Damascus fighting kills 18 pro-regime fighters as gov’t plans north Homs retake

Syrian government forces advance on the outskirts of Damascus’ southern Al-Qadam neighborhood as they continue their offensive to oust Daesh from Yarmuk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern district of the capital. (AFP)
Updated 24 April 2018

Damascus fighting kills 18 pro-regime fighters as gov’t plans north Homs retake

  • At least 18 pro-Syrian regime combatants have been killed fighting in southern Damascus against Daesh
  • The Syrian government plans to focus on recovering an opposition-held pocket in north Homs

BEIRUT: At least 18 pro-Syrian regime combatants have been killed in 24 hours of fighting in southern Damascus against Daesh, a monitor said Tuesday.
That brought to at least 52 the number of pro-government fighters killed in nearly a week of military operations against Yarmuk and adjacent Daesh-held neighborhoods, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
No confirmation of the casualties was available from Syrian officials, who do not usually disclose losses within army ranks.
The Britain-based Observatory said at least 35 militant fighters were also killed during the same period.
There are an estimated 1,000 Daesh fighters left inside the enclave in the capital’s southern neighborhoods, which include Yarmuk and the adjacent districts of Hajjar Al-Aswad and Qadam.
In Qadam on Tuesday, soldiers could be seen pushing a fresh advance, backed by Syrian government air strikes and artillery fire, during an organized press tour.
Columns of black smoke were snaking up from a monochrome sea of devastated buildings.
The salvos of shelling paused briefly, and the steady crack of machine gun fire took their place.
Barricades sealed off every street in Qadam, which was once a bustling stop on Syria’s train line but whose carriages are now abandoned and left in ruins.
From their perch in Yarmuk — which has a view of the presidential palace in Damascus — militants have fired rockets on the capital’s center.
According to state news agency SANA, five civilians were killed Tuesday when a mortar shell crashed into a market area.
The Observatory said the fighting on the ground was fierce, as Daesh attempted a desperate defense of one of its very last bastions in the country.
The Syrian government plans to recover an opposition-held pocket north of Homs city soon after it completes surrender deals with armed groups around the capital Damascus, a Syrian government minister said on Tuesday.
In recent days rebels in two other enclaves northeast of Damascus, Dumair and east Qalamoun, surrendered and agreed to be transferred by bus to opposition territory in northern Syria.
Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister responsible for national reconciliation, told Reuters in an interview the government would focus on recovering an opposition-held pocket north of the city of Homs after securing the areas around Damascus.
“The issue will not be a long time coming after the final resolution in Qalamoun,” Haidar said.
Haidar said the government had for a while been dropping leaflets and communicating with rebels in the opposition-held towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla in northern Homs province.
“Today there is serious work in that area,” he said.
“Armed groups wait to feel the seriousness and determination of the state’s military action before they approach serious discussion of a reconciliation agreement.”
Haidar said such reconciliation deals are also on offer to rebels in southern Syria, where a de-escalation zone was agreed by the United States and Russia last year.
“The options are open: full reconciliation or military action where necessary.”
But he indicated that retaking areas around Damascus and Homs — the last rebel areas entirely besieged by the government — were the immediate priorities.
After the crumbling of its so-called “caliphate” including its main urban bastions in Syria’s north and east, Daesh is estimated to hold five percent of the country’s territory.
Daesh entrenched itself in large parts of Yarmuk in 2015 and has managed to stay on since then.
The Syrian army’s focus on Yarmuk, once the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, comes as part of its campaign to secure the capital.
It recently retook the opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta, then reached a string of deals last week for the transfer to northern Syria of rebels who had been allowed to remain in villages near Damascus as part of 2016 reconciliation agreements.
A successful operation in Yarmuk, which is anticipated, would seal the regime’s reconquest of the capital, a major prize for a resurgent President Bashar Assad.
More than 350,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad broke out in 2011 and millions have been displaced.

‘Homegrown Islam project’ could lead to new Ankara-Berlin tensions

Updated 26 March 2019

‘Homegrown Islam project’ could lead to new Ankara-Berlin tensions

  • Markus Kerber: “What we need now is an Islam for German Muslims that belongs to Germany”
  • Germany’s new plan aims to counter foreign influence on the Muslim community

ANKARA: Germany has reportedly initiated a campaign to push German Muslims to develop a new interpretation of Islam, the Financial Times reported on Monday. 

“What we need now is an Islam for German Muslims that belongs to Germany,” Markus Kerber, the government representative responsible for relations with the Muslim community under the German Interior Ministry, reportedly told the Financial Times.

The move of Europe’s economic powerhouse is expected to influence Turkey’s state-led diaspora engagement with German-Turks as well as its state-level relations with Germany. But experts do not anticipate relations to further deteriorate as they say they are already as bad as they can get. 

Turks, mostly from the conservative section of society, have been emigrating to Germany since the early 1960s; originally as guest workers during the economic boom. They have since become the largest Muslim community in the country. 

Germany’s new plan aims to counter foreign influence on the Muslim community and provide homegrown training to all imams preaching in Germany. 

The largest Islamic organization in Germany is the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, which is affiliated to Turkey’s state directorate for religious affairs. Turkey is sending imams to Germany who are paid by the Turkish government and who are preaching in Turkish in 900 mosques funded by Ankara.

According to Yoruk Halil, a halal butcher living in Frankfurt, Germany’s new move will be beneficial for the Turkish Muslim community. 

“Those imams coming from Turkey do not benefit Turkish youth in Germany because these young people have been raised with a totally different culture and they mostly speak German, so they cannot establish a healthy dialogue with those imams,” Halil told Arab News. “In order to reach out to the Muslim community, including Turks, there is a need to use homegrown imams. 

My 15-year-old son has been going to the mosque for five years and he even told me that he has better communication with imams being trained and educated in Germany,” he said. 

There is also a continuing debate over requiring Muslims in Germany to pay a worship tax.

Turkey is against any “Germanification” of Islam and considers any redefinition of Islam for Germany against the universality of the religion. 

Germany’s move intends to further integrate Muslims’ daily routines into German society, to boost the loyalty of the 3 million members of the German-Turkish community.  It is therefore considered a move for breaking the Turkish community’s ties with their national and religious identity as well as their traditions.

Last year, German police recorded some 578 hate crimes against Muslims between January and September, while about half of Germans think that Islam is incompatible with the values of their nation, according to recent research by pollster YouGov.

“Turkey has been developing diaspora politics since the mid-2000s, and Turks in Germany have been put at the center of it,” Murat Onsoy, an expert in Turkey-Germany relations at Hacettepe University in Ankara, told Arab News. 

However, for Onsoy, the presence of imams in Germany who have been appointed by Turkey is a socialization factor for the Turkish diaspora — who show relatively low rates of crime — and to maintain their links with their home country. 

“If Germany rejects Turkish funding to these mosques, they will face serious difficulties in covering their expenses,” he said. 

Germany has a community of about 4.5 million Muslims worshipping at about 2,400 mosques, and the number is expected to rise with the refugee influx from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Sy The German federal constitution, called Basic Law, gives autonomy to Muslim communities to receive funding and religious officials from abroad to operate mosques in Germany. 

“It is unlikely that this article of the constitution would be easily amended. Various provinces would react to such a move, resulting in widespread protests. The Turkish government would raise the issue at the intergovernmental Islamic organizations, and the German government would be obliged take a step back,” Onsoy said. 

He, however, draws attention to the timing of the debate. 

“It coincides with the upcoming local elections in Turkey this Sunday, and in the past we witnessed that such potential crises with Western countries have been used by the ruling government to consolidate its voters through engaging in international polemics and assuming the role of the defender of external Turks and ‘Islam’ worldwide,” he said. 

Ayhan Kaya, professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, said that the move in Germany to bring a homegrown reading to Islam had already been on the table since Angela Merkel’s initiative in 2006. 

“Although it contradicts with the Sunni Islam rhetoric, what Germany did is a counter-move against the lobbying strategies of Muslim countries such as Turkey, Morocco or Algeria within German territories,” he told Arab News. 

Kaya also noted that in the past Germany and Turkey developed joint projects to train imams who would be appointed in Germany by providing them with linguistic and cultural-integration skills. 

“This latest move is a dialectic result of the political maneuvers on the diasporas by countries who are sending and receiving migration,” he said.