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Archive for January, 2017

Pro-regime soldiers join opposition in Wadi Barada

January 6, 2017

A group of Syrian regime soldiers deflected yesterday from their ranks and joined rebels fighting in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, media spokesman of the Free Syrian Army in the area, Abu Mohammed Al-Baradawi said.

Al-Baradawi told Gulf Online that “the Free Syrian Army forces secured the defection from the pro-regime army soldiers until they reached the opposition-held areas.”

Violent clashes erupted during the early hours of yesterday morning as the Syrian regime forces tried to advance to the village of Busujima in Wadi Barada using tanks.

The rebels managed to destroy one of the regime’s tanks and killing a group of soldiers.

Clashes and shelling against the opposition-held area of Wadi Barada continued despite a UN Security Council decision on 31 December to supports the Russian-Turkish plan for a nationwide ceasefire.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170106-pro-regime-soldiers-join-opposition-in-wadi-barada/.

Syria’s cease-fire holding despite minor violations

December 30, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight held Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has disregarded high-level peace initiatives for over five years.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes early Friday between troops and rebels in the central province of Hama and near the capital, Damascus. It said that later in the day a man was killed by sniper fire in eastern suburbs of Damascus, becoming the first fatality since the truce went into effect. The group also reported an aerial attack on the rebel-held Barada Valley near Damascus.

The Syrian army denied reports it was bombarding the Barada Valley region saying opposition claims aim to show that the army is not abiding by the truce. Opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said minor clashes nearby left one rebel wounded. Activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, in the southern Daraa province, said government forces had opened fire on rebel-held areas.

Several past attempts at halting the fighting have failed. As with previous agreements, the current cease-fire excludes both the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the cease-fire will be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey, and the agreement has been welcomed by Iran. Moscow and Tehran provide crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.

If it holds, the truce between the Syrian government and the country’s mainstream rebel forces will be followed by peace talks next month in Kazakhstan, Putin said in announcing the agreement. He described it, however, as “quite fragile” and requiring “special attention and patience.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the cease-fire a “major achievement” in a tweet Friday. “Let’s build on it by tackling the roots of extremist terror,” he added. Russia said the deal was signed by seven of Syria’s major rebel factions, though none of them immediately confirmed it, and one denied signing it.

A U.N. official said he hopes that cease-fire would allow them to take aid to 15 besieged areas where some 700,000 people live. Jan Egeland, Special, Advisor to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, told The Associated Press that “we desperately need this ceasefire. The reports I have from the field is that there is a decrease, a marked decrease in fighting, in bombing, in violence, compared to yesterday. But certainly there’s been a number of violations.”

“We’re willing, we’re able to go to all of the 15 remaining besieged areas beyond east Aleppo. We can go in the next (few) days to all of them. But then we need unimpeded access,” he said. “We need the government to give us all of the permits that they require us to have before we can go. We need security guarantees from all sides and we’re not given them.”

“January needs to be really different,” Egeland added, “If not — there will be starvation, there will be untold, unnecessary deaths.” The truce came on the heels of a Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month to evacuate the last rebels from eastern Aleppo after they were confined to a tiny enclave by a government offensive. The retaking of all of Aleppo marked Assad’s greatest victory since the start of the 2011 uprising against his family’s four-decade rule.

“The defeat of the terrorists in Aleppo is an important step toward ending the war,” Assad said in an interview with TG5, an Italian TV station, adding that the capture of the city does not mean that the war has ended because “terrorists” are still in Syria.

The United States was left out of both agreements, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington after the failure of previous diplomatic efforts on Syria. Assad told TG5 “we are more optimistic, with caution,” about the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested greater cooperation with Russia against extremist groups.

“We can say part of the optimism could be related to better relation between the United States and Russia,” Assad said, speaking in English. “Mr. Trump, during his campaign – (said) that his priority is fighting terrorism, and we believe that this is the beginning of the solution, if he can implement what he announced,” Assad said in the interview, which was apparently filmed before the cease-fire was announced.

Asked about the possibility of the United States’ participation in the peace process in Kazakhstan, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the process would “be open to everyone.” “I hope that this cease-fire holds and turns into a lasting peace so that the deaths of more innocent people, of civilians and children is halted and 2017 brings calm,” Yildirim said.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency meanwhile quoted the military as saying Russia carried out three airstrikes against Islamic State targets near the northern town of al-Bab, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have been battling the extremist group. The strikes indicated that Russia and Turkey may work together to combat IS once the fighting elsewhere in Syria has been halted.

Turkish Foreign Mevlut Cavusoglu Minister said the U.S.-led coalition forces resumed aerial operations around al-Bab on Thursday, after Turkey complained that it was not getting support from its allies in its fight against IS there.

The Turkish military statement quoted by Anadolu did not say when the Russian air strikes took place, but said they killed 12 IS militants. Separately, 26 IS militants, including some senior commanders, were killed in Turkish airstrikes on al-Bab and the Daglabash region, and some 17 IS targets were destroyed, Anadolu reported. It said a Turkish soldier was kill in a IS attack on troops south of the al-Azrak area.

It said among those killed was an IS commander known as Abu Hussein al-Tunsi. Turkey sent troops and tanks into northern Syria in August to help opposition forces clear a border area of IS militants and curb the advances of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are also battling the extremist group.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press video journalist Samira Becirovic in London contributed to this report.

Explosion rocks east Aleppo in Syria as residents return

December 24, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — An explosion rocked eastern Aleppo on Saturday as some residents were returning to their homes after the government assumed full control of the city earlier this week, state TV reported while fresh airstrikes on a rebel-held town near Aleppo killed at least five people.

The airstrikes on areas near the northern city of Aleppo show the government has resumed military activities after days of calm that coincided with the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians and rebels from east Aleppo.

On Thursday, President Bashar Assad’s forces took control of eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo for the first time since July 2012, marking the government’s biggest victory since the crisis began more than five years ago.

Government forces will likely now try to secure the outskirts of the city as rebels are based in the western and southwestern suburbs of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once commercial center. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an airstrike on the town of Atareb, west of Aleppo, killed five people including a man, his daughter and daughter-in-law.

The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, said the airstrikes killed seven people including a woman and two children. The Saturday noon airstrike on Atareb came after airstrikes on nearby villages the night before killed three rebels, according to the Observatory.

Earlier Saturday, state TV said the explosion in east Aleppo was caused by a device left inside a school by Syrian rebels, who withdrew from their last remaining enclave under a cease-fire deal after more than four years of fighting. It said three people were wounded in the blast.

A correspondent for Lebanon’s Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV was reporting live from the area when the blast sounded in the background, sending a huge cloud of dust into the air. The correspondent later said that at least three people were killed.

In the capital Damascus, state news agency SANA said militants blew up the Barada water pipeline in the suburb of Kafr al-Zayt. SANA quoted the director of Damascus and Damascus Countryside Water Establishment Hussam Hreidin as saying that the pipeline went out of service due to the attack. He added that the pipeline had been fixed and its service restored on Friday less than a month after a similar attack.

Pro-government media said the government was forced to cut water supplies coming to the Syrian capital for a few days and use reserves instead after rebels polluted the water with diesel. The al-Fija spring which supplies Damascus with water is in the rebel-held Barada valley northwest of the capital in a mountainous area near the Lebanese border.

The cut in water supplies comes at a time when government forces and their allies are on the offensive in the Barada Valley area.

Syrian government takes full control of Aleppo after 4 years

December 23, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government took full control of Aleppo on Thursday for the first time in four years after the last opposition fighters and civilians were bused out of war-ravaged eastern districts, sealing the end of the rebellion’s most important stronghold.

The evacuations ended a brutal chapter in Syria’s nearly six-year civil war, allowing President Bashar Assad to regain full authority over the country’s largest city and former commercial powerhouse. It marked his most significant victory since an uprising against his family’s four-decade rule began in 2011.

The announcement was made via an army statement broadcast on Syrian state TV shortly after the last four buses carrying fighters left through the Ramousseh crossing. “Thanks to the blood of our heroic martyrs, the heroic deeds and sacrifices of our armed forces and the allied forces, and the steadfastness of our people, the General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces announces the return of security and stability to Aleppo,” an army general said in the statement.

Western Aleppo erupted in heavy celebratory gunfire, with Syrian TV showing uniformed soldiers and civilians shouting “Aleppo, Aleppo!” and “God, Syria and Bashar only!” “No more east and west, Aleppo is back for all Aleppans,” said the Syrian TV correspondent, surrounded by people waving Syrian flags.

For Syria’s opposition, it was a crushing defeat that signaled the start of a new struggle to forge a way forward. Ahmad al-Khatib, an opposition media activist who left the city before the siege, said the fall of Aleppo was a date “we’ll never forget and we will never forgive.”

“Let the world bear witness that Bashar Assad has killed and displaced and destroyed Aleppo, and he celebrates in his victory over the blood and offspring of Aleppo … with the agreement of the Arab and Western nations,” he posted on Twitter.

The ancient city had been divided into rebel and government parts since 2012, when rebels from the countryside swept in and took hold of eastern districts. That set the stage for more than four years of brutal fighting and government bombardment that laid waste to those neighborhoods.

The army statement said the victory in Aleppo is a “strategic transformation and a turning point in the war on terrorism and a deadly blow to the terrorist project and its supporters.” It was a further incentive to keep fighting to “eradicate terrorism and restore security and stability to every span of the homeland,” it added.

Earlier in the day, Assad said his forces’ achievements in Aleppo are a “major step on the road to wiping out terrorism” and ending the civil war. The rebel evacuations were set in motion after a months-long siege and Russian-backed military campaign. Years of resistance were stamped out in a relentless campaign over the past month that saw hospitals bombed, bodies left unburied and civilians killed by shells as they fled for safety.

The campaign targeted all remaining hospitals, knocking them out of service. Medical and food supplies ran out and fighters were left demoralized and abandoned by their regional allies. Under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, tens of thousands of residents and fighters began evacuating to opposition-controlled areas in the surrounding countryside, a process that took a week.

More than 35,000 fighters and civilians were bused out, according to the United Nations. The ICRC said in a statement that more than 4,000 additional fighters were evacuated in private cars, vans and trucks since Wednesday.

The departure of the last convoy Thursday was a humiliating defeat for the opposition. The rebels’ hold in Aleppo was a major point of pride, and at times the city seemed to be an invulnerable part of what was once a growing opposition-held patch of territory in the north.

The divided northern city has paid dearly as a central theater of the war. In the past month alone, hundreds of civilians were killed by intense bombardment of rebel-held zones. A photo of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh — confused and covered in dust and blood as he sat in an ambulance after being rescued in August from the rubble of a building — became a haunting image in the unforgiving struggle.

Associated Press writers Philip Issa and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed reporting.

Last remaining rebels and civilians await Aleppo evacuation

December 20, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — The last Syrian rebels and civilians are awaiting evacuation from the remainder of what was once a rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo, a day after the U.N. Security Council approved sending observers to monitor the exodus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that more than 15,000 people, among them 5,000 opposition fighters, have left the enclave since the rebels effectively surrendered the area under an Ankara- and Moscow-brokered deal. It’s unclear how many remain.

In Moscow, foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting on Tuesday to discuss Syria, but the talks are likely to be overshadowed by the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey the previous night by an Ankara policeman, who after killing his victim cried out: “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”

UN approves Aleppo monitors as evacuations from city proceed

December 20, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — The leaders of Russia and Iran, military allies of Syria’s president, talked Monday about joining forces to reach a quick political settlement in Syria, as the country’s largest city, Aleppo, was poised to return to full government control.

Syrian state TV said it expected the evacuation of thousands of civilians and fighters from the last opposition footholds in Aleppo to be completed by early Tuesday. As more people left the city, the U.N. Security council approved a compromise French-Russian resolution urging the immediate deployment of U.N. monitors to watch over the evacuation and “the well-being of civilians” remaining in the city. U.N. officials said more than 100 U.N. humanitarian staff already on the ground in Aleppo, most of them Syrian nationals, could be used in that role.

France’s U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the goal of the resolution is “to avoid new mass atrocities by the forces on the ground and the militias in particular.” But thousands of people have already been evacuated from the city and the operation could be completed before the observers arrive.

The departure of the last rebels from Aleppo would close another chapter in Syria’s civil war and would give President Bashar Assad a significant symbolic and strategic victory. Almost six years after the outbreak of an armed rebellion against Assad, the Syrian leader will be in charge again of the country’s five largest cities and the Mediterranean coast.

The presidents of Russia and Iran spoke by phone Monday to discuss the next moves. The Kremlin said Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani “underlined the need for joint efforts to launch a real political process aimed at a quick settlement in Syria.”

The leaders noted that a quick launch of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, would be an important step toward that goal, a Kremlin statement said. The conversation came a day before a scheduled meeting of foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Moscow. Russia and Iran have backed Assad, while Turkey has supported the opposition.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, welcomed the Moscow meeting and any effort that results in a cessation of hostilities. He announced that the United Nations hopes to arrange negotiations between the government and opposition in Geneva on Feb. 8.

In the Turkish capital of Ankara, meanwhile, the Russian ambassador was shot to death by a man shouting, “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria!” The gunman fired at least eight shots, killing Ambassador Andrei Karlov, 62, at an embassy-sponsored exhibition, and was then slain by police.

Discussing the Security Council resolution calling for monitors in Aleppo, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said there would also be observers from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Crescent.

The resolution also demands that all parties allow unconditional and immediate access for the U.N. and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid and medical care, and “respect and protect all civilians across Aleppo and throughout Syria.”

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador, Bashar al-Ja’afari, claimed that one of the “main purposes” government opponents pushed for the resolution was to get people into eastern Aleppo to rescue foreign intelligence officers still in the former rebel-held area.

He named 12 alleged officers still trying to get out of Aleppo — six from Saudi Arabia and one each from Turkey, the United States, Israel, Qatar, Jordan and Morocco. He said: “We are going to catch them … and show them to you.”

The rebels captured eastern Aleppo in July 2012 and held on to it despite a ferocious assault in recent months by Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and a host of Shiite militias from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan.

The evacuation of Aleppo began last week after Turkey and Russia brokered a cease-fire as government forces were closing in on the rebels’ last redoubt, but has been repeatedly delayed. The evacuation of more than 2,000 sick and wounded from the rebel- besieged Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya was tacked onto the deal at the last minute. The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV said 10 buses left those villages with civilians on Monday.

There are also plans to evacuate hundreds of people from Madaya and Zabadani, two besieged, rebel-held villages near the Lebanese border. The Observatory and Mayadeen said 15 buses entered the two villages on Monday.

Rebel-held eastern Aleppo has been besieged for months, with several previous cease-fires breaking down and virtually no humanitarian aid reaching its tens of thousands of residents. One of those who left Aleppo on Monday was Mohammed Abu Jaafar, who described a miserable five-kilometer (three-mile) trip that took more than two hours in an overcrowded government bus.

He said they passed three checkpoints, one manned by Russian troops, another by plainclothes Syrian intelligence agents and the third by Syrian troops. Inside the bus, men, women and children were hungry and cold as they waited for hours in freezing temperatures, he said.

“Children were screaming, and some people fainted,” he said, adding that there was no baby formula or diapers. Among those evacuated Monday was 7-year-old Bana Alabed and her mother Fatemah, who tweeted about the horrors of living through the government’s assault on eastern Aleppo, which destroyed much of the city. Their account had some 334,000 followers.

Speaking to the activist-run Qasioun News Agency in the Aleppo countryside, Fatemah said she was glad to have finally reached safety but expressed regret that she was forced out of her home city and said she did not want to become a refugee.

“I left my soul there,” she said. The Observatory and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later said that since midnight Sunday, some 4,500 people have been evacuated from eastern Aleppo. Reports differed on how many people remain in eastern Aleppo, but estimates converge around 15,000 civilians and 6,000 fighters.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said a total of 131 wounded people — including 46 children — were brought to Turkey for treatment since the evacuations began last week. The agency said five of them have since died.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue reported this story from Beirut and AP writer Edith M. Lederer reported from the United Nations.

France, Russia reach compromise as Aleppo rescue uncertain

December 19, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — France struck a compromise Sunday with Russia on a U.N. resolution that it said would prevent “mass atrocities” in besieged areas of Aleppo, where thousands of trapped civilians and rebel fighters await evacuation in freezing temperatures.

On the ground, prospects for swift evacuations from Aleppo and other besieged areas were thrown into doubt again Sunday after militants burned buses assigned to the rescue operation, although one convoy of five buses was reported to have reached safety from the city late Sunday.

The Aleppo evacuations were to have been part of a wider deal that would simultaneously allow more than 2,000 sick and wounded people to leave two pro-government villages that have been besieged by Syrian rebels. Most villagers are Shiite Muslims, while most rebels are Sunni Muslims.

Six buses that were among those poised to enter the villages of Foua and Kfarya on Sunday were set on fire by unidentified militants, presumably to scuttle any deal. A video posted online showed armed men near the burning buses as celebratory gunshots rang out. “The buses that came to evacuate the apostates have been burned,” the narrator of the video said. He warned that no “Shiite pigs” would be allowed to leave the towns.

The video could not be verified independently, but was in line with Associated Press reporting from the area. Earlier Sunday, pro-Syrian government TV stations showed dozens of buses on stand-by at a crossing near eastern Aleppo, reportedly poised to resume evacuations from the opposition’s last foothold in the city.

Later, a Syrian opposition war monitoring group said the first civilians and fighters to evacuate eastern Aleppo in over 48 hours arrived safely in the countryside from the city. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shortly before midnight Sunday that government forces allowed five buses to leave Aleppo.

Evacuations were suspended two days earlier amid mutual recriminations after several thousand people had been ferried out of the war zone. Thousands more desperate civilians are believed trapped in the city.

About 2,700 children were evacuated in the first rescue mission earlier this week, but hundreds more “are now waiting in freezing temperatures, close to the front lines,” said Shushan Mebrahtu of the U.N. agency for children, UNICEF. “We are deeply worried.”

The troubled evacuations are throwing into disarray an Aleppo deal that was brokered last week by Syria ally Russia and opposition supporter Turkey. The deal marked a turning point in the country’s civil war. With the opposition leaving Aleppo, Syrian President Bashar Assad has effectively reasserted his control over Syria’s five largest cities and its Mediterranean coast nearly six years after a national movement to unseat him took hold.

At the United Nations, France and Russia announced agreement on a compromise U.N. resolution to deploy U.N. monitors to eastern Aleppo to ensure safe evacuations and immediate delivery of humanitarian aid.

France’s U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre, told reporters the compromise was reached after more than three hours of closed consultations on Sunday and the Security Council would vote on the resolution at 9 a.m. EST on Monday.

He said some countries want to report to their capitals overnight. He said he hoped for a positive vote, but that he remained cautious. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters before consultations that Moscow could not accept the French draft resolution unless it was changed. He presented council members with a rival text.

After the consultations, Churkin said a “good text” had been formulated. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said the resolution would quickly put more than 100 U.N. personnel on the ground to monitor evacuations. “The text contains all the elements for safe, secure, dignified evacuation, for humanitarian access to those who choose to remain in eastern Aleppo” and for protecting civilians, she said.

She said that following the siege in eastern Aleppo, there have been “many, many reports of people being pulled off buses and disappeared, whether into conscription or into torture chambers or killed outright.” Deploying U.N. monitors would deter “some of the worst excesses,” she said.

Delattre agreed. Approval of the resolution, he said, “would give us collectively the tools to avoid … a situation in which, after the end of major military operations, forces including militias, would commit mass atrocities.”

He said the resolution could also offer leverage to negotiate a broader cease-fire.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub reported this story from Beirut and AP writer Edith M. Lederer reported from the United Nations. AP writer Philip Issa in Beirut contributed to this report.

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