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Wednesday, 20 June 2018

DAMASCUS, June 20 (Reuters) – In a Damascus cafe, some of the Syrians watching Russia play Egypt in the World Cup faced a dilemma: whether to support a fellow Arab nation or their government’s most powerful ally.

“I am confused because I was supposed to support Egypt but because Russia supports us, I support Russia,” said Amin Maarouf, 62, as he watched Russia defeat Egypt 3-1 on Tuesday at a crowded cafe in a middle class Damascus neighborhood.

“If Egypt were playing against any other country I would support it. But when I had to choose, I chose Russia.”

Seven years of conflict have muddled the loyalties of a Syrian nation fractured by a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and driven millions abroad as refugees.

While Russia enjoys support among Syrians who back the government, President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents are rooting for any team that is playing against it or Iran, his other major military ally.

These are the first World Cup finals since Russia intervened in support of Assad in 2015, turning the tide of the war decisively in his favor. Russia is hosting the tournament.

Russian flags were being waved by fans watching Tuesday’s match at an open-air screen in a street in Damascus, where just last month the government and its allies crushed the last remaining rebel enclave.

Still, not everyone was cheering for Russia. “I am supporting Egypt,” said Jubran Louis, 18. “It’s an Arab team, I have to support it.”

The Syrian national side did not make it to the tournament, but it made an unexpectedly strong showing in the qualifiers. This too was also a point of division among Syrians. While government supporters rallied behind the team, some Assad opponents identified it with the Syrian government.

Omar Fleihan, who has lived in Istanbul since leaving Syria in 2014, ultimately wants England to win the World Cup and was hoping Egypt would beat Russia on Tuesday.

“Yesterday they were supporting Russia in Damascus, and this isn’t something strange or new to them,” he said. “I certainly support anyone (playing) against Iran and Russia without exception – Arab or non-Arab”. (Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Beirut bureau Writing by Tom Perry Editing by Alison Williams)



June 19, 2018

Some 30,000 Syrians who have been granted Turkish citizenship will vote in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections, broadcaster NTV quoted Prime Minister Binali Yildirim as saying today.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has granted citizenship to thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict in neighboring Syria. Turkey is hosting around 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

In April, Erdogan announced snap parliamentary and presidential elections would take place in the country on 24 June.

The move came a day after his main ally, far-right leader Devlet Bahceli, called for snap polls, with the decision primarily motivated by the need to strengthen the current administration to effectively tackle the ongoing crisis in Syria and the country’s economic challenges.

Source: Middle East Monitor.



Turkish army on Monday announced the start of patrols in the northern Syrian city of Manbij by Turkish and U.S. troops in line with a previously agreed roadmap for eliminating terrorists and stabilizing the area.

In a tweet, the Turkish Armed Forces said the patrols were being carried out between Manbij and Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield area.

Earlier on Monday, local sources speaking anonymously said armored vehicles of Turkish army were stationed around Sajur stream which divides Jarablus town, in the Operation Euphrates Shield area, and Manbij.

The joint forces carried out patrols in an area overlooking the U.S. base in Syria’s Dadat town, the sources said, adding that the patrols lasted around three hours.

The roadmap was first announced after a meeting in Washington last week between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The deal focuses on the withdrawal of PKK-affiliated YPG terror group from the northern Syrian city and stability in the region.

Should the model prove to be a success, Turkey will push for a similar arrangement in eastern Syria.

In its over-30-year terrorist campaign against Turkey, the PKK has taken some 40,000 lives. The YPG/PKK is its Syrian branch.

Turkey has said the presence of terrorist forces near its border constitute a threat, and has launched military operations and other efforts to rid the region of terrorists.

Source: Anadolu Agency.


June 1, 2018

The bodies of 15 Palestinian refugees who were killed by regime shelling have been found in Yarmouk refugee camp, the Working Group for the Palestinians in Syria said yesterday.

The rights group went on to demand medical and civil defense teams be allowed access to the Palestinian refugee camp to recover the bodies from under the rubble.

Following the Assad regime’s brutal air raids against Syria’s largest refugee camp, the United Nations said the regime “turned it into a death camp”.

“The Yarmouk camp in Damascus lies today in ruins, with hardly a single building that has not been destroyed or damaged.  The fighting has been particularly intense in the last month or more.  Almost all the Palestine refugees who were there have now fled,” United Nations Secretary-General’s Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said last week.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


June 1, 2018

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said yesterday that the years of conflict in Syria have left almost three million homes completely or almost completely destroyed, and the regime has caused about 90 per cent of the damage.

In a report the network stressed that it had obtained satellite images which prove that the Russian attacks on eastern Ghouta destroyed entire towns.

Under the title “Satellite imagery proves that Russian attacks have exterminated entire eastern Ghouta towns”, the report said that the military campaign in eastern Ghouta in February was the most brutal of the campaigns by the Russian-Syrian-Iranian coalition forces since the outbreak of popular movements in March 2011.

The report pointed out that “the Syrian regime and Russia deliberately bombed and destroyed the largest possible number of houses later, especially vital installations.” It noted that “most of the bombing was without a military justification as required by the law of war.”

“Some three million homes have been partially or completely destroyed in Syria and that millions of Syrians have lost their homes, which means for the majority the loss of a quarter of a century of work that they spent in order to have housing.”

According to the report, “the regime used extensive destruction as a war tool against all who opposed it, and aimed to end and destroy all forms of opposition to the regime, and to completely destroy society.”…

… It went on: “Since 18 February until 12 April 2018, the use of 3,968 surface-to-surface missiles, approximately 1,674 explosive barrels, 5,281 mortar and artillery shells, as well as four explosive hoses, 60 rockets loaded with incendiary munitions, 45 rockets loaded with cluster munitions has been registered.”

During the same period, “the Russia-Syria forces killed 1,843 civilians, including 317 children, 280 women, 15 medical personnel and 12 civil defense personnel. The same forces committed at least 68 massacres and at least 61 attacks on civilians’ vital centers.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.


May 30, 2018

Syrian civilians held demonstrations across the city of Raqqa yesterday calling on US-backed Kurdish militias to leave the area, according to Syria Call news agency.

Protests took part in the main Al-Sakia Street as well as in several of the city’s neighborhoods, including Al-Mashbal. Demonstrators shouted slogans against the Kurdish authorities and expressed opposition to the federalist system they seek to implement in the northern territories under their control.

People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militias sent security reinforcements to suppress the demonstrations and reportedly fired on the crowded protesters, resulting in several injuries.

The protests come a week after the YPG imposed forced conscription on residents of the city, mandating that men between the ages of 18 and 30 join militias for at least nine months, dubbing the policy “compulsory conscription in the duty of self-defense”.

The YPG, an offshoot of the designated terror organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has started to face increasing resistance to its policies from Syrians, including the formation of a new battalion called the Al-Raqqa Brigade.

Earlier this week, Kurdish militias stormed a bastion of the group in an operation that left three opposition fighters dead. Despite the attack, Al-Raqqa Brigade called on civilians to show their resistance to the YPG in yesterday’s demonstrations.

US-backed Kurdish forces, known collectively as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have secured swathes of land in the north of Syria causing heightened tensions with neighboring Turkey.

Since January, Turkey has undertaken an air and ground offensive in Syria as part of “Operation Olive Branch” against the YPG in Afrin. The move prompted the Kurdish militia to call on the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad to aid them in the fight against Turkish soldiers.

Cooperation between the YPG and the Syrian regime is ongoing, with a member of the Central Committee of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria revealing last week that the YPG had handed over more than 90 Kurdish detainees to the security branch of the Assad government, after withdrawing from the city of Afrin in the north-west of Aleppo.

The YPG has also received increased backing from Europe; French forces have established six artillery batteries in the north of the country and along the Syria-Iraq border since their arrival last month.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


August 15, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The exiled opposition leader accused by Venezuelan authorities of directing a failed plot to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro says the greatest threat to the embattled socialist leader may be his detractors in uniform standing quietly behind him.

Julio Borges, who once led Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, said Tuesday that the arrests of two high-ranking military officers in connection with the attack using drones loaded with plastic explosives is yet another signal that fractures within the nation’s armed forces are growing.

“The conflict today is within the government — not just at the political level, but more importantly within the armed forces,” Borges said in an interview with The Associated Press in Colombia’s capital.

His comments came hours after Venezuela’s chief prosecutor announced the arrest of Gen. Alejandro Perez and Col. Pedro Zambrano from Venezuela’s National Guard as part of the investigation into the Aug. 4 attack. Their alleged roles were not described.

Authorities said they have arrested 14 people so far while Borges and other alleged conspirators are being sought. Maduro has accused Borges of plotting with others to train anti-government saboteurs in Colombia and transport the drones and explosives used in the attack across the border into Venezuela.

Borges, who fled to Colombia with his family following the breakdown of negotiations with the government this year, said he had no prior knowledge of the plot. “Not at all,” he said in his simple, bare office in a drab building in Bogota.

Almost from the moment the attack took place, Venezuela’s opposition has warned that Maduro would use the incident to intensify a crackdown on his opponents as the government seeks to tamp down discontent over the country’s imploding economy. In the past week, the number of suspects and detainees has nearly doubled.

Among those in custody is another opposition lawmaker, Juan Requesens, who was charged with treason and attempted homicide. Officials released videotaped testimony of Requesens that they say shows an admission of involvement in the alleged plot, but he never mentions the attack itself. In the video, Requesens is heard telling investigators that he helped Borges ferry one of the alleged ringleaders into Venezuela from Colombia.

Relatives of Requesens deny he participated in any plot. They say he is being unjustly jailed for being an outspoken critic of Maduro’s government and policies that the opposition blames for Venezuela’s severe shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund has said could reach 1 million percent by year’s end.

The drone attack came as Maduro was delivering a speech at a military ceremony in Caracas. Video footage of the event being aired live on state television shows Maduro, his wife and several other high-ranking officials suddenly looking up to the sky. The video then pans to hundreds of uniformed soldiers scrambling out of their formation in panic.

Authorities say two drones were aimed at the stage where Maduro was speaking but the military succeeded in knocking one off its path electronically while the other crashed into a nearby apartment building. Seven soldiers were injured but Maduro was not harmed.

Since taking over Venezuela’s presidency in 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez, Maduro has sought to maintain the loyalty of the armed forces by awarding troops outsized bonuses and bestowing officers with top government posts. With Venezuela reeling economically, and its oil production collapsed to levels unseen since the 1940s, that support has become even more important.

Maduro and top military commanders dispute the idea that dissention is growing in the armed forces, but analysts say discontent has been brewing among rank-and-file soldiers, many of whom now need to find second jobs in order to put food on their families’ tables.

“Maduro is facing a divorce with the armed forces, which is apparent in the various rebellions that have taken place in recent months,” Borges said. “That’s opened a road which is irreversible.” The drone incident was not the first attack targeting Maduro’s government. Rogue police officer Oscar Perez stole a helicopter and flew it over the capital in June 2017, launching grenades at the Supreme Court building. He and several comrades died in a gunbattle with police after months on the lam. A year ago, a small band of armed men assaulted an important military base.

Attorney Alonso Medina Roa said 154 members of the military have been detained in recent months as discontent and instability escalates within the armed forces. Borges, the founder of the Justice First party, served as the opposition’s top negotiator in the failed dialogue with the government and is one of the beleaguered anti-government movement’s most visible leaders.

Maduro has called him the mastermind behind the drone attack and Venezuelan officials have requested his extradition from Colombia. “Borges you are an assassin,” Maduro said on state television. “Life gave you the chance to conduct politics freely in Venezuela but you’ve turned into a killer in Colombia.”

Borges brushed off Maduro’s allegation, describing it as one more baseless charge by a government that regularly claims to have stymied opposition attacks. “Fear is the government’s last resort left,” Borges said. “They want to appear like a strong government. And they’re not.”

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.

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