Posts Tagged ‘ Syria ’

Russian and Turkish ministers meet for Syria talks

December 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers met in Moscow on Saturday to discuss northern Syria as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw and Turkey threatens to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces controlling nearly a third of the country.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said before the talks began that they would focus on the situation in and around Idlib, as well as “what can and should be done” when the U.S. withdraws from Syria.

After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that much of the discussion focused on the pending U.S. withdrawal, and that Russia and Turkey managed to agree on coordinating their steps in Syria “to ultimately eradicate the terrorist threat.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said the meeting lasted an hour and a half. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said only that “we will continue our close cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria and regional issues.”

The Syrian military said it entered the Kurdish stronghold of Manbij on Friday as part of an apparent agreement between the two sides. The Kurds are looking for new allies to protect against a threatened Turkish offensive as U.S. forces prepare to leave.

With President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw troops earlier this month, Turkey announced it will pause a threatened offensive against Kurdish militants. It has, however, continued amassing troops at the border as it monitors the situation.

The movements follow days of equipment transfers across the border into a Turkish-held area of northern Syria near Manbij. Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters said they have started moving along with Turkish troops to front-line positions near the town as a show of readiness.

A statement released by the rebels said they are ready to “begin military operations to liberate the city in response to calls by our people in the city of Manbij.” Turkish news agency IHA showed video of at least 50 tanks arriving at a command post in Sanliurfa province early Saturday. The province borders Kurdish-held areas east of the Euphrates river in Syria.

The Russian side was represented in Saturday’s talks by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Shoigu, and Kremlin foreign affairs aide Yuri Ushakov. The Turkish delegation includes Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Saturday that, in addition to the foreign and defense ministers of each country, the meeting was attended by intelligence chiefs from both sides.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan did not attend the meeting. Peskov said the two would later schedule a separate meeting.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

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Pentagon withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria

DEC. 19, 2018

By Clyde Hughes and Danielle Haynes

Dec. 19 (UPI) — The U.S. military is preparing for a full withdrawal from Syria, in a move that will pull about 2,000 service members from the country and signal a major Middle East policy shift.

U.S. troops have been training local forces to combat Islamic State militants in Syria, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. The withdrawal will be “full” and “rapid,” CNN reported.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders acknowledged the pullout in a statement Wednesday.

“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” she said. “These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign.

“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists’ territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

Partners in northeast Syria have been told of the withdrawal, a senior administration official told reporters. The Pentagon, though, will maintain about 5,000 troops in neighboring Iraq and the ability to launch attacks into Syria, if needed. The Syrian government has long called for U.S. forces to leave the country.

The official said about 1 percent of the Islamic State remains active in Syria, a figure the United States believes can be eliminated by regional partners.

“We are under no illusions that ISIS at large or the scourge of Sunni tyranny has gone away,” the administration official said.

The official offered no timeline for how quickly troops will be removed from Syria or how many have already left.

The announcement appeared to indicate a sudden shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Earlier this month, the U.S.-led coalition said there were no plans for a change.

“Any reports indicating a change in the U.S. position with respect is false and designed to sow confusion and chaos,” the coalition said in a statement.

News of a U.S. pullout comes a day after Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed that a panel to draw up a new Syrian Constitution will meet next month.

Diplomats from the three countries agreed at the end of a meeting in Switzerland on Tuesday the 150-body committee will convene for the first time in January.

“We have agreed to take efforts aimed at convening the first session of the Syrian constitution committee early next year,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement after the meeting.

“These steps will lead to the launch of a viable and lasting Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, U.N.-facilitated political process.”

The three nations, which support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, failed to agree on the makeup of the committee, however.

The body was expected to have 50 representatives from the Syrian government, 50 representatives from the opposition, and 50 “independent” delegates picked by the United Nations. The Syrian government, though, pushed back on the independent candidates’ portion and objected outright to some of the U.N. delegates.

The creation of a new Constitution for Syria is at the center of the country’s seven-year civil war and a political struggle by Assad. The United States has rejected any proposed peace deal that leaves him in power.

Assad said a new Syrian Constitution is not needed and the existing law only needs tweaking, The New Arab reported. The United Nations and United States believe a new Constitution is needed to guarantee free elections.

Syria’s civil war has lasted for seven years and has killed more than 500,000 people. Millions more have fled their homes in the war-ravaged country.

“Slowly, we are reaching a conclusion,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “We have reached an important step in our work toward the Syrian constitutional committee.”

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2018/12/19/Pentagon-withdrawing-all-US-forces-from-Syria/6051545224890/.

Raqa remains in ruins one year since recapture from IS

Wednesday 17/10/2018

RAQA – All day, dinghies cross the Euphrates River to shuttle residents into the pulverized cityscape of Syria’s Raqa, where bridges, homes, and schools remain gutted by the offensive against the Islamic State group.

Exactly a year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the jihadists from their one-time Syrian stronghold, but Raqa — along with the roads and bridges leading to it — remains in ruins.

To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family have to pile into a small boat on the southern banks of the Euphrates, which flows along the bottom edges of Raqa.

They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city’s outskirts.

“It’s hard — the kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning,” says bearded Abu Yazan.

“We want the bridge to be repaired because it’s safer than water transport.”

The remains of Raqa’s well-known “Old Bridge” stand nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off.

It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed every one of Raqa’s bridges to cut off the jihadists’ escape routes.

The fighting ended on October 17 last year, when the city finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which then handed it over to the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.

But 60 bridges are still destroyed in and around the city, says RCC member Ahmad al-Khodr.

“The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges,” he says, to link vital areas in Raqa’s countryside.

Houses, belongings long gone

Rights group Amnesty International estimates around 80 percent of Raqa was devastated by fighting, including vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

The national hospital, the city’s largest medical facility, was where IS made its final stand. It still lies ravaged.

Private homes were not spared either: 30,000 houses were fully destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, says Amnesty.

Ismail al-Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home.

“I buried him myself with these two hands,” says Muidi, 48.

“I was not as affected when I lost the house, but I had hoped it would shelter me and my family,” he adds.

Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al-Nahda neighborhood.

“The coalition destroyed the whole building, and all our belongings went with them,” he says.

Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi’s hair and beard.

“How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble, but no one has helped us at all,” he says.

Since IS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqa, according to United Nations estimates last month.

But the city remains haunted by one of IS’s most infamous legacies: a sea of mines and unexploded ordnance that still maims and kills residents to this day.

The RCC says it does not have enough money to clear out the rubble still clogging up Raqa’s streets, much less rehabilitate its water and electricity networks.

Khodr unfurls a map of the city in front of him at his office in the RCC, pointing out the most ravaged neighborhoods.

“The districts in the center of the city were more damaged — 90 percent destroyed — compared to a range of 40 to 60 percent destroyed in the surrounding areas,” he said.

“The destruction is massive and the support isn’t cutting it.”

‘No hope at all’

A plastic bucket in hand, Abd al-Ibrahim sits despondently on a curbside in the Al-Ferdaws neighborhood.

Fighting destroyed his home, so he now squats in another house but there has been no water there for three days.

“I come sit here, hoping somebody will drive by to give me water. But no one comes,” the 70-year-old says, tearing up.

He points to a mound of rubble nearby.

“My house is like this now. We were in paradise. Look at what happened to us — we’re literally begging for water.”

The coalition has helped de-mine, remove rubble, and rehabilitate schools in Raqa, but efforts have been modest and piecemeal compared to the scale of the destruction.

“You can’t call this reconstruction — it’s all empty talk,” says Samer Farwati, who peddles cigarettes across from his destroyed house in the Masaken al-Tobb district.

He pays $120 to rent a home since his was hit in an air strike.

Farwati says he no longer trusts officials after too many empty promises.

“If they helped us even a little bit, we could complete the construction. But there’s no hope at all,” he says.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/raqa-remains-ruins-one-year-recapture.

Japan reporter freed from captivity in Syria returns home

October 25, 2018

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese journalist returned to Tokyo on Thursday after being freed from more than three years of captivity in Syria. Jumpei Yasuda was released on Tuesday and taken to neighboring Turkey.

Yasuda, wearing a black T-shirt, was escorted from his plane at Tokyo’s airport by Japanese officials and ushered into a black van. He left without talking to a large group of reporters who had waited for his arrival.

On an earlier flight from the southern Turkish town of Antakya to Istanbul, Yasuda said he was happy to be going home after living in “hell” for more than three years, but was worried about how he will catch up with a changed world.

“I’m so happy to be free,” he told Japan’s NHK television on a flight from Antakya in southern Turkey to Istanbul. “But I’m a bit worried about what will happen to me or what I should do from now on.”

Yasuda, 44, who was kidnapped in 2015 by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, said he felt as if he’d fallen behind the rest of the world and was uncertain how to catch up. He described his 40 months in captivity as “hell” both physically and mentally. He said he was kept in a tiny cell and tortured. There was a time when he was not allowed to bathe for eight months, he said.

“Day after day, I thought ‘Oh I can’t go home again,’ and the thought took over my head and gradually made it difficult for me to control myself,” he said. Yasuda was kidnapped by a group known at the time as Nusra Front. A war monitoring group said he was most recently held by a Syrian commander with the Turkistan Islamic Party, which mostly comprises Chinese jihadis in Syria.

Yasuda said he believes he was moved several times during his captivity but stayed in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, where he sometimes heard distant firebombing. “I was living in endless fear that I may never get out of it or could even be killed,” Yasuda told another Japanese broadcaster, TBS. He said he gradually became pessimistic about his fate because his captors kept breaking their promises to release him.

His release Tuesday came suddenly when his captors drove him to the border with Turkey and dropped him off and handed him over to Turkish authorities, he said. Japanese officials say Qatar and Turkey helped in the efforts for Yasuda’s release, though their exact roles were not clear.

Yasuda, a respected journalist who began his career at a local newspaper, started reporting on the Middle East in the early 2000s and went to Afghanistan and Iraq. He was taken hostage in Iraq in 2004 with three other Japanese, but was freed after Islamic clerics negotiated his release.

He worked as a cook in Iraq for nearly a year as part of his research for a 2010 book about laborers in war zones. He also wrote articles about his 2004 captivity. But this time, his captors took away all his reporting equipment including his camera, depriving him of any tangible records.

“I was robbed of all my luggage, and that made me so angry,” Yasuda said. “I couldn’t do any of my work for 40 months.” His last work in Syria involved reporting on his friend Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist who was taken hostage and killed by the Islamic State group.

Syria has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists since the conflict there began in March 2011, with dozens killed or kidnapped. Several journalists are still missing in Syria and their fates are unknown.

Rights group criticizes US-led coalition for Raqqa deaths

October 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition’s failure to adequately acknowledge and investigate civilian deaths in the Syrian city of Raqqa is “a slap in the face for survivors” trying to rebuild their lives a year after the offensive to oust the Islamic State group, a prominent rights group said Friday.

At a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Amnesty International said 2,521 bodies from the battle for Raqqa have been recovered in the city, the majority killed by coalition airstrikes. It cited a small unit known as the Early Recovery Team working with U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces to recover bodies and bury them. They expect to recover at least 3,000 more bodies.

There are “more bodies underneath the ground than living souls,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s senior director of global research, who in 2017 with the coalition playing a supporting role recently returned from Syria.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said the fighting to liberate the citizens of Raqqa from the grip of the Islamic State group “was often house to house against an enemy with no regard for human life” using explosives and booby traps every step of the way. He added that the coalition is aware of the discrepancies of other reports and that the Coalition has based its figures on “supportable evidence and facts.”

Ryan said that liberating the citizens was the goal and “the other choice would be to let ISIS continue to murder, torture, rape and pillage the citizens of Raqqa, and that is unacceptable,” using a different acronym for IS. He added the Coalition could concede a high counts after we checking them against their existing records.

The battle for Raqqa, once a city of 200,000 people, played out over four months as the Kurdish-led Syrian forces fought street by street. The coalition unleashed wave after wave of airstrikes and shell fire until the city was cleared of militants in October 2017.

Amnesty has accused the coalition before of underreporting civilian deaths in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. On Monday, Neistat said most of the bodies recovered so far are believed to be civilians. The U.S.-led coalition said in July that 77 civilians died as a result of its airstrikes on Raqqa between June and October last year. The U.S. and its coalition partners launched their campaign against the Islamic State group in 2014, driving out the militants from their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa three years later.

Neistat also said the “clock is ticking” for Idlib province, the last opposition stronghold in northwestern Syria. A demilitarized zone negotiated between Turkey and Russia to protect civilians from a government offensive on the northwestern province should be ready by Oct. 15.

Turkish and Russian officials have said that Syrian rebels completed withdrawing their heavy weapons from the front lines in implementation of the deal that’s expected to demilitarize a stretch of 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) along the front lines by Oct. 15.

Neistat said the zone is not adequate to protect all the civilians in Idlib province and expressed concern the agreement may not last. She said she fears massive civilian deaths, destruction, displacement, arrests and disappearances, citing previous government offensives in cities like Aleppo.

Neistat called on Russia to pressure the Syrian government to do more to protect the civilian population, highlighting Moscow’s influence on Damascus. “It may not be too late to stop it,” she said. Meanwhile on Friday, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that his military could soon launch a new operation across the border into northern Syria in zones held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan’s statement renews a threat to expand Turkey’s military operations into areas east of the Euphrates River held by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be terrorists and part of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

“God willing, very soon … we will leave the terror nests east of the Euphrates in disarray,” he said. He spoke on Friday at a military ceremony honoring Turkish commandos. Turkey launched two incursions into Syria, in 2016 and 2018, into areas west of the Euphrates, pushing Islamic State militants as well as Syrian Kurdish fighters from its border.

In Syria’s Sweida, young men take up arms to defend villages

October 05, 2018

SWEIDA, Syria (AP) — Maysoun Saab’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled finding her parents bleeding to death on the ground outside their home, minutes after they were shot by Islamic State militants on a killing spree across once tranquil villages they infiltrated in a southeastern corner of Syria.

Within an hour, she had lost her mother, father, brother and 34 other members of her extended family. Overall, more than 200 people were killed and 30 hostages abducted in the coordinated July 25 attacks across Sweida province.

It was one of the biggest single massacres of the Syrian civil war and the worst bloodshed to hit the province since the conflict began in 2011, underscoring the persistent threat posed by the Islamic State group, which has been largely vanquished but retains pockets of territory in southern and eastern Syria.

More than two months after the attack, tensions over the missing hostages — all women and children — are boiling over in Sweida, a mountainous area which is a center for the Druze religious minority. Anger is building up, and young men are taking up arms. This week, the militants shot dead one of the women, 25-year-old Tharwat Abu Ammar, triggering protests and a sit-in outside the Sweida governorate building by relatives enraged at the lack of progress in negotiations to free them.

It’s a stark change for a usually peaceful province that has managed to stay largely on the sidelines of the seven-year Syrian war, and where most villagers work grazing livestock over the surrounding hills.

“We still haven’t really absorbed what happened to us. It’s like a dream or a nightmare that you don’t wake up from,” said Saab, a slender woman with a long braid showing underneath a loose white scarf covering her hair.

During a rare visit to the Sweida countryside by an Associated Press team, armed young men and teens, some as young as 14, patrolled the streets. Some wore military uniforms, others the traditional black baggy pants and white caps worn by Druze villagers. They said the Syrian army had provided them with weapons to form civilian patrols to defend their towns and villages.

Residents recalled a summer day of pure terror that began with gunfire and cries of “Allahu Akbar!” that rang out at 4 a.m. Militants who had slipped into the villages under the cover of darkness knocked on doors, sometimes calling out residents’ names to trick them into opening. Those who did were gunned down. Others were shot in their beds. Women and children were dragged screaming from their homes.

Word of the attack spread in the villages of Shbiki, Shreihi and Rami as neighbors called one another to warn of the militant rampage. A series of suicide bombings unfolded simultaneously in the nearby provincial capital of Sweida.

In Shreihi, a small agricultural village of cement houses, Saab and her husband were asleep in one room, their children, 16-year-old Bayar and 13-year-old Habib, in another when she heard the first burst of gunfire. From her window, she saw the silhouette of her neighbor, Lotfi Saab, and his wife in their house. Then she saw armed men push open the door, point a rifle at them and shoot. Saab screamed, her voice reverberating through the open window. The militants threw a grenade in her direction.

Her husband climbed onto the roof of their home and aimed a hunting rifle at the men, while she hunkered downstairs with the children. At least two of the men blew themselves up nearby. At the crack of dawn, Saab heard another neighbor screaming, “Abu Khaled has been shot!” — referring to Saab’s father. Ignoring her husband’s orders to stay indoors, Saab ran over the rocky path to her parent’s house, and spotted her father’s bloodied body on the ground near the front porch. She screamed for her mother and found her lying nearby, shot in her leg, blood everywhere.

“There is no greater tragedy than to see your parents like this, strewn on the ground before your eyes. We were together just the night before, staying up late together and talking. … They took them away from us,” she said, choking back tears.

Saab’s brother, Khaled, meanwhile, was trapped with his wife and daughter in their home, fearfully watching the IS fighters from their shuttered window. Another brother, who rushed to their aid, was killed outside Khaled’s home.

Less than an hour later, Saab called to tell Khaled that both their parents were dead. When he was able to leave his house, Khaled said he and other neighbors fought and killed as many IS militants as they could. He suffered two gunshot wounds in his thigh. But there was no time to grieve.

“We didn’t have the chance to cry or feel anything, even if our father, mother, neighbors, friends, all of these people had died. But at the time there wasn’t a moment to cry for anyone,” said the 42-year-old truck driver.

Residents said the village men fought with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on — hunting rifles, pistols, even sticks — against the far superior IS guns. The Islamic State group, which once held large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, has been mostly vanquished. Its de facto capital of Raqqa, in eastern Syria, fell a year ago this month. But the group fights on in eastern pockets like Deir el-Zour and Sweida province.

Some here fear that as the militants flee the advancing Syrian government forces, they will try to regroup in remote pockets of territory like this once quiet corner of Syria. They fear another raid or more trouble because of the brewing tensions over the hostages IS still holds.

On Tuesday, a video posted on the internet purported to show IS militants shoot Abu Ammar in the back of her head as they threatened to kill more hostages if the Syrian government and its Russian allies do not meet their demands, which include freeing IS fighters and their family members elsewhere in Syria.

In the village of Rami, where 20 civilians from the Maqlad family were killed in the July assault, Nathem Maqlad points to bullet holes and blood stains on the ground from the battle with IS. “I stand ready and alert to defend our land and dignity all over again if I have to,” he said, walking with a group of young men with rifles slung over their shoulders.

Turkey reinforcements enter Syria’s Idlib

Tuesday 25/09/2018

SARAQIB – Turkish troop reinforcements entered Syria’s rebel bastion of Idlib on Tuesday, an AFP correspondent reported, a week after a deal between Ankara and Moscow averted a government offensive.

Around 35 military vehicles traveled south down the main highway near the town of Saraqib after midnight.

The convoy was accompanied by pro-Ankara rebels of the National Liberation Front (NLF), who control part of the enclave on the Turkish border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the forces deployed to several Turkish positions around the northwestern province.

Since last year, Turkish troops have manned 12 monitoring positions in the rebel zone under a de-escalation agreement between Turkey, Russia and fellow regime ally Iran.

Last week, Ankara and Moscow announced a new agreement for a demilitarized zone along the horse-shoe shaped front line between the rebels and government troops.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, controls more than half of the rebel zone, while NLF fighters hold sway over most of the rest.

The agreement gives Turkey the responsibility to ensure that all fighters in the planned demilitarized zone hand over their heavy weapons by October 10 and that the more radical among them withdraw by October 15.

The agreement also provides for Turkish and Russian troops patrol the buffer zone.

Last week, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would have to send reinforcements to provide the numbers needed to conduct the patrols.

The Syrian civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/turkey-reinforcements-enter-syrias-idlib.

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