Archive for the ‘ Syria ’ Category

Tajikistan grants amnesty for over 100 Syria, Iraqi returnees

2018-02-08

DUSHANBE – Tajikistan has granted amnesty to more than 100 of its nationals following their return home from Syria and Iraq, where they had joined radical Islamist groups, the interior minister said Thursday.

Speaking at a news conference in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda said the returnees had been pardoned in line with a 2015 government pledge.

“Regarding the fate of 111 Tajik citizens who returned from Syria and Iraq voluntarily, all of them are free under Tajik law,” Rahimzoda said.

Most of the returnees in question had spent time in Syria, which became a magnet for jihadists from around the globe following its descent into civil war in 2011.

Rahimzoda also told reporters that 250 citizens of Tajikistan, a majority-Muslim country, had died fighting for radical groups in Iraq and Syria, mostly the Islamic State group.

Authorities have previously said that over 1,000 Tajik citizens, including women, had joined the radical militants.

Most had traveled to Syria and Iraq through Russia, where over a million Tajiks are believed to work as labor migrants.

The Islamic State group’s most high-profile Tajik recruit Gulmurod Khalimov had served as the chief of the interior ministry’s special forces unit prior to his sensational defection in 2015.

Russia’s defense ministry said in September last year that Khalimov, who may have been IS’s “minister of war”, had been killed in an airstrike.

Rahimzoda said Thursday that Tajikistan was still verifying that report.

Mountainous Tajikistan, the poorest former Soviet republic, shares a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Afghanistan, long a hotbed of Islamist militancy and the world’s largest producer of opium and heroin.

Governments have warned that fighters returning to their home countries after the collapse of the Islamic State group could raise the terror threat there.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87176.

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Israel downs Iranian drone and strikes Syria, F-16 crashes

February 10, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military shot down an Iranian drone it said infiltrated the country early Saturday before launching a “large-scale attack” on at least a dozen Iranian and Syrian targets inside Syria. Responding anti-aircraft fire led to the downing of an Israeli fighter jet.

Israel said the drone infiltration was a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty” and warned of further action against unprecedented Iranian aggression. The military said its planes faced massive anti-aircraft fire from Syria that forced two pilots to abandon an F-16 jet that crashed in northern Israel. One pilot was seriously wounded and the other lightly. Syrian officials reported large explosions in the center of the country and the Syrian counter fire set off warning sirens throughout northern Israel.

The Israeli strikes marked its most significant engagement since the fighting in neighboring Syria began in 2011 and said Iran would be held responsible for its outcome. “This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said in a special statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”

Gen. Hossein Salami, acting commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, did not acknowledge Israel’s claim it shot down the drone. “We do not confirm any such news from Israel,” he said. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasem called the Israeli claim “ridiculous.”

But the joint operations room for the Syrian military and its allies denied the drone violated Israeli airspace, saying it was on a regular mission gathering intelligence on Islamic State militants. Syria’s Defense Ministry said in statements on its website that its air defenses responded successfully to the Israeli operation and hit more than one plane. “The Israeli enemy has once again attacked some of our military bases in the southern area and our air defenses responded and foiled the aggression,” it said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman were convening the top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss further response. Israel has mostly stayed out of the prolonged fighting in Syria, wary of being drawn into a war in which nearly all the parties are hostile toward it. It has recently been warning of the increased Iranian presence along its border, but military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Saturday’s incident marked the most “blatant and severe violation of Israeli sovereignty” yet.

He said Israel has no interest in further escalation but that it would “extract a heavy price” for such aggression. Conricus said Iran was “playing with fire” by infiltrating Israeli airspace, and said the unmanned aircraft Israel shot down was “on a military mission sent and operated by Iranian military forces.” He said Israel recovered the dispatched drone, which was clearly Iranian.

In response, Conricus said Israeli jets destroyed the Iranian site in central Syria that launched it. Upon their return, the jets came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the pilots of one of the F-16s had to escape and the plane crashed. It’s unclear whether the plane was actually struck or if the pilots abandoned their mission for a different reason.

If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it could mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war. Regardless, Damascus residents celebrated the news. Wassim Elias, 39, a government employee, called it retribution for the many Israeli raids on Syrian soil before. “This earned the Syrian army and every Syrian citizen prestige. This is what we have always demanded,” he said.

Firas Hamdan, 42, a public servant, said such Syrian responses will ensure no more Israeli attacks in Syria. “Such attacks should be confronted and the response should be tougher to give the Israelis a lesson.”

In subsequent attacks, Israel struck four additional Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites in Syria. The military said significant damage was caused. Conricus said the Israeli jets faced between 15 to 20 anti-aircraft missiles fired by SA-5 and SA-17 batteries. All the Israeli jets in those sorties returned home safely.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said Israel targeted the edges of a military air base, called T-4, in the Homs desert near Palmyra, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces are based alongside Syrian troops. The Observatory said the raids resulted in casualties, but didn’t specify. It also said Israeli raids targeted areas in southwestern Damascus, bordering the southern provinces. This was followed by raids on Syrian government posts along the Damascus-Beirut road, close to the border between Syria and Lebanon.

Syrian state TV said air defenses hit more than one Israeli plane and that a girl was injured when Israeli missiles fell near a school in a neighborhood in Damascus’ countryside. A Syrian lawmaker, Feras Shehabi, said the response marked a “major shift in the balance of power in favor of Syria and the axis of resistance.” He said “Israelis must realize they have no longer superiority in the skies or on the ground.”

Retired Lt. Col. Reuven Ben-Shalom, a former Air Force pilot, said the fierce Israeli response was meant not only to counter the immediate threat but also to send “very clear messages” to show Iran how deep Israel’s knowledge was of its activity in Syria.

“The fact that a drone like this is identified, tracked and intercepted so smoothly by the Israeli air force demonstrates our capabilities, demonstrates our resolve not to allow the breach of Israeli sovereignty,” he said. “I think it’s good that our enemies learn and understand these capabilities.”

Israel has long complained about the involvement of archenemy Iran, and Iranian proxy Hezbollah, in the Syria war. The Shiite allies have sent forces to back Syrian President Bashar Assad, who appears headed toward victory after years of fighting. Israel has said it will not accept a permanent military presence by Iran and its Shiite allies in Syria, especially near the Israeli border.

Israel has been warning of late of the increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. It fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to Hezbollah.

The Israeli Cabinet recently held a meeting on the Golan Heights near the border with Syria to highlight new threats, which are attributed to Iran’s growing confidence given Assad’s apparent victory in Syria thanks to their help.

Israel has shot down several drones that previously tried to infiltrate its territory from Syria. The targeting of Iranian sites in response, however, marks an escalation in the Israeli retaliation. The military confirmed that the initial target in Syria — the unmanned aircraft’s launch components — was successfully destroyed.

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.

France seeks closer ties with Russia despite Syria tensions

February 09, 2018

PARIS (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed cooperating more closely to resolve the Syrian crisis in a phone call Friday, as France tries to smooth ties with Russia and move beyond years of tensions over Syria and Ukraine.

Macron is making his first presidential trip to Russia in May. The two leaders talked Friday about preparations for the visit, where Macron plans to attend the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and to meet with Putin.

The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and Macron underlined during their call the need for developing closer cooperation on Syria. The statement did not elaborate. Macron’s office said he pushed for more robust Syrian peace talks — notably after a Russia-sponsored effort last month boycotted by the Syrian opposition.

Macron also pressed Putin to stop “intolerable degradation of the humanitarian situation” in regions of Syria that were pummeled by Syrian and Russian airstrikes in recent days, according to a statement from his office.

The presidents discussed another sore point in relations: the conflict in Ukraine. They stressed the need to enforce the 2015 Minsk peace agreement that was sponsored by France and Germany. Putin and Macron also hailed a potentially problematic project launched Friday to encourage contacts among Russian and French citizens. Called the Trianon Dialogue, the initiative appears aimed at minimizing European sanctions against Russia for its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The French-Russian project is aimed at encouraging interactions through joint theater productions, school trips, sister city agreements and real estate investments. Yet geopolitical tensions threaten to complicate the effort.

Among the Russians overseeing the Trianon Dialogue are magnate Gennady Timchenko, a longtime associate of Putin’s, and former railways chief Vladimir Yakunin — both targets of U.S. sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. A former ambassador who is an outspoken supporter of Russia’s bombings of Syria and annexation of Crimea also is involved.

An official in Macron’s office acknowledged that “we may run into difficulties” in juggling the project’s open-arms mission with today’s East-West tensions. The official said the French side would remain “vigilant” to prevent Putin’s administration from using the event for political ends.

Macron has remained publicly committed to the European Union’s sanctions on Russia, but the Trianon Dialogue could be seen as undermining them. Aides said he pushed for the project “to encourage Franco-Russian economic relations” despite curbs on trade prompted by the sanctions and a Russian embargo.

The French members of the project’s board all are from outside politics. They include an astronaut, a ballet star, the director of the Versailles Chateau and the CEOs of oil giant Total and car-sharing company Blablacar.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

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.

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.

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.

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