Sylvia Westall http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall Sylvia Westall's Profile Fri, 06 Nov 2015 13:01:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 Syrian rebels seize town in west in blow to government http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/11/06/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-idUKKCN0SU0YC20151106?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11708 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/11/06/syrian-rebels-seize-town-in-west-in-blow-to-government/#comments Fri, 06 Nov 2015 12:26:58 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=929 BEIRUT (Reuters) – Insurgents captured a town on a major highway in western Syria on Thursday, in a blow to the Russian-backed campaign against them, rebels and a monitoring group said.

Moscow’s intervention in the war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, ostensibly to fight Islamic State, has mostly hit other insurgents including more moderate groups, according to the U.S. State Department.

Syrian army offensives backed by allied militia, Russian air strikes, Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters to retake territory from those groups in the west and northwest have had limited success at best.

Rebels say better organisation and new tactics have helped them fight back, as supporters including Saudi Arabia and Qatar send new weapons supplies.

The capture of Morek was another blow to Damascus and Moscow. The town is north of Hama city on a major north-south highway crucial to control of western Syria.

A rebel commander on the ground said Morek had been “liberated”, describing it as strategically important.

“It was a centre for the gathering of regime forces and a point of departure for its operations,” said Fares al-Bayoush of rebel group Fursan al-Haq, which is fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner.

Another FSA commander confirmed the takeover, saying rebels would work to press north.

“The next step for us is now to liberate the highway between Morek and Suran. This is where the Syrian army and its militias had retreated and where fighting has now moved,” the al-Izza group’s Jamil Saleh said.

Russian air strikes had intensified against rebels following Morek’s capture, he said.

But he said the “Russians and their planes have been a bad omen to Bashar and the militias who are with him.”

LOST IN HOURS

Government forces fought for months to take control of Morek in October 2014 and lost many fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“They worked hard to retake it last year and now they lost it in a few hours,” he said, adding that insurgents had entered the town easily.

The Syrian army and allied militia had not made significant progress after a month of Russian strikes, said Abdulrahman, who is based in Britain and tracks the conflict using sources inside Syria.

“We cannot say the regime is going forward, no way.”

Syrian state media made no immediate mention of Morek’s capture.

A statement by an army spokesman broadcast on state television later in the day said a number of “terrorists” had been killed in the area around Morek and nearby Kafr Nabuda, without elaborating.

A Syrian military source had previously told Reuters the government operations were going according to plan.

The Observatory reported that Islamist insurgents from the Jund al-Aqsa group, backed by other fighters, took the town overnight after firing hundreds of shells and rockets.

Later on Thursday, insurgents in Idlib province took over Tal Skik near the highway, an area which the Syrian army and Hezbollah had captured last month.

Still farther north, al Qaeda’s Nusra Front captured the areas of Telat al-Maqbara and Telat al-Saru after fierce clashes with pro-government fighters, the Observatory said, confirming online claims by the Front.

Russia has stepped up efforts to broker a peace deal between Damascus and the splintered opposition.

Its deputy foreign minister said the Kremlin would invite representatives of both sides to meet in Moscow next week, and a Russian news agency reported that an FSA delegation had agreed to meet Russian officials in Abu Dhabi.

But representatives of FSA-affiliated groups that receive backing from foreign states opposed to Assad dismissed the report. Bayoush said the Russians had been meeting Syrians who falsely claimed to be FSA.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and John Davison, Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Jack Stubbs and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Syrian rebels capture town in west, rebels and monitor say http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/05/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idUSKCN0SU0XY20151105?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/11/05/syrian-rebels-capture-town-in-west-rebels-and-monitor-say/#comments Thu, 05 Nov 2015 11:12:48 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=927 BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian insurgents captured a town on a major highway in the west of the country on Thursday after heavy fighting with pro-government militias, rebels and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

The town of Morek is located north of Hama city on a major highway that is crucial to control of western Syria, where the Syrian army backed by allied militia and Russian air strikes has been attempting to wrest back territory from rebels.

Its capture marks a significant blow to the Russian-backed campaign that has also been supported on the ground by Iranian forces. The Russian air force began air strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad on Sept. 30.

“This morning, it was completely liberated,” Fares al-Bayoush, whose rebel group Fursan al-Haq is taking part in the fighting, told Reuters. The group is fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner. A second rebel commander also said the town had been seized.

Syrian state media made no mention of Morek’s capture.

The Observatory reported that Islamist insurgents from the Jund al-Aqsa group, backed by other fighters, took the town overnight after firing hundreds of shells and rockets.

Government forces fought for months to take control of the town in October 2014 and lost many fighters, the head of the Observatory Rami Abdulrahman said. He said fighting was continuing inside parts of the town.

“They worked hard to retake it last year and now they lost it in a few hours,” he said, adding that insurgents entered the town easily, through government checkpoints, and seized large parts in the west.

Overall the Syrian army and allied militia had not made significant progress after a month of Russian strikes, he said. “We cannot say the regime is going forward, no way,” said Abdulrahman, who tracks the conflict using sources on the ground.

Russia has recently stepped up efforts to broker a peace deal between Syrian government officials and members of the country’s splintered opposition.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said the Kremlin would invite representatives of both sides to meet in Moscow next week, and a Russian news agency reported that an FSA delegation has agreed to meet Russian officials in Abu Dhabi late next week.

But representatives of FSA-affiliated groups that receive backing from foreign states opposed to Assad dismissed the report. Bayoush said the Russians had been meeting Syrians who falsely claimed to be FSA.

Bashar al Zoubi, a prominent rebel figure, said there was no sign that the Russians wanted an ‘honest solution’ to the war, and therefore there was no contact with them.

The Syrian opposition National Coalition representative to the Gulf Arab states, Adib Shishakly, denied news of the FSA-Russia meeting, saying it was untrue.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Naline Malla in Beirut, Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Jack Stubbs and Polina Devitt in Moscow; editing by Dominic Evans)

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Lebanon’s central bank says political deadlock hurting economy http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/03/lebanon-cenbank-idUSL8N12Y46B20151103?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/11/03/lebanons-central-bank-says-political-deadlock-hurting-economy/#comments Tue, 03 Nov 2015 16:30:01 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=925 BEIRUT, Nov 3 (Reuters) – It is essential that Lebanon’s
parliament meets soon to pass laws for development loans, debt
issuance and banks, the central bank governor said on Tuesday,
urging politicians to break political deadlock harming the
economy.

Lebanon is expected to record zero growth in 2015 and the
central bank currently has no intention to change interest
rates, Governor Riad Salameh told the Reuters Middle East
Investment Summit in an interview.

Political conflict has brought policymaking to a standstill
in Lebanon, which has been without a president for 17 months.
Politicians have failed to agree on even basic decisions such as
garbage disposal, leaving rubbish to accumulate on Beirut’s
streets.

Salameh said there were efforts to hold at least one
parliament session soon to pass legislation for public finances
and the private sector.

“It is very important, we hope the meeting will take place
because there are laws touching on financing infrastructure and
financing government activity in foreign currencies,” he said.

“It is important also from a monetary point of view that the
government funds itself in foreign currency to cover its
liabilities … and does not revert to the central bank to buy
these currencies.”

Lebanon, which issued a $1.3 billion Eurobond last month,
will not be able to issue new Eurobonds next year unless
parliament can pass a law allowing that, Salameh said. Lebanon’s
ratio of overall debt to gross domestic product (GDP) is around
140 percent.

The country, which is struggling to cope with more than a
million refugees from Syria’s conflict, could also lose millions
of dollars of World Bank development loans if parliament fails
to approve them before the end of the year.

The parliament also needs to vote on banking legislation for
trans-border cash movements, cooperation to fight tax evasion
and amendments to the money laundering law, all of which will
help protect Lebanon’s relationship with banks worldwide,
Salameh said.

Rivalries in the power-sharing government and parliament
have been exacerbated by wider regional conflict, leading to
political paralysis throughout most of 2015.

“It is hurting the outlook of the country, as you can see.
There is a lack of leadership and decisions,” which have had an
impact on quality of life and the image of the country, he said,
in reference to the garbage crisis.

“Investment and consumption are lower, it is impacting trade
activity, which is down by 15 percent this year,” he said,
adding that Lebanon’s growth rate was limiting employment,
especially for young people.

The lack of activity from Lebanon’s institutions “hurts
confidence and therefore hurts the consumption and investment in
the country,” said Salameh, who has run the central bank for
more than two decades.

ECONOMIC STIMULUS

The central bank is widely seen as one of the most
dependable institutions in Lebanon. It has stepped in to promote
initiatives usually proposed by governments, such as economic
stimulus packages, over the past three years.

The programme allows banks to borrow loans from the central
bank at 1 percent interest for lending to different sectors.

Salameh said Lebanon will compile a new stimulus package
worth up to $1.5 billion in 2016 to help boost credit, which
grew by around 5 percent this year, lower than the recent
average.

The central bank is keeping interest rates stable after
lowering them at the start of the year, Salameh said.

“We have no intention to increase rates. On the contrary we
will intervene to maintain rates around this equilibrium point
we see today in the market,” he said, adding a decrease would
not be possible unless there was a major change in the political
climate.

Despite the difficulties, Salameh said Lebanon was not in an
economic crisis because negative growth had been avoided and the
monetary position remains strong.

“Given the situation in the Middle East, Lebanon is showing
a lot of resilience, especially on the monetary side.”

Bank deposits are up 6 percent this year and are expected to
reach close to $160 billion by the end of December, he said,
citing confidence in Lebanon’s banking sector.

Remittances will be steady at around $7.5 billion this year,
or 20 percent of gross domestic product, despite lower global
oil prices which affect Lebanese working in Gulf oil-producing
countries, he said, citing World Bank estimates.

“These remittances are in existence because there is
confidence in the banking sector…the Lebanese diaspora is
banking in Lebanon.”

Follow Reuters Summits on Twitter @Reuters_Summits

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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Iran backs six-month Syria ‘transition’ at Vienna peace talks http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/30/us-mideast-crisis-syria-iran-idUSKCN0SN2Z620151030?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/10/30/iran-backs-six-month-syria-transition-at-vienna-peace-talks/#comments Fri, 30 Oct 2015 13:53:26 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=923 VIENNA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran signaled on Friday it backed a six-month transition period in Syria followed by elections to decide Bashar al-Assad’s fate, a proposal floated at peace talks as a concession but which the president’s foes rejected as a trick to keep him in power.

Sources who described the Iranian proposal said it amounted to Assad’s closest ally dropping its insistence on him remaining in office.

But Assad’s enemies say a new election would keep him in power unless other steps were taken to remove him. His government held an election as recently as last year, which he easily won. His opponents have always rejected any proposal for a transition unless he is removed.

Iranian officials attended international peace talks on Syria for the first time on Friday in Vienna, a month after the balance of power in the 4-year-old civil war shifted in Assad’s favor with Russia launching air strikes against his foes.

Iran appears to be adjusting its stance in ways that could create more ground for compromise with Western countries that are coming to accept Assad cannot be driven from power by force.

“Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian, a member of Tehran’s delegation at the Syria talks on Friday, was quoted by Iranian media as saying.

A senior official from the Middle East familiar with the Iranian position said that could go as far as ending support for Assad after the transition period.

“Talks are all about compromises and Iran is ready to make a compromise by accepting Assad remaining for six months,” the official told Reuters. “Of course, it will be up to the Syrian people to decide about the country’s fate.”

Syrian opposition figures, already bristling from having been excluded from Friday’s talks about the fate of their country, dismissed the reported Iranian proposal as a ruse.

“Who is mad enough to believe that under these circumstances in Syria, anybody can hold elections?” said George Sabra, a member of the Western-backed political opposition, the exiled Syrian National Coalition, told Reuters. “Bashar al-Assad and his regime is the root of the terrorism in Syria.”

They say any fair vote is impossible in wartime conditions in which nearly half of the country is displaced.

“In the shadow of this anarchy there will not be real elections, therefore we reject them absolutely,” said Ahmed al-Seoud, a fighter in the rebel 13th Division which has been fighting in the western Hama province.

Abu Ghaith al-Shami, a spokesman for the rebel Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group which is fighting in the south, said Assad’s participation in an election was unthinkable: “The fate of Assad and all criminals should be in court following the massacres committed by him and those with him, towards the Syrian people.”

NEW UNDERTAKING

Nevertheless, a commitment from Iran to a defined time limit for a transition could be viewed as a significant new undertaking, potentially forming a basis for future diplomacy at a time when Assad’s position has been strengthened by Russia’s decision to join the war on his side.

A senior U.S. official and other delegates said a new round of Syria peace talks could be held as soon as next week.

All previous efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war have collapsed over the insistence of the United States, European powers, Arab states and Turkey that Assad agree to leave power.

In the past, Iranian delegations were excluded for refusing to sign up to U.N.-backed proposals that called for a transition of power in Damascus. Tehran has long said it was not committed to Assad as an individual, but that it was up to Syrians to decide his fate, a position that amounted to an endorsement of election results that confirmed him in office.

Russia’s participation in the conflict on Assad’s behalf creates a new incentive for a diplomatic push to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million people from their homes. Western countries that have called for Assad’s removal from power appear to have accepted that he cannot be forced out on the battlefield.

In the latest violence from the battlefield, a local rescue group operating in rebel-held areas said more than 45 people were killed by a government missile strike on a marketplace in a town near Damascus.

The group, Syrian Civil Defence, posted a picture on its Facebook page of about a dozen bloodied bodies laid on the ground. It linked to a video showing people tending to survivors in a chaotic scene of blackened rubble and fire.

“Utterly heinous that while world leaders meet for peace in Vienna, attack(s) against civilians continue in Syria,” the group said on Twitter.

HOPE FOR COMPROMISE

The United States has said it is looking for signs of compromise from Tehran and Moscow at Friday’s conference, defending its decision to talk directly to Iran about the Syrian conflict for the first time.

The conference will also be attended by European powers, Turkey and Iran’s arch enemy in the region, Saudi Arabia.

“I am hopeful that we can find a way forward,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters shortly before the meeting began on Friday morning. “It is very difficult.”

Iranian and Russian officials have repeatedly said the priority for Syria should be the defeat of Islamic State militants, who have seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.

The divide between Assad’s allies and Western and Arab nations seeking his ouster has deepened since Moscow began air strikes against opposition forces in Syria a month ago.

Russia says it is bombing Islamic State, but most of its air strikes have hit other groups opposed to Assad, including many that are supported by Washington’s allies.

The United States is leading its own bombing campaign against Islamic State, the world’s most violent jihadist group, but says Assad’s presence makes the situation worse. Washington has said it could tolerate Assad during a short transition period, but that he would then have to exit the political stage.

Assad’s latest seven-year presidential term runs until 2021. He is believed to control a quarter or less of Syrian territory, but that includes the main cities of Western Syria which are home to the bulk of people still inside the country.

Assad’s office said on Tuesday political initiatives could not work in Syria before terrorism had been wiped out, his long-held position.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau, Francois Murphy, Matt Spetalnick, Sabine Siebold and Vladimir Soldatkin in Vienna, Tom Perry in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff)

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Syrian presidency says seeks end to terrorism before initiatives http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/27/us-mideast-crisis-syria-statement-idUSKCN0SL1AZ20151027?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/10/27/syrian-presidency-says-seeks-end-to-terrorism-before-initiatives/#comments Tue, 27 Oct 2015 15:40:36 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=921 BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian presidency said on Tuesday political initiatives could not work in Syria before terrorism had been wiped out, sticking by its long-held position on how to end its war with insurgents after its Russian allies called for new elections.

In a statement, the presidency said it was clarifying reports that President Bashar al-Assad had told a Russian delegation on Sunday he would be ready to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections called for by Moscow.

The Russian foreign minister, in an interview broadcast on Saturday, said Syrians needed to prepare for both parliamentary and presidential elections, part of an effort by Moscow to advance a political track towards ending the conflict.

The Syrian parliament’s four-year term is due to expire in May 2016 while Assad’s current seven-year presidential term runs until 2021.

Assad’s main allies Russia and Iran say he must be part of any transition and that the Syrian people will decide who governs them. The United States has said it could tolerate Assad during a short transition period, but that he would then have to exit the political stage.

Syria’s conflict began as a street uprising against four decades of Assad family rule and has descended into a civil war that has killed a quarter of a million people, convulsed the Middle East and drawn in world powers.

The Syrian presidency statement said the state would welcome any political solution approved by the Syrian people that preserves national unity.

But it added that Assad had repeatedly said the defeat of what he called terrorism, his term for various insurgent groups fighting him, must come before any initiative.

“No initiative or ideas can be implemented, and their success guaranteed, before the elimination of terrorism and the restoration of security and stability to the whole country,” the statement said.

The statement did not state Assad’s position on the idea of holding elections.

ELECTIONS

Syria describes all the insurgents as terrorists, including jihadist groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State, and other factions including Islamist groups and those fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

Russia has been mounting air strikes in Syria in support of the Syrian military since Sept. 30.

A Russian lawmaker who met Assad on Sunday as part of a delegation told Reuters the Syrian leader’s priority was to defeat terrorists before holding elections.

That lawmaker and another also said Assad told them he would be willing to hold parliamentary and presidential elections if necessary.

A French lawmaker visiting Damascus told reporters on Tuesday that the Syrian parliament was ready to hold elections as planned. “There will be elections next year, that is what the president of the parliament confirmed to us,” Jean-Frédéric Poisson said after meeting Syrian parliamentarians, adding that the French group was also due to meet Assad.

Poisson and two other French lawmakers were not representing the French government, which opposes rapprochement with Assad. Groups of French and other European MPs have made similar trips this year.

Syria’s last presidential election was in June 2014. The vote was won overwhelmingly by Assad for a new seven-year term but dismissed as a sham by opponents with much of the country at war and millions forced from their homes.

Britain’s Special Representative for Syria on Tuesday dismissed the idea that Syria would hold fair elections. When asked in a Twitter discussion why foreign countries should not just let the Syrian people decide, Gareth Bayley said:

“Because Assad won’t let the Syrian people choose. Last election was ridiculously rigged.”

Assad is believed to control a quarter or less of Syrian territory, but the bulk of people still in the country are in the main cities of western Syria that he holds.

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt discussed Syria in a bilateral meeting on Tuesday. Egypt hosts some Syrian opposition figures and the UAE is one of the strongest regional opponents of Assad.

The UAE’s state news agency WAM said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the two discussed the Syrian crisis and the importance of finding political solutions that “guaranteed the security and protection of a unified Syria and preserving its national institutions”.

(Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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No light at end of tunnel for Lebanon’s power crisis http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/26/lebanon-electricity-idUSL8N12J1T120151026?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/10/26/no-light-at-end-of-tunnel-for-lebanons-power-crisis/#comments Mon, 26 Oct 2015 13:16:55 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=917 BEIRUT, Oct 26 (Reuters) – Four decades ago, Lebanon used to
export power to its larger neighbour Syria. Now it barely
generates enough electricity to keep street lamps on at night.

The situation is so bad that even people fleeing the
conflict in Syria have been heard to complain.

Outages have plagued Lebanon since its own 1975-1990 civil
war and the power crisis is a legacy of that conflict, with the
country now shackled by paralysis in government and widely
perceived corruption that has put a brake on development.

“The situation (with electricity) is not bearable for the
Lebanese people any more,” said Mustafa Baalbaki, the creator of
a phone app, Beirut Electricity, which tracks outages and is
used by 15,000 people daily.

“Honestly, I don’t care about the app itself, the app could
die if the electricity problem is fixed and I would love that.”

Lebanon’s presidency has been vacant for more than a year in
the absence of an agreement on who should take the post, and the
parliament elected in 2009 has extended its own term and
postponed elections until 2017 on the grounds of instability.

Public dissatisfaction has been fed by anger over rubbish
being left to fester in the streets of Beirut, widely seen as
another sign of the political paralysis.

Recent anti-government protests have at times turned violent
over issues such as corruption and weak governance and the prime
minister has threatened to resign.

There are no quick fixes to the power crisis even though
public discontent over poor services has helped galvanise talk
of finding solutions. One Lebanese city has given up hoping for
a state solution and commissioned its own power station.

“Today, Lebanese people in all regions talk about the
electricity issue, it is very much at the forefront,” activist
Neamat Bader al-Deen said during a protest this month.

She was speaking outside the headquarters of national
utility Electricite du Liban (EDL), where residents wryly point
out that only parts of its sign are illuminated at night.

The crumbling state infrastructure is in contrast to the
large number of privately-funded residential developments which
have risen across Beirut since the war and have gone some way to
rebuilding it.

MIDDLE CLASS SQUEEZED

Electricity supply varies significantly throughout Lebanon.
In the financial and political hub of Beirut, there are daily
three-hour power outages while in some areas of the country
mains electricity is available only a few hours a day.

The cuts leave homes and businesses reliant on more
expensive, unregulated, diesel-run generators of the kind that
popped up in the war and still belch fumes into the atmosphere.

Lebanese households spent on average $1,300 on electricity
in 2013, two thirds on generators, in a country where the gross
national income per capita is $9,800, according to the latest
World Bank estimates.

“It is hitting the middle class and outside Beirut it is
especially severe,” said Husam Beides, a Beirut-based World Bank
official who runs the regional infrastructure and development
programme.

Generation capacity falls more than a third short of demand
and about 45 percent of what is produced is lost in the network
because of illegal connections, tampering with meters or
technical reasons. Experts say major investment is needed.

“We estimate that in five to six years, instead of having an
average supply of 16 hours or 18 hours, it will probably go down
to 12 hours” on average daily across the country, Beides said.

“It is a core economic crisis in Lebanon – what will happen
in the industries, with economic development, with growth?”

The government has been spending an average of around $2
billion annually on subsidies to purchase fuel for EDL, or
around 15 percent of government expenditure, Beides said. This
compares with 7 percent on education and 9 percent on health.

A major overhaul of the system to get 24-hour power would
take $5-6 billion based on the government’s own estimates, he
said, adding the state could find much of that through private
sector partnerships.

“The technical solutions are all proven and tested, what is
needed is the political will to make a decision,” Beides said.

But political will is hard to find.

Rival political blocs blame each other for the electricity
crisis and tensions have been exacerbated by the conflict in
Syria, which has driven more than 1 million refugees into
Lebanon and put more strain on infrastructure.

Lawmakers nearly came to blows at a meeting meant to address
infrastructure issues this month.

The Ministry of Energy and Water referred Reuters’ questions
about the electricity sector to EDL. An EDL source said citizens
had a right to demand a better supply and that the utility’s
problems arose from a lack of major investment in production,
transmission and distribution between 1997 and 2013, complex
laws and regulations dating from 1972 and staff cuts.

ONE CITY GOES LOCAL

In the eastern city of Zahle, people have given up waiting
for the government to take action at a national level and have
backed a local project to provide 24-hour electricity, a move
that means its street lamps now shine at night.

Electricity has been available 50-60 percent of the time in
Zahle in recent years, meaning residents had to pay $100-120 a
month to local generators for a 5 amp supply during cuts.

The local electricity company, a rare utility concession
that buys power from the national grid, decided to take action
to fill the gap.

“There was a huge desire and pressure from the people, from
customers who said, why are you not producing electricity
instead of the generators?” said Assaad Nakad, chief executive
officer of Electricite de Zahle (EDZ).

He signed a three-year contract with British company Aggreko
to build and maintain a power plant providing electricity to EDZ
during the cuts.

For the past eight months this has allowed 57,000 customers
in Zahle and surrounding municipalities to dispense with
generators and get all of their supply through EDZ. They get one
bill instead of two, saving around 35-45 percent.

The plan faced resistance: some of the generator operators
who lost business literally fought back.

“They shot at my transformers, at least five of them,” Nakad
said. “They threatened me, they threatened my family, they
phoned me. I kept going. It is very important in this country to
keep going right to the end – things are difficult everywhere
but especially in Lebanon.”

Zahle was able to go ahead because of the local concession
contract dating from the 1920s and strong local backing.

Asked about repeating this elsewhere, the EDL source said
the priority was an overhaul on a national level under a 15-year
government plan announced in 2010 which aims to eventually
provide 24-hour electricity across the country.

In Zahle, some residents are facing another kind of problem.
Delighted with constant electricity and no need to ration, some
have started to use more than before.

“People plugged in water heaters, air conditioners…so they
felt it in the bill,” said snack bar owner Joseph Richani.

He said it was normal and people would learn to adapt: “It’s
been more than 30 years that we didn’t see 24-hour electricity.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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Russia steps up air strikes against Assad opponents in Syria http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/10/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idUSKCN0S40DF20151010?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/10/10/russia-steps-up-air-strikes-against-assad-opponents-in-syria/#comments Sat, 10 Oct 2015 12:51:19 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=915 BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Saturday it had stepped up its bombing campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria, while local observers said several of the air strikes had hit areas in western Syria where the hardline group has little presence.

Russia, a top ally of President Bashar al-Assad, started bombing in Syria on Sept. 30 saying it was targeting Islamic State and other opposition groups, a campaign that has drawn Moscow deeper into Syria’s more than four-year-old conflict.

Rebels on the ground and Western states have said Moscow’s air campaign, which has been combined with ground attacks by pro-government forces, have mainly targeted rebel groups not associated with Islamic State, including U.S.-trained fighters.

A Russian defense ministry representative said on Saturday Russia had intensified its campaign in the last 24 hours, with 64 sorties hitting 55 targets, Russian news agencies reported.

The representative, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, described the targets hit as controlled by Islamic State, also referring to them as belonging to “militants” and “terrorists”.

He said they included command and control centers, weapons depots and training bases, located in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa, Hama, Damascus and Aleppo.

The first of those provinces is in eastern Syria and the main Islamic State stronghold, while the other three are in Western Syria where the group is typically weak.

However, Islamic State militants have been advancing on Aleppo in recent days, seizing villages in the province from rival insurgents.

Konashenkov said one of the targets hit near Aleppo was a concealed base for military vehicles, which he said had received a direct hit from an Su-24M bomber.

More than ten vehicles had been destroyed, including two tanks and five infantry vehicles, he said in comments cited by Interfax.

CHECHENS

Russian strikes hit northern areas of Latakia province, the coastal heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority sect, as well as northern areas of Hama province further east, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

There was no immediate information on casualties.

The Observatory says Islamic State has no real presence in these areas. However, there were other militants in northern Syria, such as Chechens, that Russia might want to attack.

Syrian state television said in a newsflash that attacks carried out by government forces in the area had killed and wounded a number of “terrorists”, a term it uses to describe all insurgents in Syria.

The Observatory said a large explosion hit a building on the outskirts of the town of al-Bab in northern Syria, which is held by Islamic State.

It was not immediately clear what caused the blast in the building, which Islamic State had used to store explosives, according to the British-based Observatory, which tracks the conflict using sources on the ground.

The Observatory also said Syrian government forces backed by militia had captured the village of Atshan from insurgent fighters in Hama province after Russian airstrikes in surrounding areas.

Atshan sits to the east of the north-south highway running through major western cities in Syria. Towns and villages around the road have been a focus of Russian air strikes.

Syrian state TV also said in a newsflash that the army had captured the village

Human Rights Watch said late on Friday that the first Russian air strikes on northern Homs last month killed at least 17 civilians and should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war.

Russian President Vladmir Putin said earlier this month that reports of civilian deaths in Russian air strikes on Syria were an “information attack”.

(Reporting by Sylvia Westall and Jason Bush; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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Syria extends offensive to retake territory in west http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/10/09/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-idUKKCN0S10BA20151009?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11708 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/10/09/syria-extends-offensive-to-retake-territory-in-west/#comments Fri, 09 Oct 2015 07:11:23 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=913 BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian troops and allied militia backed by a fresh wave of Russian air strikes and cruise missiles fired from warships attacked rebel forces on Thursday as the government extended an offensive to recapture territory in the west of the country.

The assault focussed on western areas where rebel advances earlier this year had threatened the coastal region vital to President Bashar al-Assad’s support base.

The Russian Defence Ministry said it fired missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea for a second day and had hit weapons factories, arms dumps, command centres and training camps.

U.S. officials said they believed four Russian cruise missiles bound for Syria had crashed en route in Iran. Russia’s Defence Ministry insisted the missiles had reached their targets in Syria.

The White House declined to comment and State Department spokesman John Kirby said he could not confirm the missiles had crashed, while adding that the report pointed towards the need for procedures to prevent clashes with U.S. planes targeting Islamic State militants in Syria.

Since Russia began air strikes last week it has described all its targets as belonging to the Islamic State group, although most have been in areas controlled by other rebel movements where Islamic State has little or no presence.

On Thursday, Moscow said its air force hit 27 Islamic State targets in the provinces of Homs, Hama and Raqqa, while Kirby said Secretary of State John Kerry had expressed his concern to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by telephone that most of the targets hit so far were not related to Islamic State.

On the ground, forces loyal to the Syrian government targeted insurgents in the Ghab Plain area in the west of the country, with heavy barrages of surface-to-surface missiles as Russian warplanes bombed from above, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel there.

“There is an attempt by the regime to advance but the situation is under our control,” said a fighter in the area from the Ajnad al-Sham insurgent group who uses the name Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi.

Speaking by Internet link, he told Reuters Russian jets had been bombing since dawn, their most ferocious attack on the area so far. He said rebels had managed to destroy a number of Syrian tanks in a counter attack on Wednesday.

“God willing we will repeat the massacre of the north Hama countryside as happened yesterday,” he said, referring to that counter attack. “We have faced more violent attacks than this in the past.”

The Observatory said rebels had shot down a helicopter in Hama province in western Syria. It was unclear if it was Syrian or Russian.

Syria said it had set in train a major military operation to regain the upper hand on the battlefield. Its civil war began more than four years ago and has now killed 250,000 people, sent millions into exile as refugees and drawn in world and regional powers.

Assad’s armed forces “have launched wide-ranging attacks to deal with the terrorist groups, and to liberate the areas which had suffered from the terrorist rule and crimes”, Syria’s army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Ayoub, was quoted as saying by state media.

NEW FIGHTING UNITS

Ayoub did not say which areas were being targeted. He said new fighting units, including one called the Fourth Assault Corps, had been set up to wage the campaign and the army now held the military initiative.

Sources in the region say Iran has sent hundreds of troops to back Syrian forces in a ground campaign coordinated with Russia’s air assault. Assad’s government also relies on support from Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militia from neighbouring Lebanon.

The Observatory’s head, Rami Abdulrahman, said an assault launched by the army and its foreign allies on Wednesday in nearby areas of Hama province had so far failed to make significant gains, however.

“At least 13 regime forces were killed … The clashes also killed 11 (rebel) fighters,” he said in a statement, and the numbers were expected to rise as more casualties were confirmed.

Around 15 army tanks and armoured vehicles had been destroyed or immobilised by rebel missile strikes, Abdulrahman said.

The operation that began on Wednesday in Hama appears to be the first major assault coordinated between Syrian troops and militia on the ground with Russian warplanes and naval ships.

Hama province’s Ghab Plain lies next to a mountain range that forms the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

Recapturing it from the alliance of rebel groups which includes al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and which thrust into the area in late July, would help secure Assad’s coastal heartlands and could provide a platform to drive rebels back from other areas.

ANGER OVER AIR SPACE

The United States has been leading a separate air campaign against Islamic State targets for a year, and the arrival of Russian war planes last week means the Cold War superpower foes are now flying combat missions in the same air space for the first time since World War Two.

Washington and its allies want Assad to leave power and accuse Moscow of using a campaign against Islamic State as a pretext to target Assad’s other enemies, many of which receive help from countries that oppose him. Russia, allied to Damascus since the Cold War, says Assad’s government should be part of an international campaign against extremists.

Neighbouring Turkey, a NATO member, has been angered by violations of its air space by Russian warplanes and the Western alliance said it was prepared to send troops to Turkey to defend it.

“NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for a meeting in Brussels of the alliance’s defence ministers.

At the meeting, Turkey appealed to its NATO allies to shore up missile defences.

(Writing by Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff and Alison Williams)

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Beirut protest turns violent, politicians postpone talks http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/08/us-lebanon-politics-idUSKCN0S20QG20151008?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/10/08/beirut-protest-turns-violent-politicians-postpone-talks/#comments Thu, 08 Oct 2015 18:04:14 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=911 BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water canon to break up an anti-government protest in Beirut on Thursday, and the country’s fractious leaders postponed talks aimed at resolving a political crisis that is feeding public discontent.

Anger at Lebanon’s government has fueled repeated protests in recent months. Discontent with widely perceived corruption and incompetence came to a head in July when the government failed to agree a solution to a trash disposal crisis and piles of garbage were left to fester in the streets.

Protesters threw projectiles including rocks at a line of riot police blocking the way to the Lebanese parliament in Beirut’s commercial district. Live TV footage showed at least one injured riot policeman on the ground.

Some three dozen people were taken to hospital suffering from suffocation as a result of tear gas, medics said. Six policemen were also wounded, a security official said.

The Lebanese government grouping rival factions has struggled to take even basic decisions since it was formed last year. Lebanon has also been without a president for more than a year in the absence of a deal on who should take the post.

The crisis is linked to wider regional turmoil, including the war in neighboring Syria which has driven well over one million refugees into Lebanon. Lebanon’s opposing political blocs are backed by rival states Saudi Arabia and Iran, which also back the warring sides in Syria.

Lebanon’s parliament speaker canceled the last day of this week’s session aimed at discussing ways out of the political crisis after politicians made no progress on issues including high-level security appointments, the National News Agency said.

The three-day “national dialogue” called by Nabih Berri started on Tuesday and was aimed at finding solutions to the stalemate. The talks were set to run into Thursday but Berri postponed the next session until Oct. 26.

Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni-led Future Movement of former prime minister Saad al-Hariri. Iran backs the Shi’ite party Hezbollah, a powerful armed group, and its allies.

The anti-government rallies has been organized independently of the main sectarian parties in a direct challenge to the political system they control.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans; Writing by Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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Syria extends major offensive to retake territory in west http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/08/mideast-crisis-syria-idUSKCN0S20J220151008?feedType=RSS&feedName=everything&virtualBrandChannel=11563 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/2015/10/08/syria-extends-major-offensive-to-retake-territory-in-west/#comments Thu, 08 Oct 2015 10:52:51 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/sylvia-westall/?p=907 BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian troops and allied militia backed by Russian air strikes and cruise missiles fired from warships attacked rebels forces on Thursday as the government extended a major offensive to recapture territory in the west of the country.

Rebel advances in western Syria earlier this year had threatened the coastal region vital to President Bashar al-Assad’s control of the area and prompted Russia’s intervention on his side last week.

In a further show of force, the Russian defence ministry said missiles fired from its ships in the Caspian Sea hit weapons factories, arms dumps, command centres and training camps supporting Islamic State forces.

Ground forces loyal to the government targeted insurgents in the Ghab Plain area of western Syria, with heavy barrages of surface-to-surface missiles as Russian warplanes bombed from above, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel fighting there.

It said rebels had shot down a helicopter in Hama province in western Syria. It was unclear if it was Syrian or Russian.

Syria said a major military operation was under way.

Its armed forces “have launched wide-ranging attacks to deal with the terrorist groups, and to liberate the areas which had suffered from the terrorist rule and crimes,” the army Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub, was quoted as saying by state media.

Ayoub did not say which areas were being targeted. He said new fighting units, including one called the Fourth Assault Corps, had been set up to wage the campaign and the army now held the military initiative.

The Observatory’s head, Rami Abdulrahman, said an assault launched by the army and its foreign allies on Wednesday in nearby areas of Hama province had so far failed to make significant gains, however.

“At least 13 regime forces were killed … The clashes also killed 11 (rebel) fighters,” he said in a statement, and the numbers were expected to rise as more casualties were confirmed.

Around 15 army tanks and armoured vehicles had been destroyed or immobilised by rebel missile strikes, Abdulrahman and an opposition activist on the ground said.

Wednesday’s operation in Hama appeared to be the first major assault coordinated between Syrian troops and militia on the ground, and Russian warplanes and naval ships.

The Ghab Plain, also in Hama, lies next to a mountain range that forms the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

COASTAL HEARTLANDS

Recapturing it from the alliance of rebel groups, including al Qaeda’s Nusra Front which thrust into the area in late July, would help secure Assad’s coastal heartlands and could provide a platform to drive the rebels back from other areas.

A fighter from the Ajnad al-Sham insurgent group who uses the name Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi told Reuters that Russian jets had been bombing since dawn. It was not the first time the Russians had bombed the area, but this was their most ferocious attack, he said, speaking via an Internet messaging service.

“There is an attempt by the regime to advance but the situation is under our control,” he said.

“God willing we will repeat the massacre of the north Hama countryside as happened yesterday,” Hamawi added, referring to the strikes on the tanks. “We have faced more violent attacks than this in the past.”

Russian air strikes started last week and have mostly focused in areas of western Syria where Assad has sought to shore up his control after losing swathes of the rest of the country to insurgents including the Islamic State group.

Russia says it is fighting Islamic State in Syria. But while the group has been the target of some of its air strikes, it has no foothold in the areas of western Syria targeted in the attacks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Neighbouring Turkey has been angered by violations of its air space by Russian warplanes and NATO said it was prepared to send troops to Turkey to defend its ally.

“NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats,” NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for a meeting in Brussels of the alliance’s defence ministers which is likely to be dominated by the war in Syria.

“NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey,” he said, adding that Russia’s air and cruise missile strikes were “reasons for concern”.

Russia’s involvement had only served to make the conflict more dangerous, British defence minister Michael Fallon said, and he urged Russia to use its influence to stop the Assad government from bombing civilians.

Reacting to the Russian air space violations, Turkey meanwhile told Russia there were other places it could obtain natural gas and other countries that could build its first nuclear plant.

“We can’t accept the current situation. Russia’s explanations on the air space violations are not convincing,” President Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish newspapers.

(Writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Peter Millership)

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