Archive for August 4, 2018


April 16, 2018

The third hospital in areas liberated from Daesh and the PKK terrorist group-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria will open next week in al-Bab as efforts to normalize life continue at full steam.

The inauguration ceremony will take place next week for the 500-bed hospital in al-Bab, which will be the largest medical institution in the area. “There will be seven operating rooms, four delivery rooms, 38 intensive care beds, 55 outpatient clinic beds and 27 emergency beds,” Undersecretary of Health Ministry Eyüp Gümü? told the Turkish Sabah daily yesterday.

The hospitals, which are run by the Turkish Health Ministry, are equipped with all the necessary equipment in case of an armed conflict. Gümü? said that there will be no need to transfer patients between hospitals except for complicated diseases after the new hospital goes into service.

Turkey’s first hospital opened in Jarablus in September 2016, after the town was liberated with the cross-border Operation Euphrates Shield. At the end of last year, the hospital added emergency room service and was expanded to 400 beds. Along with the two hospitals in al-Bab and Jarablus, another one also put into service in Afrin, which was liberated from the YPG on March 18 with Operation Olive Branch. The hospital had previously treated YPG terrorists, but after the liberation, explosives and mines were cleared and doctors and healthcare personnel were employed in the hospital.

Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield along with Free Syria Army (FSA) factions on Aug. 24 to secure Turkey’s southern border. The operation was completed in late March, and more than 2,000 square kilometers of northern Syria was liberated from Daesh, including Jarablus, al-Rai and al-Bab. Since then, Turkey geared up efforts to normalize life and create a war-free environment in the liberated areas to make refugees return with infrastructure, healthcare, security and education projects. With noticeable improvement in the socio-economic condition, al-Bab’s population more than doubled in a year.

Besides for health services, there has been also a rapid recovery in terms of infrastructure, security and social life in northern Syria, in the areas liberated by the Turkish and FSA forces. An administration was established with the participation of local people in the areas cleared of Daesh, including al-Rai, Jarablus, al-Bab and Azaz, through Operation Euphrates Shield, which was launched Aug. 2016 against Daesh and ended in March 2017. Moreover, local councils were established to administer the normalization process after the eviction of Daesh; regular security forces were formed, and these local councils managed projects on education, infrastructure and the economy.

Jarablus was more or less a ghost town with only around 2,000 inhabitants under Daesh rule, but after Operation Euphrates Shield, its population grew again amid a rebuilding process that Turkey actively supported. Thousands who took shelter in Turkey during the war returned. Both Ankara and nongovernmental organizations are also pursuing efforts to build new housing to accommodate the returning population. Schools in the town were also rebuilt and restored with Turkish assistance.

Source: Daily Sabah.

Link: https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2018/04/17/third-hospital-to-open-in-liberated-areas-in-northern-syria.

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April 14, 2018

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Hundreds of Syrians gathered at landmark squares in the Syrian capital Saturday, honking their car horns, flashing victory signs and waving Syrian flags in scenes of defiance that followed unprecedented joint airstrikes by the United States, France and Britain.

A few hours earlier, before sunrise, loud explosions jolted Damascus and the sky turned orange as Syrian air defense units fired surface-to-air missiles in response to three waves of military strikes meant to punish President Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

Associated Press reporters saw smoke rising from east Damascus and what appeared to be a flame lighting up the sky. From a distance, U.S. missiles hitting suburbs of the capital sounded like thunder. Shortly after the one-hour attack ended, vehicles with loudspeakers roamed the streets of Damascus blaring nationalist songs.

“Good souls will not be humiliated,” Syria’s presidency tweeted after the airstrikes began. Immediately after the attack, hundreds of residents gathered in Damascus’ landmark Omayyad square, celebrating what they said was the army’s success in shooting down or derailing some of the missiles. Many waved Syrian, Russian and Iranian flags. Some clapped their hands and danced, others drove in convoys, honking their horns in defiance.

“We are not scared of America’s missiles. We humiliated their missiles,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim, half his body hanging outside his car window, waving a Syrian flag. The crowd then moved toward the nearby Damascus University where pro-government fighters danced, waving their automatic rifles over their heads.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday night that the three allies had launched military strikes to punish Assad for alleged chemical weapons use and to prevent him from doing it again. Trump said Washington is prepared to “sustain” pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any use of banned weapons. A fact-finding team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was in Damascus and had been expected to head to the town of Douma on Saturday, scene of the suspected chemical weapons attack that killed more than 40 people.

The seemingly limited strikes with no apparent future strategy for how to deal with the wider civil war was a cause for celebration by Assad supporters but criticized by the Syrian opposition. Mohammad Alloush, spokesman for the Army of Islam rebel group, called the airstrikes a “farce” in a Twitter posting. Nasr al-Hariri, a senior opposition leader, said Syrians need a strategy that leads to a political solution to “save it from the brutality of the Syrian regime.”

A Syrian military statement said in all, 110 missiles were fired by the U.S., Britain and France and that most of them were shot down or derailed. Russia’s military said Syrian air defense units downed 71 out of 103 cruise missiles launched by the U.S. and its allies.

The Syrian statement read by Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub said three civilians were wounded in one of the strikes on a military base in Homs, although the attack was aborted by derailing the incoming missile. He said another attack with “a number of missiles” targeting a scientific research center in Barzeh, near Damascus, destroyed a building and caused other material damage but no human losses. Mayhoub said the building housed an educational center and labs.

An Associated Press journalist arriving at the Center for Scientific Research on the northeaster edge of Damascus found it still smoking hours after it was hit. The three-story building appeared to be almost completely destroyed. Saeed Saeed, an official at the center, told journalists the facility was for the development of chemical and pharmaceutical industries, including the development of cancer medicines and serum.

The attack began at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) with missiles hitting the eastern suburbs of Damascus, shaking the grounds from a distance. The sky looked orange over eastern Damascus, apparently as a result of fires. Air defense units fired surface-to-air missiles from different directions toward incoming missiles.

Syrian TV called the attacks a “blatant violation of international law and shows contempt for international legitimacy.” U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said there were no reports of U.S. losses during the initial airstrikes.

“Right now this is a one-time shot,” he said but did not rule out further attacks. He said the airstrikes were launched against several sites that helped provide Assad’s ability to create chemical weapons.

France’s foreign minister said the “chemical escalation” in Syria is not acceptable because it violated the rules of war and of humanity. Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters Saturday that the joint military operation in Syria is legitimate, limited and proportionate.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the attack as neither “about intervening in a civil war” nor “about regime change” but a limited and targeted strike that “does not further escalate tensions in the region” and does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

The decision to strike, after days of deliberations, marked Trump’s second order to attack Syria; he authorized a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a single Syrian airfield in April 2017 in retaliation for Assad’s use of sarin gas against civilians.

Trump chastised Syria’s two main allies, Russia and Iran, for their roles in supporting “murderous dictators,” and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed a 2013 international agreement for Assad to get rid of all of his chemical weapons. He called on Moscow to change course and join the West in seeking a more responsible regime in Damascus.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the attack on Syria was a “crime” and declared the leaders of the U.S., France and the U.K. “criminals,” according to Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency. The Iranian Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the strikes and warned of unspecified consequences.

Russia’s U.S. embassy released a statement warning that the airstrikes will “not be left without consequences.” It said that “all responsibility” rests with Washington, London and Paris. The United Nations Security Council is set to meet later Saturday following Russia’s request.

The U.S. missile strike in April 2017 was meant to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. That operation targeted the airfield from which the Syrian aircraft had launched their gas attack. But the damage was limited, and a defiant Assad returned to episodic use of chlorine and perhaps other chemicals.

Friday’s strikes were aimed at further degrading Assad’s ability to carry out such attacks. Pentagon Gen. Joseph Dunford said besides the scientific research center, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs was also targeted that he said I believed to be the main site of Syrian sarin production equipment. A chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post, also west of Homs, were also targeted, he said.

Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Angela Charlton in Paris, and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, contributed reporting.

April 12, 2018

A local council, which includes Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen civilian representatives, was established Thursday in northwestern Syria’s Afrin, a new step to help get life back to normal after the PKK-affiliate terrorists, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), were eliminated from the province in Operation Olive Branch.

According to Anadolu Agency (AA) reporters on the ground, the city’s opinion leaders have voted and formed a temporary local council in the center of Afrin. The interim council was formed to help provide local services and has a total of 20 members.

Out of the 20 members, 11 are Kurdish and eight are Arabs, while one member represents Turkmens.

Being from Afrin and living in the city were set as requirements for becoming a member of the council.

Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch on Jan. 20 to clear the PKK-affiliated YPG and Daesh terrorist groups from Afrin in northwestern Syria amid growing threats from the region. The liberation of Afrin, which had been a major hideout for the YPG and the PKK since 2012, was announced on March 18 after the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fully cleared the town of terrorist elements. Since then, efforts to return life back to normal have accelerated to enable the safe return of locals.

Zuheyr Haydar, a Kurdish representative, was elected president of the council.

Six seats of the eight-member executive board so far have been allocated to Zakarya Mohammad, Jasim al-Sifari, Ahmet Haj Hasan, Abdurrahman Najjar, Horu Osman and Muhammad Sheikh Rashit.

“We would like to thank Turkey for providing us with this opportunity. We will serve the people of Afrin by using the Euphrates Shield [region] and Olive Branch region as examples,” Haydar told AA.

Haydar called on all people of Afrin to return to their homes.

“We can hold a more democratic election if all the people of Afrin come back. We will manage it ourselves, not others from Qandil [where the PKK has established headquarters in northern Iraq] or other places,” he said.

Haydar said the local council was founded under the supervision of the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was founded in Doha, Qatar in 2012, stating that it will be connected to the local council of Aleppo.

He said the local council is in favor of the territorial integrity of the country. The deputy head of the coalition, Abdulrahman Mustafa, who was in Afrin during the elections, said Turkey is working to prevent the division of Syria. “Our priority with Turkey is the same. The local council will begin its services in health and education soon. We will endeavor to bring back those who fled the terrorists in Afrin,” he said.

Ankara said life in Afrin would return to normal as soon as possible. Recently, a local council of 30 members was established at the Afrin Liberation Congress, which convened in Turkey’s southern city of Gaziantep with the participation of more than 100 people.

The congress made several decisions in an effort to rebuild Afrin and enable the return of displaced people. The congress announced that control of Afrin should be given to the people of Afrin and the election of local council members should be held regularly and monitored by nongovernmental organizations. It also said the public needs to be disarmed and all segments of society should be respected. According to the final declaration, local security forces will be formed and composed of people who are not members of any party.

Source: Daily Sabah.

Link: https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2018/04/12/local-council-established-in-northwestern-syrias-afrin.

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.

2018-03-26

BEIRUT – Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel faction in control of territory in eastern Ghouta, said on Sunday it would not withdraw to other opposition-held parts of Syria as other rebel groups have done under deals negotiated with Syrian government ally Russia.

After a month-long ground and air offensive and deals under which rebel fighters agreed to be transported to northern Syria, pro-Syrian government forces have taken control of most of what had been the last major rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus.

Only the town of Douma, the most populous part of eastern Ghouta, remains under rebel control.

Jaish al-Islam is currently negotiating with Russia over the future of the area and the people in it.

“Today the negotiations taking place … are to stay in Ghouta and not to leave it,” Jaish al-Islam’s military spokesman Hamza Birqdar told Istanbul-based Syrian radio station Radio al-Kul via Skype from eastern Ghouta.

Birqdar accused the Syrian government of trying to change the demographic balance of the eastern Ghouta by forcing out locals and replacing them with its allies.

He said in the negotiations with Russia Jaish al-Islam is asking for guarantees that what remains of the local population will not be forced out.

Both Ahrar al-Sham and Failq al-Rahman, two other rebel groups formerly in charge of pockets of the eastern Ghouta, have accepted deals under which they withdraw to opposition-held Idlib in northwest Syria.

Moscow and Damascus say the Ghouta campaign is necessary to halt deadly rebel shelling of the capital.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87822.

David Enders

March 25, 2018

A new round of evacuations from Syria’s Eastern Ghouta took place on Sunday, with approximately 900 people bused to the northern, rebel-dominated Idlib province.

But Syria’s Idlib is also a war zone. Fighting has displaced nearly half a million people there since December alone, and more than a million live in camps. Aerial bombardment by the Syrian and Russian air forces is a daily occurrence, and rebel groups frequently battle one another as they vie for resources and territory.

Yet as he surveyed his family’s new home on Saturday – a tent in a refugee camp designed to hold about 1,500 people – Samir Mahfouz, a doctor from the eastern suburbs of Damascus, expressed a sense of relief.

“These are big camps. They are fit for the big numbers of the arrivals. There are good services. There are organizations that offer food and water. They are helping the people. Things are ok,” he said.

It is a grim measure of Syria’s civil war, now in its eighth year, that Idlib is a respite.

Mr Mahfouz was among the thousands of Syrians bused in the last two days to Idlib from a group of besieged suburbs of Damascus, collectively referred to as Eastern Ghouta. The area had been under siege by government forces for four years before they launched an intensified campaign to retake it in February, killing at least 1,600 people in the process and reducing neighborhoods to rubble.

“For the last 45 days, most of the people were living in basements in miserable conditions. Food, water and means of life were all scarce,” said Mr Mahfouz, who left the neighborhood of Harasta on Friday on a bus bound for Maarat Al Ikhwan, a town about 20 kilometers north of Idlib city, the provincial seat of Idlib.

About 4,500 fighters and civilians were driven from Harasta to Idlib on Friday, and the first 980 of an additional 7,000 people scheduled to be moved to Idlib from other parts of Ghouta began leaving on Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands of people have now been subjected to similar transfers across Syria in the last two years, which the UN and other international organizations have called “forced displacement.”

The alternative to leaving, Mr Mahfouz and others said, is to risk arrest by the government.

Former evacuees from other parts of Syria told The National that some young men they left behind were conscripted into the government’s army, while others have not been heard from since.

“Those who left from Harasta to the regime-held areas were put in detention camps. The regime put them there in order to have the chance to separate the young men from the rest. The youth are still detained until now while women and children were released,” Mr Mahfouz said.

The camp where Mr Mahfouz is now staying is designed to be a waypoint for evacuees until they can find more permanent housing.

“People are still unsure what their destiny will look like,” Mr Mahfouz said.

“We arrived only today and we don’t know what to do,” said Abu Murad, a farmer from Harasta who had left behind the land he owned and also found himself in Maarat Al Ikhwan on Saturday.

“I used to plant tomatoes, cucumber, wheat and barley. I am thinking of finding a job here now. I have six children. The oldest is 12 years old; the youngest is seven month,” he said. “Death in Harasta would have been better than coming here.”

Abu Murad said that when he and his family boarded a bus, the only thing he knew for certain was that he was leaving Harasta.

“We were not given choices and were surprised to find ourselves in Idlib. When we were still in Harasta, we heard that people will be taken to Jarablus,” he said, referring to a city further east, in Aleppo province, that is under control of Turkish-backed rebel groups. “We were surprised that they brought us to Idlib. Now we are here in the camp.”

“There are many organizations who did their best helping us here. May God reward them for that. But the situation is difficult here,” he said.

Mr Mahfouz and others said people were still attempting to reach Turkey, despite reports the Turkish military has been using lethal force to prevent refugees from entering and deporting Syrians already in southern Turkey to Idlib.

Aid groups estimate Idlib city itself has swelled from its prewar population of around 200,000 to nearly five times that many.

“Idlib can no longer receive more refugees, especially in the city. The number of displaced people has increased in a very strange way and the camps are very full. The people of the camps want to return without being able to do so. Life is very difficult and tragic,”

It is widely accepted in Idlib that as the last Syrian province largely under rebel control, it will eventually be targeted in the same way Ghouta and other places have been. Complicating the problem is the widespread presence of fighters from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria. HTS has largely been left out of negotiations and ceasefires rebels have brokered with the government.

“People believe that if the presence of (HTS) in the province of Idlib will continue, our destiny will be like the fate of the rest of the cities,” said Abu Hammam, a local aid worker in Idlib.

Source: The National.

Link: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/ghouta-residents-relieved-to-arrive-in-idlib-after-weeks-of-terror-1.715914.

2018-03-25

AMMAN – Human Rights Watch criticized on Sunday Jordan’s decision to end medical protections for Syrian refugees residing outside of camps in the kingdom.

Jordan, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled war in their country since 2011, took a “step forward” and another “step back for urban refugees”, granting them legal status while revoking health subsidies, HRW said.

On March 4, Jordan began to regularize the status of thousands of vulnerable refugees who live outside camps, a move aimed at protecting them from arrest and facilitating better access to education and employment opportunities.

The decision came less than two months after authorities in January moved to revoke the eligibility of Syrians living outside camps to receive subsidized healthcare.

“The move to regularize the status of Syrian refugees in Jordan’s urban areas means that they no longer have to live underground, promising a better future for their children,” said Bill Van Esvald, senior children’s rights researcher at HRW.

“Jordan and its international donors should not undermine these improvements by pulling the rug out from under refugees on health care that families are already struggling to afford.”

Syrian refugees in Jordan had access to free healthcare from 2012 to 2014. Since then they had received the same subsidies as uninsured Jordanians, the watchdog said.

January’s decision, which is expected to affect 30,000-50,000 Syrians, will require refugees in urban areas to pay the same rates as other foreigners at public hospitals “with 80 percent up-front”, HRW said.

Jordanian officials have not explained the reasons for the change in their medical protection policy, but have in the past pointed to the exorbitant cost of providing healthcare services to refugees, it said.

From the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011 though 2016, Jordanian authorities spent nearly $2.1 billion (1.7 billion euro) on health services for Syrians, the rights group said.

More than 650,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan while Amman says the kingdom is hosting more than one million refugees from Syria.

Funds provided by international donors for Syrian refugee medical care in Jordan met only 66 percent of what was needed for 2017, HRW estimated.

As of February, the UNHCR had only received $17.8 million of the $274.9 million budget it needs for Jordan in 2018, it said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87817.

2018-03-24

MANBIJ – In Syria’s Kurdish-controlled Manbij, salesmen shout as customers bustle through the city’s packed marketplace — an everyday scene that masks residents’ deep fears of a Turkish attack.

Despite the presence of US troops nearby, Manbij could become the next target of a Turkey-led battle against Kurdish militia in Syria’s north.

Ankara and allied Syrian rebels seized the northwestern city of Afrin on March 18, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to push eastwards and take Manbij.

“Everybody’s scared, me included,” said Hameed al-Damalkhi, 50, bent over a sewing machine as he stitched the sole back onto a used trainer at his shop in Manbij’s covered market.

He said he was still shocked by images of pro-Ankara fighters looting in Afrin, breaking into shops and homes and heading off with food, blankets and even motorbikes after Kurdish fighters retreated.

“What we hear about them is they’re all thieves. You saw, they looted the whole (Afrin) area,” he said, wearing a stained grey robe and graying beard.

Turkey has said it aims to dislodge the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which it labels a “terrorist” group, from the length of its border with Syria.

“Where does he think he’s going?” Damalkhi said, referring to Erdogan. “There are men here who can protect the area.”

The YPG has gained a reputation as a formidable force, especially as the backbone of a US-backed alliance that expelled the Islamic State group from much of Syria.

– ‘Guarantees’ from the US –

Since Syria’s war started in 2011, Manbij has exchanged hands several times.

Rebels overran the town in 2012. IS seized it two years later, turning it into a key transit point for fighters, weapons and cash between the Turkish border and its then de facto capital of Raqa, further southeast.

The US-backed and YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of Manbij last year, handing the city’s management over to a civil council.

Dozens of American troops have since been stationed on the city’s outskirts, with additional troops deployed there around a year ago.

Their presence offers some comfort to residents, especially after a delegation from the State Department and the US-led coalition visited the city council this week.

Ali al-Sattaf, 50, who works at a money exchange, said the presence of US troops nearby was reassuring.

“It makes us feel that nothing will rain down from the sky,” he said.

The YPG retreated from Afrin in the face of formidable Turkish and rebel fire power, including air strikes that pounded the Kurdish enclave.

The US-led coalition stayed out of the battle for Afrin, but its presence outside Manbij has raised the specter of a potential conflict between two NATO allies should Turkey attack the city.

On Thursday, State Department official William Roebuck and US Army Major-General James B. Jarrard, who heads a US-led force fighting IS, visited Manbij Civil Council.

The aim of the visit was “to reassure the population”, council co-chair Ibrahim al-Kaftan said after the meeting.

“There will be no attack on Manbij, and we received guarantees from the delegation on this matter,” he said.

– ‘We’re tired’ –

In Manbij’s Martyrs Square hang portraits of SDF fighters — women and men — killed in the fight against IS.

Some of the city’s wall still bear the marks of the jihadists’ brutal rule, its slogans and infamous black flag.

In the market, a man wearing a red-and-white scarf walked by carts piled high with apples. Another man darted past on a motorbike, while women in long black robes inspected shoes in a shop window.

Rim, a veiled 30-year-old mother who had come shopping, said she didn’t want to see fighting in Manbij.

“We live in safety now, but we fear for our kids,” she said, as she clutched the hands of her two children.

“We’re tired and our kids are tired from all the fear, the planes and the war,” she said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=87805.

March 18, 2018

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s president said Sunday that allied Syrian forces have taken “total” control of the town center of Afrin, the target of a nearly two-month offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia, which said the fighting was still underway.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish flag and the flag of the Syrian opposition fighters has been raised in the town, previously controlled by the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG.

“Many of the terrorists had turned tail and run away already,” Erdogan said. Turkey’s military tweeted that its forces are now conducting combing operations to search for land mines and explosives. The army tweeted a video showing a soldier holding a Turkish flag and a man waving the Syrian opposition flag on the balcony of the district parliament building with a tank stationed on the street.

A Kurdish official, Hadia Yousef, told The Associated Press the YPG fighters have not fled the town, but have evacuated the remaining civilians because of “massacres.” She said clashes in the town were still underway.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkey-backed forces have taken control of half the town, with intense fighting still underway. Turkey views the Kurdish forces in the Afrin enclave along the border as terrorists because of their links to the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

It launched an offensive against the town and surrounding areas on Jan. 20, slowly squeezing the militia and hundreds of thousands of civilians into the town center. The Observatory says nearly 200,000 people have fled the Afrin region in recent days amid heavy airstrikes, entering Syrian government-held territory nearby.

The YPG was a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group, and seized large areas across northern and eastern Syria with the help of coalition airstrikes. But Erdogan has repeatedly said that NATO ally Turkey will not allow a “terror corridor” along its border. At least 46 Turkish soldiers have been killed since the offensive began.

The Kurdish militia and the Observatory said Turkish jets struck Afrin’s main hospital on Friday, killing over a dozen people. The Turkish military denied the allegations.

March 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s military says more than 11,000 people have left Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta outside the capital Damascus in the past few hours as government forces step up an offensive on the rebel enclave.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that some 3,000 people have been leaving every hour Saturday through a government-run humanitarian corridor monitored by the Russian military.

Zolotukhin is spokesman for the Russian center for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria. Airstrikes in Syria killed more than 100 people on Friday as civilians fled en masse. Under cover of allied Russian air power, Syrian government forces have been on a crushing offensive for three weeks on eastern Ghouta.

The weekslong violence has left more than 1,300 civilians dead and 5,000 wounded.