Archive for February, 2015

Turkish military enters Syria to evacuate troops, tomb

February 22, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Hundreds of Turkish troops backed by tanks took part in an overnight operation into neighboring Syria to evacuate dozens of besieged soldiers guarding an Ottoman tomb and remove the remains amid fears the shrine was threatened by Islamic State militants.

The mission late Saturday, saving Turkish soldiers reportedly stuck for months at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, was the first such major military incursion by Turkey since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said nearly 600 Turkish soldiers on some 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers crossed into Syria near the border town of Kobani late Saturday, as drones and airplanes flew reconnaissance missions overhead.

One group traveled to the tomb, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Turkey on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria’s embattled Aleppo province, he said. Another group seized an area only 200 meters (yards) from the Turkish border in Syria’s Ashma region to be the new home for the tomb, according to a statement from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office.

One soldier was killed in an “accident” during the operation, Turkey’s military said. “Before the Turkish flag was lowered at (the tomb), the Turkish flag started to be waved at another location in Syria,” Davutoglu said. He said troops destroyed the complex once housing the tomb.

Turkish media later showed nationalistic images of three Turkish soldiers raising the country’s flag at the new site. The U.S.-led coalition forces were informed of the Turkish operation after its launch to prevent any casualties, Davutoglu said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while in London, spoke by telephone Sunday with Turkey’s foreign minister and expressed condolences over the Turkish soldier killed during the operation, the State Department said. It said the U.S. and Turkey were in close and continuing coordination on developments in Syria, including intelligence sharing.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry denounced the Turkish operation, calling it a “flagrant aggression.” In a statement carried by the state news agency, it also said that the mission demonstrated “the depth of ties” between Turkey and the Islamic State group. Syria routinely accuses Turkey of supporting the extremist group.

The ministry said Ankara informed the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul ahead of the operation but did not wait for approval from Damascus. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said there is no justification for Turkey’s military action. Tehran is a close ally of Syria.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara had notified Syria before the operation that it was vacating the tomb temporarily, and that it would return to the area when it is “ready” to do so.

“We got permission from no one, we conducted it with our own initiative,” he said. Rumors had swirled for months that the soldiers stationed at the tomb had been besieged by militants from the Islamic State group, which hold a third of Syria and neighboring Iraq in their self-declared caliphate. Some 40 Turkish soldiers once guarded the tomb, making them a target for IS and other militant groups in Syria’s long-running civil war, though the overnight operation apparently saw no fighting.

The tomb housed the remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. The site along the Euphrates River is revered by Turkey, a strongly nationalist country whose rights there stem from a 1921 treaty with France, then the colonial power in Syria. The Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century after World War I.

In the 1970s, Turkey moved the mausoleum to its last location because the old site at a castle further south in Syria was to be inundated by the waters of a new dam. Shah, a Turkic leader, is believed to have drowned in the Euphrates in the 13th century. His followers headed north into what is today Turkey, where they established the Ottoman Empire. Some historians question official accounts about Shah’s tomb, saying they might have been retrospectively concocted to enrich an imperial identity for Turks.

Turkey has wanted Syrian President Bashar Assad overthrown and has backed some rebels fighting against him. Earlier this week, Turkey signed an agreement with the U.S. to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group.

With its 1,200-kilometer (750-mile) border with Syria, Turkey could be a major player in the fight against the Islamic State group. But negotiations with the U.S. over what to do about the militants have been fraught with disagreement — with Turkey insisting that the coalition needs to also target the Assad government.

Turkey also has had concerns over some of the Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State group in Kobani. It views the Kurds fighting in Syria as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.

Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Bradley Klapper in Geneva contributed to this report.

Syrian rebels regain ground lost near Aleppo

February 18, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Wednesday regained much of the territory north of the city of Aleppo lost to government troops in fierce fighting the previous day in ongoing clashes that left more than 100 dead on both sides, activists said.

The violence came as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said he received a government commitment to suspend airstrikes on the city of Aleppo for six weeks, which would allow a proposed U.N. plan to “freeze” hostilities in the country’s largest city to be tested.

De Mistura briefed the Security Council late Tuesday on his efforts to find a solution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 220,000 people. The envoy said he will return to Syria “as soon as possible” to assess whether the government’s commitment is possible and to announce a start date.

An activist in Aleppo said most rebel factions will abide by a truce if the government stops airstrikes and release detainees, starting with female prisoners. Ahmad Hamed said via Skype that the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which has a small presence in the city, is not expected to abide by the plan.

The Islamic State group is about 30 kilometers northeast of the city. “The most important thing for the opposition is a cease in the (government’s) barrel bombs campaign in Aleppo,” Hamed said, referring to large canisters packed with explosives and metal scraps that the Syrian army drops regularly from the air, causing widespread damage and casualties.

Another activist in Aleppo, Bahaa Halaby, said Syrian troops were trying to besiege rebel-held areas before any freeze goes into effect. “The regime wants to implement the initiative after advancing on the ground,” Halaby said via Skype. “The regime says it wants dialogue then attacks rebel positions.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Turkey-based activist Bari Abdellatif said rebels regained control of the villages of Ratyan and Dweir Zeytoun early Wednesday. The Observatory says 70 troops and 86 rebels were killed in Tuesday’s fighting.

The Observatory and Hamed, the activist, said fighting is now concentrated in the village of Bashkoy, just north of Aleppo.

Muslim Brotherhood leader sentenced to 1.5 years in jail

by JT

Feb 15, 2015

AMMAN –– Deputy overall leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Zaki Bani Rsheid was on Sunday sentenced to one and a half years in prison on charges of harming Jordan’s ties with a friendly state.

The sentence was handed to Bani Rsheid by the State Security Court under the 2014 amended Anti-Terror Law, a member of the Islamic movement told The Jordan Times.

The top Islamist leader was arrested in late November of last year in response to a critical statement posted on Facebook accusing the United Arab Emirates of promoting “Zionist” foreign policies and indirectly sponsoring “extremism” in the region.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/muslim-brotherhood-leader-sentenced-to-15-years-in-jail.

Turkish charity donates winter clothes to Gazans

25 January 2015 Sunday

A Turkish charity on Sunday – in cooperation with a Palestinian NGO – distributed winter clothes to underprivileged families in the Gaza Strip and others who were affected by last year’s devastating Israeli onslaught.

Ahmed al-Najjar, who heads the Peace, Solidarity and Relief Society NGO in the Gaza Strip, said that his organization collaborated with the Turkish Aziz Mahmud Hudayi charity to distribute the winter aid.

The number of families that have benefited from this three-phase program so far is 850, with the first phase costing $50,000, al-Najjar said.

He added that an additional 1,000 families would benefit from the program by the completion of the other two phases.

Alia Abu Zaid, one of the beneficiaries, told The Anadolu Agency that the aid “has eased some of her burden.”

“My husband is unemployed, and I received clothes for my youngest son; now he is happy and warm,” Abu Zaid, a mother of nine, said.

Palestinian resistance factions signed a cease-fire deal with Israel on Aug. 26, ending a 51-day Israeli military onslaught on the Gaza Strip in July and August.

The Israeli offensive left more than 2,160 Palestinians dead – the vast majority of them civilians – and some 11,000 injured.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/153773/turkish-charity-donates-winter-clothes-to-gazans.

Kurds celebrate ousting Islamic State fighters from Kobani

January 26, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Jubilant Kurdish fighters ousted Islamic State militants from the key Syrian border town of Kobani on Monday after a four-month battle — a significant victory for both the Kurds and the U.S.-led coalition.

The Kurds raised their flag on a hill that once flew the Islamic State group’s black banner. On Kobani’s war-ravaged streets, gunmen fired in the air in celebration, male and female fighters embraced, and troops danced in their baggy uniforms.

The failure to capture Kobani was a major blow to the extremists whose hopes for an easy victory dissolved into a costly siege under withering airstrikes by coalition forces and an assault by the Kurdish militia.

For the U.S. and its partners, Kobani became a strategic prize, especially after they increased the number of airstrikes against IS fighters there in October. “Daesh gambled on Kobani and lost,” said senior Kurdish official Idriss Nassan, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

“Their defenses have collapsed and its fighters have fled,” he told The Associated Press from Turkey, adding that he would return to Kobani on Tuesday. Kobani-based journalis Farshad Shami said the few civilians who remained had joined in the celebration. Most of the town of about 60,000 people had fled to Turkey to escape the fighting.

Several U.S. officials said they couldn’t confirm that Kurdish fighters have gained full control of Kobani, but added that they have no reason to disbelieve the claims. A senior U.S. official said the Kurds controlled most of the town and have consolidated control particularly in the central and southern areas. The official said Islamic State militants still have a considerable presence in outlying areas around Kobani and are still putting up stiff resistance to the Kurds in those pockets outside it.

U.S. Central Central Command estimates that 90 percent of Kobani is now controlled by Kurdish forces. Kurdish officials and activists said Kobani was entirely in Kurdish hands, with only sporadic fighting on the eastern outer edges where the militants retained some footholds.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighters of the main Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, where searching houses in the eastern suburbs of the town and dismantling and detonating bombs and booby-traps left behind.

Capturing Kobani would have given the IS militants control of a border crossing with Turkey and open direct lines for their positions along the frontier. Now, it is a grave psychological loss for the extremist group, which has been dealt a series of military setbacks in both Syria and Iraq, particularly at the hands of the Kurds.

Last month, Kurdish fighters in Iraq retook the strategic town of Sinjar that had been home to many of Iraq’s minority Yazidis. The focus is now expected to shift to several hundred villages around Kobani still held by the militants. Kurdish activists said they expected the fight for those to be easier than for the town itself.

In September, Islamic State fighters began capturing about 300 Kurdish villages near Kobani and thrust into the town itself, occupying nearly half of it and sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing into Turkey.

But the once-nondescript town with few resources quickly became a centerpiece of the international campaign against the Islamic State group. TV crews flocked to the Turkish side of the border and trained their cameras on the besieged town, plumes of smoke rising from explosions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared it would be “morally very difficult” not to help Kobani.

The U.S.-led air assault began Sept. 23, with Kobani the target of about a half-dozen daily airstrikes on average. More than 80 percent of all coalition airstrikes in Syria have been in or around the town.

At one point in October, the U.S. air dropped bundles of weapons and medical supplies for Kurdish fighters — a first in the Syrian conflict. Dozens of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces joined their brethren in Kobani, bringing in heavy weapons that neutralized the Islamic State group’s artillery advantage.

By early January, more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters had been killed and much of its heavy weaponry destroyed. The group continued to invest in resources, bringing in hundreds of reinforcements. Activists said these included many teenagers and even children, signaling a shortage in its forces.

The group made a last stand in the past few weeks, unleashing more than 35 suicide attacks in recent weeks, activists said. But the advancing Kurdish fighters could not be stopped. Nassan said coalition airstrikes intensified in recent days, helping the Kurds in their final push toward IS positions on the southern and eastern edges of Kobani.

The U.S. Central Command said Monday it had carried out 17 airstrikes near Kobani in the last 24 hours that struck IS infrastructure and fighting positions. Shami, the Kurdish journalist, said the remaining IS militants in eastern Kobani vacated quickly, leaving behind fresh food and heavy weapons.

“Their morale collapsed,” he said by telephone as celebratory gunfire echoed in the background. Gharib Hassou, a representative of Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, based in Southern Kurdistan, said most of the militants fled to the IS-controlled town of Tal Abyad to the east.

“There are a lot of dead bodies … and they left some of the weapons,” he said. Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, also confirmed Kobani was entirely in Kurdish hands. He said the Kurdish force was led by Mohammed Barkhadan, the Kobani commander of the main Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Barkhadan, a well-known militia commander, led an offensive in 2013 that ousted Islamic militants from the northern Syrian town of Ras Ayn, Aburrahman said. Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition fighting the IS group, had predicted in November that Kobani would be a defeat for the extremists.

The militant group “has, in so many ways, impaled itself on Kobani,” he said in an interview in Ankara with the Turkish daily Milliyet. There also was joy across the border in Turkey, where Kurds set off fireworks and performed a traditional folk dance to mark the victory by their brethren in predominantly Kurdish Kobani. In Istanbul, police used tear gas and pressurized water to break up pro-Kurdish demonstrations in the city.

Shami said it was a triumph for the “entire world” that had come to Kobani’s rescue. “It is a historic victory, when a small town like Kobani defeats a formidable criminal force like Daesh,” he said.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; Suzan Fraser in Ankara; and Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.

Food enters Syria’s besieged Homs city after local deal

16 January 2015 Friday

U.N. aid workers have started delivering food to tens of thousands of people trapped in a besieged district of Homs city in Syria following negotiations with warring parties, officials said on Friday.

In the absence of a nationwide peace deal, relief groups have tried to get localized agreements with fighters on all sides of the conflict to get convoys through to people in battle zones.

The United Nations did not give details of the Homs agreement but local opposition activists told Reuters there was a temporary ceasefire.

Food was sent to Al Wa’er on Thursday, Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N.’s World Food Programme, told journalists in Geneva.

“Following extensive negotiations between parties to the conflict, a first convoy carrying 8,500 family food rations were delivered to the besieged area of Al Wa’er,” — enough food for about 42,500 people for one month, Byrs said.

Two more convoys over the coming days will deliver food to 75,000 people, she added, 30 percent of the estimated quarter of a million people the United Nations says are trapped in besieged areas across Syria.

A U.N. official in Geneva said that the WFP rations were aboard an 18-truck convoy that also delivered some medical supplies and non-food items from other U.N. agencies.

Al Wa’er has witnessed an intensification of shelling and heavy clashes which prevented all access for humanitarian deliveries, WFP said in a statement.

Al Wa’er has been cut off for nearly two years by government forces, opposition activists say. Syrian state media said last month that aid was delivered to Al Wa’er “almost every month.”

The U.N. peace envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has said he wants to start focusing on brokering “freeze zones,” or local truces, in the northern city of Aleppo rather than a peace plan for the whole of the divided country.

“This is why … we have put on the table the proposal of a freeze of heavy fighting in Aleppo, and eventually the return for a united, reconstructed Syrian city as it used to be because it is a symbolic microcosm of all of Syria,” De Mistura told a news briefing in Geneva on Thursday, saying that Islamic State rebel forces were “only 20 miles away from Aleppo”.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 with popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad and spiralled into civil war after a crackdown by security forces.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/153129/food-enters-syrias-besieged-homs-city-after-local-deal.

2,100 Syrians tortured to death in regime prisons

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Friday that 2,100 Syrians had died in the prisons of the Syrian regime in 2014. The signs of torture appeared on many of their bodies, the observatory said.

The London-based SOHR stressed that the real number is much more than the 2,100 because that figure is only of those families who received bodies and death certificate from prisons.

UN investigators said in last March that they suspected there are war criminals in the units of the Syrian regime army and the armed militants involved in the ‘civil war.’

They added that they were investigating reports of torture, killing and the starvation of prisoners inside the prisons of the Syrian regime. They said there were top intelligence officers on the list suspected perpetrators.

SOHR said that 76,000 Syrians were killed in the war during 2014, while the UN said that more than 200,000 have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.

A group of former war crimes prosecutors commissioned by Qatar to investigate possible war crimes in Syria reported in November 2014 that they had proof of systematic torture and killing of 11,000 Syrians inside the regime’s prisons.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/16265-2100-syrians-tortured-to-death-in-regime-prisons.