlled Idlib would be a humanitarian catastrophe.
Mark Lowcock said the U.N. wants an aid convoy, with more than 100 trucks accompanied by some 250 U.N. and Syrian Arab Red Crescent personnel, to leave for the isolated Rukban camp on the Syria-Jordan border by Feb. 5. Its 42,000 people "remain stranded in deteriorating conditions since the last convoy to the area in early November," which was the first since January 2018, he said.
Lowcock also appealed for money to buy basics from blankets to baby milk and bandages for millions of Syrians living under tents or tarpaulins or in unheated buildings in severe winter conditions that have seen freezing temperatures, snowfalls and flooding that has forced tens of thousands of people to move.
His address to the U.N. Security Council came amid rising concern over the plight of some three million people in Idlib, which was the last major stronghold of the Syrian opposition. Earlier this month, al-Qaida-linked militants seized more than two dozen towns and villages in northern Syria from rival insurgents in the most serious blow to a September cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that averted a major government offensive in Idlib province.
Lowcock said that January saw an increase in fighting between armed groups in Idlib, "placing civilians at risk and resulting in injury and death."
"Today I reiterate the importance of sustaining the Russia-Turkey agreement and remind you that a large-scale military operation in Idlib would have catastrophic humanitarian implications," he told council members.
The envoys from the United States, Britain, France and other council nations echoed Lowcock and stressed that all efforts must be made to sustain the Idlib cease-fire.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council that Moscow shares concerns about the situation in Idlib and the increase in cease-fire violations, saying about a thousand cases have been reported "as a result of which 65 people have died and more than 200 have been injured."
He said the Idlib de-escalation zone has come under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants allied with the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. And he recalled Russia's warning "right from the start ... that freezing the situation where there are terrorists is something that is not sustainable in the long-term."
Nebenzia said after talks Sunday in Moscow between the Russian and Turkish leaders, "work was stepped up to develop effective, feasible and agreed upon measures regarding the Idlib de-escalation zone."
He gave no details but reiterated that Russia continues to believe that the "the best solution for stabilizing the situation in the northwest or the northeast of Syria" is to transfer the areas' control to the Syrian government.
As for the aid convoy to the Rukban camp, Jordan closed the border over security concerns and the Syrian government and its ally Russia have blamed U.S. troops stationed nearby for failing to provide security for aid shipments — allegations denied by the Americans.
Lowcock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said the U.N. received verbal approval on Jan. 27 for the convoy to proceed as well as security guarantees from Russia and international coalition forces.
"Planning is now under way for loading of the trucks to begin before the end of this week, and for them to set off by Feb. 5," Lowcock said. "We call on all parties to ensure that this goes ahead without any further delay."
Acting U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen said the convoy "is vital," but "sustained humanitarian access is crucial."
Kuwait, Belgium and Germany, who are in charge of humanitarian resolutions on Syria, echoed that view saying almost 12 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid including more than 5 million children according to U.N. statistics.
Kuwait's U.N. Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi, speaking on behalf of the three countries, said about 80 percent of the people in Rukban camp are women and children.
"A cease-fire, not only in Idlib, but nationwide, would enable the flow of humanitarian assistance and the evacuation of the wounded and sick," he said.
Riyadh, Jan 31 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's unprecedented anti-corruption sweep that saw top princes, businessmen, military officers and officials detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel has concluded after netting the government around $106.6 billion, the Royal Court said Wednesday.
The Royal Court said the work of an anti-corruption committee formed to oversee the sweep headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had concluded its work after summoning or questioning 381 people.
The recovered assets from settlements with 87 people include cash, real estate, businesses and securities, according to the Royal Court announcement carried on Saudi state TV.
It said 56 individuals continue to be investigated and that the attorney general refused to settle with them due to other criminal charges they face. Another eight refused to settle and stand accused of corruption.
The sweep, which began the evening of Nov. 4 2017, helped cement the crown prince's powerful status. Analysts and critics said it was also a way for the prince to sideline potential rivals and consolidate power as he prepares to inherit the throne from his father, King Salman.
Among those held was billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was detained for more than 80 days at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh before his release. Also, held were the sons of the late King Abdullah, including Prince Miteb who'd commanded the National Guard and was once seen as a contender for the throne.
There were also current and former ministers rounded up and billionaire businessmen like Bakr Binladin, chairman of the kingdom's pre-eminent contractor the Saudi Binladin Group that had secured a near-monopoly on mega-expansion projects in Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, throughout the reigns of successive Saudi monarchs.
Guards were positioned outside the detainees' hotel rooms, where some had access to room service and satellite TV. Others were reportedly abused, and many were placed under travel bans after their release.
It's unclear who exactly is still being held or where they are being held. The Ritz-Carlton opened to the public again in mid-February and it's believed those still detained were moved to prisons or guesthouses.
Altogether, those rounded up by the crown prince symbolized the elite structure encircling the ruling Al Saud family and its vast patronage networks.
The government never officially disclosed the names of those ensnared in the campaign, but state-linked media distributed lists with names of some of those detained.
The government also did not disclose details on the allegations the detainees faced or how they were being prosecuted, leading to concerns about transparency and due process.
International investors were initially spooked by the lack of transparency and clarity.
Two months before the anti-corruption campaign was launched, the crown prince had begun his first sweep of arrests targeting dozens of prominent Saudi figures, including moderate clerics, for not publicly supporting or for criticizing his domestic and foreign policies.
Then, in May of last year, more than a dozen women's rights activists and their supporters were arrested just before the kingdom lifted its ban on women driving. Some have reportedly been water-boarded, lashed, sexually assaulted and electrocuted.
In October, the crown prince was at the center of a global outcry over the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Before his killing, Khashoggi had written critically of the crown prince's crackdown on critics in columns for The Washington Post. The U.S. Senate has blamed the killing on the crown prince. The kingdom, however, denies he had any role.
Beirut, Jan 30 (AP/UNB) — It only took a few days for al-Qaida-linked militants to seize more than two dozen towns and villages in northern Syria from rival insurgents earlier this month, expanding and cementing their control over an area the size of neighboring Lebanon.
The advance by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or the Levant Liberation Committee, was the most serious blow yet to a September cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that averted a major government offensive in Idlib province, the last main stronghold of the Syrian opposition.
It highlighted the growing threat posed by al-Qaida at a time when its rival, the Islamic State group, is on the verge of defeat and the U.S. is preparing to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria. Although HTS has formally severed ties with al-Qaida, experts say it is still closely linked to the global network founded by Osama bin Laden and could use its base in Syria to launch attacks in the West.
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says there is a "real danger" that the group's advance "will not only worsen the humanitarian crisis for the 3 million inhabitants there, but also give (President Bashar) Assad and his allies the justification to assault the province."
"Such a scenario would be as devastatingly bloody as the battle for Aleppo," he said, referring to the months of heavy fighting over Syria's largest city in 2016, which killed thousands of people and ended with government forces and their allies capturing the rebel-held east.
HTS includes large numbers of battle-hardened al-Qaida fighters, and its capture of most of rebel-held Syria could force aid agencies to withdraw, leaving tens of thousands of civilians to fend for themselves. The opposition's Free Aleppo Medical Directorate said that some 250,000 people will lose medical support after 43 facilities it runs cease operations due to a drop in aid from Western agencies after the latest HTS offensive.
The government has meanwhile stepped up its bombardment of Idlib and neighboring rebel-held areas. Pro-government media say Defense Minister Gen. Ali Ayoub and Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, who commands the elite Tiger Force, have recently visited the front lines with Idlib, raising fears of a new government offensive.
HTS now controls an area of about 9,000 square kilometers (3,475 square miles) or about 5 percent of Syria's territory. The area is home to some 3 million people, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
Turkey has nearly a dozen observation posts in Idlib, but has shifted its focus further east, where it is preparing to launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara, which supports the opposition, fears the Syrian government is trying to undermine the September agreement. Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, has urged Turkey to act more resolutely in reining in militants in Idlib, who have launched attacks on Syrian government forces and the Russian military. Russia said last week that the escalation of hostilities in Idlib threatens the Russian air base in the neighboring coastal province of Latakia.
The first 10 days of January turned rebel-held parts of northern Syria upside down.
The powerful Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group dissolved itself after days of fighting with HTS during which it lost more than two dozen villages. The ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest groups in northern Syria, also surrendered following attacks by HTS.
Two other groups, Thuwar al-Sham and Bayareq al-Islam, handed over Atareb, an important stronghold in Aleppo province, to HTS and withdrew north toward a region held by Turkish troops. Jaysh al-Ahrar handed over its checkpoints and said it would recognize the HTS-run civil authority.
A week after HTS crushed its opponents, a bomb targeted one of the al-Qaida-linked group's checkpoints at the southern entrance to Idlib, the provincial capital. The blast killed 11 people, including militants, and wounded several others.
Days later, HTS claimed that it captured 12 members of the Islamic State group who were allegedly behind the bombing. The group then released a graphic video like those produced by IS that showed the men being led to the scene of the blast and forced to kneel, blindfolded, before a line of gunmen. The video cuts out before they are shot in the back of their heads.
After the advance by HTS, which now controls a border crossing with Turkey and major highways, some international aid agencies suspended their work for fear of reprisals. HTS has been known to crack down on independent groups and civil society in areas under its control.
Mohammed Haj Omar, who heads the opposition's health department in Aleppo province, said 250,000 people will be immediately affected and more than 3 million at a later stage.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said earlier this month that the United Nations was still providing aid to the region.
He added that while the "full implications" of the HTS takeover were not yet clear, the U.N. and its partners "are closely following developments to ensure that independent, impartial and principled humanitarian action continues."
The Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank, said the HTS takeover "alters the trajectory of the next phase in the civil war, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Assad regime."
"From the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Assad has consistently sought to transform the narrative by making the fight about supporting his government or supporting terrorists, defined as any group fighting against the regime," it said.
Baghdad, Jan 28 (AP/UNB) — The leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias which also fought pitched battles in neighboring Syria said Monday that he expects a vote by Iraq's parliament calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country within the next few months.
Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, said there's no longer a justification for thousands of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after IS has been defeated. He suggested American forces may eventually be driven out by force if they do not yield to the will of the Iraqi parliament and people.
He spoke with The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview at his office in Baghdad. Al-Khizali said he is confident that more than half the new Iraqi parliament rejects the continued presence of American troops.
"I think more than half the members of parliament reject the presence of American military forces as a matter of principle," he said.
"If the United States wants to impose its presence by force, and to ignore the Iraqi constitution and parliament, Iraq can treat it the same way and drive it out by force, this is for sure. But the first phase is political," al-Khazali said.
U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq as part of the coalition against the Islamic State group. American forces withdrew in 2011 after invading in 2003 when they toppled dictator Saddam Hussein but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the of the country's then pro-US government to help fight the extremist group.
Now, after defeating IS militants in their last urban bastions last year, curbing foreign influence in Iraqi affairs has become a hot-button political issue and Iraqi politicians and militia leaders are increasingly speaking out against the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil.
A visit by President Donald Trump with U.S. troops at an air base in Iraq late last month particularly infuriated Iraqi politicians who demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Trump has said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in the country and that Iraq could be used could be used for U.S. air strikes inside Syria after the U.S. withdraws its troops from that country.
Al-Khizali said he was "certain and confident" there will be an Iraqi parliament vote calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. He said there was absolutely no need for troops and special forces anymore but said a small contingent of advisers and trainers could stay on as determined by a joint committee that would specify their numbers and locations.
"Anything other than that will be considered an infringement on sovereignty that the Iraqi parliament, the Iraqi people and political factions including ours and we will not allow it," he said.
Al-Khazali was jailed by British and U.S. forces from 2007 to 2010 for managing sections of the Shia insurgency against the U.S. occupation. His group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia fought key battles against IS in northern Iraq and have also fought in neighboring Syria's civil war.
His group made significant gains in parliament elections that were held in May and he is now represented by a 15-member bloc in parliament.
Dubai, Jan 28 (AP/UNB) — Bahrain's highest court has upheld life sentences for a prominent Shiite cleric who led a now-shuttered opposition party and two of his colleagues.
The ruling on Monday targeted Sheikh Ali Salman, who headed the Al-Wefaq political party and was a central figure in Bahrain's 2011 Arab Spring protests.
A court in June previously acquitted Salman and his two colleagues of spying charges. Bahrain's Supreme Court of Appeals later overturned that verdict and found them guilty in November.
Both state-aligned media and activists reported the ruling by the Court of Cassation.
Bahrain is an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia that's home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The kingdom has been in the midst of a yearslong crackdown on all dissent and opposition.