Obstacles at Rafah: Why Foreigners Can’t Exit?

Palestinians with foreign nationalities await the opening of Rafah crossing (AP)
Palestinians with foreign nationalities await the opening of Rafah crossing (AP)
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Obstacles at Rafah: Why Foreigners Can’t Exit?

Palestinians with foreign nationalities await the opening of Rafah crossing (AP)
Palestinians with foreign nationalities await the opening of Rafah crossing (AP)

Foreigners from various nationalities stuck in the Gaza Strip are eagerly anticipating promises to exit the enclave through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

While Egyptian authorities affirm that the crossing is open for aid deliveries and the passage of foreigners, Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the US State Department, has accused Hamas of “hindering the departure of foreigners and making the situation at the Rafah border crossing extremely challenging.”

Hamas, in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, labeled Miller’s accusation as “false,” asserting that “the closure of Gaza is due to Israeli occupation.”

Following the Israeli attack on Gaza over two weeks ago, Washington urged US citizens there to head to the Rafah border crossing, with the intention of coordinating their evacuation as quickly as possible.

However, Egypt “refused to allow the exit of foreign nationals and dual citizens from Gaza until humanitarian aid was allowed to enter Gaza through the crossing,” as reported by Egyptian official media sources at the time.

The number of US citizens in Gaza is estimated to be between 500 and 600, most of whom were visiting their families.

However, their departure has been hindered by “repeated Israeli airstrikes on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing,” according to The Washington Post.

“Egyptian authorities have repeatedly confirmed their readiness to allow the passage of individuals with various nationalities, and the border crossing has not been closed by Egyptian authorities,” a senior Egyptian security source told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“However, the frequent Israeli shelling of the crossing from the Palestinian side, damage to the road leading to it, and the concern for civilian casualties have all prevented their departure,” added the source, who requested anonymity.

Miller told CNN that the sporadic presence of Hamas at the Rafah border crossing has made the situation “extremely difficult,” but Egyptians are ready to take in US citizens and foreign nationals who make it to their side of the border.

Husam Badran, a member of the Political Bureau and the Head of the National Relations Office of Hamas, dismissed the statement made by Miller as “false” regarding Hamas obstructing the departure of foreign nationals at the Rafah border crossing.

“The only crossing for the Gaza Strip is currently closed due to Israeli occupation, which enforces the blockade of Gaza with overt US support,” Badran told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Badran emphasized that “the continuous airstrikes on Gaza have disrupted all aspects of life there.”



Rampant Water Pollution Threatens Iraq’s Shrinking Rivers 

A boat cruises along the Tigris river in the center of Baghdad on December 24, 2023. (AFP)
A boat cruises along the Tigris river in the center of Baghdad on December 24, 2023. (AFP)
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Rampant Water Pollution Threatens Iraq’s Shrinking Rivers 

A boat cruises along the Tigris river in the center of Baghdad on December 24, 2023. (AFP)
A boat cruises along the Tigris river in the center of Baghdad on December 24, 2023. (AFP)

Stricken by drought and depleted by upstream dams, Iraq's once mighty rivers the Tigris and Euphrates are suffocating under pollutants from sewage to medical waste.

In a country where half the population lacks access to safe drinking water, according to UN figures, state institutions are to blame for a man-made disaster which is turning rivers into waste dumps.

"What is strange about water pollution in Iraq is that most government institutions are responsible for it," Khaled Shamal, the ministry of water resources spokesman, told AFP.

He warned that Iraq's sewage network dumps "large quantities" of wastewater into the two major waterways, after superficial treatment or none at all.

"Most hospitals near a river dump their medical waste and sewage straight into it," Shamal added. "It is dangerous and catastrophic."

Dirty and unsafe water is a prime health threat in Iraq, where decades of conflict, mismanagement and corruption have taken a toll on infrastructure, including the water system.

Petrochemical factories, power plants and agricultural drainage that carries fertilizers and other toxins further pollute Iraq's water.

Overloaded with toxins

In the country known as "the land of two rivers", water pollution has become so severe that it is now visible to the naked eye.

In Baghdad's eastern suburbs, AFP filmed a pipe discharging green-colored water with a foul odor into the Diyala river.

Ali Ayoub, a water specialist from the UN children's agency UNICEF, warned that Baghdad's two main water treatment plants are overloaded with twice their intended capacity.

The treatment facilities were built for a population of three to four million, but at least nine million live in Baghdad today.

"Inadequate infrastructure, limited regulations and poor public awareness are the main factors contributing to the significant deterioration of water quality in Iraq", Ayoub said.

"Two-thirds of industrial and household wastewater are discharged untreated into the rivers," amounting to six million cubic meters a day.

But Iraq's government is taking steps to improve water quality, he said.

The government has said it no longer approves projects that could be a source of pollution unless they provide water treatment.

It has developed a three-year plan to "strengthen the water and sanitation system" to provide "safe drinking water, especially to the most vulnerable communities", Ayoub said.

In partnership with UNICEF, Baghdad's Medical City -- a complex of hospitals with 3,000 beds, on the banks of the Tigris -- has recently inaugurated a water treatment plant, Akil Salman, the complex's projects manager, told AFP.

The facility has started operating with three units, each capable of treating 200 cubic meters of waste a day. Four additional units with a capacity of 400 cubic meters each are expected to be completed "within two months".

Instead of directing its wastewater to Baghdad's overburdened treatment facilities, the Medical City can use the treated water for the hospitals' gardens and to fill the firefighters' tanks, Salman said.

'We have to buy water'

Iraq, which endures blistering summer heat and regular sandstorms, is one of the five countries most impacted by some effects of climate change, says the United Nations.

The country of 43 million people has suffered four consecutive years of withering drought, and water scarcity has become extreme.

It is worsened, according to authorities, by upstream dams built by Iraq's neighbors Iran and Türkiye, lowering water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates, which have irrigated Iraq for millennia.

The water flow to Iraq "has declined significantly, leading to an increase in the concentration of pollutants in the water", environment ministry spokesperson Amir Ali Hassoun said.

Previously, authorities routinely opened valves to increase the river flow and dilute pollutants, but this strategy has become impossible due to a shortage of water which has forced them to look for other options.

In addition to "raising awareness" among the population, Iraqi officials say they are closely monitoring wastewater management.

"Hospitals are required to install wastewater treatment facilities," Hassoun said.

"We hope that 2024 will be the year we eliminate all violations," referring to hospitals dumping untreated sewage and medical waste into the rivers.

In Iraq's south, water pollution is much worse.

"Wastewater from other areas is discharged into the river, polluting the water that reaches us," said 65-year-old Hassan Zouri from the southern province of Dhi Qar.

"The water carries diseases. We cannot drink it or use it at all," added the father of eight.

"We used to rely on the river for drinking, washing, and irrigation, but now we have to buy water."


Syrians Learn Persian, Russian amid Foreign Hegemony over Their Country

Students are seen at the Faculty of Sharia at Damascus University. (Asharq Al-Awsat file photo)
Students are seen at the Faculty of Sharia at Damascus University. (Asharq Al-Awsat file photo)
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Syrians Learn Persian, Russian amid Foreign Hegemony over Their Country

Students are seen at the Faculty of Sharia at Damascus University. (Asharq Al-Awsat file photo)
Students are seen at the Faculty of Sharia at Damascus University. (Asharq Al-Awsat file photo)

“Occupying the language is the shortest way to occupy the mind and consequently, future decision-making. It destroys and erases the identity of societies,” said Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during a speech to students at a university in Beijing in late summer 2023.

The emphasis she placed on remaining attached to the mother tongue stands in contrast to how Russia has imposed the Russian language in Syrian public schools. The language was introduced nine years ago as Moscow expanded its influence in Syria.

Russian is facing stiff competition from Persian as Iran is the other foreign power vying for influence in the war-torn country. Russia and Iran want to control education in areas held by the regime to create a suitable environment for them to thrive and support their military influence at the expense of teaching the native language, Arabic.

Russian dominates

Even though Tehran was first to intervene in Syria’s war, years before Russia arrived on the scene, Persian has taken a backseat to Russian in public education. Russia succeeded in imposing its language as a third option besides English and French. Russia has managed to make strides in this area in the nine years since its intervention.

The trial period for teaching Russian took off in 2015 and was applied to 400 students living in coastal regions. The experience was then adopted at 217 schools in 12 provinces held by the government. By the seventh year, over 35,000 students had learned Russian with 200 teachers being recruited, revealed Syrian government reports.

Public education

Iran tried to follow in Russia’s footsteps in imposing Persian in state curricula in line with an agreement signed between Tehran and Damascus on exchanging expertise and training in the education, technical and academic fields and in rebuilding schools.

In 2021, Tehran managed to impose Persian only in public schools that it had renovated and helped resume operation. The past five years have witnessed the opening of Persian education centers in universities in Damascus and Homs and the Syrian military academy. They join other centers affiliated with the Khomeini seminary and its various branches in Syria, the al-Mahdi husseiniya in Damascus, Sayyida Ruqayya College and others.

Tehran has also opened branches of several Iranian universities in Syria, such as the al-Mustafa university, Al-Farabi university and others. Iran focused its activities on the Deir Ezzor province, especially in the areas of influence it holds in the cities of Alboukamal and al-Mayadeen bordering Iraq. These areas are Iran’s main political, cultural and social strongholds.

Exploiting poverty

Since 2018 and soon after the expulsion of the ISIS extremist group from the region, Deir Ezzor, Alboukamal and al-Mayadeen witnessed the opening of several schools, daycares and cultural centers that teach Persian and the Iranian religious ideology. They follow the example of the Iranian cultural centers in Damascus, Latakia and coastal cities.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in May 2023 said Tehran succeeded in exploiting the deterioration of the education system due to the war and drop in the number of staff and teachers due to corruption and low salaries in Deir Ezzor to “infiltrate” the education sector.

It said Iranian cultural centers are witnessing an “alarming” surge given their great power in influencing youths. It noted how the war destroyed a large number of schools in Deir Ezzor, while others lack basic facilities, such as appropriate classrooms, libraries and science labs.

Attracting children and youths

Local sources in Deir Ezzor said Iran managed to exploit the poverty and living crisis in regions under its control in eastern Syria to attract children and youths. It has lured them through financial aid, monthly wages, meals, food baskets and recreational trips. It has also provided free cources in vocational training, such as first aid, accounting, electric appliance maintenance and others. It has also held courses on “youth empowerment.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the sources said Iran boasts three schools in Alboukamal and one in al-Mayadeen for nine- to 15-year-olds. The schools include over 500 students. It also boasts Persian language learning centers in government-held areas in the Deir Ezzor and Raqqa countrysides.

Iran has hired Shiite Arab and Iranian teachers, including clerics, who speak Arabic. It also holds training courses to Syrian teachers on how to teach Persian, continued the sources. Russia has also sought to train Syrian teachers on how to teach Russian, dispatching them to Moscow where they are trained.

Iran is ultimately seeking to “form a local social environment that can fuel its need for people to join its militias” in Syria.

Food for education

Members of Arab tribes in Syria’s Deir Ezzor have expressed their concern over Iran’s infiltration of education and its exploitation of poverty to pursue this goal. Mohammed, from Muhasan in Deir Ezzor, said: “Some parents agree to enroll their children in Iranian schools in return for aid, not for the love of Iranian culture.” This opposition will not, however, prevent these institutions from brainwashing children and the youths in Iranian ideology and culture.

Other sources in Damascus said it was unlikely that Iran will succeed in spreading its culture in the eastern provinces given that the environment there is “historically hostile to the Persian culture” since the majority of the residents there are Sunni Arabs. The locals there will not provide a “secure and peaceful social environment to Iran,” especially with Russia competing with it in the education sector.

The sources revealed that Russia had offered at the beginning of the year three tons of aid to teachers in Deir Ezzor. It included stationery and books on teaching Russian that have benefitted 300 teachers.

Russian outpaces Persian

The sources said Iran’s attempts to infiltrate the education system in coastal regions have failed. They added that Tehran opened religious schools during the war, but they were all closed in 2017 after the Syrian Awqaf Ministry demanded that Syrian Sharia be included in official curricula and after parents complained of attempts to spread Shiism.

They noted that Russian is more popular in coastal regions where Russian forces are deployed and have mingled with the locals. The same applies in Aleppo, which is an industrial and business hub. Students who have learned Russian have an advantage and could have the opportunity to travel to Russia to pursue higher studies. Or they could remain in Syria and work at Russian ports, airports and industrial investments.

In the Damascus countryside and southern Sweida region, Russian forces are seen more as occupiers who have not integrated in everyday life even though they are preferred to the Iranians. The suspicions towards the Russians pale in comparison to the animosity towards the Iranians. But regardless, both Moscow and Tehran are applying what Asma al-Assad spoke of in Beijing about “occupying language” to erase societies and their identities.


Palestinians Describe Terrifying and Chaotic Flight from Gaza Hospital

Kites are flown over Rafah as smoke billows following Israeli bombardment on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 20, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)
Kites are flown over Rafah as smoke billows following Israeli bombardment on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 20, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)
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Palestinians Describe Terrifying and Chaotic Flight from Gaza Hospital

Kites are flown over Rafah as smoke billows following Israeli bombardment on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 20, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)
Kites are flown over Rafah as smoke billows following Israeli bombardment on Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 20, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Gunfire echoed around Palestinian medics, patients and displaced people during what they described as a terrifying and chaotic night evacuation from Gaza's Nasser Hospital after it was stormed by Israeli forces.

Survivors of last week's assault on the second-biggest hospital in Gaza said they then faced a treacherous walk to safety through the dark, passing corpses along the way.

One doctor said a male nurse was detained at an Israeli checkpoint, stripped naked and taken away screaming.

"Smoke was everywhere, it was like doomsday, people running everywhere," said Doctor Ahmed al-Mughraby, head of the plastic surgery department, who fled with his wife and children.

Mughraby, who has found refuge with his family in the southern city of Rafah, said Israeli forces had ordered everyone to evacuate except patients unable to walk and medics looking after them.

Details of the military assault on Nasser Hospital have been gradually emerging as the people who fled or were evacuated reach Rafah, the last relatively safe place in the Gaza Strip about six miles (10 km) away on the border with Egypt.

Israel described the assault as a precision operation conducted by special forces aimed at recovering the bodies of Israeli hostages. It said there had been no obligation on patients and staff to leave, and efforts were made to ensure the hospital could keep functioning.

But the raid has prompted alarm among aid agencies, and the World Health Organization said the amount of damage was "indescribable".

The WHO, the UN health agency, has carried out two evacuations from Nasser Hospital since Thursday but said on Tuesday it was concerned about nearly 150 patients and medics remaining there as fighting continues.

After besieging the hospital, Israeli forces entered it last Thursday and said they had detained hundreds of militants hiding there, with some posing as hospital staff.

Hamas has denied using the hospital, and calls Israel's allegations "lies". The Health Ministry in Gaza has said Israel has detained 70 staff and volunteers working at the facility.

The WHO said the hospital stopped functioning last week after the Israeli siege and raid, and no longer had electricity or running water, with medical waste and garbage creating a breeding ground for disease.

Drone fire, ‘aggressive dogs’

Nasser Hospital was the biggest hospital still operating in Gaza more than four months into the war that began when fighters from the Palestinian militant group Hamas raided Israeli towns on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel's military campaign in Gaza has since killed more than 29,000 Palestinians, health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say.

Hakeem Salem Hussein Baraka said the Nasser Hospital orthopedic department where he had been working as a volunteer had been destroyed, and that he saw a patient cut in two by an explosion.

Baraka said a "quadcopter" drone had fired at medical staff taking a break between shifts and "aggressive" dogs with cameras placed round their necks by Israel's military had been roaming the hospital.

The Israeli military said its forces had fought "complex battles" before entering the hospital compound and came under rocket fire from fighters barricaded inside the hospital. It said troops found large quantities of weapons and vehicles linked to the Oct. 7 attack.

"We gave people an opportunity to evacuate before we entered the hospital," Colonel Moshe Tetro told a news briefing. Asked whether there was any gunfire or combat within the hospital, he said: "No".

As Palestinians left the hospital before dawn, some had to wade through sewage, said Rasmeya Saleem Abu Jamoos, a dialysis patient who fled with her blind husband, Abu Jamoos.

He was among people detained at a military checkpoint after leaving the hospital, she said.

The doctor, Mughraby, said his ward had been hit by Israeli fire and that he believed three patients had been killed in the strike. Reuters was unable to verify this.

He said he and his family had left the hospital with three patients and some staff members but one, a department nurse, was stopped.

"They made him take off all his clothes so he was naked and they took him to detention. I could hear his screams," he said.

Mughraby said those who made it through the checkpoint then had a long walk across a battlefield to reach help. Some were sick or injured.

Baraa Ahmed Abu Mustafa, who was on mismatching crutches, said shots were fired over their heads as they went and there were dead bodies near the hospital entrance.

"I'm injured and for one hour I walked," he said. "It was dangerous and the road was bad."


Fatemiyoun: Iran’s ‘Overlooked’ Arm in Syria

Family members at the graves in Tehran of fighters from the Fatemiyoun Brigade (The New York Times)
Family members at the graves in Tehran of fighters from the Fatemiyoun Brigade (The New York Times)
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Fatemiyoun: Iran’s ‘Overlooked’ Arm in Syria

Family members at the graves in Tehran of fighters from the Fatemiyoun Brigade (The New York Times)
Family members at the graves in Tehran of fighters from the Fatemiyoun Brigade (The New York Times)

By Farnaz Fassihi

A report published in the New York Times on Monday sheds light on the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria, made up of Afghan refugees who joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria to defend “holy Shiite shrines.”

They also sought to escape extreme poverty and fear of being returned to Afghanistan.

The Brigade acted as a force in proxy wars for Tehran. However, they feel wronged because they are largely ignored in Iran.

It was a memorial for the “martyrs” killed when the US struck military bases in Syria, according to Iranian state television.

A small crowd sat in rows of folding chairs, men in the front and women in the back, at the main cemetery in Tehran, the Iranian capital, earlier this month. Children milled around and a young man passed a box of sweets. A man recited prayers through a microphone.

But the 12 fallen men weren’t Iranians. They were Afghans, according to other soldiers and local media reports, part of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a largely overlooked force that dates to the height of the Syrian civil war a decade ago.

At the time, Iran began recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to help President Bashar al-Assad of Syria beat back rebel forces and ISIS terrorists, offering $500 a month, schooling for their children, and Iranian residency.

The brigade is still believed to be about 20,000 strong, drawn from Afghan refugees living mostly in Iran, and it serves under the command of the Quds Force, IRGC’s overseas arm.

The US strikes were conducted in retaliation for a January drone attack on a military base in Jordan that killed three US soldiers.

Publicly, Iranian officials denied that any military personnel linked to Iran were among the casualties.

The IRGC did not issue a statement acknowledging the deaths of the Afghans under their command as they typically do when Iranian forces are killed, nor did any official threaten to avenge the deaths.

The story of the Afghan casualties, however, emerged from at least four cities across Iran: Tehran, Shiraz, Qum and Mashhad, where the bodies of the Afghans were quietly repatriated to their families, according to photos and videos on Iranian media.

At the funeral processions, the coffins of the Afghans were draped in green cloth but bore the flag of no nation. In the cities of Mashhad, Qum and Shiraz, they were carried to religious shrines for blessings.

Some mourners carried the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun Brigade with its emblem.

Local officials, clerics and a representative from the Revolutionary Guards and members of the Afghan refugee community attended some of the funerals, according to photos and videos. Two little girls wearing matching pink jackets, their hair in ponytails, wailed at their father’s coffin at another funeral on the outskirts of Tehran.

Hossein Ehsani, an expert on militants and terrorism movements in the Middle East who is Afghan and grew up as a refugee in Iran said there was growing anxiety among Afghans that they were getting killed and Iran was not protecting them and disowning their martyrs to protect its interest.

“They feel they are used as cannon fodder.”

Iran’s mission to the UN did not respond to a question about whether the UN Ambassador Amir Saied Iravani was aware of the Fatemiyoun casualties when he spoke to the Security Council.

Afghans, including fighters for the Quds Force, expressed anger and frustration at Iran’s handling of these deaths, posting near-daily messages on a social media channel dedicated to Fatemiyoun voices. Some members questioned the silence of the Quds Force, calling it discrimination.

Among the men killed were two senior commanders who were close allies of the slain former Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, according to Iranian media reports and photographs of them together in the Syrian battlefield. They were identified as Seyed Ali Hosseini and Seyed Hamzeh Alavi.

Most of the Afghans who fled to Iran over the years were Hazaras, one of the largest ethnic groups in their country who share the Shiite Muslim faith with most Iranians.

At home in Afghanistan, the Hazaras were among the natural allies of US forces because they shared common enemies in the Taliban and in al-Qaeda. But in the convoluted landscape of the Middle East today, they are now aligned with Iran and seeking to chase US forces out of the region.

In Syria, the Fatemiyoun force was often the first line of defense in the battle against ISIS and was widely credited for helping take back several Syrian cities.

The government newspaper Iran said last week that at least 3,000 members of the force were killed in Syria over the years. The United States designated the Fatemiyoun as a terrorist organization in 2019.

A former member of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan who was born and raised in Iran and was deployed to Syria three times, said he was drawn to the force because it provided an opportunity to escape crushing poverty and unemployment in Iran and gain legal status.

Asking that his name not be published for fear of retribution, he said many fighters also joined out of a desire to protect Shiite Islam and defeat a Sunni extremist force similar to the ones that had persecuted Hazaras in Afghanistan.

Another Afghan refugee, Mohamad, a 31-year-old Hazara Shiite and a former military officer in Afghanistan who fled to Iran when the Taliban retook the country, said in a telephone interview that he had a master’s degree but works in construction. Afghans also must worry about a growing crackdowns on undocumented migrants and threats of deportation, he said.

“One of my Afghan friends who is from my hometown told me he wants to join the Fatemiyoun out of pure financial desperation and fear of being sent back to Afghanistan,” said Mohamad, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation.

“We are stuck, with no way forward and no way back.”
Analysts say that there is no evidence that Fatemiyoun forces were directly involved in attacks against US bases in Iraq and Syria, which the Pentagon says have been targeted more than 160 times by Iran-backed proxies since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

But the Fatemiyoun Brigade plays a significant role in helping Iran coordinate logistics on the ground for the network of militias it supports, funds and arms across the region.
The Fatemiyoun forces oversee bases that serve as key stops along the supply chain of weapons, including drones, missile parts and technology, that makes its way from Iran to Iraq and then Syria and to Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to analysts and a military strategist affiliated with the Guards, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Charles Lister, said that when the wider Syrian conflict froze several years ago, there was an expectation that Fatemiyoun would go home, disband, and demobilize.

“But they have kind of melted into the wider regional network and have found a role to play — holding ground, coordinating logistics and wider coordination on the ground.”

US fighter jets destroyed the base where the Fatemiyoun were killed in Deir al-Zour, in eastern Syria, leaving a pile of rubble, mangled bricks and debris, according to a photograph published on the website Saberin News, affiliated with Iran’s proxy militias.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment specifically about the US strikes killing Afghan fighters for Iran. But he said the strikes were conducted to hold the Guard and their proxies accountable and that “initial indications are that over 40 militants associated with Iranian proxy groups were killed or injured.”

Iranian commanders and key personnel were evacuated from the bases in anticipation of the US strikes as the Biden administration signaled for nearly a week that attacks were pending. But Afghans remained at the base, one Iranian official affiliated with the Guards said, adding that military bases couldn’t be abandoned.

At the funeral for five of the Afghans, including the two senior commanders, Hojatolislam Alireza Panahian, a prominent conservative cleric, told the mourners that the enemy was “dumb” to kill vulnerable Afghans.

“They are martyrs without borders, and jihadists for Islam and the resistance front,” he added.

The New York Times


A Key Withdrawal Shows Ukraine Doesn’t Have Enough Artillery to Fight Russia 

A Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Aug. 18, 2023. (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Aug. 18, 2023. (AP)
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A Key Withdrawal Shows Ukraine Doesn’t Have Enough Artillery to Fight Russia 

A Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Aug. 18, 2023. (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier sits in his position in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Aug. 18, 2023. (AP)

Dwindling ammunition threatens Ukraine’s hold on the 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line under withering assault by Russian artillery. Defensive lines are in jeopardy.

Ukrainian forces withdrew from the city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region on Saturday after daily Russian onslaughts from three directions for the last four months.

Avdiivka was a stronghold for Ukrainian positions deeper inside the country, away from Russia. A frontline city ever since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, the fortified settlement with a maze of trenches and tunnels served to protect important — less strengthened — logistical hubs further west.

Its seizure boosts Russian morale and confirms that the Kremlin’s troops are now setting the pace in the fight, to the dismay of Ukrainian forces who have managed only incremental gains since their counteroffensive last year.

CONGRESSIONAL INACTION The Biden administration linked the loss of Avdiivka to Congressional inaction on $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine.

President Joe Biden said he told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a Saturday phone call after Ukraine announced it was withdrawing troops from Avdiivka that he remained confident that the US funding would eventually come through. But, when reporters asked if he was confident a deal could be struck before Ukraine loses more territory, Biden responded: “I’m not.”

DWINDLING SUPPLIES The Associated Press interviewed over a dozen commanders, including heads of artillery units, in the war’s most intense combat zones in the weeks ahead of Avdiivka’s fall. They said shortages, which have always plagued Ukrainian forces since the full-scale invasion, grew acute last autumn.

Dwindling supplies of Western-supplied long-range artillery in particular means Ukrainian forces are inhibited from striking high-value targets deep behind Russian lines, where heavy equipment and personnel are accumulated.

For weeks, Ukrainian forces across the frontline have complained about critical shortages in ammunition, with some artillery batteries fighting with only 10 percent of supply they need. Desperate to economize shells, military leaders ordered units to fire at only precise targets. But commanders on the ground say this is barely enough to restrain their better supplied enemy. Concerns are growing that without military aid the fall of Avdiivka may be repeated in other parts of the frontline.

A VICTORY FOR MOSCOW The withdrawal of Ukrainian soldiers from the heavily fortified town handed Russia its biggest victory since the battle of Bakhmut last year. It will allow the Kremlin’s troops to push their offensive further west, deeper into Ukrainian-held territory over less-fortified areas. Pokrovsk, a railway junction further east, could be the next Russian objective, military bloggers said.

Russian military officials and war bloggers said that the capture of Avdiivka reduced the threat to the Russian-held city of Donetsk.

ECONOMIZING SHELLS “Currently the ammunition deficit is quite serious. We are constantly promised that more is coming, but we don’t see it coming,” said Khorobryi, commander of an artillery battery. Their battery has only 5-10% of ammunition needed, he said.

That, he said, robs forces of their ability to effectively attack and regain territories. Even worse, Ukraine loses fighters because it cannot give infantry covering infantry fire.

He, like other officers interviewed for this story, spoke on condition that only their first names be used for security reasons.

“We have nothing to fight with, we have nothing to cover our frontlines,” said Valerie, who commands a howitzer unit that uses NATO-standard 155 mm rounds. To repel a Russian attack, he said they needed 100-120 shells per unit per day. Today, they have a tenth of that, he said.

RUSSIA CHANGES TACTICS Ukrainian soldiers positioned in Avdiivka said that before the fall of the city Russia had switched tactics to capitalize on dire ammunition shortages.

Instead of sending columns of armed vehicles, Moscow’s forces began dispatching waves of smaller infantry groups to engage Ukrainian forces in close quarters. It meant Ukrainian forces had to expel “five times” more ammunition to keep them at bay.

“The enemy also understands and feels our capabilities, and with that, they manage to succeed,” said Chaklun, a soldier in the 110th Brigade.

A FRAGILE NORTH Concerns abound about how the ammunition shortage will impact Ukrainian forces in other sectors of the frontline. The Kupiansk line, in Ukraine’s northeast, is fragile. Russia has been intensifying attacks in the direction for months in a bid to recapture the important logistics hub it had lost in the fall of 2022.

Yuri, the commander of the 44th Brigade in Kupiansk, said his aerial reconnaissance units spot many long-range targets, including Russian mortars and grenade launchers, but because they don’t have enough ammunition, they can’t hit them.

Instead, he has no choice but to watch how his enemy accumulates reserves at a distance.

Oleksandr, the commander of a battalion of the 32nd Brigade in Kupiansk said he had just enough shells - for now.

“But it depends on the intensity from the Russian side. If they increase it, it won’t be enough to hold this line,” he said.


From Gaza to Geneva: Swiss Doctor Evacuates Injured Children

 Geneva-based doctor Raouf Salti holds 17-month-old Zeina, next to 16-year-old Yussef, both of whom were evacuated from Gaza to Switzerland to receive medical treatment, at Geneva airport, Switzerland, February 12, 2024. (Reuters)
Geneva-based doctor Raouf Salti holds 17-month-old Zeina, next to 16-year-old Yussef, both of whom were evacuated from Gaza to Switzerland to receive medical treatment, at Geneva airport, Switzerland, February 12, 2024. (Reuters)
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From Gaza to Geneva: Swiss Doctor Evacuates Injured Children

 Geneva-based doctor Raouf Salti holds 17-month-old Zeina, next to 16-year-old Yussef, both of whom were evacuated from Gaza to Switzerland to receive medical treatment, at Geneva airport, Switzerland, February 12, 2024. (Reuters)
Geneva-based doctor Raouf Salti holds 17-month-old Zeina, next to 16-year-old Yussef, both of whom were evacuated from Gaza to Switzerland to receive medical treatment, at Geneva airport, Switzerland, February 12, 2024. (Reuters)

When Swiss doctor Raouf Salti realized he could not go to Gaza to help injured children, he decided he would do everything he could to get them to Geneva to receive medical care.

After dealing with swathes of red tape, Salti got permission to have four children, including a 16-year-old who lost a kidney and has already had his leg amputated, cross into Egypt from Gaza and then fly to Switzerland on Monday.

Salti, who went to Egypt to pick them up, waved as he was greeted by his team at Geneva airport with Zeina, a wide-eyed 17-month-old who was rescued from under the rubble in Gaza, in his arms.

"When I saw that the situation kept getting worse, I decided that my mission this time would be to go there and bring them here," said Salti, who has taken part in several international humanitarian trips to Gaza as well as other parts of the Middle East and Africa over the past 14 years.

Salti, a urological surgeon and himself a descendant of Palestinian refugees, had been scheduled to travel to Gaza on Oct. 19 to carry out operations including a planned kidney surgery on a toddler.

But his humanitarian mission, part of his work as founder of an NGO called Children's Right for Healthcare, was called off due to the Israeli offensive launched in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas gunmen.

The four children who arrived in Geneva on Monday are the second group that Salti has managed to evacuate to Switzerland, bringing their total number to eight. The children have been granted 90-day visas to receive medical care.

"What is important is giving them a normal life, with people, calm, peace and love. A child's life," Salti said after arriving at his office with the children and their mothers.

The four were chosen with help from his contacts in Gaza on the basis that they were well enough to travel and that they could be helped in Switzerland.

Sixteen-year-old Yussef, who lost his left leg and had his kidney crushed in an Israeli attack, is emaciated, weighing less than 30 kg (66 pounds). Doctors in Gaza amputated the remainder of the leg that had been blown off, but he still needs to gain strength and ultimately be given a prosthetic.

Zeina, the 17-month-old, was initially treated at Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest facility in the Gaza Strip, which was raided by Israeli forces in November.

Her tiny left arm, supported by a sling, sustained several fractures that doctors attempted to repair using an external fixation, but the structure had to be removed due to an infection.

"You can't talk about sterile (equipment) there anymore, it doesn't exist," Salti said.


Some Palestinians Leave Rafah Refuge, Fearing Israeli Assault

 Palestinians leave Rafah, in fear of an Israeli military operation, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, February 13, 2024. (Reuters)
Palestinians leave Rafah, in fear of an Israeli military operation, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, February 13, 2024. (Reuters)
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Some Palestinians Leave Rafah Refuge, Fearing Israeli Assault

 Palestinians leave Rafah, in fear of an Israeli military operation, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, February 13, 2024. (Reuters)
Palestinians leave Rafah, in fear of an Israeli military operation, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, February 13, 2024. (Reuters)

Nahla Jarwan fled her home in the central Gaza Strip to seek refuge in Rafah - like more than 1 million other Palestinians escaping Israel's military offensive.

Now, as Israeli shells crash into Rafah, Jarwan said she is going back to an area she fled, even though nowhere is safe.

She is one of dozens of people who residents said were leaving Rafah on Tuesday after Israeli shelling and air strikes in recent days.

"I fled Al-Maghazi, came to Rafah, and here I am, returning to Al-Maghazi," said Jarwan, referring to the refugee camp from which she fled earlier in the conflict.

"Last night in Rafah was very tough. We're going back to Al-Maghazi out of fear - displaced from one area to another; hopefully Al-Maghazi area would safe, God willing."

"Wherever we go, there is no safety," she said.

Describing Rafah as Hamas' "last bastion", Israel plans to expand its offensive there to try to eradicate the group behind the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and over 250 abducted, according to Israeli tallies.

For Palestinians, Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip has provided sanctuary from an Israeli offensive which has killed more than 28,000 people, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

UNRWA, a UN agency which provides Palestinians with aid and essential services, says there are nearly 1.5 million people in Rafah, six times the population compared to before Oct. 7.

Israeli tanks shelled the eastern sector of Rafah city overnight, residents reported, though the anticipated ground offensive did not appear to have started.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has said it has ordered the army to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah.

'TIRED OF FLEEING'

Sitting in a car crammed with possessions ready to depart, Jarwan said she hoped for a quick end to the war.

"We're tired of fleeing from one city to another," she said. "I'm hoping the world stands with us and looks at us with a kind, merciful eye."

Describing Palestinian victims as martyrs, she said: "We're tired - we're always crying. Martyrs, shelling, destruction, death, starvation, thirst, there is no food."

US President Joe Biden has told Netanyahu that Israel should not proceed with an operation in Rafah without a plan to ensure the safety of people sheltering there.

Aid officials and foreign governments say there is nowhere for them to go.

Momen Shbair said he would return to Khan Younis, about eight km (five miles) away, after what he also described as a tough night in Rafah.

"We're lost. We don't know where to go. I pray that the whole world pressures Israel to end the war," he said, driving a donkey cart along a sand road by the sea.

"We're tired (of going) from one place to another."


Power Cuts in Syrian Capital Drive Workers, Students to Cafes 

Students Shadi (L), Pierre (C) and George study at a cafe in the Syrian capital Damascus on January 30, 2023. (AFP)
Students Shadi (L), Pierre (C) and George study at a cafe in the Syrian capital Damascus on January 30, 2023. (AFP)
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Power Cuts in Syrian Capital Drive Workers, Students to Cafes 

Students Shadi (L), Pierre (C) and George study at a cafe in the Syrian capital Damascus on January 30, 2023. (AFP)
Students Shadi (L), Pierre (C) and George study at a cafe in the Syrian capital Damascus on January 30, 2023. (AFP)

Majida has been working from a central Damascus cafe almost every day for a year, depending on it for reliable electricity and wifi in a country plagued by debilitating power cuts.

"Without cafes, I would have been unable to work because of the long blackouts at home," said the graphic designer, 42, declining to provide her surname.

Enterprising owners have upgraded their businesses with generators and batteries to guarantee power and draw in Damascenes plagued by Syria's war-battered and crumbling infrastructure.

"I need a continuous power supply (to work) -- and I get my inspiration from the people here," added Majida, drawing designs on a tablet on the cafe's sofa.

Nearly 13 years of war have hammered Syria's infrastructure, including power stations and energy pipelines, leading to power outages that can drag on for up to 20 hours a day.

Key oil and gas fields in the country's northeast have not been under government control for years, while Western sanctions have hampered resource imports and strained public funds.

In 2021, Economy Minister Samer al-Khalil said energy sector losses since 2011 amounted to around "$100 billion in direct and indirect damages".

In the Syrian capital, the shortages have sparked a boom in cafes turned informal co-working spaces for electricity hungry workers and students.

At Flow Space Coffee, a colorful cafe with a quiet, studious ambiance, customers including Majida type on laptops or sip coffee while shuffling through papers.

'A necessity'

The owner, Ihsan Azmeh, 38, whose friendly white dog Lilly is also a regular, said he wanted the cafe to be a place for young workers and students when he opened it three years ago.

"Damascus cafes solve at least three problems for people these days: electricity, internet and heating," he said.

Azmeh has rearranged the furniture to accommodate a growing number of workers seeking makeshift offices, with benches resembling school desks and a large rectangular table for meetings.

He bought a generator and has installed a battery system that kicks in when state power drops out, ensuring a constant electricity supply. Azmeh also doubled the number of outlets for charging mobile phones and other devices.

"I often find myself sleeping at the cafe instead of heading home" to avoid long power cuts, he added.

Across the city in the eastern neighborhood of Bab Tuma, known for its cafes and bars, Saint-Michel Coffee has also become a haven for freelancers and students.

Visiting the cafe "is not an option for me, but a necessity" said George Kassari, 18, a computer science student at Damascus University.

"As soon as I arrive, I take out all my devices to charge them," he said, adding that he and his sister often recharge each other's electronics at the cafe.

'Only solution'

Muhammad Sabahi, a student who works as a website developer for a company in the Gulf, was preparing for an online meeting at a table nearby.

"I work from the cafe every day," said the 22-year-old, adding: "I now have a fixed seat here, employees know my favorite drink by heart and they begin making it as soon as I arrive."

If not for the coffee shop, "I would have failed my university exams and lost my job," he said.

"This is the only solution for me and many of my friends," he added, a large bag filled with chargers, cables and other necessities sitting beside him.

Medical student Shadi Elias, 18, said he chased sunlight around his home by day and read his textbooks by torchlight at night, heading to the nearest coffee shop whenever the batteries ran out.

"Cafes are crowded during the exam periods, so I make sure to come early," he said, sitting near a chalkboard with drawings of lightbulbs reading "battery-powered".

"This place turns into a big classroom -- we borrow pens, papers, books and sometimes even phone chargers from each other," he said with a smile.


How Does Erdogan’s Visit to Cairo Contribute to Developing Relations with Egypt?

Sisi and Erdogan meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. (dpa)
Sisi and Erdogan meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. (dpa)
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How Does Erdogan’s Visit to Cairo Contribute to Developing Relations with Egypt?

Sisi and Erdogan meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. (dpa)
Sisi and Erdogan meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. (dpa)

- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to arrive in Cairo on Wednesday to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

The one-day visit is the first of its kind in more than 11 years and is seen as the beginning of a new page in relations between the two countries following a period of tensions.

The Cairo talks, according to a statement by the Turkish presidency, focus on “possible steps to be taken within the framework of developing relations between Turkiye and Egypt and activating high-level bilateral cooperation mechanisms.”

The two leaders will also exchange views “on current global and regional issues, especially the Israeli attacks on Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories,” the statement added.

The two countries have appointed ambassadors in July to restore their relations, after a diplomatic rupture that lasted for years against the backdrop of Ankara’s support for the Brotherhood organization, which is banned in Egypt, following the revolt of June 30, 2013.

Sisi and Erdogan shook hands during the opening of the World Cup in Qatar at the end of 2022. They later held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in September.

The visit comes at a crucial stage in the region, according to the head of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Al-Arabi, who told Asharq Al-Awsat that it is an important turn in the course of relations between the two countries after the long hiatus.

Turkish political analyst Jawad Gok noted that the visit is consistent with the radical changes in Ankara’s policy in recent years, which strengthens the Turkish-Arab partnership while adhering to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries.

In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat, Gok said that Erdogan’s trip to Cairo enjoys support from various political movements and media outlets, even those opposed to the president’s policies.

Karam Saeed, expert on Turkish affairs at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the visit is part of the approach of circumventing controversial issues and taking relations to a “strategic level.”

He added that Cairo will support the strengthening of Turkish investments in the country, while Ankara has an opportunity to benefit from the Egyptian role in gas projects in the Eastern Mediterranean, or to expand its presence in Africa, in addition to cooperation in the field of defense and military industries in a way that serves the interests of the two countries.


‘Hell Falling’: Fear and Grief in Rafah After Deadly Israeli Raid 

A child looks on as Palestinians inspect a destroyed area following an Israeli airstrike on the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 12 February 2024. (EPA)
A child looks on as Palestinians inspect a destroyed area following an Israeli airstrike on the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 12 February 2024. (EPA)
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‘Hell Falling’: Fear and Grief in Rafah After Deadly Israeli Raid 

A child looks on as Palestinians inspect a destroyed area following an Israeli airstrike on the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 12 February 2024. (EPA)
A child looks on as Palestinians inspect a destroyed area following an Israeli airstrike on the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 12 February 2024. (EPA)

Majed al-Afifi was just 40 days old when he was killed, his uncle told AFP in Rafah where Israeli forces bombed multiple homes while rescuing two Gaza hostages.

"We heard the bombing without warning," said Said al-Hams, 26, in Rafah refugee camp.

His nephew, a twin, "was born exactly 40 days ago and was killed", while their mother was wounded.

The newborn is among around 100 people killed by Israeli forces overnight in Rafah, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

Dozens of Israeli strikes pounded Rafah, where some 1.4 million people have sought refuge during four months of war between Israel and Hamas militants.

While there was jubilation in Israel over the liberation of the two hostages, in Rafah people recounted a fearful night.

"The situation was hell," said Abu Suhaib, who was sleeping dozens of meters from where Israeli forces struck.

"We heard the sound of explosions, like hell falling down on civilians," he told AFP.

The 28-year-old said he heard warplanes firing, shooting and a helicopter landing.

A massive pile of rubble stands where multiple buildings were flattened by Israeli strikes, beside the remains of a four-storey house.

Witnesses said the residents of the house fled two months ago, after the Israeli military warned them it would be bombed.

The aerial bombardment also left five vast craters, at least 10 meters wide and five metres deep, an AFP journalist said.

"I can't tell you how we survived the night," said Abu Abdullah al-Qadi, who was woken by the sound of shooting.

"They killed my cousin, they killed a lot of people with strikes," he told AFP, as dozens gathered by the destroyed buildings.

"They stormed this building and it appears that they freed prisoners -- and then they bombed it," said Qadi.

"They bombed all the houses next to it," he added.

'A terrifying night'

The refugee camp sits in the heart of Rafah, where vast crowds have gathered after following Israeli orders to flee other parts of Gaza.

Despite mounting international alarm at a possible ground invasion of the city, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Monday that "continued military pressure" is the only way to free all hostages.

Palestinian militants seized about 250 hostages during their October 7 attack on southern Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures. Israel says around 130 are still in Gaza, though 29 are thought to be dead.

The Hamas attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

The relentless offensive by Israel has killed at least 28,340 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the latest health ministry toll.

Fearing an onslaught by ground forces, dozens of families already displaced by the war started packing up their scant belongings on Monday.

"It was a terrifying night," said Alaa Mohammed, from northern Gaza, dismantling a tent in western Rafah.

"What happened at night foreshadows something big happening in Rafah. It seems that the Israeli army will enter Rafah as they announced," said the 42-year-old.

The family is planning on travelling to the Deir al-Balah area of central Gaza, an earlier focus for Israeli troops after they destroyed swathes of the north.

Mohammed started gathering their blankets and mattresses, after a sleepless night, while relatives went in search of transport.

"A lot of families around me undid their tents like us," he said.

"I hope we can find a car or a truck. We called more than one driver we know, but all of them are busy."