Archive for February 17th, 2016

Turkey shells Kurdish positions in Syria for 2nd day

February 15, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey shelled positions held by a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria for a second day on Sunday, drawing condemnation from the Syrian government, whose forces are advancing against insurgents in the same area under the cover of Russian airstrikes.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said Turkish artillery units fired at Kurdish fighters in the Syrian town of Azaz in Aleppo province, saying it was in response to incoming Kurdish fire. Turkish troops have shelled areas under the control of Syria’s main Kurdish faction, the People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, in the past. The group has been most effective in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria, but Ankara appears increasingly uneasy over the group’s recent gains in the country’s north.

“Turkey has responded in this manner in the past,” said Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan. “What is different is not that Turkey has responded in such a way but the fact that there are different movements in the region. The YPG crossing west of the Euphrates is Turkey’s red line.”

The YPG is the main fighting force of Syrian Kurds and a key ally of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group. Turkey, which is also in the alliance, considers it an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara.

A coalition of Kurdish-led Syrian fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces recently seized a number of villages near Turkey’s border. Ankara appears concerned they could reach the opposition stronghold of Azaz, which is home to a major border crossing that has been controlled by militants since 2012.

Diplomats from a group of countries that have interests in Syria’s five-year civil war, including the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, agreed on Friday to seek a temporary “cessation of hostilities” within a week. But the fighting on the ground, which has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing toward the Turkish border where they continue to sleep in the open air, has accelerated.

A top Syrian opposition figure, former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, criticized Russia on Sunday for continuing with its bombing in Syria, and also stopped short of declaring a clear commitment to implement a planned temporary truce.

“You ask me if I accept a cease-fire or a cessation of hostilities. I ask you: Why is the onus on the opposition and whether it has preconditions for negotiations?” Hijab said. “I would like to see a single day of a cessation of hostilities in order to give a chance for real political movement.” He was addressing the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of foreign and security policy leaders.

Akdogan says Kurdish gains in northern Syria — facilitated by a Russian-backed government offensive in the same area — are also putting “unacceptable” pressure on opposition-held areas in Aleppo and the nearby town of Tel Rifaat.

The private Dogan news agency broadcast footage of Turkish howitzers opening fire and shells raising plumes of smoke in Syria. It said the army hit targets in the Mannagh air base and two villages, all controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors the conflict, said two fighters from the SDF — a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters — have been killed and seven others wounded in the shelling. A Turkmen rebel commander, Zakariyya Karsli, told Anadolu Agency Turkish shelling killed at least 29 Kurdish fighters.

Opposition groups said Saturday that Turkish troops fired artillery shells that targeted the Mannagh air base in Aleppo province, which was captured by Kurdish fighters and their allies earlier this week.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said late Saturday that his country’s military fired at Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in response to a provocation along the border. The Syrian government condemned Turkey’s shelling of Syrian territory, describing it as an attempt to raise the morale of “terrorist” groups it supports.

France meanwhile called on Syria and Russia to halt their airstrikes and for Turkey to stop shelling Kurdish areas. In a statement, it expressed concern about the “deteriorating situation in Aleppo and northern Syria.”

Both the Kurds and Syrian troops have advanced toward Azaz in separate offensives in the area. In addition to sealing the Turkish border, Syrian troops are trying to encircle rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. If they are able to do so, it will be the biggest defeat for insurgents since the conflict began in March 2011.

The Observatory and the Lebanon-based A-Mayadeen TV said at least 350 Turkey-backed armed rebels crossed into Syria from Turkey Sunday to shore up rebels fighting Kurds near Tel Rifaat. Also on Sunday, Iran’s air defense chief said his country is ready to help defend Syria’s airspace, marking the first time Iran has offered to assist with Syrian air defenses.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Gen. Farzad Esmaili as saying “we will help Syria in a full-fledged manner if the Syrian government requests help.” He said any such aid would be provided in an “advisory” capacity.

Iran is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has sent weapons, money and military advisers to Syria to help bolster his forces. Esmaili’s remarks came after Turkey and Saudi Arabia — leading supporters of the rebels battling to topple Assad — said they were open to sending ground troops into Syria to battle the Islamic State group. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, also said Saturday that Saudi Arabia is “ready to send both jets and troops” to Turkey’s Incirlik air base.

Fighting and airstrikes continued elsewhere in the country Sunday, including in rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus. Opposition activists reported Syrian army helicopters dropped around 10 barrel bombs on the town of Daraya. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Soguel reported from Istanbul, Turkey. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

Davutoglu: Russia will be defeated in Syria as it was in Afghanistan

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that Russia will withdraw in defeat from Syria similar to the country’s previous defeat in Afghanistan.

He added: “It is time to stand together for Aleppo and tell them do not be afraid and that we are with you,” stating that 90% of Russian bombs fall on civilians.

Davutoglu said: “The international community lacks conscience and will be held accountable someday for its silence towards what is happening in Syria.”

He warned that the continuation of Syrian airstrikes with the same density in Aleppo would lead to 70,000 Syrian refugees arriving at the Turkish border, pledging that his country will not close its borders to refugees.

He added that Turkey and Germany are the only states that have been receiving refugees with open arms, while the rest of Europe has been afraid of the asylum issue.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/23851-davutoglu-russia-will-be-defeated-in-syria-as-it-was-in-afghanistan.

Aleppo rebels unite under former Ahrar al-Sham commander

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Alex MacDonald

Nine leading rebel groups in Aleppo are to be unified under the leadership of a former Ahrar al-Sham commander, as the Syrian army and allied militias continue their assault on the former rebel stronghold.

The announcement on Monday that Hashem al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, is the new commander of the rebel groups, comes after demonstrations last week in which locals in Aleppo protested against the lack of unity among rebels in the beleaguered city.

Hashem al-Sheikh was leader of Ahrar al-Sham until September 2015 when he was replaced by Abu Yahia al-Hamawi.

Among the groups under the new command will be Ahrar al-Sham itself, Liwa Suqor al-Jebel and the 16th Division of the Free Syrian Army. A number of the groups have been vetted by US security agencies and have in the past received international support, including US-manufactured TOW missiles.

Sam Heller, a Washington-based writer and analyst, told Middle East Eye that rebel unity had been lacking in Aleppo.

“Coordination between rebel brigades has been a persistent problem, although it seems to have affected the fight against IS most directly,” he said.

However, he added that the “most proximate cause for the regime’s recent gains, on the other hand, seems to be Russian aerial bombing that has overwhelmed rebels”.

Ahrar al-Sham has proved itself to be among the most powerful armed groups in Syria, but its hardline Salafist views – calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and condemning democracy as “idolatry” – has made some foreign supporters uncomfortable.

It has also been willing to work with Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda AFFILIATE in Syria, although Ahrar al-Sham has repeatedly distanced itself from the group’s ideology.

The announcement comes as the UN’s peace envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is set to hold talks in Damascus on Tuesday with the country’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in an apparent effort to secure Syrian government commitment for a tentative internationally agreed plan for a cessation of hostilities within days.

De Mistura, who has called for peace talks to resume in Geneva on 25 February, arrived in the Syrian capital on Monday night, Syrian and UN officials said.

A UN official said that de Mistura was there to “follow up on commitments made in Munich”, referring to the international security conference where the agreement to halt fighting within a week was announced last Friday.

Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, including Iran-backed Shia militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, have won numerous gains in the countryside surrounding Aleppo in recent weeks and are now threatening to surround and besiege Aleppo.

The threat of Islamic State to the east of Aleppo has also prompted a number of countries to moot the possibility of a ground intervention.

A general from Saudi Arabia said in early February that the kingdom was ready to join any ground operation launched in future by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group.

“If there is any willingness in the coalition to go in the ground operation, we will contribute positively to that,” said Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri.

However, Heller dismissed as unrealistic the rumours of a ground intervention.

“I don’t think these are realistic, at least not in Aleppo,” he said. “I can’t imagine them entering this area under the threat of Russian air strikes.”

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/aleppo-rebels-united-under-former-ahrar-al-sham-commander-1930344528.

Syrian opposition figure slams Russia for continued bombing

February 15, 2016

MUNICH (AP) — A top Syrian opposition figure criticized Russia on Sunday for continuing with its bombing in Syria, insisting that people in the country need to see action rather than words.

The head of the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, also stopped short of declaring a clear commitment to implement a planned temporary truce.

“You ask me if I accept a cease-fire or a cessation of hostilities. I ask you: why is the onus on the opposition and whether it has preconditions for negotiations?” Hijab said. “I would like to see a single day of a cessation of hostilities in order to give a chance for real political movement.”

Diplomats from a group of countries that have interests in Syria’s five-year civil war, including the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, agreed on Friday to seek a temporary “cessation of hostilities” within a week. They also agreed to “accelerate and expand” deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian communities beginning this week.

It remains unclear whether those commitments can be made to stick on the ground and whether deep differences regarding the truce and which groups would be eligible for it — between the U.S. and Russia among others — can be overcome.

The truce deal in Munich comes as Syrian government forces, aided by a Russian bombing campaign, are trying to encircle rebels in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and cut off their supply route to Turkey.

Hijab questioned whether the continued fighting by Russia was “a seriously acceptable position to the international community.” “We have gotten used to conferences and words put into hope, but what we need is action — and the action that I see is that Russia is killing Syrian civilians,” Hijab told the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of foreign and security policy leaders.

Speaking before Hijab, senior Republican Sen. John McCain sharply criticized the temporary truce deal, arguing that Russia is engaging in “diplomacy in the service of military aggression.” “Let’s be clear about what this agreement does: it permits the assault on Aleppo to continue for another week. It requires opposition groups to stop fighting, but it allows Russia to continue bombing terrorists — which it insists is everyone, even civilians,” said McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is not interested in being our partner. He wants to shore up the Assad regime. He wants to re-establish Russia as a major power in the Middle East.” On Saturday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the Munich conference there was no evidence that Russia was bombing Syrian civilians.

Hijab complained that the Syrian people have “been shredded and abandoned by the international community” over the past five years and have not seen any “leadership, specifically by the United States of America.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon underlined Hijab’s complaint, saying the whole region was “frustrated and furious at the lack of Western support.” “For war you need two parties, there is one very active… in the region today — Russia — and on the other side it is missing, whether it is the United States, or Europe,” he said.

The head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes key rebel backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar, offered a more upbeat assessment of the situation. He said the agreement to cease hostilities is a “signal of hope” and was optimistic that it could be achieved.

“It is an opportunity for us to turn our undivided attention on Daesh, which is probably the single most challenging global threat,” said GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “This is a chance to work together on an issue that unites and doesn’t divide.”

He added that it was also an opportunity to deliver humanitarian aid desperately needed by Syrian civilians.

David Rising contributed to this story.

Assad vows to retake all of Syria, keep ‘fighting terrorism’

Damascus, Syria (AFP)

Feb 12, 2016

President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture the whole of Syria and keep “fighting terrorism” while also negotiating an end to the war, as international pressure mounts for a ceasefire.

His defiant stance, in an exclusive interview with AFP released Friday, doused hopes of an imminent halt to hostilities that world powers are pushing to take effect within a week.

Assad said the main aim of a Russian-backed regime offensive in Aleppo province that has prompted tens of thousands of people to flee was to cut the rebels’ supply route from Turkey.

He said his government’s eventual goal was to retake all of the country, large swathes of which are controlled by rebel forces or the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.

“It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part,” he said in the interview conducted on Thursday in Damascus.

Assad said it would be possible to “put an end to this problem in less than a year” if opposition supply routes from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq were severed.

But if not, he said, “the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price”.

Assad said he saw a risk that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key backers of the opposition, would intervene militarily in Syria.

World powers agreed Friday on an ambitious plan to cease hostilities in Syria within a week, but doubts soon emerged over its viability, especially because it did not include IS or Al-Qaeda’s local branch.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said there were “no illusions” about the difficulty of implementing a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” as he announced the deal in Munich alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Lavrov underlined that “terrorist organisations” such as IS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front “do not fall under the truce, and we and the US-led coalition will keep fighting these structures”.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the plan will not affect operations of the US-led international coalition against IS.

– Humanitarian aid –

Moscow says its more than four-month-old bombing campaign in Syria targets IS and other “terrorists”, but critics accuse Russia of focusing on mainstream rebels.

The Munich deal went further than expected, with Lavrov talking about “direct contacts between the Russian and US military” on the ground, where the powers back opposing sides in the five-year-old conflict.

However, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said at a press conference there would be no increased military cooperation in Syria between the US and Russia.

The 17-nation International Syria Support Group also agreed that “sustained delivery” of humanitarian aid will begin “immediately”.

But after Assad’s forces this month nearly encircled Aleppo, Syria’s second city, several nations put the onus on Moscow to implement the deal.

“Through its military action on the side of Assad’s regime, Russia had recently seriously compromised the political process. Now there is a chance to save this process,” German foreign ministry spokeswoman Christiane Wirzt said.

“What is important now is embracing this opportunity, stopping the airstrikes, ceasing targeting civilians and providing humanitarian access,” added Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Twitter.

He later said that Russian bombing killed 16 civilians in Syria early Friday.

“Despite the agreement we made last night, Russia continued bombing the civilians — they killed 16 civilians this morning,” he said in Munich.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the plan to cease hostilities in Syria.

“Tens of thousands of people there are in desperate need of life saving aid and the entire country urgently needs peace,” he told a press conference in Montreal.

– Question marks –

However, analysts remained skeptical about the chances of ending a war that has killed over 260,000 people and displaced more than half the population.

“There are huge question marks,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The failure to include Al-Nusra was particularly important, he said, since the group is active in Aleppo and surrounding regions, and many of the more “moderate” rebels have links with it.

“This effectively gives the green light for the Syrian government and its allies to carry on military action while paying lip service to the agreement,” said Barnes-Dacey.

Other analysts said it was significant that the US and Russia had been able to strike a deal at all.

The US and Russia have “taken ownership of this now. This is important,” said Michael Williams, a former UN diplomat in Lebanon and now at London’s Chatham House think-tank.

“The parties, the opponents will notice this. It will put quite a bit of pressure on Assad and his regime. It’s very hard for them now to walk away.”

Peace talks collapsed earlier this month over the offensive on Aleppo, which has forced at least 50,000 people to flee and killed an estimated 500 people since it began on February 1.

A key Syrian opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, said Friday it was up to rebels on the ground whether to implement the deal.

Kerry said talks between the opposition and the regime would resume as soon as possible, but warned that “what we have here are words on paper — what we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground”.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Assad_vows_to_retake_all_of_Syria_keep_fighting_terrorism_999.html.

Israel’s Olmert becomes first Israeli PM to go to prison

February 15, 2016

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert started serving a 19-month prison sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice on Monday, becoming the first Israeli premier to be imprisoned and capping a years-long legal saga that forced him to resign in 2006 amid the last serious round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Olmert walked into the Maasiyahu prison in central Israel hours after he released a video making a last-minute plea to Israelis meant to salvage his legacy. In the video, he appealed on the nation to remember his peace-making efforts as leader and denied any wrongdoing in the bribery conviction against him.

The three and a half minute video, released by his office and filmed at his home a day earlier, shows a weary-looking Olmert. He says it is a “painful and strange” time for him and his family and that he is paying a “heavy” price, but also adding that he has accepted the sentence because “no man is above the law.”

“At this hour it is important for me to say again … I reject outright all the corruption allegations against me,” Olmert said in the footage. He said that in hindsight, the Israeli public might view the charges against him and the seven-year legal ordeal that enveloped him in a “balanced and critical way.”

“I hope that then many will recognize that during my term as prime minister, honest and promising attempts were made to create an opening for hope and a better future of peace, happiness and well-being,” he said.

Olmert, 70, was convicted in March 2014 in a wide-ranging case that accused him of accepting bribes to promote a controversial real-estate project in Jerusalem. The charges pertained to a period when he was mayor of Jerusalem and trade minister, years before he became prime minister in 2006, a point he reiterated in his video statement Monday.

He was initially sentenced to six years in the case, but Israel’s Supreme Court later upheld a lesser charge, reducing the sentence to 18 months. That was extended by a month earlier this year for pressuring a confidant not to testify in multiple legal cases against him.

Olmert is also awaiting a ruling in an appeal in a separate case, in which he was sentenced to eight months in prison for unlawfully accepting money from a U.S. supporter. Israel has sent other senior officials to prison, including Moshe Katsav, who held the mostly ceremonial post of the country’s president and who is now serving a seven-year prison term for rape.

But having the once popular Olmert behind bars was met with mixed emotions by many Israelis, who viewed the milestone as a proud moment for Israel’s robust justice system but also a sorrowful one. “When you look at a person like this, who is the salt of the earth, who is so talented, who is so charming, who is so capable, the fact that he is going to prison is something sad,” Dan Margalit, a columnist with the daily Israel Hayom and a former Olmert confidant, told Israeli Army Radio.

Olmert was forced to resign in early 2009 amid the corruption allegations, which undermined the last serious round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and cleared the way for hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu’s rise to power.

Olmert led his government to the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007 — launching more than a year of ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians. Olmert has said he made unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians during those talks — including a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank and an offer to place Jerusalem’s Old City under international control — and was close to reaching an agreement at the time of his resignation.

Despite his lengthy career as a public servant, former prison officials said Olmert would be treated like any other inmate, despite being held in a special wing for security reasons. Haim Glick, a former Israeli prison service official, told Israeli Channel 2 TV that Olmert would need to participate in roll call, be in his cell by 10 p.m. and have limited phone use.

“He will receive good treatment like the rest of the prisoners but not any better than them,” he said.