Lebanese Vow 'Revenge' against Ruling Elite at the Ballot Boxes

Lebanese expats queue to cast their votes for the May 15 legislative election at Lebanon's Consulate in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on May 8, 2022. (AFP)
Lebanese expats queue to cast their votes for the May 15 legislative election at Lebanon's Consulate in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on May 8, 2022. (AFP)
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Lebanese Vow 'Revenge' against Ruling Elite at the Ballot Boxes

Lebanese expats queue to cast their votes for the May 15 legislative election at Lebanon's Consulate in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on May 8, 2022. (AFP)
Lebanese expats queue to cast their votes for the May 15 legislative election at Lebanon's Consulate in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on May 8, 2022. (AFP)

Joe, a Lebanese man in his 30s, is determined to "seek revenge" against his country's ruling elite by voting for forces of change and the opposition in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Joe, who hails from the region of Jezzine, east of the southern city of Sidon, told Asharq Al-Awsat: "I want revenge against the ruling class that has led Lebanon to complete collapse and looted the funds of depositors and their life's savings."

He admitted that he had voted for the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by President Michel Aoun and now headed by his son-in-law and MP Gebran Bassil, during the 2018 elections.

His position has since changed after the FPM, which holds the presidency and the parliamentary majority, "had stood idly by as the people lost their life's savings."

"This presidency led us to the bottom of the abyss and so punishment is inevitable," he stressed.

This view is shared by several Lebanese who are seeking collective punishment of the ruling elite. They will vote along the slogan of the 2019 popular uprising of "Everyone means everyone."

Others have singled out Aoun and Bassil and their ally Hezbollah, blaming them for the current state of affairs in Lebanon, saying they will "reap what they sow" at the ballot boxes.

Lebanese seeking the "revenge vote" have expressed their complete rejection of the current political class, blaming it for the loss of their life's savings at banks, endless power cuts, the rise in the prices of medicine, fuel and food, the collapse of the local currency and several other numerous crises.

Moreover, many of these voters believe that the elections will be a prime opportunity to curb Hezbollah's influence that has "isolated Lebanon from its Arab environment."

On the other hand, many Lebanese have expressed their disappointment and frustration with the opposition and forces of change that failed in uniting their ranks and producing unified lists for the elections.

Dina, who votes in Beirut's second electoral district, said she was torn between voting for the forces of change or submitting a blank vote.

Dina, who is in her 40s, had taken part in the 2019 protests against the ruling elite and dropped her support for political parties. She told Asharq Al-Awsat that she is disappointed that the revolution has since 2019 become "scattered" with its members failing to field a united list against the ruling elite.

In the northern city of Tripoli, one resident said he will vote for the forces of change even though he was not impressed with their candidates.

The man, unemployed and in his 20s, told Asharq Al-Awsat that his family is divided between those who want to vote for the ruling elite and his siblings and cousins, who will vote for the forces of change.

"I am aware that voting for the forces of change will not take us from the abyss to the top in the blink of an eye, but it will at least drive a nail in the coffin of the ruling system," he remarked.

"We know the result of a vote for the ruling elite. We have endured it for the past 20 years."

"A boycott of the elections is an implicit acceptance of the current rulers, while a vote for the forces of change offers a glimmer of hope for us and punishes the ruling system," he stressed.

Elections expert Abbas Bou Zeid told Asharq Al-Awsat that votes for the opposition are an act of revenge against the ruling class.

He acknowledged that several people have been disappointed with the opposition for failing to field a unified list. The opposition groups have shown a lack of cohesion, which may prompt people to boycott the elections or vote blank.

"The opposition forces are still in the nascent phase," he remarked, citing the numerous opposition lists that have been fielded.

He noted that it remains to be seen whether the Aounists and Shiite duo of Hezbollah and the Amal movement will be punished in the elections. "We will find out when the results are announced on May 16."

Another elections expert, Kamal Feghali said several people will be seeking revenge against the ruling elite in the elections.

He cited studies he had carried out that show that the FPM will lose at least 7 points in its popularity in the elections. The FPM, which had won 26 percent of seats at parliament, is set to reap less than 20 percent this year.

As for Hezbollah, he noted that anger is brimming among its Shiite support base, with 35 percent of them now opposed to the party.

This rejection could have been reflected better had the forces of the revolution produced a unified opposition list, he lamented.

He revealed that 37 percent of people have expressed their determination to vote for the forces of change to punish the ruling elite. The number of those angry with the ruling class is much higher than this and will be revealed by the results of the vote.

He said the opposition's failure to unify its ranks will cost it in the elections. Prior to the announcement of their electoral lists, the opposition had enjoyed 45 percent support among the people. That number dropped to 20 percent after they failed to unite, with their lists falling below the voters' expectations.

"Unfortunately, the forces of change have appeared scattered and they have not proven their seriousness, which has disappointed the voters," said Feghali.

This disappointment may be reflected in a boycott or blank votes, or even votes for members of the ruling class beyond the FPM and Hezbollah.



In Third Year of War, Why Ukraine’s Fate Hinges on West

People stand at the memorial site for those killed during the war, near Maidan Square in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)
People stand at the memorial site for those killed during the war, near Maidan Square in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)
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In Third Year of War, Why Ukraine’s Fate Hinges on West

People stand at the memorial site for those killed during the war, near Maidan Square in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)
People stand at the memorial site for those killed during the war, near Maidan Square in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP)

As the war in Ukraine enters its third year, the conflict will be determined not just on the battlefield but also in Western capitals and other places far from the front lines.

With Ukrainian forces on the back foot, short of ammunition and forced to retreat in some areas, Kyiv's ability to repel Russia's invasion depends heavily on Western military, financial and political backing.

Here are some of the factors that may influence Western support for Ukraine in the year ahead:

US aid package in Congress

A bill stuck in the US Congress that includes some $60 billion in aid for Ukraine - much of it military - is vital for Kyiv's forces, Western and Ukrainian officials say.

"Every week we wait means that there will be more people killed on the frontline in Ukraine," NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg told a major security conference in Munich last weekend.

The US Senate passed the bill, which also includes aid for Israel and Taiwan, on Feb. 13. But it faces strong resistance from Republicans close to ex-President Donald Trump in the House of Representatives. House Speaker Mike Johnson has resisted pressure from the White House to call a vote on the bill.

European officials said they were somewhat more positive about the legislation's prospects after discussions with US lawmakers at the Munich conference but expected it would still take some time before the measure passes, if it does at all.

Ammunition supply

Much of the war has descended into grinding artillery battles, with both sides firing thousands of shells every day.

Ukraine could fire more shells than Russia for much of 2023 but the tables have turned as Moscow has ramped up production and imported rounds from North Korea and Iran, analysts say.

Michael Kofman, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think-tank, estimates Russian artillery is firing at five times the rate of Ukraine's.

A vital factor for Kyiv this year will be "whether Western partners can catch up to Russian artillery production and supply Ukraine with the shells and barrels they need", said Professor Justin Bronk, a researcher at British defense think tank RUSI.

Weapons decisions

Ukrainian leaders have also been pushing their Western counterparts to deliver new weapons systems, above all longer-range missiles to strike further behind Russian lines, such as US ATACMS and Germany's Taurus.

"We can't increase the production of ammunition overnight. But we can take decisions immediately to deliver to the Ukrainians weapons they really need," said former NATO boss Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a close ally of the Ukrainian government.

The US has supplied only older, medium-range ATACMS but the Biden administration is now working towards delivering newer longer-range weaponry. However, any such move may depend on approval of the aid bill currently held up by the House.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has resisted entreaties from Kyiv and some NATO allies to supply the highly advanced Taurus system. German officials have cited concerns that the missiles could escalate the war inside Russian territory and could be seen as more direct German involvement in the conflict.

War in the Middle East

The war in Gaza, triggered by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, means Western leaders have had less time and political energy to devote to Ukraine. If it deteriorates further or escalates into a regional war, that will be even more the case.

Also, leaders in the Global South have accused the West of double standards over its attitudes to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, making it more difficult for Kyiv and its allies to rally support for a summit in support of Ukraine's peace blueprint.

"Russia is definitely benefiting from those developments," said Vsevolod Chentsov, Ukraine's ambassador to the European Union.

"We work with the Global South, we try to engage them as much as possible in our efforts ... We keep working on that, it's a difficult issue."

NATO summit, Washington July 9-11

The summit may not directly affect the battlefield but could affect the political mood and morale in Ukraine.

Ukraine and some of its supporters continue to push NATO to invite Kyiv to join the military alliance - whose members pledge to treat an attack on one of them as an attack on all - or at least bring the country closer to membership.

But the United States, NATO's predominant power, and Germany are among those resisting such a step, arguing it could draw the alliance closer to a direct conflict with Russia, diplomats say.

Rasmussen, the former NATO boss, is working with the Ukrainian government and a group of international figures on a proposal that would set out a clear path to membership, with the aim of influencing the outcome of the Washington summit.

US presidential election

Trump was a fierce critic of NATO as president, repeatedly threatening to pull out of the alliance. He cut defense funding to NATO and frequently said that the United States was paying more than its fair share.

On Russia's war in Ukraine, Trump has called for de-escalation and complained about the billions spent so far, although he has put forward few tangible policy proposals.

President Joe Biden, 81, made the controversial decision to run for a second term in large part because he was convinced he would face Trump, 77, and because he thinks he is the Democrat who can beat him in the November election.

But public opinion polls show him tied with Trump and Americans continue to worry about high prices and question his age, his economic plans and his policies on the border and in the Middle East.

Trump has held a commanding lead against his rivals for the Republican nomination despite his mounting legal troubles. However, a Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier this month showed that one in four self-identified Republicans and about half of independents responding said they would not vote for Trump if he was convicted of a felony crime by a jury.


What Are the Security Deals Ukraine Is Discussing with Allies?

Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen (S), the Prime Minister's husband Bo Tengberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a memorial ceremony at the Field of Mars at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Friday 23 February 2024. (Ritzau Scanpix/via Reuters)
Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen (S), the Prime Minister's husband Bo Tengberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a memorial ceremony at the Field of Mars at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Friday 23 February 2024. (Ritzau Scanpix/via Reuters)
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What Are the Security Deals Ukraine Is Discussing with Allies?

Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen (S), the Prime Minister's husband Bo Tengberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a memorial ceremony at the Field of Mars at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Friday 23 February 2024. (Ritzau Scanpix/via Reuters)
Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen (S), the Prime Minister's husband Bo Tengberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a memorial ceremony at the Field of Mars at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Friday 23 February 2024. (Ritzau Scanpix/via Reuters)

Denmark became the latest NATO member to sign a 10-year agreement on security cooperation with Ukraine on Friday, the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion.

Italy and the Netherlands said they were planning to sign soon.

WHAT ARE THESE SECURITY ARRANGEMENTS?

The Group of Seven wealthy nations signed a joint declaration at the NATO summit in Vilnius in July last year committing to establish "long-term security commitments and arrangements" with Ukraine that would be negotiated bilaterally.

The deals would promise continued provision of military and security aid, support to develop Ukraine's defense industrial base, training Ukrainian soldiers, intelligence-sharing and cooperation, and support for cyber defense.

The sides would also immediately hold consultations with Kyiv to determine "appropriate next steps" in the event of a "future Russian armed attack".

More than 30 countries have since signed the declaration.

WOULD THIS BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR NATO MEMBERSHIP?

Kyiv says the arrangements should contain important and concrete security commitments, but that the agreements would in no way to replace its strategic goal of joining NATO. The Western alliance regards any attack launched on one of its 31 members as an attack on all under its Article Five clause.

"There has been speculation that by concluding enough of these agreements, we do not need membership. False. We need NATO membership," said Ihor Zhovkva, the Ukrainian president's foreign affairs adviser.

WHO HAS SIGNED DEALS SO FAR?

Germany and France signed agreements on security commitments with Ukraine when President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Berlin and Paris earlier this month.

Britain in January became the first country to sign one of the security agreements with Ukraine for a term of 10 years, by which time Kyiv hopes to be inside NATO.

London said the deal formalized a range of support that it "has been and will continue to provide for Ukraine's security, including intelligence-sharing, cyber security, medical and military training, and defense industrial cooperation".

WHICH OTHER COUNTRIES ARE SET TO SIGN DEALS?

Ukraine has held at least two rounds of talks on the agreements with all the G7 countries, Zhovkva said.

More than 10 countries are in the active stage of talks or potentially starting soon, he added. The additional countries include Romania, Poland and the Netherlands.

The Netherlands said on Friday it would soon sign a 10-year security deal with Ukraine for continued military support, help in reconstruction and the improvement of its cyberdefenses.

"Without Western support, Ukraine as we know it will cease to exist," Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot said. "The Russian threat will move closer, putting pressure on the stability and safety of our continent."

WHAT DOES UKRAINE WANT FROM THE DEALS?

Ukraine's Zhovkva singled out as "very important" the provision in the British deal under which consultations could be held within 24 hours to provide swift and sustained aid.

This, he said, went beyond the "infamous" 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine was provided with security "assurances" by Britain, Russia and the United States in return for relinquishing nuclear weapons from its territory.

"We do not want to repeat the infamous experience of the Budapest declaration, which remained just a declaration," he said.

Zhovkva said there was no need for Ukraine to rush to agree deals. "I don't need 10 or 15 agreements concluded within one week. Rather, I would have this same 10 or 15 agreements deeply thought over, well-negotiated and with concrete signs of long-term and varied support for Ukraine."


Tunisia Farmer Turns to Old Wheat Varieties as Climate Change Bites

Tunisian wheat farmer Hasan Chetoui, who is sowing old wheat varieties that he hopes will produce crops throughout the year, sifts wheat at his farm in Manouba, Tunisia February 15, 2024. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui/ File photo Purchase Licensing Rights
Tunisian wheat farmer Hasan Chetoui, who is sowing old wheat varieties that he hopes will produce crops throughout the year, sifts wheat at his farm in Manouba, Tunisia February 15, 2024. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui/ File photo Purchase Licensing Rights
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Tunisia Farmer Turns to Old Wheat Varieties as Climate Change Bites

Tunisian wheat farmer Hasan Chetoui, who is sowing old wheat varieties that he hopes will produce crops throughout the year, sifts wheat at his farm in Manouba, Tunisia February 15, 2024. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui/ File photo Purchase Licensing Rights
Tunisian wheat farmer Hasan Chetoui, who is sowing old wheat varieties that he hopes will produce crops throughout the year, sifts wheat at his farm in Manouba, Tunisia February 15, 2024. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui/ File photo Purchase Licensing Rights

Tunisian wheat farmer Hasan Chetoui is seeking inspiration from the deep past as he tries to adapt to drought caused by climate change, sowing old wheat varieties that he hopes will produce crops throughout the year.

Chetoui does not believe his experiment with alternative types of wheat is likely to work everywhere, but he thinks it may help him cope after years of scant rains and heatwaves that destroyed much of his crop last year.

"We obtain an old Tunisian type of wheat, cultivated in the field, capable of producing multiple times a season, providing us with strategic solutions," he said.

Chetoui's farm is located in the Borj Al-Amri area of northern Tunisia, a region that was a bread basket for Mediterranean civilizations stretching back to ancient Rome and Carthage, though Tunisia is now a net wheat importer.

Years of drought affecting much of North Africa have emptied Tunisian reservoirs and dried up crops, while a succession of scorching summers have seared some of those that remain.

Chetoui hopes that by avoiding reliance on a single summer harvest, he may be able to produce at least some wheat even in bad years. He and agricultural union officials said other farmers have resorted to traditional seeds, but had only anecdotal accounts of their experience.

Agricultural experts in Tunisia are sceptical that old wheat varieties will succeed in protecting farmers from the impact of climate change, and point out that modern wheats produce far higher yields.

However, they also say older varieties may work better in certain areas or under specific conditions, and that Chetoui's experiments are worth under taking.

"We cannot determine whether they will succeed or fail because we cannot assess the effectiveness until it is implemented on a large scale," said Mohamed Rajaibia of the Tunisian Agricultural Union.

Chetoui began working on farms at the age of 12. Now 64, he still seeks seeds for old grain varieties including corn and barley as well as wheat, for use in his fields.

For years he has been sowing harvests with seeds that he says were used in his family for generations and were handed down to him by his father.

He has also used some old varieties from the Tunisian seed gene bank, he said, and has collected seeds from other farmers who said they were family inheritances including some that are not registered with the gene bank.

"We must rely on our original Tunisian seeds because, through experience and knowledge, these seeds hold the solution and can contribute to many strategic solutions in addressing food crises," he said, AFP reported.

Not all experts disagree with this notion.

"Original seeds are rooted in nature, rooted in the quality of the soil and rooted according to the location, and they have the ability to adapt," said Hussein al-Rhaili, an agriculture policy expert in Tunisia.


Iran Sends Russia Hundreds of Ballistic Missiles, Sources Say

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)
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Iran Sends Russia Hundreds of Ballistic Missiles, Sources Say

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)

Iran has provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, six sources told Reuters, deepening the military cooperation between the two US-sanctioned countries.

Iran's provision of around 400 missiles includes many from the Fateh-110 family of short-range ballistic weapons, such as the Zolfaghar, three Iranian sources said. This road-mobile missile is capable of striking targets at a distance of between 300 and 700 km (186 and 435 miles), experts say.

Iran's defense ministry and the Revolutionary Guards - an elite force that oversees Iran's ballistic missile program - declined to comment. Russia's defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The shipments began in early January after a deal was finalized in meetings late last year between Iranian and Russian military and security officials that took place in Tehran and Moscow, one of the Iranian sources said.

An Iranian military official - who, like the other sources, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information - said there had been at least four shipments of missiles and there would be more in the coming weeks. He declined to provide further details.

Another senior Iranian official said some of the missiles were sent to Russia by ship via the Caspian Sea, while others were transported by plane.

"There will be more shipments," the second Iranian official said. "There is no reason to hide it. We are allowed to export weapons to any country that we wish to."

UN Security Council restrictions on Iran's export of some missiles, drones and other technologies expired in October. However, the United States and European Union retained sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program amid concerns over exports of weapons to its proxies in the Middle East and to Russia.

A fourth source, familiar with the matter, confirmed that Russia had received a large number of missiles from Iran recently, without providing further details.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said in early January the United States was concerned that Russia was close to acquiring short-range ballistic weapons from Iran, in addition to missiles already sourced from North Korea.

A US official told Reuters that Washington had seen evidence of talks actively advancing but no indication yet of deliveries having taken place.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the missile deliveries.

Ukraine's top prosecutor said on Friday the ballistic missiles supplied by North Korea to Russia had proven unreliable on the battlefield, with only two of 24 hitting their targets. Moscow and Pyongyang have both denied that North Korea has provided Russia with munitions used in Ukraine.

By contrast, Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said the Fateh-110 family of missiles and the Zolfaghar were precision weapons.

"They are used to point at things that are high value and need precise damage," said Lewis, adding that 400 munitions could inflict considerable harm if used in Ukraine. He noted, however, that Russian bombardments were already "pretty brutal".

US AID DELAY WEAKENS UKRAINE'S DEFENSES

A Ukrainian military source told Reuters that Kyiv had not registered any use of Iranian ballistic missiles by Russian forces in the conflict. The Ukrainian defense ministry did not immediately reply to Reuters' request for comment.

Following the publication of this story, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Air Force told national television that it had no official information on Russia obtaining such missiles. He said that ballistic missiles would pose a serious threat to Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said that Russia wanted to supplement its missile arsenal at a time when delays in approving a major package of US military aid in Congress has left Ukraine short of ammunition and other material.

"The lack of US support means shortages of ground-based air defense in Ukraine. So they want to accumulate a mass of rockets and break through Ukrainian air defense," said Zagorodnyuk, who chairs the Kyiv-based Center for Defense Strategies, a security think tank, and advises the government.

Kyiv has repeatedly asked Tehran to stop supplying Shahed drones to Russia, which have become a staple of Moscow's long-range assaults on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, alongside an array of missiles.

Ukraine's air force said in December that Russia had launched 3,700 Shahed drones during the war, which can fly hundreds of kilometers and explode on impact. Ukrainians call them "mopeds" because of the distinctive sound of their engines; air defenses down dozens of them each week.

Iran initially denied supplying drones to Russia but months later said it had provided a small number before Moscow launched the war on Ukraine in 2022.

"Those who accuse Iran of providing weapons to one of the sides in the Ukraine war are doing so for political purposes," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, when asked about Tehran's delivery of drones to Russia. "We have not given any drones to take part in that war."

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said a supply of Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles from Iran would hand Russia an even greater advantage on the battlefield.

"They could be used to strike military targets at operational depths, and ballistic missiles are more difficult for Ukrainian air defenses to intercept," Lee said.

DEEPENING TIES WITH MOSCOW

Iran's hardline clerical rulers have steadily sought to deepen ties with Russia and China, betting that would help Tehran to resist US sanctions and to end its political isolation.

Defense cooperation between Iran and Russia has intensified since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, Amirali Hajizadeh, in Tehran in September, when Iran's drones, missiles and air defense systems were displayed for him, Iranian state media reported.

And last month, Russia's foreign ministry said it expected President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi to sign a broad new cooperation treaty soon, following talks in Moscow in December.

"This military partnership with Russia has shown the world Iran's defense capabilities," said the military official. "It does not mean we are taking sides with Russia in the Ukraine conflict."

The stakes are high for Iran's clerical rulers amid the war between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas that erupted after Oct. 7. They also face growing dissent at home over economic woes and social restrictions.

While Tehran tries to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel that could draw in the United States, its Axis of Resistance allies - including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen - have attacked Israeli and US targets.

A Western diplomat briefed on the matter confirmed the delivery of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia in the recent weeks, without providing more details.

He said Western nations were concerned that Russia's reciprocal transfer of weapons to Iran could strengthen its position in any possible conflict with the United States and Israel.

Iran said in November it had finalized arrangements for Russia to provide it with Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters and Yak-130 pilot training aircraft.

Analyst Gregory Brew at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said Russia is an ally of convenience for Iran.

"The relationship is transactional: in exchange for drones, Iran expects more security cooperation and advanced weaponry, particularly modern aircraft," he said.


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.