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.


Killings, abductions feed frustration in Idlib

Residents are falling victim to infighting between rival groups in Idlib. (FIle/AFP)
Updated 22 August 2018
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Killings, abductions feed frustration in Idlib

  • Activists and analysts blame most of the violence on two rival umbrella groups, also attributing some to the Daesh group and alleged regime collaborators
  • In June, doctors and pharmacists in Idlib city announced a three-day strike to protest against “chaos and a lack of security,” including the kidnapping of doctors for ransom

BEIRUT: Targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom have for months rattled Syria’s Idlib province, with angry residents blaming dominant opposition and terrorist forces for the chaos.
Even as the regime says it aims to retake the northwestern province on Turkey’s border, its inhabitants are falling victim to infighting between the rival groups controlling most of it.
Car bombings, roadside explosives and gunfire have targeted and killed more than 200 fighters, but have also cost the lives of dozens of civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
These mostly unclaimed killings, as well as increasingly frequent abductions, have left inhabitants in constant fear of being caught up in the violence.
“Every time I want to take my car somewhere, I inspect it thoroughly... to make sure there’s no explosive device planted in it,” said a media activist in southern Idlib.
“Whenever I drive by a dustbin, I accelerate, afraid it’s going to blow up,” he said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
At the mosque on Fridays, he sits at the front of the congregation, as far away as possible from the entrance, in case a car or motorbike blows up outside.
Since April, 270 people — including 55 civilians — have been killed in assassinations of rebels and commanders from all sides in Idlib, and adjacent parts of Hama and Aleppo provinces, the Britain-based Observatory says.
Activists and analysts blame most of the violence on two rival umbrella groups, also attributing some to the Daesh group and alleged regime collaborators.
The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance, which is led by terrorists from Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, controls more than 60 percent of Idlib. Part of the rest is held by the National Liberation Front, a rival umbrella group backed by Turkey, while Daesh also has sleeper cells in the area.
The regime holds the southeastern tip of the province that is home to some 2.5 million people — more than half displaced by Syria’s seven-year war or bussed into Idlib under surrender deals.
As the rampant insecurity in opposition areas reaches all walks of life, residents have grown increasingly angry.
The media activist from southern Idlib said he mostly blamed the dominant force of HTS for the chaos.
“As the most powerful force on the ground, it is responsible for guaranteeing security,” the activist said.
Medical staff in the HTS-held provincial capital have also had enough.
In June, doctors and pharmacists in Idlib city announced a three-day strike to protest against “chaos and a lack of security,” including the kidnapping of doctors for ransom.
In one of the latest incidents, on Aug. 7, masked men abducted Khalil Agha, a hospital director in the southwest of the province, said district spokesman Mahmud Al-Sheikh.
He was only released a week later after payment of a $100,000 ransom, Sheikh said.
A second activist said that, in the street, residents changed their route if they saw men with scarves wrapped around their faces, fearing an attack.
In recent weeks, HTS as well as other combatants have arrested not only alleged Daesh members, but also dozens of people accused of collusion with the regime.
Rebels fear loyalists could help broker a surrender deal, but HTS official Khaled Al-Ali also accused regime forces of helping to foment instability.
President Bashar Assad on July 26 said regaining control of Idlib was a priority. But analysts say any offensive is likely to be limited to Idlib’s peripheries, to allow Turkey and regime ally Russia to eke out a deal for the rest of the province.
A report for the Turkey-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies said the chaos was due to “competition between a flurry of local forces,” as well as IS and regime sleeper cells.
The instability was affecting the popularity of all rebels, the report’s author Nawar Oliver told AFP, especially HTS.
“Many areas in Idlib hate HTS and are ready to revolt against them at any time,” said the analyst.
Popular anger “could help the regime if it tried to take back the province,” Oliver said.
But discontent over the violence could also “make civilians more favorable to an alternative” put forward by Ankara and Moscow, he said.