Category: Sacred Land of Syria


March 05, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — The Turkish and Russian presidents are set to hold talks in Moscow aimed at ending hostilities in northwestern Syria involving their forces along with proxies that threaten to pit Turkey against Russia in a direct military conflict

Before the latest crisis, President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had managed to coordinate their interests in Syria even though Moscow backed Syrian President Bashar Assad while Ankara supported its foes throughout Syria’s nine-year war. Both Russia and Turkey appear eager to avoid a showdown, but the sharply conflicting interests in Idlib province make it difficult to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise.

A Russia-backed Syrian offensive to regain control over Idlib — the last opposition-controlled region in the country — has pushed nearly a million Syrians toward Turkey. Erdogan responded by opening Turkey’s gateway to Europe in an apparent bid to coerce the West to offer more support to Ankara.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops into Idlib to repel the Syrian army, and clashes on the ground and in the air that have left dozens dead on both sides. Russia, which has helped Assad reclaim most of the country’s territory, has signaled it wouldn’t sit idle to see Turkey rout his troops.

After Turkey had downed several Syrian jets, Moscow warned Ankara that its aircraft would be unsafe if they enter Syrian airspace — a veiled threat to engage Russian military assets in Syria. Russian warplanes based in Syria have provided air cover for Assad’s offensive in Idlib.

Opposition activists in Idlib blamed Russian aircraft for Thursday’s strike on a rebel-held village which they said killed at least 15 people, including children, and wounded several others. The Russian military had no immediate comment on the claim, but it has staunchly denied similar previous claims insisting it hasn’t targeted residential areas.

The fighting in Idlib comes as the most severe test to Russia-Turkey ties since the crisis triggered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015. Russia responded with an array of sweeping economic sanctions, cutting the flow of its tourists to Turkey and banning most Turkish exports — a punishment that eventually forced Turkey to back off and offer apologies.

Turkey can’t afford a replay of that costly crisis, far less a military conflict with a nuclear power, but it has a strong position to bargain with. Moscow needs Ankara as a partner in a Syrian settlement and Russia’s supply routes for its forces in Syria lie through the Turkish Straits.

Moscow also hopes to use Ankara in its standoff with the West. Last year, Turkey became the first NATO country to take delivery of sophisticated Russian air defense missile systems, angering the United States. Turkey has put its deployment on hold amid the crisis in Idlib.

The talks in Moscow will mark the 10th encounter in just over a year between Putin and Erdogan, who call each other “dear friend” and have polished a fine art of bargaining. Last October, they reached an agreement to deploy their forces across Syria’s northeastern border to fill the void left by President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces. Prior to that they had negotiated a series of accords that saw opposition fighters from various areas in Syria move into Idlib and in 2018 carved out a de-escalation zone in Idlib.

They blamed one another for the collapse of the Idlib deal, with Moscow holding Ankara responsible for letting al-Qaida linked militants launch attacks from the area and Turkey accusing Moscow of failing to rein in Assad.

A possible compromise on Idlib could see Assad retain control over the key M5 highway, which his forces claimed in the latest offensive. The road that spans Syria linking Damascus with Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, is essential for Assad to consolidate his rule.

In a sign that the Kremlin firmly intends to secure control of the M5, earlier this week Russian military police have deployed to a strategic town of Saraqeb sitting on the highway to ward off any Turkish attempt to retake it.

In return, Putin could accept the presence of Turkey-backed militants in the areas alongside the border and put brakes for now on Assad’s attempts to claim full control over Idlib.

February 29, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO on Friday called on Syria and Russia to halt their airstrikes following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeastern Syria, as scores of migrants seeking entry into Europe gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece

With Turkey signalling that it would let migrants leave, Greece and neighboring Bulgaria bolstered border security. The European Union warned that the fighting in northern Syria could degenerate into open war and that it stood ready to protect its security interests.

After chairing emergency talks between NATO ambassadors, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Syria and Russia “to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N efforts for a peaceful solution.”

“This dangerous situation must be de-escalated and we urge an immediate return to the 2018 cease-fire to avoid the worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region,” Stoltenberg said. Turkey’s allies also expressed their condolences over the deaths, but no additional NATO support was offered during the meeting.

Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about the arrival of any new waves of refugees.

The air strike by Syrian government forces marks the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. It’s a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has raged since early February.

Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating Erdogan’s longstanding warning that his country cannot cope with more people fleeing the conflict.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the EU agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates,” playing on European nervousness about a new surge.

The Turkish DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.

Early Friday, Turkish broadcaster NTV showed images of dozens of people — carrying rucksacks, suitcases and plastic bags — crossing fields towards the Greek frontier. Near the Pazarkule border crossing with Greece, Turkish police stopped some 150 refugees about 1 kilometer (half a mile) from the border, preventing them from going further.

A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s Evros region, shouting “open the borders.” Police and military border patrols on the Greek side readied to prevent people crossing without authorization.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record to the press. In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that “army units, national guard and border police staff have been urgently deployed at the border with Turkey to beat off a possible migrant influx.”

Borissov said that large groups of migrants were gathering by the border near the Turkish city of Edirne. He expressed concern that Turkish border police were moving away from the border. But EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc was waiting for an official analysis of reports about migrant movements before acting. He said Turkey had not officially signaled that it was changing its migrant policy.

“We expect Turkey to uphold its commitments,” Stano said. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that “there is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation. It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”

In a tweet, Borrell called for the escalation around Idlib to “stop urgently,” and underlined that “the EU will consider all necessary measures to protect its security interests. We are in touch with all relevant actors.”

Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive — has come close to sparking a major crisis at NATO.

France in particular has tried to launch a debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.

The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making.

Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece. Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed.

February 28, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO envoys were holding emergency talks Friday at the request of Turkey following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeast Syria, as scores of migrants gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece seeking entry into Europe.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that Friday morning’s meeting of ambassadors would be held under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which allows any ally to request consultations if it feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

The air strike by Syrian government forces marks the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. It’s a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has raged since early February.

At least 54 Turkish troops have now been killed in Idlib in that time. Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating a longstanding warning from Erdogan that his country can no longer cope with the arrival of people fleeing the conflict.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states.

DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.

A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s northeastern Evros region shouting “open the borders.” Greek police and military border patrols were deployed on the Greek side to prevent anyone trying to cross without authorization.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press on the record. Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about any new wave of refugees arriving.

Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive — has come close to sparking a crisis at the military alliance.

France in particular has tried to launch debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.

The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making, and particularly because Erdogan has used up a lot of good will by testing his fellow NATO members’ patience for quite a while.

The Syria offensive comes on top of tensions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S400 missiles, which threaten NATO security and the F-35 stealth jet. Erdogan also purged thousands of Turkish military officers following the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and some have sought, and been granted, asylum in Europe.

But despite high political-military tensions, Turkey is too important to eject from the 29-member alliance. Turkey is of great strategic importance to NATO. The large, mainly Muslim country straddles the Bosporus Strait, making it a vital bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. It’s also the only waterway in and out of the Black Sea, where Russia’s naval fleet is based.

NATO allies also rely on the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey as a staging point for access to the Middle East. The alliance runs aerial surveillance operations from Incirlik and the United States has nuclear weapons stationed there.

Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece.

October 29, 2019

GENEVA (AP) — Iran and Russia on Tuesday criticized and scoffed at Trump administration plans to protect oil deposits in Syria, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accusing Washington of “illegal” actions.

Lavrov joined Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Geneva to lend support to U.N.-backed talks among Syrian government, opposition and civil society delegations on the country’s constitution starting Wednesday.

The most pointed comments at their joint news conference addressed new Pentagon plans to increase efforts to protect Syria’s oil fields from both the Islamic State radical group and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government, even as U.S. forces are withdrawn from other parts of the country.

“Well, it seems that the United States is staying to protect the oil — and at least President Trump is honest to say what the United States intends to do,” said Zarif with a smile. Lavrov accused the United States of looking for a “pretext” to protect the oil deposits. He said any “exploitation of natural resources of a sovereign state without its consent is illegal,” according to a translator of his remarks in Russian.

Cavusoglu, however, remained focused on a top priority for Turkey in Syria: Ensuring that Kurdish fighters whom the United States supported to help drive out ISIS don’t threaten Turkish interests. Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s. Turkey, U.S. and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey has led a military incursion into northeastern Syria to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) “safe zone” between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish border. Cavusoglu reiterated the hopes of Turkey — along with much of the international community — that Syria won’t split apart. He suggested that areas now controlled by Turkish forces and their allies in Syria could one day be “handed over” to the Syrian government, especially if the talks enhance prospects for peace and stability.

“When times come that the Syrian regime, at the end of this political process, is capable enough to protect the country’s territories and eliminate the terrorist organization (PKK) from that, I think all the territories should be handed over to Syria,” he said. “This is the territory of Syria.”

February 17, 2019

LONDON (AP) — The family of a British teenager who ran away to join the Islamic State group and now wants to return to the U.K. said Sunday she has given birth to a baby boy. The family’s lawyer said 19-year-old Shamima Begum and the baby are in good health. In a recent interview with The Times newspaper, Begum said she had previously lost two babies to illness and malnutrition.

Begum was one of a group of schoolgirls from London’s Bethnal Green neighborhood who went to Syria to marry IS fighters in 2015 at a time when the group’s online recruitment program lured many impressionable young people to its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Speaking to Britain’s Sky News from Syria, where she has been living in a refugee camp, Begum said she didn’t know what she was getting into when she left and wants to bring her baby back to Britain with her.

“I think a lot of people should have sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through,” she said in an interview broadcast Sunday. “I just was hoping that maybe for me, for the sake of me and my child, they let me come back, the young woman said. “Because I can’t live in this camp forever. It’s not really possible.”

“I don’t want to take care of my child in this camp because I’m afraid he might even die in this camp,” she said. Begum said she had been only a “housewife” during her time with IS militants. “I never did anything dangerous. I never made propaganda. I never encouraged people to come to Syria. So they’d only have proof I didn’t anything that is dangerous,” she said.

She added she had been “OK with” beheadings carried out by Islamic State adherents because she had heard it was allowed under Islamic law. News about Begum and her desire to go back to Britain have ignited a debate in the U.K. about how to deal with citizens who joined IS and want to leave Syria now that the extremist group is on the verge of collapse.

While it is unclear whether Begum committed any crimes, many have focused on her apparent lack of remorse. In the earlier interview with The Times, Begum said she did not regret her decision to join the extremists.

Her legal situation remains uncertain; she could face charges for supporting IS if she returns to Britain. Two days before the baby’s birth was announced, Begum’s relatives in Britain said they were “shocked” by her comments but thought she should be brought back and dealt with by the British justice system.

“The welfare of Shamima’s unborn baby is of paramount concern to our family, and we will do everything within our power to protect that baby, who is entirely blameless in these events,” the family had said.

The family said it is concerned about Begum’s mental health and characterizes her as having been groomed by Islamic State fighters.

December 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers met in Moscow on Saturday to discuss northern Syria as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw and Turkey threatens to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces controlling nearly a third of the country.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said before the talks began that they would focus on the situation in and around Idlib, as well as “what can and should be done” when the U.S. withdraws from Syria.

After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that much of the discussion focused on the pending U.S. withdrawal, and that Russia and Turkey managed to agree on coordinating their steps in Syria “to ultimately eradicate the terrorist threat.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said the meeting lasted an hour and a half. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said only that “we will continue our close cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria and regional issues.”

The Syrian military said it entered the Kurdish stronghold of Manbij on Friday as part of an apparent agreement between the two sides. The Kurds are looking for new allies to protect against a threatened Turkish offensive as U.S. forces prepare to leave.

With President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw troops earlier this month, Turkey announced it will pause a threatened offensive against Kurdish militants. It has, however, continued amassing troops at the border as it monitors the situation.

The movements follow days of equipment transfers across the border into a Turkish-held area of northern Syria near Manbij. Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters said they have started moving along with Turkish troops to front-line positions near the town as a show of readiness.

A statement released by the rebels said they are ready to “begin military operations to liberate the city in response to calls by our people in the city of Manbij.” Turkish news agency IHA showed video of at least 50 tanks arriving at a command post in Sanliurfa province early Saturday. The province borders Kurdish-held areas east of the Euphrates river in Syria.

The Russian side was represented in Saturday’s talks by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Shoigu, and Kremlin foreign affairs aide Yuri Ushakov. The Turkish delegation includes Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Saturday that, in addition to the foreign and defense ministers of each country, the meeting was attended by intelligence chiefs from both sides.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan did not attend the meeting. Peskov said the two would later schedule a separate meeting.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

Wednesday 17/10/2018

RAQA – All day, dinghies cross the Euphrates River to shuttle residents into the pulverized cityscape of Syria’s Raqa, where bridges, homes, and schools remain gutted by the offensive against the Islamic State group.

Exactly a year has passed since a blistering US-backed assault ousted the jihadists from their one-time Syrian stronghold, but Raqa — along with the roads and bridges leading to it — remains in ruins.

To enter the city, 33-year-old Abu Yazan and his family have to pile into a small boat on the southern banks of the Euphrates, which flows along the bottom edges of Raqa.

They load their motorcycle onto the small vessel, which bobs precariously north for a few minutes before dropping off passengers and their vehicles at the city’s outskirts.

“It’s hard — the kids are always afraid of the constant possibility of drowning,” says bearded Abu Yazan.

“We want the bridge to be repaired because it’s safer than water transport.”

The remains of Raqa’s well-known “Old Bridge” stand nearby: a pair of massive pillars, the top of the structure shorn off.

It was smashed in an air strike by the US-led coalition, which bombed every one of Raqa’s bridges to cut off the jihadists’ escape routes.

The fighting ended on October 17 last year, when the city finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which then handed it over to the Raqa Civil Council (RCC) to govern.

But 60 bridges are still destroyed in and around the city, says RCC member Ahmad al-Khodr.

“The coalition has offered us eight metal bridges,” he says, to link vital areas in Raqa’s countryside.

Houses, belongings long gone

Rights group Amnesty International estimates around 80 percent of Raqa was devastated by fighting, including vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

The national hospital, the city’s largest medical facility, was where IS made its final stand. It still lies ravaged.

Private homes were not spared either: 30,000 houses were fully destroyed and another 25,000 heavily damaged, says Amnesty.

Ismail al-Muidi lost his son, an SDF fighter, and his home.

“I buried him myself with these two hands,” says Muidi, 48.

“I was not as affected when I lost the house, but I had hoped it would shelter me and my family,” he adds.

Now homeless, he lives with his sister in the central Al-Nahda neighborhood.

“The coalition destroyed the whole building, and all our belongings went with them,” he says.

Anxiety over eking out a living has put streaks of grey into Muidi’s hair and beard.

“How could I rebuild this house? We need help to remove the rubble, but no one has helped us at all,” he says.

Since IS was ousted, more than 150,000 people have returned to Raqa, according to United Nations estimates last month.

But the city remains haunted by one of IS’s most infamous legacies: a sea of mines and unexploded ordnance that still maims and kills residents to this day.

The RCC says it does not have enough money to clear out the rubble still clogging up Raqa’s streets, much less rehabilitate its water and electricity networks.

Khodr unfurls a map of the city in front of him at his office in the RCC, pointing out the most ravaged neighborhoods.

“The districts in the center of the city were more damaged — 90 percent destroyed — compared to a range of 40 to 60 percent destroyed in the surrounding areas,” he said.

“The destruction is massive and the support isn’t cutting it.”

‘No hope at all’

A plastic bucket in hand, Abd al-Ibrahim sits despondently on a curbside in the Al-Ferdaws neighborhood.

Fighting destroyed his home, so he now squats in another house but there has been no water there for three days.

“I come sit here, hoping somebody will drive by to give me water. But no one comes,” the 70-year-old says, tearing up.

He points to a mound of rubble nearby.

“My house is like this now. We were in paradise. Look at what happened to us — we’re literally begging for water.”

The coalition has helped de-mine, remove rubble, and rehabilitate schools in Raqa, but efforts have been modest and piecemeal compared to the scale of the destruction.

“You can’t call this reconstruction — it’s all empty talk,” says Samer Farwati, who peddles cigarettes across from his destroyed house in the Masaken al-Tobb district.

He pays $120 to rent a home since his was hit in an air strike.

Farwati says he no longer trusts officials after too many empty promises.

“If they helped us even a little bit, we could complete the construction. But there’s no hope at all,” he says.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/raqa-remains-ruins-one-year-recapture.

October 12, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition’s failure to adequately acknowledge and investigate civilian deaths in the Syrian city of Raqqa is “a slap in the face for survivors” trying to rebuild their lives a year after the offensive to oust the Islamic State group, a prominent rights group said Friday.

At a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Amnesty International said 2,521 bodies from the battle for Raqqa have been recovered in the city, the majority killed by coalition airstrikes. It cited a small unit known as the Early Recovery Team working with U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces to recover bodies and bury them. They expect to recover at least 3,000 more bodies.

There are “more bodies underneath the ground than living souls,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s senior director of global research, who in 2017 with the coalition playing a supporting role recently returned from Syria.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said the fighting to liberate the citizens of Raqqa from the grip of the Islamic State group “was often house to house against an enemy with no regard for human life” using explosives and booby traps every step of the way. He added that the coalition is aware of the discrepancies of other reports and that the Coalition has based its figures on “supportable evidence and facts.”

Ryan said that liberating the citizens was the goal and “the other choice would be to let ISIS continue to murder, torture, rape and pillage the citizens of Raqqa, and that is unacceptable,” using a different acronym for IS. He added the Coalition could concede a high counts after we checking them against their existing records.

The battle for Raqqa, once a city of 200,000 people, played out over four months as the Kurdish-led Syrian forces fought street by street. The coalition unleashed wave after wave of airstrikes and shell fire until the city was cleared of militants in October 2017.

Amnesty has accused the coalition before of underreporting civilian deaths in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. On Monday, Neistat said most of the bodies recovered so far are believed to be civilians. The U.S.-led coalition said in July that 77 civilians died as a result of its airstrikes on Raqqa between June and October last year. The U.S. and its coalition partners launched their campaign against the Islamic State group in 2014, driving out the militants from their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa three years later.

Neistat also said the “clock is ticking” for Idlib province, the last opposition stronghold in northwestern Syria. A demilitarized zone negotiated between Turkey and Russia to protect civilians from a government offensive on the northwestern province should be ready by Oct. 15.

Turkish and Russian officials have said that Syrian rebels completed withdrawing their heavy weapons from the front lines in implementation of the deal that’s expected to demilitarize a stretch of 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) along the front lines by Oct. 15.

Neistat said the zone is not adequate to protect all the civilians in Idlib province and expressed concern the agreement may not last. She said she fears massive civilian deaths, destruction, displacement, arrests and disappearances, citing previous government offensives in cities like Aleppo.

Neistat called on Russia to pressure the Syrian government to do more to protect the civilian population, highlighting Moscow’s influence on Damascus. “It may not be too late to stop it,” she said. Meanwhile on Friday, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that his military could soon launch a new operation across the border into northern Syria in zones held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan’s statement renews a threat to expand Turkey’s military operations into areas east of the Euphrates River held by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be terrorists and part of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

“God willing, very soon … we will leave the terror nests east of the Euphrates in disarray,” he said. He spoke on Friday at a military ceremony honoring Turkish commandos. Turkey launched two incursions into Syria, in 2016 and 2018, into areas west of the Euphrates, pushing Islamic State militants as well as Syrian Kurdish fighters from its border.

October 05, 2018

SWEIDA, Syria (AP) — Maysoun Saab’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled finding her parents bleeding to death on the ground outside their home, minutes after they were shot by Islamic State militants on a killing spree across once tranquil villages they infiltrated in a southeastern corner of Syria.

Within an hour, she had lost her mother, father, brother and 34 other members of her extended family. Overall, more than 200 people were killed and 30 hostages abducted in the coordinated July 25 attacks across Sweida province.

It was one of the biggest single massacres of the Syrian civil war and the worst bloodshed to hit the province since the conflict began in 2011, underscoring the persistent threat posed by the Islamic State group, which has been largely vanquished but retains pockets of territory in southern and eastern Syria.

More than two months after the attack, tensions over the missing hostages — all women and children — are boiling over in Sweida, a mountainous area which is a center for the Druze religious minority. Anger is building up, and young men are taking up arms. This week, the militants shot dead one of the women, 25-year-old Tharwat Abu Ammar, triggering protests and a sit-in outside the Sweida governorate building by relatives enraged at the lack of progress in negotiations to free them.

It’s a stark change for a usually peaceful province that has managed to stay largely on the sidelines of the seven-year Syrian war, and where most villagers work grazing livestock over the surrounding hills.

“We still haven’t really absorbed what happened to us. It’s like a dream or a nightmare that you don’t wake up from,” said Saab, a slender woman with a long braid showing underneath a loose white scarf covering her hair.

During a rare visit to the Sweida countryside by an Associated Press team, armed young men and teens, some as young as 14, patrolled the streets. Some wore military uniforms, others the traditional black baggy pants and white caps worn by Druze villagers. They said the Syrian army had provided them with weapons to form civilian patrols to defend their towns and villages.

Residents recalled a summer day of pure terror that began with gunfire and cries of “Allahu Akbar!” that rang out at 4 a.m. Militants who had slipped into the villages under the cover of darkness knocked on doors, sometimes calling out residents’ names to trick them into opening. Those who did were gunned down. Others were shot in their beds. Women and children were dragged screaming from their homes.

Word of the attack spread in the villages of Shbiki, Shreihi and Rami as neighbors called one another to warn of the militant rampage. A series of suicide bombings unfolded simultaneously in the nearby provincial capital of Sweida.

In Shreihi, a small agricultural village of cement houses, Saab and her husband were asleep in one room, their children, 16-year-old Bayar and 13-year-old Habib, in another when she heard the first burst of gunfire. From her window, she saw the silhouette of her neighbor, Lotfi Saab, and his wife in their house. Then she saw armed men push open the door, point a rifle at them and shoot. Saab screamed, her voice reverberating through the open window. The militants threw a grenade in her direction.

Her husband climbed onto the roof of their home and aimed a hunting rifle at the men, while she hunkered downstairs with the children. At least two of the men blew themselves up nearby. At the crack of dawn, Saab heard another neighbor screaming, “Abu Khaled has been shot!” — referring to Saab’s father. Ignoring her husband’s orders to stay indoors, Saab ran over the rocky path to her parent’s house, and spotted her father’s bloodied body on the ground near the front porch. She screamed for her mother and found her lying nearby, shot in her leg, blood everywhere.

“There is no greater tragedy than to see your parents like this, strewn on the ground before your eyes. We were together just the night before, staying up late together and talking. … They took them away from us,” she said, choking back tears.

Saab’s brother, Khaled, meanwhile, was trapped with his wife and daughter in their home, fearfully watching the IS fighters from their shuttered window. Another brother, who rushed to their aid, was killed outside Khaled’s home.

Less than an hour later, Saab called to tell Khaled that both their parents were dead. When he was able to leave his house, Khaled said he and other neighbors fought and killed as many IS militants as they could. He suffered two gunshot wounds in his thigh. But there was no time to grieve.

“We didn’t have the chance to cry or feel anything, even if our father, mother, neighbors, friends, all of these people had died. But at the time there wasn’t a moment to cry for anyone,” said the 42-year-old truck driver.

Residents said the village men fought with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on — hunting rifles, pistols, even sticks — against the far superior IS guns. The Islamic State group, which once held large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, has been mostly vanquished. Its de facto capital of Raqqa, in eastern Syria, fell a year ago this month. But the group fights on in eastern pockets like Deir el-Zour and Sweida province.

Some here fear that as the militants flee the advancing Syrian government forces, they will try to regroup in remote pockets of territory like this once quiet corner of Syria. They fear another raid or more trouble because of the brewing tensions over the hostages IS still holds.

On Tuesday, a video posted on the internet purported to show IS militants shoot Abu Ammar in the back of her head as they threatened to kill more hostages if the Syrian government and its Russian allies do not meet their demands, which include freeing IS fighters and their family members elsewhere in Syria.

In the village of Rami, where 20 civilians from the Maqlad family were killed in the July assault, Nathem Maqlad points to bullet holes and blood stains on the ground from the battle with IS. “I stand ready and alert to defend our land and dignity all over again if I have to,” he said, walking with a group of young men with rifles slung over their shoulders.

Tuesday 25/09/2018

SARAQIB – Turkish troop reinforcements entered Syria’s rebel bastion of Idlib on Tuesday, an AFP correspondent reported, a week after a deal between Ankara and Moscow averted a government offensive.

Around 35 military vehicles traveled south down the main highway near the town of Saraqib after midnight.

The convoy was accompanied by pro-Ankara rebels of the National Liberation Front (NLF), who control part of the enclave on the Turkish border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the forces deployed to several Turkish positions around the northwestern province.

Since last year, Turkish troops have manned 12 monitoring positions in the rebel zone under a de-escalation agreement between Turkey, Russia and fellow regime ally Iran.

Last week, Ankara and Moscow announced a new agreement for a demilitarized zone along the horse-shoe shaped front line between the rebels and government troops.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, controls more than half of the rebel zone, while NLF fighters hold sway over most of the rest.

The agreement gives Turkey the responsibility to ensure that all fighters in the planned demilitarized zone hand over their heavy weapons by October 10 and that the more radical among them withdraw by October 15.

The agreement also provides for Turkish and Russian troops patrol the buffer zone.

Last week, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would have to send reinforcements to provide the numbers needed to conduct the patrols.

The Syrian civil war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/turkey-reinforcements-enter-syrias-idlib.