Archive for September, 2016

Jarabulus reborn: ‘It’s fantastic knowing IS is no longer a threat’

Tuesday 6 September 2016

KARKAMIS, Turkey – Murad returned to his hometown of Jarabulus on 25 August just one day after it was liberated from the Islamic State (IS) group by a coalition of Turkish forces and Syrian rebel fighters.

The battle for Jarabulus was won easily after IS militants fled the area hours before Operation Euphrates Shield was even launched by Turkey. Since its beginning last month Turkish forces and Syrian rebels have cleared IS from more than 90km of the Turkish border.

In Jarabulus, Murad, a journalist, said normal life had resumed and he thanked Turkey for its first direct military intervention in the five-year Syrian war.

“Right now, everything is under control – at least here in the city,” he said. “I’m happy to say life has been steadily returning to these streets. A few shops have already been reopened – a sure sign of people starting to feel safe again.”

Murad fled to Turkey more than three years ago in July 2013 when IS first seized control of Jarabulus. Most of his family stayed behind and several of his relatives were killed in suicide bombing attacks carried out during IS’s brutal reign.

Before IS took over, Jarabulus had a population of around 30,000. Over the past three years that number has halved but many people are now returning.

Murad’s family home was undamaged despite the fierce conflict that has raged in his town and across Syria since President Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with brute force in mid-2011.

And although the town has been scarred by the war, those now returning were unable to contain their joy at it being liberated. A rake-thin man crossing the Syria border back to Jarabulus praised the Turkish forces who freed his home town.

“It is a fantastic feeling, knowing that Daesh is no longer a threat,” he said. “We were all very glad to see the launching of the Turkish military operation.

“These soldiers here, they are our lads. We’re hoping nothing bad happens to them. Many of the houses in Jarabulus have been demolished – there’s graffiti on every step – but the town itself, well, it managed to survive.”

After joining street celebrations rejoicing the town’s liberation, the old man sat with friends and family in the shade to escape the afternoon heat. While drinking tea and eating home-grown grapes, the man lamented how his town had become embroiled in politics.

“All of us, we’re very simple folks,” he said. “We were never much interested in politics. But then the war came and it has a huge impact on us. We’re all really hoping we’re not about to see Daesh try to get revenge.”

The caution people feel amid the celebrations is reinforced by the fact war is still visible around Jarabulus. Thick black smoke still rises regularly above the olive groves on the outskirts of the town.

The regular thud of bombs and tank fire can be heard in the streets, reminding residents that they are not yet fully secure. A few kilometers away on the Turkish side of the border near the town of Karkamis, a military base is packed with tanks and checkpoints.

A local field hospital and two dozen ambulances are set up nearby and provide evidence of the dangers involved in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria. Wounded Turkish soldiers, Syrian rebels, and civilians have received treatment at the hospital.

Civilians who survived the IS occupation of Jarabulus have spoken about how their were starved over the past year, as supplies ran dry. They were banned by IS from farming their land as the militants planted landmines instead of crops.

A local police commander in the Karkamis said Turkish forces had largely moved on from Jarabulus and advanced 30km into Syrian territory.

Few Turkish soldiers have remained in Jarabulus, but those who have stayed have been busy clearing the town of the mines laid by IS militants before they fled to other towns under the group’s control.

For the Turkish troops who have pushed on past Jarabulus, an equal priority is ensuring Kurdish forces are not allowed to maintain a presence west of the Euphrates river.

Ankara has been clear that they view Kurdish militia forces in Syria on their border as a threat to their national security, given the proximity to Turkey’s Kurdish dominated and restful southeast.

Several high-ranking Turkish diplomats in Ankara said on condition of anonymity that the 90km area cleared along the Turkey-Syria border could become a buffer zone designed to hold back Kurdish forces as well as IS.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Monday that he had discussed the idea of a “safe zone” along the border of Syria – a plan he has raised several times in recent years.

But the Turkish intervention in Syria has not just allowed Ankara to satisfy its political goals, it has also opened up an easier passage for humanitarian aid to reach desperate refugees.

At the Onucipay crossing near the border town of Killis, hundreds of Turkish trucks have entered Syria carrying food and humanitarian provisions. At the refugee camp on the Syrian border, which currently holds 20,000 people, refugees with sunken and sun-burned faces said they would not be able to hold out much longer.

Sahi, from the border town of Azaz, said his hometown has been the scene of constant fighting for five years. Azaz is now under the control of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, but its strategic importance lies in that it has been a key supply route to Aleppo – the partially rebel-held second city of Aleppo.

Before the war it only took 45 minutes to travel between Azaz and Aleppo. But with the Syrian army – backed by Russia and Iran – laying siege to the supply route, it has left some 300,000 civilians in rebel-held areas of Aleppo unable to receive food through the Azaz route.

Ahmet, a 50-year-old man from Syria’s Idlib province, said he had been happy to see Turkey retake Jarabulus but he added that he does not have faith it will lead to a wider impact in the Syrian civil war.

“We were glad to see Turkey and the Free Syrian Army liberate Jarabulus,” he said while sipping tea at a shop close to the Syrian border. “It was an important message to send out… but I don’t know what to expect now.”

Two of Ahmet’s three sons fought for two years with the Free Syrian Army – a ragtag group of Syrian rebels who have received strong backing in their war against President Assad from Gulf States and the West.

“All the time my city is being bombed by the [Assad] regime and by Russia. No one is here to defend us,” he said. “We have been left to fend for ourselves. All of us that have stood up against Assad’s regime have been branded as Islamic extremists.”

Ahmet said that the fact Turkey seized Jarabulus so quickly, after more than three years of occupation by IS, was evidence more could have been done to stop the group’s rise in Syria.

“For years Daesh were allowed to do as they pleased,” he said. “They could have been easily destroyed a long time ago. Even Turkey hasn’t fought them as fiercely as it could have done.”

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkey-syria-karkamis-jarabulus-new-frontline-1894295638.

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Free Syrian Army liberates new regions

September 4, 2016

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) said late Saturday that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had taken control of 10 regions in northern Syria.

An army statement said the regions include Arap Izzah, El Fursan, Al Athariyah, Sheikh Yakoub, Vukuf, Ayyasa, and Al Mutminah, as well as Idalat, Talyah Darbiyah, and the Kubba Turkuman Airport in the El Rai region.

The statement said that the Free Syrian Army, which performs operations in support of coalition forces, made the territorial gains on day 11 of Operation Euphrates Shield, which began on 24 August.

The statement added that Turkish Air Forces attacked and destroyed two Daesh targets in the Vukuf region, south of El Rai, around 13.00 local time (1000GMT).

Turkey has said Operation Euphrates Shield is aimed at bolstering border security, supporting coalition forces, and eliminating the threat posed by terror organizations, especially Daesh.

The operation is in line with the country’s right to self-defense borne out of international treaties and a mandate given to Turkey’s armed forces by parliament in 2014, which was extended for another year in September 2015.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160904-free-syrian-army-liberates-new-regions/.

Turkey: IS has lost all territory along Syria-Turkey border

September 04, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels expelled the Islamic State group from the last strip of territory it controlled along the Syrian-Turkish border on Sunday, effectively sealing the extremists’ self-styled caliphate off from the outside world, Turkey’s prime minister and a Syrian opposition group reported.

Also on Sunday, Syrian pro-government forces backed by airstrikes launched a wide offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, capturing areas they lost last month and besieging rebel-held neighborhoods, state media and opposition activists said.

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels have cleared the area between the northern Syrian border towns of Azaz and Jarablus, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said. “From Azaz to Jarablus, 91 kilometers (57 miles) of our border has been completely secured. All the terrorist organizations are pushed back, they are gone,” Yildirim said, speaking at a dinner with non-government organizations in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

The FSA’s advance shut down key supply lines used by IS to bring in foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS “has lost its link with the outside world after losing all border areas” with Turkey. It said the last two border villages that IS held were Mizab and Qadi Jarablus, which were taken Sunday afternoon.

IS had occupied the border area even before it declared its self-styled caliphate in June 2014, and it used the Turkish border to bring in fighters from around the world. The extremist group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, is now surrounded from all sides by hostile forces.

The loss of its territory along the Turkish border follows a series of recent defeats for IS, including its expulsion from the central Iraqi city of Fallujah and its defeat in the former stronghold of Manbij in northern Syria. Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have killed a number of the group’s most prominent founding members and leaders.

In a statement, Turkey’s armed forces said the “the Jarablus-Azaz line has been connected.” Turkey has long pushed for a safe zone in Syria between these two towns, with a plan to house Syrian refugees there. Turkey hosts an estimated 3 million Syrian refugees, the highest number in the world.

Meanwhile, the recapture and return to siege of rebel-held parts of Aleppo dealt a major blow to insurgent groups. They have lost scores of fighters in recent weeks in the battle to open a corridor into the city and lift the government’s blockade.

After the government laid siege on Aleppo for the first time in July, the United Nations said that nearly 300,000 residents were trapped in rebel-held neighborhoods, making it the largest besieged area in war-torn Syria. The city has been contested since the summer of 2012.

Sunday’s push follows a month after insurgents captured several military academies south of Aleppo and opened a corridor into opposition-held parts of Syria’s largest city and onetime commercial center. Since then, government forces and their allies have been trying to recapture the area.

State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops are now in full control of the military academies south of Aleppo and are “chasing the remnant of terrorists.” It added that all roads linking rebel-held eastern Aleppo with opposition areas outside the city “have been cut.”

The Observatory confirmed these gains. “The (rebel-held) neighborhoods are under siege again,” said the Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdurrahman, by telephone. “The whole areas are under complete siege.”

Turkey has launched two incursions into Syria since Aug. 24 in an operation designed to drive IS away from the border and prevent the advance of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which are also battling the extremist group.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Sunday defended his country’s intervention in Syria, pointing to their long shared border. “We are there to protect our borders, ensure the safety of our citizens’ lives and property, and to protect the territorial integrity of Syria,” Yildirim said in Diyarbakir.

Turkey has also said it will not allow Syrian Kurds to unite their “cantons,” the regions under their control in northern Syria, which have emerged as autonomous zones during the civil war. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a joint press conference with U.S. president Barack Obama in China that “our wish is that a terror corridor does not form on our southern border.”

Turkey views the Kurds as a threat and the Turkey-backed forces have clashed with them outside Jarablus. In an emailed press statement, Turkey’s military said the FSA have taken 20 villages from IS, adding that the Turkish army struck 83 Islamic State group targets. Since the Turkish operation began on Aug. 24, the army says it has hit 383 targets with 1,599 rounds.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Neyran Elden in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Qatar or Iran: Who will save Hamas?

Author Shlomi Eldar

September 7, 2016

Translator Ruti Sinai

The top Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud al-Zahar, left Gaza on Sept. 3 for the airport in Cairo through the Rafah border crossing, accompanied by a large delegation of some 50 Hamas officials. This appears to be the largest group of officials, activists and bodyguards ever to leave Gaza as a group. Haniyeh’s family members joined the delegation, too. Ahmad Bahar, a senior veteran Hamas official and the first deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was supposed to join the group, but sources in Gaza told Al-Monitor that Egypt refused to grant him a travel permit at the border and he was forced to return home.

The Egyptians closely scrutinized every name on the list submitted by the Hamas leadership, and all members of the delegation were required to undergo extensive security checks at the border. From there, they headed for the airport in Cairo and boarded a flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At the Rafah border crossing, Hamas officials could see hundreds of Gaza residents — hungry and desperate men, women and children who had left Gaza for medical treatment, as the Egyptian authorities imposed on them difficult procedures for entering the Gaza Strip upon their return.

The departure of the Hamas delegation is additional proof of the dramatic changes underway that will determine the movement’s direction and future.

Haniyeh was joined by his wife and three of his youngest children. His son Abed, considered to wield significant influence within Hamas, stayed behind to look after his father’s interests and maintain his link with the Gaza security forces in his absence. As Al-Monitor reported in June, from the moment the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, announced that he would not seek re-election in the upcoming balloting for the movement’s leadership, the road was paved for Haniyeh’s succession. No one else has dared run against him, not even Hamas senior Mousa Abu Marzouk, who established the political bureau and saved it from annihilation at least twice in the past.

Elections for the movement’s leadership will be held at the end of the year, but Haniyeh is planning to relocate with his family and close associates to Qatar, from where he will conduct Hamas’ affairs in the coming, most critical months in the movement’s history.

It is not yet clear whether he plans to follow in the footsteps of Meshaal, who moved to Doha permanently after escaping from Damascus in 2012, or only to stay there through the election process, until he is officially declared the movement’s leader and the outgoing leadership hands over the reins. Meshaal has headed the political bureau and steered it since 1996.

Upon arrival in Qatar, members of the delegation will be invited for a welcoming meeting with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who has enabled the Hamas political bureau to operate from his country. But the important point is that by moving to Qatar for the next few months, Haniyeh will be able to come and go as he pleases — contrary to his situation in the Gaza Strip. Thus, he will be able to manage freely the bureau and engage in the campaign to raise money for Hamas in those countries ready to accept him.

The delegation’s first stop is Saudi Arabia, where they will fulfill their hajj duty in the holy city of Mecca. The planned pilgrimage enabled the Hamas delegation to get Egypt’s permission to leave Gaza with relative ease. Not all the delegation members will then head for Qatar; Zahar intends to travel to Tehran and meet Iran’s top spiritual leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While Meshaal has in recent years been a persona non grata in Iran, and all attempts at reconciliation between the sides failed, Zahar is the only one among the top Hamas officials to have maintained ties with Iran.

The future direction of Hamas will be determined in Doha and Tehran. If Zahar succeeds in appeasing Iran, mending the deep schism created by Meshaal between Hamas and Iran and getting Khamenei’s blessing, the movement’s leadership can breathe easy and hope for the removal of the stranglehold crippling it in recent years, especially in financial terms. A tightening of the ties with Iran would invariably lead to the loss of Saudi support and restore Hamas’ former obligation to take its marching orders from Iran.

The military arm of Hamas has long been pressing the movement’s leadership to reconcile with Tehran as the only way to strengthen the organization with weapons and military equipment and to prepare it for a possible military confrontation with Israel.

If Iran sends Zahar away with polite words, and does not restore the relationship and the extent of its aid to previous levels, before the crisis between the sides, the burden will fall on Haniyeh’s shoulders. Sources in Gaza believe this is the reason Haniyeh left for Qatar at this time, well before the elections. He wants to put out feelers to all the Arab states to open up new channels of aid, including from Muslim foundations around the world.

Haniyeh and Zahar are two arrowheads heading in separate directions. The direction that yields the most impressive results will dictate Hamas’ future moves. In the event the movement fails in its efforts to substantially increase aid from Iran and Qatar, Haniyeh and Zahar will be forced to adopt a third, least preferable option: reconciliation with the Fatah movement and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

If Hamas is forced to turn to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for help, it will have to cede partial control of the Gaza Strip. This is one of the reasons why senior Fatah officials believe Hamas wants the PA to win many municipal districts in Gaza in the upcoming local elections slated for Oct. 8. Hamas leaders understand, as Al-Monitor reported recently, that the presence in Gaza of Fatah heads of councils could encourage the European Union to resume the infusion of money to Gaza. Now it seems that Hamas also hopes that such a presence will open up a window for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

The Hamas delegation has left on a critical mission to save the movement. If its leaders know how to read the map of tensions and different interests of various Arab state blocs, and to draw relevant conclusions for their movement’s future, they also know there is not much reason to be optimistic.

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/israel-qatar-or-iran-who-will-save-hamas.html.

Turkish aid helps Gazans buy Eid clothes

September 5, 2016

Families who are in need in Gaza City were given vouchers worth 200-250 shekels ($53-66) to spend at an Eid clothing project as part of Turkish aid distribution projects in the city.

Undersecretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Yousef Ibrahim, said funds were distributed based on the number of children in each family. Some 87,000 children benefited from the aid, he added, thanking the Turkish government.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, in collaboration with both the Ministry of Youth and Sports and Young Muslim Women’s Association, inaugurated the project which will run until Eid day.

The first deputy chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza, Ahmad Bahar, praised Turkish efforts made in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs in providing assistance to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Bahar also praised the role of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which he said has been very transparent in its aid distribution process. He called on the Arab League and the international community to step in and lift the siege on the Strip.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160905-turkish-aid-helps-gazan-buy-eid-clothes/.

Algeria decides whether to boycott game with Israel at Paralympics

September 8, 2016

Algeria is set to come to a decision regarding whether or not its Goalball Paralympic team in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will boycott its upcoming game with Israel on Saturday.

President of the Federal Special Needs Committee, Rashid Haddad, has been in “tireless communication” with the minister of youth and sports to discuss the issue as the Algerian delegation arrived in Rio for the official opening of the ceremony yesterday.

Algerian public opinion has been clear on its stance since the draw of the two countries was determined in May. Many fear the game going would mean “normalizing relations with Israel.”

The likelihood of a boycott is slim with the Algerian federation recognizing the “embarrassment” the decision would cause before the International Olympic Committee which has a zero tolerance policy towards discrimination based on ethnic, religious and ideological grounds.

Last month, Egyptian Olympic judo player Islam El-Shehaby received criticism and praise from the international community for refusing to shake the hand of his Israeli opponent; a move which led him being summoned by the Disciplinary Committee and sent home from the games.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160908-algeria-decides-whether-to-boycott-game-with-israel-at-paralympics/.

Spain routs Liechtenstein 8-0 in Group G; Italy beats Israel

September 05, 2016

LEON, Spain (AP) — Diego Costa scored a goal in each half to lead Spain to an 8-0 rout of Lichtenstein in Group G of European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup on Monday. Sergi Roberto, David Silva, Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata also scored for Spain in its first competitive match under new coach Julen Lopetegui, who replaced Vicente del Bosque last month after the team’s elimination in the round of 16 at the European Championship.

“We are very pleased with how the team performed and to have won these first three points,” Lopetegui said. Costa scored with headers in the 10th and 66th minutes in the northern city of Leon. He had netted only one previous goal for Spain, nearly two years ago against Luxembourg in qualifying for Euro 2016. Del Bosque had left the Chelsea striker out of the squad that travelled to France for the tournament earlier this year.

“It was very important for me to score and for the team to win,” Costa said. “My teammates have always supported me and I hope it continues like this.” Morata also scored twice, in the 82nd and 83rd minutes, after replacing Costa midway through the second half. Roberto netted his goal in the 55th, Silva added to the lead in the 59th and closed the scoring in injury time, while Vitolo got on the scoresheet on the hour.

Silva had also scored twice in Spain’s 2-0 win over Belgium in a friendly last week, a match that marked Lopetegui ‘s debut with the national team. Monday’s result was Spain’s biggest win over Lichtenstein, surpassing the 6-0 win from 2011 in qualifying for Euro 2012.

ISRAEL 1, ITALY 3

Italy extended its unbeaten streak in World Cup qualifiers to 28 matches despite being reduced to 10 men in Haifa, after defender Giorgio Chiellini was sent off following a second yellow card in the 55th minute.

Chiellini will now be suspended for the much-anticipated match against Spain in the next round on Oct. 6.

Graziano Pelle opened the scoring in the 14th minute and Antonio Candreva doubled Italy’s lead from the spot in the 31st.

Ben-Haim pulled one back for Israel four minutes later but Ciro Immobile sealed the result in the 83rd.

ALBANIA 1, MACEDONIA 1 (Suspended)

Albania’s match with Macedonia was suspended in the 76th minute because of heavy rain.

The final 15 minutes will be played at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) Tuesday.

Armando Sadiku opened the scoring for Albania in the ninth minute and Ezdjan Alioski equalized in the 51st.

The match was being played at the newly-renovated stadium in Shkodra, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the capital Tirana.

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