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Defeating IS will only usher in new conflicts in Iraq

Monday 12 December 2016

Little is left standing in Bashiqa, a formerly Christian town now gutted of both its infrastructure and inhabitants.

After two years of Islamic State occupation, it is little more than a skeleton, a name on a map. But sitting to the east of the city of Mosul the town, or what remains of it, encapsulates the precipice on which Iraq, and perhaps even the wider Middle East, sit.

Having besieged the city for months on end, Kurdish forces have drawn a new line in the sand here. The town, formerly outside of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, represents the western frontier of a new Kurdistan.

The official line had always been that Arab towns such as Bashiqa would be returned to Arab rule, but this was, perhaps unsurprisingly, tossed in the air when Kurdish Premier Massoud Barzani made a defiant speech in the town last month asserting that the Kurds would never relinquish control over towns for which Kurdish blood had been spilt.

Indeed these tensions are already visible in rhetoric. Baqir Jabr al-Zubeidi, a senior Shia politician and former commander of the Badr organisation, the country’s largest Shia militia involved in fighting near Mosul, has threatened to attack Kurdish forces with the militia if it wasn’t returned to Arab control.

To add to this, a searing report from Amnesty International released last month accused Kurdish authorities of forcibly displacing Arabs from the contested city of Kirkuk.

If there is one thing we can learn from Iraq’s traumatic history, it is the power of memory. Barely a conversation passes in Kurdish circles without a reference to the Halabja massacre conducted by Saddam Hussein in 1988. In a similar vein, the expulsion of Arabs by Kurdish forces from Kirkuk and towns and villages to the east of Mosul is something that will remain entrenched in the Iraqi psyche for many years.

Return of 'the man who ruined Iraq'?

As the largely Shia Iraqi army enters the city, many are also fearful of a sectarian backlash. Rasha Al Aqeedi, a Mosul native now based in Dubai as a research fellow at Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, writes: “Mosul’s alienation from post-2003 Iraq can be partially understood within the context of a general Sunni distaste for Shia ascendency.”

Despite being a minority, Sunnis ruled Iraq from 1932 until Saddam Hussein’s toppling in 2003 when elections put Iraq’s Shia majority in charge of the government, and with that the army. Al-Aqeedi is cautiously optimistic that Haider al-Abadi’s Shia government is doing enough to fight this fearfulness “thanks to the professional conduct of the Iraqi army and [Abadi’s] calming leadership” but, as she warns “that could easily change”.

But al-Abadi’s efforts have made him deeply unpopular and none more so than with disgraced tyrant and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. With the world’s and particularly the US’s attention understandably focused on the fight for Mosul, al-Maliki is on maneuvers, and scheming a return to power.

It was under al-Maliki that the Sunni disenfranchisement capitalized on by Islamic State reached its apex – a result of his intensely sectarian rule. Now, under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive, he is picking off al-Abadi’s ministers one by one through secret ballot. A tragic irony considering his alleged siphoning off of billions from the Iraqi treasury during his time in office, something some have described as "the greatest political corruption scandal in history".

His first target, former defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who had successfully overseen the recapture of the strategically critical Qayyarah airbase in July, was forced from office as a result of a secret ballot orchestrated by al-Maliki in late August. Then in late September under almost identical circumstances finance minister Hoshyar Zebari was also forced from his ministry.

Neither has been replaced and some believe that the next target is the country’s minister of foreign affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari. If successful, Haider al-Abadi’s government would be untenable, and the stage would be set for “the man who ruined Iraq” to return.

'My daily life was the same'

The other elephant in the room remains IS's ideology. It goes largely unchallenged on an intellectual level within Iraq and hundreds of thousands of children have spent some of their most formative years having it drilled into them.

Liberated towns such as Qayyarah and Hamam al-Alil to the south of Mosul are undoubtedly grateful to be freed from the gratuitous violence of the jihadists. But these deeply conservative areas remain susceptible to the ideological underpinnings of the jihadists.

Four months after the town’s liberation, women in Qayyarah are rarely seen outside the house and the ones that are remain clad in niqabs. As one woman fleeing the eastern Mosul suburb of Gogjali said to me: “I can’t tell you how things changed, because for me, apart from the violence, they haven’t, there were bombs and beheadings, but my daily life was the same, my faith was the same.”

IS is undoubtedly on the decline, the group's unofficial motto of “remaining and expanding” is now as expired as their treatment of women. But the opportunism of Iraq’s Kurds, coupled with unaddressed Sunni grievances and Shia expansionism, are a deadly cocktail.

Al-Abadi is stretched in every imaginable direction, but if al-Maliki’s efforts to topple his government and return to power are a success, then the fall of Mosul will likely just spell a new chapter of trauma for Iraq.

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/iraq-post-islamic-state-837887658.

Iraq: Army creeps deeper into Mosul

December 7, 2016

Iraqi army units launched fresh attacks towards the center of Mosul yesterday in an offensive from the city’s southeastern edges that could give fresh impetus to the seven-week-old battle for Daesh’s last major Iraqi stronghold.

Campaign commander Lieutenant-General Abdul Ameer Rasheed Yarallah was quoted by Iraqi television as saying troops had entered the Al-Salam Hospital, less than a mile (1.5 kilometers) from the Tigris River running through the city center.

If confirmed, that would mark a significant advance by the Ninth Armored Division, which had been tied up for more than a month in close-quarter combat with Daesh on the southeastern fringes of the city.

Some residents of Daesh-controlled districts of east Mosul said by telephone the army had punched deep into the east bank of the city getting close to the Tigris, while others said that the army was still some distance away.

“The fighting right now is very heavy – Iraqi forces have gone past our neighborhood without entering it. Our area is now practically surrounded by the river and the Iraqi forces,” said a resident of the Hay Falasteen neighborhood.

On Sunday, Reuters reported residents inside Mosul as saying that the Intisar neighborhood, claimed by the Iraqi military as being under their control, was still Daesh-controlled.

“Daesh still controls our neighborhood, and the Iraqi forces have not taken a single step forward in three weeks. We’re in despair,” a resident living in Intisar told Reuters.

Although still unconfirmed, Daesh’s Amaq news agency said that they had launched three car bomb attacks that struck troops trying to breach Al-Salam hospital. Reuters reporters saw thick black smoke rising from the area around the hospital.

Army struggling to advance in Mosul

The army says it is facing the toughest urban warfare imaginable – hundreds of suicide car bomb attacks, mortar barrages, sniper fire and ambushes launched from a network of tunnels. More than a million civilians are still in the city.

“The quality of the enemy we are facing now is markedly declined from a month ago,” said Brigadier General Scott Efflandt, a coalition deputy commander, adding that the number of militants in the city had probably fallen to around 3,000, from around 5,000 at the start of the campaign.

Although the Iraqi government does not publish its casualty figures, a number of sources, including the UN, appeared to confirm Daesh’s own kill count of close to 4,000 Iraqi and allied forces.

Mosul is by far the largest city under Daesh control in either Iraq or Syria, and defeat there would roll back the territorial gains the self-styled caliphate managed in 2014.

Some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and mainly Iran-backed Shia paramilitary forces are participating in the Mosul campaign that began on 17 October with air and ground support from a US-led coalition.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161207-iraq-army-creeps-deeper-into-mosul/.

Indonesia blasphemy protest swells to crowd of 200,000

December 02, 2016

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — At least 200,000 conservative Muslims rallied in the Indonesian capital on Friday in the second major protest in a month against its minority Christian governor who is being prosecuted for alleged blasphemy.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who is a political ally of the Jakarta governor, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, and angered hard-liners by being out of the city during the first protest, unexpectedly went to the national monument to join Friday prayers with the sprawling crowd. He called for protesters to disperse peacefully. They cheered and then broke into chants calling for Ahok's arrest, but later people were streaming peacefully out of the area into a main thoroughfare of the city.

Organizers had agreed to concentrate the protest around the vaulting monument to reduce disruptions but the area quickly overflowed. National Police spokesman Rikwanto, who goes by one name, said police estimated 200,000 people were on the streets. Police say 22,000 officers and 5,000 soldiers can be called on to ensure the demonstration stays orderly.

A protest Nov. 4 against Ahok, the first ethnic Chinese to be Jakarta governor and the first Christian in half a century, attracted about 100,000 people. After nightfall, it turned violent, with one death and dozens injured. Police want Friday's protest to disperse in the early afternoon following prayers.

The crowds massed in the area of the national monument formed a sea of white that spilled into surrounding streets while gridlocked motorists sat on the sidewalks. Some held huge banners calling Ahok a blasphemer who should be jailed while others chanted and prayed. The blasphemy controversy erupted in September when a video circulated online in which Ahok criticized detractors who argued the Quran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader.

It has challenged the image of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as practicing a moderate form of Islam and has shaken the government of Jokowi, who accused unnamed political actors of trying to undermine him. The son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is vying against Ahok for Jakarta governor in elections set for February.

Separately, police said they had arrested eight people suspected of treason including Rahmawati, who is a younger sister of former President Megawati Sukarnoiputri, and a well-known musician turned politician Ahmad Dani. Two other people were arrested for alleged crimes under Indonesia's law on electronic information and transactions.

Lisnawati Djohar, a resident of West Sumatra's Padang city, said she flew to Jakarta with a dozen friends for the protest. "I've been called to defend Islam," she said. "As a Muslim, I feel guilty if I refuse a demand to defend my religion. I believe Ahok insulted the holy Quran and it's hurt us."

Rizieq Syihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, a vigilante group that helped organize the demonstrations, gave a fiery speech to the protest in which he asserted Indonesia would be peaceful if there was no blasphemy and other problems such as gays.

Roads leading into the city were clogged in the early morning as white-robed protesters walked to the city center from corners of the sprawling metropolis. Speaking on the main stage at the national monument, National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian called for the protesters to support the legal process in the blasphemy case.

"We have worked to finalize the dossier and have handed over to the prosecutors. Therefore, I request support from all of you so that the legal process goes well," he said as the crowd cheered "God is Great."

The accusation of blasphemy has animated the political opponents of Ahok and Jokowi, including hard-liners who have used the issue to seize a national stage for their extreme agenda, which includes Shariah law.

Ahok's blasphemy case took a step forward Thursday when it was formally accepted for trial. The offense is punishable by up to five years in prison. Police say Ahok can't leave the country during the case. However, hard-line Muslim groups continue to demand he be arrested.

Hundreds gather in Sarajevo to rally for peace in Syria

December 14, 2016

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina (AP) — Up to a thousand people gathered Wednesday in Sarajevo — the Bosnian city that survived a brutal 44-month siege during the Balkan wars of the 1990s — to rally against the carnage in Syria.

Representatives of Bosnia's Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities said they felt a moral responsibility to voice outrage at the international failure to stop crimes against civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

"Here in Sarajevo, we must do everything in our power to show to (Syrian) people that we understand them and to call on humanity to wake up and raise their voices against war," Eli Tauber, the leader of Bosnia's small Jewish community, said.

Participants recalled their own suffering and the sense of having been abandoned by the rest of the world during the 1992-95 interethnic war that left 100,000 people dead and another 2 million homeless.

"I was born during the war in Sarajevo in a hospital that was under mortar fire," said Smirna Kulenovic, 22, a Bosnian Muslim student. "I am here today to raise my voice against all war crimes, equally those that were committed here 20 years ago and those that are now being committed in Syria."

Turkish ambassador takes up post in Israel after 5-year spat

December 12, 2016

JERUSALEM (AP) — Turkey's ambassador to Israel has submitted his credentials as part of reconciliation efforts following a five-year spat. Mekin Mustafa Kemal Okem met President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on Monday, where both spoke of opportunities ahead.

Israel appointed an ambassador to Turkey last month. Relations declined after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party has roots in Turkey's Islamist movement, became prime minister in 2003. They imploded in 2010 after an Israeli naval raid on a Turkish activist ship trying to breach the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed and a 10th later died of his wounds.

Turkey blasts claimed by Kurdish militants; country mourns

December 12, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey declared a national day of mourning and paid tribute to the dead Sunday after two bombings in Istanbul killed 38 people and wounded 155 others near a soccer stadium. The carnage was claimed by a Turkey-based Kurdish militant group.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, said two of its members had sacrificed their lives in the Saturday night attack that targeted security forces outside the Besiktas stadium shortly after the conclusion of a match.

"Two of our comrades were heroically martyred in the attack," according to a statement posted on TAK's website. It described the blasts as reprisal for state violence in the southeast and the ongoing imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. TAK is considered by authorities as a PKK offshoot.

The twin car-and-suicide bombings near the stadium enraged top officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who vowed to hunt down the perpetrators. The attack was the latest large-scale assault to traumatize a nation confronting an array of security threats.

Turkey is a NATO member and a partner in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State group. The attack targeted police officers, killing 30 of them along with seven civilians and an unidentified person, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters. He said 13 people had been arrested in connection with the "terrorist" act.

In an address at a funeral for the slain police officers before TAK's statement was released, a furious Soylu condemned Kurdish rebels and their allies in the West, referring to the PKK as "animals." "Have you accomplished anything beyond being the servants, pawns and hit men of certain dark forces, of your dark Western partners?" he asked.

Turkish officials didn't make any further comments after the TAK claim of responsibility was posted. The battle between the PKK and the Turkish state has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of citizens. Turkish officials frequently accuse the West of supporting the Kurdish insurgency and of interfering in Ankara's fight against the militants.

Erdogan vowed his country would fight "the curse of terrorism till the end" after paying a visit to some of the wounded at Haseki Hospital in Istanbul. Hundreds of flag-carrying demonstrators marched along Istanbul's coastline toward the stadium at the heart of the blast area. Flags flew at half-staff across the country and at Turkey's foreign missions. Passers-by placed flowers on barriers surrounding the soccer stadium.

The first and larger explosion took place about 10:30 p.m. Saturday after Besiktas beat Bursaspor 2-1 in the Turkish Super League. Erdogan said the attack's timing aimed to maximize the loss of life, but most fans had left before the detonation.

Soylu said the first blast was caused by a passing vehicle that detonated in an area where police special forces were located at the stadium exit. A riot police bus appears to have been the target. Moments later, a person who had been stopped in nearby Macka Park committed suicide by triggering explosives, according to the minister.

He said 136 people remained hospitalized Sunday after the attack, including 14 in intensive care. TAK claimed the Turkish people weren't their target but warned "no one should expect a comfortable life" as long as the ruling party "continues to torture the mothers of Kurdistan every day."

Armed conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants resumed in July 2015 after peace talks unraveled. While much of the violence has concentrated in the impoverished and pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast, it has also spread to other cities, including the capital, Ankara, where TAK has claimed February and March suicide bombings.

Experts have determined that up to 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of explosives were used in the car bomb, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN Turk. To the mournful sound of trumpets, funeral services were held at Istanbul's police headquarters for some of the slain officers. Their comrades solemnly carried the coffins, which were draped in the Turkish flag, as a sea of mourners wept around them.

Erdogan presided over a security meeting after the funeral ceremony and hospital visit. Soccer fans proved their resilience by showing up to watch a game pitting Istanbul's Galatasaray and Gaziantepspor at a different stadium.

"What happened last night was extremely saddening but they need to know that Turkish people will not yield to such things," Galatasaray supporter Erkan Duman told The Associated Press. "It's not like we will give up things, especially things we love, just because they want us to."

Turkey has witnessed a spate of IS and Kurdish-linked attacks this year. Saturday's bombings were one of the bloodiest to hit Istanbul, a city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, until recently a popular tourist destination.

That changed after a series of IS-linked suicide bombings targeting tourists, including a sophisticated attack on the city's Ataturk Airport in June that killed 44 people and wounded scores of others. PKK-linked militants have claimed other deadly attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and areas in southeast Turkey.

A state of emergency is in force following a failed July 15 coup attempt and the resulting government crackdown on alleged coup sympathizers has landed thousands in jail and forced tens of thousands of people from their jobs. Critics call the move a witch hunt.

Cinar Kiper, Ayse Wieting and Bulut Emiroglu contributed to this report.

Turkey hunts for answers, buries dead after blasts kill 38

December 11, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey declared a national day of mourning and began to bury its dead Sunday after twin blasts in Istanbul killed 38 people and wounded 155 others near a soccer stadium. It was the latest large-scale assault to traumatize a nation confronting an array of security threats.

The bombs Saturday night targeted police officers, killing 30 of them along with seven civilians and an unidentified person, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters Sunday. He said 13 people had been arrested in connection with the "terrorist attack."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Turkey would overcome terrorism while Prime Minister Binali Yildirim ordered flags to fly at half-staff Sunday across the country and at Turkey's foreign missions.

"We have once again witnessed tonight in Istanbul the ugly face of terror, which tramples on every value and decency," Erdogan said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack but two officials said suspicions were focused on Kurdish militants.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told the private news channel CNN Turk that "arrows point to the PKK." He was referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a decades-long insurgency. That preliminary assessment was echoed by the interior minister.

The first and larger explosion took place about 7:30 p.m. Saturday after the home team Besiktas beat visitor Bursaspor 2-1 in the Turkish Super League. Erdogan said the timing of the attack aimed to maximize the loss of life.

Soylu said the first explosion was caused by a passing vehicle that detonated in an area where police special forces were located at the stadium exit. A riot police bus appears to have been the target.

Moment later, a person who had been stopped in nearby Macka Park committed suicide by triggering explosives, according to the minister. The civilian death toll was lower because fans had already left the newly built Vodafone Arena Stadium after the soccer match when the blasts occurred. Witnesses also heard gunfire after the explosions.

Soylu said 136 people remained hospitalized Sunday after the attack, including 14 under intensive care. Forensic experts in white uniforms worked overnight, scouring the vicinity of the stadium and the vast park where the suicide bombing took place. Glass from the blown-out windows of nearby buildings littered the pavement.

Authorities have determined that about 300-400 kilograms of explosives were used in the attack, Kurtulmus told CNN Turk. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic tentatively resumed Sunday in the blast area, which municipal workers rushed to clean up.

At noon, to the mournful sound of trumpets, funeral services were held at Istanbul's police headquarters for some of the slain police officers with the country's top brass in attendance. Their comrades solemnly carried the coffins, which were draped in the Turkish flag, as mourners wept.

This year Istanbul has witnessed a spate of attacks attributed by authorities to the Islamic State group or claimed by Kurdish militants. A state of emergency is in force following a failed July 15 coup attempt.

Saturday's incident marked one of the bloodiest to hit the bustling city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. A triple suicide-and-gun attack on the city's Ataturk Airport in June killed 44 people and wounded scores of others. Kurdish-linked militants have claimed other deadly attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and areas of the southeast.

The steady stream of violence has delivered a bitter blow to Turkey's tourism sector, a mainstay of the country's economy. Soylu acknowledged the country was struggling against "many elements" trying to compromise its fight against terrorism.

Turkey is a partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and its armed forces are active in neighboring Syria and Iraq. It is also facing a renewed conflict with an outlawed Kurdish movement in the southeast.

Condemnations of the attack came from a range of Turkish politicians, sports leaders and clubs and U.S. and EU officials. Turkey's pro-Kurdish People Democratic Party, or HDP, issued a statement "strongly condemning" the attacks and saying it "felt great sadness and shared in the sorrow."

Turkish authorities, particularly the president, have routinely accused the party of being linked to the PKK and backing terrorism. The party, which had both of its leaders detained in terror probes and multiple elected officials arrested or removed from public service in the southeast, denies the charge.

The chair of the main opposition Republican People's Party also condemned the attack. Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Washington condemned the attack in "the strongest terms."

"We stand together with Turkey, our NATO Ally, against all terrorists," Price said. The Besiktas sports club "strongly condemned" the attack and said a store employee and a security official were among the fatalities. Bursaspor issued a statement wishing "a speedy recovery to our wounded citizens."

Aleksander Ceferin, president of European soccer's governing body UEFA, and European Union Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn also condemned the attack. "Violence has no place in a democratic society," Hahn wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul urged its citizens to avoid the area in Istanbul. Turkey's radio and television board issued a temporary coverage ban citing national security concerns. It said "to avoid broadcasts that can result in public fear, panic or chaos, or that will serve the aims of terrorist organizations."

Cinar Kiper and Bulut Emiroglu in Istanbul contributed.

Turkey shifts closer to expanding powers for Erdogan

December 10, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey's ruling party on Saturday submitted proposed constitutional amendments that could greatly expand the powers and extend the mandate of the country's president. Private news channel NTV broadcast images of the parliament speaker receiving the proposal, which garnered 316 supporting signatures from the 550-seat assembly. If cleared by a constitutional committee and approved by parliament, the reforms would pave the way for a referendum on granting the largely ceremonial presidency full executive powers.

Critics feared the proposed reforms would allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has retained outsized influence over his party and the levers of government, to rule unchecked. "This is a regime change, plain and simple: one-man rule," lawmaker Seyit Torun of the Republican People's Party was quoted as saying.

Erdogan, who was prime minister before becoming the president in 2014, has been pushing for a presidential system. The changes would allow the president to appoint the government, retain ties with his party, propose budgets and declare states of emergency.

The amendments were proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, with the newly won agreement of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. AKP Secretary General Abdulhamit Gul said the bill reflected "a national agreement, a proposition based on Turkey's needs and experience of government, proposed by two parties."

Turkey has faced a tumultuous year, rocked by a wave of bombings, renewed conflict with Kurdish rebels in the southeast and a failed coup attempt. The botched July 15 coup, blamed by Ankara on a movement led by a U.S.-based cleric, set the stage for a sweeping purge of state institutions that has alarmed rights groups and Western governments.

Turkey is a key member in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group but is at odds with Western governments over the role of Syrian Kurds in that fight. The draft constitutional bill, according to media reports, proposes a local election for March 2019, a presidential election and a general election for November 2019, and concentrated executive powers in the hands of the president.

The state-run Anadolu Agency said the proposed constitutional amendment would be reviewed by the four political parties and the government over two parliamentary sessions. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters that each article would be voted on separately and would require 330 votes for approval, then the entire bill would be voted on. A referendum would take place 60 days after the parliamentary process is completed.

"The final decision will be given by the nation," said Yildirim. "We are starting a process that will bring strong political power that also comes with stability."

Bulut Emiroglu in Istanbul contributed reporting.

Turkey's leader renounces foreign currencies to boost lira

December 08, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey's leader has renounced foreign currencies in favor of the ailing lira currency in keeping with his appeal to Turkish citizens to do the same, his spokesman said Thursday, as a new measure was unveiled to help struggling businesses.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "exchanged all of the foreign currency in his accounts into Turkish liras," spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said. Last week, Erdogan had urged his citizens to give up the dollar and euros at a time the economy is teetering. Erdogan called on Turkish citizens to convert savings held in foreign currencies into gold and Turkish lira to help boost the ailing currency, which recently dropped above 3.5 lira per dollar, the weakest exchange rate in more than a decade.

Turkish citizens often hold their money in dollars, euros and gold to mitigate the risk of a rapid devaluation of their currency. Many Turkish businesses have their debts denominated in dollars. In the wake of Erdogan's call, small business owners have posted pictures of themselves on social media advertising free goods ranging from bread to small carpets for those who can prove the exchange of a significant dollar amount into Turkish lira.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the establishment of a fund of up to 250 billion lira ($74 billion) to help alleviate cash shortages. He said the measure would help "normalize business across all sectors that fuel the economy, including small, medium and large enterprises, and exporters."

Both leaders have promoted the Turkish lira in in recent days with Erdogan, suggesting last week that Turkey should trade with countries like Russia, Iran and China in local currencies. The Turkish lira has been struggling in a year marked by political instability, including a failed coup attempt in July, bombings by Kurdish and Islamic State militants, and yo-yoing relations with the European Union and the United States.

Exchange risk is also a concern for Turkey due to its large current account deficit and high inflation rate. Foreign direct investment, which helps keep the economy afloat, has faltered in 2016. Tourism revenue, another mainstay of the economy, has also dropped dramatically.

Turkish PM seeks support for expanded powers for Erdogan

December 01, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's prime minister on Thursday moved closer to an agreement with the country's nationalist party over constitutional reforms that would usher in a system expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim's government is seeking the support of Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, for a vote in parliament that would pave the way for a referendum giving the largely ceremonial presidency full executive powers.

Opposition parties have opposed a presidential system, since they fear it would allow Erdogan to rule unchecked. But MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has switched positions and recently voiced his party's support.

Speaking after the meeting "to smooth over" differences on the proposed changes, Bahceli said the talks had been positive. The prime minister said the ruling party would be putting the final touches of a proposal that will be submitted to parliament next week with the agreement of the MHP.

"The laws are clear. They foresee a referendum 60 days after the parliamentary process is completed," Yildirim said. "If everything goes to plan, God willing, (a referendum) can take place in the beginning of summer."

The most important change envisaged, Yildirim said, is removing a constitutional requirement for the president to have no party affiliation. Erdogan founded the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, but gave up his post as party leader last year when his term as prime minister ended and his mandate as president began. Although he now holds a traditionally ceremonial post, Erdogan has retained outsized influence over the ruling party and the levers of government.

Critics see efforts to transform Turkey into a presidential system as a bid to entrench Erdogan and his supporters at the expense of democracy and political diversity. The proposed political changes come in the wake of a failed military coup that paved the way for a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

Rebels to evacuate Aleppo in surrender deal as fighting ends

December 14, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels reached a cease-fire deal to evacuate from eastern Aleppo in an effective surrender on Tuesday, as Russia declared all military action had stopped and the Syrian government had assumed control of the former rebel enclave.

The dramatic developments, which appeared to restore the remainder of what was once Syria's largest city to President Bashar Assad's forces after months of heavy fighting and a crippling siege, followed reports of mass killings by government forces closing in on the final few blocks still held by the rebels.

Damascus confirmed the evacuation deal and the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for immediate access to the former rebel enclave to confirm the end of military operations and to oversee the safe departure of tens of thousands of civilians and opposition fighters. He was at the Security Council where an emergency meeting for Aleppo was underway.

Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin took to the floor near the end of the session at the U.N. Security Council to announce fighting had ended. "According to the latest information that we received ... military actions in eastern Aleppo are over," Churkin said. "The Syrian government has re-established control over eastern Aleppo."

Minutes earlier, he had announced that "all militants" and members of their families, as well as those wounded in the fighting, were being evacuated through "agreed corridors in directions that they have chosen voluntarily," including the rebel stronghold of Idlib province.

As word spread of the deal, celebrations broke out in the government-controlled western sector of Aleppo, with convoys of cars driving around honking their cars and waving Syrian flags from the windows.

Retaking Aleppo, which has been split between rebel and government control since 2012, would be Assad's biggest victory yet in the civil war. Aleppo, the country's former commercial powerhouse, has long been regarded as a major gateway between Turkey and Syria and the biggest prize in the conflict.

The agreement Tuesday came after world leaders and aid agencies issued dramatic appeals on behalf of trapped residents, and the U.N. human rights office said that pro-government forces reportedly killed 82 civilians as they closed in on the last remaining rebel areas.

That and other reports of mass killings, which could not be independently confirmed, reinforced fears of atrocities in the final hours of the battle for the city. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the emergency meeting he had received "credible reports" of civilians killed by intense bombing and summary executions by pro-government forces.

"To the Assad regime, Russia and Iran —three member states behind the conquest of and carnage in Aleppo — you bear responsibility for these atrocities," said U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. In Turkey, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul, chanting against Russia's involvement in the push to retake rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

Several residents and opposition activists in Syria told the AP that government forces carried out summary killings of rebels in neighborhoods captured on Monday, but the Syrian military denied the claim, saying such allegations were "a desperate attempt" to gain international sympathy.

None of the residents witnessed the alleged killings, and the reports came amid deepening chaos in the remaining rebel-held areas. Mohammed Abu Rajab, the administrator of the last remaining clinic in rebel-held parts of the city, said the dead and wounded were being left in the streets.

Bashar al-Ja'afari, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, denied any mass executions or revenge attacks, but added it was Syria's "constitutional right" to go after "terrorists," a reference to all opposition fighters.

"Aleppo has been liberated from terrorists and those who toyed with terrorism," he said. "Aleppo has returned to the nation." The U.N. children's agency said in a statement that it had received a report of more than 100 unaccompanied children trapped in a building under fire in eastern Aleppo. UNICEF is concerned over reports of "extrajudicial killings of civilians, including children," said the agency's regional director, Geert Cappalaere.

The U.N. human rights office said it had received reports of pro-government forces killing at least 82 civilians in four neighborhoods of the rapidly-shrinking rebel enclave, including 11 women and 13 children.

Spokesman Rupert Colville, speaking to reporters in Geneva, said the reports described pro-government forces entering homes and killing civilians "on the spot." A news release by the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said that multiple sources reported dozens of civilians were shot dead Monday by government forces and allied militiamen in the Kallaseh and Bustan al-Qasr neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said hundreds of bodies were still under the rubble. There were conflicting reports about the timing and route of the rebel withdrawal.

Syria's military media said the gunmen would be evacuated through the Ramouseh crossing and from there to rebel-controlled areas of northern Idlib province. "Aleppo will be declared a secure and liberated city within the coming hours," it said on its Telegram channel.

Osama Abu Zayd, a Turkey-based legal adviser for an umbrella group of rebel factions known as the Free Syrian Army, said the cease-fire went into effect Tuesday evening and that the first groups of rebel fighters would begin evacuating later that day.

Yasser al-Youssef, a rebel spokesman, confirmed the deal, and another spokesman, Ahmed Karali, said those leaving the city would head to rural areas in western Aleppo province then head north. A government win in Aleppo would significantly strengthen Assad's hand but does not end the conflict — significant parts of Syria are still outside government control and huge swaths of the country are a devastated wasteland. More than a quarter of a million people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011 with peaceful protests against the Assad family's four-decade rule.

Associated Press Zeina Karam reported this story from Beirut and AP writer Edith M. Lederer reported from the United Nations. APress writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Sarah El Deeb and Philip Issa in Beirut, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Rebels say evacuation deal agreed in east Aleppo

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Evacuations are due to take place of civilians trapped in east Aleppo following the agreement of a ceasefire between Syrian government forces and rebels fighting to keep control of their territory, according to rebel officials.

The announcement came amid reports of mass killings of civilians who had been stuck in areas taken over by the Syrian army in an advance which has seen rebel-held territory reduced to an area of about two square kilometers.

Yasser al-Yusuf of the Nurdin Az-Zinki brigade told the AFP news agency that its fighters had been allowed to evacuate east Aleppo and take light weapons with them after negotiations were taking place between rebels and Syrian government representatives.

A Syrian army official however has told Reuters that the army had no information about the ceasefire taking place.

Russia's envoy to the United Nation told Reuters on Tuesday that a deal had been reached for rebel fighters to leave the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo.

"My latest information is that they indeed have an arrangement achieved on the ground that the fighters are going to leave the city," Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters. It could happen "within hours maybe," he said.

Sources at the UN earlier told Middle East Eye that it was in negotiations with Syrian and Russian officials to evacuate up to 100,000 people if a 24-hour ceasefire could be agreed.

No confirmation has been given of where exactly civilians and rebels will be evacuated to but an anonymous UN source told MEE they would be taken four kilometers to western Aleppo.

Activists working for NGOs who operate in Aleppo are saying that buses will ferry the besieged civilians to rebel-held parts of Idlib and west Aleppo...

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/rebels-say-evacuation-deal-agreed-east-aleppo-1904796517.

Syria rebels retreat in Aleppo in 'terrifying' collapse

December 13, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels retreated from former strongholds in eastern Aleppo in a "terrifying" collapse Monday, holding onto a small sliver of territory packed with fighters and thousands of civilians as government troops pressed on with their rapid advance.

The Syrian military said it had gained control of 99 percent of the former opposition enclave in eastern Aleppo, signaling an impending end to the rebels' four-year hold over parts of the city as the final hours of battle played out.

"The situation is very, very critical," said Ibrahim al-Haj of the Syrian Civil Defense, volunteer first responders who operate in rebel-held areas. He said he was seeking shelter for himself and his family, fearing clashes or capture by the government.

Retaking Aleppo, which has been divided between rebel- and government-controlled zones since 2012, would be President Bashar Assad's biggest victory yet in the country's civil war. But it does not end the conflict: Significant parts of Syria are still outside government control and huge swaths of the country are a devastated waste-land. More than a quarter of a million people have been killed.

On Sunday, the Islamic State group re-occupied the ancient town of Palmyra, taking advantage of the Syrian army and its Russian backers' preoccupation with the fighting in Aleppo. On Monday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS fighters were on the verge of imposing a siege on a nearby army base known as T4.

The IS recapture of Palmyra nine months after it was retaken by Syrian government and Russian troops led to mutual recriminations between Western officials and Moscow. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault accused Russia of "pretending to fight terrorism" while it concentrated on Aleppo, leaving room for the militants to retake Palmyra. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lashed back, accusing the U.S.-led coalition of orchestrating the Palmyra takeover "in order to give a respite to the bandits sitting in eastern Aleppo."

In Aleppo, staff members of the last remaining clinic in rebel-held territory huddled in a shelter as Syrian government forces pushed in. "Those killed and wounded are left on the streets," said the clinic's administrator, Mohammed Abu Rajab.

"The collapse is terrifying," said Bassam Haj Mustafa, a rebel spokesman in contact with fighters in the city. Opposition fighters were "doing their best to defend what is left," he said. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 60 civilians and fighters were killed in rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo on Monday alone.

Russia, a key ally of Assad, refused an American proposal for a temporary halt to the fighting to allow the safe departure of those remaining in rebel-held areas, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The proposal came during weekend talks in Geneva between U.S. and Russian experts that had been billed as an 11th-hour attempt to ease Aleppo's endgame.

Osama Abo Zayd, a legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army rebel coalition, said some fighters had agreed to evacuate but that the Russians had demanded that all militants surrender, something he said was impossible.

"This pushes us to fight to the last breath despite what we have to face," he said. Live footage aired Monday on Syrian state TV showed scores of people waving Syrian flags and posters of Assad in the streets of the city's government controlled sector, celebrating what they called "the victories of the Syrian Arab army against terrorism."

The loss of Aleppo would mark the greatest defeat for the rebels since the conflict began in 2011. The insurgents still control northwestern Idlib province as well as scattered patches of territory elsewhere in the country.

Earlier Monday, Syrian troops and allied Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran captured Sheikh Saeed, a sprawling neighborhood in eastern Aleppo. The military also claimed to have retaken al-Fardous, one of the most populous districts.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled to government-held western Aleppo since the offensive began last month, but tens of thousands of others are believed to remain in the city's east. A rebel fighter, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said most of the remaining civilians were massed in two or three neighborhoods, raising the specter of mass casualties if they are targeted by airstrikes or artillery. He said the collapse of the Sheik Saeed neighborhood meant the loss of the rebel enclave's last mill and grain warehouse.

A map distributed by the Syrian military showed rebel control limited to a small sliver of territory spread across six neighborhoods in the city center. The offensive began on Nov. 26, and followed an intensive aerial campaign that knocked out most of the medical facilities in eastern Aleppo, which has been besieged by government forces since July.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Dusan Stojanovic in Serbia, Belgrade, contributed to this report.

Russia, Syria fail to dislodge Daesh from Palmyra

December 12, 2016

Five people have been killed and many others wounded following intense Russian airstrikes against Daesh in Palmyra, in an attempt to shore up the crumbling Assad regime forces who have completely withdrawn and surrendered the city to the militant group.

Not only have Daesh successfully managed to force the Assad regime’s greatly weakened army to withdraw from Palmyra, but they have had enough time to reinforce their newly regained positions in the ancient city, killing well over 100 of Syrian soldiers and Shia militia fighters.

Daesh announced that it had captured 30 Russian-made tanks as well as large quantities of materiel, including Grad rocket launchers with ammunition, while killing at least 120 men loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad, Al Jazeera reported.

The Governor of Homs province, Talal Al-Burazi, had previously admitted that Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic, was lost to Daesh after the Assad regime’s forces completely withdrew in the face of the onslaught over the weekend.

Daesh had held Palmyra until it lost the city to a Russian-backed Assad regime offensive. Following its recapture in March this year, the Assad regime and its Russian backers held concerts and celebrated to large public fanfare.

The loss of Palmyra has been seen as an enormous embarrassment to both Moscow and Damascus, with a nervous Kremlin attempting to present its failure to protect Palmyra as an international problem.

“The threat of losing Palmyra is a loss for all civilized humankind, not just for Russia,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said today.

The Kremlin also added that the loss of Palmyra shows how serious the Daesh threat remains. This despite many statements from Moscow making claims that its intervention had stunted “terrorism” in Syria.

Russia, Iran and Syria refer to any anti-Assad regime factions as “terrorists”, irrespective of whether they have anything to do with terrorism or not.

Analysts also suggest that the loss of Palmyra is down to the Assad regime and its backers focusing all of their efforts on crushing what remains of pro-democracy opposition factions in Aleppo, leaving their rear unprotected and allowing Daesh to expand rather than shrink, as was Russia’s stated objective when it launched its military intervention.

Russia intervened on behalf of the Iran-backed Assad regime over a year ago and reversed Al-Assad’s fortunes over the past year. Eastern Aleppo, one of the Syrian opposition’s last strongholds, is on the cusp of falling with Moscow claiming 93% of the Syrian city is now in regime hands.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161212-russia-syria-fail-to-dislodge-daesh-from-palmyra/.

Syrian forces squeeze Aleppo, bring new wave of evacuations

December 10, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Nearly two weeks into a crushing blitz, Syrian forces and their allies have taken control of nearly all of what was once an opposition stronghold in eastern Aleppo, touching off a new wave of evacuations Friday and raising concerns about hundreds of men who have disappeared and are feared to have been seized by the government.

A flood of civilians streamed out on foot in the wake of the relentless campaign by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to drive rebels from their rapidly crumbling enclave. They joined tens of thousands who have fled since Nov. 26, seeking shelter from the nonstop bombardment and crippling siege.

"The writing on the wall looks as if eastern Aleppo's battle is virtually over," said Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, in an interview with The Associated Press at U.N. headquarters.

The U.N. human rights office expressed deep concern about reports that hundreds of men have vanished after crossing from eastern Aleppo into government-controlled areas. Relatives reported losing contact with the men, who are between the ages of 30 and 50, after they fled opposition-held areas about a week to 10 days ago, said U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville. It was not clear whether they were fighters or civilians.

Colville also said the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is also concerned by reports that some civilians trying to flee are being blocked by armed opposition groups and, in some cases, fired upon.

"Civilians are being used as pawns and prevented from leaving," he said at a briefing in Geneva. He estimated there may be about 100,000 civilians in areas under the control of armed opposition groups. They include about 500 medical cases of people in need of urgent evacuation.

Syrian state TV broadcast video of families emerging from the ravaged eastern districts, the enclave that had been held by rebels since 2012. Government-owned al-Ikhbariya TV showed civilians on foot and at least one bus snaking through the Ballour crossing, saying they came from the Saleheen, Fardous and Sheikh Saeed neighborhoods in the southern part of eastern Aleppo.

On Thursday, Russia announced the Syrian army was suspending combat operations to allow for civilians to leave besieged rebel-held districts, but residents and medics in the neighborhoods said there was no letup in the bombardment.

"Bombing is truly round the clock," said Ziad Mohammed, a lawyer and father of three, who is still in the al-Mashhad neighborhood. "There are no hospitals, the remnants of the dead fill the streets and the wounded have to fend for themselves."

Mohammad, an outspoken government opponent, said he and many of those remaining were bracing for certain death. "If staying here means dying here, then standing by my principles will have been enough," he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday that Aleppo was still under intense fighting. "We saw, I think, a brief pause yesterday, but all too brief. There's been no consistent pause in the fighting that we have seen."

Earlier this week, efforts faltered to evacuate hundreds of wounded despite pleas from medical officials. A hospital administrator in the east said medics have submitted lists of patients who need to be moved out.

"There hasn't been a response yet, and the shelling continues," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Rebel defenses have collapsed in the government offensive and intense bombing.

In a sign of the Assad government's growing confidence about Aleppo, the Foreign Ministry said officials were prepared to resume intra-Syrian talks on its own terms. The ministry statement, carried on the state-run SANA news agency, did not specify whom the government would recognize as a partner for dialogue, a key sticking point in earlier failed rounds of talks with the opposition.

The government refers to its armed opponents as "terrorists." It said it would agree to return to talks "without preconditions or foreign interference." Tens of thousands of people have fled to western Aleppo, and those remaining are now cornered in the southern part of the eastern neighborhoods.

Government forces and allied militiamen say they control nearly 90 percent of what was once rebel-held territory — a figure the opposition disputes. "More than 30 percent of east Aleppo is controlled by us," said Osama Abu Zayd, an adviser to the loose rebel umbrella group known as the Free Syrian Army. Speaking from Turkey, where he is based, he said the Syrian army and Russians were still targeting rebel positions on the front lines.

But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said only seven neighborhoods are entirely under opposition control. In Russia, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military's General Staff said 10,500 civilians — including 4,015 children — have left eastern Aleppo in the last 24 hours. The number could not be independently confirmed.

The U.N. said about 31,000 people have left, while the Observatory says more than 80,000 people have been displaced. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Germany after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said military experts and diplomats would meet Saturday in Geneva to work out details of the rebels' exit from eastern Aleppo, along with civilians who are willing to leave.

De Mistura called the meeting extremely important because it could result in avoiding "massive destruction" if an evacuation plan is worked out. He said he hopes the meeting will lead to an alternative to the bloodshed that would surely come with the final fighting for the city.

Kerry says he is persisting in efforts to "save the city of Aleppo from being absolutely, completely destroyed." Speaking to reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, he described Aleppo's catastrophe as the worst "since World War II itself."

He said he hopes the Syrian sides and peace mediators "can find some way to get to the table" and "have a serious discussion about how to end this war." The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a nonbinding resolution demanding an immediate end to attacks on civilians and all besieged areas in Syria. It also expressed grave concern at the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country and demanded "rapid, safe, sustained, unhindered and unconditional humanitarian access throughout the country for U.N. ... and all humanitarian actors."

In central Syria, Islamic State militants advanced on government positions in the countryside around the historic city of Palmyra, according to the Observatory. It said 49 soldiers were killed in 24 hours of fighting in the desert.

The IS group's Aamaq News Agency distributed video showing what it says were Syrian soldiers fleeing their positions west of Palmyra. The Syrian government, backed by Russian forces, recaptured Palmyra from IS in March to great fanfare. The militants had destroyed numerous monuments dating back to Roman times while they held the ancient city.

Associated Press writers Dominique Soguel in Istanbul, Dave Bryan at the United Nations, and Natalya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

Russia says Aleppo combat suspended, residents say no let-up

December 09, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Russia said the Syrian army was suspending combat operations in Aleppo late Thursday to allow for the evacuation of civilians from besieged rebel-held neighborhoods, but residents and fighters reported no let-up in the bombing and shelling campaign on the opposition's ever-shrinking enclave.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Germany after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said military experts and diplomats would meet Saturday in Geneva to work out details of the rebels' exit from Aleppo's eastern neighborhoods, along with civilians who were willing to leave the city.

Lavrov said the Syrian army suspended combat action late Thursday to allow some 8,000 civilians to leave the city in a convoy spreading across a five-kilometer (three-mile) route. However, opposition activists said there was no halt to the government offensive.

"Battles are intense," said a message from a rebel operation room shared with The Associated Press. Other residents reported warplanes firing from machine guns at rebel positions and artillery shells falling in the remaining rebel-controlled districts.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said the U.S. was focused on de-escalating the violence in Aleppo to allow aid into the city and enable people wishing to stay in their homes to do so.

She said Kerry and Lavrov continued talks on Thursday with the goal of securing a cease-fire and the "safe departure of those who wish to leave the city." She said details of Saturday's U.S.-Russian technical discussions in Geneva were still being worked out.

Earlier, in Geneva, U.N. special adviser Jan Egeland said efforts to evacuate hundreds of wounded people from eastern Aleppo had stalled following a deadly attack this week on a Russian military hospital that left two Russian nurses dead and a doctor seriously wounded.

"It is with bitterness and frustration that we have to report that we have not been able even to evacuate the wounded," Egeland said. "The member states that are supposed to help us get access to civilians in the cross-fire are poles apart in how they regard what is happening in Syria."

He said Syrian President Bashar Assad's government had authorized U.N.-organized aid shipments into eastern Aleppo for the first time. However, he provided no details about how the aid might get in or where it would go, and past agreements have fallen through before any aid could be delivered.

Medical officials in the enclave issued a passionate plea for a cease-fire. "Aleppo is finished. There is nothing left except a few residents and bricks," Mohammed Abu Jaafar, the head of the eastern Aleppo forensic authority, said in a recorded message shared with reporters. "This may be my last call."

By early afternoon, Abu Jaafar said 14 bodies had arrived at his facility from all over eastern Aleppo, although a comprehensive death toll for the day was not possible because of the intense fighting. Residents described streets littered with bodies as ambulances and rescue workers struggled to keep up.

The rebel defenses have buckled amid the wide-ranging government offensive, which opened a number of fronts at once and was preceded by an intensive aerial campaign. More than three-quarters of the rebel sector has now fallen, including the symbolically important ancient Aleppo quarters. More than 30,000 of the estimated 275,000 residents of the besieged eastern enclave have fled to western Aleppo.

The Syrian government has dismissed a proposal for a cease-fire put forward by the rebels Wednesday. In comments published Thursday in the state-owned al-Watan newspaper, Assad in said he would no longer consider truce offers, adding that such proposals, particularly by the Americans, often come when the rebels are in a "difficult spot."

"That is why we hear wailing and screaming and pleas for truces as the only political discourse now," Assad said. He said that while a victory by Syrian government forces in the battle for Aleppo would be a "big gain," it will not end the country's civil war.

"Liberating Aleppo from the terrorists deals a blow to the whole foundation of this project," he said. But he added, "to be realistic, it doesn't mean the end of the war." On Thursday, opposition activists reported intensive bombing in the al-Sukkari and Kallaseh neighborhoods still under rebel control.

Al-Sukkari is in the southern part of eastern Aleppo, an area that has become home to the majority of the displaced civilians who stayed behind; Kallaseh is near the Old City. Footage by the Syrian military showed intensive shelling of Bustan al-Qasr, a frontline neighborhood that links the rebel-held eastern and government-controlled western parts of the divided city.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said that it had evacuated 148 disabled civilians and others in need of urgent care from a facility in Aleppo's Old City after fighting calmed down there.

The evacuation, undertaken jointly with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, was completed late Wednesday, the Red Cross said in a statement. The people had been trapped in a facility that was originally a home for the elderly and included mentally and physically disabled patients, as well as injured civilians who had sought refuge there.

"They were forgotten," said Pawel Krzysiek, the agency's communication coordinator in Damascus. The evacuees were taken to a hospital and shelters in the western, government-held part of Aleppo.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

Aleppo offensive: Old City taken by Syrian army in major advance, rebels call for truce

Wednesday 7 December 2016

The Syrian army seized control of the whole of Aleppo's Old City overnight on Tuesday, government news sources reported, as rebels proposed a truce and Turkey pushed for fresh talks.

The reports were corroborated on Wednesday morning by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said that rebels had pulled out from the last remaining districts of Bab al-Hadid and Aqyul.

The advance on the ground has been backed up by heavy air strikes on areas of the east still under rebel control.

News of the advance came as rebel factions in Aleppo put forward a proposal for a five-day ceasefire, after a day of heavy fighting reportedly killed dozens of civilians. The local White Helmet civil defense group put the number of those killed in various rebel-held districts on Tuesday at 53.

One image shared by activists on social media showed an elderly woman lying prone in a wheelchair after apparently being killed as she crossed the street.

Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday that the rebels were proposing a five-day truce to allow civilians and severely injured people to be evacuated. It did not specify which rebel groups were behind the proposal.

Rebels suffer setbacks

The rebel loss of the Old City comes only hours after they suffered heavy casualties in their former stronghold of eastern Aleppo.

Government troops retook seven districts, including the strategic Shaar neighborhood. They now control more than three-quarters of former rebel territory in the city's east, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday. It called Shaar "the most important neighborhood in the heart of east Aleppo," and said rebels were reduced to fighting a "war of attrition".

The rapid gains for the government have left opposition fighters scrambling to defend the shrinking enclave they still control in Aleppo's south-eastern districts.

But despite mounting criticism of the fresh offensive that began on 15 November, world powers have struggled to find a way to halt the fighting.

"We have been trying to find a way to get to the negotiating table ... but Assad has never shown any willingness," US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was a "disgrace" that the international community had been unable to alleviate the suffering.

Turkey to push talks between Russia and Syrian rebels

News of the rebel proposals for a truce came amid reports that Ankara is doing "everything possible" to facilitate negotiations between Moscow and Syrian opposition groups.

"We are doing everything possible to bring about contacts between opposition representatives and Russia and have achieved very good success on this score," Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told Russia's Interfax news agency in an interview published on Wednesday. Yildrim met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.

"If any consensus reached is turned into a signed document then that would be to everyone's benefit. Now is the time when you need to get results," Yildirim added in comments translated into Russian.

A source told AFP in late November that Russian representatives had met with Syrian rebels in Turkey to discuss the possibility of a truce in Aleppo, but failed to reach a deal.

Russia is pushing for a total rebel withdrawal from Aleppo before any ceasefire can come into force, while Ankara wants an immediate halt to the fighting.

Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict: Moscow has backed leader Bashar al-Assad, while Ankara supports groups opposing him and have mounted a three-month border operation inside northern Syria.

Yildirim softened Ankara's rhetoric on Assad's future after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked Moscow's ire by claiming Turkey intervened in the Syria conflict solely to topple Assad.

"Undoubtedly, the fate of the many ethnic groups represented in Syria is much more important than the fate of one person in particular - Bashar al-Assad," he said.

Russian army colonel killed

Meanwhile, Russia said Wednesday that an army colonel working as a military adviser in Syria died several days after being wounded by rebel shelling in Aleppo.

"Ruslan Galitsky passed away in hospital as a result of his serious injuries. Russian army medics fought for several days to save his life," the defense ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

It said he was wounded in the shelling of a residential area in western Aleppo by the "so-called opposition".

Galitsky - who reportedly commanded a tank brigade based in Siberia - is one of the highest-ranking Russian servicemen among the estimated 20 Moscow says have been killed in Syria.

The statement did not specify where or when exactly Galitsky died. On Monday Russia said two female Russian medics were killed by rebel shelling of an army field hospital in Aleppo.

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syria-army-takes-all-aleppo-old-city-major-advance-770755867.

Syrian government, ally Russia warn rebels in city of Aleppo

December 06, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government and its ally Russia on Tuesday issued stark warnings to rebels in besieged eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, with Moscow's top diplomat saying the rebels will be wiped out unless they stop fighting and leave the city.

Damascus also said it rejects any cease-fire for Aleppo that does not include the departure of all rebels from the eastern part of the city and that it won't allow the rebels to use a truce as a chance to "regroup."

The tough rhetoric comes a day after Russia and China blocked a draft resolution at the U.N. Security Council demanding a seven-day truce in Aleppo to evacuate the sick and wounded and to provide humanitarian aid workers time to get food and medicine into the city. Russia, a main backer of the Syrian government and supporting the government's offensive in the city, has repeatedly blocked action in the Security Council over Syria.

"Those who refuse to leave nicely will be destroyed," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, speaking of the Syrian rebels. "There is no other way." In Damascus, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, carried on the state SANA news agency, that the government will not allow rebels a chance to "regroup and repeat their crimes" in the divided city — a reference to rebel shelling of Aleppo's western, government-held districts that has killed 81 civilians in the past three weeks, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The government's offensive to take eastern Aleppo killed 341 civilians over the same period and displaced tens of thousands over the past week, the Observatory and other activist groups have said. Since last Tuesday, a crushing air and ground assault has enabled Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces to recapture more than half of opposition-held eastern Aleppo.

Residents in the city's east reported heavy shelling and bombardment overnight. "A rocket struck the fifth floor of the building we are staying in, but thankfully no one was hurt," said Judy al-Halaby, an activist sheltering in the Mashhad neighborhood.

At the press conference in Moscow, Lavrov lamented what he described as attempts by the United States to obtain a pause in the fighting in Aleppo to allow rebels to re-arm and re-supply. He said that "serious conversations with are our American partners are not working."

Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said the Kremlin regrets a "more than modest" reaction by the international community following a rocket attack on a Russian military hospital in Aleppo on Monday that killed two Russian nurses.

Russian officials alleged rebels were provided coordinates to the hospital by a foreign power, though they did not specify who. After the Russian and Chinese move at the Security Council, U.S. diplomats accused their Russian counterparts of stalling for time as Syrian government forces advance in Aleppo.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Lavrov in Rome last Friday to discuss Aleppo but there has been no evident progress after their meeting on reviving the stalled Syria peace talks.

Amos reported from Moscow.

'We have lost everything': Syrians return to ravaged Aleppo

December 06, 2016

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Amina Hamawy burst into tears and then fainted when she returned to eastern Aleppo to find that looters had ransacked her home. "Where am I? What happened?" she asked after her husband and daughter revived her. "We have lost everything."

They were among a few hundred residents who fled fighting in the Hanano neighborhood last month and were able to return after government forces drove out Syrian rebels, whose besieged and bombed out enclave in eastern Aleppo has begun to collapse.

After registering with authorities, Hamawy's family was driven past blackened shells of buildings and mounds of rubble, devastation wrought by more than four years of near-daily airstrikes, including explosives-filled barrels dropped from helicopters.

Their single-story home was still intact, but the television, electrical cables and a large battery that supplied power for the home had been taken, either by retreating rebels, advancing forces or thieves exploiting the chaos.

The looters left the old refrigerator and the washing machine behind. "If it had been a new, fully automatic one they would have stolen it," said Hamid Malaji, Hamawy's husband. "The work of decades disappeared in a few hours."

It could be much worse. His family survived and was able to flee when government forces moved in. And their gray and white cat emerged when they returned, meowing from hunger but otherwise unharmed. Few residents of eastern Aleppo have been as fortunate. The city became the epicenter of Syria's civil war when the rebels captured the eastern districts, starting with Hanano, in the summer of 2012.

The city has been fiercely contested since then, and earlier this year government forces fully besieged rebel-held eastern Aleppo, where nearly every hospital has been destroyed, and so many people have been killed that there are few places left to bury them.

The rebels are finally buckling under the pressure. They have been retreating for more than a week, and while a prolonged battle is expected in the narrow streets of Aleppo's Old City, government forces are likely to prevail.

The loss of eastern Aleppo would mark the greatest victory for President Bashar Assad's forces and his Russian and Iranian allies since the conflict began in 2011 with peaceful protests against his family's four-decade rule.

More than 30,000 people have fled Aleppo since the latest government offensive began last month, joining the more than 10 million Syrians — nearly half the population — who have fled their homes since the conflict began.

Abdul-Ghani Kassab, a senior official in the Aleppo governorate, said 750 families have returned to Hanano, which was home to tens of thousands before the conflict began. He said 40 percent of the buildings will have to be demolished because they cannot be renovated.

The Syrian government and humanitarian agencies are providing aid to those who have returned, meeting them as they disembark from green government buses. On Sunday, volunteers with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent distributed mattresses, blankets, food baskets and diapers. They also handed out large sheets of plastic that could be used to cover smashed windows or doors. Doctors standing outside ambulances diagnosed patients and prescribed medicine or vitamins.

One woman arrived with her husband, who was ill and could barely walk. He was forced to leave eastern Aleppo yet again, this time rushed away in an ambulance to a hospital in the government-held west.

Germany moves to deport Afghan asylum seekers, group says

December 14, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — About 50 Afghans who had their asylum bids in Germany rejected were being deported on Wednesday, a pro-refugee group said, as the government works to reduce the number of migrants remaining in the country.

A plane with the deportees on board was supposed to leave Frankfurt airport Wednesday at 6:55 p.m. local time, refugee group Pro Asyl said. Hundreds of protesters chanted slogans at the airport's departure terminal asking to have deportations to Afghanistan halted.

The German government said earlier that it would only confirm deportations after they happened, but officials had not verified after the plane's departure time if any had taken place. After allowing in 890,000 migrants last year, Germany has sought to manage the influx by speeding up the asylum process for the applicants most likely to receive it, such as Syrians fleeing civil war.

Authorities in turn have accelerated the expulsion of unlikely candidates for asylum, such as people seeking to escape poverty in the Balkans. Afghans have fallen somewhere in the middle, with some areas of the country considered safe and some not. But few have been deported because Germany lacked a proper agreement with Afghanistan. Instead, many have been convinced to go home voluntarily with financial incentives.

But the German and Afghan governments signed a memorandum of understanding on deportations a few weeks ago, paving the way for the several dozen who were to be sent home on Wednesday night. Petra Haubner, a lawyer from the Bavarian city of Passau, told The Associated Press that a 20-year-old Afghan client was on his way to Frankfurt to be deported after being detained by police at a Bavaria shelter.

The client, who Haubner did not name, arrived in Germany as a minor in 2011. His asylum request first was rejected in 2012 because authorities did not see enough proof of his individual persecution by the Taliban.

After several failed court appeals, he had been living in Germany on short-term "tolerated status." On Wednesday night, Germany's federal constitutional court temporarily suspended the deportation of another Afghan in a last-minute decision. The court said the 29-year-old man could remain to await the outcome of an appeal of his rejected asylum plea.

Germany has tried to convince rejected Afghan asylum seekers to leave voluntarily by offering financial incentives upon their return home. Some 3,000 asylum seekers returned to Afghanistan this year as part of the repatriation program, Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth said.

Only 18 Afghan citizens were deported in the first half of 2016, according to government figures. More than 12,500 Afghans have received orders to leave the country, but not yet been deported. Critics say sending people back to Afghanistan puts them in danger because of the Taliban's control of some parts of the country and frequent suicide bombings. The German government claims that migrants only will be sent back to safe regions.

Sweden, which has been another top European destination for migrants, deported 11 Afghans earlier this week, police spokesman Mattias Lindholm said. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said in recent weeks that Germany needs to toughen its stance and ensure that migrants who are refused permission to stay do leave the country.

"We need a national effort to return those who are rejected — that is undisputed and we are working on that at present with great vigor," Merkel told a conference of her conservative bloc's youth wing in October.

The majority of the 890,000 migrants who arrived in Germany in 2015 were from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The country has been grappling with the integration of the many newcomers and hostility toward migrants has been on the rise.

This year, the number of asylum seekers has declined sharply, with some 230,000 people having arrived in the country by the end of September.

David Keyton contributed reporting from Stockholm, Sweden.

Brexit: Year's key political term enters Oxford dictionary

December 15, 2016

LONDON (AP) — Britain has yet to leave the European Union, but the term for its departure — Brexit — has earned a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press said Thursday that the Brexit is among new entries in the authoritative reference work's latest update. It's defined as "the (proposed) withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and the political process associated with it."

The word has rapidly entered common usage since Britain voted in June to leave the 28-nation EU. The formal exit process is expected to start next year. The related word Grexit — a potential Greek exit from the EU's single currency — is also a new addition to the dictionary.

Other new entries include glam-ma, a glamorous grandmother; YouTuber, a producer of material for the video-sharing website; verklempt, an adjective meaning overwhelmed by emotion; and "get your freak on," a term for exuberant sex or dancing.

The OED traces the history, meaning and pronunciation of more than 829,000 words and aspires to be the most complete record of the English language ever assembled.