Syrian army bombards Yarmouk camp, war monitor says

Smoke rises from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus. Air strikes and shelling hit the Palestinian refugee camp and Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad area, part of a small enclave divided between warring militants and other rebels south of the capital. (Reuters)
Updated 20 April 2018
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Syrian army bombards Yarmouk camp, war monitor says

  • Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma
  • Conditions in the opposition-held pocket of northern Syria, where the displaced will go, are poor

BEIRUT: The Syrian army bombarded militants in the last area outside government control near Damascus overnight, as President Bashar Assad accelerated his push to retake remaining enclaves.
US, British and French air strikes on Saturday to punish Assad for suspected use of chemical weapons have done nothing to slow the advance of his forces, now in their strongest position since the early months of the seven-year-old war.
Air strikes and shelling hit the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad area, part of a small enclave divided between warring militants and other rebels south of the capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.
Assad is accelerating his campaign to retake the remaining enclaves his forces encircle around Syria, which would leave rebels with only their two major strongholds in the northwest and southwest.
Western countries launched their first coordinated action against Assad on Saturday to punish him for a suspected gas attack they say killed scores of people during an advance that captured the town of Ghouta near the capital.
But the single volley of air strikes, hitting three targets far from any frontline, had no effect on the wider war which has killed 500,000 people and made more than half of Syrians homeless.
International inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who arrived in Damascus nearly a week ago were still waiting early on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack.
Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma. The Western countries say the Syrian government, which now controls the town, is keeping the inspectors out and may be tampering with evidence, both accusations Damascus and Moscow deny.
Rebels on Thursday began pulling out of Dumayr, an enclave northeast of Damascus, under a surrender deal with the government. Insurgents in another enclave nearby — Eastern Qalamoun — said they had also agreed to withdraw.
Thousands of civilians, including the fighters’ families, are expected to leave with them for northern Syria before the areas come back under Assad’s rule under deals similar to others carried out across the country as Syrian forces advance.
The UN has voiced concern that such “evacuations” involve the displacement of civilians under threat of reprisals or forced conscription, though the government denies that.
“The UN expects further displacements in the near future to northern Syria from other locations controlled by non-state armed groups where negotiations reportedly are happening,” the world body said in a humanitarian note.
Conditions in the opposition-held pocket of northern Syria where the displaced will go are poor.
After the army’s recovery of eastern Ghouta this month in a ferocious battle that began in February, the surrender Dumayr and Qalamoun would leave only the pocket in south Damascus outside government control in the area around the capital.
Yarmouk was the biggest camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria before the war. Although most residents have fled, up to 12,000 remain there and in the neighboring areas under militant or rebel control, said the UN agency that helps them.


US believes Daesh likely responsible for Manbij blast

Updated 19 min 45 sec ago
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US believes Daesh likely responsible for Manbij blast

  • US government sources say the Pentagon and other national agencies are investigating the bombing
  • This is one of the deadliest attacks on US forces in Syria since their deployment in 2015

WASHINGTON: The US government believes the Daesh militant group is likely responsible for Wednesday’s attack in northern Syria that killed four Americans, although it has not reached a firm conclusion, two US government sources said on Thursday.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon and other US agencies were investigating who carried out the attack in Manbij, Syria.
Officials studying the incident are not dismissing Daesh’s claim of responsibility for the blast, which killed two US troops and two civilians working for the US military, and regard it as plausible if not likely, one of the sources said.
The attack occurred nearly a month after President Donald Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision on Dec. 19 to withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria, declaring Daesh had been defeated there.
The Manbij attack appeared to be the deadliest on US forces in Syria since they deployed on the ground there in 2015 and it took place in a town controlled by a militia allied to US-backed Kurdish forces.
If Daesh carried out the attack, that would undercut assertions, including by US Vice President Mike Pence several hours after the blast on Wednesday, that the militant group has been defeated.
Experts do not believe Daesh has been beaten despite its having lost almost all of the territory it held in 2014 and 2015 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq and declaring a “caliphate.”
While the group’s footprint has shrunk, experts believe it is far from a spent force and can still conduct guerilla-style attacks. A Daesh statement on Wednesday said a Syrian suicide bomber had detonated his explosive vest in Manbij.
Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement was one of the reasons his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned. It stunned allies and raised fears of a long-threatened Turkish military offensive against US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
How and when US forces leave has deepened uncertainty in northern Syria, with Turkey and Syrian President Bashar Assad ready to fill the vacuum.
The US-backed YPG militia that is allied to the fighters holding Manbij last month invited Assad into the area around the town to forestall a potential Turkish assault. Syrian army troops entered the area soon after.
The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces vowed on Thursday to ramp up attacks on Daesh remnants.