Mazloum Abdi: US Barred Türkiye from Carrying Out Military Operation in Syria 

SDF Commander tells Asharq Al-Awsat he won’t visit Damascus before conditions for political solution are available. 

SDF commander Mazloum Abdi. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
SDF commander Mazloum Abdi. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Mazloum Abdi: US Barred Türkiye from Carrying Out Military Operation in Syria 

SDF commander Mazloum Abdi. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
SDF commander Mazloum Abdi. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazloum Abdi said the American administration of former President Donald Trump “betrayed” its allies in the SDF when it did not oppose the Turkish infiltration in Syria in late 2019. In an interview to Asharq Al-Awsat, he revealed that the current administration has prevented Türkiye from carrying out a new operation in Syria. 

Asked if he was concerned that his forces would be “betrayed” again, he replied that “we are always worried but hope that the new American administration would fulfill its pledges and commitments and prevent Türkiye from carrying out any operation.” 

He noted that Turkish fighter jets had targeted the al-Hol camp for the displaced 80 kilometers deep into Syrian territory. “All Syrian skies were open to them and the US did nothing but make statements,” he stressed. 

Abdi spoke of the discussions he held with commander of the Russian forces in Syria Aleksandr Chaiko, who visited him at his headquarters east of the Euphrates River. They addressed Chaiko’s mediation with Ankara. “We can say that Russia is now standing in a neutral position between us and Türkiye,” said Abdi. 

Russia is trying to ensure that the 2019 Sochi agreement is being implemented and it is tackling violations when they happen. 

“On our end, we have many reservations over Türkiye and the many violations it is committing,” Abdi added. 

On the SDF’s role in Syria’s future, he stated that the force is generally part of the military’s defense organization. “But we have our conditions,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat over Zoom on Monday. “We have dispatched delegations to hold negotiations in Damascus. I want to go to Damascus when the conditions for a solution are right.” 

The SDF officially announced that it has stopped cooperation with the international anti-ISIS coalition. At the same time, we noticed that coalition and American forces deployed patrols in cooperation with the SDF. Can you explain this? 

Just so matters can be understood accurately, we had stated that the Turkish attacks were ongoing. The targeting of forces that were deploying these patrols led to the halt of these operations. The patrols were reduced to a minimum when the strikes were happening. Now, joint work has resumed. 

The issue was related to the security situation. Now that it has improved somewhat, the joint cooperation resumed. 

So cooperation between the SDF and coalition has returned to the way it was, whether related to fighting ISIS or in deploying patrols. 

Exactly. It has returned to the way it was 20 months ago. 

We noticed in recent days that the intense Turkish strikes had eased. Why? Was American pressure on Ankara truly behind this? 

I believe the American pressure on Ankara played a hand to an extent. With time, international pressure also mounted on Ankara. Ankara violated understandings that it had reached with Russia and the US alike. This prompted the major pressure that in turn led to a drop in strikes. 

The second factor, frankly, is that we, as a military force, had been well prepared. For example, the Kobani (Ain al-Arab) region, Manbij and Tal Rifaat were heavily attacked by Turkish jets and artillery, and yet, the SDF did not lose a single member. The Turks did not achieve their desired result.  

There is a belief that the US had granted Türkiye an undeclared green light to carry out its attacks over ten days. We have seen massive destruction of gas and oil infrastructure and attacks close to American military bases. Do you have any information about these claims? 

We can’t speak of a green light or coordination between the forces on the ground. But we have been very critical of the coalition forces because they are on the ground and had they fulfilled their pledges properly, the attacks would not have been this destructive. They had a very weak position towards the attacks. The Turks, just as the US Defense Department said, put the lives of American troops at risk. 

Did Turkish jets really fly over Syrian territory? 

They entered through Deir Ezzor. They struck the al-Hol camp, some 80 kilometers deep in Syrian territories. All Syrian skies were open to them. 

And the US did nothing to stop them? 

Nothing, but make statements to the media. 

The US or the West betrayed the Kurds seven times in the past 100 years Are you worried that another betrayal will happen or that Washington would abandon the Kurds in spite of the great sacrifices made in fighting ISIS? 

The last Turkish operation took place in 2019. At the time, coordination was ongoing between the Trump administration and the Turks, which led to the operation that we deemed a betrayal at the time. to take place. And to be honest, the American administration has since 2019 been exerting the greatest pressure to prevent Türkiye from carrying out a new ground operation. They have not allowed it 

Now, they have stated that the Biden administration will not allow a destructive ground operation to happen. 

We are always worried, but we hope the new American administration would fulfill its pledges and past commitments with Türkiye. We hope it would keep its word and prevent Türkiye from carrying out any operation. 

Days ago, you said that the Turkish escalation was a test to the Biden administration. Are you satisfied with the result of this test? Have you been reassured that the US is not plotting a betrayal? 

So far, we have seen that the Americans have been in direct contact with the Turks. We have asked them to keep up the pressure so that the Turks, specifically [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, would realize that they cannot launch any operation if they wanted to remain in power and continue to rule after the upcoming elections. 

So you are not worried about the betrayal? 
Let us be clear, that hasn’t happened yet. We are worried, and frankly, we believe the American position is not enough, but we will let things unfold over time. 

Agreements were reached between Russia, Türkiye and the US in 2019. Türkiye says that the SDF did not fulfill its pledges by withdrawing 30 or 32 kms from the border. Is it true that the SDF did not meet its pledges? 

Everyone knows that we fulfilled all agreements in full. The Russian guarantors have been around since 2019 and they are responsible for the agreement. As for the Americans, they have a deal with the Turks. 

What measures have you taken on the ground to carry out the agreement? 

First and foremost, the Turks’ main excuse was that there was a threat to their national security. Setting aside some extraordinary issues, we, as the SDF have repeatedly said that we have never carried out an operation that threatens Türkiye’s national security. No military operation directly aimed at Türkiye have been carried out from these regions. 

They have demanded the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the removal of all heavy weapons. Is this true? 

These forces are not deployed in these regions. Officially, the forces deployed on the border are the Syrian military. They are fully deployed along the border. 

You have said that you have not threatened Türkiye’s security. Of course, Türkiye says that the Istanbul bombing was carried out by people affiliated with the SDF and YPG and that it has evidence to back this claim. 

But the US, Britain, and European countries say that they don’t have such evidence and Türkiye never presented it. Has Türkiye presented its evidence to you? 

The main problem is that the Turks don’t cooperate with anyone. They haven’t provided the Americans with information. They only provide information through the media. They want the world to believe their information. We have stated that we view the attack as terrorist but we had nothing to do with it. 

I’ll give you new information: We are relying on the information that Türkiye is providing to the media and not officially. Today, we completed the first part of the probe in all the information that Türkiye has provided and we have submitted the findings to the relevant parties, including the Americans. 

We have proven that we have nothing to do with the operation. We concluded that some of the people who were identified by Türkiye were living in cities that were controlled by ISIS. We gave them our detailed information. The woman who carried out the attack had previously carried out several visits to Afrin where her relatives live. 

Afrin is controlled by Türkiye? 

Yes. Leaders of the so-called Syrian National Army and others were stationed there before we drove them out of the region before 2018. 

The names Türkiye presented were affiliated with armed factions in Jarablus and other regions. We presented the names of the people from Jarablus and Afrin along with the evidence. We will complete the second phase of the probe in the coming days. 

Who do you think is behind the attack? 

We don’t want to accuse anyone, but we know that it has something to do with the regions that are occupied by Türkiye. We have evidence that some of the explosives were obtained from those regions. The suspects came from those areas as well. They are present in Afrin and Jarablus. The probe must prove that the SDF had nothing to do with the operation. 

What about the talks with Russia? Turkish media has leaked a lot of information. The commander of the Russian forces was in Qamishli. What have the Russians offered you after the Turkish escalation? 

Let us correct this information first. They said he came from Qamishli airport. When they visit us, they come to our bases. 

Do they pass through American checkpoints to visit you? 

They come to our bases. 

The Russian command came to us. We completed meetings with the Russian forces commander Chaiko not too long ago. Türkiye accuses Russia of not forcing us to commit to the 2019 Sochi agreement. For its part, Russia is trying to make the Turks commit to the agreement.  

We can say that Russia is now standing in a neutral position between us and Türkiye. It is trying to apply the agreement and tackle violations when they happen. For our part, we have several reservations against Türkiye and the many violations it is committing. 

For instance, they speak of a 30km buffer zone, while they recently infiltrated it 70 – 80 kms deep. They have established infrastructure and boast a military force. These are all violations. 

On our end, we have been asking them to play their role and make Türkiye commit to the agreement. Of course, Türkiye has reservations against us, including claims that we are threatening its national security. 

We are committed to the agreement, in spite of individual violations that are acts of retaliation. We will commit to the 2019 agreements. 

Officially, we are not present on the border, so their demand that we pull out 30kms deep is not valid. The security forces (Asayish) are there, but they are not part of the deal. The Asayish will be present in all areas. They were not part of the withdrawal deal. The SDF is committed to the agreements. 

Our meetings with the Russians were primarily aimed at addressing the violations.  

It was said that Russia offered the withdrawal of the SDF from Kobani and Manbij in return for the deployment of the regime forces. 

Let me tell you something, the regime has more forces there than we do, nearly double ours. The regime is deployed in Kobani, Manbij and Tal Rifaat. The regime has enough forces in these regions. 

An attack on Kobani and Manbij will be more of a problem for the regime than us. The regime is present on the border and they will be targeted. The regime may then take the decision to withdraw and refrain from fighting. It may choose to leave the area to the Turkish army or to fight. 

Is it true that Iran mobilized its forces in the Aleppo countryside and is now presenting itself as a partner on the ground? 

The Iranians are present in Tal Rifaat and al-Shahba, and Nobl and al-Zahraa in the Aleppo countryside. East of the Euphrates and al-Jazira, they are not deployed in an official capacity, but stationed there with the regime. 

What about the talks with Damascus? We know that you signed a document with Syria’s national security chief Ali Mamlouk in 2019. An agreement was reached on the deployment of forces in specific regions. Was this deal carried out in full? 

We consider that it was carried out fully, whether with the regime or Russia, which in turn had reached deals with Türkiye and others. We did not agree to the return of regime institutions. We only agreed on the border guard and the presence of the regime on the border. We committed to this and assisted in the army’s deployment in full on the border. Currently, we have no need for more agreements. 

We are in agreement with the regime over main issues related to maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity. Problems lie in other areas, such as administrative affairs and issues related to education, for example. 

There are, however, disagreements over the Kurdish language, the future of the SDF and the autonomous Kurdish administration. 

Overall, for example, we are not opposed to the SDF becoming part of the defense organization of the Syrian army. We have conditions, however. We boast over 100,000 fighters, who have spent the past ten years in combat. They need a constitutional and legal resolution. The SDF must have a role and specific distinction in the military. We are in agreement over general issues, but the problems lie in the details. 

It appears that Damascus is demanding that you send a greater amount of oil. You are sending greater amounts to al-Sheikh Masoud in Aleppo, while government-held regions are suffering from a major fuel and energy crisis. 

Let me tell you something, Türkiye is threatening Tal Rifaat and al-Sheikh Masoud. Moreover, the regime has imposed a stifling siege on these regions. It is blocking diesel fuel, flour and food shipments. The people are hungry and suffering in the cold and are living without electricity. This has been going on since the Turks began making their threats. This is unacceptable. We may be forced to reply in kind if the situation persists. 

What was the extent of the destruction to the gas and oil infrastructure by Türkiye’s attacks? 

The attacks were aimed at taking institutions out of service, including the lone home gas company. It was taken out of service after being directly targeted. Several refineries were also hit. Over 50 percent of the sectors were damaged. Repairs and reconstruction are underway. 

Mamlouk and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan met in Moscow in July. Syrian and Turkish security officers met in Kasab later. Are you worried about the Syrian-Turkish security cooperation? Do you believe Ankara and Damascus have set up security coordination, especially on how to confront the SDF? 

Let us be more accurate. We know that the Syrian state opposes the Turkish occupation of more Syrian territories. This is a general national stance. But we have our concerns. 

When Türkiye carries out its threats, our priority should lie in resisting the occupation and standing together against the attempted occupation. 

In the end, Türkiye is trying to occupy Syrian territories, such as Kobani, Tal Rifaat and others. We believe that Damascus has voiced a weak position against this threat. It is trying to benefit from it rather than stand with us against the Turkish occupation. 

They want to exploit the situation to pressure the regions that we may hold dialogue about in the future, such as Manbij, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and others. I wanted to bring this up because a national stance has not been taken over it. 

Generally, we know that several meetings have been held and they aren’t denying it. 

We have heard claims that Türkiye sometimes asks to coordinate attacks with the regime against certain targets and that Damascus had turned it down. We hope this is true and that they would not coordinate to attack us in these regions. 

Moreover, we have heard through the media that Syrian President Bashar Assad is refusing to meet with Erdogan until after elections are held in Türkiye. We believe this is the right position and will help resolve the Syrian problem.  

Erdogan wants to be victorious in the elections and eliminate the Kurds. He has two options: Either carry out a military operation and later declare victory that he will invest for electoral gain, or reach an agreement with Damascus at the expense of the Kurds. He will also invest this in the elections. 

I have learned that you refuse to visit Damascus. Why so? What are your conditions for negotiations? 

We dispatch delegations to Damascus. I want to go when the conditions for the solution are available. I want my trip to Damascus to help in reaching a peaceful solution to the current crisis. 



What are Cairo’s Options to Confront Impact of Red Sea Tensions on Suez Canal?

An American destroyer in the Red Sea to protect ships from Houthi attacks (US Army)
An American destroyer in the Red Sea to protect ships from Houthi attacks (US Army)
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What are Cairo’s Options to Confront Impact of Red Sea Tensions on Suez Canal?

An American destroyer in the Red Sea to protect ships from Houthi attacks (US Army)
An American destroyer in the Red Sea to protect ships from Houthi attacks (US Army)

Official statements in Egypt about a 60 percent decline in revenues from the Suez Canal have renewed questions about Cairo’s options to confront the impact of Red Sea tensions on the canal.
While some experts talked about diplomatic routes, others stressed that the Egyptian effort has limited results due to complex political obstacles that have led to these tensions, mainly the war in Gaza.
Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait, said that the Suez Canal revenues declined by 60 percent.
In recent statements on the sidelines of the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Washington, he attributed this fall to the continued tensions in the Red Sea.
Since the end of November, the Yemeni Houthi group has been targeting ships in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab region, which it says are “owned or operated by Israeli companies.”
The attacks came in response to the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, and forced international shipping companies to divert their vessels to the Cape of Good Hope route, despite the increase in shipping cost and time.
The Deputy Director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Ayman Abdel Wahab said that the political options available to Egypt to confront the Red Sea tensions “depend on maintaining diplomatic moves to enhance stability in the region.”
“Egypt needs to intensify its political movements with all parties to reach an international consensus to enhance stability in the Red Sea, and not just secure the movement of ships,” he said, adding: “Regional and international powers must reduce competition over Red Sea ports and seek a greater level of coordination.”
For his part, Economic Expert Wael Al-Nahas told Asharq Al-Awsat that Egypt’s current options to confront the decline in Suez Canal revenues are to increase exports in all fields to ensure a regular dollar flow.”
In a report issued on Monday, the World Bank indicated that the continuation of the crisis resulting from the Houthi attacks on vessels passing through the Red Sea, and the decrease in Suez Canal transit traffic, “will cause losses of about $3.5 billion in Egypt’s dollar revenues.”
Former Egyptian Foreign Minister and Chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Mohamed Al-Orabi, said that Egypt had limited options to address the current situation.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Egypt alone cannot deal with the continued tensions in the Red Sea, and any Egyptian effort will have limited results due to the complexity of the political reasons that led to these tensions, mainly the war in Gaza.”

 

 


US Says UN Agency Has Agreed to Help in Distribution of Aid to Gaza via Sea Route

 19 April 2024, Palestinian Territories, Khan Younis: Palestinians inspect the largely destroyed homes and roads after the Israeli army withdrew from the town of Abasan, east of the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. (dpa)
19 April 2024, Palestinian Territories, Khan Younis: Palestinians inspect the largely destroyed homes and roads after the Israeli army withdrew from the town of Abasan, east of the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. (dpa)
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US Says UN Agency Has Agreed to Help in Distribution of Aid to Gaza via Sea Route

 19 April 2024, Palestinian Territories, Khan Younis: Palestinians inspect the largely destroyed homes and roads after the Israeli army withdrew from the town of Abasan, east of the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. (dpa)
19 April 2024, Palestinian Territories, Khan Younis: Palestinians inspect the largely destroyed homes and roads after the Israeli army withdrew from the town of Abasan, east of the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. (dpa)

The UN World Food Program has agreed to help deliver aid for the starving civilians of Gaza once the US military completes a pier for transporting the humanitarian assistance by sea, US officials said Friday.

The involvement of the UN agency could help resolve one of the major obstacles facing the US-planned project — the reluctance of aid groups to handle on-the-ground distribution of food and other badly needed goods in Gaza absent significant changes by Israel.

An Israeli military attack April 1 that killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen intensified international criticism of Israel for failing to provide security for humanitarian workers or allow adequate amounts of aid across its land borders.

President Joe Biden, himself facing criticism over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza while supporting Israel's military campaign against Hamas, announced March 8 that the US military would build the temporary pier and causeway, as an alternative to the land routes.

The US Agency for International Development confirmed to The Associated Press that it would partner with the WFP on delivering humanitarian assistance to Gaza via the maritime corridor.

“This is a complex operation that requires coordination between many partners, and our conversations are ongoing. Throughout Gaza, the safety and security of humanitarian actors is critical to the delivery of assistance, and we continue to advocate for measures that will give humanitarians greater assurances,” USAID said in its statement to the AP.

US and WFP officials were working on how to deliver the aid to Palestinian civilians "in an independent, neutral, and impartial manner,” the agency said.

There was no immediate comment from the WFP, and an WFP spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

Israel promised to open more border crossings into Gaza and increase the flow of aid after its drone strikes killed the seven aid workers, who were delivering food into the Palestinian territory.

The war was sparked when Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking some 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive in Gaza, aimed at destroying Hamas, has caused widespread devastation and killed over 33,800 people, according to local health officials. Hundreds of UN and other humanitarian workers are among those killed by Israeli strikes.

International officials say famine is imminent in northern Gaza, where 70% of people are experiencing catastrophic hunger.

The US military will be constructing what’s known as a modular causeway as part of the maritime route, in hopes that handling the inspection and processing of the aid offshore will speed the distribution to Gaza's people.

Offshore, the Army will build a large floating platform where ships can unload pallets of aid. Then the aid will be transferred by Army boats to a motorized string of steel pier or causeway sections that will be anchored to the shore.

Several Army vessels and Miliary Sealift Command ships are already in the Mediterranean Sea, and are working to prepare and build the platform and pier.

That pier is expected to be as much as 1,800 feet (550 meters) long, with two lanes, and the Pentagon has said it could accommodate the delivery of more than 2 million meals a day for Gaza residents.

Army Col. Sam Miller, commander of the 7th Transportation Brigade, which is in charge of building the pier, said about 500 of his soldiers will participate in the mission. All together, Pentagon officials have said about 1,000 US troops will be involved.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters this week that the US in on track to have the system in place by the end of the month or early May. The actual construction of the pier had been on hold as US and international officials hammered out agreements for the collection and distribution of the aid.

He said the US has been making progress, and that Israel has agreed to provide security on the shore. The White House has made clear that there will be no US troops on the ground in Gaza, so while they will be constructing elements of the pier, they will not transport aid onto the shore.

US Navy ships and the Army vessels will provide security for US forces building the pier.


Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Post Hit in Air Strike, Sources Say

 A general view shows the Kalso military base after it was hit by a huge explosion on late Friday, in Babel Province, Iraq April 20, 2024. (Reuters)
A general view shows the Kalso military base after it was hit by a huge explosion on late Friday, in Babel Province, Iraq April 20, 2024. (Reuters)
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Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Post Hit in Air Strike, Sources Say

 A general view shows the Kalso military base after it was hit by a huge explosion on late Friday, in Babel Province, Iraq April 20, 2024. (Reuters)
A general view shows the Kalso military base after it was hit by a huge explosion on late Friday, in Babel Province, Iraq April 20, 2024. (Reuters)

Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, an official security force, said its command post at Kalso military base about 50 km (30 miles) south of Baghdad was hit by a huge explosion late on Friday, and two security sources said it resulted from an air strike.

One PMF fighter was killed and six were wounded, two sources at a hospital in the nearby city of Hilla said.

"The blast has caused material damage and injuries," PMF said in a statement, adding that a team was investigating.

The two security sources said it was not known who was responsible for the air strike. A US official said there had been no US military activity in Iraq.

Israel carried out an attack on Iranian territory on Friday, sources said, days after Iran struck Israel with a barrage of drones and missiles.

The PMF started out as a grouping of armed factions, many close to Iran, that was later recognized as a formal security force by Iraqi authorities.

Factions within the PMF took part in months of rocket and drone attacks on US forces in Iraq amid Israel’s Gaza campaign but halted attacks since early February.


UN Refugee Agency Tells Cyprus to Stick to the Law in Its Efforts at Sea to Thwart Refugee Boats

Migrants sit on a Cyprus marine police boat as they are brought to a harbor after being rescued from their own vessel off the Mediterranean island nation's southeastern coast of Protaras, Cyprus, on Jan. 14, 2020. (AP)
Migrants sit on a Cyprus marine police boat as they are brought to a harbor after being rescued from their own vessel off the Mediterranean island nation's southeastern coast of Protaras, Cyprus, on Jan. 14, 2020. (AP)
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UN Refugee Agency Tells Cyprus to Stick to the Law in Its Efforts at Sea to Thwart Refugee Boats

Migrants sit on a Cyprus marine police boat as they are brought to a harbor after being rescued from their own vessel off the Mediterranean island nation's southeastern coast of Protaras, Cyprus, on Jan. 14, 2020. (AP)
Migrants sit on a Cyprus marine police boat as they are brought to a harbor after being rescued from their own vessel off the Mediterranean island nation's southeastern coast of Protaras, Cyprus, on Jan. 14, 2020. (AP)

The United Nations' refugee agency said Friday that Cypriot efforts at sea to stop numerous Syrian refugee-laden boats departing Lebanon from reaching the European Union-member island nation mustn’t contravene international human rights laws or put passengers at risk.

Cypriot authorities have reportedly dispatched police patrol vessels just outside Lebanese territorial waters to thwart boat loads of Syrian refugees from reaching the island about 110 miles (180 kilometers) away.

The Cypriot government says a crumbling Lebanese economy coupled with the uncertainty brought on by the Israeli-Hamas war and the recent tit-for-tat strikes between Israel and Lebanon has resulted in a huge number of rickety boats overloaded with migrants – almost all Syrians – reaching the island.

Earlier this week, Cypriot patrol craft reportedly intercepted five boats carrying hundreds of Syrian refugees and migrants. The boats turned back and the passengers disembarked safely.

UNCHR spokesperson in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou told The Associated Press that according to testimonies of passengers’ relatives, Cypriot authorities “forcibly pushed back” the boats using “violence” and “techniques to destabilize the boat.”

Strovolidou said the UN agency was “not in a position to confirm” those testimonies.

A Cypriot senior official strenuously denied that any coercion was used in any way to get the boats to return to Lebanon, insisting that the Cypriot government doesn’t engage in any pushbacks and acts “fully in accordance with international law.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he cannot disclose details of ongoing operations, dismissed as “lies” allegations that Cypriot authorities resorted to using any type of force.

Strovolidou said Cyprus is also bound by international law not to return individuals to any country which could in turn deport them to their homeland where they could be at risk of harm or persecution.

The Lebanon office of UNHCR said in a statement that it was aware of more than 220 people who had disembarked from the returned boats in northern Lebanon on Wednesday. Of those, 110 were refugees registered with UNHCR and all of them were released, it said.

Saadeddine Shatila, executive director of the Cedar Center for Legal Studies, a Lebanon-based human rights organization that tracks migration issues, said his group had information that the Lebanese army had detained and possibly deported Syrians from at least one of the returning boats who weren’t registered with UNCHR.

The Lebanese army has in the past occasionally deported all Syrians aboard seized migrant boats, including registered refugees, a practice that drew an outcry from human rights organizations.

Lebanese political officials have been calling for years for the international community to either resettle the refugees in other countries or assist in returning them to Syria, and security forces have stepped up deportations of Syrians over the past year. Some of the deportees have reportedly faced detention and torture upon their return.

The Cypriot official said the Cyprus government in coordination with the European Commission is preparing an additional financial support package for Lebanon to help the country stop migrant boat departures. He said that support is conditional on Lebanon’s effectiveness in stopping migrant boat departures.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides and European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen are due in Beirut May 2 to discuss the aid package.

The official said people smugglers are exploiting people’s fears over the ongoing conflicts in the region and are brazenly advertising in Lebanese coffee shops available seats on boats to Cyprus for $3,000 a head – a bargain compared to the $7,000 required for a trip to Italy.

Cyprus will convene a meeting of other EU countries next month to elicit additional support for its initiative for the bloc to formally redesignate some areas of Syria as safe zones. The Czech Republic and Denmark are behind the idea.

According to the Cypriot official, doing so wouldn’t mean that Syrians hailing from those safe zones are deported back to their country, but they would lose any allowances, benefits and the right to work, creating a disincentive to others to come to Cyprus.

He said Denmark is already implementing such a policy on its own and it’s a measure that the Cypriot government could consider if arrivals continue to increase.


US Sanctions Fundraisers for Extremist West Bank Settlers Who Commit Violence against Palestinians

The US Treasury Department building, June 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP)
The US Treasury Department building, June 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP)
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US Sanctions Fundraisers for Extremist West Bank Settlers Who Commit Violence against Palestinians

The US Treasury Department building, June 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP)
The US Treasury Department building, June 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP)

The Biden administration on Friday imposed sanctions on two entities accused of fundraising for extremist Israel settlers already sanctioned, as well as the founder of an organization whose members regularly assault Palestinians.

The Treasury Department announcement comes as the West Bank has seen some of its worst violence perpetrated by extremist settlers against Palestinians since the war in nearby Gaza began.

There is also friction between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose far-right government has reacted angrily to previous sanctions imposed against West Bank settlers.

Included in the Friday sanctions are two entities — Mount Hebron Fund and Shlom Asiraich — accused of raising funds for sanctioned settlers Yinon Levi and David Chai Chasdai.

Both men were previously sanctioned by the Biden administration for violently attacking Palestinians in the West Bank.

The penalties aim to block them from using the US financial system and bar American citizens from dealing with them.

The fundraising campaigns established by Mount Hebron Fund for Levi and by Shlom Asiraich for Chasdai generated the equivalent of $140,000 and $31,000, respectively, according to US Treasury.

In Levi's case, the fund now sanctioned by the Biden administration is linked to the settler council in the area, a body that receives state money. The Biden order Friday stopped short of sanctioning the settler council itself.

Rights groups say that the expansion of illegal settler outposts in the West Bank is enthusiastically supported by the local settler councils and nudged along by Israel’s current national government — the most far-right in the country’s history.

The Biden order also skirted sanctioning crowdfunding websites where funds were raised, GiveChak and New York-based Charidy.

In Chasdai's case, the fundraiser on Charidy was organized by Shlom Asiraich, which raises money for imprisoned Jewish extremists.

Both online fundraisers have now been taken down. But at least one fundraiser linked to a settler previously sanctioned by the Biden administration, Moshe Sharvit, remains online. As of Friday, the page on GiveChak had raised the equivalent of over $879,000.

Additionally, the State Department is designating Ben-Zion Gopstein, the founder and leader of Lehava, an organization whose members have assaulted Palestinian civilians.

Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo said the organizations "undermine the peace, security, and stability of the West Bank. We will continue to use our tools to hold those responsible accountable.”

In February, Biden issued an executive order that targets Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have been accused of attacking Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in the occupied territory.


West Bank Villagers Vigilant but Vulnerable after Settler Attacks

A Palestinian man inspects the damage following clashes with settlers the previous night in the West Bank village of Al-Mughayyir, near Ramallah, 13 April 2024. EPA/ALAA BADARNEH
A Palestinian man inspects the damage following clashes with settlers the previous night in the West Bank village of Al-Mughayyir, near Ramallah, 13 April 2024. EPA/ALAA BADARNEH
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West Bank Villagers Vigilant but Vulnerable after Settler Attacks

A Palestinian man inspects the damage following clashes with settlers the previous night in the West Bank village of Al-Mughayyir, near Ramallah, 13 April 2024. EPA/ALAA BADARNEH
A Palestinian man inspects the damage following clashes with settlers the previous night in the West Bank village of Al-Mughayyir, near Ramallah, 13 April 2024. EPA/ALAA BADARNEH

Sitting around a fire in the hills of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Ibrahim Abu Alyah and some friends stood watch over his herd in the aftermath of a settler attack on their village.
"We are here so that we can put away the sheep and tell people to protect their homes in case settlers come," Abu Alyah told AFP.
After 14-year-old Israeli herder Benjamin Achimeir went missing on April 12 in the nearby illegal settler outpost of Malachi Hashalom, dozens of Jewish settlers raided his village of Al-Mughayyir, north of Ramallah.
Armed with rifles and Molotov cocktails, they set houses ablaze, killed sheep, wounded 23 people and displaced 86, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, AFP said.
One Palestinian was also killed in the violence.
Abu Alyah, a shepherd, lost "20 or 30 sheep" and the cash he made from selling milk products when his house was set alight.
Al-Mughayyir's mayor, Amin Abu Alyah, said the settlers, who were part of the search party for Achimeir, burnt "everything they found in front of them" including houses, a bulldozer and vehicles.
Several citizens tried to organize protection committees to defend themselves from raids, but were prevented from doing so, he said.
"We currently have more than 70 prisoners inside Israeli prisons on charges of joining protection committees or trying to form an organized body," he said.
Duma, struck twice
In the nearby village of Duma, five kilometers (three miles) north of Al-Mughayyir, old fears came true when hundreds of settlers came down through the surrounding fields on Saturday.
That day, Achimeir's body was found bearing marks of a stabbing attack. People watched powerless as settlers rampaged through the village.
"Hundreds of settlers entered the village followed by more than 300 Israeli soldiers who stormed the village and declared it a closed military zone," Suleiman Dawabsha, head of Duma's village council, told AFP.
Mahmud Salawdeh, a 30-year-old iron worker whose house was torched in the attack, felt vulnerable when he realized the soldiers were not stopping the attack.
"We feel helpless because we are unable to protect ourselves, and the settlers are protected by the army," he said.
"I lost all my money and my future," he added from the ground floor of his charred house on the outskirts of Duma, near the fields the attackers came through.
At his feet, burnt furniture and shattered glass covered the floor, while walls black with soot served as a reminder of the firebombs thrown at the building.
His workshop in the adjacent room was torched, charred remnants of old tools lay around, while a large wooden box where he had been raising 70 chicks was now empty.
The incident opened old wounds for Duma residents, who still remember the tragedy that struck the Dawabsha family.
In 2015, the family's home was set ablaze by a settler extremist, killing the couple and their toddler, and leaving only one surviving member, four-year-old Ahmed Dawabsha.
'We will never leave'
Duma residents, like many West Bank villagers, say they are protected neither by Palestinian security, which is only allowed to operate in 40 percent of the territory, nor by Israel, which controls the rest.
Israeli soldiers do not always restrain settlers from attacking Palestinians, OCHA said.
In January, "in nearly half of all recorded incidents (of settler violence) after 7 October, Israeli forces were either accompanying or reported to be supporting the attackers," it said.
OCHA recorded 774 instances of Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians since war broke in Gaza on October 7, and said 37 communities had been affected by violence between April 9 and 15, "triple the number" of the preceding week.
Nine Israelis, including five in Israeli forces, were killed in the West Bank over the same timeframe, OCHA said.
At least 462 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops or settlers in the West Bank during that period, according to Palestinian official figures.
The West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967, has seen a surge in violence since early last year, which has intensified since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza erupted.
Despite the hardships, "we will never leave", the herder Abu Alyah told AFP.
But the 29-year-old already had to move from his former herding grounds on the other side of Al-Mughayyir, closer to the settlement outpost, in September.
The weekend's attacks marked a peak in violence due to the sheer number of people who took part in them, but also reflects a wider trend in the West Bank, NGOs said.
"It is clear that the escalation of violence in the West Bank has occurred in tandem with the crisis in Gaza," charity ActionAid said in a statement.
On Wednesday evening, settlers were planting Israeli flags along the road that runs between Al-Mughayyir and Malachi Hashalom.


Israel Targets Air Defense System in Syria, State News Agency Says 

A picture taken early on 21 January, 2019 shows Syrian air defense batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus. (AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken early on 21 January, 2019 shows Syrian air defense batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Israel Targets Air Defense System in Syria, State News Agency Says 

A picture taken early on 21 January, 2019 shows Syrian air defense batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus. (AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken early on 21 January, 2019 shows Syrian air defense batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus. (AFP/Getty Images)

Israel carried out a missile strike targeting an air defense unit in its south and causing material damage, Syria’s state-run SANA news agency quoted a military statement as saying Friday.

The warplanes were seen around the time loud noises and drones were reported near a major Iranian air base and nuclear site early Friday. That area of Syria is directly west of Isfahan, some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, and east of Israel. Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday and some flights were diverted or grounded after reports of explosions near a major airbase and nuclear site where drones were spotted.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken didn’t comment about the latest Middle East developments as he arrived for the final session Friday morning of a Group of Seven foreign ministers’ meeting in Capri, Italy.

Israel has vowed to respond to Iran’s unprecedented weekend attack, leaving the region bracing for further escalation after months of fighting in Gaza. Allies have urged Israel to hold back on any response to the attack that could spiral.

The United States and Britain announced Thursday that they were imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran. The moves came as European Union leaders meeting in Brussels vowed to ramp up sanctions on Iran to target its drone and missile deliveries to proxies in Gaza, Yemen and Lebanon.

Regional tensions have increased since the start of the latest Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad — two armed groups backed by Iran — carried out a cross-border attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel responded with an offensive in Gaza that has caused widespread devastation and killed more than 33,900 people, according to local health officials.


Attack Blamed on ISIS Militants Kills 22 Pro-Government Fighters in Central Syria 

Despite their defeat in Syria in March 2019, ISIS sleeper cells have been blamed for deadly attacks against both Syrian government forces and against members of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. (Getty Images/AFP)
Despite their defeat in Syria in March 2019, ISIS sleeper cells have been blamed for deadly attacks against both Syrian government forces and against members of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. (Getty Images/AFP)
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Attack Blamed on ISIS Militants Kills 22 Pro-Government Fighters in Central Syria 

Despite their defeat in Syria in March 2019, ISIS sleeper cells have been blamed for deadly attacks against both Syrian government forces and against members of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. (Getty Images/AFP)
Despite their defeat in Syria in March 2019, ISIS sleeper cells have been blamed for deadly attacks against both Syrian government forces and against members of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. (Getty Images/AFP)

An attack on pro-government fighters by suspected members of the ISIS group in central Syria killed 22 pro-government fighters, an opposition war monitor and pro-government media reported Friday.

Gunmen attacked a bus carrying members of the Quds Brigade, a government and Russian-backed faction of mostly Palestinian fighters in Syria, near the town of Sukhna late Thursday night. Sukhna was once an ISIS stronghold.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition war monitor, and the pro-government radio station Sham FM said ISIS was behind the attack.

Both the Observatory and Sham FM said 22 fighters were killed. Sham FM said they were all Quds Brigade gunmen, while the Observatory said the majority belonged to the group.

The Quds Brigade fought on the side of Syrian government forces during the country’s 13-year conflict, which has killed half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.

The Quds Brigade is different from the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which uses the same name.

Despite their defeat in Syria in March 2019, ISIS sleeper cells have been blamed for deadly attacks against both Syrian government forces and against members of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.


US Vetoes Widely Supported Resolution Backing Full UN Membership for Palestine 

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour speaks after US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood voted against members of the Security Council allowing Palestinian UN membership during a Security Council at UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US, April 18, 2024. (Reuters)
Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour speaks after US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood voted against members of the Security Council allowing Palestinian UN membership during a Security Council at UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US, April 18, 2024. (Reuters)
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US Vetoes Widely Supported Resolution Backing Full UN Membership for Palestine 

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour speaks after US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood voted against members of the Security Council allowing Palestinian UN membership during a Security Council at UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US, April 18, 2024. (Reuters)
Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour speaks after US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood voted against members of the Security Council allowing Palestinian UN membership during a Security Council at UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US, April 18, 2024. (Reuters)

The United States vetoed a widely backed UN resolution Thursday that would have paved the way for full United Nations membership for Palestine, a goal the Palestinians have long sought and Israel has worked to prevent.

The vote in the 15-member Security Council was 12 in favor, the United States opposed and two abstentions, from the United Kingdom and Switzerland. US allies France, Japan and South Korea supported the resolution.

The strong support the Palestinians received reflects not only the growing number of countries recognizing their statehood, but almost certainly the global support for Palestinians facing a humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Gaza, now in its seventh month.

The resolution would have recommended that the 193-member UN General Assembly, where there are no vetoes, approve Palestine becoming the 194th member of the United Nations. Some 140 countries have already recognized Palestine, so its admission would have been approved, likely by a much higher number of countries.

US deputy ambassador Robert Wood told the Security Council that the veto "does not reflect opposition to Palestinian statehood but instead is an acknowledgment that it will only come from direct negotiations between the parties."

The United States has "been very clear consistently that premature actions in New York — even with the best intentions — will not achieve statehood for the Palestinian people," deputy State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.

His voice breaking at times, Palestinian UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour told the council after the vote: "The fact that this resolution did not pass will not break our will and it will not defeat our determination."

"We will not stop in our effort," he said. "The state of Palestine is inevitable. It is real. Perhaps they see it as far away, but we see it as near."

This is the second Palestinian attempt for full membership and comes as the war in Gaza has put the more than 75-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict at center stage.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas first delivered the Palestinian Authority’s application for UN membership in 2011. It failed because the Palestinians didn’t get the required minimum support of nine of the Security Council’s 15 members.

They went to the General Assembly and succeeded by more than a two-thirds majority in having their status raised from a UN observer to a non-member observer state in 2012. That opened the door for the Palestinian territories to join UN and other international organizations, including the International Criminal Court.

Algerian UN Ambassador Amar Bendjama, the Arab representative on the council who introduced the resolution, called Palestine’s admission "a critical step toward rectifying a longstanding injustice" and said that "peace will come from Palestine’s inclusion, not from its exclusion."

In explaining the US veto, Wood said there are "unresolved questions" on whether Palestine meets the criteria to be considered a state. He pointed to Hamas still exerting power and influence in the Gaza Strip, which is a key part of the state envisioned by the Palestinians.

Wood stressed that the US commitment to a two-state solution, where Israel and Palestine live side-by-side in peace, is the only path for security for both sides and for Israel to establish relations with all its Arab neighbors.

"The United States is committed to intensifying its engagement with the Palestinians and the rest of the region, not only to address the current crisis in Gaza, but to advance a political settlement that will create a path to Palestinian statehood and membership in the United Nations," he said.

Mansour, the Palestinian UN ambassador, reiterated the commitment to a two-state solution but asserted that Israel believes Palestine "is a permanent strategic threat."

"Israel will do its best to block the sovereignty of a Palestinian state and to make sure that the Palestinian people are exiled away from their homeland or remain under its occupation forever," he said.

He demanded of the council and diplomats crowded in the chamber: "What will the international community do? What will you do?"

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been stalled for years, and Israel’s right-wing government is dominated by hard-liners who oppose Palestinian statehood.

Israeli UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan called the resolution "disconnected to the reality on the ground" and warned that it "will cause only destruction for years to come and harm any chance for future dialogue."

Six months after the Oct. 7 attack by the Hamas armed group, which controls Gaza, and the killing of 1,200 people in "the most brutal massacre of Jews since the Holocaust," he accused the Security Council of seeking "to reward the perpetrators of these atrocities with statehood."

Israel’s military offensive in response has killed over 32,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry, and destroyed much of the territory, which speaker after speaker denounced Thursday.

After the vote, Erdan thanked the United States and particularly President Joe Biden "for standing up for truth and morality in the face of hypocrisy and politics."

He called the Palestinian Authority — which controls the West Bank and the US wants to see take over Gaza where Hamas still has sway — "a terror supporting entity."

The Israeli UN ambassador referred to the requirements for UN membership – accepting the obligations in the UN Charter and being a "peace-loving" state.

Despite the Palestinian failure to meet the criteria for UN membership, Erdan said most council members supported it.

"It’s very sad because your vote will only embolden Palestinian rejectionism every more and make peace almost impossible," he said.


WHO to Asharq Al-Awsat: Sudanese Hospitals on the Verge of Collapse

Patients receiving treatment at Gedaref Hospital in eastern Sudan (AFP)
Patients receiving treatment at Gedaref Hospital in eastern Sudan (AFP)
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WHO to Asharq Al-Awsat: Sudanese Hospitals on the Verge of Collapse

Patients receiving treatment at Gedaref Hospital in eastern Sudan (AFP)
Patients receiving treatment at Gedaref Hospital in eastern Sudan (AFP)

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that Sudan’s hospitals are on the verge of collapse.
In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat, the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, Hanan Hassan Balkhi, revealed that about 70 to 80 percent of hospitals in the war-torn provinces were not operating, either due to prolonged attacks, shortage of medical supplies and equipment, or lack of health workers.”
Moreover, the WHO regional director attributed part of the crisis in hospitals to “lack of security,” in addition to the fact that the health system in Sudan “was already exhausted before the war, and is now on the verge of collapse.”
She urged the international community to expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid and work to end the ongoing hostilities in the country, stressing the need to implement the decisions of the recent Paris conference.
On her recent visit to Sudan in mid-march, Balkhi said: “My observations on the ground have confirmed the devastating humanitarian crisis of frightening proportions that the ongoing conflict has made 25 million people need urgent assistance this year, while the war forced the displacement of 8.6 million people, and at least 14,600 people were killed, and 33,000 others injured.”
According to the WHO regional director, the outbreaks of diseases are increasing, including cholera, measles, malaria, poliovirus type 2, dengue fever, and hepatitis E, in light of the disruption of basic public health services...

Food insecurity has reached a record level, as nearly half of the children suffer from acute malnutrition, she emphasized.
Balkhi said that the World Health Organization was deploying all possible efforts “within the available capabilities.”
“We are pursuing all possible means and working with local and international partners to make life-saving health care accessible to millions of the most vulnerable people,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat.
For a whole year, according to Balkhi, the WHO and its partners maintained a large presence on the ground. The organization offered aid to about 2.5 million people, while mobile clinics provided services to 3.3 million individuals, including cholera, measles, and rubella vaccines to millions of people in different states.
Since the beginning of the war in Sudan, “the organization has verified at least 62 attacks on health care, resulting in 38 deaths and 45 injuries,” she said, adding: “We condemn in the strongest terms the continued attacks on health care in Sudan, and the occupation of health facilities. These attacks must stop.”