Israel strikes southern Damascus: Syrian state media

BEIRUT: Lebanon is hoping a summer influx of tourists and visitors will help revive its flagging economy, with the return of live performances at the Baalbeck International Festival expected to be a major drawcard.

The festival, a global cultural highlight for more than six decades, was held virtually in 2020 and 2021 because of pandemic restrictions, but previews of its Baalbeck Castle line-up between July 8-17 have attracted more than 17 million views on social media.

Minister of Tourism Walid Nassar said that up to 12,000 people are expected to arrive in Beirut each day during the next three months, with over 1 million arrivals over the summer.

“Given its location and all its tourism components, Lebanon does not need marketing,” he said.

Speaking during an inspection tour of Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Nassar said that flights, hotels and even guest houses were fully booked for the summer.

Travel agencies and airlines say that many Lebanese expatriates planning to spend their summer vacation in Lebanon with their families have booked tickets.

“We have a 100 percent reservation rate between July 1 and mid-September,” Jean Abboud, head of the Syndicate of Tourism and Travel Agencies, told Arab News.

“A total of 110 planes will be landing in Beirut during this period, carrying 15,000 passengers, the vast majority of whom are Lebanese, in addition to Jordanians, Iraqis and Egyptians.”

He said that the number of flights to and from Lebanon may have to be increased to cope with the rising demand.

According to Abboud, holidaying expats will help revive Lebanon’s economy by pumping US dollars into the economy.

However, the surge in tourist numbers is putting pressure on the capital’s accommodation, with some five-star hotels on the Beirut waterfront destroyed in the 2020 Beirut port explosion yet to be rebuilt.

“The remaining options are four-star hotels in the capital, and there are a few five-star hotels outside the capital, in addition to the guest houses that have recently proliferated in various regions. A total of 17,000 hotel rooms have been set to receive the Lebanese in their homeland,” Abboud said.

He pointed to a decline in Gulf tourism to Lebanon, saying: “For decades, Gulf tourists used to spend long weeks in Lebanon. In 2011, their contribution to our economy amounted to $11 billion, while now it barely exceeds $4 billion.”

In Baalbeck, the city’s major festivals are regaining their appeal after organizers were unable to attract foreign performers in recent years amid the economic collapse and the local currency’s depreciation.

Caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said that “the security situation in Lebanon is stable and under control.”

Four concerts are scheduled to be held at Baalbek Castle between July 8-17, featuring Lebanese, Spanish and French artists. The festival opens with a performance of traditional songs by Somaya Baalbaki, who will be backed by an orchestra of more than 35 musicians led by Lebnan Baalbaki.

Nayla de Freij, head of the Baalbeck festival committee, told Arab News that Lebanon’s festivals are struggling in the face of difficult economic conditions, but were determined to “emphasize cultural exchange between East and West.”

Without state funding for the Baalbeck festival this year, organizers were relying on contributions from a limited number of sponsors, she said.

However, de Freij said that “austerity measures and the limited budget do not mean we will be cutting corners when it comes to the technical level that we want to maintain in the Baalbeck festivals. This is why we will only be holding four concerts this year, and we will not build the huge amphitheater.”

Performers at the festival “have accepted relatively small payments because they want to help Lebanon as well,” she added.

“Our role in these circumstances is to encourage the dying Lebanese art. There are creative artists who must continue their artistic careers. And we wanted to present art that resembles people and preserves their heritage.”

Both Abboud and de Freij said that security is the key to reviving summer activities in Lebanon.

“The committee contacted army and security services officials, and they confirmed that security will be under control to and from Baalbeck,” de Freij said.


Protests held in Beirut against draft capital control law

For journalist Amer Matar, a decade-long search for his younger brother has defined him and changed the course of his life, now dedicated to researching and documenting crimes committed by Daesh in Syria.

His brother, Mohammed Nour Matar, vanished in Syria’s northern city of Raqqa in 2013 while reporting on an explosion that hit the headquarters of an insurgent group. His burnt camera was found at the scene of the blast, and his family soon after got word he was in an IS prison. But there has been no other sign of him since.

Mohammed Nour is among thousands of people believed to have been seized by Daesh, the extremist group that in 2014 overran large parts of Syria and Iraq, where it set up a so-called caliphate and brutalized the population for years.

Three years after its territorial defeat, thousands are still missing and accountability for their captors remains elusive. Families of the missing feel abandoned by a world that has largely moved on, while they struggle alone to uncover the fate of their loved ones.

“These violations may constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes, and even genocide in some cases,” the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center said in a report published on Thursday.

“These families have the right to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones.”

The rights group says that between 2013 and 2017, when Daesh ruled much of northern and eastern Syria, the terrorist group detained thousands who remain missing and whose families continue to live in a state of grief and uncertainty.

In its report titled “Unearthing Hope: The Search for the Missing Victims of Daesh,” SJAC said that around 6,000 bodies have been exhumed from dozens of mass graves dug by Daesh in northeast Syria, and retrieved from buildings destroyed by airstrikes of the US-led coalition during the military campaign that eventually brought down Daesh.

This may amount to approximately half of the total number of missing people in the northeast, according to the group, although estimates of the missing vary.

Mohammed Nour Matar had become a citizen journalist during Syria’s civil war, and he was often out with his camera documenting the conflict.

He went missing on Aug. 13, 2013 while covering an explosion in Raqqa that went off outside the offices of the Ahfad Al-Rasoul faction, one of several insurgent groups that were rivals of Daesh.

He was 21 at the time and was working on a documentary about Raqqa and its residents’ opposition to Daesh. Four months later, Raqqa became Syria’s first provincial capital to fall under the full control of Daesh.

When the extremists declared a so-called caliphate in June 2014, the city became their de-facto capital.

The group ruled Matar’s hometown of Raqqa with fear, setting up scores of detention centers in different parts of the city, brutalizing opponents and even placing heads of beheaded victims in the city’s Naim Square — Arabic for “Paradise.”

In the report, SJAC documented for the first time the vast web of detention facilities that were central to Daesh disappearances. Different wings of the Daesh security apparatus systematically used this network of 152 police stations, training camps, and secret security prisons to detain kidnapped civilians and members of rival armed groups, in some cases before issuing death sentences or summarily executing them.

It listed 33 detention facilities in the city of Raqqa alone.

SJAC says alleged perpetrators who may hold evidence necessary to identify remains are languishing in prisons of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces “with no fair judicial procedures in sight.”

It says other former Daesh members live in their home countries where they returned after the group was defeated.

“The permanent defeat of Daesh cannot be secured without justice for the victims of the organization’s crimes, including those who remain missing,” it said.

Amer Matar, who now lives in Berlin with his parents and siblings, said they were told at one point that Mohammed Nour was being held in a jail in the city. Some former prisoners who had seen him there provided personal details that only the family knew.

But as of 2014, the family lost any proof of life.

Amer Matar has traveled to Syria several times over the past years to try get information about his brother, even going to mass graves as bodies were being removed.

The International Commission on Missing Persons has started collecting DNA samples from families of the missing but they are moving slowly, and Matar said his family has not given samples yet.

Also a journalist, Matar began a few years ago collecting thousands of IS documents and 3D photographs of IS detention centers. He now works with activists from Syria, Iraq, Germany, France, Japan and the US to set up a virtual museum about the extremists.

He said the aim is to have a platform where the families of the missing can find information about their loved ones, where they can walk virtually inside the jails, see names of detainees, read documents and witness sites of mass graves and information about those buried there, whether in Syria or in Iraq.

Asked if his family has hope, Matar said that “the most difficult question is about hope. Sometimes I lose hope because logic says there is no hope.”

Asked if in his research he found evidence about Mohammed Nour, Matar said, “My mother asks me this question every month or every few weeks. My answer regrettably is, ‘We found nothing.”’


Lebanon’s parliament session halted as dispute over capital control bill widens

ANKARA: Turkey’s migration management policy has become a hot topic in recent days, with members of the public asking for stricter security measures against irregular inflows.

The growing hostility toward refugees has not only been triggered by a worsening economic situation in Turkey, but also following a series of recent incidents.

The memories are still fresh following protests in Ankara last August against houses and workplaces owned by Syrians, following reports that a Syrian refugee stabbed two Turkish men in a fight.

Amid widespread criticism from opposition parties that want refugees deported, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Syrian refugees would voluntarily return to their country once peace is established in Syria.

According to Prof. Murat Erdogan of Ankara University, 85 percent of Turks want Syrians to be repatriated or to be isolated in camps or safe zones.

There is also an ongoing debate in Turkey about whether to allow Syrian refugees to return if they are able to briefly visit their homeland during the upcoming Eid al-Fitr holiday.

The Turkish government is currently working on a plan to restrict the passages during Ramadan, discouraging many Syrians from leaving over fears they may not be allowed back into Turkey.

“Irregular migration is an unnamed invasion,” said the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahceli, the coalition partner of the ruling government.

The topic, which gained momentum after the recent arrival of about 60,000 Ukrainian refugees to Turkey, has been promoted by anti-immigrant parties, such as the Zafer Party, who have said they will send all refugees back to their home countries after 2023 elections.

“Turkey is indeed bound by international law of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would be at risk, and this principle is also protected by the national laws including the temporary protection offered to Syrians,” Begum Basdas, researcher at the Centre for Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School in Berlin, told Arab News.

Turkey hosts about 3.7 million Syrians. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu recently announced that some 500,000 have returned to safe areas created in northern Syria after Turkey’s cross-border operations, and more than 19,000 Syrians have been deported since 2016 for breaking the law.

“Treating migrants as bargaining chips by states is nothing new, but what is worrisome today is that the public is also in on the ‘game.’ We must recognize that Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, and this is a strength, not a burden,” said Basdas.

Turkey has awarded citizenship to 192,000 Syrians so far, but the opposition has also asked for more security checks in granting citizenship, as they claim some criminals use it to cross over Turkey’s borders.

Ahead of the upcoming elections in 2023, the main opposition Republican People’s Party pledged to send Syrian migrants back to their countries, and reconcile with the Assad regime to ease the return of Syrian nationals.

Friedrich Puttmann, a researcher at the Istanbul Policy Center, said the reasons why most Turks today reject Syrian refugees are diverse, including economic, social and political reasons.

“Economically, many Turks perceive the Syrians to be the cause of rising rental prices and Turkish citizens’ joblessness. That is because one third of the Turkish economy is informal and most Syrians work informally too, however, most of the time for lower wages than Turks. For many Turks, this the reason why they can’t find work anymore,” he told Arab News.

“Moreover, many Turks tend to believe that the Turkish state privileges Syrians by not collecting taxes on their entrepreneurial activity, giving them privileged access to health care and education, and paying them welfare benefits that are not available for Turks. Most Turks don’t know that the latter two are mostly financed by the EU in fact. However, the seeming injustice this creates in the eyes of Turkish citizens upsets many of them,” he added.

According to Puttmann, Turks’ attitudes toward Syrian refugees also have a political dimension, which mirrors Turkey’s internal struggles over national identity.

“On the surface, many secular Turks reject Syrians for being too religiously conservative whereas many religiously conservative Turks reject Syrians for not behaving like ‘proper Muslims.’ Under the surface, both criticisms are expressions of how different Turks would like to see their country and are therefore more directed at Turkish society in general than at the Syrian refugees in particular,” he said.

Puttmann also thinks that, with the omnipresence of nationalism, most Turks come together in fearing that Syrians will not adapt to Turkish society and one day will outnumber them.

But, the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to their homeland remains unlikely, as the present conditions in Syria are still not conducive for them to rebuilding a life.

“Many Syrians have lost all they had, fear Assad, and their children may have grown up more in Turkey than Syria by now. This means that no matter how many Syrians will eventually return to Syria, a certain number will most likely stay in Turkey forever,” Puttmann said.

According to experts, Turkish authorities should work on sustainable solutions, like resettlement to third countries, for sharing responsibilities with the international community.

For Basdas, it is not possible to “open the gates to Europe for refugees” or “send them back to Syria in buses.”

She said: “Such electoral wishful promises are not soothing to anyone, but fuel further anti-refugee sentiments and racism in Turkey and provokes the public to the route of pogroms and violence. There is no return from there.”

Puttmann agrees and said that there is a need for a pro-active nationwide integration strategy to fully fit Syrians into local society.

“First, Turkish society should formulate what it expects of Syrian refugees to be integrated, taking into consideration the refugees’ rights and own expectations as well.

“Second, Turkey should come up with a plan of how to get there.

“Third, the EU should support this process with expertise and financial aid, as solving the refugee issue in Turkey is also in the EU’s vital interest.”


Killer of British MP David Amess should receive death penalty: Terrorist’s aunt

LONDON: A British journalist captured by Daesh, John Cantlie, used his final letter to beg Western governments to pay a $100 million ransom for his release from captivity in Syria.

Cantlie told his family that he feared execution if it was not paid, telling loved ones that Britian and the US were “the most hated” by the terror group.

The letter has been released by US prosecutors following the conviction on Thursday of El Shafee Elsheikh, the final member of the so-called “Beatles” group to face justice or be killed on the battlefield. Cantlie was a known held by the group, made up of British terrorists in Syria.

Cantlie wrote: “The amount is extremely high, but it is the only way the rest of us here will ever be released. If the money is not found we will remain prisoners here until we die, either by natural causes or executions.”

His note was smuggled to his London-based girlfriend by Federico Motka, an Italian aid worker who was released by the Beatles in May 2014 just weeks before they started beheading hostages on camera.

The letter is part of a trove of evidence exposing the evil of the group, with images of tiny cells, chains, shackles and weapons.

Cantlie was moved regularly, being held in at least eight different prisons held by Daesh terrorists. One was nicknamed “the box,” another “the dungeon.”

Unlike British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines, who were decapitated by Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John, Cantlie was not executed on camera, and was last seen in December 2016 in Mosul, Iraq.

In April 2014, Didier François and three other French journalists under Daesh capture, were set to be released after the French governments appeared to pay a ransom.

Cantlie attempted to smuggle a letter to his girlfriend Charlie and family members in Britain.

“Dearest Charlie and family,” he wrote in capital letters. “The group holding us has just released four French journalists. And Didier François is carrying this letter.

“The group continues to release prisoners whose countries have paid their ransom demands.

“For the six British and American prisoners, the group are demanding a total of $100 million.”

He added that an American Daesh prisoner, Kayla Mueller, could be released if an infamous Pakistani terrorist known as “Lady Al-Qaeda,” Aafia Siddiqui, was free in a prisoner swap.

“The British and American governments are the most hated by this group and therefore they are demanding the most for us,” Cantlie continued.

“The amount is extremely high but it is the only way the rest of us here will ever be released.”

He added: “Didier François knows all about the situation here. Liaise with him on the matter.

“We are all so sorry to put you in this very difficult situation. We love all our families and pray you are all holding up in this situation.”

François did not manage to take the note from jail after the French paid for his freedom. Motka is thought to have smuggled the letter out of Syria one month later after the government in Rome paid what is believed to be a $6.5 million ransom for the journalist.


Finland’s PM says young female government has been target of hate speech

JAKARTA, Indonesia: Indonesia is bracing for a third wave of COVID-19 infections as the highly transmissible omicron variant drives a surge in new cases, health authorities and experts said Saturday.
The country reported 9,905 new infections and seven deaths on Friday in the latest 24-hour period. It was the highest daily caseload since August last year when the country was struggling to contain a delta-driven wave.
Indonesia had recovered from last year’s spike in cases and deaths that was among the worst in the region, and daily infections had fallen to about 200 by December. But cases are rising again just weeks after the country reported its first local omicron case.
Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said the next few months will be critical because omicron is spreading “rapidly and massively.”
“Its upsurge will be extremely fast … We will see a sharp rise in the near future,” he told a news conference Friday, adding that the current wave would likely peak at the end of February or in early March.
The government has prepared mitigation measures to deal with a potential surge, including dedicating more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, ensuring adequate tracing and testing measures, strictly enforcing health protocols and intensifying vaccination efforts in all regions, Sadikin said.
Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday, said Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria. He said “omicron is moving too quickly” in the city, where more than 80 percent of the 10 million residents have been vaccinated.
Pandu Riono, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government, said Indonesians are still traumatized from the delta variant when many died in isolation at home or while waiting to receive emergency care as hospitals were swamped.
During last year’s surge, hospitals erected plastic tents to serve as makeshift intensive care units, and patients waited for days before being admitted. Oxygen tanks were rolled out on the sidewalk for those lucky enough to receive them, while others were told they would need to find their own supply.
Riono said a third wave would be unlikely to push Indonesia’s health care system to the brink of collapse because omicron generally causes less-severe symptoms than delta.
President Joko Widodo on Friday urged asymptomatic patients to self-isolate at home for five days and to use telemedicine services through which they can access doctors, medicines and vitamins for free, or to visit a community health center.
“This is important so that our health care facilities can focus on treating patients with more severe symptoms or patients of other diseases that need intensive care,” Widodo said.
Some health experts doubt the measures will be enough, given the lax enforcement.
Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, said a third wave of infections is inevitable as long as a large portion of Indonesia’s population remains unprotected against COVID-19. As of Friday, only 61 percent of Indonesia’s 208 million people eligible for shots were fully vaccinated.
Overall, Indonesia, a vast archipelago nation that is home to 270 million people, has reported more than 4.3 million infections and 144,268 deaths from COVID-19.