Tag Archive: Sacred Land of Syria


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both the Islamic State radical group and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government, even as U.S. forces are withdrawn from other parts of the country.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.”

October 16, 2019

CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (AP) — Russia moved to fill the void left by the United States in northern Syria on Tuesday, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government forces and Turkish troops. At the same time, tensions grew within NATO as Turkey defied growing condemnation of its invasion from its Western allies.

Now in its seventh day, Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters has caused tens of thousands to flee their homes, has upended alliances and is re-drawing the map of northern Syria for yet another time in the 8-year-old war.

Russia moved quickly to further entrench its role as a power broker after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria. The American move effectively abandoned the Kurdish fighters who were allied with the U.S. and cleared the way for Turkey’s invasion aimed at crushing them.

Desperate for a new protector, the Kurdish administration struck a deal with the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces on Sunday began moving into Kurdish-administered areas to shield them against Turkey.

Syrian troops waved flags after they rolled into Manbij, a flashpoint town west of the Euphrates River that Turkey had been aiming to capture and wrest from Kurdish control. Video by Russian journalists with the troops showed what appeared to be an abandoned outpost where U.S. forces had been stationed.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Myles B. Caggins, confirmed U.S. troops had completed their pullout from Manbij. During the withdrawal, contacts were kept open with the Turks and Russians to ensure the several hundred American forces there got out safely, U.S. officials said.

U.S. troops have had outposts in Manbij since 2017, when they went in to avert a battle over the town between Turkish and Kurdish fighters. Now Russia was playing that role. Outside Manbij, Russian troops patrolled front lines between Turkish and Syrian army positions to keep them apart, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

“No one is interested” in fighting between Syrian government troops and Turkish forces, said Alexander Lavrentyev, Moscow’s envoy for Syria. Russia “is not going to allow it,” he told Russian state news agencies.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Washington is “deeply concerned” that Russian troops are patrolling between the two sides. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to discuss “issues of mutual interest in the context of situation in Syria,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a brief statement, without elaborating.

Russia has been a staunch ally of Assad for decades and entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, providing air power that eventually turned the tide of the war in his favor. The Russian military has shipped weapons to Damascus, trained thousands of troops and put its advisers in key Syrian military units.

In the first week of the Turkish assault, at least 154 fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been killed, as well as 128 fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian factions , according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the war. It said at least 69 civilians have been killed in Syria. Turkey says six of its soldiers have died, as well as at least 20 Turkish civilians killed by Kurdish mortar fire across the border.

Despite the Syrian and Russian deployments, Turkey insisted it would capture Manbij. Asked on Sky News if Turkey’s military was willing to fight Assad’s army, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, “We hope it’s not going to happen, but again we are determined to get control over Manbij.”

Mortar fire from Manbij killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded seven others, the Turkish Defense Ministry said. An Associated Press team later saw up to 200 Turkish troops along with armored vehicles crossing near Manbij and Kobani, a border town that is not yet secured by Syrian forces. Farther east on the border, Turkish and Kurdish forces were in heavy battles over the town of Ras al-Ayn, captured by Turkish troops days earlier.

A U.S. official said the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops being withdrawn from northern Syria will reposition in Iraq, Kuwait and possibly Jordan. The U.S. forces in Iraq could conduct cross-border operations against the Islamic State group in Syria as they did before creating the now-abandoned partnership with Syrian Kurdish-led forces, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive planning for a U.S. pullout.

After opening the way for the Turkish assault with its pullout, Washington is now trying to restrain its fellow NATO member. Trump on Monday announced sanctions aimed at Turkey’s economy. The U.S. called on Turkey to stop the offensive and declare a cease-fire, while European Union countries moved to broaden an arms sale embargo against their easternmost ally.

Trump was sending Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to Ankara to try to begin negotiations to stop the fighting. Pence said Trump spoke directly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who promised not to attack the border town of Kobani, which in 2015 saw the Islamic State group’s first defeat in a battle by the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan made clear, however, that he had no intention of halting the Turkish offensive. “They say ‘declare a ceasefire.’ We could never declare a ceasefire,” he told reporters. The U.N. Security Council planned a closed meeting Wednesday on the situation, requested by Germany and other EU members. “Everybody hopes that … we can do something to bring back the parties to the peace process,” said the current Security Council president, South Africa’s U.N. Ambassador Jerry Matjila.

NATO ambassadors also will meet on Wednesday in Brussels on Turkey’s offensive, said alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Erdogan defended Turkey’s offensive in a column in the Wall Street Journal, urging the international community to support Ankara’s effort to create what it calls a resettlement “safe zone” for refugees in northeastern Syria, or “begin admitting refugees.”

“Turkey reached its limit,” Erdogan wrote of the 3.6 million Syrians in his country. He said Turkey’s warnings it would be unable to stop refugee floods into the West without international support “fell on deaf ears.”

Turkey said it invaded northern Syria to create a zone of control the entire length of the border and drive out the Kurdish fighters, which it regards as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

Instead, after the Kurds’ deal with Damascus, a new de facto carving up of the border appeared to be taking shape. Turkish forces control the beginnings of a truncated zone roughly in the center of the border about 100 kilometers (60 miles) long between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Syrian government troops were moving into or increasing their presence in areas on either side of that enclave, including Manbij to the west and the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh in the far northeastern corner of Syria.

Though they gain protection from the Turks by the deal with Damascus, the Kurds risk losing the virtual self-rule they have enjoyed across the northeast — the heartland of their minority community — ever since Assad pulled his troops from the area seven years ago to fight rebels elsewhere.

The U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator said at least 160,000 civilians in northeastern Syria have been displaced amid the Turkish operations.

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.

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.

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region, the last major stronghold of anti-government rebels where fears had been running high of a devastating offensive by government forces.

The zone will be established by Oct. 15 and be 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) deep, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols, President Vladimir Putin said at the end of a more than three-hour meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.

The deal marked a significant agreement between the two leaders and effectively delays an offensive by Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies, one that Turkey fears would create a humanitarian crisis near its border.

Putin said “radical militants” would have to withdraw from the zone. Among them would be those from the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee. The group denies it is linked to al-Qaida.

It was not immediately clear exactly how the deal would be implemented in the province, which is home to more than 3 million Syrians and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters from various groups. “I believe that with this agreement we prevented a great humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan said at a joint briefing with Putin.

Turkey has been eager to prevent an assault by Syrian government troops in the province. Putin said he believed the agreement on Idlib could hasten final resolution of Syria’s long and devastating civil war.

“We agreed that practical implementation of the steps we plan will give a fresh impetus to the process of political settlement of the Syrian conflict and will make it possible to invigorate efforts in the Geneva format and will help restore peace in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government agreed with the Putin-Erdogan plan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters in Sochi that “in the coming hours, we will agree with them on all the positions put forth in this document.”

Ahmed Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian political opposition in exile, said the agreement offered Russia a chance to walk back its threat against Idlib and represented a success for diplomatic pressure from Turkey and the United States, which was also against an offensive.

Ramadan also said the deal offers the Syrian government and Russia one of their main demands, which is securing the highway that passes through Idlib and links northern Syria with other cities. That was one of the government’s strategic aims in an offensive in Idlib.

“Turkey offered Putin a ladder with which to climb down from the tree, threatening a military offensive in Idlib that had little chance for success,” Ramadan said in a series of text messages with The Associated Press. “The Turkish and U.S. serious pressures were the reason behind Russia abstaining from the offensive and offering an air cover which means Iran alone won’t be able to carry out the offensive with the overstretched forces of the Assad regime.”

He said Russia has also refrained from its accusations that the rebels are all terrorists. “Russia swallowed all its accusations,” he said. “Turkey is in a strong position.” He said the zone would be enforced by Turkish patrols on the opposition side and Russian patrols on the government side.

Ramadan added that the opposition was now stronger than when it was after losses in Daraa and Ghouta. He said the Russians reached the agreement without negotiating it first with the Syrian government, pointing to Shoigu’s comments that Moscow will discuss the deal with the Syrian government later.

Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed rebel group Faylaq al-Sham, thanked Erdogan for preventing an offensive and giving the rebels time to defend their rebellion and people. Millions “of civilians in Idlib are in peace,” he tweeted.

He said he was confident that the deal “would not have been possible without the steadfastness of our people and fighters. Thank you, Erdogan.” Capt. Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed umbrella group of opposition fighters known as the National Front for Liberation, said diplomatic efforts have prevented a wide-offensive on Idlib but that his group still needs to learn the details of the deal.

He said the nature of the demilitarized zone and how it would be implemented are not yet clear. “We need details,” he said, adding that the Assad government has broken many agreements before, including the Russian-Turkey negotiated de-escalation zones.

“We will remain ready for fighting,” he said. Russia has called Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and had said the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. In recent weeks, Russian officials repeatedly claimed rebels in Idlib were preparing a chemical weapons attack that could be blamed on the Syrian government and prompt a retaliatory strike by the West.

Turkey had appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

The International Rescue Committee, a New-York based humanitarian group, said the people of Idlib “will rest easier tonight knowing that they are less likely to face an impending assault.” However, Lorraine Bramwell, the group’s Syria country director, cautioned that previous de-escalation deals didn’t last long.

“In order to give people in Idlib peace of mind then, this agreement needs to be built upon by the global powers working together to find a lasting political solution that protects civilians,” Bramwell said. “It is also essential that humanitarian organizations are allowed to reach those who will remain in need throughout Idlib, including in any ‘demilitarized zone.'”

Idlib and surrounding areas were quiet Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz reported this story in Moscow and AP writer Sarah El Deeb reported from Beirut. AP writer Neyran Elden in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The presidents of Russia and Turkey were meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday in a bid to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis around a rebel-held region in Syria.

The province of Idlib in the country’s north-west is the last stronghold of Syrian rebels, and Turkey has been eager to prevent a potential government offensive there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in just 10 days after Russia and Iran expressed support for the idea of an offensive.

Russia calls Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and says the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. Turkey has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

Putin and Erdogan sat down for talks Monday afternoon. Putin told Erdogan in opening remarks carried by Russian news agencies that he and Erdogan will be “looking for solutions where there are none right now,” without mentioning Idlib by name.

Erdogan in his reply expressed hope that the joint statement that the two leaders are expected to make later on Monday will be “a different hope for the whole region.” It was quiet in Idlib and surrounding areas Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Idlib and surrounding areas is home to over 3 million Syrians, and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters.