Archive for April, 2017

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.

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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.

Russian-backed evacuation of last rebel-held Homs district begins

2017-03-18

HOMS – Hundreds of rebels and civilians left the last opposition-held district of Homs on Saturday under a controversial Russian-supervised deal to bring Syria’s third city under full government control.

The evacuation of Waer, a northwestern district of the city that has been under siege by the army for years, is the latest in a series of “reconciliation” deals struck by the government that the rebels say amount to starving them out.

It comes ahead of a new round of UN-brokered talks that open in Geneva on Thursday in an attempt to end the conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

Thousands are expected to leave Waer in the coming weeks in the final phase of the evacuation agreement, which had stalled in recent months.

An AFP correspondent saw a first wave of three green buses carrying civilians including children as well s dozens of fighters, their rifles slung over their shoulders.

Throughout the day, people lined up to load their luggage onto the buses under the watchful eye of Russian military police.

“Russia is a guarantor of the Waer agreement’s implementation and will monitor its execution,” said the Russian colonel overseeing the operation.

“Russian forces came to Syria for this — to help their friends and allow people to live safely in this country again.”

Moscow is a decades-old ally of the Damascus regime, and in September 2015 launched an air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

That backing has helped government forces recapture swathes of territory, including the whole of second city Aleppo as well as the famed desert city of Palmyra.

– 12,000 expected to leave –

Three waves of rebels and their families have already left Waer under an agreement first reached in December 2015, but evacuations have since stalled.

In a new deal reached last week, government and rebel representatives agreed that up to 100 Russian troops would deploy inside Waer to oversee the final phase of evacuations.

Between 400 and 500 people are expected to leave on Saturday, Homs governor Talal Barazi said.

“Syrian police, Russian military police and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent will protect the convoys and accompany them from Homs onto Aleppo province,” Barazi said.

Syrian state television reported about a dozen buses had left so far.

Under the agreement, evacuees will be bused to opposition-held parts of Homs province, the rebel-held town of Jarabulus on the Syrian-Turkish border or the northwestern province of Idlib.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that a total of 12,000 people, 2,500 of them rebels, will leave under the deal.

Over the past month, government forces have stepped up their bombardment of the district, killing dozens of people, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

No aid has reached Waer in at least four months. A UN convoy attempted to reach the district in February but it was seized by gunmen who diverted the assistance to a government-held area.

The government has agreed “reconciliation” deals for several rebel-held areas, and touts such agreements that grant safe passage to surrendering fighters as key to ending six years of war.

But rebels say they are forced into such deals by siege and bombardment, and the UN has sharply criticized them.

The most notorious of the agreements was the December evacuation of the rebel-held east Aleppo after months of government siege.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria earlier this month said the deal “amounts to the war crime of forced displacement of the civilian population” because it had left civilians with “no option to remain.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82127.

Twin blasts kill 40 near religious sites in Syria’s capital

March 12, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Twin blasts Saturday near holy shrines frequented by Shiites in the Syrian capital Damascus killed at least 40 people and wounded over a hundred, most of them Iraqis, according to Syrian and Iraqi officials.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks. Islamic State militants have carried out similar attacks before against Shiite shrines in the Syrian capital and elsewhere. Extremist Sunni groups, such as IS, view Shiites as apostates and consider shrines a form of idolatry.

Syrian State TV aired footage from the scene showing blood-soaked streets and several damaged buses in a parking lot, apparently where the explosions went off near Bab al-Saghir cemetery. The cemetery is one of Damascus’ most ancient and is where several prominent religious figures are buried.

Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar visited the wounded in local hospitals. He said 40 were killed and 120 were wounded. He said the attacks targeted civilians, including Arab visitors, who were touring area’s shrines.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that at least 40 Iraqis were killed and 120 wounded. Ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal said buses carrying Iraqi pilgrims to the shrines were targeted. He said a crisis response team has been formed to expedite the identification and transport of the killed and wounded.

“The ministry calls on the international community to condemn this heinous terrorist crime that targeted civilian Iraqi visitors to the holy shrines. It also urges a firm and decisive stand against the takfiri groups responsible for them,” Jamal said in a statement. Takfiri is an Arabic derogatory term referring to extremist Sunni Muslims — such as members of the Islamic State group — who accuse other Muslims of being infidels.

Iraqi, Iranian and other Asian Shiites often visit shrines in Syria. U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Ali al-Za’tari condemned the attacks, saying “targeting civilians is a terrorist act, condemned and rejected by anyone who has a conscience in this world.”

Lebanon’s Hezbollah group also condemned the attacks, saying they stem from a “Takfiri ideology that uses religion as a cover to stab religion and believers everywhere.” There were conflicting reports about what caused the explosions. State news agency SANA said the blasts were caused by bombs placed near the cemetery and that at least 33 were killed and more than a hundred wounded.

Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV quoted Syrian officials saying twin suicide attacks killed 40. The military media arm of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant group close to Damascus, said two suicide bombers blew themselves up 15 minutes apart near the shrines, leading to the large number of casualties. Arab TV Al-Mayadeen, airing the conflicting reports, also said at least 40 were killed. The area was sealed after the explosions.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group with activists on the ground, said at least 46 were killed in the twin explosions. The group said the first blast came after a suicide bomber blew himself up among the pilgrims near the shrines. It was not clear what caused the second explosion, the group said, adding that the death toll is likely higher because dozens were wounded.

Mohammed Haytham al-Hosseini, head of the National Hospital in Damascus, told pro-government Sama TV that 41 killed arrived to his facility. He said at least three wounded were in critical condition. A similar attack in Damascus last year targeted one of the most revered Shiite shrines and was claimed by Islamic State militants.

Bab al-Saghir is one of the seven gates of the old city of Damascus and houses a cemetery where a number of early Islam religious figures, including family members of Prophet Muhammad and figures revered by Shiites, are buried.

Also Saturday, Syria’s President Bashar Assad said in an interview that his military’s priority is to reach the Islamic State group’s de-facto capital of Raqqa — toward which U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces are also advancing.

The interview with Hong-Kong based Phoenix TV was aired Saturday and shared by the Syrian Presidency website. Assad said another IS stronghold, Deir el-Zour, may be targeted in parallel. Syria’s battlefields have become increasingly crowded. U.S-led coalition forces in collaboration with Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as Turkish troops and Syrian allies and Syrian government troops, backed by Russia and Iran, are all converging to clear northern Syria of the remnants of Islamic State militants. In some incidents, the teeming battlefield has caused friction between rival groups, as well as several civilian casualties.

Assad said that “in theory” he shares the same priority with U.S. President Donald Trump of fighting terrorism but that they have had no formal contact yet. He said Russia, a major ally, hopes it can urge the U.S. and Turkey to cooperate with Moscow and Damascus in the fight against terrorism in Syria. Assad’s government views all armed opposition as terrorist groups.

Assad said all foreign troops on Syrian soil without invitation or consultation with the Syrian government are considered “invaders.” Meanwhile, Syria’s armed opposition groups called for postponing a meeting planned and sponsored by Russia and Turkey, scheduled to take place in the Kazakh capital Astana next week. In a statement, the rebel groups said violations of a Russia-backed cease-fire have persisted, and called for the meeting to be rescheduled for after March 20, when a limited cease-fire expires.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Syrian army retakes town of Palmyra as IS defenses crumble

March 03, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s military announced on Thursday it has fully recaptured the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group as the militants’ defenses crumbled and IS fighters fled in the face of artillery fire and intense Russia-backed airstrikes.

The development marks the third time that the town — famed for its priceless Roman ruins and archaeological treasures IS had sought to destroy — has changed hands in one year. It was also the second blow for the Islamic State group in Syria in a week, after Turkish backed opposition fighters seized the Syrian town of al-Bab from the militants on Feb. 23, following a grueling three month battle. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni extremist group is fighting for survival in its last urban bastion in the western part of the city of Mosul.

For the Syrian government, the news was a welcome development against the backdrop of peace talks underway with the opposition in Switzerland. “You are all invited to visit the historic city of Palmyra and witness its beauty, now that it has been liberated,” the Damascus envoy to the U.N.-mediated talks, Bashar al-Ja’afari, told reporters in Geneva.

“Of course, counterterrorism operations will continue until the last inch of our territory is liberated from the hands of these foreign terrorist organizations, which are wreaking havoc in our country,” he added.

The Damascus military statement said troops gained full control of the desert town in central Syria following a series of military operations carried out with the help of Russian air cover and in cooperation with “allied and friendly troops” — government shorthand for members of Lebanese militant Hezbollah group who are fighting along Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

IS defenses around Palmyra had begun to erode on Sunday, with government troops reaching the town’s outskirts on Tuesday. The state SANA news agency reported earlier that government troops had entered the town’s archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, around mid-day, then the town itself, as IS militants fled the area.

This is the Syrian government’s second campaign to retake Palmyra. It seized the town from Islamic State militants last March only to lose it again 10 months later. Before the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, Palmyra was a top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said earlier that Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed by his defense minister that Syrian troops had gained control of Palmyra, with support from Russian warplanes.

The Syrian government’s push has relied on ground support from Hezbollah and Russian air cover, according to Hezbollah’s media outlets. Archeologists have decried what they say is extensive damage to its ruins.

Drone footage released by Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier this month showed new damage to the facade of Palmyra’s Roman-era theater and the adjoining Tetrapylon — a set of four monuments with four columns each at the center of the colonnaded road leading to the theater.

A 2014 report by a U.N. research agency disclosed satellite evidence of looting while the ruins were under Syrian military control. Opposition factions have also admitted to looting the antiquities for funds.

IS militants have twice used the town’s Roman theater as a stage for mass killings, most recently in January, when they shot and beheaded a number of captives they said had tried to escape their December advance. Other IS killings were said to have taken place in the courtyard of the Palmyra museum and in a former Russian base in the town.

The developments in Palmyra came against the backdrop of the talks in Geneva, which have been without any tangible breakthroughs so far. Diplomats and negotiators have set their sights on modest achievements in the latest round, after a week of discussions centering on setting an agenda for future talks.

On Thursday, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura held another round of meetings with both the government delegation and opposition groups. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters Wednesday that “the parties have agreed to … discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks.”

After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism is also on the table, he had said. Russia is a key sponsor of Assad’s government. A top Syrian opposition negotiator, Nasr al-Hariri, said the talks would likely culminate in a closing ceremony on Friday and the parties may be back in Geneva for further discussions in a few weeks.

Setting the agenda and strategy to guide discussions has proven difficult as the main conflicting parties dig in their heels over form and semantics. In Turkey, the country’s foreign minister said that with the completion of an operation to retake the IS-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, Turkish troops will head to the Syrian town of Manbij next, to oust U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists and a threat to Turkey.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that Turkey would not shy away from attacking the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces, which captured Manbij last year after weeks of deadly fighting with IS.

He renewed calls for the new U.S. administration not to support the Kurdish forces. Cavusoglu stressed that an operation to take Manbij had not started yet, but acknowledged that skirmishes between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurdish fighters may have occurred.

That front line in northern Syria was further complicated by a concurrent announcement by the Syrian Kurdish side on Thursday that they had agreed with Russia to withdraw from some of the territory between al-Bab and Manbij, to make room for a buffer.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line with rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River. This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Cavusoglu denied any such agreement was reached. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government. The Turkish and Syrian authorities have long regarded each other with thinly-veiled hostility.

Soguel reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Damascus looks to Syrian Kurds to counter Turkey

2017-03-01

DAMASCUS – Worried over Turkish advances in Syria’s north, the Damascus regime has formed an alliance of convenience with the country’s Kurds to prevent their common enemy from gaining ground.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has repeatedly criticized Turkey’s operation in Syria, which saw Ankara in late August send troops across the border where they are working with local rebels.

Turkey’s invasion has also been fiercely opposed by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by Kurdish fighters.

“For the government, just as for the Syrian Kurds, the enemy is (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan. They want to counter his project of invading the border territory,” said Waddah Abed Rabbo, editor-in-chief of Syria’s Al-Watan daily.

“It’s completely normal that the forces present on the ground would ally with each other to block any Turkish advance in Syrian territory. Now, Turkish forces are totally encircled,” said Abed Rabbo, whose paper is close to the government.

With help from Turkish air strikes, artillery, and soldiers, Syrian rebels last week overran the town of Al-Bab, the Islamic State group’s last bastion in the northern province of Aleppo.

Syrian troops had advanced to the southern edges of the town, but had been ordered by their ally Russia not to enter Al-Bab after Moscow struck a deal with Ankara.

Instead, regime fighters headed east, sweeping across previously IS-held villages to link up with the SDF south of its stronghold in Manbij.

– ‘Surrounded on all sides’ –

In just 15 days, Assad’s army seized nearly two dozen villages, including Taduf south of Al-Bab, gaining approximately 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of territory in Aleppo province.

The advance brought Syrian troops to territory just southwest of Manbij and adjacent to SDF forces there, said US-based Middle East expert Fabrice Balanche.

By sealing off that territory, Balanche added, the regime has stemmed Turkish ambitions of heading further east.

“The road to Raqa via Al-Bab is now cut for the Turks. They also can’t attack Manbij from the south,” Balanche added.

Erdogan has insisted that Ankara wants to work with its allies to capture Raqa, the de facto Syrian capital of IS’s so-called “caliphate”, without the SDF.

Turkey considers the SDF’s biggest component — the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — as “terrorists” because of their links to an outlawed Kurdish militia in southeast Turkey.

But the SDF has a head start. Since November, it has been battling to encircle Raqa with the help of US-led coalition air strikes and is much closer to the city than the Turkish-backed fighters.

The regime’s recent advance has boxed Turkey in, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

“They’re surrounded on all sides. The Kurds are to the east, southeast, and west. The regime is south,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“They don’t have a single road to Raqa except via territory controlled by the Kurds or the Syrian army,” Abdel Rahman said.

– ‘Regime has not changed’ –

“If they really want to go, they only have two options: opening up a front with the army or the Kurds, or striking a deal with them.”

Such a deal would require the mediation of either Russia — who has long backed the Syrian regime and has recently developed closer cooperation with Turkey on Syria — or the United States, an ally to Ankara and SDF backer.

“The risk of confrontation is there. But if the Turkish army heads towards Raqa, it will only be after a deal with the United States,” said Sinan Ulgan, who heads the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM) in Istanbul.

While the SDF and Syria’s regime have a shared interest in countering Ankara’s influence, the alliance is not foolproof.

Regime forces and Kurdish fighters have clashed several times across the northeastern province of Hasakeh, and government officials frequently criticize a Kurdish announcement last year of a “federal system” to run affairs in northern Syria.

“The regime is against Kurdish independence, but it doesn’t have the means to retake Kurdish territory,” Balanche said.

A high-level security source in Damascus insisted that “Syria does not recognize the SDF because the constitution stipulates that the only military presence in Syria is the Syrian army.”

“But really, there are several legitimate and illegitimate organisations involved in the Syrian conflict,” the source conceded.

Leading SDF adviser Nasser al-Hajj Mansour denied that his group had struck a deal with the regime, but acknowledged that the current situation is an incentive for cooperation over confrontation.

“The regime has not changed. When it can, it will attack us. But today, local and international dynamics will not allow it to do so,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81768.

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