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

September 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syria rebels surrender heavy arms in Deraa city

Saturday 14/07/2018

DAMASCUS – Syrian rebels in the southern city of Deraa were surrendering their heavy weapons to government forces on Saturday, state media said, under a deal brokered by regime ally Russia.

State news agency SANA said opposition fighters in the neighborhood of Deraa al-Balad, a district in the city’s rebel-held southern half, handed over heavy ammunition and other equipment.

It came a day after the regime and rebels began dismantling the dirt barriers that had divided the city for years.

The agreement reached on Wednesday will see Deraa city — the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising — fall back into government control.

Negotiated by Moscow, it provides for rebels to hand over heavy- and medium-duty weapons and to “reconcile” legally with the government, according to state media.

Those who rejected the deal would be allowed safe passage out of the city.

The terms mirror a broader deal announced on July 6 for the entire province of Deraa, which would be implemented in three stages: the eastern countryside first, then the city, and finally the province’s west.

While rebels have handed over weapons to government forces in dozens of towns, no transfers of fighters or civilians to the opposition-held north have taken place yet.

The Deraa deals are the latest in a string of so-called “reconciliation” agreements that typically follow blistering military offensives.

After using the strategy to secure Damascus and other strategic parts of Syria since 2015, President Bashar al-Assad turned his attention to the south.

Beginning on June 19, Syrian and Russian bombardment pounded rebel areas in Deraa and the neighboring province of Quneitra, ostensibly protected by an internationally agreed ceasefire.

The onslaught came to an end with the July 6 ceasefire.

Regime forces now hold more than 80 percent of Deraa province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor that relies on a network of sources inside the country.

Some western areas of the province remain under opposition control, and the deal excludes a southwestern patch held by an affiliate of the Islamic State jihadist group.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://www.middle-east-online.com/en/syria-rebels-surrender-heavy-arms-deraa-city.

11 Syrian opposition groups form new front in Idlib

28.05.2018

IDLIB, Syria

Eleven opposition groups fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria formed a new alliance in northwestern Idlib province on Monday.

The sources from the groups said they merged under the name of “National Front for Liberation.”

“The aim of the new formation is to unite the components of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib province on Syria under one roof,” the new formation said on social media.

The formation includes following groups: Sham Legion, Jaysh al-Nasr, Free Idlib Army, 1st Costal Division, 2nd Costal Division, 1st Division, 2nd Army, Army of Elites, Shuhada al-Islam Darayya, Al-Hurriyat Brigade, and 23rd Division.

All of the groups have been operating in Idlib and northern part of Hama under the Free Syrian Army.

The Sham Legion commander Fadil Allah al-Hajji became the leader of the new front, while Suhaib Layyush from Jaysh al-Nasr was appointed as his deputy.

With the new formation, the opposition group created one of the largest military groups in Syria fighting the Assad regime, bringing together nearly 30,000 people.

Syria has just begun to emerge from a devastating civil war that began in early 2011 when the Bashar al-Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity. UN officials say hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict.

Source: Anadolu Agency.

Link: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/11-syrian-opposition-groups-form-new-front-in-idlib/1159183.

Syrian army declares victory as rebels vacate most of Ghouta

March 31, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian army declared victory in eastern Ghouta Saturday after opposition fighters evacuated from most of the area near the capital except for the town of Douma where negotiations are still underway for rebels there to leave or face an all-out government offensive.

The government has given rebels in Douma — the area’s largest town and stronghold of the powerful Army of Islam rebel group — an ultimatum to agree on leaving by late Saturday. Some pro-government new websites reported that the army is massing troops around Douma, adding that the ultimatum may be extended until Sunday.

The army statement came shortly after another group of opposition fighters and their relatives left southern and western parts of eastern Ghouta Saturday afternoon, bringing President Bashar Assad’s forces a step closer to eliminating threats from insurgents groups nearby.

State TV said 38 buses left the towns of Zamalka, Ein Tarma, Arbeen and Jobar taking more than 1,700 rebels and civilians to the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib. The channel said troops entered the towns and raised the national flag in Arbeen’s main square.

“The importance of this victory lies in restoring security and stability to the city of Damascus and its surrounding areas after the suffering of its civilians from the crimes of terrorists over several years,” said the army statement, read on TV by Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub.

Government forces taking back most of eastern Ghouta reopens a major network of roads and highways that link Damascus with other parts of the country that have been closed since 2012 when rebels captured eastern suburbs of the capital.

The army statement vowed “to wipe out terrorism and bring back stability and security to all parts of Syria.” A crushing government offensive under the cover of Russian airstrikes that began on Feb. 18 has forced opposition fighters in most of eastern Ghouta to agree to evacuate and head to Idlib province.

“Arbeen, Zamalka, Jobar and Ein Tarma in eastern Ghouta are free of terrorists,” shouted a correspondent for state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV channel from Arbeen. State news agency SANA said 38,000 fighters and civilians have already headed to Idlib over the past two weeks marking one of the largest displacements since Syria’s conflict began seven years ago. More than 100,000 others headed to government-controlled areas over the past weeks.

Before the last wave of violence began in eastern Ghouta last month, the U.N. had estimated that some 393,000 people were living in the area under a tight government siege. Tens of thousands of rebels and civilians have been relocated to Idlib over the past years from different parts of Syria making it one of the most inhabited regions in the country.

The top U.N. official in Syria, Ali Al-Za’tari, told the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV in an interview aired Saturday that “Idlib cannot take more people.” The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a vehicle carrying evacuees from eastern Ghouta had a road accident in the government-held village of Nahr al-Bared leaving five fighters and three civilians dead. It said the bus had left eastern Ghouta Friday night.

The departure Saturday from southern and western parts of eastern Ghouta comes as negotiations are still ongoing between Russian mediators and officials from the Army of Islam to evacuate Douma, but no deal has been reached so far with the rebel group which insists on staying in the town.

Army of Islam officials did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said negotiations are now suggesting that thousands of Army of Islam members and their relatives could head to the northern town of Jarablous that is controlled by Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters.

The Observatory also reported that Syrian troops have been massing troops around Douma in case negotiations collapse.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

Jaish al-Islam rebels refuse to leave Ghouta

2018-03-26

BEIRUT – Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel faction in control of territory in eastern Ghouta, said on Sunday it would not withdraw to other opposition-held parts of Syria as other rebel groups have done under deals negotiated with Syrian government ally Russia.

After a month-long ground and air offensive and deals under which rebel fighters agreed to be transported to northern Syria, pro-Syrian government forces have taken control of most of what had been the last major rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus.

Only the town of Douma, the most populous part of eastern Ghouta, remains under rebel control.

Jaish al-Islam is currently negotiating with Russia over the future of the area and the people in it.

“Today the negotiations taking place … are to stay in Ghouta and not to leave it,” Jaish al-Islam’s military spokesman Hamza Birqdar told Istanbul-based Syrian radio station Radio al-Kul via Skype from eastern Ghouta.

Birqdar accused the Syrian government of trying to change the demographic balance of the eastern Ghouta by forcing out locals and replacing them with its allies.

He said in the negotiations with Russia Jaish al-Islam is asking for guarantees that what remains of the local population will not be forced out.

Both Ahrar al-Sham and Failq al-Rahman, two other rebel groups formerly in charge of pockets of the eastern Ghouta, have accepted deals under which they withdraw to opposition-held Idlib in northwest Syria.

Moscow and Damascus say the Ghouta campaign is necessary to halt deadly rebel shelling of the capital.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87822.

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.

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/.

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