ISTANBUL: A Russian military aircraft thunders into the sky at 4.47 p.m. from Russia’s air base at Hmeimim in western Syria, veering to the east.
An observer takes note of all three details, opens a phone app and enters the information into three designated fields.
Fourteen minutes later and 100 kilometers away, Abdel Razzaq sees the aircraft flying over his town of Maaret Al-Numan. He opens his own app and types: Maaret Al-Numan, Russian military aircraft, headed northeast.
The data is processed by a program, known as Sentry, that estimates the plane’s trajectory and sends a warning, triggering Facebook and Telegram messages, Tweets and, most importantly, loud sirens throughout cities in opposition-held Syria.
Air strikes have been a fact of daily life for millions of Syrians living in rebel-held areas, becoming far more intense since Russia joined the war in 2015.
Before Sentry was introduced, the main warning people had of an air strike was when they heard the planes themselves — when it was already too late, said Omayya, 50, who was displaced from Aleppo to its northwestern countryside.
“There was no time for one to do anything. Sometimes we would actually see the barrels as they fell,” she said by Skype, referring to the barrel bombs — oil drums filled with shrapnel and explosives — dropped across rebel areas. “We would watch and see the barrels fall and the children would cry.”
Omayya attended a course run by volunteers about Sentry and how best to survive air strikes. She now knows to open her window so blast pressure doesn’t shatter the glass and that her bathroom, in the middle of the house, is the best place to hide.
The volunteers taught Omayya’s six grandchildren, three of whose fathers have died, what to do if they are told an air strike may hit their school. Naela, one of the volunteers, said they trained children to duck under desks and curl up in the fetal position if they hear the alarm. If the warning is early enough, teachers can take the children down to basements.
Women have emerged as one of the main targets of the campaign, Naela said: “Women always carry their mobiles with them, so they get the message wherever they are, whether they are at home, in the kitchen, with their neighbor.”
The warning system was founded by two Americans, John Jaeger and his business partner Dave Levin, after Jaeger had held a job working with Syrian civilians for the US State Department.
“I recognized that the biggest threat to peace inside of Syria was the indiscriminate bombing of civilians,” Jaeger explained. “We simply thought that there was more that the international community could and should do to warn civilians in advance of this indiscriminate violence.”
Their company, Hala Systems, says it has received funding from countries including Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and the US, as well as private donors.
The White Helmet rescue workers operating in opposition-held Syria work with Sentry to operate and maintain air raid sirens.
“Before, whenever there was bombardment, we wouldn’t have knowledge of a strike until the wounded reach us,” said Yousef, a 23-year old nurse in a field hospital outside Aleppo.
“But now with Sentry, we immediately find out through our mobile that a strike happened. So we know that it’s in this area, where there are civilians. So we know there are wounded for sure.” The hospital can notify doctors, make sure materials are prepped, and wait for the wounded.
“We hugely depend on (the system) because it’s become the foundation of our work,” he said.
Around three million people live in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold in northwest Syria. Half are already displaced, having fled government advances in other parts of Syria.
In preparation for an expected army offensive, civilians have been readying food and digging shelters. Some even improvised gas masks in case of chemical attacks.
Last week, the Syrian government and allied forces resumed air and ground bombardments, although recent days have been relatively quiet, said Abdel Razzaq, who watches for aircraft and enters the information into the Sentry app.
He clicks on the image of a plane to identify what type of aircraft he saw. He chooses the location and what the plane is doing or where it’s headed. This dispatches messages on channels like Telegram, sometimes with time-stamped warnings for specific towns and villages.
“9:37 pm: Shahshabo Mountain — transport aircraft now heading northeast. Can reach the following areas: Maaret Al-Numan: two minutes from now/ Kafranbel: one minute from now.”
A former English teacher, Abdel Razzaq has been diligently watching planes since 2011, later joining Sentry as an observer.
“We’re a bunch of guys who are everywhere. Each of us holds a specific district,” he said. “We see the plane, the type of plane, with the naked eye and then send the warning.”
As well as providing warning of attacks that come out of the blue, the system has also helped indicate brief pauses during more sustained attacks, said Hala Systems co-founder Levin. During the offensive on Ghouta, near Damascus, earlier this year, civilians relied on the system to time their brief forays from basements and shelters to get food and water.
“That was a big relief for us, that we were actually having impact even when it’s raining bombs,” Levin said. (Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)
Yemeni Information Minister says Houthis hiding in food stores, civilian sites in Hodeidah
The Yemeni army found operation and communication underground chambers on Thursday belonging to the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in the Kataf district of Saada province in northern Yemen, Saudi State TV Al-Ekhbariya reported. “The army found operation and communication chambers as they progressed in the field in the Bujbara Valley,” Brigadier General Raddad Al-Hashemi said. “They were underground…
The Yemeni army found operation and communication underground chambers on Thursday belonging to the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in the Kataf district of Saada province in northern Yemen, Saudi State TV Al-Ekhbariya reported.
“The army found operation and communication chambers as they progressed in the field in the Bujbara Valley,” Brigadier General Raddad Al-Hashemi said.
“They were underground and connected to a mountain cave, consisting of 5 rooms, each room was carrying out specific hostile tasks,” he added.
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“The Houthi militias used this secret underground network to carry out its hostile operations and to communicate with its elements in various locations, as well as to hold meetings,” Al-Hashemi said.
He explained that inside the rooms wireless communication devices were found along a number of signs used by the militias to communicate between elements.
Sectarian leaflets and pictures of the Houthi leaders were also found.
French foreign minister warns against Idlib chemical offensive
Rival Iraqi factions make coalition deal and end Al-Abadi’s prime minister hopes BAGHDAD: Pro-Iran parties in Iraq reached a deal on Thursday to join a parliamentary coalition overseen by anti-Tehran cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr that ends Haider Al-Abadi’s hopes of hanging on as prime minister. The compromise means members of the ruling Shiite Dawa Party will…
Rival Iraqi factions make coalition deal and end Al-Abadi’s prime minister hopes
BAGHDAD: Pro-Iran parties in Iraq reached a deal on Thursday to join a parliamentary coalition overseen by anti-Tehran cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr that ends Haider Al-Abadi’s hopes of hanging on as prime minister.
The compromise means members of the ruling Shiite Dawa Party will be excluded from competing for the post to lead the next government, negotiators involved in the talks told Arab News.
Al-Abadi, the head of Dawa’s political bureau, who was looking to win a second term, was the biggest loser in the deal. Nuri Al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister and head of the State of Law coalition, who was hoping to play a key role in nominating the new head of government also lost out.
Iraqi’s Shiite rivals have been frantically competing to form the largest parliamentary coalition, since elections in May.
Muqtada Al-Sadr, one of the most influential Shiite clerics, whose Sairoon list came first, formed a 154-seat coalition including Al-Abadi and his Al-Nassir list.
At the same time, Hadi Al-Amiri, who heads the pro-Iranian Al-Fattah list, formed a coalition of 108 members, including Al-Maliki and his State of Law alliance.
Both Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri tried to register their coalitions in the first session of parliament on Sept. 3. The federal court had been requested to rule between them.
Violent demonstrations broke out in Basra, Iraq’s main oil hub, shortly afterwards. At least 15 demonstrators were shot dead, scores wounded and dozens of government and political party buildings set on fire, including the Iranian consulate.
Some political leaders saw the violence as an attempt to pressure negotiations in Baghdad, and Al-Sadr agreed to resume negotiations with Al-Amiri.
Several meetings were held between the two men in the last week at Al-Sadr’s residency in the holy city of Najaf, sources said.
“We have reached preliminary understandings with Al-Sadr and are working to turn them into agreements under the umbrella of Marjiyaa (the highest Shiite clerics in Iraq),” a key Al-Fattah negotiator told Arab News.
“Both Abadi and Maliki are out. Abadi is a part of the (new) coalition but he is not a candidate for the prime minister post.
“Amiri also is not a nominee anymore. As long as Abadi will not be nominated (by Sadr or his allies) then Amiri will not be nominated.”
The offer, which was presented by Al-Fattah through the UN delegation in Iraq, suggests that both Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri had to make some concessions to form the coalition.
Al-Abadi as a candidate for prime minister and Al-Maliki and his alliance as part of the coalition were sacrificed for the agreement, negotiators told Arab News.
Both men are cornerstones of the Dawa Party and have been the heads of successive governments since 2005 but they had a bitter fall out in 2014. Al-Abadi stood in as a compromise candidate for prime minister when Al-Maliki’s nomination for a third term was widely rejected because of his sectarian policies. Those policies were blamed for fueling the resentment that allowed Daesh to seize a third of Iraqi territory.
“Everyone is angry at the Dawa Party and they blame its leaders for what happened in Iraq since 2005. So it was not difficult to abandon it and its candidates,” a negotiator for Al-Sadr’s alliance said.
Al-Abadi’s nomination for the prime minister post had been backed by Al-Sadr and Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of Hikma, who controls 22 seats and is one of Al-Sadr’s key allies.
Both invested a large effort in promoting Al-Abadi during negotiations with the other blocs. They said he had not enough time to achieve his program in government because the first three years of his last term were dominated by fighting Daesh, the sources said.
“The problem of Abadi is he has not helped himself and has not helped us. He was creative in making mistakes along the last six months and his negotiating and media teams are weak,” a second Al-Sadr negotiator told Arab News.
“Now we have to find a candidate who is acceptable for Iran, the US and Najaf.
“Najaf is deeply involved this time and they (the clerics) have been using Sadr as their stick to pressure the political rivals.”
Najaf is led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani the most revered Shiite cleric. The city’s clergymen are seen by Iraqis as the sponsor of the political process that emerged after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and allowed the majority Shiites to take the reins of power through elections.
Sistani has been reluctant to interfere directly in the political process, but on Monday he made a rare intervention that changed the course of forming the next government.
Sistani’s office issued a statement saying he refused the nomination for the post of prime minister any politician who had previously exercised power.
“Abadi is out. That’s it. None of us would publically challenge the desire of Sistani,” a senior Shiite politician involved in the talks told Arab News. “We have many other more important things to worry about, so we moved on.”
The final decision over all the details related to the new ruling coalition and the nomination of the next government, including the president, the speaker of the parliament and the prime minister have to be concluded before Sept. 15.
Iran and the United States, the two main international players in Iraq’s political and security scene since 2003, seem to have agreed on this scenario, three negotiators from the various sides told Arab News. The US has backed Al-Abadi for a second term while Iran saw him as a threat to its interests in Iraq specifically after he announced his support for the economic sanctions imposed on Iran since Donald Trump withdrew America from a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
“It becomes clear for the Iranians that going without Sadr is not in their interest and that they have to deal with reality,” a key Al-Sadr negotiator told Arab News.
“The reality indicates that Fattah cannot form a government, which would be accepted by local, regional and international forces. The US would topple it within weeks.
“The Iranians do not have the ability to open a front against the Americans in Iraq, so they are satisfied by the blow that they directed to the Americans by burning Al-Abadi.
“Now, they (the Iranians) have decided to step back to let Sadr and the Americans to lead the negotiations and form the new coalition.”
UN renews Libya mission but no date for elections
BEIRUT: More than 360,000 people have been killed across war-ravaged Syria in seven years, a monitoring group said Thursday, in a new toll for the brutal conflict.It came amid rising international concern that a looming Syrian government assault against rebels in the northwest province of Idlib would be a “bloodbath.”The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights…
BEIRUT: More than 360,000 people have been killed across war-ravaged Syria in seven years, a monitoring group said Thursday, in a new toll for the brutal conflict.
It came amid rising international concern that a looming Syrian government assault against rebels in the northwest province of Idlib would be a “bloodbath.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had recorded the deaths of 364,792 people, nearly a third of them civilians, since protests erupted in March 2011 against President Bashar Assad.
The toll represents an increase of about 13,000 people in the past six months, according to the Britain-based monitor, which uses a vast network of sources including fighters, officials and medical staff.
The war has killed 110,687 civilians, including more than 20,000 children and nearly 13,000 women.
More than 124,000 pro-government fighters have died, around half of them regime troops and the rest an assortment of Syrian and foreign militiamen loyal to Assad.
Among them are 1,665 from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
The Observatory recorded the deaths of 64,000 hard-line Islamists and Islamist extremists, including from the Daesh group and former Al-Qaeda affiliate factions.
Another 64,800 fighters from other forces, including non-Islamist rebels, soldiers who defected and Kurdish factions, were also killed since 2011.
The Observatory said it had confirmed the deaths of another 250 people but could not specify their identities.
With help from his Russian and Iranian allies, Assad has recaptured nearly two-thirds of Syrian territory.
The lion’s share of the rest is the Kurdish-controlled northeast.
The largest chunk of rebel-held territory left comprises the province of Idlib and surrounding areas, where an estimated three million people live.
Assad’s troops have been amassing around the area for weeks ahead of a threatened assault.
The United Nations, world powers, and aid groups alike have warned a full-fledged offensive on Idlib could create a humanitarian calamity.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres this week urged the regime to pull back and for all sides to find a peaceful solution, saying Idlib “must not be transformed into a bloodbath.”