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Syria war shifting gears as it enters eighth year

2018-03-13

BEIRUT – Syria enters its eighth year of war on Thursday, free of the jihadist “caliphate” but torn apart by an international power struggle as the regime presses its blistering reconquest.

The conflict that started on March 15, 2011 as the government of President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on mostly peaceful protests is raging on relentlessly and getting more complex.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nearly 354,000 people have been killed in seven years. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 20 million has been displaced.

International efforts have consistently failed to stop one of the deadliest wars of the century: hundreds of children are still being killed and thousands of people forced from their homes.

Assad, who once looked on the brink of losing the office he has held since 2000, was given a new lease on life by Russia’s 2015 military intervention and is sealing an unlikely recovery.

“Today, the regime controls more than half of the territory. He holds the big cities… it’s clear that he has won,” said Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche.

The government’s latest operation to retake the ground it lost in the early stages of the war is being conducted in Eastern Ghouta, at the gates of the capital Damascus.

Government and allied forces have waged an intense air and ground offensive on the rebel enclave, killing more than 1,100 civilians — a fifth of them children — in an assault whose ferocity has shocked the world.

Deadly barrel bombs and suspected chemical munitions have been dropped on civilian areas, forcing families to cower in basements and turning entire towns into fields of ruins reminiscent of World War II.

– ‘Scramble for Syria’ –

The past few months had seen the death of the Islamic State group’s “caliphate”, an experiment in jihadist statehood that temporarily gave rival forces a shared goal and shifted the focus away from Assad’s fate.

The proto-state IS declared in 2014 in swathes of Syria and Iraq it controlled was gradually defeated by a myriad different forces, and 2017 saw the caliphate’s final collapse.

The organization that once administered millions of people still has a few fighters hunkering down in desert hideouts, but its territorial ambitions have been dashed.

“It is very difficult for IS to get its feet back on the ground,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

He warned that jihadists would retain the ability to carry out spectacular attacks and suicide bombings.

As they invested forces and equipment in the war on the jihadists, world powers were also staking their claim to increased influence in the region.

After foreign militaries finished wresting back one IS bastion after another, parts of Syria that had seen a relative lull in fighting became the focus once again.

“What we are seeing is the scramble for Syria right now,” said Landis.

“The main trend is going to be the division of Syria” into three blocs, he said, with the lion’s share going to the regime, which is backed by Russia and Iran.

– Faltering talks –

US-backed Kurds hold oil-rich territory in northeastern Syria covering 30 percent of the country and a motley assortment of Turkey-backed Arab rebels are carving a third haven in the northwest.

“Turkish and American influence on the ground, inside of Syria, will continue to spread,” predicted Nicholas Heras of the Center for New American Security.

“In this way, 2018 will continue the trend of consolidating Syria into zones of control, even as Bashar al-Assad’s forces make gains in some areas of the country,” he said.

The regime is now bent on breaking any resistance in Eastern Ghouta, which lies on the capital’s doorstep, within mortar range of key institutions.

Balanche predicted that the rebel enclave will not hold out very long and that evacuation deals will be reached.

“For the regime, 2018 is the year it fully retakes Damascus and its agglomeration,” said Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

UN-sponsored talks in Geneva as well as Russian-brokered negotiations in Sochi have failed to raise any credible prospect of a political solution to the conflict.

The assault on Ghouta marks one of the seven-year conflict’s darkest episodes, with the international community apparently powerless to stop the bloodshed.

It has left the United Nations virtually speechless, with its children agency UNICEF issuing a blank statement last month to demonstrate its outrage at the carnage in Ghouta.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87652.

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Turkish-backed rebels poised to encircle Afrin city after days of swift advances

MAR. 12, 2018

AMMAN: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are moving to “surround and isolate Afrin city,” the eponymous capital of a Kurdish-held enclave that has been the target of a months-long military operation, a rebel spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday.

Free Syrian Army fighters “are now on the outskirts of Afrin city,” Suheil al-Qasim, the spokesman for Failaq a-Sham, a rebel faction participating in the Turkish-backed offensive on Afrin canton, told Syria Direct on Monday.

Ankara-backed rebels seized control over a series of “strategic hills” overlooking Afrin city in recent days, the spokesman added.

Less than two kilometers currently separate Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions from Afrin city, following three days of swift advances against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Afrin is the capital of an eponymous canton in northwestern Aleppo that is mainly governed by the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG. Ankara considers both groups to be offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey for decades.

On January 20, Turkey launched a military operation dubbed “Operation Olive Branch” in coordination with allied Syrian rebel groups with the stated goal of “eliminating terrorists” near Turkey’s border with northwestern Syria.

FSA factions supported by Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire seized the Kurdish-held enclave’s entire border region with Turkey from YPG fighters by early February, Syria Direct reported.

Olive Branch factions advanced towards the canton’s capital along two major axes over the past week after capturing cities and villages southwest and northeast of Afrin city.

Today, roughly six kilometers separate the two FSA salients. By joining the two frontlines, Olive Branch forces would encircle Afrin city as well as large swathes of countryside to the east.

Syria Direct contacted Nouri Mahmoud, official spokesman for the YPG, on Monday for confirmation of Operation Olive Branch advances. He said YPG fighters inflicted “heavy losses and destroyed military vehicles” belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces, but did not elaborate on the advances.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported “rapid advances” by the rebel factions of Operation Olive Branch on Monday, claiming that 1,100 square kilometers of Afrin were “cleared of terror threats” since the operation began in January.

Coinciding with the latest advances by Turkish-backed rebels, pro-government militias that entered Afrin in support of the YPG last month withdrew from the canton, the state-funded news outlet Russia Today reported on Sunday.

YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud did not confirm that pro-government militias withdrew from Afrin canton, but said that the fighters were “evading their duties.”

“The groups belonging to the Syrian Army are not capable of protecting the unity of Syrian territory,” the spokesman said.

‘Brink of catastrophe’

Olive Branch forces are now closing in on a capital city teeming with displaced people, as tens of thousands of residents are taking shelter there after fleeing ground battles, shelling and Turkish airstrikes elsewhere in Afrin in recent weeks.

Afrin city and its surrounding villages are now home to 800,000 people, one canton official told Syria Direct. YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud claimed “more than one million Syrian citizens” are currently in Afrin. Syria Direct could not independently verify either statistic.

“The city is overcrowded with a huge number of displaced residents who came here,” a member of Afrin’s Executive Council told Syria Direct from inside the city on Monday. He asked to not be identified by name as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

In the first two weeks of the Turkish military operation alone, up to 30,000 residents fled their homes, with the majority seeking shelter in Afrin city, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Now, civilians in the enclave’s capital are fleeing deeper into the city center after FSA forces reached the outskirts, two residents on the ground told Syria Direct on Monday.

Some Afrin residents are taking shelter underground, resident Jano told Syria Direct on Monday. He said he fears “a massacre” if Turkish airstrikes hit the packed urban center. Jano asked that his full name and personal details not be published, fearing reprisals if Turkish-backed rebels seize the area.

“The city is on the brink of catastrophe,” he said.

Resident Jano and the council member said some Afrin city residents are fleeing towards the Kurdish-held countryside to the east, but both estimated that most residents remain in the city center.

“It is difficult to leave as the roads leading out [of the city] are being bombed,” the council member said, adding that Turkish air and artillery fire struck the outskirts of Afrin city on Monday. The Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported Turkish airstrikes near Afrin city on Monday.

Syria Direct contacted the Kurdish Red Crescent on Monday for statistics regarding Afrin city’s current population and rates of displacement, but were told that those figures were not available.

A report by Anadolu Agency on Monday claimed that YPG fighters are barring civilians from leaving the city and accused the Kurdish militia of using civilians as “human shields.”

The same report added that YPG “shelters are largely located in Afrin’s city center.”

Source: Syria Direct.

Link: http://syriadirect.org/news/turkish-backed-rebels-poised-to-encircle-afrin-city-after-days-of-swift-advances/.

More civilians leave Syrian rebel enclave as army advances

March 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian TV says another group of civilians has left the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta outside Damascus through a corridor established by the Syrian army The state-run TV broadcast footage showing a small group of men, women and children it says left the town of Madyara on Monday. The town was captured by Syrian troops on Sunday.

Syrian government forces split eastern Ghouta in two amid rapid weekend advances, dealing a major setback to the rebels and threatening to exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation at the doorstep of the country’s capital.

The advances also cut off key towns of Douma and Harasta from the rest of the enclave, further squeezing the residents inside them. The U.N. estimates nearly 400,000 civilians are living under a crippling siege in eastern Ghouta.

Government forces split East Ghouta apart, leaving residents with ‘nowhere to go’

MAR. 11, 2018

AMMAN: Syrian government forces advanced and cut East Ghouta in two on Sunday, state media reported, while residents said they have “nowhere” to seek safety from a barrage of aerial and ground attacks in the rebel enclave.

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) captured the central East Ghouta town of Mudayra on Sunday after “fierce battles with terrorist organizations,” state media outlet SANA reported.

The advance severed rebel supply routes and movement between the pocket’s northern and southern sections, SANA said.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the capture of Mudayra by government forces, which pro-opposition media outlets did not immediately report on Sunday.

In an earlier advance, Syrian government forces captured the central East Ghouta town of Misraba on Saturday, effectively “cutting off” the enclave’s largest city, Douma, from the rest of of the pocket, Hamza Beriqdar, the spokesman for the rebel faction Jaish al-Islam told Syria Direct.

Jaish al-Islam is one the two major rebel factions in control of East Ghouta.

Today, East Ghouta is divided into two main pockets: a northern section, where Douma lies, and a southern section containing a cluster of other cities and towns. The town of Harasta, near Douma, sits in a third pocket of its own, surrounded on three sides by government forces. Roads connecting Harasta to the rest of East Ghouta are within range of government fire and therefore impassable.

“There’s nowhere to go,” Khadeja Homs, a resident of the East Ghouta town of Hamouriyah told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Pro-government forces have encircled and bombarded East Ghouta, where an estimated 400,000 people live, since 2013. Damascus intensified attacks on the enclave last month in an ongoing aerial and ground campaign that has left approximately 1,100 civilians dead and many more injured.

SAA units and their allies have captured more than half of East Ghouta since the escalation began, Iran’s Fars New Agency reported on Sunday, citing Syrian military sources. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the same statistic last week.

As government forces advanced in East Ghouta over the weekend, “the bombing increased in its strength, intensity and duration” Douma resident and journalist Haytham Bakkar told Syria Direct on Sunday from a bomb shelter in the city. “The bombing hasn’t stopped since the morning,” he said.

Airstrikes and shelling over cities across East Ghouta killed at least five civilians on Sunday, according to the Civil Defense.

Increasingly hemmed in by advancing government frontlines, civilians told Syria Direct that their options for places to seek safety from the bombing are narrowing.

“We are now running from neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street and building to building,” journalist Bakkar said.

Abu Anas, another Douma resident who spoke to Syria Direct on Sunday just before the capture of Mudayra, listed a number of towns that were once available to him, should the need to flee his city arise: Misraba, Saqba, Hamouriya. Now, those towns are inaccessible.

“Today, it’s impossible for me to flee,” he said. “There’s only Douma.”

East Ghouta residents moved underground in recent weeks, seeking to ride out government bombings in basements and cellars. But as thousands of East Ghouta residents pack into shrinking pockets of rebel territory, not everybody can find shelter underground.

“There are some who have no place in a shelter,” journalist Bakkar said, “especially after the wave of displacement to Douma that took place after [the fall of] Misraba, Otaya and Bayt Sawa,” all towns captured by pro-government forces over the past two weeks.

‘Fear of the unknown’

Jaish al-Islam spokesman Beriqdar told Syria Direct on Sunday that his faction is not in negotiations with the Syrian government to leave East Ghouta.

On Friday, Jaish al-Islam released 13 militants with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—previously part of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra—from rebel prisons in East Ghouta. The fighters then departed East Ghouta with their families and headed for rebel-held Idlib province.

The departure followed “consultations” between Jaish al-Islam, the United Nations and “a number of international actors,” the faction said via a statement published to its official Twitter account.

Expelling “Jabhat a-Nusra” and its affiliates from East Ghouta is often cited by the Syrian government as the reason for its campaign on the pocket.

Further negotiations regarding the evacuation of a second group of militants are underway, Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry’s Center for Syrian Reconciliation said on Sunday, Russian state media outlet Sputnik reported. The center is a party to the talks.

HTS fighters who departed East Ghouta on Friday left via the al-Wafideen crossing northeast of Douma, TASS reported. Russia designated the crossing as a “humanitarian corridor” in a unilateral decision last month.

The corridor is meant to facilitate civilian departures from the enclave, but few civilians have been able to leave East Ghouta through it so far, Syria Direct recently reported. Russia and the Syrian government accuse rebels of shelling the area to prevent civilians from leaving. Rebels deny the claims.

Underground in East Ghouta, civilians waiting out the fighting know little about any negotiations to decide their fate, said journalist Bakkar.

“The fighters aren’t telling us what’s going on,” he said from his Douma shelter, “and the politicians aren’t saying where they’re headed.”

“Fear of the unknown is ruling the situation now.”

Source: Syria Direct.

Link: http://syriadirect.org/news/government-forces-split-east-ghouta-apart-leaving-residents-with-%E2%80%98nowhere-to-go%E2%80%99/.

Turkish army, FSA ‘capture Jinderes town’ in Syria’s Afrin

March 08 2018

The Turkish military and Free Syrian Army captured Jinderes town in Syria’s northwestern Afrin district from People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants on March 8.

Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” on Jan. 20 along with elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to clear Afrin of the YPG.

Turkey sees the YPG as a terror group for its ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.

More than 3,000 YPG militants ‘neutralized’ in Turkey’s Afrin op: Army

Some 3,055 YPG militants have been “neutralized” in Turkey’s ongoing cross-border operation in Syria’s northwestern Afrin district, the Turkish Armed Forces said in a statement on March 8.

“In ‘Operation Olive Branch,’ so far 112 villages, 30 critical positions, and a total of 142 spots have been taken under control,” Bekir Bozdag, Deputy Prime Minister said on March 5.

Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on March 2 that 41 Turkish soldiers and 116 FSA militants have been killed since the start of “Operation Olive Branch.” Another 119 have been wounded, state-run Anadolu Agency reported the following day.

The army announced on March 6 that another soldier succumbed to his wounds.

Source: Hurriyet.

Link: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-army-fsa-capture-jinderes-town-in-syrias-afrin-128422.

Al-Qaida-linked fighters launch new attack in central Syria

October 06, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked fighters on Friday attacked a key central Syrian village at the crossroads between areas under government control and those controlled by insurgent groups, opposition activists said.

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, 15 civilians, including children, were killed when a missile slammed into a government-held neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour on Thursday evening. The attack on the village of Abu Dali in central Hama province was led by al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee and also known as HTS. It came two weeks after insurgents attacked a nearby area where three Russian soldiers were wounded.

Earlier this week, Russia’s military claimed the leader of the al-Qaida-linked group was wounded in a Russian airstrike and had fallen into a coma. The military offered no evidence on the purported condition of Abu Mohammed al-Golani.

The al-Qaida-linked group subsequently denied al-Golani was hurt, insisting he is in excellent health and going about his duties as usual. Al-Qaida-linked fighters have been gaining more influence in the northwestern province of Idlib and northern parts of Hama province where they have launched attacks on rival militant groups, as well as areas controlled by the government.

The village of Abu Dali had been spared much of the violence and had functioned as a local business hub between rebel-run areas and those under President Bashar Assad’s forces. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said al-Qaida fighters captured several village tribesmen following the attack in the early hours of Friday. The HTS-linked Ibaa news agency did not mention the attack but said Russian warplanes were bombing areas the group controls in northern Syria.

Violence in eastern Syria has escalated significantly in recent weeks as Syrian troops with the help of Russian air cover are closing in on Mayadeen, a new Islamic State group stronghold after IS came under attacks in the cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops are marching south from Deir el-Zour toward Mayadeen under the cover of airstrikes. The DeirEzzor 24 monitoring group said the missile in the airstrike on Thursday evening that killed 15 had hit near a school in the Qusour neighborhood. Three children and three women were among those killed, the group said Friday, blaming IS for the attack. The school and a nearby residential building were destroyed.

The Observatory also reported the incident, putting the number of civilians killed at 13. Both the Observatory and DeirEzzor 24 also reported that an airstrike hit the village of Mehkan, just south of Mayadeen, and said it killed several families.

Syrian troops have broken a nearly three-year siege on parts of Deir el-Zour last month and are fighting to liberate from IS remaining parts of the city. In Russia, the military said one of its helicopters had made an emergency landing in Syria, but its crew was unhurt.

According to the Defense Ministry, the Mi-28 helicopter gunship landed in Hama province on Friday due to a technical malfunction. The two crewmen were not injured and were flown back to base. The ministry said the helicopter was not fired upon.

The ministry’s statement followed a claim by IS-linked Aamaq news agency, which said that a Russian helicopter was downed south of Shiekh Hilal village in Hama. Also on Friday, the Russian military accused the United States of turning a blind eye and effectively providing cover to the Islamic State group’s operations in an area in Syria that is under U.S. control.

The Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said IS militants have used the area around the town of Tanf near Syria’s border with Jordan — where U.S. military instructors are also stationed — to launch attacks against the Syrian army.

The area has become a “black hole,” posing a threat to Syrian army’s offensive against the IS in eastern Der el-Zour province, he added. The Russian accusations likely reflect rising tensions as U.S.-backed Syrian forces and the Russian-backed Syrian army — both of which are battling IS — race for control of oil and gas-rich areas of eastern Syria.

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Clashes in Damascus after surprise rebel assault

2017-03-19

DAMASCUS – Heavy clashes rocked eastern districts of the Syrian capital on Sunday as rebels and jihadists tried to fight their way into the city center in a surprise assault on government forces.

The attack on Damascus comes just days before a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aiming to put an end to Syria’s six-year war.

Rebels and government troops agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities in December, but fighting has continued across much of the country, including in the capital.

Steady shelling and sniper fire could be heard across Damascus on Sunday as rebel factions allied with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front launched an attack on regime positions in the city’s east.

The attack began early Sunday “with two car bombs and several suicide attackers” on the Jobar district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Rebels then advanced into the nearby Abbasid Square area, seizing several buildings and firing a barrage of rockets into multiple Damascus neighborhoods, Abdel Rahman said.

Government forces responded with nearly a dozen air strikes on Jobar, he added.

Syrian state television reported that the army was “thwarting an attack by terrorists” with artillery fire and had ordered residents to stay inside.

It aired footage from Abbasid Square, typically buzzing with activity but now empty except for the sound of shelling.

Correspondents in Damascus said army units had sealed off the routes into the square, where a thick column of smoke was rising into the cloudy sky.

Several schools announced they would close through Monday, and many civilians cowered inside in fear of stray bullets and shelling.

– ‘From defensive to offensive’ –

Control of Jobar — which has been a battleground for more than two years — is divided between rebels and allied jihadists and government forces.

According to the Observatory, the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and the Fateh al-Sham Front — known as Al-Nusra Front before it broke ties with Al-Qaeda — are present in Jobar.

Government forces have long sought to push the rebels out of the district because of its proximity to the city center in Damascus.

But with Sunday’s attack, Abdel Rahman said, “rebels have shifted from a defensive position in Jobar into an offensive one”.

“These are not intermittent clashes — these are ongoing attempts to advance,” he said.

The Observatory said rebels had launched the attack as a way to relieve allied fighters in the nearby districts of Barzeh, Tishreen and Qabun from government attacks.

“Nine regime forces and at least 12 Islamist rebels were killed” in those districts over the last 24 hours, the Observatory said.

More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted six years ago with protests against Assad’s rule.

After a government crackdown, the uprising turned into an all-out war that has drawn in world powers on nearly all sides.

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria’s air defense systems after they fired ground-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes on Friday.

Syria’s army said it shot down an Israeli jet and hit another as they were carrying out early morning strikes near the famed desert city of Palmyra.

Israel denied any planes were hit and said it was targeting weapons bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which is backing Assad in Syria.

The United Nations has sponsored peace talks to end the conflict since 2012, to no avail.

Government representatives and opposition figures are set to meet for a fourth round of negotiations on March 23 in Switzerland.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82139.

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