Despite deal, Syrian forces fighting to finish rebels

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Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad are deployed at al-Qadam area near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria, on April 29, 2018. (REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki/File Photo)
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The removal of Daesh from the area returns control of Damascus to Syrian regime forces. (File Photo: Reuters)
Updated 21 May 2018
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Despite deal, Syrian forces fighting to finish rebels

  • Regime media denies report that insurgents are being evacuated.
  • The opposition has called it a policy of forced displacement amounting to demographic change to drive out Assad’s opponents.

BEIRUT:  A war monitor said buses evacuated Daesh fighters from an enclave south of Damascus on Sunday in a withdrawal deal, though state media denied the report and said the Syrian forces were fighting to finish off the insurgents.

A cease-fire between Syrian regime forces and Daesh militants has held for 24 hours amid reports that some of the fighters have been allowed to leave, the monitor said.

The official state news agency and government officials deny reaching a deal to allow the militants to evacuate Yarmouk and adjacent areas. State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said government forces plan to drive the militants from their remaining strongholds in the area.

It said a new plan is underway to storm Daesh-held areas in Hajar Al-Aswad, near Yarmouk. An Al-Ikhbariya reporter in the area said the coming hours will be “decisive” for restoring government control over Hajar Al-Aswad, but did not mention Yarmouk.

The recovery of the enclave south of Damascus will mark another milestone in Bashar Assad’s war effort, crushing the last besieged rebel enclave in western Syria.

Swathes of territory at the borders with Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, however, remain outside state control.

Regime forces and their allies have been battling to recover the enclave south of Damascus since defeating rebels in eastern Ghouta, also near the capital, in April.

The area is centered around the Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad district and the adjoining Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.

In a live broadcast, a reporter with Syrian state TV said the regime’s army operations in the Hajjar Al-Aswad area were nearing their end and insurgent lines were collapsing as columns of smoke rose from the area behind him.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said buses had entered the enclave after midnight to take out fighters and their families. 

They had left toward the Syrian Badia, a sparsely populated expanse of territory east of the capital that extends to the border with Jordan and Iraq, it said.

Daesh militants had torched their offices in the Yarmouk enclave, the Observatory said.

Negotiated withdrawals have been a common feature of the Syrian war in recent years as the government, aided by the Russian military and Iran-backed forces, has steadily clawed back territory.

The rebels have mostly been given safe passage to northwestern Syria. In the last two months alone, the UN says 110,000 people have been evacuated to northwestern Syria and opposition-held areas north of Aleppo.

The opposition has called it a policy of forced displacement amounting to demographic change to drive out Assad’s opponents. The Syrian government has said nobody is forced to leave and those who stay must accept state rule.

While Assad has vowed to win back “every inch” of Syria, the map of the conflict suggests a more complicated time ahead from now on.

The US military is in much of the east and northeast, which is controlled by Kurdish groups that want autonomy from Damascus. It has used force to defend the territory from pro-Assad forces.

Turkey has sent forces into the northwest to counter those same Kurdish groups, carving out a buffer zone where anti-Assad opposition fighters have regrouped.

In the southwest, where fighters hold territory at the Israeli and Jordanian border, Assad faces the risk of conflict with Israel, which wants his Iranian-backed allies kept well away from the frontier and has mounted air strikes in Syria.

Damascus residents said the situation was calm, with no warplanes flying overhead Sunday. 

Daesh has been driven from virtually all the territory it once controlled in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but is still present in remote areas along the border.

Yarmouk began as a refugee camp for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel during the 1948 war. On the eve of Syria’s civil war it was a built-up residential area home to tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians.

Al-Watan, a pro-government newspaper, said the militants are believed to have surrendered. The Observatory said Daesh militants began burning their posts in Yarmouk and adjacent areas. Residents reported smoke was billowing over the area.

Assad’s forces launched an offensive against the militants in southern Damascus a month ago. The offensive has brought more than 70 percent of the camp under government control. The capture of the southern neighborhoods would bring the entire capital under government control for the first time since the war began in 2011.

Yarmouk began as a refugee camp for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel during the 1948 war. On the eve of Syria’s civil war it was a built-up residential area home to tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians.


Israel quiet on US claims it hit Iraq militia in Syria

Updated 19 June 2018
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Israel quiet on US claims it hit Iraq militia in Syria

  • The Sunday evening strike against the Al-Hari base on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq came less than 24 hours after Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would strike Iran’s “proxies” anywhere in Syria
  • Syrian authorities and the Iraqi paramilitaries both blamed Washington for the strike, which killed at least 52 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

JERUSALEM: Israel declined to comment on Tuesday on a weekend air strike against an Iraqi paramilitary base in eastern Syria after its US ally implicated it in the attack.
The Sunday evening strike against the Al-Hari base on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq came less than 24 hours after Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would strike Iran’s “proxies” anywhere in Syria.
Fighters of Iraq’s Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary force, mainly composed of Iran-trained Shiite militia, have played a major role in the war against the Sunni extremists of the Daesh group in Syria as well as Iraq.
But their presence has sparked confrontations with both Washington, which has been supporting a Kurdish-led alliance that controls other parts of eastern Syria, and Israel, which fears Iranian-inspired attacks on its forces in the occupied Golan Heights.
Syrian authorities and the Iraqi paramilitaries both blamed Washington for the strike, which killed at least 52 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But US officials denied any involvement and instead pointed the finger at Israel.
“We have reasons to believe that it was an Israeli strike,” one US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli military declined to be drawn on the US claims. “We are not commenting on foreign reports,” a spokeswoman said.
The military has carried out previous strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, but most have been significantly closer to Israel or the Israeli-occupied Golan.
Last month, Israel launched a large-scale attack on what it said were Iranian targets in Syria, raising fears of a major confrontation.
Those strikes followed a barrage of rockets that Israel said was fired toward its forces in the occupied Golan by Iran from Syria.
Even before that, Israel had been blamed for a series of recent strikes inside Syria that killed Iranians, though it has not acknowledged them.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, Netanyahu reiterated his position that “Iran needs to withdraw from all of Syria.”
“We will take action — and are already taking action — against efforts to establish a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria both close to the border and deep inside Syria,” the prime minister said.
“We will act against these efforts anywhere in Syria.”
Israeli seized a large swathe of the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
Iran has been a close ally of the Syrian regime for some four decades and, with Russia, has been a key supporter in the civil war that broke out in 2011.