Posts Tagged ‘ Syria ’

Iraqi forces recaptures crossing on Syria border from IS

2017-11-03

BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces said they recaptured an important crossing on the border with Syria from the Islamic State group on Friday as they advanced into the jihadists’ last bastion in Iraq.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said troops had “regained full control” of the Husaybah border post on the edge of the town of Al-Qaim after launching a push to oust the jihadists.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi released a statement congratulating the armed forces for “entering into Al-Qaim and liberating” the border crossing.

An Iraqi army officer said that the jihadists “deserted the border post after several of them were killed” and headed off into Syria.

Al-Qaim and the surrounding areas are the last remnants of the self-styled caliphate IS declared after rampaging across Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Iraqi forces backed up by air strikes from a US-led coalition launched the operation last week to seize back the strategically located pocket of barren desert along the Euphrates river.

IS is simultaneously battling for survival in its holdouts across the border in Syria, where government troops said they ousted the group from the key city of Deir Ezzor on Friday.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85756.

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Thousands of Russian private contractors fighting in Syria

December 12, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Before he was killed by a sniper in Syria at age 23, Ivan Slyshkin wrote a poignant message on social media to his fiancee: “We will see each other soon — and I will hold you as tight as I possibly can.”

But Slyshkin’s name won’t be found among the Russian Defense Ministry’s official casualties in the fight against Islamic State extremists. That’s because the young man who left his hometown of Ozyorsk in the Ural mountains was one of thousands of Russians deployed to Syria by a shadowy, private military contractor known as Wagner, which the government doesn’t talk about.

Slyshkin’s gravestone depicts him holding a machine gun, according to a local news website Znak.com that sent a reporter to his March 2 funeral in Ozyorsk, where friends said he joined Wagner to earn money to pay for his wedding.

“He was in Wagner’s group,” his friend Andrei Zotov told The Associated Press, adding that Slyshkin was killed as the security forces were advancing on the Al-Shayer oil field north of Palmyra. “There are many good guys there. He volunteered to join the company,” Zotov said. “Like many Russian fighters, he wanted to solve his money issues.”

The St. Petersburg-based website Fontanka reported that about 3,000 Russians under contract to the Wagner group have fought in Syria since 2015, months before Russia’s two-year military campaign helped to turn the tide of the civil war in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Moscow ally.

When Putin went to a Russian air base in Syria on Monday and told Russian troops that “you are coming back home with victory,” he did not mention the private contractors. Russian troops are expected to remain in Syria for years while the contractors are likely to stay to guard lucrative oil and gas fields under a contract between the Syrian government and another Russian company allegedly linked to a businessman known as “Putin’s chef” for his close ties to the Kremlin.

Proxy fighters like Slyshkin have played a key role in Syria. In addition to augmenting troops officially sent by Moscow, their secret deployment has helped keep the official Russian death toll low as Putin seeks re-election next year.

The Russian Defense Ministry has said 41 of its troops have died in Syria. But according to Fontanka, another 73 private contractors have been killed there. The Kremlin and the Defense Ministry have stonewalled questions about Russians fighting in Syria in a private capacity. Private contractors have been used by countries like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan for years; Russian law forbids the hiring of mercenaries or working as one.

But Russia has used such proxies before — in the conflict to help pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014. One Russian commander boasted of working alongside Russian troops who said they were “on vacation” while fighting in Ukraine.

The Defense Ministry has refused to say how many of its troops are in Syria, although one estimate based on absentee ballots cast in the Russian parliamentary election last year indicated 4,300 personnel were deployed there. That number probably rose this year because Moscow sent Russian military police to patrol “de-escalation zones.”

“The Russian people are not very enthused by the idea of an empire that would involve their boys coming home in body bags. There’s clearly a lack enthusiasm for this conflict,” said Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.

“By having this military company Wagner, they can have a force they can actually deploy … but when people die, it doesn’t have to be announced,” Galeotti said. Fontanka, which is respected for its independent reporting, has obtained what it described as Wagner’s spreadsheets and recruitment forms that indicate thousands of Russians have fought in Syria. Of about 3,000 Wagner employees deployed to Syria over the years, the single largest contingent at a given time has been about 1,500, said Denis Korotkov, a reporter for Fontanka.

Since 2015, at least 73 of them have died, he said. Another investigative group, Conflict Intelligence Team, or CIT, put the number of private contractor deaths at 101. Both outlets say those are conservative estimates.

“The most important proof is people, dead and alive, who have said they are mercenaries and their relatives say there are mercenaries,” said CIT founder Ruslan Leviev. “How would hundreds of people all over the country collude and come up with the same story?”

Activists with CIT made a name for the group by combing social media and other records for Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and are doing the same for Syria. Both Fontanka and CIT published photos from what they called a Wagner training base in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia. Some of the facilities look identical to those seen in official Defense Ministry photos of a military base in Molkino, in the same area.

Agreements signed with the security companies have kept the private contractors and members of their families from speaking to the media about their activities. Survivors receive generous compensation for keeping silent, and most attempts by AP to contact relatives and friends of those killed have been unsuccessful.

Media in southern Russia reported the death of Alexander Karchenkov in Syria in November 2016. The BelPressa website showed the mayor of his hometown of Stary Oskol giving a medal to Karchenkov’s tearful widow, Marina, and mother.

Marina Karchenkova said her husband went to Syria as a contract soldier because he “had children to raise.” In a handwritten form dated December 2015, Karchenkov said he was unemployed, serving in the Soviet army in 1989-1991 and as a volunteer in Kosovo in 1998-2000.

In October, the Islamic State group released video of two Russian captives it said had been fighting in Syria, and one of them identified himself as Roman Zabolotny and said the other was Grigory Tsurkanu. The Defense Ministry denied they were Russian servicemen, and media reports said they were working for Wagner. Their fate at the hands of the extremists is unknown.

The Wagner group was founded by retired Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, who came under U.S. sanctions in June after the Treasury Department said the company had recruited former soldiers to join the separatists fighting in Ukraine. Utkin was photographed a year ago at a Kremlin banquet thrown by Putin to honor military veterans.

Also under U.S. sanctions is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the St. Petersburg entrepreneur dubbed “Putin’s chef” by Russian media because of his restaurants and catering businesses that once hosted the Kremlin leader’s dinners with foreign dignitaries. In the more than 10 years since establishing a relationship with Putin, his business expanded to other services for the military.

Earlier this year, an anti-corruption foundation run by opposition leader Alexei Navalny detailed how Prigozhin’s firms have come to dominate Defense Ministry contracts. The U.S. State Department put Prigozhin on its sanctions list in 2016 related to the Ukrainian conflict, citing his “extensive business dealings” with the Defense Ministry.

Among the firms linked to Prigozhin is Evro Polis, a Moscow-registered company that Fontanka reported has become a front for Wagner’s operations in Syria. In 2016, Evro Polis listed the sale of food products as its core activities, according to the Spark Interfax database. But this year, it listed mining, oil and gas production, and opened an office in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The AP obtained a copy of a 48-page contract between Evro Polis and Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp., which said the Russian company would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure from Islamic State militants. While the five-year contract could not be authenticated, Fontanka reported the same deal in June.

“The link between Evro Polis and Prigozhin is significant and is not in doubt,” said Fontanka’s Korotkov. “We believe that this firm is just a cover for the private company Wagner, and it could be an attempt to legalize this group, possibly for a commercial use later on.”

Both Evro Polis and Prigozhin’s Concorde Management and Consulting were unavailable for comment, and the Defense Ministry did not reply to AP’s request for comment. An AP reporter who went to Evro Polis’ Damascus office in November found it closed, with no sign on the door.

Syria’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources declined comment when asked about the Evro Polis deal. Asked about the contract, the Russian Energy Ministry told Fontanka it cannot divulge “commercial secrets,” and declined comment to the AP.

As the Russian campaign in Syria draws to a close, the private contractors will probably stay, analysts say. Wagner is “is likely to cement its footing because we saw that there were not only military goals to pursue … but there is a commercial motive,” Leviev said. “Someone needs to guard the oil fields.”

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed.

China to deploy ‘Night Tigers’ to Syria in support of Assad’s forces

29 November, 2017

China will deploy troops to Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as the East Asian country becomes increasingly concerned about the presence of Islamic militants in its far western region of Xinjiang.

The Chinese Ministry of Defense intends to send two units known as the “Tigers of Siberia” and the “Night Tigers” from the Special Operations Forces to aid regime troops against militant factions, New Khaleej reported, citing informed sources.

Some 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from China’s violence-prone region of Xinjiang are fighting in various militant groups in Syria, the Syrian ambassador to China said earlier this year.

Chinese state media has blamed violence in Xinjiang on extremists who were trained in Syria.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang in the past few years, most in unrest between Uighurs and ethnic majority Han Chinese. The government blames the unrest on Islamist militants who want a separate state called East Turkestan.

Uighurs themselves complain of discrimination and say their traditional and religious way of life is being eroded by Chinese domestic policy and an influx of settlers from elsewhere in China.

China has said that “East Turkestan terrorist forces” had posed several threats against the government.

Assad has previously praised “crucial cooperation” between Syria and Chinese intelligence against Uighur militants, adding ties with China were “on the rise”.

Chinese military personnel have been on the ground in Syria since at least last year, training Syrian forces to use China-made weapons.

China has also joined Russia in blocking resolutions critical of the regime at the United Nations Security Council, as one of the five vetoing powers on the panel.

Source: The New Arab.

Link: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2017/11/29/china-to-deploy-night-tigers-to-syria.

Sadr becomes first Iraqi Shi’ite leader to urge Assad to step down

by Mohamed Mostafa

Apr 9, 2017

(Reuters) Iraq’s influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “take a historic heroic decision” and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed.

Sadr, who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and the southern cities, is the first Iraqi Shi’ite political leader to urge Assad to step down.

But his call was wrapped in kind words about the Syrian president and condemnation of the U.S. strikes carried out on a Syrian airbase on Friday, in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians in a rebel-held area of Syria.

Sadr said the U.S. strikes would “drag the region to war” and could help “the expansion of Daesh,” the militant Islamic State group, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-led governments have maintained good relations with the Syrian government throughout the six-year Syrian civil war. Sadr is the only Iraqi Shi’ite leader to keep some distance from Iran, a main backer of Assad along with Russia.

“I think it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism …and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late,” Sadr said in a statement.

The Shi’ite-led Iraqi government issued a statement on Friday that reflected the difficult balancing act it maintains between its alliance with the United States and with Shi’ite Iran. It condemned the chemical attack, without naming Assad, calling instead for an international investigation to identify the perpetrator.

The statement also criticized “the hasty interventions” that followed the chemical attack, in an apparent reference to the U.S. strikes.

A U.S.-led coalition has been providing air and ground support to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State, allowing them to recapture most of the cities they had overrun in 2014 in Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq.

Source: Iraqi News.

Link: http://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/sadr-becomes-first-iraqi-shiite-leader-urge-assad-step/.

Erdogan swipes at Russia, U.S. missions in Syria

NOVEMBER 13, 2017

ANKARA/SOCHI (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan took swipes at U.S. and Russian interventions in Syria on Monday and said if countries truly believed a military solution was impossible, they should withdraw their troops.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump said in a joint statement on Saturday they would continue to fight against Islamic State in Syria, while agreeing that there was no military solution to the country’s wider, six-year-old conflict.

”I am having trouble understanding these comments,“ Erdogan told reporters before flying to Russia for talks with Putin. ”If a military solution is out of the question, then those who say this should pull their troops out.

“Then a political method should be sought in Syria, ways to head into elections should be examined… We will discuss these with Putin,” he said.

After more than four hours of talks with Putin in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, Erdogan said the two leaders had agreed to focus on a political solution to the conflict.

“We agreed that the grounds to focus on a political solution (in Syria) have been formed,” he said.

Putin said Russia would continue to work on Syria with Turkey and their efforts were yielding results: “The level of violence has definitely been reduced, favorable conditions are being created for the progression of a inter-Syrian dialogue.”

Neither leader went into more specific detail. Asked if the two discussed Erdogan’s earlier comments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the talks were about more complex issues which could not be made public, according to RIA news agency.

Turkey has been annoyed by both Russian and U.S. missions in Syria. Before his trip to Russia, Erdogan said both Moscow, which backs President Bashar al-Assad, and Washington, which armed Syrian YPG Kurdish forces Ankara sees as allied to separatists fighting in southeastern Turkey, had set up bases.

“The United States said it would completely leave Iraq, but it didn‘t. The world is not stupid, some realities are being told differently and practiced differently,” he said.

He said the United States had 13 bases in Syria and Russia had five. The YPG has said Washington has established seven military bases in areas of northern Syria. The U.S.-led coalition says it does not discuss the location of its forces.

Russia has been a strong supporter of Assad, whose removal Erdogan has demanded, and Moscow’s military intervention two years ago helped turn the conflict in the Syrian president’s favor.

Turkish troops have also fought in Syria to halt the advance of Kurdish YPG forces along its frontier.

“We attach great importance to the joint steps Turkey and Russia will take on (the) defense industry,” Erdogan said.

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-turkey-russia/erdogan-swipes-at-russia-u-s-missions-in-syria-idUSKBN1DD1F2.

Turkey rebuilds over 400 war-torn schools in Syria

November 20, 2017

Over the last eight months, Turkey has rebuilt over 400 damaged schools in Syria’s Aleppo region, enabling 152,000 children to continue their education.

After the Operation Euphrates Shield operation, Turkey’s National Education Ministry launched a study for a total of 458 schools in Aleppo’s Jarabulus, Al-Bab, Cobanbey and Azez regions.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, the ministry’s Lifelong Education Director Ali Riza Altunel said: “I believe the number of students will increase to around 170,000 by the end of the first semester.”

Altunel said the ministry had been running its program since March after Operation of Euphrates Shield was successfully wrapped up by the Turkish military.

“There were enough numbers of primary and middle schools, but a very small amount of high schools,” Altunel said. “In March, we only managed to continue with lessons in only three schools. By the end of June, the number increased to 103 schools.”

The director said children in the rebuilt regions were “extremely happy with Turkey’s contributions,” with Syrian children painting banners saying they continue their education “no matter what”.

“This is the reaction we are glad to receive in exchange for our hard work,” Altunel said.

The director said children in the region were unable to receive a proper education in the last five years.

“So, we launched a ‘compensation program’ for children to make up for the lack of the education,” he said. “We are working hard to graduate children from elementary schools for them to continue with middle school.”

Syria has remained locked in a vicious civil war since 2011. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by the conflict and millions more displaced, according to UN figures.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171120-turkey-rebuilds-over-400-war-torn-schools-in-syria/.

Syrian forces liberate Albu Kamal from IS

2017-11-19

DEIR EZZOR – The Syrian army and loyalist militiamen Sunday retook full control of Albu Kamal from the Islamic State group, a military source said, ousting the jihadists from their last urban stronghold in Syria.

Albu Kamal has changed hands several times, with government forces announcing the capture of the town near the Iraqi border earlier this month but losing it to a blistering IS counter-attack a week ago.

“Syrian troops and allied forces took full control of Albu Kamal, and are removing mines and explosives left by IS,” the military source in Deir Ezzor said on Sunday.

“IS put up fierce resistance and tried to use explosives and suicide bombers, but besieging the city allowed the army to clinch the offensive and take full control of the city,” the source added.

State news agency SANA also reported the advance in Albu Kamal, saying the “Syrian army and its allies eliminated the last Daesh (IS) terrorist pocket in the town.”

A string of territorial defeats across northern and eastern Syria had left Albu Kamal as the last significant Syrian town held by IS.

Syria’s army announced on November 9 it had ousted IS from the town, but the jihadists launched a lightning offensive and retook it.

A week later, the army and allied Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian fighters broke back into Albu Kamal and steadily advanced through the town.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed on Sunday that Syrian troops and their allies had captured Albu Kamal.

“IS fighters withdrew from the city towards the Euphrates River,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

“There is no more fighting in the town, but there are clashes around Albu Kamal,” he said.

The monitor said more than 80 fighters were killed in the three days of ferocious push to retake the town, including 31 pro-regime forces and at least 50 IS jihadists.

IS seized large areas of both Syria and neighboring Iraq in a lightning 2014 campaign, but this year has lost much of the territory it once held.

The loss of Albu Kamal caps the group’s reversion to an underground guerrilla organisation with no urban base.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86013.