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.


Lebanese-British investment forum highlights potential rewards from Cedar projects

The region is moving toward a stage of security and stability despite all the ongoing turmoil, said the Lebanese PM. (Reuters)
Updated 16 min 34 sec ago
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Lebanese-British investment forum highlights potential rewards from Cedar projects

  • We all need to be prepared to take advantage of investment and commercial opportunities, says Saad Hariri

BEIRUT: “The delay in the formation of the Lebanese government has not stopped the continuation of Lebanon’s implementation of projects and reforms of the Cedar Conference,” Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri told the Lebanon-UK Businessmen and Investment Forum in London on Wednesday.

During the Cedar conference in Paris last April, Lebanon received about $11.8 billion in loans, grants and investments to help fund structural reforms. However, talks to form a new Lebanese government following elections in May have been deadlocked for months, finally prompting President Michel Aoun to intervene in an attempt to broker a deal.
“The region is moving toward a stage of security and stability despite all the ongoing turmoil,” Hariri said. “We all need to be prepared for this stage to take advantage of the investment and commercial opportunities that lie ahead for reconstruction.
“We have reconsidered some sectors and projects to accelerate the planning and implementation of projects. We maintain regular dialogue with multilateral development banks to harmonize funding with investment-spending projects, and the Lebanese Parliament has also passed important legislation on some of the reforms required.
“The economy of Lebanon is under tremendous pressure, in part because of the continuing regional turmoil. Moreover, the economic and social challenges we are facing are exacerbated by the continued existence of one and a half million displaced Syrians for the eighth consecutive year."
Hariri also stressed “the role of the private sector in Lebanon and Britain to establish partnerships and joint ventures.”
He added: “The Tripoli Special Economic Zone in North Lebanon is the ideal platform for British manufacturers to produce and export to the region. It is only 30 km from the Syrian border and can make Lebanon a natural platform for the reconstruction of Syria.”
Alistair Burt, the British minister of state for international development, reiterated his country’s solidarity with Lebanon and respect for its independence and sovereignty, and pledged UK support for dealing with the complex situation in the region.
In particular, he praised “the Lebanese armed forces, which provides security and stability in its territory and on the Syrian border for the first time in the history of Lebanon, and was able, thanks to its capabilities, to defeat Daesh.”
He also stressed his nation’s “commitment to supporting these (Lebanese armed) forces,” and noted that “Britain has lifted the ban on its citizens visiting several places in Lebanon. All of them can now visit Baalbek, and see its magnificent monuments and enjoy the exceptional Lebanese hospitality.”
Burt also highlighted the business opportunities in Lebanon for British companies.
“The investment opportunities available in Lebanon are many and varied and include a variety of fields, which encourages the British private sector and investors to take advantage of the opportunities available to them and participate in the implementation of the Cedar projects, which makes it necessary for Lebanon to implement necessary reforms and form a government as soon as possible,” he said. “Lebanon is an important center of democracy and Britain is proud to be its partner.”
One British company already reaping the rewards of doing business in Lebanon is Rolls Royce, which signed a $300 million aircraft-engine contract with Lebanese national carrier Middle East Airlines at the forum. In the presence of Hariri and Burt, Mohammed Al-Hout, the chairman of the airline’s board of directors, and Rolls-Royce Chairman Ian Davies signed the agreement for the British company to provide the carrier with its latest Trent 7000 engines, along with servicing and long-term maintenance.
Simon Penney, the UK’s trade commissioner for the Middle East, said the deal was an example of the potential rewards awaiting British investors.
“Lebanon enjoys a dynamic, ambitious and open-minded business environment and we encourage investors in our country to look at it seriously,” he said. “Last year our trade volume was about £600 million ($760 million). Direct British investment in Lebanon rose by 47 percent in 2015 and 2016.
“The Beirut Container Terminal Consortium, a joint venture with Mersey Docks and Harbour UK, helped make Beirut Harbor the busiest port in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and the Lebanese-British Technology Center has supported, since its launch in 2015, more than 80 startups and helped create 2000 jobs.
“Last month, the London Stock Exchange Group launched its new ELITE program for Lebanese business under the auspices of the Lebanese Financial Markets Authority. Today, we have a deal worth $300 million between Rolls-Royce and Middle East Airlines.”
Penney urged Lebanon to fulfill its “commitment to economic reform to prove that it is a country that can be invested in.”
Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister in the Lebanese caretaker government, called for “the safe, dignified and sustainable return of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon to their country, away from any political agenda, because Lebanon should cease to be a victim of the crisis in the region and in Syria. It should be a platform for reconstruction of Syria, Iraq and the East at the right time.”
As the one-day forum concluded, Hariri said: “Investors are keen to come to Lebanon because they know that there are real opportunities that will be provided by Cedar.
“The formation of the government should have taken place earlier; I am ready, the names are ready and so is the distribution of the portfolios, but everyone knows by now where the disruption comes from.
“President Michel Aoun is making contacts and the Lebanese are all appreciative of what he is doing. We are doing what we have to do. Hopefully, the efforts will lead to positive results. I realized something positive today and we will remain positive for the benefit of the country.”