Syria's war: Who is responsible for the dying children of Rukban? - Lebanon news - أخبار لبنان
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Syria’s war: Who is responsible for the dying children of Rukban?

Beirut, Lebanon – There was no heating to keep the tent warm. There was no money to buy the medicine which might have saved his daughter. There was not even enough milk in the breast of the mother – suffering from malnutrition – to feed the girl. There is nothing but misery in this camp.…

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Syria’s war: Who is responsible for the dying children of Rukban?

Beirut, Lebanon – There was no heating to keep the tent warm. There was no money to buy the medicine which might have saved his daughter. There was not even enough milk in the breast of the mother – suffering from malnutrition – to feed the girl. There is nothing but misery in this camp.

That is how Abdul Karim described the death of his two-month-old daughter Khadija to his friend Abdul Fattah Basleh in Rukban refugee camp in southern Syria, an encampment of about 50,000 people.

Khadija was one of at least eight children who have died in the camp this winter. The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, which has been seeking permission to send life-saving aid, called the deaths a “man-made” tragedy.

“The lives of babies continue to be cut short by health conditions that are preventable or treatable,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East.

He said that “more children will die, day in, and day out”, in Rukban and areas around it, unless they are provided with safer shelters and reliable healthcare.

The camp lies in the arid landscape alongside the sand-berms demarcating the Jordanian border.

ISIL danger

Jordan shut its gates and stopped the aid flow in 2016 suspecting the camp harbours sleeper cells of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group, and only supplies water.

It is in the pocket controlled by the US-led coalition troops stationed at the Tanf base nearby. But they are only there to wipe out the remnants of ISIL from their last hide-outs in the neighbourhood, and, to contain Iranian influence over Syria.

They opted for the area to establish their presence for strategic reasons.

The Syrian government stands guard outside the 55km security zone agreed upon between Russia and the US, to avoid a confrontation with the US soldiers.

Harsh winter takes deadly toll on Syrian refugees

Damascus has allowed only two aid convoys to go through this year.

The government has systematically used the lack of basic necessities in besieged areas to coerce people into giving in to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Karim did not even consider crossing over to the government-held territory, which has food and medicine and doctors, in case they suspected him of being a “terrorist” supporter and arrest him, a common fear.

He did want to take baby Khadija to a medical centre in Jordan, “but he could not”, said his friend Basleh, “because they have banned us”.

Jordan sealed the border but has sporadically taken in patients in need of immediate healthcare.

Khadijah died of high fever and inflammation even before she could be taken there.

The conditions in the camp, other residents said, make it unlivable.

UN aid

Wissam Khaled* fled from Palmyra when the war intensified in his city. He said that the last batch of aid from the UN came in November after months of hiatus and was barely enough for a fortnight.

The people, he said, are relying on smugglers in the government-controlled areas who sell everything at exorbitant rates. “Food, medicine, all is coming only from the smugglers and it is very expensive,” he said. “People cannot afford it because they do not have any money, because there is no work here.”

How will US troop withdrawal affect Syria’s war?

Mohammed Al Sharkh, the husband of 28-year-old Sundus Fatahallah, regrets his inability to have the cooking stove repaired.

One morning, a few days ago, as his wife made breakfast, he said, the kerosene spilled and burnt her severely, also causing minor burns to the children.

“She had been asking me to fix it,” he said, “But I could not, because I did not have enough money.”

Rukban’s Syrians are most disappointed with the US for not helping despite being just 16km from the camp.

“The Americans have not sent anything, no doctors,” Wissam said. “We only have a few nurses but they do not know much and have very limited medicines.”

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian government diplomat who now runs a Syrian activist group in the US, said that while the nurses are provided with some “basic medical training”, by the US, Washington has refused to do more.

“The American army always says their mandate is to fight ISIS only,” he said. “They say they have no humanitarian mandate and do not want to own this problem.”

His view resonated among other Syria experts.

Jordan shut its gates and stopped the aid flow in 2016 [Al Jazeera]

Arun Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation, said the US is a “de facto occupying power” on the ground, yet it has refrained from assuming responsibility.

“The US troops at Tanf don’t currently have the budget for it and want to keep it someone else’s problem,” he said. “They also can’t access the camp itself under current rules, since the military deems it unsafe and full of potential hostiles.”

The camp is controlled by several groups, including the Pentagon-backed Free Syrian Army-affiliated Maghawir al-Thawra. ISIL members are also believed to be hiding in the camp.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, an activist and a research fellow at an Israeli think-tank on regional thinking, said that the US has failed to leverage its position with Jordan, which could easily supply aid to Rukban. “The US, which has forces stationed in the area, appears unable to compel its ally Jordan to provide the residents of camps in Rukban with this much-needed aid,” she said.

However, Wissam thinks the presence of the US troops is the best safety measure they have against the Syrian government taking over. As the troops’ exit looms, there is panic in the camp.

“This is more important than food and medicine,” Wissam added. “If the American soldiers leave, it will be very dangerous for us. Then regime forces will come to arrest us, or we don’t know what will happen. People are very scared.”

ISIL members are also believed to be hiding in the camp [Al Jazeera]

Abu Al Athir, head of security of the Maghawir al-Thawra, said that so far, even after US President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops, the US soldiers are conducting “mutual patrols” and are delivering on “logistical and military support”. But he is not sure how long that will carry on for.

He said anticipating the government’s seizure of Rukban, many people have already begun to reconcile with Assad and are heading back to government-controlled areas. Many others though, despite the harsh life in the camp, cannot take that risk.

“Many people cannot do this and want to go north,” Athir said. “As the coalition is withdrawn, we would definitely go north to the opposition-held areas otherwise we will be decimated by the regime.”

On Wednesday, ISIL claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on US service personnel in Manbij in northeast Syria, another town with a US base. Nineteen people were killed in the blast.

It is uncertain if the attack will alter Trump’s position on the withdrawal. If he does change his mind, it will be a relief for the people of Rukban, among others who have been hoping the US troops will stay until there is a final political solution to the Syrian war.

For now, the children of Rukban face a more immediate threat; plummeting temperatures and no aid.

“History will judge us for these entirely avoidable deaths,” Cappelaere said.

But who will history hold accountable?

The humanitarian catastrophe in Rukban has been exacerbated by the Syrian government, Jordan, the quarreling groups within the camp and left to its devices by the US-led coalition.

Inside Story: What is Trump’s strategy for Syria and the region? (25:00)

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UK spy chief warns China, Russia racing to master AI

MI6 chief Richard Moore says Beijing and Moscow ‘pouring money’ into technological advances that will reshape espionage and geopolitics.The chief of the United Kingdom’s foreign spy service is to warn that China and Russia are racing to master artificial intelligence in a way that could revolutionise geopolitics over the next 10 years. Richard Moore, who…

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UK spy chief warns China, Russia racing to master AI

MI6 chief Richard Moore says Beijing and Moscow ‘pouring money’
into technological advances that will reshape espionage and geopolitics.The chief of the United Kingdom’s foreign spy service is to warn that China and Russia are racing to master artificial intelligence in a way that could revolutionise geopolitics over the next 10 years.
Richard Moore, who heads the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, is due to make his first public speech since becoming chief of the organisation on Tuesday.
In extracts of the speech released in advance by the British government he will say quantum engineering, engineered biology, vast troves of data and advances in computer power pose a threat that needs to be addressed by democratic powers.
“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage,” Moore, who rarely makes public speeches, will say when he sets out his view of current threats.
The world’s spies are trying to grapple with seismic advances in technology that are challenging traditional human-led spying operations, which have dominated espionage for thousands of years.
Moore, a former diplomat, became MI6 chief in October 2020.
Speaking at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies think tank, he will stress that technological progress over the next decade could outstrip all the tech advances made over the past century.
“As a society, we have yet to internalise this stark fact and its potential impact on global geopolitics. But it is a white-hot focus for MI6,” he will say.
Of particular concern to the spies in the world’s liberal democracies are Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies, which have rushed to harness the power of a range of sophisticated technologies, sometimes at a faster pace than in the West.
Western intelligence agencies fear Beijing could dominate all key emerging technologies within decades, particularly artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and genetics.
China’s economic and military rise over the past 40 years is considered one of the most significant geopolitical events of recent times, alongside the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, which ended the Cold War.
MI6, depicted by novelists as the employer of some of the most memorable fictional spies from John le Carré’s George Smiley to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, operates overseas and is tasked with defending the UK and its interests.
Moore says the service will have to give up some of its deep-rooted secrecy and work with technology firms to combat the rapidly developing threats.
MI6 and western intelligence agencies will have to “become more open to stay secret” in a world of destabilising technological change, he will say.
“We cannot hope to replicate the global tech industry, so we must tap into it.”
The agency has become more open in recent years, even allowing publication of an authorised history although it only covers the period up until 1949.
MI6 began publicly naming its chief, who uses the code name C and is the only publicly identifiable member of the organisation, in the 1990s.

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Pentagon to review deadly 2019 US bombings in Syria

US will look into whether procedures were followed after NY Times reported dozens of civilians were killed in bombings.United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a review into US military bombings in Syria in March 2019 that the New York Times recently reported killed dozens of civilians during the battle for the final…

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Pentagon to review deadly 2019 US bombings in Syria

US will look into whether procedures were followed after NY Times reported dozens of civilians were killed in bombings.United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a review into US military bombings in Syria in March 2019 that the New York Times recently reported killed dozens of civilians during the battle for the final stronghold of ISIL (ISIS).
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced the probe on Monday, saying it would be led by General Michael Garrett, the head of US Army Forces Command.
Earlier this month, the US military acknowledged that civilians may have been killed in the bombings in Baghouz, near the Iraqi border in 2019. At the time, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were leading the fight on the ground with American air support.
“Likely a majority of those killed were also combatants at the time of the strike. However, it is also highly likely that there were additional civilian casualties,” Bill Urban, a US military spokesman, said in a statement on November 14.
He added that “investigations were unable to conclusively characterize the status of more than 60 other casualties that resulted from these strikes”.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the review into the 2019 US military bombings, the Pentagon spokesman announced [File: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]Urban’s statement came a day after the New York Times, citing anonymous sources and classified documents,  published a report that accused the US military of concealing the bombings.
The newspaper reported that the bombing struck a “crowd of women and children”, killing 64 people.
“Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors,” the Times wrote.
On Monday, Kirby said the review would look into “record keeping and reporting procedures” and “whether mitigation measures identified in previous investigations into the incident were in fact implemented effectively”.
The probe, which is due in 90 days, will also assess whether “accountability measures” will be appropriate, Kirby added.
The US-led coalition started a bombing campaign against the ISIL (ISIS) group in Syria and Iraq in 2014, and the American military maintains troops in both countries with the stated goal of preventing the group’s resurgence.

Former US President Donald Trump touted the territorial defeat of ISIL (ISIS) as a major policy achievement in his failed 2020 re-election bid.
Rights groups previously accused the US-led coalition of killing civilians during their bombing campaign. A 2019 investigation by Amnesty International, for instance, found that the coalition had killed 1,600 civilians in Raqqa, the ISIL (ISIS) group’s former de-facto capital.
The Associated Press news agency reported on Monday that after the New York Times story was published, Austin received a briefing on the Syria bombings from General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command.
AP reported that McKenzie’s command said “an initial investigation concluded that the strike constituted legitimate self-defence in support of Syrian partner forces under fire from ISIL”.
The probe into the Syria bombings comes after the Pentagon admitted in September that a US drone attack previously described as “righteous” by a top general had killed 10 civilians, including children, in Kabul during the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But a subsequent internal review by the Pentagon concluded that the bombing did not violate the laws of war or amount to criminal conduct or negligence, prompting outrage.

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Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib

JEDDAH: An influential watchdog body of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine as the only way to stop ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians. The OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission made its appeal on Monday to coincide with the UN-run International Day of Solidarity with…

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Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib

JEDDAH: An influential watchdog body of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine as the only way to stop ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission made its appeal on Monday to coincide with the UN-run International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People 2021.

In a statement, the IPHRC pointed out that the solidarity day highlighted the urgent need for the global community to recognize the inalienable right to self-determination of Palestinian people.

“Today is not only an opportunity for the international community to remember that the question of Palestine remains unresolved, but it is also an opportunity to focus attention on the increasing suffering of the Palestinian people, under the Israeli occupation, and to unify all efforts for assisting them to attain their fundamental rights, including the right to self-determination and the right to return for Palestinian refugees to their homes and property, from which they have been displaced,” the commission said.

It also expressed grave concerns over the increasing, “range of violations committed by Israel … particularly the recent draconian measures against Palestinian prisoners and detainees as well as the harassment of Sheikh Jarrah (neighborhood of East Jerusalem) families who remain under the threat of eviction from their houses under baseless and illegal arguments.”

The IPHRC statement urged all human rights groups to raise awareness of what it described as “egregious human rights violations” aimed at “separating Al-Quds (Jerusalem) from its original inhabitants, which is yet another vicious attack on the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people.”

In addition, commission members condemned the recent Israeli designation of six Palestinian human rights and civil society groups as terrorist organizations, a move the IPHRC claimed represented Israel’s misuse of counterterrorism and security legislation to silence opponents and innocent Palestinians.

Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes and forced evictions of residents in Jerusalem and other areas was also slammed by the commission.

It added that there was a “need to investigate these abuses by relevant international mechanisms with a view to holding Israel, the occupying power, accountable for violating international human rights and humanitarian laws.”

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