Archive for April, 2017

Israeli defense officials: Assad still has chemical weapons

April 19, 2017

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli defense officials said on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad still has up to three tons of chemical weapons. The assessment, based on Israeli intelligence, was revealed to reporters two weeks after a chemical attack in Syria killed at least 90 people. Israel, along with much of the international community, believes that Assad’s forces carried out the attack.

A senior military official told reporters that the Israeli intelligence estimates that Assad has “between one and three tons” of chemical weapons. The assessment was confirmed by two other defense officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity under military briefing rules.

Assad has denied the allegations that he was behind the April 4 attack in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhun in Syria’s southern Idlib province. The United States and many other nations have called the attack a chemical weapons attack and accused the Syrian government of responsibility. In response, the United States fired nearly 60 missiles at a Syrian air base it suspected of being the launching pad for the attack. Israel, which welcomed the U.S. strike, was notified two hours ahead of time, the military official said.

The Syrian government has been locked in a six-year civil war against an array of opposition forces. The fighting has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population. Assad agreed in 2013 to declare and dispose of all his chemical weapons under U.N. supervision, but his forces have repeatedly been accused of using them since then.

The disarmament, which was carried out amid a chaotic conflict, has always been the subject of some doubt, and there is evidence that the Islamic State group and other insurgents have acquired chemical weapons.

A fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, is investigating the incident and is expected to issue a report within two weeks. Turkish and British tests also have concluded that sarin or a substance similar to the deadly nerve agent was used in the Idlib attack.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal to avert U.S. strikes in September 2013, following a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs in August that year that killed hundreds of people and sparked worldwide outrage.

Ahead of disarmament, Assad’s government disclosed it had some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons, including sarin, VX nerve agent and mustard gas. The entire stockpile was said to have been dismantled and shipped out under international supervision in 2014 and destroyed. The chemical weapons were shipped outside Syria and destroyed abroad, with the most toxic material disposed of at sea aboard a U.S. ship. But doubts began to emerge soon afterward that not all such armaments or production facilities were declared and destroyed.

Earlier this week, Assad’s former chemical weapons research chief told Britain’s The Telegraph that Syria had “at least 2,000 tons” of chemical weapons before the war and only declared 1,300. Former Brig. Gen. Zaher al-Sakat said the Syrian government still possessed hundreds of tons of chemical weapons.

Israel has largely stayed out of the civil war raging in its northern neighbor. But it has carried out a number air strikes against suspected arms shipments bound for Assad’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in retaliation to errant fire into the Golan Heights.

Turkey to naturalize some Syrian, Iraqi refugees

2017-01-07

ISTANBUL – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday announced that some of the millions of Syrian and Iraqis who have fled to Turkey would be given Turkish nationality.

“Our interior ministry is carrying out work, and under this work, some of them will be granted our nationality after all the necessary checks” have been carried out, Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on television.

“There are highly qualified people among them, there are engineers, lawyers, doctors. Let’s make use” of that talent, he argued.

“Instead of letting them work illegally here and there, let’s give them the chance to work as citizens, like the children of this nation,” he said.

Erdogan said the interior ministry “is ready to implement the measure at any time.” But he gave no further details, notably about how many would gain Turkish nationality.

According to Turkish government figures, the country is hosting more than three million Syrians and Iraqis who have fled war.

Erdogan outlined a naturalization plan last summer but the idea met with angry protests and xenophobic comments on social media.

The country’s political opposition saw the plan as a scheme to widen Erdogan’s electoral basis at a time when he is pushing for constitutional reform that will strengthen his powers.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80716.

US threatens more pressure on Syria after missile strikes

April 08, 2017

PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The United States is vowing to keep up the pressure on Syria after the intense nighttime wave of missile strikes from U.S. ships, despite the prospect of escalating Russian ill will that could further inflame one of the world’s most vexing conflicts.

Standing firm, the Trump administration on Friday signaled new sanctions would soon follow the missile attack, and the Pentagon was even probing whether Russia itself was involved in the chemical weapons assault that compelled President Donald Trump to action. The attack against a Syrian air base was the first U.S. assault against the government of President Bashar Assad.

Much of the international community rallied behind Trump’s decision to fire the cruise missiles in reaction to this week’s chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of men, women and children in Syria. But a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the strikes dealt “a significant blow” to relations between Moscow and Washington.

At the United Nations, Russia’s deputy ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, strongly criticized what he called the U.S. “flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression” whose “consequences for regional and international security could be extremely serious.” He called the Assad government a main force against terrorism and said it deserved the presumption of innocence in the chemical weapons attack.

U.S. officials blame Moscow for propping up Assad. “The world is waiting for the Russian government to act responsibly in Syria,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said during an emergency Security Council session. “The world is waiting for Russia to reconsider its misplaced alliance with Bashar Assad.”

Haley said the U.S. was prepared to take further action in Syria but hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. The official Saudi Press Agency reported that King Salman complimented Trump in a telephone conversation for his “courageous decision.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the most vehement opponents of Assad, said the missile barrage was the right response to “the crimes of this regime to its people in light of the failure of the international community to stop it.”

In Florida with the president, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said additional economic sanctions on Syria were being prepared. Thursday night’s strikes — some 60 cruise missiles fired from two ships in the Mediterranean — were the culmination of a rapid, three-day transformation for Trump, who has long opposed deeper U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war. Advisers said he was outraged by heartbreaking images of young children who were among the dozens killed in the chemical attack.

The decision undercut another campaign promise for Trump: his pledge to try to warm relations with Moscow. After months of allegations of ties between his election campaign and the Kremlin — the subject of current congressional and FBI investigations — Trump has found himself clashing with Putin.

On Friday, senior U.S. military officials were looking more closely at possible Russian involvement in the poison attack. Officials said a drone belonging to either Russia or Syria was seen hovering over the site after the assault earlier this week. The drone returned late in the day as citizens were going to a nearby hospital for treatment. Shortly afterward, officials say the hospital was targeted.

The officials, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive matter, said they believe the hospital attack may have been an effort to cover up evidence of the earlier assault. White House officials caution that Trump is not preparing to plunge the U.S. deeper into Syria. Spokesman Sean Spicer said the missile attack sent a clear message to Assad, but he avoided explicitly calling for the Syrian to leave office.

The impact of the strikes was also unclear. Despite intense international pressure, Assad has clung to power since a civil war broke out in his country six years ago, helped by financial and military support from both Russia and Iran. Russian military personnel and aircraft are embedded with Syria’s, and Iranian troops and paramilitary forces are also on the ground helping Assad fight the array of opposition groups hoping to topple him.

Trump spent Friday in Florida, in private meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. U.S. officials noted that the timing of the strike had the possible added benefit of signaling to China that Trump is willing to make good on his threat to act alone to stop North Korea’s nuclear pursuits if Beijing doesn’t exert more pressure on Pyongyang.

The missile strikes hit the government-controlled Shayrat air base in central Syria, where U.S. officials say the Syrian military planes that dropped the chemicals had taken off. Trump’s decision to strike Syria won widespread praise from other nations. Not everyone was cheering in Washington, where the president’s decision to act without congressional authority angered a mix of libertarian Republicans, Democrats and the far right.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Vivian Salama in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.

More than 200 injured Aleppans treated in Turkey

24 December 2016 Saturday

Turkish authorities said Saturday that 220 seriously injured Aleppan civilians have been treated in Turkey following the evacuation of the war-battered Syrian city of Aleppo.

The injured civilians were taken from the opposition-held city of Idlib to waiting ambulances at the Turkish border crossing of Cilvegozu, the Turkish Prime Ministry Directorate General of Press and Information told Anadolu Agency.

The figure of 220 Aleppans includes 93 injured children.

Thirty-one have been discharged following treatment.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/182188/more-than-200-injured-aleppans-treated-in-turkey.

Turkey will never allow a new state in N.Syria: Erdogan

24 December 2016 Saturday

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that Turkey will never allow the formation of a new state in northern Syria.

“We will never allow the founding of this kind of state,” despite efforts to do so, Erdogan told Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) in Istanbul.

Erdogan also reiterated Turkey’s wish to see a “terror-free safe zone” in northern Syria for the safety of its southeastern border provinces.

“We have been saying this from the beginning. If this [issue] isn’t dealt with, Gaziantep is always hanging by a thread, Kilis is always hanging by a thread, Sanliurfa is hanging by a thread,” he added, mentioning three border provinces.

Later, at the opening of a governmental complex, Erdogan spoke on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces in northern Syria backed by the Turkish army.

“The Free Syrian Army is the epitome of moderate opposition in Syria,” he said. “It has nothing to do with [being a] terrorist organization, but it is precisely a resistance movement. They are trying to save their territory.”

On the completion of the evacuation of civilians and opposition fighters from war-battered eastern Aleppo, Erdogan said: “We have saved our 45,000 brothers from Aleppo … We can bring them to our territories if necessary.”

Separately, meeting with women entrepreneurs in Istanbul, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stressed the goals of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria.

“Our aim in being there is ensuring the safety of life and property of our citizens who live along our southern borders,” said Yildirim, adding that Turkey has long wanted to block the danger coming from northern Syria.

Separately, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli spoke on Turkey’s current Al-Bab operation as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.

“Operation Euphrates Shield should definitely be crowned with victory,” Bahceli said at MHP headquarters in Ankara.

“If we emerged empty-handed from Al-Bab, we would endanger Diyarbakir and Ankara. Al-Bab should collapse around the hellhounds, and they should all perish.”

The Turkish army is supporting Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters’ efforts to liberate Al-Bab from ISIL, a strategic city for the terrorist group.

The Turkish army is currently active in northern Syria under Operation Euphrates Shield, which began in late August to improve security, support coalition forces, and eliminate the terror threat along Turkey’s border using FSA fighters backed by Turkish artillery and jets.

Since the launch of Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkish explosive ordnance disposal teams have neutralized 2,208 handmade explosives and 42 mines in areas rid of ISIL.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/182157/turkey-will-never-allow-a-new-state-in-nsyria-erdogan.

Syria decries ‘aggression’ as US launches cruise missiles

April 07, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria decried a U.S. missile attack early Friday morning on a government-controlled air base where U.S. officials say the Syrian military launched a deadly chemical attack earlier this week, calling it an “aggression” that led to “losses.” Rebels welcomed the U.S. attack.

About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles hit the Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs, a small installation with two runways, where aircraft often take off to bomb targets in northern and central Syria. The U.S. missiles hit at 3:45 a.m. Friday morning and targeted the base’s airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, U.S. officials said.

They were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, in retaliation for Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack that officials said used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin. A military official quoted on Syrian TV said an air base in central Syria was hit early Friday, causing material damage. Another statement, also attributed to an unnamed official, referred to “losses.” The officials did not elaborate.

Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province, where the targeted air base is located, told The Associated Press by phone that most of the strikes appeared to target the province in central Syria. He also said the strikes were meant to “support the terrorists on the ground.” He told Al Arabiya TV that a fire raged for two hours in the base, until it was put out.

A Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, welcomed the U.S. attack, saying it puts an end to an age of “impunity” and should be just the beginning. Major Jamil al-Saleh, a U.S-backed rebel commander whose Hama district in the country’s center was struck by the suspected chemical weapons attack, said he hoped the U.S. attack on a government air base would be a “turning point” in the six-year war that has left more than 400,000 dead.

Israel’s prime minister welcomed the U.S. attack. Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday in a statement that “In both word and action” President Donald Trump “sent a strong and clear message” that “the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.”

The bombing represents Trump’s most dramatic military order since taking office. The Obama administration threatened attacking Assad’s forces for previous chemical weapons attacks, but never followed through. Trump called on “all civilized nations” to join the U.S. in seeking an end to the carnage in Syria.

President Bashar Assad’s government had been under mounting international pressure after the chemical attack in northern Syria, with even key ally Russia saying its support is not unconditional and the U.S. launching a barrage of cruise missiles at a government-controlled air base in Syria.

Turkey, meanwhile, said samples from victims of Tuesday’s attack, which killed more than 80 people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, indicate they were exposed to sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent. Syria rejected the accusations, and Moscow had warned against apportioning blame until an investigation has been carried out.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that “unconditional support is not possible in this current world.” But he added that “it is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow. This is totally wrong.”

Russia has provided military support for the Syrian government since September 2015, turning the balance of power in Assad’s favor. Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council on several occasions since the civil war began six years ago to prevent sanctions against Damascus.

Syria maintains it didn’t use chemical weapons, blaming opposition fighters for stockpiling the chemicals. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.

Trump had said the attack crossed “many, many lines,” and put the blame squarely on Assad’s forces. Speaking Thursday on Air Force One, Trump said the attack “shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”

Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said he hopes Trump will take military action, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying. Erdogan said Turkey would be prepared to do “whatever falls on us” to support possible military action, the news agency reported.

U.S. officials had said they hoped for a vote late Thursday night on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the chemical attack, but with council members still negotiating the text into the evening, the British Mission’s political coordinator Stephen Hickey tweeted the vote wouldn’t take place until later.

At the United Nations, the U.S. had hoped for a vote Thursday evening on a Security Council resolution it drafted with Britain and France that would have condemned Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons — but it was canceled because of differences among the 15 members.

Russia strongly objected to provisions in that draft and circulated its own text which diplomats said wasn’t acceptable to the three Western nations. The 10 elected council members then presented what they hoped would be a compromise text on Thursday that addressed a key Russian objection — spelling out Syrian government obligations to investigators.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said the canceled vote “opens a window of opportunity” to keep working to find a compromise. He said he was grateful for the draft submitted by the elected members “because it’s a clear attempt to find a common denominator” but he said it has to carefully studied in Moscow.

Safronkov stressed that a resolution “should not, cannot and will not pre-judge the outcome from (an) investigation.” The attack happened in Syria’s Idlib province about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government — a close ally of Syria’s rebels — set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were treated initially.

Turkish officials said nearly 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died. Victims showed signs of nerve gas exposure, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said. Paramedics used fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.

Visuals from the scene were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead. In Turkey, Anadolu and the private DHA news agencies on Thursday quoted Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as saying “it was determined after the autopsy that a chemical weapon was used.”

The Turkish Health Ministry said later that “according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (sarin).”

Ian Phillips contributed from Moscow. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

A father bids farewell to twin babies after Syria attack

April 06, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The father cradled his 9-month-old twins, Aya and Ahmed, each in an arm. He stroked their hair and choked back tears, mumbling, “Say goodbye, baby, say goodbye” to their lifeless bodies.

Abdel Hameed Alyousef lost his two children, his wife and other relatives in the suspected chemical attack Tuesday in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 72 people. In footage shared with The Associated Press, Alyousef sits in the front seat of a van with the twin, his eyes red as he asks his cousin Alaa to video his farewell to them.

When the airstrike took place, “I was right beside them and I carried them outside the house with their mother,”Alyousef, a 29-year-old shopowner, told the AP. “They were conscious at first, but 10 minutes later we could smell the odor.” The twins and his wife, Dalal Ahmed, fell sick.

He brought them to paramedics and, thinking they would be OK, went to look for the rest of his family. He found the bodies of two of his brothers, two nephews and a niece, as well as neighbors and friends. “I couldn’t save anyone, they’re all dead now,” he said.

Only later was he told his children and wife had died. “Abdel Hameed is in very bad shape,” his cousin Alaa said. He’s being treated for exposure to the toxin. “But he’s especially broken down over his massive loss.”

Army regains territory lost to rebels in central Syria

2017-03-31

LONDON – Syria’s army and allied fighters have regained most of the territory they lost during an assault launched by rebels and jihadists earlier this month in the country’s center, a monitor said Friday.

“The regime has recaptured 75 percent of the territory it lost in the north of Hama province,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

An array of factions, including an alliance headed by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, launched an assault on government positions in Hama province on March 21, seizing several strategic areas.

But after a string of losses, the regime sent significant reinforcements to the region, the Observatory said, and has been able to reverse most of its losses, backed by heavy air strikes from ally Russia.

The factions involved in the assault still hold a handful of newly gained areas, including the town of Suran, which has changed hands several times since the Syrian war began in 2011.

Hama province is of strategic importance to President Bashar al-Assad, as it separates opposition forces in the northwestern province of Idlib from Damascus to the south and from the regime’s coastal heartlands to the west.

The Observatory said the fighting had killed dozens on both sides, but was unable to give a precise toll.

Syria’s opposition has accused the government of using “toxic substances” in its battle to repel the assault.

On Thursday, air strikes on several areas in the north of Hama province left around 50 people suffering respiratory problems, according to the Observatory, which could not confirm the cause of the symptoms.

The Syrian opposition National Coalition cited doctors in the area reporting “symptoms that included frothing at the mouth, pinpoint pupils, shortness of breath, burning eyes, and general weakness”.

Syria’s government agreed to turn over its chemical weapons in 2013 and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention.

But there have been repeated allegations of ongoing chemical weapons use, and a UN-led investigation has pointed the finger at the government for at least three attacks involving chlorine bombs in 2014 and 2015.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82346.

Clashes in Damascus after surprise rebel assault

2017-03-19

DAMASCUS – Heavy clashes rocked eastern districts of the Syrian capital on Sunday as rebels and jihadists tried to fight their way into the city center in a surprise assault on government forces.

The attack on Damascus comes just days before a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aiming to put an end to Syria’s six-year war.

Rebels and government troops agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities in December, but fighting has continued across much of the country, including in the capital.

Steady shelling and sniper fire could be heard across Damascus on Sunday as rebel factions allied with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front launched an attack on regime positions in the city’s east.

The attack began early Sunday “with two car bombs and several suicide attackers” on the Jobar district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Rebels then advanced into the nearby Abbasid Square area, seizing several buildings and firing a barrage of rockets into multiple Damascus neighborhoods, Abdel Rahman said.

Government forces responded with nearly a dozen air strikes on Jobar, he added.

Syrian state television reported that the army was “thwarting an attack by terrorists” with artillery fire and had ordered residents to stay inside.

It aired footage from Abbasid Square, typically buzzing with activity but now empty except for the sound of shelling.

Correspondents in Damascus said army units had sealed off the routes into the square, where a thick column of smoke was rising into the cloudy sky.

Several schools announced they would close through Monday, and many civilians cowered inside in fear of stray bullets and shelling.

– ‘From defensive to offensive’ –

Control of Jobar — which has been a battleground for more than two years — is divided between rebels and allied jihadists and government forces.

According to the Observatory, the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and the Fateh al-Sham Front — known as Al-Nusra Front before it broke ties with Al-Qaeda — are present in Jobar.

Government forces have long sought to push the rebels out of the district because of its proximity to the city center in Damascus.

But with Sunday’s attack, Abdel Rahman said, “rebels have shifted from a defensive position in Jobar into an offensive one”.

“These are not intermittent clashes — these are ongoing attempts to advance,” he said.

The Observatory said rebels had launched the attack as a way to relieve allied fighters in the nearby districts of Barzeh, Tishreen and Qabun from government attacks.

“Nine regime forces and at least 12 Islamist rebels were killed” in those districts over the last 24 hours, the Observatory said.

More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted six years ago with protests against Assad’s rule.

After a government crackdown, the uprising turned into an all-out war that has drawn in world powers on nearly all sides.

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria’s air defense systems after they fired ground-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes on Friday.

Syria’s army said it shot down an Israeli jet and hit another as they were carrying out early morning strikes near the famed desert city of Palmyra.

Israel denied any planes were hit and said it was targeting weapons bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which is backing Assad in Syria.

The United Nations has sponsored peace talks to end the conflict since 2012, to no avail.

Government representatives and opposition figures are set to meet for a fourth round of negotiations on March 23 in Switzerland.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82139.

Britain to offer Jordan more trainers in anti-IS strikes

April 03, 2017

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May has begun a visit to Jordan where she is to announce plans to send more British military trainers to help the kingdom’s air force in the fight against Islamic State group extremists.

Jordan’s royal court said Monday that May and Jordan’s King Abdullah II toured a military facility, inspecting a rapid response force and a joint training program. May is on a three-day visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In Jordan, she is to present a package of measures to boost cooperation between British forces and Jordan’s air force. Jordan has carried out air strikes against IS targets as part of a U.S.-led military coalition against IS. IS controls parts of neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The training is to take place in Jordan and Britain.