Airstrikes, shelling strain Syria truce – US role key in post-IS Syria, say Kurds

BEIRUT, July 25, (Agencies): Air strikes killed at least nine people in the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus overnight and insurgent shelling from the rebel-held area landed near the Russian embassy on Tuesday, a war monitor reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deaths in the air strikes in the Eastern Ghouta town of Arbin marked the first civilian casualties since a Russian-backed truce in the area came into effect. The Syrian military declared a cessation of hostilities there on Saturday.

But Russia, a military ally of President Bashar al-Assad, dismissed reports of air strikes in the area as “an absolute lie” meant to discredit Moscow’s peacemaking efforts.

“During working contacts with representatives of opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta it was confirmed that no military actions had been conducted in this de-escalation zone, there had been no air strikes,” the Russian defence ministry spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday.

Russia said on Monday it had deployed military police in Eastern Ghouta to try to enforce a de-escalation zone it said it had agreed with the Syrian opposition there.

Tuesday’s shelling near the Russian embassy marked the first time rebels had hit government-held areas of central Damascus since the truce began.

The Observatory said the overnight air strikes wounded 30 people in Eastern Ghouta while another four were injured by further air strikes that targeted the area on Tuesday morning.

The Civil Defence for rural Damascus, a rescue service operating in the area, said the dead included five children and two women.

In a statement on its Facebook page, it put the number of wounded and missing at 50. The air strikes hit the area at 11 pm (2000 GMT), it said.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military on the report, and no mention of air strikes by state media.

Witnesses said three mortar shells landed in the neighbourhood where the Russian embassy is located in northeastern Damascus. There were no reports of casualties.

The Syrian army, with military support from Russia and Iran, has dealt the opposition a string of defeats around the capital over the last year, seizing back control of areas including Daraya and Moadamiya.

In neighboring Lebanon, two international human rights groups called on Lebanese authorities to disclose their findings into the fate of four Syrian refugees who died while in custody of the Lebanese army.

The four were detained in a sweeping security raid late last month in refugee settlements in and around the border town of Arsal that netted 355 Syrians. The town and its surrounding area was the scene of a major cross-border attack in 2014, when more than two dozen Lebanese soldiers were abducted.

A Lebanese military probe aired on state-run media on Monday said the four died of natural causes.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for the full findings to be released.

Amnesty said forensic analysis of photographs showing the bodies of three of the four deceased men, commissioned by the organization, reveals signs of recent beatings and trauma to the head, legs and arms, suggesting they may have been tortured.

“It extremely important for the full findings of the forensic report commissioned by the military prosecutor to be made public and accessible to the lawyers and families of the victims,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International.

“If torture is deemed the cause of death, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) must take the necessary steps to bring those responsible to justice, in a fair trial,” she said.

HRW said leaking a short summary of the doctors’ report does not address the findings.

“Photos of the bodies showed marks consistent with torture,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism terrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “The Lebanese military should make public the full results of its investigation.”

Meanwhile, a senior Kurdish official says the US role in the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria’s Raqqa must not end with the liberation of the city but continue as a guarantor of its future stability.

Ilham Ahmed says the Kurdish-led effort to secure the city after liberation needs US political and financial support.

Ahmed is the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the US-backed Kurdish-led force currently fighting to liberate the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa from the militants.

Speaking to The Associated Press in the town of Kobani in northern Syria Tuesday, Ahmed said if the Americans want to protect the security of these areas and their own country’s security, they must play a role in the rebuilding of Syria.

Syria views a US decision to halt CIA support to rebel groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad as a “start” towards ending the six-year conflict, a government minister told Reuters.

“All these steps are the start to solving the Syrian crisis, and without that there is no solution,” national reconciliation minister Ali Haidar said in an interview.

But speaking generally about the conflict, he said what was really needed was for foreign states to completely seal off borders across which arms and fighters have flowed throughout the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

“As long as there are areas left like open wounds, there will be no solution,” he said, without specifying which areas these were.

Haidar also said the government intended to reach more “reconciliation agreements” with insurgents in parts of Syria delineated as “de-escalation zones” under diplomatic efforts led by Russia.

His comments reflected the government’s satisfaction with US President Donald Trump’s decision, announced by US officials last week, to end the CIA program set up in 2013 to equip and train certain vetted rebels.

The move marks a further blow to the opposition and a boost for Assad, whose position already appeared militarily unassailable. But Haidar said it was more of a US admission of failure than a genuine policy shift.

“All the American attempts to fund and arm and train groups it called moderate factions … have failed.”

The program overseen by the CIA has funnelled aid to rebels in southern and northern Syria, with support from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Some of these states, notably Qatar and Turkey, are widely believed to have backed some rebels outside the CIA channel.

Before assuming office in January, Trump suggested he could end support for Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and give priority to fighting Islamic State.

In a tweet on Tuesday, he called the CIA funding to anti-Assad Syrian rebels “massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments”. The tweet was reported by the Syrian state news agency and state-run TV.

Rebels have said the support always fell far short of what they needed to make a decisive difference in the war with Assad, who received more robust backing from his allies Russia and Iran.

Assad’s military advantage has helped the government suppress pockets of opposition in western Syria, through local deals in which rebels and civilians are given the choice of evacuating or accepting state rule.

Haidar said the government intends to reach more such agreements with rebels. Russia has been working to establish de-escalation zones in the major rebel strongholds of western Syria, notably Idlib province in the northwest and the eastern Ghouta area near Damascus.

Moscow and Washington have also brokered a separate ceasefire for southwestern Syria earlier this month.

“The Syrian government and allied countries are working on many details for the … de-escalation zones to pave the way for real reconciliations,” Haidar said.

“We will not accept anything less than that.”

Damascus describes such deals as a “workable model” that brings the country closer to peace. But the opposition decries them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people who oppose Assad after years of bombardment and siege.

Haidar denied such allegations and said many people have returned to their hometowns after local deals ended the fighting there.

Syrian rebels and activists are warning that an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group is on the verge of snuffing out what remains of the country’s uprising in northwestern Syria, after the extremists seized control of the opposition-held regional capital, Idlib, last weekend.

With the jihadis cementing their authority over the city and its province, also called Idlib, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been supplied with a useful pretext for a long-expected assault against the rebellious province: that the uprising against him is largely driven by Islamists and terrorists.

“There is the real possibility that because of the Nusra Front’s domination, the regime will enter the area with international approval,” said Lt Col Fares Bayoush, a longtime opponent of Assad, who has been leading a rebel faction in north Syria.

The Nusra Front is one of the many names for the al-Qaeda-affiliate that now heads the mighty Hay’at Tahrir al Sham militant alliance — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee — that seized the city of Idlib, as well as two border crossings with Turkey to feed its coffers. It is also known as HTS.

In July last year, the Nusra Front changed its name to Fatah al-Sham Front and said it was cutting all its links with al-Qaeda, an aesthetic move seen by many as an attempt to improve its image and market itself as a faction defending the Syrian people.

It abides by a deeply conservative code for ethics and jurisprudence and tolerates no dissent — leading many who live under its rule to complain they are no better than the government they sought to overthrow in 2011.

The fresh gains by HTS in northern Syria come at a time when its rival, the Islamic State group, is suffering defeats at the hands of US-backed Iraqi and Syrian forces in both countries.

In Idlib demonstrations last week, the group’s members shot at protesters waving the tri-color flag of the Syrian uprising. HTS will only accept their own, jihadi-inspired black flags to be flown in their presence.

“Any party that tries to confront HTS will be crushed,” said an activist based in northwest Syria.

“This is a big blow for the Syrian revolution. Bashar will look like he is fighting terrorism,” the activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the HTS.

With its previous incarnations, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has long been the top dog in Idlib province but the putsch has had the effect of making it feel official. In recent weeks, the group deployed masked gunmen and carried out raids in search operations for alleged IS members.

HTS deployed across Idlib city last weekend after a rival faction, the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, withdrew. Five days of clashes around the province left 77 fighters and 15 civilians dead, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Other factions, including many once financed and armed in part by the CIA, kept to the sidelines. They are hoping to win a share of the revenues from the lucrative Bab al-Hawa border crossing, said a Turkey-based opposition activist who liaises with Syrian rebels and their state sponsors. He asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardize his position.

That crossing used to bring Ahrar al-Sham over $1 million in revenues a month, according to a senior Ahrar al-Sham official, who also asked for anonymity for the same reason. The group will now have to share those revenues with HTS after forfeiting its monopoly over it to a “civilian administration” forced in by the extremists.

HTS also seized Sarmada — the first town after the Bab al-Hawa crossing and an important trade hub in north Idlib — and Khirbet al-Jouz, home to a second, less important crossing with Turkey.

“Ahrar al-Sham no longer has a real on-the-ground presence in Idlib province. It’s over,” said the Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdurrahman.

HTS and Ahrar have long been at odds over Idlib, but the rout last week nevertheless carried a hint of betrayal, as the two sides fought side by side in 2015 to throw the government out of the province once and for all. Armed with anti-tank missiles supplied to supporting moderate opposition forces, some of which ended up in the hands of the Nusra Front, the coalition’s advantage was so great that Assad conceded, for the first time in the war, that he might not be able to retain control over all of Syria.

But Russia intervened with a bruising aerial campaign that drove the rebels and insurgents back on all fronts. Further infighting between the factions has all but doomed any hopes of rebels reaching the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Assad, who has long eyed Idlib province since he lost it, will be further emboldened by a White House decision to halt the CIA supply-and-equip program for Syrian rebels. It was first reported by the Washington Post last week.

Opposition activists saw it as an acknowledgement that HTS was exploiting its position in northwestern Syria to pilfer weapons from vetted opposition groups.

“It means HTS will have less access to arms,” said the Turkey-based opposition activist.

But it is also a sign of growing closeness between the White House and the Kremlin over Syria.

Russia, a strong backer of Assad, had long pushed the United States to end the program. And US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to have told UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres earlier this month that the US was leaving “Syria’s fate in Russia’s hands now,” according to Foreign Policy magazine.


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