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Rare Islamic State victory in rural Homs splits displaced families apart

OCT. 2, 2017

AMMAN: In a remote, destitute displacement camp along Syria’s southeastern border with Jordan, thousands of residents were finalizing preparations last week to return home to central Homs province, fed up after years of life in the desert.

The departing residents were headed back home from the Rukban camp to Qaryatayn, a small town 160km to the northwest, nestled deep within regime territory in rural Homs province.

Some people in the camp had already sent their spouses and children back to Qaryatayn in recent weeks as living conditions in Rukban deteriorated. Someday, they planned to rejoin their loved ones in the relative safety of regime-held central Homs.

But late Friday night, Islamic State forces reportedly launched a surprise offensive and captured Qaryatayn from the Syrian regime. Virtually all communications from the town went down. On Sunday, IS released a statement online claiming their forces held “full control” over the town. Syrian state media did not report the attack.

For residents of Rukban who fled IS control of Qaryatayn two years ago, the recapture of the city came as “a shock.”

“Nobody was expecting IS to return,” Abu Ward, a 25-year-old Rukban resident who fled Qaryatayn with his family in 2015, told Syria Direct on Monday. “To be honest, it was a shock—I didn’t believe the news at first.”

Once a mixed town of Syrian Muslims and Christians reliant on agriculture and government jobs in Damascus, Qaryatayn first fell to the Islamic State in 2015. At the time, thousands of its roughly 14,000 residents fled south through Syria’s eastern desert to safety in Rukban.

Syrian regime forces recaptured Qaryatayn in 2016, but many residents who had already fled did not return for fear of arrest or forced military conscription at the hands of the authorities.

If confirmed, the capture of Qaryatayn is a rare victory for IS as the group’s forces suffer major losses in eastern Syria’s Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces, amid separate campaigns by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime to eradicate the group from its remaining territory.

The surprise advance also comes amid clashes between regime and IS forces 160 kilometers northeast of Qaryatayn in Sukhnah, a key waystation for regime forces on the eastern Deir e-Zor front.

‘No communication’

Today, Qaryatayn natives still in Rukban tell Syria Direct they have “no communication” with their family members back home, as the reported IS hold over the city reaches its third day. For them, the town is a virtual black hole.

The Qaryatayn Media Center, a Facebook news page based outside of the town, posted online that it was able to contact reporters inside on Monday. According to the page, clashes between regime forces and IS continue in the town’s south as civilians shelter inside. “Hundreds” of residents were arrested and later released by IS following the capture of the town, QMC reported.

Among Rukban residents with family now trapped back home in Qaryatayn is Abu Saleem, a 33-year-old father of four. He sent his wife and children home to Qaryatayn last month, after he felt life had returned to normal in the regime-held town. Abu Saleem stayed behind in Rukban because he feared arrest and conscription by regime forces.

Abu Saleem’s wife and children were among hundreds of Rukban residents who returned to Qaryatayn since August, after key supply routes to the desert camp were cut off by battles in the surrounding desert.

From his location in Rukban, Abu Saleem kept in touch with his family daily via voice messages sent online. “[My wife] told me she was doing fine, that the city was safe,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “She had just registered the kids in school.”

“But on Friday evening, she sent me a voice message. There was gunfire, and she said she couldn’t go outside the house, that IS had returned to the city. My children were crying nearby.”

Abu Saleem has heard nothing from his wife and children since Friday, he says, after communication with them “was cut off.”

“I’m afraid for my family,” he said from Rukban. “I’m afraid IS could commit massacres, or that regime warplanes could bomb the city, which could lead—God forbid—to the death of my family.”

Abu Saleem isn’t alone. Abu Ward, the 25-year-old Rukban resident, also told Syria Direct he had no communication with family members who had recently returned to Qaryatayn.

Abu Ward’s brothers, nieces and elderly parents all left Rukban for their hometown about a month and a half ago, hoping for a more stable life outside of the camp. He kept in touch with his family via landline, he said, “because when IS captured Qaryatayn for the first time, they cut off cell phone coverage.”

But the last time Abu Ward heard anything substantial from his family was Friday evening, during a phone call.

“At 11:30pm, the landline cut off,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “At the time, they seemed to be doing well—there were no signs of IS. Everything seemed normal.”

He was able to reach his family members in Qaryatayn “briefly” again on Monday, Abu Ward said, “but the line cut out again.”

“I couldn’t figure out how they were doing—just that there is great panic among residents of the town.”

Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas al-Khalidi, Rukban’s current local council director, estimates some 100 families—hundreds of people—have returned from the camp to Qaryatayn since August. At the time, deteriorating food and medical supplies, as well as series of regime advances eastward along the Syrian-Jordanian border spurred camp residents to flee back home.

“We advised people against returning to Qaryatayn or other areas under regime control,” al-Khalidi told Syria Direct from the camp on Sunday.

Some 300 families were preparing to leave Qaryatayn just before news broke of the IS attack, he said. “They said that they preferred death to living in this camp.”

Today, Rukban resident Abu Saleem says all he feels is regret for sending his wife and young children home to Qaryatayn.

“My feelings are nearly killing me,” he said from inside encampment. “Regret for sending them by themselves, regret that I’m not with them, regret for being the one who made the decision for them to return.”

Source: Syria Direct.

Link: http://syriadirect.org/news/rare-islamic-state-victory-in-rural-homs-splits-displaced-families-apart/.

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Iraqi PM: We will target Daesh abroad

March 9, 2017

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi pledged to target Daesh bases in neighboring countries, namely Syria, if they pose a threat to Iraq, AlKhaleejOnlne.com reported yesterday.

On the margin of his participation in a meeting in the north of the country, Al-Abadi said: “With all respect to the sovereignty of all countries, I will never hesitate to target Daesh bases in the neighboring countries after getting their permission.”

He warned that the continuous battles in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya would proliferate terror.

Regarding the losses caused to his country due to Daesh attacks, he said: “The cost of damages to infrastructure caused by Daesh is estimated at about $35 billion.”

Meanwhile, he called for the international community to contribute to rebuilding the country and regaining stability in the areas liberated from Daesh.

Al-Abadi also called for Iraqi forces to unite under a national umbrella that takes the responsibility of protecting the country.

“I call for uniting the Iraqi forces,” he said, “there should not be forces affiliating to parties or political sides, but Iraqi forces for all Iraqis.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170309-iraqi-pm-we-will-target-daesh-abroad/.

Iraqi forces enter IS-held Mosul airport

2017-02-23

MOSUL – Iraqi forces on Thursday thrust into Mosul airport on the southern edge of the jihadist stronghold for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014.

Backed by jets, gunships and drones, forces blitzed their way across open areas south of Mosul and entered the airport compound, apparently meeting limited resistance but strafing the area for suspected snipers.

“Right now thank God we’re inside Mosul airport and in front of its terminal. Our troops are liberating it,” Hisham Abdul Kadhem, a commander in the interior ministry’s Rapid Response units, said inside the airport.

Little was left standing inside the perimeter and what used to be the runway was littered with dirt and rubble.

Most buildings were completely leveled but Iraqi forces celebrated the latest landmark in the four-month-old offensive to retake Mosul.

While Iraqi forces were not yet deployed in the northern part of the sprawling airport compound and sappers cautiously scanned the site for explosive devices, IS appeared to offer limited resistance.

As Iraqi forces approached the airport moments earlier, attack helicopters fired rockets at an old sugar factory that stands next to the perimeter wall, sending a cloud of ash floating across the area.

The push on the airport was launched at dawn and Iraqi forces stormed it within hours from the southwest.

– US forces –

The regional command said elite forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service were simultaneously attacking the neighboring Ghazlani military base, where some of them were stationed before IS seized Mosul in June 2014.

Control of the base and airport would set government forces up to enter Mosul neighborhoods on the west bank of the Tigris, a month after declaring full control of the east bank.

All of the city’s bridges across the river are damaged.

The US-led coalition has played a key role in supporting Iraqi forces with air strikes and advisers on the ground, and on Thursday US forces were seen on the front lines.

The American troops are not supposed to be doing the actual fighting but in recent weeks have got so close to the front that they have come under attack, coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said.

“They have come under fire at different times, they have returned fire at different times, in and around Mosul,” Dorrian told reporters on Wednesday.

He declined to say if there had been any US casualties in the attacks, but an unnamed official later told CNN that several personnel had been evacuated from the battlefield.

The latest push to retake Mosul, the country’s second city and the last stronghold of the jihadists in Iraq, was launched on Sunday and involves thousands of security personnel.

They started closing in on the airport four days ago. It is unclear how many jihadists tried to defend the airport but US officials said Monday that only around 2,000 remain in Mosul.

There are an estimated 750,000 civilians trapped on the city’s west bank, which is a bit smaller than the east side but more densely populated.

It includes the Old City and its narrow streets, which will make for a difficult terrain when Iraqi forces reach it because they will be impassable for some military vehicles.

– Letters from the east –

The noose has for months now been tightening around Mosul and the living conditions for civilians are fast deteriorating.

Residents reached by phone spoke of dwindling food supplies forcing many families to survive on just one meal a day.

Medical workers say the weakest are beginning to die of the combined effect of malnutrition and the lack of medicines, which IS fighters are keeping for themselves.

An army plane late Wednesday dropped thousands of letters written by residents of the retaken east bank to their fellow citizens across the river.

“Be patient and help each other… the end of injustice is near,” read one of them which was signed “People from the east side.”

“Stay in your homes and cooperate with the security forces. They are your brothers, they came to liberate you,” read another.

A smaller than expected proportion of the east side’s population fled when Iraqi forces stormed it nearly four months ago but the United Nations is bracing for a bigger exodus from the west.

It had said 250,000 people or more could flee their homes on the west bank and has scrambled to set up new displacement camps around the city.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81637.

Iraqi forces launch push to retake western Mosul from IS

February 19, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces launched an operation Sunday to retake the western half of Mosul from the Islamic State group. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation early Sunday morning on state television, saying government forces were moving to “liberate the people of Mosul from Daesh oppression forever”, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Southwest of Mosul, near the city’s IS-held airport, plumes of smoke were seen rising into the sky as coalition aircraft bombed militant positions. Further south at an Iraqi base, federal police forces were gathering and getting ready to move north.

Iraqi forces took control of eastern Mosul last month, but the west remains in the hands of entrenched extremists. Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is roughly split in half by the Tigris River. The battle for Mosul’s western half is expected to be prolonged and difficult, due to denser population and older, narrower streets.

Syrian army breaks IS siege on Deir Ezzor

2017-09-05

DAMASCUS – Syria’s army broke a years-long Islamic State group siege on the government enclave of Deir Ezzor city on Tuesday as it battles to expel the jihadists from a key stronghold.

The jihadist group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqa to US-backed forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding oil-rich province of the same name would leave it with only a handful of isolated outposts.

Syria’s army and allied fighters, backed by Russian air support, have been advancing towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts in recent weeks, and on Tuesday arrived inside the Brigade 137 base on its western edge.

“The Syrian Arab Army this afternoon broke the siege on Deir Ezzor city after its advancing forces arrived from the western province to Brigade 137,” state news agency SANA said.

“This great achievement is a strategic shift in the war on terror and confirms the ability of the Syrian Arab Army and its allies,” the army command said.

A local journalist said a minesweeper moved ahead of troops as they arrived at the base.

As they reached the soldiers who have been besieged inside the base and adjacent parts of the city, the troops embraced and shouted patriotic slogans.

Others fired in the air and flashed victory signs, as Syrian and Russian warplanes flew overhead.

Civilians gathered on either side of the road connecting the base to neighborhoods of the city to welcome the arriving troops.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad congratulated troops in a call to commanders at the base, his office said.

“Today you stood side-by-side with your comrades who came to your rescue and fought the hardest battles to break the siege on the city,” he said.

A source in the Deir Ezzor governorate said trucks loaded with food and medicine were expected to arrive inside the besieged city from Aleppo by this evening.

Government forces and tens of thousands of civilians in the city have been trapped under IS siege for over two years, facing food and medical shortages.

Early this year, the government-held parts of the city were cut in two by an IS offensive.

The army’s advance Tuesday breaks the siege on the northern part of the city, but a southern section, which includes a key military airport, remains surrounded, with the army now 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Around 100,000 people are believed to be inside government-held areas of Deir Ezzor, with perhaps 10,000 more in parts of the city held by IS.

Earlier Tuesday, the national flag was raised throughout government-held areas of the city in anticipation of celebrations upon the arrival of government soldiers.

Some residents had begun greeting each other with “Good morning of victory.”

The army still faces a potentially difficult battle to break the siege on the south of the city and free its remaining neighborhoods, and the surrounding province, from IS.

But for the government, its success would be “one of the most symbolic victories in its six-year war,” wrote Syria analyst Aron Lund in a recent analysis.

– ‘Spiral of defeats’ –

“The reopening of the Deir Ezzor road is a strategic disaster for IS, which is now at its weakest since 2014 and seems unable to break out of an accelerating spiral of defeats,” he added.

IS has lost over half its other Syrian stronghold, the city of Raqa, to an offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

And in neighboring Iraq, it has lost 90 percent of the territory it once held, including the city of Mosul.

Inside Deir Ezzor, residents have faced years of privation, with food becoming scare or unaffordable, and medicine and healthcare unavailable.

The government has continued to fly in limited supplies by helicopter, and the UN last year began airdropping humanitarian aid to the city.

Syria’s army began its offensive to reach the city in earnest last month, and has advanced on multiple fronts, including from the neighboring Raqa province to the west and central Homs province to the south.

It has been supported by Russia’s military, which began an intervention in support of the government in 2015.

The Syrian army’s breaking of the years-long siege of Deir Ezzor city is a “very important strategic victory,” the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

“Commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin has congratulated the Russian military command (in Syria) as well as the command of the Syrian government troops with this very important strategic victory over the terrorists with the aim of freeing Syria from ISIL,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Earlier Tuesday a Russian warship in the Mediterranean fired cruise missiles at IS fighters near the town of Al-Shula to aid the Syrian army, the Russian defense ministry said.

“As a result of these strikes there was damage to the infrastructure, underground communications, weapon stockpiles of the terrorists, and this allowed the armed contingents of government forces… to rapidly advance, break through IS defenses and unblock the city (of Deir Ezzor),” Peskov said.

Putin has also “sent a telegram to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” praising the victory, he added.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests which were violently suppressed, leading the country into a vicious and complex civil war.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84687.

34 Syria regime forces killed in IS counterattack

2017-08-25

LONDON – At least 34 Syrian soldiers and allied fighters have been killed in an Islamic State counterattack in the east of Raqa province, rolling back regime gains, a monitor said Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the jihadist group had recaptured large swathes of territory from government forces in the fighting on Thursday.

Syria’s army is seeking to advance through Raqa province to reach neighboring Deir Ezzor, where jihadists have besieged government forces and civilians in the provincial capital since 2015.

Earlier this month, government troops and allied fighters arrived at the outskirts of Madan, the last IS-held town in the eastern Raqa province countryside before Deir Ezzor.

But in Thursday’s counterattack, IS “made major progress and… expanded the area under its control along the southern bank of the Euphrates,” the Observatory said.

“IS has managed to push regime forces back 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the western outskirts of Madan,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The Syria army operation in the area, backed by air support from ally Russia, is separate from the battle for provincial capital Raqa city.

The effort to oust IS from the city, once the jihadist group’s Syrian stronghold, is being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

The SDF has captured just under 60 percent of Raqa city since it entered in June after months of fighting to encircle it.

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://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84537.

‘We’re prisoners’: Syrians trapped in SDF camps after escape from IS

Tuesday 22 August

Civilians fleeing the Islamic State (IS) group’s two remaining Syrian strongholds face “horrific conditions” in dozens of poorly equipped camps on the outskirts of Syrian cities.

Many of these camps lack clean water, food and healthcare. Some are run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, according to camp residents. The SDF denies it runs the camps, despite them being in territory under its control.

The fighting in areas where US-backed forces continue to battle IS militants has forced tens of thousands of Syrians from their homes into dozens of camps in Hasakeh and Raqqa provinces.

Many find themselves trapped in terrible conditions.

“Living in an actual prison would have been easier than living in one of these camps,” said Ahmed, who fled his home in Deir Ezzor along with his parents and five brothers and moved to al-Sad camp, also known as Arisha.

Arisha is located in the southern suburbs of Hasakeh and is considered one of the biggest IDP camps housing about 6,000 people.

“We are like prisoners in the camp, not even allowed to leave,” added Ahmed.

In a statement on 14 August, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Syrian civilians in Arisha as well as in dozens of other poorly equipped informal camps face “terrible, terrible conditions”.

“There is one camp called Arisha in Hasakeh governorate. The camp itself used to be an oil refinery, so you see children playing in toxic waste, drinking and bathing in contaminated water,” ICRC spokesperson Ingy Sedky said.

According to Ahmed, six people died in Arisha recently due to rising temperatures and the lack of medical care.

“The ambulance comes to the camp every day because the women and elderly keep falling ill due to the heat, lack of hygiene and an abundance of insects, snakes, and scorpions.”

About 70,000 people are living in such camps, which are often in hard-to-reach locations, complicating aid provision, according to the ICRC.

‘Death Camps’

Mohamed Hassan, a Syrian activist heading the “Death Camps” Campaign, an online initiative launched last week to raise awareness about the conditions in Syrian IDP camps, said that civilians were facing deadly conditions in eight informal camps on the outskirts of Hasakeh and Raqqa, and which are run by the SDF.

“Many Syrians leaving their homes are transferred by SDF members to SDF-run camps which lack any source of water or medical facilities,” Hassan told MEE.

Residents of the eight camps – Rajm Salibi, Arisha, Alhoul and Mabouka in the suburbs of Hasakeh, Ain Eissa and Karama in the suburbs of Raqqa, and Ruwaishid and Rukban near the Iraqi border – reported poor conditions, and said that vital resources, such as medical facilities and food, are lacking, reported the campaigners.

Many well-known Syrian activists, including Lina al-Shamy and others, have joined the Twitter campaign to raise awareness about the issue.

In its report, the ICRC documented that tents at these camps tend to be placed in the middle of the desert, with snakes and scorpions posing a daily threat to the residents. Many of the camps are poorly equipped, lacking basic medical equipment and access to clean water, according to ICRC spokesperson Sedky.

“Most of the camps don’t have doctors on site. They don’t even have bandages, even the simplest things are not available. As a result, the camps’ inhabitants are at risk of chronic diseases,” Sedky said at the time.

Other camps lacked even the most basic items, including tents, with new arrivals sleeping in the open for up to 10 days while waiting for shelter.

The ICRC also reported that around 50 percent of camp residents are children, with intense heat and overcrowding making the conditions even worse.

“At the same time, the sheer number of people arriving every day is adding to the catastrophe,” he added saying that there were about 18,000 people dispersed across the eight camps, all of which lack basic services.

According to ICRC, IDP camps in Syria are cramped with some housing anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 people. And as the fighting has continued, the numbers within the camps have been increasing, the Red Cross said in a statement earlier this month.

Hassan told MEE that one camp was established along the frontlines between the SDF and IS and have therefore been sites where civilians died due to the fighting.

“IS attacked the IDPs in the Rajm Salabi camp last month while it was fighting with SDF and this led to 37 people being killed inside the camp,” said Hassan.

According to the campaign organizers, Rajm Salabi, located in the suburbs of Hasakeh, is run by the SDF and houses about 400 families, most of whom fled their homes in Deir Ezzor.

But SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali told MEE that his forces did not manage any camps across Syria and are “solely preoccupied with fighting IS”.

‘Living in a prison’

After fleeing the violence around his home in Deir Ezzor, Mohamed, 22, was taken by a member of the SDF to the Karama camp in the suburbs of Raqqa and interrogated for hours before being left without a tent.

“We arrived at the camp to find nothing but sand. The women and children were taken to a tent but all the men were left to sit and sleep in the open with nothing to shade us from the heat of the desert,” Mohamed told MEE.

“After that, each one of us was searched and questioned by members of SDF to make sure we weren’t affiliated with IS,” he added.

According to Mohamed, when he tried to leave the camp, members of the SDF would not let him go without paying an extortionate amount of money.

“The SDF wouldn’t let anyone out of the camp unless they were ill or willing to pay a huge sum of money,” said Mohamed.

“For a young man like me, they wanted a huge amount.”

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-refugees-forced-flee-death-camps-705837072.

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