<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>As 2016 draws to a close and many of us are emotionally spent lamenting events that we consider undesirable, citizenship has emerged as one of the murkiest ideas of the last year. Who is a citizen? What does citizenship entail? What should be expected of citizens and what is owed to them? Where does the writ of the state end, vis-à-vis rights and privacy? Every major event of 2016 has raised one or more of these questions. ComplianceIn India, demonetization has put the spotlight on compliance. Introduced suddenly and executed shoddily, those struggling to cope have found their situation exacerbated by what seemed like daily changes in regulations. The on-the-ground reality of cash shortages and non-functioning ATMs have plunged countless Indians into crisis. The broadcasting style of the government—they pronounce, we scurry, no questions asked—has left Indians helpless. We must comply because we have no way to challenge or defy.The absence of large protests was offered the other day on television as evidence of the success of this move. The reality is that most of us have been too busy trying to figure out withdrawals and deposits to organise! Most beleaguered are bank staff who have gone in fifty days from making patriotic noises to lamenting their choice of career—to ordinary account-holders, they are the face of this arbitrary government and the recipients of public ire. We are all complying because we have no choice.“Compliance” is not a bad thing—laws, rules and regulations are presumably intended to benefit us. Citizens should obey them. But should we obey blindly and should we be expected to obey without debate? ‘To comply’ means to conform, to follow along, to observe, to submit—and in the absence of debate, discussion, questioning and accountability, all these words are inimical to democracy. Compliance achieved by enforcement suggests that there is no consensus on the appropriateness or utility of a regulation. And if there is no consensus, that means the law or rule has not really been discussed adequately.Parliament sessions are listed on the calendar but how many days do Parliamentarians actually do any session-time work—debates, questions and answers? All Indian parties are responsible for this breakdown but governments—all governments—have turned it into an opportunity to govern by ordinance. This is a windfall for anyone seeking to push their will through to the public. That makes enforced compliance of rules-never-debated sinister. Yes, Indians are past-masters at flouting rules. But stressing compliance over an understanding of the spirit of a law or regulation is not the answer; it suggests that the government is keener on making us obey than creating a climate in which we engage with and together fashion the frameworks of our lives.In 2017, what I want to know is, will my citizenship be measured solely and entirely—by government and fellow-citizens—in terms of my willingness to comply without question? I suspect so, given the tendency to cry ‘anti-national’ when faced with any debate or questions. Judging by the last two months, I would suggest that we have definitely entered a phase in which citizens are expected to be subjects of a state that knows best.Embed from Getty ImagesCredulityPolitical smarts, when I was growing up, involved questioning the actions of the state. Being interested in politics meant asking before obeying, challenging before accepting and endlessly debating. Being apolitical was manifested by finding the loopholes and generally believing that it made no difference who was in power or what they did. Both poles kept the rhetoric of political leaders in their place—“Nice to see you, but no one really believes what you say.”This is quite a different moment. We now desperately want to believe in our political leaders. We crave strong paternalistic leaders who will tell us what to do—whether or not they actually know. We are okay with being ruled by people who give directions to places they have never heard of. We just want them to sound confident. We want to be children and subjects who are led into a better future. We ask no questions. We have obliterated from our minds every historical memory and so we have no fear of a return to other fascist ages. We have no interest in political agency—we would even like to vote by SMS as if life were a reality show—and so we surrender it to strong men who know (always men, by the way!). This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.We are content to swallow the dreams these strong men articulate, the road-maps they outline even if they keep shifting, their self-assessment as successful and visionary (this is after all, the age of self-nomination for awards and LinkedIn visionary leaders!) and their choice of a range of coercive measures. We accept with faith everything we are told about those who challenge them—human rights workers usually, who do their work in the face of great danger. Around the world, human rights NGOs are being charged with non-compliance—but it is becoming hard to distinguish whether it is non-compliance with rules and regulations or non-compliance with the government’s line that they are being framed and punished for. We have to remember that today it is them, but tomorrow, it could be any of us.Targeting dissenting elements in civil society is not unique to the present Indian government, to be fair. However, what has changed in the state-civil society equation is that citizens are stepping forward to sweep away any obstacles or rubble in the path of the state juggernaut. Nobody is asking questions. Most are not asking questions because they have chosen to live as subjects of a paternalist state that shows tough love for their own good. Some are not asking questions because they are afraid of being crushed by the juggernaut. A very small number are picking their battles so that they can outlast this moment. The fate of the handful of truly brave Indian citizens, who are undeterred in the face of government pressure and persecution and unsupported in this moment of absolute credulity on our parts, hangs in the balance. Will we ensure they survive 2017?ConvictionThe word ‘conviction’ is now associated more with being found guilty and punished than with having strong unassailable beliefs. Many of us around the world are proud of living in democratic political systems—in fact, those of us that occasionally ask questions are reminded that democracy involves accepting (unconscionable?) points of view and the outcomes of due process elections. Fair enough!This pride does not however seem to translate into much else. In an age when information is ubiquitous, democratic citizenship remains confined to expressing opinion and not seeking to have an informed opinion. This is why, on the morning after the Brexit vote, Google reported that the most-searched term of the day was “What is the EU?” Not knowing the answer to something, no longer precludes our having an opinion on it—that is democracy 2016-style. Democracy is about giving everyone a voice. The US presidential election suggests this is how we understand it: feeling alienated and excluded from the political and social changes of the last few decades, we can seek to exclude and alienate others. Democracy is not about inclusive and enabling processes but a tug-of-war about who is in and who is out. There are shades of this view of democracy to be found all over the world, including India and other parts of South Asia. We sway with the prevailing wind, giving uninformed opinion the clout of conviction. If someone comes to us sounding confident about what they are saying, we are convinced and do not find it necessary to question values, logic or facts. This is why “post-truth” was selected by the Oxford Dictionaries as the word of the year.Embed from Getty Images‘Conviction’ is a beautiful word. To say of someone that they are a person of strong convictions is to pay them a compliment. But should our convictions be so rigid that they cannot accommodate the experience of others? More critically, when we are talking about democracy and citizenship, should the strong men to whom we have handed over our agency be allowed to impose their convictions upon us?I want to know where we stand. As 2017 begins, I want to understand what we believe in—individually and collectively. Citizens of democratic states and societies around the world need to think about this and find ways to express themselves. Our casual submission betrays our values. Our silence emboldens those who would disregard our citizenship.Do we truly believe in democracy? If we did, our societies would not be as divided, our public debates replaced by monologues and tweet-binges and our ability to converse with each other so badly impaired. Our everyday engagement with politics seems confined to ‘who started it’ and ‘who said what to whom.’ Our so-called democratic convictions stop short of understanding citizenship and our own relationship with states. We see the purpose of government as ‘control’ (as reflected in many school civics lessons)—and so we submit to that control uncritically. Citizenship is naturally about compliance and credulity, rather than a conviction-driven engagement.CourageIn 2017, conviction-driven engagement will take even more courage than usual. We have lowered our defences everywhere to such a degree that every small thing—including writing a cheeky response to the requirement that we explain our deposits—appears bold. To say that we will not get Aadhaar cards (which, please note, are not mandatory) and we will not use a digital wallet now seem like volunteering to face bullets. What will we then do when the real lathis and bullets come?Where citizenship is expressed by over-eager compliance and utter credulity (really, rolling over and playing dead), then the work that is done by the groups like the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group is astoundingly brave. To understand how the politics of implementing demonetization ties in with the way that the government wants to suppress dissent, take this development. Shalini Gera, a lawyer from this group, travelled to Bijapur for a case and was told that a complaint had been filed against her for “exchanging old Rs 1,000 notes worth Rs 10 lakh for the Maoists.” Is this true or is this not true? Do we care enough to find out? The chances are we don’t. We are happy to believe that all human rights activists are engaged in nefarious activities involving anti-national elements. Because the government would never lie to us, would it? But people like Shalini Gera—or any of the many other human rights activists targeted by the government through tax probes or FCRA challenges—have the courage of their convictions. They stay the course. Thankfully.Right or wrong, every accused person has the right to due process and a legal defence. All citizens have the right to ask questions and get answers. The constitution of India gives us the right to ask what has happened to missing people; to expect that governments will do their work without exceeding their mandate and jurisdiction and to understand by what authority governments act. Citizenship is not an entitlement or a legal status alone; it is a privilege, and one that you exercise through agency, when political agency requires courage. Citizens—in India and other democratic countries—enjoy civil and political rights, but in 2017, we will get to see whether they have the conviction and the courage to reclaim and exercise them.CompassionIn 2016, political discussions hit a new low. At the good end, we had uncivil, uninformed and ad hominem discussions. At the bad end, we had trolling, cyber-bullying and hate speech. Sometimes, it was hard to tell the two ends apart. Nothing however, highlighted the absence of compassion from our public lives as much as the Syrian crisis and demonetisation.The world has been grappling with a Syrian exodus for a couple of years. As nearby states have quietly absorbed large numbers of refugees, this has precipitated an identity crisis and cultural debates in Europe and North America. To the extent that various European countries have taken in refugees and tried to help them settle down, this has become an issue in domestic politics. But even as we watched elections around Europe and discussed political trends there, news kept emerging from Syria about the deteriorating ground situation. People tweeted photos and blogged stories. We liked, favourited, shared and retweeted, and maybe signed petitions. What history will record is that we did nothing. More than a century since we began looking for collective security, we have not found a way to channel our compassion into action that strikes a good balance between interference and intervention, between helping and handling.Embed from Getty ImagesThe other, closer to home, is how middle-class Indians have responded to demonetization. When faced with questions about implementation and concerns about impact, I have been saddened by the things I hear people say.“Don’t worry about the poor! They have lots of cash.” “Do you think the street vendor is poor? He or she has other sources of income. And by the way, they don’t pay tax.” “See, everyone should have a bank account.”“What’s the problem? Soldiers fight on the front, we can’t stand in queues?” (Never mind the old, the frail, the arthritic and the diabetic, who stood for hours to maybe get a small portion of their money.)“It’s so easy to use digital if you have a smartphone.” (IF you have a smartphone, electricity and decent connectivity.)“Small businesses like tailors will take a hit but everything will be alright in the long run.” (“In the long run, we are all dead,” wrote Keynes.)Middle class resentment about those better-off seems logical. What has emerged is our resentment about those worse off than us. It is as if they are secretly better off. As we have palmed off our stashes of old notes to them, we have not considered that they might be accountable too. We do not consider whose who work in our homes and offices to be human, leave alone citizens. I have been alarmed by the payment in advance of salaries—does that portend a new version of bonded labour that ties the honest worker to the dishonest employer for an indefinite period?A government that appears callous and a credulous citizenry that seems to lack compassion—this is a lethal combination that is now in evidence worldwide. The likelihood that 2017 will redefine citizenship as a web of compassionate relationships seems non-existent, but because we cannot afford that pessimism, I list compassion here anyway.***What will we make of our citizenship in 2017? Wherever we live, it will be a year in which, consciously or unconsciously, we mark our place on the spectrum between credulous compliance and courage of conviction. Wherever we live, the experiences of others and our compassion for them will need to colour our political choices—if only because, in this political climate, any one of us could be the next person to need that support and compassion. As we countdown to this new Gregorian year, I wish you courage.Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training.
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN The governor of Syria’s Homs province told state television on Sunday that the army was fighting to regain control of the ancient city of Palmyra after Islamic State had captured earlier in the day.In the government’s first official admission that Palmyra had fallen once again to the militants, Ikhbariyah TV quoted Governor Talal Barazi as saying the army had pulled out of the city.”The army is using all means to prevent the terrorists from staying in Palmyra,” he was quoted as saying, hours after IS and a Britain-based monitoring group both said the militants had full control of the city in his eastern province.Earlier on Sunday, Islamic State militants and Syria’s Russian-backed army both claimed they had the upper hand in the fight for the city. Russia said its jets had helped force the militants out of the city centre overnight and its allies in the Syrian army were now fighting off another assault by the hardline Islamists.
But a news agency linked to Islamic State then said it had only briefly retreated and was now back in control of Palmyra, an account backed by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.Palmyra, the site of a Roman-era city and spectacular ruins in the centre of Syria, has become an emblematic battleground in a civil war now in its sixth year.Forces allied to Syria’s government first recaptured the city from Islamic State in March, a victory held up as a major turning point in the war and the biggest reversal for the militants since Russia’s intervention to support Damascus.
But Islamic State militants launched a surprise advance on the city on Thursday, taking control of nearby oil and gas fields and pushing towards an airbase used by Russian forces, the Observatory said.Russia’s defence ministry said its jets had launched 64 strikes and killed more than 300 militants overnight, helping the Syrian army push the main force back.More than 4,000 Islamic State militants had since regrouped and launched a second attack on Sunday, Russian news agencies cited Moscow’s monitoring centre in Syria as saying.
“Despite heavy losses in manpower and equipment, the terrorists are trying as hard as possible to secure a foothold inside the city,” Interfax quoted a statement from the centre as saying. “Syrian troops are fighting to defend Palmyra.”Syria’s army acknowledged there was a large offensive by the militants from several fronts near a major grain silo 10 km (6 miles) east of the city.An Islamic State recapture of Palmyra would be a major reversal for Syria’s government and its Russian backer, which hailed the city’s capture in March, sent troops to protect it and even staged a concert there. (Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Editing by Tom Heneghan)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
First Published On : Dec 11, 2016 21:28 IST
<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>The demonetization move has really irked Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal who has been venting his anger in speeches, in the Delhi Assembly and on social media. At a time when the public is rather worried about the entire process, Kejriwal has acted rather bizarrely by sometimes even retweeting unverified information from his official handle. On Sunday, the Delhi CM retweeted a misleading photograph and a caption that supposedly showed a man committing suicide because of demonetization.The Delhi CM claimed that the man had hung himself because he wasn’t able to withdraw money but the picture was actually of a thief who had hung himself in Satna in Madhya Pradesh after he was surrounded by policeman. The man had come to rob the bank and he committed suicide when he realised he couldn’t escape. Later, he also retweeted a picture of Syrian refugee children which he claimed were found at the train accident site near Kanpur. The individual who had shared the story deleted the tweet and then deactivated his Twitter account. A couple of days earlier, the Delhi CM had lashed out at a BBC journalist for disagreeing with him about link between demonetization and deaths. Many individuals on Twitter called out Kejriwal, including BJP MP and Minister of State (MoS) Giriraj Singh. Earlier, Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha had tweeted a picture of a ‘long line’ which had turned out to be a picture from the 2013 Kenya elections. Perhaps, at a times like this, when people are so worried, our leaders would do well not to spread malicious rumours just because of their political differences. AAP to march against demonetization Stepping up its attack on the Centre over the demonetisation exercise, AAP, led by Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, will take out a protest march to the Parliament tomorrow, which will also see participation from other ministers of the Delhi government. Alleging that the demonetisation drive by the Narendra Modi government was a “scam”, AAP leader Ashish Khetan said common people were suffering while the loans of big industrialists were being waived off. “We will be a undertaking Sansad March tomorrow under the leadership of Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia,” Khetan said. Chief Minister and AAP Convenor Arvind Kejriwal, who has been a strong voice against the demonetisation measure, is currently in Punjab. Apart from party leaders, Delhi ministers will also join the march.
<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>India voiced deep concern over terror groups acquiring chemical weapons, asserting that the international community must take urgent measures and decisive actions to prevent possibility of any future use of such weapons.”It has been our consistent position that the use of chemical weapons anywhere, at anytime by anybody under any circumstances cannot be justified and the perpetrators of such abhorrent acts must be held accountable,” Ambassador D B Venkatesh Varma, Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva said at a debate on weapons of mass destruction in United Nations on Wednesday.He said India is “deeply concerned with reports of acquisitions of chemical weapons and their delivery system by terrorist groups and continuing use of chemical weapons and toxic chemicals in Syria and Iraq by terrorists. “We believe that the international community must take urgent measures and decisive actions to prevent the possibility of any future use of chemical weapons,” he said at the First Committee session of the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly.Varma said India has a large and growing chemical industry and also has the second largest number of declared facilities and receives among the largest number of inspections from Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).He underscored that India has a “flawless track record” of verification inspections and believes that the OPCW needs to evolve transparent and objective criteria and modalities for inspections.”The provisions of the Convention should be implemented in a manner that does not hinder legitimate activities, especially in countries like India with a large and growing chemical industry,” he said.Varma told the committee, which deals with disarmament and international security, that India has strong and law-based national export controls consistent with the highest international standards with reference to control of nuclear, chemical, biological and toxin weapons and their means of delivery.India contributed to international efforts under UN and the OPCW for destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities (CWPFs) and welcomed the progress made so far in their destruction.”We would encourage further consultations between Syria and the OPCW with an aim to fully resolve all the outstanding issues in the spirit of trust and cooperation,” he said.He reiterated India’s committment to improving the effectiveness of the Biological Weapons Convention and strengthening its implementation and its universalisation.
Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra apologises after being criticised for a Conde Nast cover shoot seen as insulting to refugees.
By Tom Perry and Ellen Francis
BEIRUT A senior rebel commander said on Friday that Syrian government forces would never be able to capture Aleppo’s opposition-held east, more than three weeks into a ferocious offensive, but a military source said the operation was going as planned.Russian air strikes were proving of little help to government ground forces in urban warfare, the deputy commander of the Fastaqim rebel group in Aleppo said. While air strikes have pounded much of the city, they have avoided frontlines where the sides are fighting in close proximity, apparently out of fear they could hit the wrong side, he said. The rebels were well prepared for a siege imposed this summer, and preparations for a counter attack were under way, Melhem Akidi told Reuters.”Militarily there is no danger to the city of Aleppo,” he said, adding: “The more dangerous thing is the daily massacres by the regime that are targeting not just the people but the foundations of life in Aleppo.”However, the Syrian military source and a second pro-government military source in the field said the campaign was on course, reiterating denials that civilians were being targeted.”The accomplishments so far are moving according to the plan, and we are working according to gradual steps,” said the second source, a non-Syrian and part of a regional alliance fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad. The assessments, on the eve of a meeting between U.S. and Russian foreign ministers in Switzerland to try to resume their failed efforts to find a diplomatic solution, point to a protracted battle for Aleppo. Syria’s biggest city before the war has been divided into areas controlled by the government and rebels for several years. The rebel-held east is the last major urban stronghold of the nationalist rebels fighting Assad, and recapturing it would be a major strategic prize. The Syrian army, supported by Iranian-backed militias and Russian air power, announced a major offensive to capture the rebel-held part of the city on Sept. 22, unleashing firepower not previously seen in the 5-1/2-year long war.The onslaught has killed several hundred people and flattened many buildings. Hospitals have also been hit, leading the United States and France to accuse Russia and the Syrian government of war crimes.Moscow and Damascus say they are only targeting militants.ONSLAUGHT THREATENS BREAD SUPPLY
A member of Aleppo’s opposition city council told Reuters fuel reserves used to operate bakeries could run out in a month if the siege persists. A mill was bombed on Wednesday, another threat to the city’s bread supply, he said.
The air strikes have been accompanied by ground assaults by government forces, including Shi’ite militias from Iraq and Lebanon. Their clearest advance so far is the capture of ground to the north of Aleppo, including the Handarat camp.The army has also reported gains in the city centre itself. The rebels have consistently said these have been repelled.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group monitoring the war, said the government advances so far did not match the intensity of the firepower unleashed.The bombardment was expected to bring “much greater results”, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said. Syria’s civil war has killed 300,000 people and left millions homeless while dragging in regional and global powers and allowing for the expansion of jihadist groups including Islamic State, which controls wide areas of the east.As well as Russia and Iran, Assad is backed by an array of Shi’ite militias from Arab neighbours, while Sunni rebels seeking to oust him are backed by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies. LITTLE HOPE FOR PEACE TALKS
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday, possibly joined by ministers from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran.American officials have voiced little hope for success, however, and Lavrov said on Friday he had “no special expectations” for the talks. Kerry broke off talks with Lavrov last week over the Aleppo offensive. The resumption of negotiations, despite the fighting, was a sign of the lack of options facing Western nations over the Syria conflict, where they worry increased arms supplies for the rebels could end up in the hands of jihadist groups.The Syrian government and its allies have been steadily encircling the rebel-held east of Aleppo this year, first cutting the shortest route to nearby Turkey, before fully blockading the city this summer.Assad said this week capturing Aleppo would be a springboard for pushing militants to neighbouring Turkey, a major sponsor of the rebellion.He has offered the Aleppo rebels an amnesty if they lay down their arms, though they have dismissed it as a trick.
ALEPPO “STEADFAST”, FUEL RUNNING OUT
Akidi, speaking from Aleppo, said he was “certain that nobody would be able to storm” the east, which he said could not be compared to other less populous and less well-armed areas that have been captured from rebels by the government.”Everyone who stayed in Aleppo, which was under threat of siege for a long time, has prepared for steadfastness,” he said.He also noted the proximity of nearby insurgent strongholds west of Aleppo and in Idlib province, and what he described as the government’s “fragile” hold over an important access point on the city’s southern periphery. “I do not rule out that the revolutionaries will be able to break the siege soon,” he said.The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a report on Thursday that 406 people had been reported killed and 1,384 wounded in eastern Aleppo from Sept. 23 until Oct. 8. In government-held western Aleppo, which is frequently targeted by rebel shelling, 91 people including 18 children were killed over a similar period.Muhammad Sandeh, of the opposition city council, said a fuel reserve controlled by the council could dry up in eastern Aleppo in a month or less if the siege persists.”There are enough bakeries, but there isn’t enough flour or fuel,” Sandeh told Reuters from Aleppo. “The families get half of their bread needs,” he said. The air strike on a mill on Wednesday had severely reduced bread supply, he said.Water supplies have also been affected by the violence.OCHA said the situation had improved slightly after the parties reached an Oct. 10 agreement to protect water stations from the conflict.Ibrahim Abu al-Laith of the Civil Defence rescue service that operates in rebel-held areas said that even after pumping stations were repaired and the water returned, it couldn’t reach residents due to a lack of fuel.Fuel is the lifeline of the eastern districts, he said.”Ours is running out.” (Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Pravin Char)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
There is a lot of frothy speculation in the Indian public about whether Washington took our side or the side of Pakistan after Uri and the media on both sides is bending over backwards to dredge for virtue and support.
Is it really that important for so many of us to seek US support or lack of it in this Big brother thank you kindly fashion? Hasn’t it become passe by now. Sure, world opinion counts but we hold too much store by Washington’s utterances. Old habits die hard.
The US foreign policy has always been a bit of a dog’s breakfast and largely motivated by self-interest (which is okay) rather than the fairness of things for other parties.
These guys went into Abbottabad and found Osama bin Laden. Secretary of State John Kerry might nod wisely and look grim but honestly, does the Obama administration truly need evidence that the assault in Pathankot and Uri on India by terrorists does not have benediction from Pakistan.
That India didn’t wake up to harsh reality after the Pathankot assault is a flaw. That it continued its slumber or state of indifference after Prime Minister Modi opened up the Baloch-Gilgit front and pushed Pakistan into a never before corner shows great shortsightedness. Retaliation by proxy was a no brainer. We ambled along enjoying the Modi gambit and not shoring up our forces.
Instead, we were scrapping about the 7th Pay Commission and the Chiefs of all three forces were pre-occupied with letters of intent to the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister.
Nor were we bringing to the front burner the shortage in War Wastage Materials and our lack of battle readiness knowing we had upped the ante?
But back to the point. America’s role is not central. There is no great comfort to be found in whether it supports India and lacerates Pakistan or vice versa.
The truth is Pakistan is integral to American foreign policy and the US, even when it makes the right sounds, will never let it disintegrate or be a total loser. Strategically, historically, geographically, it wants to exercise influence there.
Consequently, what India should be finding essential comfort in is the American track record currently and how her presence or absence makes little difference to the final outcome between India and her neighbour.
Look what is happening in Syria. This serves not only as a sterling example of ineptitude by the top two nations on the planet but also warns us not to allow them a tangible role in our fight.
Syria would be seen as an ongoing comedy of errors if it wasn’t so tragic. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the destruction of a Red Crescent aid convoy into Aleppo two days ago a savage and deliberate attack.
He should, Any which way it is so bloody ironic. Protected under the umbrella of the UN of which both Russia and the US are Security Council members with veto powers makes a mockery of the whole international edifice and the search for world peace.
Last week the Americans attacked Syrian troops. Then said, sorry, my bad.
This week Russian planes targeted the UN aid caravan. So the Americans say.
The Russians say their planes did not attack the 31 vehicles strong convoy and it was a ground attack by rebels.
Moscow claims the damage in inconsistent with the air strikes.
Washington says there were two Russian fighters in that area at that time.
Russia says so what, they did not fire.
The Syrian air force doesn’t have that capability.
Amid all this wrangling the fact is the aid blew up, 20 people died and the UN has stopped further transportation.
These two adversaries, at loggerheads over keeping Assad on as President or dumping him have managed to place the peace initiative started with a slim ceasefire last week on the edge of the cliff…and then kick it over.
Think of it. The two most powerful entities entrusted in keeping the shot dove of peace from keeling over are actually de-feathering it.
Do you really think they are capable (or even interested) in resolving the Kashmir issue or spearheading the fight against terror per se unless it directly concerns them?
If these were rebels who had attacked the aid carrying vehicles and ransacked them one could have demanded higher security. But when politics is a barrier and even the UN is placed at risk by its own members and hi-tech communications cannot identify and offer cover to 31 vehicles in a convoy marked with Red Crescent logos do we need them to solve our problems…they are often the problem.
United Nations: Rejecting Pakistan’s repeated pleas to the UN to resolve the Kashmir dispute, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has told Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that Pakistan and India should address their outstanding issues, including Kashmir, through “dialogue”.
Ban’s remarks came as Sharif handed over to him a dossier containing evidence of alleged human rights violations by Indian forces in Kashmir.
“The Secretary-General stressed the need for Pakistan and India to address their outstanding issues, including Kashmir, through dialogue, saying it is in the interest of both countries and the region as a whole,” according to a readout of Ban’s meeting with Sharif provided by his spokesperson.
Ban met with Sharif at the United Nations on Wednesday on the margins of the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly.
According to a statement by the Pakistan Mission to the UN, Sharif handed over to Ban the dossier containing information and evidence of alleged atrocities and human rights violations against Kashmiris.
He also showed Ban “pictures” of “innocent and defenceless” people in Kashmir “victimised through brutal use of force and atrocities.”
“The Prime Minister also reiterated the imperative of an independent inquiry into the extra judicial killings and a UN fact finding mission to investigate the situation in occupied Kashmir. He emphasised that India must be urged to abide by UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir,” the statement said.
Sharif has been mounting massive efforts to internationalise the Kashmir issue, shooting off letters to the UN and Ban as well and raising the issue in all of his bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA.
However, his repeated calls to the UN to help resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan appear to be gaining no traction as Ban made no reference to Kashmir and the situation in the Valley in his final speech to the UNGA as UN Chief.
Ban mentioned a plethora of global issues on the UN agenda, including the situation in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East but not Kashmir.
He even touched upon the Syrian crisis, the Palestinian issue, the refugee and migrant movements, the South Sudan tensions, violent extremism and its impact on regions from Yemen, Libya Iraq, Afghanistan to the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.
Sharif, in his address to the UN General Assembly, said Pakistan welcomed the offer of good offices by the Secretary-General to help resolve the Kashmir dispute.
Ban’s office has repeatedly said that the UN Chief’s good offices are available on helping resolve the Kashmir dispute only if both India and Pakistan request for it, a clear message that the Kashmir issue is a bilateral one between the two nations and should be solved by them only.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during his meeting with Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar in Damascus on Saturday, sought India’s help in the reconstruction of his country’s economy while the two countries agreed to upgrade their security consultations as well following the ongoing war in Syria and recurring cases of Indians being influenced by the Islamic State.
“There was an agreement between both sides for further upgrading security consultations,” The Indian Express quoted a source as saying.
Both the leaders acknowledged that terrorism was a global problem. Akbar said that the age of destruction should give way to reconstruction in Syria.
Assad also welcomed India’s objective position on the conflict in Syria. According to a report by DNA, he urged India to play the role of a growing power to stabilise West Asia rather than being defensive.
India’s opposition to foreign intervention and support for state sovereignty might make its position favorable to the Assad government. Almost seven million Indians are currently working in West Asia.
Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had reiterated India’s opposition to foreign interference in Syria during his meeting with the Syrian Prime Minister Wael Al-Halki on the sidelines of the NAM Summit in Tehran in 2012. He had said that the solution to the crisis in the country should be through a comprehensive political process that achieves and accommodates the aspirations of the Syrian people, reported AMN.
Singh had also hailed the friendly bilateral and cultural ties between the two countries while stressing the importance of halting the violence.
Assad addressed a letter to Singh on the eve of the fourth Brics summit in 2012 and delivered it via envoy Bouthaina Shaaban. According to Syrian Radio & TV, Shaaban thanked India for its support to a political solution in Syria away from foreign meddling.
According to the Ministry of External Affairs, the then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid reiterated India’s position with respect to Syria in the UN-sponsored international conference on Syria in 2014.
“India supports an all-inclusive Syrian-led process to chart out the future of Syria, its political structures and leadership,” Khurshid had said.
During President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Jordan, Israel and Palestine last year, India’s then Secretary (East) at the Ministry of External Affairs said that India wants a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis and its stance on Russian military intervention in Syria was acknowledgement that Moscow was doing so to “halt the advances of the Islamic State (IS),” according to a Scroll article.
Syrian Ambassador to India, Riad Kamel Abbas, referred to India as a friend of Syria. In an interview with The Hindu, he said, “If everybody has done what India has done, we wouldn’t have any problem in Syria. It’s a champion of the principle that there should not be any external interference in the internal affairs of a country.”
He further hailed PM Narendra Modi and said that the prime minister has made it very clear that “there’s no bad terrorism and good terrorism. There’s only terrorism.”
India’s interest lies in Syria mainly because of the seven million Indians working in the West Asia region. The terror attack in Dhaka claimed by Islamic State and the arrests of suspected Islamic State operatives in the country has become a matter of concern.
The growing threat of Islamic State in India
Six Islamic State operatives had allegedly conspired to carry out terror activities in the national capital and adjoining regions during the Ardh Kumbh in Haridwar to terrorise people, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) said.
Al-Hindi, head of a group of Indian jihadists based out of Raqqa in Syria, is still on the run. In June this year, NIA arrested five men from Hyderabad who alleged that they were members of an Islamic State cell that was being operated under the command of Muhammad Shafi Armar.
Earlier this year, a special cell of the Delhi Police arrested Mohsin Ibrahim Sayeed – another suspected Islamic State operative.
The Kerala Police too arrested a 24-year-old man for his alleged Islamic State links, Firstpost had earlier reported. The NIA described Kerala as a highly volatile state with a huge presence of Indian Mujahideen and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) elements.
On 7 August, a youth from Parbhani was caught by the Maharashtra Police for his alleged Islamic State links.
Areeb Majeed, another Islamic State operative and a civil engineering student from Kalyan in Mumbai, was a part of a group of four who had left India on 23 May 2013.
Islamic State has gradually been seeping into India and therefore, India does not want Syria to follow the path of Libya, which has become a breeding ground for Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. However, if Assad is dethroned, Syria is likely to follow the same path because of the political vacuum.
With inputs from agencies
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Be it executions of health care workers and patients in Libya by terrorist fronts, targeted bombing of hospitals in Iraq and Syria or armed robberies in healthcare facilities in Africa, providing or seeking medical aid in conflict-ridden areas has turned into a death sentence. The latest numbers released by World Health Organization on Thursday in a report — Attacks on healthcare — Prevent. Protect. Provide, damning to say the least.<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>The report states that over the two-year period of 2014 and 2015, with 594 attacks in 19 countries, 959 people died and 1561 were injured. Of all the attacks on hospitals, clinics, health posts, physicians, nurses, midwives, vaccinators, lab workers, health care security, maintenance,cleaning staff, ambulances, patients and visitors, 62% were reported to be intentional.Majority of the attacks, up to 38% (228) attacks were reported in Syrian Arab Republic. Close on it’s heels follow regions of West Bank and Gaza Strip (53), Iraq (43), Pakistan (43) and Libya (33). Ukraine, Central African Republic, Yemen, Sudan and Afghanistan have also borne major brunt of attacks.Attacks on healthcare facilities are multi-faceted and include violent search of facilities, abduction of health workers, military takeover, bombings, chemical or cyber attacks, harassment and sexual violence to name a few.Regarding deaths and injuries, in some countries a single attack resulted in mass casualty leading to significant proportion of the total deaths and injuries for that year.In 2015, of 39 deaths, 34 occurred on August 14 when 12 healthcare providers and 22 patients were beheaded and crucified with impunity by Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya. In Iraq, of the 71 reported deaths in 2014, 18 occurred when the obstetrics section of the Hawija Hospital was bombed on 6 September; and of the 43 deaths in Iraq in 2015, 31 occurred during a bombing on Fallujah’s maternity hospital on August 13.International medical aid organization Medecins Sans Frontiers is one of the many such healthcare providers that has faced a huge set back in terms of lives lost to attacks in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Sudan amongst others.”In 2015, 75 hospitals and clinics supported by MSF were hit by bombing and shelling in Syria more than 94 times – that’s on average more than once a week. In total, 23 MSF medical staff were killed, and 58 staff were wounded,”said a spokesperson from MSF. “In Yemen, MSF medical activities were attacked four times in just three months between October 2015 and January 2016.”Dr Joanne Liu, President, MSF International, in her sharp address at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) pointed out, “Four of the five permanent members of UNSC have to worrying degrees been associated with coalition responsible for attacks on the health structures over the last year. These are the NATO-led coalition, Saudi-led coalition attacking Yemen and Russia-backed coalition in Syria.”She further said, “Our calls for independent investigation into these attacks have gone unheeded. Perpetrators cannot be investigators, judges or jury. Medicine should not be a deadly occupation and patients should not be attacked or slaughtered in bed.”2014 – 338 attacks in 19 countries2015 – 256 attacks in 16 countriesTotal – 594 attacksTen countries that reported most attacks on healthcare -Syrian Arab Republic – 228West bank and Gaza Strip – 53Iraq – 43Pakistan – 43Libya – 33Ukraine – 32Central African Republic – 30Yemen – 22Sudan – 20Afghanistan – 10
BEIRUT/GENEVA Syrian peace talks came close to collapse on Monday, with the mainstream opposition announcing a “pause” in talks at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, although it agreed to keep its negotiating team in the city.
The Western-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said in a letter to rebel fighters that government military advances meant a ceasefire was “effectively over” and it was calling a postponement in the talks.
Rebels, who accuse the government of breaking the ceasefire to try to recapture the northern city of Aleppo, announced an offensive of their own, launching an assault against government forces in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast.
Opposition fighters made separate advances further east in Hama, while there were heavy government air strikes in Homs province to the south.
Nevertheless, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura played down the decision by the opposition delegation to stay away from his headquarters, saying his team would continue to meet the delegates elsewhere as long as they were still in town.
He acknowledged that violence had become “worrisome”, particularly around Aleppo, and that he would call on Moscow and Washington to meet urgently to discuss it if the situation did not improve.
Last month de Mistura convened the first peace talks attended by the warring parties since the conflict began five years ago. He has come further than any envoy so far in getting President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its opponents to negotiate, with the United States and Russia sponsoring a partial ceasefire since Feb 27 to allow the talks to take place.
So far all sides have committed to some kind of political “transition” that would follow the war. But they still differ fundamentally on what that means, including whether it would require Assad to leave power.
Assad’s opponents say they cannot participate in talks as long as fighting goes on. But they are also under strong pressure not to abandon altogether a peace process that has no real alternatives, at a time when Assad’s forces have benefited from Russia’s support.
“If they walk away, they will be held responsible and it will be difficult to return soon,” a Western diplomat said.
De Mistura said the opposition delegation had told him it would “postpone” its “formal participation” in negotiations at the U.N.’s headquarters, known as the Palais.
“It is one way for them to display their displeasure and concern for what they perceive to be a substantial deterioration of the humanitarian situation and a deterioration of the security environment, particularly in Aleppo,” he said.
“They told us however their intention to remain in Geneva, in their hotel, and possibly at my own suggestion, to pursue technical discussions with myself and my team.”
His team would continue to meet all sides “in the Palais or anywhere else”, he added, describing the format of proximity talks, in which the sides negotiate in separate rooms, as “very flexible”.
De Mistura acknowledged both sides were “not yielding a comma” on their political demands, but said that was normal in a negotiation. He would take stock of progress on Friday.
The opposition considers government attempts to recapture Aleppo as a violation of the ceasefire. The government says it is trying to capture areas held by Islamist militants who are not covered by the truce.
A letter signed by unspecified “armed revolutionary factions” expressed dissatisfaction within the opposition ranks, including towards de Mistura himself: “We follow with great concern and outright rejection the moves of de Mistura, some of which show a total bias towards … the demands of the regime and its allies.”
The opposition’s coordinator at the Geneva talks, Riad Hijab, said it was unacceptable for talks to go on if the government and its allies pushed on with sieges and bombing civilian areas. Only three delegates met de Mistura for talks on Monday, instead of the usual 15.
“We asked for the postponement of talks, only a postponement until the conditions are right,” Mohammad al Aboud, a member of the negotiating team, told Reuters.
One senior Western diplomat said de Mistura needed to reassure the opposition by criticizing the government for violating the truce.
“He needs to make a public statement putting pressure on the government. It’s in his interest to keep the talks alive. He needs to say that the regime isn’t listening.”
The Latakia and Hama assaults appeared to be part of a new battle announced by rebel groups early in the day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. A Syrian military source confirmed intense fighting in the area.
“Today they attacked in the northern Latakia countryside in several areas, in violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement, and also in the northwestern Hama countryside,” the military source said.
The Observatory reported that in northern Homs province heavy government air strikes killed four people, and said the death toll was expected to rise, with more people wounded.
Mohamad al-Shamsi, a doctor in the Homs area, told Reuters there had been at least 10 air raids from early morning on Rastan and nearby Deir Foul and al-Houla. Schools had been evacuated and hospitals shut.
Groups including factions fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, said in their battle announcement they would respond “with force” against any government forces that fired on civilians.
They announced the “formation of a joint operations room to begin the battle … in response to violations by the army”.
The Geneva talks aim to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, allowed for the rise of the Islamic State group and drew in regional powers. Russia’s intervention in the conflict swayed the war in Assad’s favor.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and John Davison in BEIRUT and Tom Miles, Marina Depetris, Cecile Mantovani and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, writing by Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff; editing by Ralph Boulton)
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CESME, Turkey As the European Union and Turkey focus on stemming the flow of Syrian refugees attempting perilous journeys across the Aegean sea to Greece, another migrant community whose numbers are also swelling says it is being overlooked.
Largely denied the chance for legal resettlement in Europe and struggling to find work or support in Turkey, Afghans account for around a quarter of the migrants risking their lives in the small boats leaving Turkey’s shore.
Ahead of an emergency European Union summit with Turkey on Monday, the EU executive has announced the first payouts from a 3 billion euro ($3.3 billion) fund meant to help Turkey cope with an influx of more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees and encourage them to stay put.
But while Afghans are unlikely to be prevented from using services such as medical centres and education facilities set up with European funds in Turkey, the fact they speak Pashto and Dari, rather than Arabic, risks excluding them from projects designed for Syrian refugees, aid workers warn.
“The EU is not even discussing these issues and is exclusively focused on Syria,” Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Turkey, told Reuters last month.
“Even if the Syrian crisis would be solved tomorrow, there would still be a serious refugee crisis, with a large number of refugees in Turkey who don’t have access to their rights.”
Afghan migrants in Turkey interviewed by Reuters said that over the past few years they had been denied interviews with U.N. refugee agency UNHCR that would formally determine their refugee status, a key step in the journey to being resettled.
Polat Kizildag, programme coordinator at ASAM, an organisation which registers asylum seekers in Turkey, said they were generally told they were ineligible because Turkey was the third country on their journey and the expectation was that they apply for refugee status in their second, in many cases Iran.
Human rights groups have said Iranian forces deport thousands of Afghans without giving them a chance to prove their asylum status and that they are pressured to leave the country.
“We want to stay (in Turkey) but … there is no support here. It’s too expensive,” said Najebullah, 45, a father of four originally from Kabul waiting in Cesme, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, to make an illegal crossing to the Greek Island of Chios.
“In Europe we will get work and they will help us,” he said, echoing a commonly-held belief among the migrants flooding to Turkey’s shore that once they arrive in Europe they will be more easily able to build a new life.
Selin Unal, UNHCR spokeswoman in Turkey, said the most vulnerable, including Afghans, still received interviews, adding that close to 500 Afghans had been interviewed last year. She said the sheer numbers meant those most at risk were prioritised among UNHCR’s active case load of some 254,000 non-Syrians.
More than 63,000 Afghans came to Turkey last year, a sharp rise from 15,652 in 2014, according to ASAM, counting only those who registered. Some came directly from Afghanistan, others from Iran, where they had tried unsuccessfully to settle.
Kirikkale, near Turkey’s capital Ankara, is one of several satellite towns where registered Afghans are allowed to reside.
Hakima Rezai, in her late thirties, said she was trying to get to Europe to be reunited with her four children, taken to Europe by sea by her brother-in-law almost a year ago. She said UNHCR – which declined to comment on individual cases – had told her they could not help.
Rezai lives in a single room with a coal-burning stove and relies on the charity of neighbours. She does not receive the cash cards given to some Syrian refugees by international NGOs and their local partners to help meet basic living costs because there is no such scheme specifically set up for Afghans.
“I cry every day,” she said, showing the identity documents of her absent children.
The exodus from Afghanistan has been prompted by an increasingly precarious security situation, with 11,000 civilians killed or injured in 2015, as well as widespread corruption undermining faith in the future and a war-ruined economy that cannot provide enough work for its population.
Kabul and other Afghan cities have seen a spate of suicide bombings and other attacks as the Taliban has stepped up its insurgency following the withdrawal of international troops from most combat operations in 2014.
The insurgents, driven from power by a U.S-led campaign in 2001, are seeking to reimpose hardline Islamist rule and are now in control or threatening around a third of the country.
According to the European Commission, 64,109 asylum requests were registered in Turkey in 2015, more than 11,000 of them from Afghan citizens, but only 459 were concluded, either by granting or rejecting refugee status.
Some are still waiting in Turkey, but others are among the thousands to have crossed illegally to Europe.
Under a law passed two years ago, Afghans and other refugees have access to healthcare in Turkey and Unal said the most vulnerable could also benefit from social security schemes.
In January, Turkey also passed a new law to give refugees access to legal employment, a move praised by the European Union, although the programme has not yet been rolled out.
But many of the Afghan refugees, hampered in part by language difficulties, are unaware of their rights and rely on illegal labour such as fruit picking to survive.
Birnur Esen, a psychologist who works for IMECE, an organisation which collects and distributes clothes and other supplies to migrants rescued at sea, said convincing migrants to stay in Turkey meant improving their lives there and making them realise conditions in Europe would be just as difficult.
That, she said, should be the focus of European efforts.
“We are trying to change their mind,” she said. “Europe must stand behind Turkey. It must say that if you stay in Turkey, we will improve your conditions.”
($1 = 0.8879 euros)
($1 = 2.9595 liras)
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Kabul, Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Janet McBride)
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BEIRUT A total of 135 people were killed in the first week of a partial truce in Syria in areas covered by the deal, a monitoring group said on Saturday, highlighting its fragile nature just days before the United Nations attempts to reconvene peace talks.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said the talks, originally due to begin on Monday in Geneva, would get off to a staggered start later in the week, with delegates arriving from Wednesday onwards.
The U.N. said the delay was due to “logistical and technical reasons and also for the ceasefire to better settle down”.
“I see us beginning on (Thursday) March 10 when we will launch the process,” de Mistura said in an interview with pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat.
A pro-Damascus Lebanese TV channel, al-Mayadeen, reported from its own sources that talks had been moved to March 13. Reuters could not independently verify this.
The five-year Syrian civil war has killed more than a quarter of a million people and created a massive refugee crisis in Lebanon, Turkey and the European Union.
The partial truce, drawn up by Washington and Moscow, came into force a week ago and has slowed the pace of the war, although it does not include Islamic State militants or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
The opposition is dissatisfied with the implementation of the deal and has yet to say whether it will attend the new talks. Fighting continues in many parts of Syria, and the rebels say the government has kept up attacks on strategically important frontlines.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 135 people were killed in areas covered by the ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement since it came into force on Feb. 27. In areas not covered by the truce, 552 people were killed, said the Britain-based group, which tracks the conflict via sources on the ground.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a phone conversation late on Friday, called for a prompt start to the peace negotiations, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“The two sides called to start the negotiations as soon as possible…between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the opposition, during which the Syrians themselves should determine the future of their country,” the ministry said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, whose country backs the rebels, said on Saturday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave at the beginning of a political transition, not at the end.
“For us it is very clear it’s at the beginning of the process, not at the end of the process, it’s not going to be 18 months,” Jubeir said during a visit to France.
Assad, however, enjoys firm backing from Iran and Russia and his military position has strengthened, especially since Russia entered the war by launching waves of air strikes last September. The United States and other Western governments that previously called for the president’s early departure have quietly backed away from that demand.
De Mistura attempted to convene peace talks in January, but these failed before they had even started in earnest. The new talks will be conducted indirectly, not face-to-face, he told Al Hayat.
The fall-off in violence has made aid deliveries easier in some areas of the country, but de Mistura said the Syrian government should be processing aid faster.
“Lorries are waiting for 36 hours,” he said. “And medical aid must be allowed.”
On Wednesday the World Health Organization said Syrian officials had rejected the delivery of medical supplies, including trauma and burn kits and antibiotics, in a convoy to the besieged town of Moadamiya two days earlier.
Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said on Friday conditions for talks were “not favourable” and medical and food supplies were being blocked despite the truce.
On Saturday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition, which is part of the main Saudi-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee, said it had named a new president.
Anas Abda will replace Khaled Khoja as head of the group, the SNC said in a statement on its Twitter account.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Lidia Kelly in Moscow and Leigh Thomas in Paris; writing by Ros Russell; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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BEIRUT/AMMAN/GENEVA A Syrian military offensive backed by heavy Russian air strikes threatened to cut critical rebel supply lines into the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday while the warring sides said peace talks had not started despite a U.N. statement they had.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura announced the formal start on Monday of the first attempt in two years to negotiate an end to a war that has killed 250,000 people, caused a refugee crisis in the region and Europe and empowered Islamic State militants.
But both opposition and government representatives have since said the talks had not in fact begun and fighting on the ground raged on without constraint.
The opposition cancelled a meeting with de Mistura on Tuesday afternoon, and issued a statement condemning “a massive acceleration of Russian and regime military aggression on Aleppo and Homs”, calling it a threat to the political process.
Rebels described the assault north of Aleppo as the most intense yet. One commander said opposition-held areas of the divided city were at risk of being encircled entirely by the government and allied militia, appealing to foreign states that back the rebels to send more weapons.
The main Syrian opposition council said after meeting de Mistura on Monday it had not and would not negotiate unless the government stopped bombarding civilian areas, lifted blockades on besieged towns and released detainees.
The head of the Syrian government delegation also denied talks had started after discussions with de Mistura on Tuesday.
Bashar al-Ja’afari said after two and a half hours of talks that the envoy had yet to provide an agenda or list of opposition participants. “The formalities are not yet ready,” he told reporters at the United Nations office in Geneva.
He also said that if the opposition “really cared” about the lives of Syrians it should condemn the killing of more than 60 people on Sunday by Islamic State bombers in a neighbourhood that is home to the country’s holiest Shi’ite shrine.
A U.N. source said de Mistura had promised to present an opposition delegation list by Wednesday. Its makeup is subject to fierce disagreements among the regional and global powers that have been drawn into the conflict.
The refugee crisis and spread of the jihadist Islamic State through large areas of Syria, and from there to Iraq, has injected a new urgency to resolve the five-year-old Syria war.
But the chances of success, always very slim, appear to be receding ever more as the government, supported by Russian air strikes, advances against rebels, some of them U.S.-backed, in several parts of western Syria where the country’s main cities are located.
The attack north of Aleppo that began in recent days is the first major government offensive there since the start of Russian air strikes on Sept. 30.
The area is strategic to both sides. It safeguards a rebel supply route from Turkey into opposition-held parts of the city and stands between government-held parts of western Aleppo and the Shi’ite villages of Nubul and al-Zahraa which are loyal to Damascus.
“The supply routes were not cut but there is heavy bombardment of them by the jets,” said a commander in the Levant Front rebel group who gave his name as Abu Yasine. “The Russian jets are trying to hit headquarters and cut supply routes.”
The Russian jets had been working “night and day” for three days, he added, and reiterated the rebels’ long-held demand for anti-aircraft missiles to confront the assault.
“If there is no support, the regime could besiege the city of Aleppo and cut the road to the north,” said Abu Yasine, whose group is one of the rebel movements that have received military support from states opposed to Assad, funnelled via Turkey.
Advancing government forces seized the village of Hardatnin some 10 km (six miles) northwest of Aleppo, building on gains of the previous day, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring body. Syrian state media also reported the advance.
Another rebel commander said he had sent reinforcements to the area. “We sent new fighters this morning, we sent heavier equipment there. It seems it will be a decisive battle in the north, God willing,” said Ahmed al-Seoud, head of a Free Syrian Army group known as Division 13. “We sent TOW missile platforms. We sent everything there,” he told Reuters.
U.S.-made TOW missiles, or guided anti-tank missiles, are the most potent weapon in the rebel arsenal and have been supplied to vetted rebel groups as part of a programme of military support overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency.
But while they have helped rebels to slow advances on the ground, they are of little use against fighter bombers.
The Russian intervention has reversed the course of the war for Damascus, which suffered a series of major defeats to rebels in western Syria last year before Moscow deployed its air force as part of an alliance with Iran.
In an interview with Reuters, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Russian President Vladimir Putin was undermining international efforts to end the war by bombing opponents of Islamic State in an attempt to bolster Assad.
OPPOSITION WARY OF ENVOY
“The Russians say let’s talk, and then they talk and they talk and they talk. The problem with the Russians is while they are talking they are bombing, and they are supporting Assad,” Hammond said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Hammond was spreading “dangerous disinformation”, while the Kremlin said his statements could not be taken seriously.
Western states opposed to Assad, including the United States and Britain, piled pressure on the opposition to attend the Geneva talks which have been beset by problems including a row over who should be invited to negotiate with Damascus.
The opposition says talks are impossible without a halt to bombing, release of prisoners and lifting of sieges to allow humanitarian aid to reach blockaded civilians.
“Nothing has changed in the situation on the ground. So as long as the situation is like this we are not optimistic,” opposition negotiator Mohamad Alloush told reporters. “There are no good intentions from the regime’s side to reach a solution.”
De Mistura said on Monday the responsibility of agreeing ceasefires across Syria lay with major powers and that his remit was only to hold talks on a U.N. resolution on elections, governance and a new constitution.
(Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff)
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BEIRUT/AMMAN At least 60 people were killed, including 25 Shi’ite fighters, and dozens wounded on Sunday by a car bomb and two suicide bombers in a district of Damascus where Syria’s holiest Shi’ite shrine is located, a monitor said.
Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to Amaq, a news agency that supports the group. It said two operations “hit the most important stronghold of Shi’ite militias in Damascus”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the casualties were expected to rise from the suicide attacks in Sayeda Zeinaba, a district of southern Damascus where the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other Iraqi and Iranian militias have a strong presence.
Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based Observatory, said the suicide bombers had targeted a military bus carrying Shi’ite militias who were changing guard there.
The explosions occurred as representatives of Syria’s government and its divided opposition began convening in Geneva for the first U.N.-mediated peace talks in two years.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, head of the government delegation at Geneva, said the blasts in Damascus just confirmed the link between what the government says are a Saudi-led and funded Islamist “opposition” and terrorism.
State television showed footage of burning buildings and wrecked cars in the neighbourhood.
Syrian state news agency SANA, quoting an interior ministry source, said a group of militants had detonated a car bomb near a public transport garage in the neighborhood’s Koua Sudan area.
Two suicide bombers then blew themselves up nearby as people were being rescued. The authorities put the dead at 45 people.
“Bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage,” a witness told state news channel Ikhbariyah.
The heavily populated area in the south of the city is a site of pilgrimage for Shi’ites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki was quoted as saying the attacks were prompted by “terror groups” who sought to “raise their morale after a string of defeats” by the army.
The United Nations has said it is aiming for six months of talks, first seeking a ceasefire and later working toward a political settlement for Syria. The nearly five-year conflict has killed more than 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers.
The Sayeda Zeinab shrine area witnessed heavy clashes in the first few years of the war but has since been secured by the Syrian army and Shi’ite militias led by Hezbollah, which has set up protective roadblocks around it.
The shrine houses the grave of the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed, whom Shi’ites consider the rightful successor to the prophet. The dispute over the succession led to the major Sunni-Shi’ite schism in Islam.
Iraqi and Iranian Shi’ite militia groups that have volunteered to fight Sunni Islamist radicals in Syria in a conflict that has heavy sectarian overtones often say they are coming to Syria to defend the shrine.
Rebels says the area is the first destination of thousands of Shi’ite militias drawn from Iran to Afghanistan alongside neighbouring Iraq where they are based before heading to fight in battlefields across the country.
Shi’ite militias from the region led by Hezbollah have played a crucial role in covering the shortfall in manpower faced by Syrian President Assad’s overstretched army during nearly five years of conflict.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Catherine Evans)
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Diplomatic skills of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj will be under test, when she undertakes one of her difficult assignments, by travelling to Israel and Palestine from Saturday. The visit, ostensibly to prepare an outline for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed tour of Israel, is part of a strategy to provide “visibility” to India-Israel relations, but at the same time treading a fine balance to keep Arab nations as well as Iran in good humour.India tested providing “visibility” to Israel ties, after keeping political content under wraps over past 10 years, by sending President Pranab Mukherjee to visit Tel Aviv last October. He also visited Jordan and Palestine.<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>National security adviser Ajit Doval is also believed to have made secret trips to Israel and Iran in August last year to balance ties with the two rivals. He is also stated to have visited Israel’s biggest nuclear facility. Swaraj will visit Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, on January 17. Soon after trip to two waring nations, Swaraj will fly out to Bahrain to attend the India-Arab League meeting of foreign ministers during January 23-24, to assess the fallout of Iran-Saudi hostilities on India.Sensitiveness of this trip could be gauged that Israeli ambassador to India Daniel Carmon didn’t mince words, when asked about India’s growing relations with Tehran. “Iran is on our borders. It is fomenting instability in the region. It is also engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, by helping Hamas and Hizbollah to target Israel. When we talk about there are no good or bad terrorists, those targeting our country should be also taken as terrorists,” he said. The envoy also said Israel is reeling under a new form of terrorism, where Palestine youth stab Israeli nationals using knives. “Since last September, 28 Israelis have been killed and 100 injured,” he said, pointing out when New Delhi takes about terrorism has no colours, we need to combat all forms of terrorism.Briefing about the visit, he said while cooperation in defence, counter-terrorism and agriculture has been a hallmark of relations, a new element to be included in the bilateral cooperation will be water management. He said Israeli defence manufacturing companies were interested in India’s ‘Make in India” campaign. As for cooperation in counter-terrorism activities, he said: “We should do more and go beyond the established fields.” Last year Israel Aerospace Industries and the Indian state-owned Defense Research and Development Organization began collaborating on a jointly developed surface-to-air missile system for the Indian Army. India uses Israel-made unmanned drones for surveilance and military purposes, and during 2015 ordered 16 drones and well as buying 321 launchers and 8,356 missiles from the Israeli military.Swaraj had visited Israel in 2008 as the leader of the Parliamentary delegation of MPs. Keen to balance tense ties in West Asia, Swaraj on Wednesday hosted the Syrian foreign minister Walid Al-Moallem in Delhi. In Tel Aviv, Ms Swaraj will have meetings with President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Minister of Defence Moshe Ya’alon, Minister of National Infrastructure Yuval Steinitz and Israeli legislators. She will also interact with the Indian community during her visit to the jewish nation.”The visit will augment India’s bilateral relations with Israel and further strengthen the linkages between the two sides,” said the MEA spokesperson. On Swaraj’s visit to Palestine, he said,”This is the first visit of external affairs minister to West Asia region and Palestine is the first destination in the region which in itself reflects the importance India holds for Palestine in its engagement with the countries of the region.” The visit will also reaffirm India’s continued political, diplomatic and developmental support to Palestine. The external affairs minister will also inaugurate the Palestine Digital Learning and Innovation Centre in Ramallah.
Syria has taken four Indian youth in its custody, who were planning to the join terrorist outfit ISIS, and asked the Indian authorities the verify their details.Syrian Deputy Prime minister Walid Al Moaulem, who is on a three-day visit to India, said the four youth had entered Syria and were taken into custody in Damascus. He, however, did not specify when they were apprehended.”Four Indians were taken into Syrian custody in Damascus. The four young Indians were planning to join the ISIS and had entered Syria from Jordan,” Moaulem told reporters here. He, however, did not give details like the name, from where the youth come from and when were they taken into custody.<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>The development assumes significance as India has been trying to stop radicalised youths from joining the terrorist organisation. Incidentally, in December last, police arrested three youth from Nagpur airport while they were planning to leave the country for joining the ISIS.Moaulem, who is also the Foreign Minister, said he would not be in a position to help in release of 39 Indians who were taken hostage by ISIS militants from Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014. “I will try to secure their release if they are in the custody of Iraqi forces but won’t be able to do anything if they are still in the custody of ISIS,” Moaulem said.