After Daesh collapse, Syria government faces US-backed Kurds

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters are seen in Raqqa, Syria, on October 16, 2017. (REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo)
Updated 10 November 2017
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After Daesh collapse, Syria government faces US-backed Kurds

BEIRUT: With the fall of the Daesh group’s last significant stronghold in Syria, Iranian and Russian-backed Syrian troops now turn to face off with their main rival, the US-backed forces holding large oil fields and strategic territory in the country’s north and east.
The complicated map puts US and Iranian forces at close proximity, just across the Euphrates River from each other, amid multiple hotspots that could turn violent, particularly in the absence of a clear American policy.
There are already signs.
Iran threatened last week that Syrian troops will advance toward Raqqa, the former Daesh capital, which fell to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in October, raising the potential for a clash there. The Kurdish-led SDF also controls some of Syria’s largest oil fields, in the oil-rich eastern Deir Ezzor province, an essential resource that the Syrian government also says it will take back.
The question now is whether the United States is willing to confront the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian-backed militiamen. The Kurds are seeking a clear American commitment to help them defend their gains. American officials have said little of their plans and objectives in Syria beyond general statements about continuing to deny Daesh safe havens and continuing to train and equip allies.
Washington seems to be hoping to negotiate a deal for Syria that would protect the Kurds’ ambitions for autonomy while limiting Iran’s ambitions for a presence in Syria. Four US officials said Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin could announce a Russian-US deal on how they hope to Syria’s war after Daesh’s defeat if they meet Friday at a conference in Vietnam. However, prospect of such a meeting uncertain, it was not clear if such a deal had been reached.
But Assad underlined that his government plans to regain all of Syria and will now fight against plans to “partition” Syria, a reference to Kurdish aspirations for a recognized autonomous zone in the north.
Government victories “have foiled all partition plans and the goals of terrorism and the countries sponsoring it,” Assad said during a meeting this week with Ali Akbar Velayati, the adviser of Iran’s supreme leader.
With its collapse in Boukamal on Thursday, the Daesh group has no major territory left in Syria or Iraq. Its militants are believed to have pulled back into the desert, east and west of the Euphrates River. The group has a small presence near the capital, Damascus. Late Thursday, the extremist group carried out a counteroffensive in Boukamal, regaining control of more than 40 percent of the border town.
The Euphrates now stands as the dividing line between Syrian government troops and the SDF in much of Deir Ezzor province.
Government forces and their allies, including Iranian troops and fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, control the western bank. They hold the provincial capital and several small oil fields.
The Kurdish-led force, along with American troops advising them, is on the eastern bank. They hold two of Syria’s largest oil fields, nearly a dozen smaller ones, one of the largest gas fields and large parts of the border with Iraq. They say they are determined to keep the government from crossing the river.
The coalition had said for weeks that the SDF was pushing toward Boukamal. With Assad’s forces taking the town, the coalition said in a statement to the AP on Friday that the SDF is now moving on Baghuz, a village also on the border near Boukamal but on the eastern bank of the Euphrates.
Iran’s Velayati said the US presence aims to divide Syria. “They have not and will not succeed in Iraq and they will also not succeed in Syria,” he said during a visit to Lebanon last weekend. “We will soon see the Syrian government and popular forces in Syria east of the Euphrates and they will liberate the city of Raqqa.”
The US coalition declined to comment on Velayati’s remarks, saying “it would not be appropriate to comment on speculation or rumor by any third party.”
Washington has been wary of Iran’s increasing influence in the area and its attempts to establish a land corridor from Iran across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged this week that allies have pressed for a clearer US policy in Syria. The priority was to get the UN-sponsored peace talks back on track, he said, offering few details.
“We’re trying to get this into the diplomatic mode so we can get things sorted out ... and make certain (that) minorities — whoever they are — are not just subject to more of what we’ve seen” under Assad, he said, apparently referring to ensuring some sort of accommodation to Kurdish ambitions.
The talks, scheduled for Nov. 28, have already been challenged by Russia, which seeks a bigger role. Moscow called for intra-Syrian talks to chart a political process and invited the dominant Kurdish party that forms the backbone of the SDF, the first such international invitation. A date for the Russia talks has not been set.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, predicted the Syrian government will use military pressure to reach a negotiated solution with the Kurds amid lack of evidence that the US has any “commitment to engineering political change in Syria or indeed has a Syria policy at all.” In an article last week in the Al-Hayat newspaper, Sayigh said Russia is the likely arbiter between Kurds and the government.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior politician with the political arm of the SDF, said indirect talks with the government have taken place but there are no signs of a change in their position.
“A clear position from the coalition can prevent confrontation,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led SDF faces the complications of trying to run Arab-dominated areas. With US-backing, the force sought to allay any Arab residents’ fears of Kurdish domination by forming joint local councils and electing Arab and Kurdish officials.
But this week, the SDF-held town of Manbij saw protests by Arab residents against compulsory military conscription imposed by the SDF. Hundreds were briefly detained, according to Mohammed Khaled, with activist-operated Aleppo 24.
Ahmed described the protests as “fabricated” by the government and Turkey, which sees Kurdish aspirations as a threat.
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Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.


Egypt finalizing details of long-term Hamas-Israel truce

Updated 16 August 2018
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Egypt finalizing details of long-term Hamas-Israel truce

  • Cairo has brokered an interim truce that has allowed commercial goods into Gaza ahead of the Muslim Eid Al-Adha
  • “We are putting the final touches to the terms of the truce that will be signed by all sides..." the source said

CAIRO: Egypt is finalizing details of a long-term truce deal between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, an Egyptian security source said on Thursday, amid easing tensions on the border of the enclave where some two million Palestinians live.
Cairo has brokered an interim truce that has allowed commercial goods into Gaza ahead of the Muslim Eid Al-Adha feast which starts next week.
“We are putting the final touches to the terms of the truce that will be signed by all sides, and we expect to announce the terms next week if Fatah helps us to do so,” the source said, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s mainstream party which dominates the occupied West Bank.
Officials from Fatah have not joined those of Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, and other Palestinian factions for the talks in Cairo on the long-term truce.
But Fatah’s backing is crucial for any deal as the party retains a large presence in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and has overall control in areas under Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.
“The period of calm will be for one year, during which contacts will be held to extend it for another four years,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A long-term truce could pave the way for talks on other issues, including the easing of a blockade that has crippled Gaza’s economy and allowing a possible swap of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.
The source said Egyptian intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, was expected to meet Abbas in Ramallah after similar talks in Israel, and a deal could be announced by next week. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Kamel had met with Netanyahu in Israel this week, but gave no details.
A Palestinian source in Ramallah said Kamel has left without seeing Abbas, who had been preoccupied with a Palestinian leadership conference. But the source said Abbas had informed Egypt that Fatah representatives would join the Cairo talks later this week or next week.
Apart from the opening of its Kerem Shalom commercial crossing into Gaza, Israel also expanded the enclave’s fishing zone, in waters under Israeli naval blockade, from three to nine nautical miles off the southern coast and to six nautical miles in the north, according to the head of Gaza’s fishermen’s union.
The Egyptian security source said the extended truce would also include opening a sea lane from Gaza to Cyprus under Israeli supervision.
A Palestinian official in Gaza familiar with the talks said Palestinian factions were demanding a “total lifting of the blockade on Gaza, opening all crossings with Israel and Egypt and a water corridor.”
Israel says its blockade is a self-defense measure against Hamas, a group that has called for its destruction.
Israel’s security cabinet, a forum of senior ministers headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, discussed the Gaza situation on Wednesday and an Israeli “diplomatic official” said Hamas would have to prove its commitment to the truce.
As well as wanting calm along the border, Israel has said Hamas must return the remains of two soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war and release two civilians whose fate is unknown. It says they are being held by Hamas in Gaza.
“That’s the only way,” Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said on Thursday when asked if a broad arrangement depended on the return of the soldiers’ bodies.
“Nothing will be done to enable (Gaza’s) significant rehabilitation and the improvement of infrastructure and ports and other such fantasies, unless they release the bodies and the two Israeli captives,” he told Israel radio.
The Egyptian security source said the long-term truce would also envisage Israel freeing hundreds of detained Palestinians in a prisoner swap.
However, the Palestinian official denied any talks were taking place on a swap, saying Hamas opposed mixing the issues.
Egypt has brokered a Palestinian reconciliation agreement that provides for Hamas to cede control of Gaza to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. A dispute over power-sharing has hindered implementation of the deal, but the Egyptian source said Cairo was still seeking progress on the issue.