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.


UN Palestinian schools to open on time despite US funding freeze

Updated 1 min 12 sec ago
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UN Palestinian schools to open on time despite US funding freeze

  • There had been warnings from UN chief Antonio Guterres and others that the schools might not be able to open due to funding shortages
  • Last month, UNRWA announced it was cutting more than 250 jobs in the Palestinian territories due to the funding crisis
JERUSALEM: Hundreds of UN-run schools for Palestinian refugees will open on time after fresh funding temporarily staved off a financial crisis triggered by a US contributions freeze, the United Nations said on Thursday.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said all 711 schools it runs for 526,000 pupils in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria would open for the coming school year.
There had been warnings from UN chief Antonio Guterres and others that the schools might not be able to open due to funding shortages provoked by US President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold aid to the Palestinians.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) said it had mobilized an additional $238 million since the start of the year, but added that it currently only had enough cash to keep its services operating through September.
“We need a further $217 million to ensure that our schools not only open but can be run until the end of the year,” the agency said in a statement.
The schools are due to open over a staggered time period between August 29 and September 2.
UNRWA has faced a $300 million freeze in funding from the United States as Trump demands changes to the agency and seeks to pressure the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
Other countries have since provided additional contributions but UNRWA says it is not enough.
The agency provides services to more than three million Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East and employs more than 20,000 people, the vast majority Palestinians.
Last month, UNRWA announced it was cutting more than 250 jobs in the Palestinian territories due to the funding crisis.
UNRWA was set up after the 1948 war that accompanied the creation of Israel, during which more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.
Israel argues the agency is biased against it and perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
UN officials and others say that the agency provides vital services to the vulnerable communities under its mandate.