Syrian government declares capital fully under its control, Daesh ousted

Syrian government forces walk down a destroyed street in the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk on the southern outskirts of Damascus, after the Syrian army announced it was in complete control of the capital and its outskirts for the first time since 2012, following the ousting of the Daesh group from a last pocket of resistance. (AFP)
Updated 21 May 2018
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Syrian government declares capital fully under its control, Daesh ousted

  • Syria's army is in complete control of the capital and its outskirts for the first time since 2012, after ousting Daesh from a last pocket of resistance
  • A small Daesh holdout remains in the south of the capital Damascus

BEIRUT: Syria’s military on Monday captured an enclave in southern Damascus from Daesh militants following a ruinous monthlong battle, bringing the entire capital and its far-flung suburbs under full government control for the first time since the civil war began in 2011.
The gains freed President Bashar Assad’s forces to move with allied militiamen on remaining rebel-held territory in the south near the border with Israel, as Syria’s chief ally Iran comes under growing pressure from the Trump administration to withdraw its troops from the country.
Iranian-backed militias, including the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have been instrumental in helping Assad’s over-stretched forces recapture huge areas around Damascus and in the country’s center and north, building a military presence that has alarmed Israel and its US ally, which is now looking to constrain Iran’s activities.
Iranian officials have vowed to stay on in Syria for as long as needed, setting the stage for a potential confrontation as Washington seeks to tighten the screws on Tehran following the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered with Iran under President Barack Obama and world powers.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened Iran with the “strongest sanctions in history” if Tehran doesn’t change course. In his first major foreign policy speech since taking the post as the top US diplomat, he issued a list of demands that he said should be included in any new nuclear treaty with Iran, including that it “withdraw all forces” from Syria, halt support for Hezbollah and stop threatening Israel.
Iran and Russia have joined forces in Syria, providing crucial military support to Assad’s forces and giving them the upper hand in the civil war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Assad at a meeting last week that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops from Syria. Putin’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said Putin was referring to Iranian forces, among others.
Iran says it is in Syria at the behest of the Assad government and says it is fighting “terrorism” in the form of extremists, including Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters that no one can force Tehran to do anything it doesn’t want to do.
“Our presence in Syria has been based on a request by the Syrian government and Iran will continue its support as long as the Syrian government wants,” he said, speaking shortly before Pompeo made his remarks.
The recapture of Daesh-held pockets in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk and the nearby Hajjar Al-Aswad district in southern Damascus came after a massive bombing campaign that has all but decimated what was left of the residential area on the edge of the capital, once home to about 200,000 Palestinian refugees.
The camp has been deserted by most of its inhabitants following years of siege, and the few remaining residents fled to nearby areas in the last days of the bombardment.
The last push on the Yarmouk camp came after a group of civilians was evacuated overnight. State TV showed images of troops moving in, waving the Syrian flag and flashing victory signs atop wrecked buildings in the destroyed neighborhood. Some fired in the air in celebration.
The move boosts morale and security in Assad’s seat of power, putting it out of range of insurgents’ mortar fire and shells for the first time in nearly seven years.
With Iran’s help, Assad’s forces have been making steady gains since 2015, when Russian launched an air campaign on behalf of his forces. In December 2016, government forces captured rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, in Assad’s biggest victory since the conflict began.
With a mix of military pressure and surrender deals brokered by Russia, thousands of opposition fighters capitulated and were evacuated in March and April from Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta after a crushing government offensive.
Syrian troops and their allies are expected to turn their attention to opposition-held parts of southern Syria, including Daraa province, in a push that could bring allied Iranian forces even closer to the increasingly tense frontier with Israel. Idlib, in the north, remains a major rebel bastion, but government forces are expected to leave that confrontation to a later stage.
Israel has warned Iran and its proxies to stay away from the border and has carried out a series of airstrikes on Syrian air bases where it believes Iranian troops maintain a presence. Earlier this month, it launched a blistering bombardment of Iranian positions in Syria after an alleged Iranian rocket barrage toward its positions on the annexed Golan Heights.
Gen. Ali Mayhoub, a Syrian army spokesman, declared Damascus and its surroundings “completely secure” on Monday.
A war monitoring group said about 1,600 people, including hundreds of Daesh gunmen, left the area Saturday and Sunday, heading toward the desert in the east of the country following a deal with the government. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the month of fighting left scores of dead on both sides.
Syrian TV earlier quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying the two-day truce had been in place to evacuate women, children and the elderly Sunday night from Hajjar Al-Aswad. Syrian state media denied a deal was reached to evacuate the militants.
“The Daesh terrorist organization was wiped out in Hajjar Al-Aswad,” an unidentified Syrian soldier told state TV. “We will keep marching until we liberate all parts of Syria.”


Sudan protests rumble on as Bashir remains defiant

Updated 55 min 20 sec ago
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Sudan protests rumble on as Bashir remains defiant

  • Rights group Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40, including children and medical staff
  • Bashir has remained steadfast in rejecting calls for him to resign

KHARTOUM: One month after protests erupted across Sudan against rising bread prices, anti-government demonstrations have turned into daily rallies against a defiant President Omar al-Bashir who has rejected calls to resign.
Protest organisers have called for a march on the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum on Thursday, along with simultaneous demonstrations in several other cities.
Authorities say at least 24 people have died since the protests first broke out on December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread.
Rights group Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40, including children and medical staff.
The protests have escalated into nationwide anti-government demonstrations that experts say pose the biggest challenge to Bashir since he took power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.
"I have been demonstrating and will continue to demonstrate until this regime is overthrown," vowed Adel Ibrahim, 28, who has participated in demonstrations in Khartoum.
"We are protesting to save our future and the future of our homeland."
Protests initially broke out in the eastern town of Atbara, which has a history of anti-government sentiment, and within days spread to other provinces and then to Khartoum.
Cities like Port Sudan, Gadaref, Kassala and agricultural regions that previously backed Bashir saw protests calling for him to step down, while the western region of Darfur too witnessed rallies against the 75-year-old veteran leader.
Using social media networks to mobilise crowds, most protesters have marched chanting "Peace, freedom, justice", while some have even adopted the 2011 Arab Spring slogan -- "the people want the fall of the regime".
Crowds of demonstrators, whistling and clapping, have braved volleys of tear gas whenever they have taken to the streets, witnesses said.
"There's a momentum now and people are coming out daily," said prominent Sudanese columnist Faisal Mohamed Salih.
"Even the authorities are astonished."
Although the unrest was triggered by the cut in a vital bread subsidy, Sudan has faced a mounting economic crisis in the past year, including an acute shortage of foreign currency.
Repeated shortages of food and fuel have been reported across cities, including in Khartoum, while the cost of food and medicine has more than doubled.
Officials have blamed Washington for Sudan's economic woes.
The US imposed a trade embargo on Khartoum in 1997 that was lifted only in October 2017. It restricted Sudan from conducting international business and financial transactions.
But critics of Bashir say his government's mismanagement of key sectors and its huge spending on fighting ethnic minority rebellions in Darfur and in areas near the South Sudan border has been stoking economic trouble for years.
"If this regime continues like this, we will soon lose our country, which is why we have to fight," said Ibrahim, who has been looking for a job for years.
An umbrella group of unions of doctors, teachers and engineers calling itself the Sudanese Professionals' Association has spearheaded the campaign, calling this week the "Week of Uprising".
"Protesters don't even know the organisers by names, but they still trust them," said Salih.
Sudanese authorities led by the feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have cracked down on protesters, drawing international criticism.
More than 1,000 people, including protesters, activists, opposition leaders and journalists have been arrested so far, rights groups say.
Bashir has remained steadfast in rejecting calls for him to resign.
"Demonstrations will not change the government," he told a rally in Darfur on Monday as supporters chanted "Stay, stay".
"There's only one road to power and that is through the ballot box. The Sudanese people will decide in 2020 who will govern them," said Bashir, who is planning to run for the presidency for the third time in elections to be held next year.
Two uprisings in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 saw regimes change within days, but experts say this time protesters have a long road ahead.
"At the moment, Bashir appears to have the majority of the security services on his side," said Willow Berridge, a lecturer at Britain's Newcastle University.
Bashir's ruling National Congress Party has dismissed the demonstrations.
"There are some gatherings, but they are isolated and not big," party spokesman Ibrahim al-Siddiq told AFP.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said Bashir might well weather the unrest.
"But if he does, it will almost certainly be at the cost of further economic decline, greater popular anger, more protests and even tougher crackdowns," it said in a report.
Salih said protesters appeared to be determined.
"But the one who tires first will lose," he said.