ALEPPO — The toll in what was once Syria's thriving capital of commerce is also being measured by low temperatures and record snowfall. Activists say the people of Aleppo risk dying every day in unheated homes.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that no fewer than 22 people died in Syria last week, including nine children, from sub-zero temperatures as lengthy power shortages were recorded.
In Aleppo, once the country’s economic capital, electricity has been scarce since continued shelling took out power lines. The exorbitant prices of oil and diesel fuel, and even wood, prevented many from being able to keep warm.
Local activists posted a photo (below) of Abdul Kader Habbal, 50, a resident of Aleppo’s Saif al-Dawla neighborhood, who reportedly died last week because he did not have sufficient clothing to keep him warm.
Activists also posted a video expand=1] of a five-year-old who died showing signs of frostbite. The video’s commentator says that “the children of Rastan city are being martyred by the harsh cold.”
At the same time, winter storms can also bring a moment of relief to the streets of Aleppo, bringing government air raids to a halt, since Syrian government planes don’t fly as often when the weather is cloudy.
It’s a common refrain in Syria’s embattled second city: “It’s not raining today. May God save us.”
Last week snowstorm Alexa, the worst winter storm in decades, pounded the Middle East. It brought snow and torrential rains to Syria and Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, neighboring countries flooded with refugees.
As Alexa petered out, government air strikes resumed as part of what analysts said was the largest escalation in fighting in the city in months, with barrel bombs dropping on opposition-controlled areas.
Rebel fighters are unable to shoot down government helicopters with anti-aircraft weapons because they fly at such a high altitude; activists said the fighters have been attempting to shoot the bombs as they drop, in an attempt to detonate them before impact.
“We feel helpless when we see the jet fighters circling above,” said one Free Syrian Army fighter. As skies cleared, civilians could be seen looking up at the sky, watching for jet fighters.
“I look at the sky and I wait for the plane to drop the TNT barrel,” said Sami, a 13-year-old Aleppo boy. “It makes me feel sort of calm, not knowing whether I or any of my relatives will become the next victims.”
Medical workers in Aleppo rose to the challenge, treating hypothermia and other cold-borne illness. There were also the usual injuries to tend to. An unborn baby girl was rescued from the womb of her dead mother, who'd been hit in the heart by shrapnel. She was later named after her mother.
An image that went viral this week on Syrian social media was of a man who just lost his taxi — his sole source of income — in an air raid that targeted a busy parking lot in the Haidariyeh neighborhood. Crying, the man holds onto his car plate — all that is left of his livelihood.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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