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.


War fears mount despite cease-fire between Gaza and Israel

Updated 22 July 2018
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War fears mount despite cease-fire between Gaza and Israel

  • Any further escalation will deepen humanitarian catastrophe in the Strip: UN chief
  • Before the truce, Israel unleashed an offensive it says destroyed more than 60 Hamas targets, including three battalion headquarters

GAZA CITY: After seven chaotic and violent hours, quiet returned to the Gaza Strip Friday night. Yet on Saturday, civilians in the Palestinian enclave and Israel remained fearful of the potential for a new war.
The fatal shooting by a Palestinian sniper of an Israeli soldier during protests along the border on Friday sparked a widespread wave of Israeli bombing, with three fighters from Hamas killed and dozens of targets struck.
After intensive indirect mediation by the UN and Egypt, a truce came into force at midnight, yet both populations remained on high alert of another all-out conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“War is coming. I know that the (Israeli) occupation is carrying out raids to pave the way with their home base,” Somaya Rabaya, 21, from Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza, said.
While the cease-fire deal included an end to rockets and mortars, it didn’t include a commitment by Hamas to stop what Israeli media have dubbed “terror kites,” a senior Hamas source said.
In a brief statement on Saturday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the movement accepted the cease-fire brokered by Egyptian and UN officials and that calm had been restored. Later, the Israeli military announced a return to civilian routine along the volatile border.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “gravely concerned” about the escalation and called on both sides to step back from the prospect of another devastating conflict. “Any further escalation will endanger the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike, deepen the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and undermine current efforts to improve livelihoods,” he said.
On Saturday morning in Gaza, 17-year-old Wissam was with a number of other youths fitting kites with small bottles full of diesel, while sheltering behind a sandbank for fear of Israeli strikes. “This morning, they bombed a Hamas observation post near here. I was afraid they would hit us with a missile,” he said.
Israel says it has no interest is engaging in another war with Hamas, but says it will no longer tolerate the Gaza militant campaign of flying the incendiary devices into Israel.
On Friday, Israel unleashed an offensive it says destroyed more than 60 Hamas targets, including three battalion headquarters.
“The attack delivered a severe blow to the Hamas’ training array, command and control abilities, weaponry, aerial defense and logistic capabilities along with additional military infrastructure,” the Israeli military said in a statement, adding that the strikes “will intensify as necessary.”