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Intense government bombing of south Syria opposition holdout

July 18, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Talks to cede the largest opposition holdout in southwestern Syria to the government have failed, triggering an intense overnight bombing campaign on the densely populated town that killed a dozen people and injured over a hundred, activists and rescuers said Wednesday.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an overnight ‘frenzied’ bombing campaign continued into Wednesday, with at least 350 missiles lobbed into Nawa and its surrounding areas. The Observatory said at least 12 were killed as rescuers struggled to get to the casualties.

Khaled Solh, head of the local Syrian civil defense known as White Helmets, said only one ambulance was able to access the town and civilians relied on their cars to bring out at least 150 injured. He said the only hospital in the town was struck in the overnight campaign, rendering it non-operational. He said one of the last orthopedists in the town was killed in the strikes.

In less than a month, Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital that was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad more than seven years ago.

They have stepped up their military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region that includes Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Alongside the military offensive, the government has resorted to “reconciliation” agreements whereby it negotiated capitulation deals in a number of villages to restore government control in the localities that have been in rebel hands for years.

Talks to hand over Nawa, one of the most densely populated towns in Daraa province, have been ongoing for a couple of days. This has encouraged displaced civilians to return in droves to Nawa, said a local activist who goes by the name Selma Mohammed. But the talks faltered, triggering the overnight onslaught.

Mohammed said the bombing triggered a new wave of displacement, with hundreds leaving the town again. On Wednesday, the bombing focused on towns and villages surrounding Nawa, making the road in and out of town deadly, Mohammed said.

The Observatory said warplanes and ground forces have also targeted with a barrage of missiles the southern tip of the region, which is held by a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State group.

With most of Daraa under control, government forces have turned their focus to the area near the frontier with Israel, to clear the last pockets of the opposition. The offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open from the onslaught. Jordan said it will not take in new refugees and Israeli soldiers have shooed away dozens of protesters demanding protection who approached the frontier Tuesday.

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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.

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/.

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.

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