US-backed Syrian fighters seize parts of Daesh ‘capital’ Raqqa

Smoke rises from buildings following a reported airstrike on an opposition-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on Wedensday. (AFP)
Updated 12 June 2017
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US-backed Syrian fighters seize parts of Daesh ‘capital’ Raqqa

BEIRUT: US-backed Syrian fighters said they had seized a second district of Raqqa on Sunday and launched a renewed assault on a base north of the city, as they pursued an offensive against Daesh.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that broke into Raqqa after announcing the start of a final assault on the city last week said its fighters “liberated the neighborhood of Al-Romaniya on the western front of Raqqa, after two days of continued clashes.”
It was the first time the SDF was reported to have taken a western district of Daesh-held Raqqa, which its fighters are bearing down on from the east, west and north. The SDF previously seized control of the district of Al-Meshleb in the east.
There was less progress though on the northern front of the battle, where the SDF has struggled to capture the Division 17 military base and an adjacent sugar factory, used by Daesh to defend approaches into the city.
SDF fighters were battling on Sunday to dislodge Daesh from the base, with backing from the US-led coalition bombing Daesh, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Blasts could be heard throughout the night because of the exchange of fire between the two sides,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said Daesh had “heavily fortified” the base in anticipation of a ferocious SDF assault on it.
Originally a Syrian army base, Division 17 was seized by Daesh in 2014 as it took control of swathes of the wider Raqqa province.
After its capture by the militants the same year, Raqqa city emerged as a key hub for Daesh’s operations in Syria, neighboring Iraq and beyond.
The SDF — an Arab-Kurdish alliance formed in 2015 — spent seven months tightening the noose on Raqqa city before finally entering it this week.
After seizing Al-Meshleb on Wednesday, SDF forces were using it as a launching pad for new operations, according to the Observatory.
Al-Meshleb is one of the more built-up residential neighborhoods in the city’s east, while most other districts nearby are made up of markets and small shops.
An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under Daesh rule in Raqqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of Syria.
Thousands have fled in recent months and the UN humanitarian office estimates about 160,000 people remain in the city.
Reports of civilian casualties among those still living inside have swelled in recent weeks.
The Observatory said Sunday that coalition airstrikes the previous day killed 24 civilians inside the city, up from an earlier toll of 13 people.
Abdel Rahman said the increased toll brought civilian deaths in coalition raids to a total of 58 since the battle for Raqqa city was launched on June 6.
To back the assault on Raqqa, the US-led coalition has provided the SDF with air cover, special forces advisers, weapons and equipment.
The alliance first began bombing Daesh positions in Iraq in August 2014 and expanded its operations to Syria the following month.
In addition to heavy raids on Raqqa, the coalition also pounded the Daesh-held town of Al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria on Sunday, according to the Observatory.
“Many of IS’s second-tier leaders fled to Al-Mayadeen when the offensive for Raqqa started months ago,” said Abdel Rahman.
More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with demonstrations against President Bashar Assad.
It has since turned into complex, multi-front conflict pitting militants, opposition groups, regime forces and Kurdish fighters against each other.


Yemen’s divisions were never fully healed

Yemen has entered its third year of war between the Iran-backed Houthi militia and the national army, supported by the Saudi-led Arab coalition. (AFP)
Updated 24 May 2018
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Yemen’s divisions were never fully healed

  • 28 years after the north and south merged, the challenges of bringing the country under one govt remain as great
  • It’s unity on paper only, but not in the hearts and minds of people, says Fatima Abo Al-Asrar, a senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation in Washington.

DUBAI: When Yemen’s national army marked the anniversary of north and south becoming one country, it was a reminder of the growing danger of the country once again fragmenting.

On May 22, 1990, the Republic of Yemen was formed when the two existing countries agreed on a unity constitution.

On Tuesday, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who leads the internationally recognized government, which is fighting Houthi militias, said the unification of north and south Yemen remained the most popular situation and one that “reflected the civilization of an ancient people.”

As it stands, the Houthis control the capital Sanaa and the north, while the government, backed by the Saudi-led Arab coalition, controls the south and much of the rest of the country. Twenty-eight years after the north and south merged, the challenges of bringing the country under the control of a single government remain as great.

“When it happened in 1990, Yemen’s unification was nearly universally viewed as a historical achievement,” Adam Baron, co-founder of the Sanaa Center For Strategic Studies, told Arab News. He said current tensions are a result of how the unification was carried out.

“Until they’re dealt with — and until serious dialogue occurs — these fissures are only likely to deepen,” Baron said.

Yemen’s divides were exacerbated by colonialism. Britain had been present in the south from 1874 in agreement with the Ottomans, while the north was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the collapse of the empire in 1918, the north became an independent state and the south became a British colony in 1937.

Following civil wars in the north and the south and weak economies, the governments of the two states agreed to renew discussions about unification.

In 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh of North Yemen and leader of the south Ali Salim Al-Beidh agreed on a unity constitution.

However, conflicts within the coalition resulted in the self-imposed exile of Al-Beidh, who had become vice president of the transitional government, to Aden in 1993. After clashes intensified, civil war broke out in May 1994.

In the aftermath of the war, in October 1994 Saleh was elected by Parliament to a five-year term. He remained in power until he was overthrown by the 2011 uprising that forced his resignation in 2012.

Six years later and Yemen has entered its third year of war between the Iran-backed Houthi militia against the national army and the Popular Resistance supported by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition.

Yemeni political analyst Baraa Shiban said that after 2011 the people aspiring for change and building a new country strongly believed in the outcomes of the National Dialogue, a 10-month consultation process that would form the basis of a new constitution. Many believed a new federal system of government would be the best outcome. 

“The Yemeni people didn’t have the chance to vote for this new vision due to the coup led by the Houthis,” Shiban said.

“The regime that ruled after 1990 failed in meeting the dreams and hopes of the Yemeni people, who struggled for many years to reach unification.”

He added that Hadi’s administration needs to find a new form of governance that meets the demands of the people.

Amid the conflict between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, other battles have erupted with Al-Qaeda and Daesh insurgents, as well as the Southern Transitional Council, who are calling for the south to secede.

Tensions escalated earlier this year when army forces clashed with southern separatist fighters.

Fatima Abo Al-Asrar, senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation think tank in Washington, said there is no indication that the government of Yemen is working to improve relations or solve the southern crisis.

“So far, the government of Yemen has directly clashed with southern leadership that called for secession,” she said. “The government fails to understand the pulse of the street and fails to realize that it is the only culprit standing in the face of prosperity.”

Yemen’s Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher accused southern separatists of attempting a coup in the interim capital of Aden after they took over the government headquarters in January.

At least 15 people were killed, among them three civilians, medical sources in four hospitals in Aden said.

The clashes led Saudi Arabia and the UAE to send envoys in a bid to end the standoff.

The Saudi and Emirati envoys “met with all concerned parties, stressing the need to abide by the cease-fire ... and refocus efforts on the front lines against the Houthis,” the UAE’s official WAM news agency reported.

However, Al-Asrar says that the country is already divided. “There is no one unified Yemen anymore. Northerners find it difficult to step foot in the south. It’s unity on paper only, but not in the hearts and minds of people.”