Posts Tagged ‘ Syria ’

“Last” stand: Syria’s rebel Idlib prepares for a “losing” battle

September 17, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — They dug trenches around towns, reinforced caves for cover and put up sand bags around their positions. They issued calls to arms, urging young men to join in the defense of Idlib, the Syrian province where opposition fighters expect to make their last stand against Russian- and Iranian-backed government troops they have fought for years.

This time, it’s “surrender or die.” As the decisive stand for their last stronghold looms, this motley crew of tens of thousands of opposition fighters, including some of the world’s most radical groups, is looking for ways to salvage whatever is possible of an armed rebellion that at one point in the seven-year conflict controlled more than half of the country.

In its last chapter, just as it has throughout the long, bloody war, the Syrian rebellion’s fate lies in foreign hands. This time, the splintered and diverse rebels have only Turkey. “The whole world gave up on us, but Turkey will not,” said Capt. Najib al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkish-backed umbrella group known as the National Front for Liberation.

Idlib, with its 3 million residents and more than 60,000 fighters, is Turkey’s cross to bear. Ankara has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements of its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

A wide offensive is only likely after a green light from Russia. But delicate diplomatic moves are at work. Moscow is keen on strengthening ties with Turkey, at a time when Ankara’s relations are at their lowest with the United States. Turkey, by calling on the United States and Europe for support, seems to be playing on that interest to pressure Russia to accept its proposals for a solution on Idlib that avoids an attack.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets for the second time in 10 days with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, this time in Sochi, Russia. “After proving its influence in Syria and the Middle East, Russia wants to pull Turkey away from the West much more than achieve a military victory over the armed Syrian opposition,” Mustafa Ellabbad, an expert on Turkish-Arab relations, wrote in Kuwait’s al-Qabas newspaper.

The province, the size of Lebanon, has been the beating heart of the rebellion for years. In rebel hands since 2015, it is the largest contiguous territory they controlled. It has access to Turkish borders, securing supply lines for weapons, fighters and aid.

For the past two years, Idlib became the shoe-box into which were pushed an estimated 20,000 rebel fighters from around the country, after their losses to government troops and surrender deals negotiated with Russia and Damascus following devastating sieges. Civilians who refused to go back under government rule were also bussed there, nearly doubling the province’s population.

Among the estimated 60,000 opposition fighters in Idlib are at least 10,000 radicals affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee). Thousands of foreign fighters, from China, Europe and the Middle East, are the backbone of the radical groups.

The Turkish reinforcements are going to 12 observation points that Ankara set up around Idlib last year under a deal with Russia and Iran creating a “de-escalation zone.” The deal also effectively stopped an earlier government advance and set Turkey up as Idlib’s protector.

Separately, Turkey has troops stationed in the enclave under its control north and east of Idlib, where it backs Syrian opposition fighters and a civilian administration. It is part of its plan to create a safe area along the border where some of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees it hosts may return.

Ankara initially sent in its troops more than two years ago to push out the Islamic State group and Syrian Kurdish fighters. For Ankara, the increasingly assertive, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds were an existential threat that encourages the aspirations of its own Kurdish insurgents.

“In the mind of the rebellion, the hope is that from Turkish support they can have … a republic of northern Syria, protected by Turkey like Northern Cyprus,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

These Turkey-administered areas are likely to be the destination of the displaced and rebels of Idlib in case of an offensive. An Idlib offensive holds multiple threats for Turkey right on its border — a humanitarian crisis, a security nightmare with thousands of gunmen loose and a defeat to its plans for the safe zone. If Syrian forces retake Idlib with no agreement on the fate of the opposition fighters, they could threaten the Turkey-controlled enclave, and Ankara would lose credibility with the fighters and leverage with Damascus on any future deal.

“There is really no way for the Syrian military and Damascus’ allies to launch a military offensive on Idlib that doesn’t have deeply negative, injurious effects on Turkey. There is no real way they can cushion this for Turkey,” said Sam Heller, a Syria expert in the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Turkey’s strategy in the opposition areas has been complicated by the presence of radical fighters. By backing the National Front, it argued it can draw fighters away from the al-Qaida-linked HTS, the dominant power in the province, forcing it to dissolve and creating a new opposition force ready to negotiate with the Syrian government.

The strategy has had limited success. The National Front in recent months gained control of territory in Idlib from HTS, which still controls nearly 70 percent of the province. HTS began to show signs of splits and two weeks ago, Turkey declared it a terrorist group.

But with the onset of a military offensive, HTS has set up joint operation rooms with different National Front factions. Making a rare video appearance in late August, HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani — wearing an olive-green military uniform — vowed to fight Assad’s forces and said Turkish observation points were no protection.

The HTS spokesman in Idlib said now was not the time to talk about dissolving into Turkish-backed rebel groups. He underlined that an arrangement must eventually be made for the foreign fighters in the group.

“Right now, no sound is louder than that of the battle,” Imad Eddin Mujahed said. “We have many military surprises; enough to upset the balance and ward off aggressors.” In rallies around Idlib the last two weeks, protesters took to the streets to deny that the province is a hotbed of extremists. Thousands raised only the flag of the Syrian revolution, a reminder that there was once a popular uprising against Assad, and Idlib is now its last bastion.

Some raised banners reading: “The rebels are our hope and the Turks are our brothers.” Syrian forces and Iranian-backed militias are likely to avoid a clash with the Turkish troops. But the stance of the Syrian government and Iran is clear-cut: they vow to recapture all Syrian territory and are loath to see an expansion of Turkish and American influence. They argue the West fueled jihadis with past support of the opposition and now must let Syria get rid of them.

“Assad and Russia gave the choice to the international community: first we kill everybody. Second thing, (they said) if you want to protect (Idlib) then take those people you think are nice … It is cynical but puts the international community before its contradictions,” said Balanche.

Al-Mustafa, the National Front spokesman, said the rebels are prepared for a battle he called “existential.” But, he added, “our cause will not end if we lose this battle.”

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Defying dangers, Idlib residents protest Syria’s Assad

September 14, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — In cities and towns across Syria’s last opposition-held province, Idlib, residents poured into the streets on Friday to demonstrate against President Bashar Assad’s government in defiance of an expected offensive to retake the territory.

In the provincial capital, Idlib city, and in towns including Kafranbel, Dana, Azaz, Maaret al-Numan and al-Bab, demonstrators filled the streets after noon prayers and chanted against Assad, raising the tri-color green, white and black flag that has become the banner of Syria’s 2011 uprising, activists said.

“The rebels are our hope; Turks are our brothers; the terrorists are Bashar, Hezbollah and Russia,” read a banner carried by residents in the village of Kneiset Bani Omar, referring to Turkey which backs the opposition, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Russia that have joined the war along with Assad’s forces.

“There will be no solution in Syria without Assad’s fall,” read another banner carried in the northern village of Mhambel. The demonstrations were reported on the activist-run sites Aleppo Media Center, Orient News, and other social media pages.

Fridays have become the customary day for protests throughout the Arab world since the 2011 uprisings that swept through the region. Assad’s government and its backers, Russia and Iran, say Idlib is ruled by terrorists, and have threatened to seize it by force.

Wissam Zarqa, a university teacher in Idlib, said demonstrators were flying the tri-color flag to rebut the government line that Idlib is dominated by the al-Qaida linked Levant Liberation Committee group.

The province, population 3 million, is now the final shelter for close to 1.5 million displaced Syrians that fled fighting in other parts of Syria. Many say they will not return to government-ruled areas.

Government and Russian forces bombed towns and villages in the province earlier this week, killing more than a dozen civilians and damaging two hospitals. But the strikes eased on Wednesday amid talks between the opposition’s main regional sponsor Turkey, and Russia and Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are slated to meet Monday, said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “We will continue our efforts with Iran and with Russia. … (and) on international platforms as well,” said Cavusoglu in comments carried live on Turkish television.

Turkish media said the two leaders would meet in the Russian city of Sochi. Turkey has warned strongly against military action, saying it would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. Its military and defense chiefs visited border areas on Friday to inspect troop reinforcements sent to its Hatay and Gaziantep provinces.

Turkey has 12 military posts inside Idlib province, and activists reported on Thursday that Turkish reinforcements crossed over into Syria to fortify the installations. The United Nations said that in the first 12 days of September, over 30,000 people have been internally displaced by an intense aerial bombing campaign. Most of the displaced headed toward the border with Turkey, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, packing already overcrowded camps there.

The U.N.’s World Food Program said it, alongside partners, were already delivering monthly food rations for nearly 600,000 people. It said it was prepared to deliver emergency food assistance for up to 1 million people.

Save The Children said in a statement that it will continue to support extensive humanitarian programs through Syrian partner organizations in the country’s northwest. It added that this includes running primary healthcare clinics and a maternity hospital, vaccination and food security programs, supporting a network of schools and carrying out child protection work.

“One million children are trapped in Idlib facing what could be the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the long and bloody history of Syria’s seven-year war,” said Syria Response Advocacy Manager Caroline Anning.

Also Friday, The Elders, an international non-governmental organization of public figures, called on Russia, Turkey and Iran to work “hand-in-hand to prevent heavy civilian casualties in Syria’s Idlib region.”

Erdogan: Turkey to keep pushing Kurds out of Syria’s north

April 04, 2018

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his military “won’t stop” trying to oust Syrian Kurdish fighters from northern Syria, as he met with the leaders of Russia and Iran for talks on trying to resolve the conflict.

The three countries, which have teamed up to work for a Syria settlement despite their differences, reaffirmed their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and the continuation of local cease-fires. They called on the international community to provide more aid for war-ravaged Syria.

Erdogan, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were holding their second summit to discuss Syria’s future since attending a similar meeting in Sochi, Russia, in November. Russia and Iran have provided crucial support to President Bashar Assad’s forces, while Turkey has backed the rebels seeking to overthrow him.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Erdogan said Turkish troops, which last month took control of the northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin, would move eastward into Manbij and other areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, the Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey considers to be terrorists.

“I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the (YPG), starting with Manbij,” Erdogan said. He stressed that Turkey’s fight against the YPG would not distract from efforts to eliminate remnants of the Islamic State group from the country.

Wednesday’s summit came as the White House said its military mission to eradicate IS in Syria was coming to a “rapid end,” though it offered no timetable for withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops currently in Syria as part of an American-led coalition fighting the Islamic militants since 2014. President Donald Trump had said a day earlier that the U.S.’s primary mission was to defeat IS and “we’ve almost completed that task.”

With allies anxious about a hasty U.S. withdrawal, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the U.S. would stay in war-torn Syria to finish off the job of defeating the Islamic State group and was committed to eliminating the militants’ “small” presence that “our forces have not already eradicated.”

But Sanders suggested that would not be a long-term endeavor, and she described the extremist group that once controlled vast swaths of Syria and Iraq as “almost completely destroyed.” Trump’s comments conflict with views of his top military advisers, some of whom spoke at a separate event in Washington on Tuesday about the need to stay in Iraq and Syria to finish off the militant group, which once controlled large swaths of territory in both countries.

Asked about a possible U.S. pullout, Rouhani suggested Wednesday that the U.S. threat to withdraw from Syria was an excuse for soliciting money from countries that want U.S. forces to remain there. “One day they say they want to pull out of Syria. … Then it turns out that they are craving money,” he said. “They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria.”

It was unclear what Rouhani was referring to. But Trump in recent weeks has asked Saudi Arabia to contribute $4 billion for reconstruction in Syria as part of his efforts to get other countries to help pay for stabilizing the country, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the conversations publicly.

Rouhani also reiterated that there can be no military solution to the Syrian crisis. “It should be resolved through political solutions,” he said. Russia, Iran and Turkey have sponsored several rounds of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, and brokered local truces in four areas, helping to reduce hostilities. Their next tripartite meeting will be held in Tehran.

Erdogan said the Turkish and Russian militaries were discussing the possibility of establishing field hospitals in Syria’s Tal Abyad town to care for people injured in the Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta. “Be it the Turkish armed forces, be it the Russian armed forces, (we) want to quickly establish a field hospital so that initial treatment can be provided,” Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, the Russian military said Wednesday that it expects a rebel evacuation from the suburbs of the Syrian capital to be completed in the coming days. The Russian Defense Ministry and Syrian rebels struck a deal on Sunday for the Army of Islam, the biggest opposition group in eastern Ghouta, to leave the area for the rebel-controlled north.

The rebels were still leaving the town of Douma, but the evacuation was expected to wrap up in the coming days, said Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff. Earlier, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that more than 3,000 rebels and their family members had evacuated Douma since Sunday.

The evacuation comes after a blistering five-week government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and caused catastrophic damage in the besieged suburbs.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Cinar Kiper in Istanbul and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.

Diplomats from Iran, Russia, Turkey meet UN envoy on Syria

September 11, 2018

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. envoy for Syria hosted key diplomats from Iran, Russia and Turkey on Tuesday to discuss work toward rewriting the country’s constitution, amid concerns about a possibly devastating military offensive on rebel-held Idlib province.

The talks led by Staffan de Mistura started and ended with little or no comment to reporters at the U.N. offices in Geneva, and offered a sideshow to the concerns about a looming battle for the northern province — the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria after 7½ years of war and now home to some 3 million civilians.

De Mistura’s spokesman, Michael Contet, said in an email that any debriefing by the envoy about the meeting will be “reserved” for comments that he plans to make to U.N. Security Council next Tuesday.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the diplomats discussed the formation of the constitutional committee, “which constitutes a significant step in the struggle to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” as well as procedural rules.

It said the sides confirmed their “agreement in principle” to lists of participants proposed by the Syrian government and the opposition and held consultations on which civil society groups would also participate in the committee.

The ministry said the Turkish, Russian and Iranian officials would hold more talks on the issue at a “technical level.” On Monday, the head of the U.N. humanitarian agency, Mark Lowcock, warned that Idlib could see “the worst humanitarian catastrophe, with the biggest loss of life of the 21st century.”

Iran and Russia have backed a military campaign on Idlib involving Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, despite Turkey’s pleas for a cease-fire. Before Tuesday’s meeting, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, a special envoy for Iran’s foreign minister, said a “good result” could emerge. Asked whether Iran shared the concerns about a possible humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, Jaberi Ansari replied: “We are worried too. We are trying to avoid this.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, declined to answer a question on his way into the talks about whether Russia would stop its airstrikes. De Mistura met informally with members of the three delegations on Monday.

The talks are set to focus on creating a constitutional committee under Syria’s Russian- and Iranian-backed government. Russia, Turkey and Iran have been working together as “guarantors” for a series of talks around ending Syria’s war. Turkey has taken in 3.5 million refugees from its neighbor.

On Monday, airstrikes on Idlib and Hama provinces forced some people to flee their homes, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180810-un-cost-of-war-destruction-in-syria-388bn/.

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