Syrian warplanes strike near Damascus during fragile truce

Syrians walk past a destroyed building in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, on December 30, 2016, on the first day of a nationwide truce. Clashes erupted between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters in an area outside Damascus, despite a nationwide truce that began at midnight, a monitor said. (AFP photo)
Updated 02 January 2017
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Syrian warplanes strike near Damascus during fragile truce

BEIRUT: Syrian government warplanes resumed their bombardment of a rebel-held valley near Damascus on Sunday after nearly 24 hours with no air raids, a rebel official and monitors said, during the third day of a fragile cease-fire.
The truce deal, brokered by Russia and Turkey which back opposing sides in the conflict and welcomed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council, has been repeatedly violated since it began, with warring sides trading the blame.
Rebels on Saturday warned they would abandon the truce if the government side continued to violate it, asking the Russians, who support President Bashar Assad, to rein in army and militia attacks in the valley by 8 p.m.
Bombardments ceased before that time — although some clashes continued — but began again late on Sunday.
It was not immediately clear if the rebels would abandon the truce as a result. Like previous Syria cease-fire deals it has been shaky from the start with repeated outbreaks of violence in some areas, but has largely held elsewhere.
The raids hit areas of Wadi Barada, where government forces and their allies launched an operation more than a week ago, a spokesman for the Jaish Al-Nasr rebel group and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
There was a “fierce attack and attempt by Assad and Shiite militias to raid Wadi Barada” from nearby hills, the rebel spokesman, Mohammed Rasheed, said.
State media and the Observatory said hundreds of people had left Wadi Barada in the past day for government-controlled areas nearby.
Earlier on Sunday government warplanes carried out several air strikes in the southern Aleppo countryside, the Observatory and rebel officials said.
Government forces also advanced overnight against rebels in the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus, seizing 10 farms, the Observatory said.
A second rebel official suggested that low-level clashes on the ground would not necessarily derail the truce, but that air strikes were a “clear violation.”
Russia’s defense ministry has accused the insurgents in turn of violating the cease-fire numerous times.
A military news outlet run by Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, said the Syrian army had been targeting militants from the former Nusra Front both in southern Aleppo province and in Wadi Barada.
The army has said the group, previously Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, is not included in the cease-fire deal but rebels say it is — just one point of friction and confusion in the deal which could lead to its collapse.
The latest truce agreement is the first not to involve the United States or the United Nations — a reflection of Moscow’s growing diplomatic influence after a long campaign of Russian air strikes helped Assad recapture the northern city of Aleppo last month.
That victory has greatly strengthened the president’s position as the warring sides prepare for peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana this month.


UN: Threat to Idlib civilians remains high

Kurd demonstrators stage a protest rally in Syria’s western Afrin region bordering Turkey. (AFP)
Updated 26 min 29 sec ago
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UN: Threat to Idlib civilians remains high

  • Egeland: Russia, Turkey ‘still working out deal on demilitarized buffer zone’
  • Russia stressed it would continue operating against fighters it identifies as terrorists

The deal to avoid a Syrian regime offensive on Idlib province is still being worked out by Russia and Turkey, the UN said on Thursday, stressing that the threat to civilians remained high.

“This is not a peace deal. It is an aversion of (a) whole-scale-war deal,” the head of the UN Humanitarian Taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, said in Geneva.

Syrian regime ally Russia and rebel supporter Turkey reached an agreement to create a demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib, Syria’s last opposition bastion, where half of its 3 million residents have been displaced from areas retaken by Syrian forces.

While briefing the task force about the pact on Thursday, Russian and Turkish envoys made clear they “are still working... on the details,” Egeland said.

He expressed hope it was an indication that “the big war was averted” in Idlib, although Russia stressed it would continue operating against fighters it identifies as terrorists.

“I see a great potential for a lot of fighting,” Egeland said. 

“We are concerned for the civilians in these areas, so it is not over.”

The UN has repeatedly warned that a full-scale assault on Idlib could trigger the bloodiest episode of Syria’s seven-year war, which has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions.

Despite the ongoing concerns, Egeland said he was “relieved” for now.

“The outcome here was the least bad of (the) realistic solutions,” he said.

The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has welcomed the Russian-Turkey agreement agreement signed in Sochi, calling it a “step on the road to making a political solution possible.”

Hassan Nasrallah said his group may reduce the number of its fighters in Syria because of an easing of the conflict, particularly after the recent agreement.  

It “will take Syria in the next weeks and months to a new phase,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech to supporters. 

He said the deal’s success will depend whether it’s properly implemented. “We will remain there even after the Idlib accord,” Nasrallah said.

“We will stay until further notice,” he stressed.

On Thursday, Nasrallah said Hezbollah had acquired “precision missiles” despite extensive efforts by Israel to prevent the movement developing this capability.

“It has been done. The resistance now owns precision missiles” as part of its weaponry, Nasrallah said in a televised address.

“Attempts in Syria to block the way toward this (missile) capability” have failed, Nasrallah said.

“If Israel imposes a war on Lebanon, it will face a fate that it never would have expected.”

Israel has fought several conflicts against Hezbollah, the last in 2006.

The Israeli military believes Hezbollah has between 100,000 and 120,000 short-range missiles and rockets, as well as several hundred longer-range missiles.