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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.

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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/.

Syria militias dissolving due to lack of funds

February 26, 2018

Syrian paramilitary groups fighting alongside the regime are being dissolved due to lack of funds, according to Syrian news agencies.

The Syrian Observer reported that thousands of Syrians fighting alongside militias loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad left their groups and joined regime forces because they were not getting paid. It’s believed that members of the militia groups have not received their salaries for six months.

A separate Syrian news agency reported over the weekend that as many as 10,000 fighters have not been paid for six months, and that about half of them have joined the regime’s army in the last few weeks.

Reports mentioned that the National Defense militia operating in eastern Homs countryside had been dissolved, leaving a very small number stationed at the checkpoints surrounding Al-Houla area and the northern Homs countryside.

A Syrian source commenting on the development learned that large numbers of these fighters who had joined the Syrian army were affiliated with the militia groups belonging to businessman Rami Makhlouf.

One disgruntled fighter who was a former member of the National Defense militia said: “I lost vision and half my hearing in the battles, my right arm was amputated, my body was splintered, I fought on most fronts until I was paralyzed, but I did not receive my salary for six months, and there is no income for me and my children except for the salary.”

A report by Syrian news agency Zaman Al Wasl claims that the problem around payment of militia groups was due to a combination of sharp differences between the leader and their founder in Homs and the expected end to the conflict which has seen fighting against opposition forces reduced with missions drying up for militia groups.

Regime loyalists are said to be demanding accountability of the leaders of the militias who stole millions of Syrian pounds while others paid with their lives to defend them and the Assad regime.

Some 5,400 troops are said to have joined the army over the past two months, mostly from the paramilitary forces in the eastern Homs countryside. The Syrian government opened offices in two centers is Homs to attract former militias.

Citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the report claimed that since the start of the conflict in Syria, more than 119,000 pro-regime forces have been killed, including 62,000 troops, tens of thousands of loyalist militiamen, and 1,556 fighters from Hezbollah.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180226-syria-militias-dissolving-due-to-lack-of-funds/.

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.

Syrian forces liberate Albu Kamal from IS

2017-11-19

DEIR EZZOR – The Syrian army and loyalist militiamen Sunday retook full control of Albu Kamal from the Islamic State group, a military source said, ousting the jihadists from their last urban stronghold in Syria.

Albu Kamal has changed hands several times, with government forces announcing the capture of the town near the Iraqi border earlier this month but losing it to a blistering IS counter-attack a week ago.

“Syrian troops and allied forces took full control of Albu Kamal, and are removing mines and explosives left by IS,” the military source in Deir Ezzor said on Sunday.

“IS put up fierce resistance and tried to use explosives and suicide bombers, but besieging the city allowed the army to clinch the offensive and take full control of the city,” the source added.

State news agency SANA also reported the advance in Albu Kamal, saying the “Syrian army and its allies eliminated the last Daesh (IS) terrorist pocket in the town.”

A string of territorial defeats across northern and eastern Syria had left Albu Kamal as the last significant Syrian town held by IS.

Syria’s army announced on November 9 it had ousted IS from the town, but the jihadists launched a lightning offensive and retook it.

A week later, the army and allied Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian fighters broke back into Albu Kamal and steadily advanced through the town.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed on Sunday that Syrian troops and their allies had captured Albu Kamal.

“IS fighters withdrew from the city towards the Euphrates River,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

“There is no more fighting in the town, but there are clashes around Albu Kamal,” he said.

The monitor said more than 80 fighters were killed in the three days of ferocious push to retake the town, including 31 pro-regime forces and at least 50 IS jihadists.

IS seized large areas of both Syria and neighboring Iraq in a lightning 2014 campaign, but this year has lost much of the territory it once held.

The loss of Albu Kamal caps the group’s reversion to an underground guerrilla organisation with no urban base.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86013.

Syrian army retakes Deir Ezzor from IS

2017-11-03

DAMASCUS – Syria’s army has seized Deir Ezzor from the Islamic State group, state media said Friday, driving the jihadists from the last major city where they were present.

“The army announces full control of Deir Ezzor city,” state television said in a breaking news alert, citing sources on the ground.

State news agency SANA also reported that Deir Ezzor had been “fully liberated.”

State television reported that engineering units from the army were combing captured neighborhoods to defuse mines and other explosives.

On Thursday, a reporter contributing to AFP saw widespread destruction in the city, with whole buildings hit by air strikes or artillery fire crumpled into themselves and streets strewn with rubble.

Trenches dug by IS fighters to defend their positions were still visible as government minesweepers worked.

Syrian troops and allied fighters backed by Russian air power have been battling inside the eastern city since September, when they broke an IS siege of nearly three years on government-held districts.

In recent days they have advanced, capturing a string of neighborhoods and encircling remaining IS fighters.

The city is the provincial capital of surrounding Deir Ezzor province, an oil-rich region that sits on the county’s eastern border with Iraq.

The province was once largely held by IS, though parts of Deir Ezzor city stayed under government control throughout the jihadist group’s reign.

IS is now facing twin assaults in the province, from the army as well as US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

The jihadist group has lost much of the territory it once held in the province. Its most important remaining position is the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85744.

Assad sets sights on Kurdish areas, risking new Syria conflict

OCTOBER 31, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) – With Islamic State near defeat in Syria, Damascus is setting its sights on territory held by Kurdish-led forces including eastern oil fields, risking a new confrontation that could draw the United States in more deeply and complicate Russian diplomacy.

President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies appear to have been emboldened by events in Iraq, where Kurdish authorities have suffered a major blow since regional states mobilized against their independence referendum, analysts say.

Rivalry between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the United States, and the Syrian government backed by Iran and Russia is emerging as a fault line with their common enemy – Islamic State – close to collapse in Syria.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups hope for a new phase of negotiations that will shore up their autonomy in northern Syria. Assad’s government, however, is asserting its claim to areas captured by the SDF from the jihadist group, known in Arabic by its enemies as Daesh, in more forceful terms.

On Sunday, Damascus declared Islamic State’s former capital at Raqqa would be considered “occupied” until the Syrian army took control – a challenge to Washington which helped the SDF capture the city in months of fighting.

And the eastern oil fields seized by the SDF in October, including Syria’s largest, will be a target for the government as it tries to recover resources needed for reconstructing areas it controls, according to a Syrian official and a non-Syrian commander in the alliance fighting in support of Assad.

“The message is very clear to the SDF militants and their backers in the coalition, headed by America: the lands they took from Daesh are rightfully the Syrian state‘s,” said the non-Syrian commander, who requested that his name and nationality be withheld.

“Regarding the resources of the Syrian people in the east – oil and so on – we will not allow anyone to continue to control the country’s resources and to create cantons or to think about self government,” added the commander, who is part of a military alliance that includes numerous Iran-backed Shi‘ite militias from across the region.

The Syrian official said the SDF could not keep control of oil resources. “We won’t permit it,” said the official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity as he was giving a personal view.

The United States has not spelt out how military support for the SDF will evolve after Islamic State’s defeat, a sensitive point due to the concerns of its NATO ally Turkey.

Ankara regards Syrian Kurdish power as a threat its national security as its forces are fighting Kurdish PKK rebels over the border in Turkey.

The U.S.-led coalition, which has established several military bases in northern Syria, has been helping the SDF shore up control of the recently captured al-Omar oil field in Deir al-Zor province.

“Many people will say that will help them with (political) negotiations, but only if the United States remains with them, otherwise they are going to get clobbered,” said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“I think the Syrian government is going to push on some of these oil wells, in the same way as Iraq just pushed to get Kirkuk oil, and in the same way the Iraqi push is going to embolden the Syrian army,” he said.

KIRKUK “LESSON”

Iraqi Kurds took control of large areas outside their autonomous region during the fight against Islamic State. However, last month’s independence referendum prompted Western opposition and fierce resistance from Baghdad, Ankara and Assad’s Iranian allies, and the Kurdish authorities have since lost much territory to Baghdad, including oil producing areas around the city of Kirkuk.

The Syrian official said this should serve “as a lesson for the Kurds in Syria, so they think about the future”.

Regional sources say the U.S. unwillingness to stop Iraqi government forces, backed by Shi‘ite militias, from recapturing Kirkuk sent an encouraging message to Assad and his Iranian allies to retake the SDF-held oil areas in Syria.

With critical military support from Russia and the Iran-backed militias, Assad has recovered swathes of central and eastern Syria from Islamic State this year, having defeated many anti-Assad rebel factions in western Syria.

The Kurdish YPG militia, the dominant force in the SDF, controls the second largest chunk of Syrian territory – around a quarter of the country. Syrian Kurdish leaders say they are not seeking secession.

The YPG and Damascus have mostly avoided conflict during the Syrian civil war, setting aside historic enmity to fight shared foes. Kurdish-led regions of northern Syria have meanwhile focused on establishing an autonomous government which they aim to safeguard.

Moscow has called for a new “congress” of Syrian groups that may start work on a new constitution. The Russian Foreign Ministry published on Tuesday a list of 33 groups and political parties invited to a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Nov. 18.

A Syrian Kurdish official told Reuters the administration in northern Syria had been invited to the congress. Kurdish officials said they discussed their political demands with the Russians as recently as last month.

A senior Kurdish politician said government statements directed at the Kurdish-led regions of northern Syria were contradictory, noting that the Syrian foreign minister had said in September that Kurdish autonomy demands were negotiable.

“One day they say we are willing to negotiate and then someone else denies this or puts out an opposing statement,” Fawza Youssef said in a telephone interview with Reuters. “One of them declares war and the other wants to come negotiate. What is the regime’s strategy? Dialogue or war?”

After the final defeat of Islamic State in Deir al-Zor, “the situation will drive all the political sides and the combatants to start the stage of negotiations”, Youssef said.

The SDF has also pushed into Arab majority areas, including Raqqa and parts of Deir al-Zor, where it is working to establish its model of multi-ethnic local governance.

Analysts believe the Syrian Kurdish groups could use the SDF-held Arab areas as bargaining chips in negotiations with Damascus.

“There is no other option than to negotiate,” Youssef said. “Either a new stage of tensions and attrition will start – which we are 100 percent against – or a stage of dialogue and negotiations will start.”

Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry; editing by David Stamp

Source: Reuters.

Link: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-kurds-analysis/assad-sets-sights-on-kurdish-areas-risking-new-syria-conflict-idUSKBN1D02CN.

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