Greece: Joint air force drills with Cyprus, Egypt, Israel

October 01, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Greece’s defense minister says plans are being drawn up for joint air force drills with Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and other European countries as part of efforts to bolster stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

Panos Kammenos’ remarks Sunday came after a military parade in the Cypriot capital to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the ethnically divided island’s independence. The parade included the overflight of a pair of Greek Air Force F-16 jets, the first showing of the Greek warplanes at the event in 16 years.

The island’s Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said there will be no let-up in efforts to reunify Cyprus, despite July’s collapse of peace talks with breakaway Turkish Cypriots. Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missiles were also put on the display at the parade.

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US builds permanent military base in Israel

September 20, 2017

The United States established on Monday its first permanent military base in the heart of the Negev in Israel, local media reported.

According to the Israeli media, the military base is located inside the Israeli Air Force’s Mashabim Air Base, west of the towns of Dimona and Yerucham.

Brigadier General Tzvika Haimovitch, head of the Israeli Air Force’s Aerial Defense Command, said this demonstrates the “years-old alliance between the United States and the State of Israel.”

Israeli army sources said that cooperation between the Israeli Air Force and the US Army has been routine.

According to the Times of Israel, Haimovitch also said that this base “allows us to improve our defense in discovery and in interception and in preparedness.”

He added that the new air base, along with other recent improvements to Israel’s air defense program, “will improve our abilities significantly. It will not get us to 100 per cent, but it will get us much closer to achieving important things during war.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170920-us-builds-permanent-military-base-in-israel/.

Iraq foils jihadist attempts to flee to Syria

2017-02-13

MOSUL – Iraqi forces have thwarted an attempt by around 200 jihadist fighters to flee their bastion of Tal Afar towards Syria, west of the city of Mosul, a security spokesman said Monday.

Forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), a paramilitary organisation dominated by Shiite militia groups, said the Islamic State group used tanks in their bid to break out of Tal Afar.

“The attack by the Daesh (IS) terrorist gangs started at around 7:00 pm (1600 GMT on Sunday), the fighting lasted around six hours,” their spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi said.

Hashed forces have been deployed in desert areas west of Mosul since federal forces launched a massive operation to retake the city from IS on October 17.

Their main goals are to retake Tal Afar, a Turkmen-majority city which is still held by IS, and to prevent the jihadists from being able to move men and equipment between Mosul and their strongholds in Syria.

“This was an attempt by Daesh to open a breach, flee to the Syria border and exfiltrate some leaders and fighters,” Assadi said.

He said that Hashed forces received support from army aviation helicopters when IS attacked them. He added that the fighting left around 50 IS members killed and 17 of their vehicles destroyed.

Assadi did not provide a casualty figure for the Hashed al-Shaabi following the attack, which took place around 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Tal Afar.

IS jihadists are confined to a corridor between Tal Afar and Mosul by tens of thousands of forces deployed on several fronts.

After retaking the eastern side of Mosul last month, Iraqi forces are preparing to launch an assault on the west bank of the city.

The early stages of the Mosul offensive saw IS move fighters between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqa, its other major urban stronghold, but their supply lines have now been cut off.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81417.

On Syria’s Raqa front, anti-IS fighters long for their loves

2017-09-07

RAQA – The melancholy ballad sung by anti-jihadist fighter Nimer echoes through the makeshift outpost in Syria’s Raqa. But his sorrow has nothing to do with the surrounding battles: he misses his girlfriend.

His lilting rendition competes with the sound of artillery fire and US-led coalition air strikes targeting the Islamic State group in its one-time bastion.

But Nimer, 18, seems a world away from the battlefield when he speaks about his love.

“I like to play these songs on my mobile phone, and then sing them quietly to my love,” the young Syrian Democratic Forces fighter confides timidly.

He has not seen his girlfriend for a month and a half as he battles alongside his Kurdish and Arab comrades against IS.

Each time he has leave, he heads to his sister’s house outside the city and tries to see his beloved.

“I want to marry her, have children and build a life from scratch,” he says wistfully.

Around him, fellow fighters sit on purple cushions and smoke in silence, enjoying a respite from the offensive.

Their weapons are lined up along the wall next to them in the house, commandeered as an outpost.

Nimer hails from Raqa and lost his parents and brothers to the battles that have raged inside the city since June, when the SDF entered the IS stronghold after battling for months to encircle it.

“When we advance on the front, I revisit my memories in the midst of all the destruction. On each street we have memories together,” he says.

– ‘I did the impossible’ –

Sporting a light beard and digital camouflage, Nimer still recalls the extreme interpretation of Islam imposed by IS’s “religious police”, including a rigid separation between men and women.

“I couldn’t have photos or songs on my phone. I was afraid they would arrest me and accuse me of adultery. That was the way they thought,” Nimer says.

“I would risk my life just to see her. I did the impossible.”

Many of Raqa’s streets are now virtually unrecognizable, with building after building disfigured by the grinding battle to oust IS.

In the distance, a US-led coalition air strike sends up a vast bloom of grey and white dust and rubble, and fighters nearby let off volleys of gunfire.

Yasser Ahmed discreetly moves away from his fellow fighters so he can speak freely about his two-year girlfriend, whom he hasn’t seen for ten days.

“Under IS, it was like a prison,” says Ahmed, 20, also from Raqa city.

“I couldn’t see my beloved. We only talked by landline because we were afraid that IS’s people would see us. We were scared all the time,” adds Ahmed.

The top buttons of Ahmed’s shirt are open to reveal a small gold chain hanging around his neck, a present from his love.

“She always tries to persuade me not to return to the front, but I tell her I must liberate my city from IS so we can live in security,” adds Ahmed, his skin tanned a deep brown.

“Love is the most beautiful thing we have. During the war, we lost a lot. We don’t want to lose love as well.”

– Broken heart –

Abu Shalash, another fighter from Raqa, is battling the jihadists to heal a broken heart.

His lover’s parents forced her to break up with him and marry her cousin.

“I went crazy, and I joined the fighting to forget my pain,” says the 19-year-old.

He and his ex-girlfriend dated covertly under IS in their native Raqa, but she now lives in Ain Issa, a town further north.

“I left my city, I hated my life. When I passed in front of the house, I would remember the memories we created together,” he says.

From time to time, Abu Shalash looks at the ground in exasperation, pausing to take a deep breath before resuming.

“During our last Valentine’s Day, we celebrated in secret,” he says.

“I brought her a red teddy bear and a cake with our initials on it. We always met at night, so IS wouldn’t see us.”

Despite everything, Abu Shalash hasn’t lost hope that he might find love again.

“Life under IS was torture. I want the battles to end, and for us to live our love freely,” he says.

“I want Raqa to become a city for all the lovers who were deprived of their love by IS.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84723.

Refugees fleeing conflict zones opt for war-torn Syria

2017-09-06

DAMASCUS – Millions of Syrians have fled their country’s war as refugees, but for tens of thousands of people escaping conflict elsewhere, Syria is also a place of refuge.

Among them is Zahraa Abdi, who fled her native Somalia in 2012 and lives in a small room with her three children in northern Damascus.

“In Syria, death is organised, you can escape it. But in Somalia, it strikes randomly, at any time or place, there’s no escape,” she said, her hair wrapped in a turquoise headscarf.

The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR estimates some 55,000 refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and beyond are currently living in Syria, which has been ravaged by conflict since March 2011.

It provides them with various forms of assistance, though many also work to supplement the aid.

The largest refugee contingent, numbering around 31,000, are Iraqis who crossed the border into Syria to flee their country’s many years of violence.

But the UN also counts some 1,500 Afghan refugees, and 1,500 more from Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia.

Abdi, 47, chose to come to Syria because she could enter without a visa, and she was desperate to find safety for her family.

She fled her home in a suburb of the Somali capital Mogadishu after her 10-year-old daughter was raped and murdered.

“In Syria, there is bombing, but there are also regions were you can take refuge. In Somalia, the armed men enter homes and kill the inhabitants,” said Abdi, dressed in a black robe embellished with rhinestones.

“I don’t want anything for myself, I just want safety for my children.”

Somalia has been engulfed in violence for most of the past 25 years, and waves of Somalis have fled abroad searching for safety.

But conflict also caught up with Abdi in Syria.

In 2012, she was living in the town of Al-Tal, held then by opposition forces and subject to sporadic government blockade and regular clashes.

She spent two years there before escaping to the relative safety of nearby Damascus.

– ‘Syria is part of me’ –

While Abdi moved to Syria in the early part of the conflict, most refugees sought safety in the country long before it was consumed by war.

In a modest church packed to capacity in a Damascus suburb, 45-year-old Faten sings hymns in Arabic and English.

A Chaldean Christian from Iraq, she and her family fled to Syria in 2007 after receiving death threats related to her sister’s job at a cafeteria serving US forces.

Graffiti was scrawled on the walls of their home accusing them of “treason,” and shots were fired at the house.

“When they set fire to the house, we knew it was the end, that we had to go,” she said, her curly hair pulled up in a pony tail above her lightly made-up face.

“My brother and sister and I left without anything. We were barefoot so we wouldn’t make any noise when we were running away,” she said.

She sought refuge at All Saints Church in the Jaramana suburb of Damascus, where she met Alex Amazia, a refugee from Sudan who would become her husband.

Amazia arrived in Syria in 1999, fleeing Sudan’s civil war.

Twelve years later, South Sudan announced its independence and he found himself the citizen of a new country, but one Syria’s government does not recognize.

He is unable to renew his Sudanese papers, or to obtain South Sudanese ones in Syria, and so lives without documentation.

But he said the violence that has surged in South Sudan makes life in Syria a better option regardless.

“Despite all the difficult circumstances we have lived through in Syria, the situation in South Sudan remains appalling, and doesn’t compare to here,” he insisted.

He has spent 18 years in Syria now, missing the funerals of his father and brother.

“Syria has become part of me, I am Syrian,” he said.

Alex and Faten married in 2014 and he looks after the church, which is attended by a flock that includes dozens of refugees, mostly from South Sudan and Iraq.

Faten feels the conflict she fled in Iraq has caught up with her across the border in Syria.

“We feel that we are stuck with the curse of war,” she said.

– ‘Weary of war’ –

Roqaya Omar, 60, also found herself caught up in the Syrian conflict, after fleeing Somalia a decade ago.

In 2012, she was living in the town of Harna near Damascus, which was a frontline in the fighting.

“We lived all the experiences of war like any Syrian,” she said.

“We were besieged and we heard the sound of battle and shelling,” she added.

“But I didn’t feel the same fear as I did in Somalia, where anyone can be killed with knives and slaughtered.”

She was able to flee Harna and move with her 26-year-old son Mohamed into Damascus.

“I’m weary of war,” she said, stroking her son’s face tenderly.

“I want to spend the rest of my life with my son in any country in the world… any country where there is no war.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84697.

Syrian army breaks IS siege on Deir Ezzor

2017-09-05

DAMASCUS – Syria’s army broke a years-long Islamic State group siege on the government enclave of Deir Ezzor city on Tuesday as it battles to expel the jihadists from a key stronghold.

The jihadist group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqa to US-backed forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding oil-rich province of the same name would leave it with only a handful of isolated outposts.

Syria’s army and allied fighters, backed by Russian air support, have been advancing towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts in recent weeks, and on Tuesday arrived inside the Brigade 137 base on its western edge.

“The Syrian Arab Army this afternoon broke the siege on Deir Ezzor city after its advancing forces arrived from the western province to Brigade 137,” state news agency SANA said.

“This great achievement is a strategic shift in the war on terror and confirms the ability of the Syrian Arab Army and its allies,” the army command said.

A local journalist said a minesweeper moved ahead of troops as they arrived at the base.

As they reached the soldiers who have been besieged inside the base and adjacent parts of the city, the troops embraced and shouted patriotic slogans.

Others fired in the air and flashed victory signs, as Syrian and Russian warplanes flew overhead.

Civilians gathered on either side of the road connecting the base to neighborhoods of the city to welcome the arriving troops.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad congratulated troops in a call to commanders at the base, his office said.

“Today you stood side-by-side with your comrades who came to your rescue and fought the hardest battles to break the siege on the city,” he said.

A source in the Deir Ezzor governorate said trucks loaded with food and medicine were expected to arrive inside the besieged city from Aleppo by this evening.

Government forces and tens of thousands of civilians in the city have been trapped under IS siege for over two years, facing food and medical shortages.

Early this year, the government-held parts of the city were cut in two by an IS offensive.

The army’s advance Tuesday breaks the siege on the northern part of the city, but a southern section, which includes a key military airport, remains surrounded, with the army now 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Around 100,000 people are believed to be inside government-held areas of Deir Ezzor, with perhaps 10,000 more in parts of the city held by IS.

Earlier Tuesday, the national flag was raised throughout government-held areas of the city in anticipation of celebrations upon the arrival of government soldiers.

Some residents had begun greeting each other with “Good morning of victory.”

The army still faces a potentially difficult battle to break the siege on the south of the city and free its remaining neighborhoods, and the surrounding province, from IS.

But for the government, its success would be “one of the most symbolic victories in its six-year war,” wrote Syria analyst Aron Lund in a recent analysis.

– ‘Spiral of defeats’ –

“The reopening of the Deir Ezzor road is a strategic disaster for IS, which is now at its weakest since 2014 and seems unable to break out of an accelerating spiral of defeats,” he added.

IS has lost over half its other Syrian stronghold, the city of Raqa, to an offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

And in neighboring Iraq, it has lost 90 percent of the territory it once held, including the city of Mosul.

Inside Deir Ezzor, residents have faced years of privation, with food becoming scare or unaffordable, and medicine and healthcare unavailable.

The government has continued to fly in limited supplies by helicopter, and the UN last year began airdropping humanitarian aid to the city.

Syria’s army began its offensive to reach the city in earnest last month, and has advanced on multiple fronts, including from the neighboring Raqa province to the west and central Homs province to the south.

It has been supported by Russia’s military, which began an intervention in support of the government in 2015.

The Syrian army’s breaking of the years-long siege of Deir Ezzor city is a “very important strategic victory,” the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

“Commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin has congratulated the Russian military command (in Syria) as well as the command of the Syrian government troops with this very important strategic victory over the terrorists with the aim of freeing Syria from ISIL,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Earlier Tuesday a Russian warship in the Mediterranean fired cruise missiles at IS fighters near the town of Al-Shula to aid the Syrian army, the Russian defense ministry said.

“As a result of these strikes there was damage to the infrastructure, underground communications, weapon stockpiles of the terrorists, and this allowed the armed contingents of government forces… to rapidly advance, break through IS defenses and unblock the city (of Deir Ezzor),” Peskov said.

Putin has also “sent a telegram to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” praising the victory, he added.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests which were violently suppressed, leading the country into a vicious and complex civil war.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84687.

34 Syria regime forces killed in IS counterattack

2017-08-25

LONDON – At least 34 Syrian soldiers and allied fighters have been killed in an Islamic State counterattack in the east of Raqa province, rolling back regime gains, a monitor said Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the jihadist group had recaptured large swathes of territory from government forces in the fighting on Thursday.

Syria’s army is seeking to advance through Raqa province to reach neighboring Deir Ezzor, where jihadists have besieged government forces and civilians in the provincial capital since 2015.

Earlier this month, government troops and allied fighters arrived at the outskirts of Madan, the last IS-held town in the eastern Raqa province countryside before Deir Ezzor.

But in Thursday’s counterattack, IS “made major progress and… expanded the area under its control along the southern bank of the Euphrates,” the Observatory said.

“IS has managed to push regime forces back 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the western outskirts of Madan,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The Syria army operation in the area, backed by air support from ally Russia, is separate from the battle for provincial capital Raqa city.

The effort to oust IS from the city, once the jihadist group’s Syrian stronghold, is being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

The SDF has captured just under 60 percent of Raqa city since it entered in June after months of fighting to encircle it.

More than 330,000 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=84537.