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.


Israeli restraint urged after killing of Gaza teenager

Updated 22 April 2018
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Israeli restraint urged after killing of Gaza teenager

  • Nikolay Mladenov: “It is outrageous to shoot at children... #Children must be protected from #violence, not exposed to it.”
  • Avigdor Lieberman reiterated that he held leaders of Hamas, which rules Gaza, responsible for the violence and the death of the Palestinian teenager.
GAZA CITY: The death of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy during protests along Gaza’s border with Israel has sparked condemnation and international calls for restraint.
High-ranking Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called on the International Criminal Court to open a “serious judicial inquiry into the crimes committed against the Palestinian people.”
Rescue services and relatives said Mohammed Ayoub was killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday.
The Israeli army claimed that it was opening an investigation into the death of the young Palestinian, who was killed during demonstrations that have brought thousands of Palestinians to the border for four consecutive Fridays.
A spokesperson for the EU has called for a “full investigation” into the circumstances of the death.
“As we once again mourn the loss of lives, the EU calls on the Israel Defense Forces to refrain from using lethal force against unarmed protesters,” a statement said.
“As stated repeatedly, the priority now must be to avoid any further escalation of violence and loss of life,” the spokesperson said.
On Friday night, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov wrote on Twitter: “It is outrageous to shoot at children... #Children must be protected from #violence, not exposed to it.”
The teenager’s father Ibrahim Ayoub said his son “was standing far from the soldiers and not armed.”
“Why are our children killed and Israeli children living a quiet life?“
Three other Palestinians were killed on Friday, bringing to 38 the death toll from Israeli gunfire since the start of “March of Return” protests on March 30.
US envoy for the Middle East Jason Greenblatt called for moderation.
“As we mourn the tragic loss of a young life, we must all commit ourselves to avoid further suffering by responses to this death,” he said.
Israeli forces have responded to demonstrations along its border by firing live ammunition, injuring hundreds in addition to the deaths.
But Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated that he held leaders of Hamas, which rules Gaza, responsible for the violence and the death of the Palestinian teenager.
“Those cowardly leaders who are hiding behind women and children and send them forward as a human shield, so that they can continue to dig tunnels and carry out terrorist actions against the state of Israel,” he wrote on Twitter.
“I will again tell the habitants of Gaza... Do not approach the fence.”
On Sunday, the Israeli military said it had arrested 15 Hamas operatives in a West Bank raid on Saturday night.
The military claimed those captured are suspected of collaborating with a well-known Hamas operative from Gaza to spread its activities to the West Bank.
Meanwhile, more than 100 members of the 700-seat Palestinian National Council (PNC) want to delay a rare session of the Palestinians’ top decision-making body, saying on Sunday they were concerned some factions would be shut out.
The PNC is due to convene in Ramallah on April 30 to discuss US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a policy change that has outraged the Palestinians.
In a letter obtained by Reuters to PNC speaker Saleem Al-Zanoun, 109 legislators, including independents and delegates from Hamas and the mainstream Fatah faction, urged the session’s postponement.
They said that going ahead with the meeting, with only narrow factional representation due to Israeli travel restrictions on delegates from Gaza and outside the Palestinian territories, would deepen internal divisions.
“In order to spare our Palestinian cause imminent dangers and out of our eagerness to achieve unity and end splits and division, we urge you to delay the PNC session,” said the letter.
There was no immediate word from Al-Zanoun whether he would agree to the request, which followed word from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on Thursday that it would boycott the session because it wanted more factions to attend.
In Ramallah, Mohammad Sbeih, the PNC’s secretary, declined to comment directly on the letter but told Reuters there will no delays.