Archive for January, 2018

Closer look at pro-Ankara rebels amassing around Afrin

2018-01-22

Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies have launched a cross-border offensive against the Afrin region of northern Syria, held by a powerful Kurdish militia.

Since “Operation Olive Branch” began on Saturday, rebels and Turkish forces have advanced about five kilometers (three miles) into Syrian territory.

An alliance of pro-Ankara rebels is amassing on front lines around Afrin for an expected ground attack.

– The fronts –

Afrin is a hilly enclave that juts out from Syria’s northern Aleppo province. Turkey holds the borders to the north and west while Syrian rebels control those south and east.

Rebels have deployed along a highway east of Afrin between their two strongholds of Azaz and Marea.

Other forces, including some fighters from the neighboring province of Idlib, have gathered south of Afrin.

Rebels have also launched a push alongside Turkish soldiers from inside Turkish territory, south into the enclave.

Ankara had bused around 600 rebels from northern Syria into Turkish territory ahead of a ground invasion.

– The forces –

The Turkish-backed rebel forces taking part in the offensive number around 25,000, according to Yasser Abdelrahim, a key member of the campaign’s joint operations room.

They include factions from Euphrates Shield, an operation launched by Ankara in 2016 against the Islamic State group and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia which Turkey considers as “terrorists”.

Euphrates Shield brought together a smattering of non-jihadist factions that have received Turkish and US support, among them the Sultan Murad Brigades, Hamzat Division, and Mutasem Brigades.

Those forces are fighting side-by-side again in the Afrin assault.

Also taking part in “Operation Olive Branch” are fighters from Al-Jabha al-Shamiya and Faylaq al-Sham, two rebel alliances operating in northern Syria since 2014.

Many of these groups have threatened the YPG or already clashed with them.

– The mission –

Rebel forces behind the offensive say they are opposed to the YPG and its political branch, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), calling the groups “terrorists” and “separatists”.

“The operation is to liberate the area from all kinds of terrorism and protect civilians, Arabs and Kurds,” said Abdelrahim, who is also Faylaq al-Sham’s military chief.

“We’re not attacking to reach the town of Afrin. The residential buildings are not our aim — just the military bases and military positions used by the PYD and YPG.”

But rebels also blamed the YPG for not battling regime forces and have even evoked ethnic divides and accuse them of displacing Arabs.

“The goal of the offensive is, in the first phase, to oust the separatist parties from the Arab villages in our areas,” said Abu Meslem, a field commander in Al-Jabha al-Shamiya.

He insisted “Operation Olive Branch” does not aim to push out the entire Syrian Kurdish community.

“This is our duty: to oust the separatist parties and bring back the displaced families who have been living in tents during the winter,” he said.

– The operation –

On Sunday, a day into the operation, rebel forces and their Turkish backers entered the Afrin region and claimed to have captured several villages and hilltop positions.

The state-run Anadolu news agency said Turkish troops, whose number was not specified, were advancing alongside pro-Ankara rebels and were already five kilometers (three miles) inside Syria.

Turkey has mainly provided air cover to the operation, pounding dozens of YPG targets with artillery and air strikes.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86877.

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Syria’s death toll in Idlib car bomb rises to at least 25

January 08, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics in the northwestern city of Idlib say the death toll from a massive car bombing there the previous evening has risen to at least 25. Also, nearly 100 people were wounded.

The first-responders Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets says four children and 11 women were among the 25 killed. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday gave a higher death toll, saying 34 people were killed, including 18 civilians.

The Sunday night bombing targeted the office of Ajnad al-Koukaz, a militant group consisting of foreign fighters mostly from the Caucuses and Russia, according to activists. Idlib is the capital of a province by the same name that is controlled by several rebel factions, including an al-Qaida-linked group.

Germany’s Turks, Kurds clash over ‘imported’ Syria conflict

2018-01-24

BERLIN – Berlin and Ankara planned to discuss on Wednesday Turkey’s cross-border offensive against a Kurdish militia in Syria, officials said, amid controversy over German-built tanks being deployed in the conflict.

German ambassador Martin Erdmann and Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli were to talk about “how the Turkish operation is equipped,” said German foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr.

The German government has come under domestic pressure after battlefield images appeared to show Turkey deploying German-made Leopard 2 tanks in its offensive to oust Kurdish militants in northern Syria.

The Kurdish Community Group of Germany accused Berlin of “complicity through weapons delivery to the terror state Turkey”.

German conservative lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, who heads the parliamentary committee of foreign affairs, urged Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to halt further arms deals with Turkey.

“It is completely out of the question for Germany to increase the combat strength of the Leopard tanks in Turkey if the Turkish army is going after the Kurds in northern Syria,” Roettgen told Tagesspiegel daily.

Roettgen, a leading figure in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, said weapons deliveries to Turkey should instead “be banned due to the human rights situation and the dismantling of the rule of law in the country.”

Germany’s criticism of the human rights situation in Turkey, particularly after the government’s crackdown following a failed coup in 2016, badly strained ties between the NATO allies.

Relations have started to gradually thaw in recent weeks with the foreign ministers of both countries vowing to mend ties.

But Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish militia threatens to reverse the rapprochement with Germany, which is home to large ethnic Turkish and Kurdish minorities.

Berlin delivered 354 Leopard 2 tanks to Turkey between 2006 and 2011.

Under the weapons deal sealed in 2005, Ankara is prohibited only from giving or selling the tanks to third parties without prior approval from Berlin, with no other restrictions on how the tanks are used.

– Skirmishes –

Leading Turkish and Kurdish groups in Germany on Wednesday accused each other of “importing” a foreign conflict in the wake of Ankara’s cross-border offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia.

Skirmishes have erupted between the two groups in Germany since Turkey on Saturday launched its operation “Olive Branch” to oust the US-backed YPG, whom Ankara views as a terror group, from their Afrin enclave in northern Syria.

Three million ethnic Turks live in Germany, the largest diaspora and a legacy of the country’s “guest worker” program of the 1960 and 70s, as well as hundreds of thousands of Kurds.

Germany’s Turkish-dominated Coordination Council of Mosques said the conflict had been used as an excuse to launch a spate of “attacks on Turkish mosque groups” in Europe’s biggest economy.

“The fighting in northern Syria has been taken as an opportunity to incite against Turkish infrastructure and in particular mosques, and to import terror into Germany,” it said in a statement.

At least two mosques of the Turkish-controlled Ditib group were hit in western Germany’s Minden and the eastern city of Leipzig, said the council.

Windows of the buildings were smashed and walls vandalized, said the council, without naming possible suspects.

It also pointed to a brawl that broke out between Kurds and Turkish passengers at Hanover Airport on Monday, which forced police to intervene to separate the two sides.

“We condemn these attacks and call for calm on all sides,” said the council.

The Kurdish Community of Germany, for its part, accused Ditib imams of calling for jihad against the Kurds in Syria.

“The believers are told to pray for a victory of the Turkish army in the war against the Kurds,” the Kurdish group said, deploring the “instrumentalisation of religion and mosques for a war”.

“Mosques, that are partly financed by taxes and donations from citizens in Germany, are praying for glorious victory and death through jihad, the holy war,” added the group’s deputy leader Mehmet Tanriverdi.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86911.

Israel slams bill to outlaw blaming Poles for crimes of WWII

January 28, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli leaders angrily criticized pending legislation in Poland that would outlaw blaming Poles for the crimes of the Holocaust, with some accusing the Polish government of outright denial Saturday as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the proposed law “baseless” and ordered his country’s ambassador to Poland to meet with Polish leaders to express his strong opposition. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” he said.

The lower house of the Polish parliament on Friday passed the bill, which prescribes prison time for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.

Many Poles fear such phrasing makes some people incorrectly conclude that Poles had a role in running the camps. But critics say the legislation could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and opening a window to Holocaust denial.

The bill still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president. However, it marks a dramatic step by the country’s current nationalist government to target anyone who tries to undermine its official stance that Poles only were heroes during the war, not Nazi collaborators who committed heinous crimes.

Netanyahu’s government generally has had good relations with Poland, which has been recently voting with Israel in international organizations. At Auschwitz on Saturday evening, Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, abandoned a prepared speech to criticize the bill, saying that “everyone in Israel was revolted at this news.”

In Israel, which was established three years after the Holocaust and is home to the world’s largest community of survivors, the legislation provoked outrage. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, noting that exactly 73 years had passed since the Auschwitz death camp on Polish soil was liberated, cited the words of a former Polish president about how history could not be faked and the truth could not be hidden.

“The Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the entire world must ensure that the Holocaust is recognized for its horrors and atrocities,” Rivlin said. “Also among the Polish people, there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes. Every crime, every offense, must be condemned. They must be examined and revealed.”

Today’s Poles have been raised on stories of their people’s wartime suffering and heroism. Many react viscerally when confronted with the growing body of scholarship about Polish involvement in the killing of Jews.

In a sign of the sensitivities on both sides, Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party and the son of a survivor, got into a heated Twitter spat Saturday with the Polish Embassy in Israel.

“I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that,” Lapid wrote.

That sparked the Embassy to respond: “Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel.” “My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles,” Lapid responded. “I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology.”

To which the embassy retorted: “Shameless.” Israel’s foreign ministry said the deputy Polish ambassador to Israel had been summoned for a clarification. For decades, Polish society avoided discussing the killing of Jews by civilians or denied that anti-Semitism motivated the slayings, blaming all atrocities on the Germans.

A turning point was the publication in 2000 of a book, “Neighbors,” by Polish-American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross, which explored the murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne. The book resulted in widespread soul-searching and official state apologies.

But since the conservative and nationalistic Law and Justice party consolidated power in 2015, it has sought to stamp out discussions and research on the topic. It demonized Gross and investigated whether he had slandered Poland by asserting that Poles killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war.

Holocaust researchers have collected ample evidence of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis. According to one scholar at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, of the 160,000-250,000 Jews who escaped and sought help from fellow Poles, about 10 percent to 20 percent survived. The rest were rejected, informed upon or killed by rural Poles, according to the Tel Aviv University scholar, Havi Dreifuss.

At Auschwitz, however, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stressed the Poles who helped Jews risking their own lives, noting that some 7,000 had been recognized by Yad Vashem but suggesting that the Polish sacrifices have not been acknowledged adequately.

“Jews, Poles, and all victims should be guardians of the memory of all who were murdered by German Nazis. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a Polish name, and Arbeit Macht Frei is not a Polish phrase,” Morawiecki said later on Twitter.

Yad Vashem issued a statement Saturday night opposing the Polish legislation and trying to put into historical context the “complex truth” regarding the Polish population’s attitude toward its Jews. “There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” the Yad Vashem memorial said. “However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion.”

Vanessa Gera contributed from Warsaw.

Syrian army breaks siege of army base near Damascus

2018-01-08

BEIRUT – Syria’s army has broken the siege of an army base encircled by opposition forces on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, state television and a war monitor reported on Sunday.

Last Sunday, rebels, mainly belonging to the Islamist Ahrar al Sham faction, widened their control of parts of the Military Vehicles Administration base in the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta.

Army elite forces, backed by Russian jets, launched an offensive to break the siege and liberate at least 200 troops who were believed to be trapped within its sprawling, heavily defended grounds.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Syrian forces had “opened a loophole” that led them into the base.

Extensive bombing and violent clashes were taking place inside and around the base late at night, while the army fought its way to recapture the compound’s buildings, the state tv reporter said during a live broadcast from a nearby location.

“Fighting is underway to expand the route that was opened into the base … and the army will press on with its offensive beyond liberating the base,” he added, expecting the battle for the base to end in the coming few hours.

The tv station aired footage of the battles earlier in the day that showed heavy smoke billowing from the battered buildings targeted by the army fire.

Rebel fighters had stormed the base last November in a drive to relieve pressure on Eastern Ghouta’s towns and villages.

The base has long been used to strike at the densely populated Eastern Ghouta in an attempt to force the rebel enclave into submission. More than 300,000 people there have lived under siege by army troops since 2013.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86688.

Syrians continue to flee violent clashes in Idlib

January 1, 2018

Thousands of Syrian families have fled violent clashes between Daesh and the Syrian forces in the country’s north-western province of Idlib, Anadolu Agency reported yesterday. Many have taken refuge in camps scattered along the border with Turkey.

Early last week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air power and pro-Iranian fighters, launched intense airstrikes targeting areas in the southern countryside of Idlib province. Idlib and the eastern countryside of Hama province are the only areas that still remain outside government control.

The ten-day offensive and clashes between the regime army and Daesh fighters have also forced the refugees to head to Idlib’s southern countryside of Sinjar, which was later targeted by the army, displacing at least 6,500 civilians.

At least nine civilians were reported dead by the regime airstrikes over the weekend.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180101-syrians-continue-to-flee-violent-clashes-in-idlib/.

Displaced from Syria’s Beit Jin Arrive in Idlib, Daraa

Sunday, 31 December, 2017

Hundreds of opposition fighters arrived on Saturday in the Syrian provinces of Idlib and Daraa after they were displaced from the towns of Beit Jin and Mogher al-Meer in Damascus’ western Ghouta suburb.

The evacuation was made possible after an agreement with the Syrian regime forces that began sweeping the two towns.

State television showed footage of the convoy of buses containing the rebels moving out of Beit Jin.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday that six bus convoys left Beit Jin as part of the agreement between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other factions and between the regime.

The buses that arrived in the southern region of Daraa were transporting some 100 fighters from the factions, as well as some 30 of their family members. The buses that arrived in the northern Idlib province also held similar numbers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent said on Friday they had finished a medical evacuation of 29 very sick people from eastern Ghouta as part of a swap deal for prisoners held by the rebels.

Beit Jin’s location near Israeli-controlled territory made it a strategic flashpoint given the role of Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” in fighting the rebels there.

Israel has bombed “Hezbollah” convoys and weapons caches several times in Syria this year and fired on military positions in Syria after projectiles landed in the Golan Heights.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1128841/displaced-syria%E2%80%99s-beit-jin-arrive-idlib-daraa.

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