Archive for September, 2018

Bombings and air raids kill 4 in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib

September 08, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government and Russian warplanes on Saturday targeted the southern edge of Idlib province in what activists described as the most intense airstrikes in weeks, ratcheting up military pressure on the densely populated rebel-held bastion.

More than 60 air raids killed at least four civilians in southern Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rescue workers. The bombings also included indiscriminate barrel bombs, dropped from choppers, invariably blamed on the government.

The bombings, including shelling from government areas, came a day after Iran and Russia backed a military campaign in the rebel-held area despite Turkey’s pleas for a cease-fire. Turkey has troops and 12 observations points that circle Idlib.

State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said the government was retaliating against overnight shelling from rebel-held areas on a government-held town in Hama province, south of Idlib. The shelling late Friday in Mhradah killed nine civilians, according to state media. The state news agency SANA said government forces have shelled “terrorist” posts in northern Hama.

But the government and Russian raids targeted a wide swath of rebel-held area in the southern edge of the rebel-held enclave that includes most of Idlib province and northern Hama province. More than 3 million people live in the area, nearly half of them already displaced from fighting elsewhere in Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 68 air raids and 19 barrel bombs dropped Saturday on several of towns and villages in southwestern Idlib and Hama province. The area targeted over the past few days overlooks government-controlled areas.

The Observatory described the attacks on the rebel-held areas as the “most intense” since August and said they killed four in Abdeen, west of Khan Sheikhoun town, including two children and a woman. The raids forced schools to close in Khan Sheikhoun, a town under attack, according to the Observatory.

The White Helmets, a team of first responders, also reported on the four people killed in Abdeen. A video posted by the White Helmets from the town shows their rescuers pulling a woman who was still alive from under the rubble of a caked building, as other team members warn of government helicopters hovering above them.

The rescuers said another was killed in Halba, a village farther north. The group said one of its already damaged centers had been hit in the wave of airstrikes. In another village in central Idlib, Hass, an area hospital was hit by the airstrikes, putting it out of service and injuring two of its staff members, according to Coordinators of Response, a group of volunteers operating in northern Syria. The group also said the airstrikes caused a limited amount of internal displacement, uprooting nearly 700 families from their homes in several parts of Idlib.

The local council of Morek, a town that serves as a crossing between Hama and Idlib, sent an urgent appeal, asking Turkey to intervene. “We need a quick solution or our town will burn!” the official pleaded in an audio recording shared on social media platforms.

Separately, clashes broke out in eastern Syria in Qamishli, a town close to the border with Turkey, between government and Kurdish security members. The Observatory said the clashes left 10 government security personnel and seven Kurdish fighters dead.

The town is run by Kurdish-led administrators and forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport. Occasional clashes erupt there over turf control and authority, reflecting deepening political tension between the uneasy partners.

Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, said in a statement that a government patrol entered the areas controlled by the Kurdish militia in Qamishli and began arresting civilians, then shot at a Kurdish checkpoint sparking the gun battle. The Asayish said seven of its members and 11 government personnel were killed.

A journalist and area resident, Arin Sheikmos, said the government security troops carried out an arrest campaign in Kurdish-controlled areas, detaining people it accused of dodging military conscription. This prompted the clashes that lasted no more than 20 minutes, Sheikmos said.

There was no immediate comment on the clashes by the government. The U.S.-backed Kurdish administration has recently begun talking with the Syrian government, seeking government recognition of its self-rule areas. But in recent days, the Damascus government announced that it will be holding local administration elections, including in Kurdish-ruled areas, undermining the negotiations with the Kurds and their proposal for self-rule.

The Kurdish-led administration control nearly 30 percent of Syria, mostly in the northeastern part of the country, including some of Syria’s largest oil fields. They seized the territories, with the backing of the U.S.-led coalition, after driving out Islamic State militants.

Blast in northern Syria kills at least 36; cause unclear

August 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — An explosion in northern Syria killed at least 36 people Sunday and wounded many others, but the cause of the blast wasn’t immediately known, opposition activists said. The opposition-run Syrian Civil Defense, first responders also known as the White Helmets, said the blast occurred in the village of Sarmada near the Turkish border, killing 36 people and wounding many others. The explosion collapsed two five-story buildings, burying many of the victims, it said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 39, including 21 women and children. An opposition media collective known as the Smart news agency, said the dead included civilians as well as members of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee.

The Observatory said an arms depot in the basement of a building had detonated. It said the depot was run by an arms dealer close to the Levant Liberation Committee. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces fighting rebels in Idlib province have sent more reinforcements ahead of a potential offensive on the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.

The pro-government Al-Watan daily said Sunday that huge military reinforcements have reached the outskirts of Idlib province as a preliminary step to launch a wide-scale offensive. Quoting military sources, the paper said that troops have reached the northern countryside of the neighboring Hama province as part of military preparations to recapture Idlib province.

The expected offensive on Idlib comes after government forces captured major rebel strongholds earlier this year near the capital Damascus and in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra. The paper said that the battle would be “comprehensive” starting from Hama’s northern countryside to the southern countryside of Aleppo, adding that the target of the battle is to seize Idlib City.

Government airstrikes on the province on Friday killed dozens. Pro-government activists said on social media that the elite Tiger Force, led by Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, arrived in northern Syria to spearhead what they called the “Dawn of Idlib” operation.

UN: cost of war destruction in Syria $388bn

August 10, 2018

Syria’s seven-year-long civil war has cost the country $388 billion in economic and social damage, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) announced yesterday.

“The value of damage stemmed from the Syrian war represents the volume of destruction in physical capital and its sectoral distribution,” ESCWA explained.

The UN organisation noted that the cost of material destruction, including damage to roads, infrastructure, homes and other physical objects, was estimated at $120 billion.

This figure, ESCWA pointed out, does not include “human losses resulting from deaths or the loss of human competences and skilled labor due to displacement, which were considered the most important enablers of the Syrian economy”.

Over the past two days, more than 50 Syrian and international experts have met in the Lebanese capital of Beirut in response to an invitation by ESCWA to discuss post-war reconstruction policies in Syria.

The civil war in Syria has forced half of the country’s 24 million population to immigrate, while leaving hundreds of thousands killed.

ESCWA added that it is due to publish a detailed report in September, entitled “Syria: Seven Years of War,” which will include extensive analysis of the conflict and its social and economic impact.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


A last showdown looms over Syrian opposition stronghold

August 04, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — For nearly three years, green buses have filed into Syria’s Idlib province, bringing those evacuated from other opposition enclaves that fell to government forces — thousands of defeated rebel fighters, wanted activists and civilians who refused to go back under President Bashar Assad’s rule.

They now face what is likely to be the last showdown between Assad’s forces and the opposition. Assad has vowed to retake the province, and pro-government media promise the “mother of all battles.” If it comes to an all-out assault, it could bring a humanitarian crisis. Filled with displaced from elsewhere, the province in Syria’s northwest corner is packed with some 3 million people, the most deeply irreconcilable with Assad’s government and including some of the world’s most radical militants. They have little option but to make a stand, with few good places to escape.

“Currently, all (opposition) from around Syria came to Idlib. The only solution is to fight. There is no alternative,” said Firas Barakat, an Idlib resident. The 28-year old said that for years he has dedicated himself to civilian opposition activities, but now he must take up arms.

The opposition capture of Idlib in 2015 signaled the low point for Assad’s government during the course of war that is now nearly 8 years old — a time when rebels controlled large parts of two main Syrian cities, major highways, border crossings, dams and oil resources.

Russian and Iranian backing enabled Assad’s military to claw back territory. Most recently, it scored a victory with heavy symbolic resonance in the south, recapturing Daraa, one of the first places to rise against Assad’s rule in 2011.

Around a third of the country still remains out of government hands in the north and east, most of it held by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces that wrested it from the Islamic State group. But Idlib stands as the last significant enclave of the armed opposition that rose up dedicated to ousting Assad.

“When we saw the resistance collapse in the south— and we thought it never would give it was the first to resist the government — fear really prevailed here,” said Barakat. Squeezed, the opposition is desperate. But its forces are not small, and their territory is not tiny and sealed off as other opposition holdouts were. That portends a complex and difficult battle.

The number of fighters in Idlib is estimated at several tens of thousands, including thousands of battle-hardened militants from al-Qaida-linked groups and from China’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority.

Although the al-Qaida-linked group dominates, other non-jihadi factions have maintained their presence, including some of the earliest forces to take up arms against Assad. With Turkey’s backing, they have formed a “National Liberation Front,” excluding al-Qaida.

Idlib has seen a wave of lawlessness and assassinations among the various factions, including shootings and car bombs. Saeed al-Nakrash, a rebel leader originally from near Damascus, was kidnapped and held for 50 days. He blamed al-Qaida-linked militants and said his family paid $75,000 for his release.

The opposition-held area abuts the Turkish border on the north and west. Though Turkey has built a wall, the border remains porous, providing a supply line for fighters. That wall could be overwhelmed if massive numbers try to flee Idlib.

To the east is an enclave held by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, a possible escape route for anyone fleeing, though it is already overwhelmed by displaced. Rumblings have started. Activists report government reinforcements arriving at Abu Dhuhur air base in eastern Idlib, which Assad’s forces seized early this year. Troops have been shelling Jisr el-Shughur, a strategic opposition-held town overlooking the government stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

Just how ferocious an offensive turns out to be depends on diplomatic maneuvering among the power players — particularly Russia. It appears reluctant for an all-out assault. Russia is juggling between longtime ally Syria and its new friend Turkey, which has become central to the political process Moscow is leading to try to resolve the conflict.

Assad vows to restore all of Syria to its control. Turkey fears an assault will send a flood of refugees — and militants — swarming to its border. Under a deal with Russia and Iran, Turkey has deployed around 1,000 troops at 12 observation points around Idlib to monitor a cease-fire, effectively standing between government forces and the opposition. It is part of a “de-escalation” zone in the province that ultimately aims to root out al-Qaida-linked groups as a basis for a future political process.

Turkey warns that a wide-scale offensive will wreck Russia’s efforts. Its deployment in Idlib is a “trip wire that will start to tug at the (agreements with Russia) if you try to walk through it,” said Aron Lund, a Syria expert with the Century Foundation.

From the other side, the Syrian government is testing the Russia-Turkey relationship. During the latest meeting in Russia in July, Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari blasted Turkey, saying it has failed to weed out extremists from Idlib.

Jaafari said Damascus encourages reconciliation with rebels, but not with al-Qaida militants — adding that it is Turkey’s responsibility “fight terrorism.” “If Idlib returns in reconciliation, this is well and good. And if it doesn’t …the Syrian army has the right to restore control over Idlib by force.”

That makes Russia’s stance critical, said Sam Heller, a researcher with the International Crisis Group. “Ultimately what determines the survival of Idlib may be external, and they relate to these geopolitical considerations,” he said.

Russia has already said no wide offensive is expected. That has raised speculation over a limited operation to control Jisr al-Shughur or the main highway running through Idlib. Wael Olwan — a spokesman for one of the strongest Turkish-backed Syrian factions, Faylaq al-Sham — said Turkey working with Syrian allies can “dissolve” the al-Qaida-linked factions.

But, he said, “I am not optimistic that Russia can hold back the regime forces long enough for Turkey to dismantle the radical groups.”

Syrian foes turn profit from trade across front lines

Tuesday 31/07/2018

BEIRUT – Barrels of oil, sacks of sugar, crates piled with fruit: goods worth millions of dollars criss-cross Syria’s battlefronts daily, waved through by bitter enemies who have become business partners.

Syria’s regime, rebels, Kurds, and even jihadists are linking up with well-connected businessmen to turn a profit at crossings connecting otherwise divided territory.

Multiple sources from rebel-held parts of Syria including military commanders, businessmen, fighters, and residents have described a sprawling, quasi-official network of deals and arrangements on cross-country trade.

Critics say they have allowed armed groups and businessmen, some linked with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, to profit from the divisions tearing Syria apart.

Sweet deal

One key junction where business takes place is Morek, between the northwestern province of Idlib — which is held by various rebel and jihadist forces — and government-controlled Hama.

On the rebel side, Morek is managed by Al-Qaeda’s onetime Syria branch Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), with the other side run by government forces.

Year round, vegetables, biscuits and clothes leave Idlib, while fuel, sugar, and spare car parts are trucked in through Hama from across swathes of government-held territory, sources at the crossing and others familiar with operations there said.

“Morek is the most important crossing between rebels and the regime, given the trade coming and going through there,” said Abu al-Huda al-Sorani, who administers the border for HTS.

“It’s an official transit point recognized by us both, and it’s the money that makes things move.”

Sorani said Morek “was opened with the mediation of businessmen who have links with the regime.”

“One man monopolizes the trade on the regime side,” he said.

Sorani declined to provide a name for the businessman, but multiple sources familiar with operations at the crossing pointed to a mysterious businessman known only as Ghawar.

One source in opposition-held territory with close knowledge of the crossing said Ghawar pays Syrian government forces at least $1 million (850,000 euros) every few months for exclusive use of a stretch of the M5 highway leading to Morek.

The source and others spoke on condition of anonymity fearing a backlash from rebel or regime forces for revealing details of trade operations.

Ghawar, who acts as a frontman for regime-linked businessmen, also sets duties paid by each truck passing through loyalist checkpoints before they reach the crossing, the source said.

On the other side, HTS monopolizes sugar sales in opposition zones and bans female livestock from leaving Idlib to maximize breeding in rebel areas and keep the regime dependent on them.

“No one can trade in sugar unless they’re covered by HTS, because of its high revenue,” the source said.

HTS also sets export fees. On July 8, stonemasons protested near Morek after duties per truckload jumped from $400 to $1,500. Ultimately the demonstrators managed to force prices back down.

Coming and going

“With zones across Syria controlled by various forces, border trade between them has become a fait accompli,” said Ayman al-Dassouky, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Center.

“It brings mutual benefit to the warring sides who have allied themselves with businessmen taking advantage of the current situation to boost trade,” Dassouky said.

The crossings were “generating millions for the forces which hold them and businessmen who trade across them,” he said.

They provide rebels with a vital source of revenue, he said, “especially with the dwindling external support to them, mainly from the Gulf.”

But trade across the front line is also crucial for the regime.

“Its forces and loyalist militias make a profit which ultimately guarantees their loyalty, and big traders close to the regime benefit from deals on duties,” said Dassouky.

The phenomenon of enemies doing business together is widespread across conflicts, said Bassam Abou Abdallah, who heads the Damascus Center for Strategic Studies.

“In all wars, not just in Syria, these guys become the warlords. A web of interests is spun between the warring sides because of economic benefits,” Abou Abdallah said.

Business at Morek is so good that rival Islamists wanted a slice, and have tried in recent months to set up their own crossing from Idlib into Hama.

Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline faction once allied to HTS but which has fought against it since last year, attempted to establish trade through the Qalaat al-Madiq crossing it controls, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of Morek.

HTS objected and so far only a limited number of goods are passing through the Madiq crossing.

“HTS forbade large trucks from reaching the Madiq crossing so Morek would remain number one for trade,” said a rebel commander based near Madiq.

Wealth from war

Despite being bitter enemies, Kurds and Turkish-backed rebels are also running crossings linking territory under their control.

The Hamran junction in Aleppo province is held by Kurdish militiamen on one side and the Levant Front, rebels loyal to Ankara, on the other.

Up to 60 crude oil tankers transit through Hamran from Kurdish areas daily to be refined in opposition zones, a rebel official at the checkpoint said.

Trade moves in the other direction too, with Ankara ultimately dictating what goes from rebel areas to Kurdish territory, he said.

“Fertiliser is banned because it can be used to make explosives, and cement and metal too because they’re used for blast walls against us,” the official said.

Crossings are cash cows for well-placed businessmen, especially those bringing goods to besieged areas.

The Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus was surrounded for a half-decade by regime troops, with residents inside dying from lack of medicine or proper nutrition.

Government forces recaptured it in April with an assault that killed more than 1,700 civilians. But during the siege, one man controlled what trickled in.

Dairy mogul Muhyeddin al-Manfoush enjoyed exclusive access to Ghouta’s market, said rebels and local businessmen.

Manfoush’s “informal monopoly” over Ghouta began in 2014, said Aron Lund, a Century Foundation researcher who has written extensively about Ghouta.

“Working with both rebel and regime commanders, he quickly emerged as a pivotal figure in the area’s political economy,” Lund wrote in Foreign Policy last year.

The key to Manfoush’s grip on Ghouta’s market was the Wafideen crossing, which officially was only for regime-approved humanitarian aid.

‘Bill Gates’ of siege

Only Manfoush was allowed to deliver barley, rice, and sugar to Ghouta, paying loyalist checkpoints up to 2,000 Syrian pounds ($4) per kilogram to let products in, multiple sources said.

“Anything he brought in was forbidden for other traders,” said one businessman who paid Manfoush to bring non-food items into Ghouta.

Rebels also dealt with Manfoush, charging their own duties, the sources said.

Yasser Dalwan, an official from the Jaish al-Islam opposition faction which once controlled much of Ghouta, said rebels had no choice but to deal with the businessman.

“The regime permitted goods to enter through Manfoush. He was the designated trader,” Dalwan said.

The vast wealth Manfoush was rumored to have acquired from trade earned him the nickname “the Bill Gates of Ghouta” from residents and fighters.

And many, like rebel Abu Haytham who left Ghouta for rebel territory further north as government forces took over, are still bitter months later.

“He got rich off the siege and people’s hunger,” Abu Haytham said.

Source: Middle East Online.


Talk of rebuilding Syria is delusional

Sunday 29/07/2018

The commonly held assumption that Iran, Russia and other friends of the Syrian regime stand to make a fortune rebuilding the war-torn country is wide of the mark.

With the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad set to regain the remainder of the country not controlled by Kurdish factions, there’s been much talk of the huge sums to be spent — and made — rebuilding the hundreds of towns and cities destroyed in the fighting. Figures from $250 billion-$400 billion and even $1 trillion have been bandied around.

There have been headlines about Russian, Chinese and Iranian companies rubbing their hands at the prospect of making millions off the back of gleaming new apartment blocks in eastern Aleppo and international hotels in Damascus.

There’s just one problem: Those towers and hotels will never be built.

Assad has been in control of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, for four years, offering a window into how a nationwide rebuilding effort may take shape. How has the reconstruction effort gone there?

Aside from some privately funded efforts to rebuild churches and a Chechen warlord paying to renovate the as-yet-unfinished Khalid Ibn al-Walid mosque, the only completed project is the city’s Old Souk.

Who funded that? The Russians? Iran? Not a chance. It was the United Nations, the only organisation with nothing to lose, financially or otherwise.

Russia and Iran are likely to look for a return on their huge investment in Syria rather than spend more. Jesse Marks, a Herbert Scoville Jr Peace Fellow at the nonpartisan Stimson Center, wrote for the Defense One website that Moscow is an estimated $4 billion deep in Syria and Iran is thought to have spent up to $35 billion keeping Assad standing.

Of course, there is a chance that sections of Syrian real estate will be handed to state investors from Iran and Russia but beyond such symbolic gestures, the broader conditions for privately led investment are not there. As a report from the International Crisis Group surmised: “Russia and Iran have displayed their military prowess but can they back it up long-term with the required financial resources? This is highly doubtful… They may have the will, in other words, but they appear not to have the ability.”

While Assad attempts to drum up business and sell reconstruction as potentially a huge windfall for his friends, it will never happen as long as he is in charge. The traditional construction powerhouses in the region — the Gulf countries and European multinationals — won’t or can’t return to Syria because of international sanctions and political antagonisms. Washington has introduced the No Assistance for Assad Act to prevent US companies working on reconstruction in areas under Assad’s control.

There’s another issue that’s largely flown under the radar: Who does the regime see staying in its yet-to-be-built luxury hotels and apartment buildings? Where would the Syrians shopping in the proposed state-of-the-art malls find work?

It’s possible that a small number of regime apparatchiks may take on some major reconstruction works. Ambitious shabiha gangsters, already investing in restaurants and cafes in central Damascus and west Aleppo, might look to move their profits into bigger projects. But what international credit agency, be it Russian, Chinese, Iranian or otherwise, would risk giving loans to ex-militias on the scale required to rebuild entire neighborhoods and towns?

There’s Syria’s thriving war economy, which functions in a very different manner to the free movement of goods and services. Real growth requires free movement and the war economy throws up another impediment.

The reality is the decay that saw Syria an economic backwater for the entire 40 years of Hafez Assad’s regime is back. For “Syria 2020,” read “Syria 1970.” Anyone who lived through those days would shudder at the thought that Syria’s future would look like that again.

The more unfortunate reality is that it did not have to be this way. Before 2011, Syria was booming. Though, with the Assads at the helm, the collapse and violence that followed were always possible.

Source: Middle East Online.


Intense government bombing of south Syria opposition holdout

July 18, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Talks to cede the largest opposition holdout in southwestern Syria to the government have failed, triggering an intense overnight bombing campaign on the densely populated town that killed a dozen people and injured over a hundred, activists and rescuers said Wednesday.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an overnight ‘frenzied’ bombing campaign continued into Wednesday, with at least 350 missiles lobbed into Nawa and its surrounding areas. The Observatory said at least 12 were killed as rescuers struggled to get to the casualties.

Khaled Solh, head of the local Syrian civil defense known as White Helmets, said only one ambulance was able to access the town and civilians relied on their cars to bring out at least 150 injured. He said the only hospital in the town was struck in the overnight campaign, rendering it non-operational. He said one of the last orthopedists in the town was killed in the strikes.

In less than a month, Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital that was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad more than seven years ago.

They have stepped up their military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region that includes Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Alongside the military offensive, the government has resorted to “reconciliation” agreements whereby it negotiated capitulation deals in a number of villages to restore government control in the localities that have been in rebel hands for years.

Talks to hand over Nawa, one of the most densely populated towns in Daraa province, have been ongoing for a couple of days. This has encouraged displaced civilians to return in droves to Nawa, said a local activist who goes by the name Selma Mohammed. But the talks faltered, triggering the overnight onslaught.

Mohammed said the bombing triggered a new wave of displacement, with hundreds leaving the town again. On Wednesday, the bombing focused on towns and villages surrounding Nawa, making the road in and out of town deadly, Mohammed said.

The Observatory said warplanes and ground forces have also targeted with a barrage of missiles the southern tip of the region, which is held by a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State group.

With most of Daraa under control, government forces have turned their focus to the area near the frontier with Israel, to clear the last pockets of the opposition. The offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open from the onslaught. Jordan said it will not take in new refugees and Israeli soldiers have shooed away dozens of protesters demanding protection who approached the frontier Tuesday.