Strikes continue to batter Syria’s Ghouta as death toll hits 800

Syrian rescuers work at site of Syrian government bombardments in Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 22, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 06 March 2018
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Strikes continue to batter Syria’s Ghouta as death toll hits 800

DOUMA, Syria: Heavy air strikes and clashes shook the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, as France and Britain called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting on the escalating violence.
Eight hundred civilians — including at least 177 children — have been killed since Russia-backed regime forces launched an assault on the besieged enclave outside Damascus on February 18, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in its latest death toll.
Russia suffered its own heavy losses on Tuesday as the defense ministry said a Russian transport plane crashlanded at an air base in western Syria, killing all 32 people on board.
Bombardment and clashes in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus have persisted despite a month-long cease-fire demanded by the Security Council more than a week ago.
At least 19 civilians were killed on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory, a Britain-based monitor.
The relentless attacks prompted France and Britain to request an emergency meeting of the top UN body, expected to gather on Wednesday, to discuss the cease-fire’s failure to take hold.
Government troops have advanced rapidly across farmland in Eastern Ghouta in the past week and had wrested control of 40 percent of the enclave as of early Tuesday.
In the enclave’s main town of Douma, air strikes have reduced homes to piles of rubble on both sides of the road, an AFP correspondent reported.
Exhausted civil defense workers on Tuesday took advantage of a few hours of calm to dislodge the body of a resident, killed in bombardment several days ago, from a collapsed building.
Other civilians used the lull in air strikes to venture out from cellars to gather a few necessities from what was left of their homes.
Some gathered the pieces of furniture smashed in the raids to use as fuel or sell to their neighbors.
An AFP reporter in Hammuriyeh said air strikes were continuing to pummel the town on Tuesday.
The raids came after around 18 people suffered breathing difficulties in the town following a strike there late Monday, the Observatory reported.
It had no firm word on the cause.
Eastern Ghouta’s around 400,000 residents have lived under government siege since 2013, facing severe shortages of food and medicines even before the latest offensive began.
Forty-six aid trucks entered Eastern Ghouta on Monday for the first time since the offensive started, but had to cut short their deliveries and leave due to heavy bombardment.
“The people we’ve met here have been through unimaginable things. They looked exhausted,” Pawel Krzysiek of the International Committee of the Red Cross said afterwards.
“And the aid we’ve delivered today is by no means enough,” he said on Twitter, ahead of another aid delivery planned for Thursday.
The UN Human Rights Council on Monday ordered investigators to examine the latest violence in the enclave.
It condemned “the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardments against civilians, and the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta.”
Eastern Ghouta is the last opposition bastion on the Syrian capital’s doorsteps, and the regime is keen to retake it to secure Damascus.
Rebels there have fired waves of rockets and mortars onto eastern Damascus neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, three civilians were killed and eight wounded in mortar fire on the neighborhood of Jarmana, according to state news agency SANA.
Regime ally Russia last week announced a five-hour daily “humanitarian pause” in the region, during which it said it would guarantee safe passage to civilians wishing to flee the enclave.
No Syrian civilians are known to have used the “humanitarian corridor.”
On Tuesday, Russia announced that the exit route had been expanded to allow rebels, not just civilians, to leave the enclave.
Russia’s air force intervened in Syria in 2015 on behalf of President Bashar Assad, helping his troops retake key cities across the country.
Moscow’s defense ministry said on Tuesday that a Russian transport plane crashed on landing at the Hmeimim air base, killing its 26 passengers and six crew members.
“The reason for the crash according to preliminary information could have been a technical fault,” the ministry said, adding that the plane had not come under fire according to a report from the ground.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Over the years, numerous rounds of UN-backed Syria peace talks have failed to stem the fighting.
In the latest attempt to end the seven-year war, the foreign ministers of regime allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey are to meet next week in Astana.


Turkey may launch new offensive against US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria

Updated 22 September 2018
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Turkey may launch new offensive against US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria

  • The operation is expected to begin from Turkey’s southeastern border town of Suruc
  • Turkey maintains its regional alliance with Russia as leverage against US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia

ANKARA: Turkey is gearing up for a military offensive on Tal Abyad in Syria, according to some news reports, with video footage showing the Turkish military deploying troops near its border town Akcakale. 

Experts interviewed by Arab News noted that the military deployment to the Syrian border with many tanks and howitzers was aimed at putting additional pressure on the US to accelerate the implementation of a roadmap endorsed by Turkey and the US in June for the northern Syrian city of Manbij.

A recent agreement between Ankara and Moscow that forestalled a full-scale Syrian regime offensive against the Syrian province of Idlib also triggered Turkey’s ambitious military activities along the border. 

Turkey maintains its regional alliance with Russia as leverage against US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, seen as a domestic security threat to Turkey due to their links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades. 

And the Manbij roadmap between Turkey and the US consists of the withdrawal of the YPG from the city to stabilize the region.

Tal Abyad, an Arab-majority town located to the north of Raqqa city and near the Turkish border, was captured from Daesh in 2015 by the YPG in an offensive supported by US-led airstrikes. The YPG remains a reliable American partner in Syria. 

A potential operation in Tal Abyad, if it happens, would likely mark a new phase in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria by directly clashing with the YPG on the ground. 

Mete Sohtaoglu, an analyst on Syrian politics, expects Turkey’s operation in Tal Abyad to start by March 2019. 

“Turkey’s main objective is to wipe out all YPG presence in the east of the Euphrates. The details of the operation, if it occurs, will become clear following an upcoming meeting between Turkish and American presidents,” he told Arab News. 

“The operation is expected to begin from Turkey’s southeastern border town of Suruc, then will specifically include the zone between Tal Abyad and Kobani cantons,” he said. 

Although not officially confirmed, Trump and Erdogan are likely to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s 73rd session, which will begin on Sept. 25. 

According to Sohtaoglu, the prime condition for the US to address Ankara’s concerns and withdraw its support for the YPG would be a change of policy by Turkey about Iran. 

Ankara recently gave the green light for military cooperation with Washington in Syria. Since June 18, US and Turkish troops have been conducting “coordinated independent patrols” to the north of Manbij as part of the roadmap. 

In a press conference on Friday, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced that Turkey would soon start joint training and patrols with the US in the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Manbij, but said Washington’s continuous arms support of the YPG was unacceptable.

The US State Department omitted the YPG and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, which was released on Wednesday.

However, some experts do not expect any decrease of US support to its local partner YPG, while mobilizing the forces alongside the border is a tactical move. 

“I don’t expect an imminent and direct military operation to Tal Abyad. I think the recent military reinforcement intends to put pressure on the US to quickly operationalize the joint roadmap on Manbij, another Kurdish-held province,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at the Ankara-based think-tank ORSAM, told Arab News. 

Orhan thinks that Turkey’s tactical move would change the local balance in Tal Abyad. 

“It would create a sense that the Turkish army wants to enter the area and would incite some rebels. The removal of YPG from this province would undermine the terror group’s aim to create an integrated zone in this region because it will break the geographical continuity between the cantons,” he said. 

Further increasing its geographical importance, Tal Abyad is located on an intermediate point between the major cantons of Kobani and Qamishli. 

Orhan said that Turkey already had the support of Arab tribes that took refuge in Turkey from Tal Abyad, and Ankara’s ability to rally this support in an Arab-majority town would force the US to reconsider its alliance with the YPG. 

“In the past, the Arab tribes that took shelter in Turkey often expressed their willingness to take part in an Turkish operation to Tal Abyad if Ankara supports them,” he said. 

Last year in March, Turkey convened a meeting of about 50 Sunni Arab tribal leaders in the Turkish southeastern province of Sanliurfa that lies to the north of Tal Abyad, and their position against the YPG was put on the table.