25,000 FSA fighters ‘support Turkish force in Syria’

Turkish troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2018
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25,000 FSA fighters ‘support Turkish force in Syria’

AMMAN: Around 25,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters are joining the Turkish military operation in northern Syria with the goal of recapturing Arab towns and villages seized by the YPG Kurdish militia almost two years ago, an opposition commander said on Sunday.
Major Yasser Abdul Rahim, who is also the commander of Failaq Al-Sham, a main FSA opposition group in the operations room of the campaign, said the fighters did not seek to enter the mainly Kurdish city of Afrin but encircle it and expel the YPG (people’s protection units).
“We have no interest in entering the city only the military targets inside the city and the villages around it. We aim to encircle the city and ensure the militias are evicted. We won’t fight in the city as we have no problem with civilians,” he said.
A leading goal of the military operation was to recapture Tel Rifaat, a town southeast of Afrin, and a string of Arab villages the YPG captured from rebels in February 2016, driving out tens of thousands of inhabitants, Abdul Rahim said.
“The task of the Free Syrian Army is first to regain 16 Arab towns and villages occupied by the foreign militias (YPG) with the help of the Russian air force,” Abdul Rahim told Reuters in a phone interview from inside Syria.
The fighting forced at least 150,000 residents of these villages to flee to Azaz. They are sheltering in camps at the Turkish border and rebels say they have not been allowed to go back to their homes.
The mainly Arab fighters accuse the Syrian Kurdish militia of forcibly displacing Arabs from the villages in what they say is a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. The YPG denies these allegations.
Tel Rifaat and nearby areas including the Menigh air base fell to the YPG as the rebels were trying to fend off a major assault by Syrian regime forces backed by the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias.
It was a prelude to the rebels’ defeat in eastern Aleppo — their biggest single setback of the civil war.
Turkish troops have targeted these YPG-held Arab villages in artillery and aerial attacks on the US-backed Kurdish militia it aims to sweep from its border, the fighters said.
The capture of Tel Rifaat and the villages would allow the rebels to create a territorial link from a Turkish protected northern border strip stretching from Azaz and Jarablus on the western banks of the Euphrates to mainly rebel-held Idlib province further southwest.
Currently tens of thousands of civilians living in this de facto Turkish-backed buffer zone have to pass through Kurdish YPG-controlled border crossings, where residents and traders say they pay hefty taxes to move further south to Idlib province, the only province that is nearly fully under opposition control.
The fighters taking part in the assault are mainly the same factions that took part in the Turkey-backed operation launched in 2016 to drive Daesh from the border and to prevent further expansion of YPG influence.
Abdul Rahim, an army defector, also said reinforcements and weapons were moving to the YPG from the mainly-Arab populated city of Manbij, south of rebel controlled Jarablus and west of the Euphrates, across government controlled territory. “Their convoys are moving from Manbij to Afrin ...they are passing through regime territory,” Abdul Rahim said.
Diplomats say Syria’s government has tolerated the Kurdish militia because it focused its firepower on fighting the insurgency against President Bashar Assad’s rule. Damascus denies any support for the YPG.


Iran faces ‘strongest sanctions in history’

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Updated 22 May 2018
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Iran faces ‘strongest sanctions in history’

  • US Secretary of State laid out Trump administration’s strategy for constraining Iran’s nuclear program
  • US threatens "strongest sanctions in history" if Iranian government does not change course

WASHINGTON: The US told Iran on Monday to drop its nuclear ambitions and pull out of the Syrian civil war in a list of demands that marked a new hard-line against Tehran and prompted an Iranian official to warn that Washington seeks regime change.

Weeks after US President Donald Trump pulled out of an international nuclear deal with Iran, his administration threatened to impose “the strongest sanctions in history,” setting Washington and Tehran on a deeper course of confrontation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded sweeping changes that would force Iran effectively to reverse years of its foreign policies.

“The sting of sanctions will only grow more painful if the regime does not change course from the unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen for itself and the people of Iran,” Pompeo said in his first major speech since becoming secretary of state.

“These will be the strongest sanctions in history by the time we are done,” he added.

Pompeo took aim at Iran’s policy of expanding its influence in the Middle East through support for proxy armed groups in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

He warned that the US would “crush” Iranian operatives and allies abroad and told Tehran to pull out forces under its command from the Syrian civil war where they back President Bashar Assad.

Iran is unlikely to accede to the US demands. Tension between the two countries has grown notably since Trump this month withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement aimed at preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Pompeo warned that if Iran fully resumed its nuclear program Washington would be ready to respond and said the administration would hold companies doing prohibited business in Iran to account.

“Our demands on Iran are not unreasonable: Give up your program,” Pompeo said, “Should they choose to go back, should they begin to enrich, we are fully prepared to respond to that as well,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Pompeo said if Iran made major changes, the US was prepared to ease sanctions, re-establish full diplomatic and commercial relations and support the country’s re-integration into the international economic system.

The speech did not explicitly call for regime change but Pompeo repeatedly urged the Iranian people not to put up with their leaders, specifically naming President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“At the end of the day the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership. If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful, if they choose not to do so we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes I set forward,” said Pompeo.