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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/.

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.

Israel is now arming seven rebel groups in Syria

February 28, 2018

The illegal Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights has now been in place for more than 50 years. This substantial territory, part of southern Syria, was conquered by Israeli occupation forces in the 1967 war.

The majority of the Syrian population in the territory was then either expelled, or fled towards safety. Israel demolished their homes, buildings and entire villages in the Golan in order to build Jewish settlements where they once stood.

In 1981, in defiance of the United Nations and international law, Israel annexed the Golan Heights. This move – unrecognized even by Israel’s allies – was intended to solidify Israel’s de facto control of the occupied Syrian territory, giving it a gloss of legalistic self-recognition. What’s more, over the past few years Israel has used the cover of the long-running and bloody war in Syria to expand its control of the Golan, far into the rest of the south of its neighbor’s sovereign territory; it wants as much control as possible.

As I wrote here last summer, Israel is now establishing a buffer zone in the south of Syria, extending from the Golan. Working with local proxies in the south, Israel is establishing what its front organisations claim is a “safe zone”.

That summer we learned that Israel was supporting a “border force” rebel group between the Golan and the rest of Syria to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. In the years prior to that, Israel had worked to support Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the south of Syria. This support took the form of treating wounded fighters in Israeli hospitals across the border, before sending them back to Syria to fight the regime.

The latest news is that Israel’s arming of proxy forces in Syria seems to be escalating. A report in Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz last week stated that Israel is now arming “at least” seven rebel groups in the Golan, which are “getting arms and ammunition from Israel, along with money to buy additional armaments.”

The groups in question all report a recent increase in Israeli aid. This comes in the wake of various states, including Jordan and the US, scaling down their armament operations in Syria. As Haaretz reported, “In January, the Trump administration closed the operations center the CIA ran in Amman, the Jordanian capital, which coordinated aid to rebel organisations in southern Syria. As a result, tens of thousands of rebels who received regular economic support from the US have been bereft of this support.”

The Israeli aim here seems to be twofold. First of all, it is to keep the armed forces of Iran and Hezbollah – the Syrian regime’s allies – away from the boundary line of the Golan. The quickest way to do this is to make sure that there is a feasible armed opposition in that area.

Secondly, Israel’s arms proliferation program is intended to promote its official strategic objective in the region; to “let both sides bleed” in order to prolong the war for as long as possible. Weakening Syria and its allies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran, is an important goal for Israel and its superpower backer, the United States. Even more important is the goal of making sure that the war carries on.

All of this is in addition to the general Israeli goal of controlling the maximum amount of land that it can grab and keep. The buffer zone that Israel is stealthily attempting to extend as much as 40 kilometers further into Syria is being achieved through front groups posing as supposedly “non-governmental” aid organisations, as well as covering the salaries of rebel fighters and sending funding to buy arms.

These bogus “civil society aid” groups backed by Israel in the south of Syria – extending its Golan occupation – are a front. In reality, they are a way to extend Israeli proxy control throughout the region.

All of this is very much out of the Israeli play book in Lebanon. Between 1982 and 2000, Israel illegally occupied the south of Lebanon. After the 1982 invasion — which reached as far as Beirut — Israel withdrew to a “buffer” zone in southern Lebanon. Instead of occupying the zone with Israeli soldiers, much of the work was handled by Lebanese proxy forces. These puppet armed groups oppressed the population on behalf of Israel. This soon led to armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, and it was in this environment that Hezbollah was born.

Israel illegally occupied the south of Lebanon until 2000, when the resistance led by Hezbollah drove out the main Israeli proxy, the so-called South Lebanon Army. Today, Israel is attempting to establish what is, in all but name, a “South Syria Army”. Whether it succeeds is questionable but, as the history of Lebanon shows, even if it does, Israel is unlikely to maintain control in the long run.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180228-israel-is-now-arming-seven-rebel-groups-in-syria/.

Turkey defends our interests: Kurdish FSA fighter

24.01.2018

By Adham Kako and Muhammed Misto

AZAZ / ANKARA

The Kurdish fighters of the Free Syrian Army say they are defending their own land against the PYD/PKK terrorist organization, vowing to free Afrin from their occupation.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency in the northwestern Syrian town of Azaz, Abu Fayad, one of the Kurdish fighters, who vigorously make the case that the PYD/PKK can never represent the Kurds living in the region, said they were Kurds speaking Kurdish and had nothing to do with the PKK.

“We’ve been defending our villages, our land for a long time. What do they [the PKK] want from us? They are terrorists whereas we are a free army,” Fayad said.

“The PKK has no religion and they came from some place far away. In order to do what? Of course, to steal our land. So what kind of relationship can we possibly have with them? We won’t let them get anywhere near us,” Abu Fayad said.

He stressed that Turkey was a Muslim country that would never harm them.

“If our people here think that Turkey would harm them, they are wrong. Turkey wants our well-being. They won’t harm us,” he said.

As regards the recent situation in Afrin, where the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Armed Forces have launched Operation Olive Branch, Abu Fayad reiterated:

“Turkey has our best interests at heart in this region, and it is hand in hand with us, working with us. God bless the people and government of Turkey,” Abu Fayad added.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched Operation Olive Branch on Saturday to remove all PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Afrin, establish security and stability along Turkish borders and the region as well as to protect the Syrian people from the oppression and cruelty of terrorists, according to a statement issued the same day.

The military notes that the operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council’s decisions, self-defense rights under the UN charter and respect to Syria’s territorial integrity.

It is also frequently emphasized that “utmost care” is being shown not to harm any civilians.

Afrin has been a major hideout for the PYD/PKK since July 2012 when the Assad regime in Syria left the city to the terror group without putting up a fight.

Source: Anadolu Agency.

Link: http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-defends-our-interests-kurdish-fsa-fighter/1041160.

At least 220 in four-day regime assault on Syria rebel enclave

2018-02-09

ERBIN – Syrian regime jets have pounded Eastern Ghouta, sending the death toll from a four-day assault on the rebel enclave on the outskirts of Damascus soaring past 220.

Violence also flared in eastern Syria on Thursday, where the US-led coalition said it had killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters to fend off an attack on its Kurdish allies.

The clash marked a fresh escalation between Washington, which has threatened the regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons, and Damascus, which labelled the latest incident in eastern Syria a “war crime”.

Moscow also slammed the US-led strikes, with Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia saying he had lodged a protest about the assault during a closed-door Security Council meeting.

“To confront those who really fight international terrorism on the ground in Syria is criminal,” he said.

The UN Security Council on Thursday failed to back a UN appeal for a month-long humanitarian ceasefire in Syria.

In Eastern Ghouta, which lies east of the capital and has been besieged since 2013, residents had no time to mourn their dead or treat their wounded from the previous day’s bombardment.

“These are the worst four days that Eastern Ghouta has ever gone through,” said Hamza, an overwhelmed doctor at the Erbin clinic who was treating wounded patients.

“From 2011 until now, there has never been the level of bombardment we’ve seen in the last 96 hours.”

The death toll mounted steadily throughout Thursday, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights giving 75 civilians dead by the evening. Three died of wounds suffered on Wednesday.

– Dozens of children –

That brought to 228 the number of civilians killed since the regime launched a campaign Monday of heavy air raids on the area, which has an estimated 400,000 residents.

Among them were at least 58 children, the Observatory said.

“Children and teachers are terrified that at any moment they could be hit. The siege means there is nowhere for them to escape,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria response director.

“There must be an immediate halt to the fighting and an end to the siege.”

Moayad al-Hafi, a rescue worker, said his team was targeted as they retrieved bodies near Erbin.

“As we were pulling out the children and the dead from under the rubble, they targeted us with five rockets — directly targeting us,” said Hafi, 24.

At least two civilians were killed in retaliatory rebel mortar fire on government-controlled areas of Damascus, according to state news agency SANA.

AFP correspondents said mortars were raining down on Bab Touma on Thursday night.

Eastern Ghouta was one of several so-called de-escalation zones agreed last year by three of the main outside players in the conflict — Turkey, Iran and Russia.

Ankara announced Thursday it would host a new three-way summit to revive efforts to end the war, which has killed at least 340,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.

Recent attempts to bring the conflict’s protagonists and brokers to the table have floundered, but the UN made a fresh call this week for conflicting sides to halt fighting.

The United States backed the plea but Russia — a longtime ally of Syria’s government — shrugged it off.

“That is not realistic,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters at the UN.

– US strikes regime forces –

A US military official said the US-led coalition that still assists Kurdish-led forces in the hunt for surviving IS members in eastern Syria killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters overnight.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the coalition acted in self-defense after pro-government forces moved on an area under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The pro-Damascus forces “began shelling it with artillery,” he added. “They were moving with tanks, obviously in the same direction as they were firing.

“At the end of our effort to defend ourselves, their artillery was knocked out, two of their tanks were knocked out, they had casualties.”

Syrian state media confirmed dozens were killed but appeared to deny the forces were army soldiers, describing them as “popular forces”.

Wounded fighters were taken to the military hospital in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor city, which is controlled by the government.

A reporter contributing to AFP saw at least six fighters there, lying on hospital beds in sparsely equipped rooms.

The Observatory said the regime forces may have been aiming to capture a key oil field and a major gas plant in an SDF-held area.

The Omar oil field, one of the biggest in Syria, had a pre-war output of 30,000 barrels per day, while the Conoco gas field had a pre-war capacity of 13 million cubic meters a day.

According to the Observatory, the forces that launched the attack on SDF positions were local tribal fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and Afghan Shiite militia fighting alongside the regime.

In a letter addressed to the UN secretary general, the Syrian foreign ministry said the attack “represents a war crime and a crime against humanity”.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87183.

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.

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