Archive for July 31, 2014


2014-07-30

By Imed Lamloum

Tripoli

Militia groups seized the headquarters of the Libyan army’s special forces in Libya’s second city Benghazi after days of fighting, as a huge blaze raged at a fuel depot near the capital’s airport.

A Militia alliance announced the capture Tuesday of the main military base in the eastern city in a statement which was confirmed by an army official.

He said members of Ansar al-Sharia, blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Washington, were among the groups.

Intense fighting in Benghazi for the past week has claimed about 60 lives since Saturday, medical officials in the city said.

“Special forces under the command of (Colonel) Wanis Abu Khamada withdrew after several attacks,” said the army official after the biggest loss yet for the armed forces in its fight against the country’s powerful militias.

The special forces are one of the units of Libya’s regular armed forces that support rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar but have not placed themselves under his command.

Haftar began his offensive against radical Islamist groups in Benghazi, dubbed “Operation Dignity”, in mid-May.

On its Facebook page Ansar al-Sharia published photos of dozens of weapons and crates of ammunition it claimed to have seized.

– Kidnappers free former deputy premier –

Former deputy prime minister and newly-elected MP Mustapha Abu Shagur was meanwhile freed by his kidnappers, hours after they snatched him from his Tripoli home, his family said.

The kidnapping highlighted the failure of authorities to rein in dozens of militias that sprang up during the 2011 uprising which overthrew longtime dictator Moamer Gathafi.

“Doctor Abu Shagur has been freed. He is tired but in good health,” his nephew Isam al-Naass said. “He was not treated badly” by his kidnappers, he added.

Shagur would not talk about his ordeal or the identity of his kidnappers.

Amid the increasing lawlessness and uncertainty, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Canada and Bulgaria became the latest nations to ship out their citizens or close their embassies in Tripoli.

The blaze at the Tripoli fuel depot near the international airport erupted on Sunday when a rocket fired during clashes between rival militias battling for control of Tripoli international airport struck a tank containing more than six million liters (1.6 million gallons) of fuel.

It then spread to another fuel storage site nearby.

Authorities warned the fire could spread still wider to a natural gas reservoir, where 90 million liters are stored, amid fears a huge fireball could cause widespread carnage.

While the oil burns, motorists in Tripoli were suffering severe petrol shortages, as service stations closed over fears for the safety of staff in light of the fighting.

Libya has appealed for international help, but former colonial master Italy and Greece have said their involvement would be contingent on a halt to the fighting.

Rome has also denied a report by Tripoli authorities that it was ready to send seven planes to combat the inferno.

On Tuesday, the Libyan government again called for a ceasefire in the battle for the airport that has killed around 100 people and wounded 400 since July 13.

In Benghazi, General Sagr al-Jerouchi, chief of air operations for dissident ex-general Haftar, said it was not immediately clear if a warplane that crashed during fighting with Islamists had been hit by gunfire or suffered a malfunction.

He said the pilot had safely ejected, which was confirmed by a witness who said he saw a parachute open before the jet crashed and exploded.

The witness said the plane had just attacked Islamist positions.

Two weeks of fighting around Tripoli airport and between Islamists and Haftar’s forces in Benghazi have killed scores of people and prompted several countries to urge their citizens to leave Libya.

– Tripoli clashes resume –

Clashes raged on Monday and resumed on Tuesday afternoon after a brief lull.

On Monday, top world leaders urged an immediate ceasefire and called on the UN “to play an essential role in facilitating the political process” to restore stability to Libya.

The clashes, the most violent since the 2011 revolt against Kadhafi, started with a July 13 assault on the airport by armed groups, mainly Islamists.

The attackers are battling to flush out fellow former rebels from the hill town of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, who have controlled the airport for the past three years.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=67362.

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Edward Dark

July 11, 2014

ALEPPO, Syria — “I have to be honest. It is not looking good,” Aleppan Liwa al-Tawhid commander Abu Hammoud told Al-Monitor when asked about the rebels’ preparedness for assaults on Aleppo by the Syrian regime and the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

“Our fear now is without reinforcements and more weapons we will lose Aleppo [city] to the regime, and the [countryside] to the Islamic State,” he said.

Like a helpless lamb fought over by wolves, Aleppo is the major prize of north Syria, and any side that manages to capture the former industrial hub will almost certainly guarantee eventual victory in this long and bloody conflict. The regime and the opposition know this well, as does IS, which also has its eyes on the prize as it plots to expand the territory of its new caliphate and diversify it economically, bolstering it with large population centers. IS has been in Aleppo before and had a fleeting, tantalizing taste of what lucrative gains can be made by controlling it.

The regime’s forces, backed by various local and foreign militias, have made dramatic gains in the last 10 days, taking the strategic Sheikh Najjar industrial zone to the northeast and planning an imminent push into the infantry school and the Handarat camp. Controlling them would mean that rebel-held parts of Aleppo city would be completely besieged and cut off from their main supply routes in the countryside. It is a strategy previously used successfully by the regime in Homs and Damascus, where it yielded results in the form of localized cease-fires and settlements. At the moment, it seems that unless something dramatic changes on the ground, the regime will manage to accomplish this feat and the rebels are quite helpless to stop it. This point was driven home by the opposition Syrian National Coalition as it met recently in Istanbul to elect a new president and warn of the impending fall of Aleppo to regime forces.

Both sides continue to call up reinforcements in the buildup to what will likely be a major showdown. A concern for the rebels: The Liwa Dawud battalion sent to back them up from Idlib has defected and joined IS and may well head their assault in the northern part of Aleppo province. This is now a major concern of the rebel leadership. As the IS menace draws nearer, smaller rebel factions might choose to side with the stronger force and spare themselves a messy and brutal annihilation.

Aleppo’s rebel factions have made attempts to build a unified elite force of 600 men to salvage and protect what areas they still control against both the regime and IS. It’s unclear yet whether such a force is any more than ink on paper or whether it will be effective at all, as previous such attempts have been less than successful. In a rather ominous development, Jabhat al-Nusra, the officially sanctioned al-Qaeda affiliate and one of the strongest rebel factions operating in Aleppo, has withdrawn from the rebel Sharia Council it helped create. The Sharia Council was responsible for running affairs in rebel areas, as well as arbitrating in disputes between factions. It’s still unclear yet what this move will mean, but many see it as a sign of a weakened organization, driven out of its strongholds in Deir ez-Zor by IS, becoming increasingly paranoid and isolated.

IS continues to push slowly but steadily from its eastern strongholds in Manbij and al-Bab. Its next major assault on the northern countryside will most likely begin with the border town of Azaz, as was the case in September 2013.

The embattled Aleppo rebels are becoming desperate and their leadership nervous. Their losses and setbacks on the battlefield have taken a heavy toll on their morale and cohesiveness on the front lines, which were never really all that steady to begin with, given the fractious and often bickering nature of the various rebel groups.

The two major rebel groups left operating in Aleppo are the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and Qatari-backed Liwa al-Tawhid and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. They bear the brunt of defending the various front lines around Aleppo province and inside the city itself.

The Aleppo rebels find themselves in a vice, caught between advancing regime forces and a resurgent IS. With regional and global powers jittery by the meteoric rise of IS in Iraq, funds, weapons and men are increasingly harder to come by. The persistent refrain of the rebels since the beginning of the conflict has been: Send us more and better weapons. It’s unclear, however, if they would actually make a difference at this stage, and the likelihood that they would fall into the hands of IS is very real, not to mention that any nation sending arms to Aleppo’s rebels would also be de facto directly arming al-Qaeda’s official wing in Syria.

Unless there is a dramatic change of fortune for the rebels on the ground, it’s likely that the regime will besiege Aleppo city in the coming weeks, and then force settlements and cease-fires on any remaining rebels still garrisoned inside, as was its successful strategy in Damascus and Homs.

IS will likely push into the north and east countrysides, routing rebels from their strongholds and establishing its authority via rigid and barbaric law, “cleansing” them of any resistance to its rule, marking the end for Aleppo’s rebels.

If Liwa al-Tawhid’s two strongholds of Tall Rifat and Marea fall to IS, then the group is effectively finished. Jabhat al-Nusra will fare no better, as its string of crushing defeats in Deir ez-Zor at the hands of IS means that it has lost many of its men, including those who defected to IS, and important financial resources. The remaining smaller local rebel groups will either be assimilated by IS or completely destroyed.

With the vultures circling overhead, the unhappy residents — what’s left of them — of this once magnificent metropolis now ponder their fate and that of their beloved city. Regardless of which group wins, this city will never be the same again. It will take a decade or more to rebuild and get back on its feet, and maybe a generation or two until the bitter social rifts can heal. But that’s what the Aleppans long for: the end of the war by any means possible, and by whomever.

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/aleppo-rebels-islamic-state-syria-regime-annihilation.html.

July 10, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic militants using weapons they recently seized in neighboring Iraq intensified an offensive against Kurdish areas in northern Syria as they fight to expand the territory under their control, activists said Thursday.

The clashes came as a Syrian watchdog group said the death toll in Syria’s three-year conflict has climbed to 171,000, reflecting the relentless bloodletting in a civil war that appears no closer to being resolved. Nearly half of the dead were civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Members of the Islamic State group and Kurdish fighters have been fighting each other for a year, but the Kurds were usually the instigators until earlier this month when the balance of power appears to have tipped in favor of the Sunni extremists because of the large amounts of weapons they brought from Iraq into Syria.

Islamic State fighters captured several Kurdish villages and killed dozens of fighters in the area this week, according to activists. The clashes come after the Islamic State group seized territories straddling Syria and neighboring Iraq and declared a self-styled Islamic caliphate. Most of the land was seized in June during a push across Iraq. They captured large amounts of weapons left behind by Iraqi troops including U.S.-made armored personnel carriers, Humvees and artillery.

Kurdish official Nawaf Khalil said members of the Islamic State group are trying to capture an area near the Turkish border that would link it with their positions in eastern Syria. He and other activists said the fighting is concentrated in the region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab.

Mustafa Osso, a Turkey-based Kurdish activist who has wide contacts in northern Syria, says the aim of the offensive is to take the entire Kobani area. Osso says those standing against the Islamic State group are mostly members of the People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

“We have called for support from Kurds around the world,” said Khalil, an official with the party. Osso said jihadi fighters are using mortar shells and artillery captured earlier in Iraq in their attacks on Kurdish areas.

Both Khalil and the Observatory said some of the dead Kurdish fighters were charred without suffering any bullets or shrapnel wounds. The Observatory said the burned bodies “have made doctors suspicious about the type of weapons used.”

On Wednesday, Islamic State group captured three villages near Kobani and pressed forward toward the border town. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s prewar population of 23 million. They are centered in the impoverished northeastern province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq.

Also Thursday, the UN Refugee Agency announced that it began an airlift operation to deliver emergency relief items from Damascus to 50,000 people in Hassakeh. Syria’s conflict that began in March 2011 has led to the displacement of nearly a third of its prewar population of 23 million.

The Britain-based Observatory said in a statement Thursday that 171,000 people have been killed, raising the death toll from the 160,000 it announced in mid-May. It said the dead included 39,036 government forces, 24,655 pro-government gunmen, 15,422 opposition fighters, 2,354 army defectors and more than 500 Lebanese fighters from the Hezbollah militant group that is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad. The rest were mostly civilians.

Meanwhile, the government sent more elite forces to the contested northern city of Aleppo as troops try to besiege rebel-held neighborhoods in the country’s largest city. Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial center, has been carved up since an opposition offensive began in mid-2012.

Aleppo is the last large urban area that Syrian rebels hold after losing territory to government forces in other parts of Syria over the past year. Government troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have been steadily seizing control of the city’s entrances in recent days, according to activists in the city.

2014-07-09

ISTANBUL – The Syrian National Coalition, the main exiled opposition group seeking the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, on Wednesday elected Saudi-based Syrian opposition figure Hadi el-Bahra as its new president.

“Hadi el-Bahra was elected president of the coalition with 62 votes,” the coalition said in a statement on its Facebook page after the early morning vote at the meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sile outside Istanbul in Turkey.

His nearest rival, Mowafaq Nayrabiyeh, won 41 votes, it added.

El-Bahra will have the task of keeping alive the campaign to unseat Assad amid territorial gains by the regime and the rise of the radical jihadist group Islamic State, which the coalition vehemently opposes.

He succeeds Ahmad Jarba, who headed the coalition from July 2013 but failed in efforts to unite the opposition and obtain significant Western military support.

El-Bahra was born in Damascus in 1959, and spent most of his adult life in Saudi Arabia, where he managed several hospitals and businesses.

He headed the opposition delegation to the failed Geneva 2 talks between the opposition and the regime in Switzerland earlier this year.

The Syrian opposition has been riven by internal conflicts linked to disputes between its main foreign sponsors, notably Saudi Arabia and its influential Gulf Arab neighbor Qatar.

But its members are now trying to reach a consensus and end the feuding.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=67013.