Shells hit south Syria city for first time in three years

Syrian rebel fighters flash the victory gesture while riding in the back of a military truck during a military parade near the southern city of Daraa on June 7, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 19 June 2018
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Shells hit south Syria city for first time in three years

  • The Syrian Observatory said opposition forces fired shells into Sweida city
  • This was the first attack since 2015

BEIRUT: Rebel shellfire slammed into the southern Syrian city of Sweida on Tuesday for the first time in three years, a monitor said, as fresh regime reinforcements arrived in the area.
The government holds most of Sweida province, but rebels still control much of the nearby Daraa and Quneitra governorates.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition forces fired shells into Sweida city, “which led to loud blasts but no casualties.”
“It is the first time since 2015 that the city has been subjected to shellfire,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
State news agency SANA also blamed rebels “spread out in the towns and villages in eastern parts of Daraa province” for firing shells on Sweida.
It also said one girl was killed and two people were wounded in opposition fire on government-held parts of Daraa city.
Sweida, whose residents are mostly from the Druze minority, has remained relatively insulated from seven years of war that ravaged the rest of the country.
But rebels hold a sliver of territory in western Sweida that borders their main bastion in the province of Daraa, and clashes and exchanges of fire have erupted in that area in recent days.
Syria’s government has set its sights on ousting rebels from the south and has been dispatching troops and equipment there for weeks.
Rebel commander Abu Hassan told AFP on Tuesday his units had seen the reinforcements and were on high alert.
“We are almost always mobilized. The joint operations room has upped its coordination to the highest level,” he said.
On Tuesday, the regime dropped new flyers on the rebel-held half of Daraa city, calling on residents to expel rebels, “like your brothers did in Eastern Ghouta and Qalamun,” referring to two areas near Damascus recently recaptured from the opposition.
Opposition fighters appeared to fear the regime would use Sweida’s civilian population as justification for the assault, and issued a message addressed to them on Tuesday.
“We call on our people in Sweida province not to serve as bait for the goals of the regime, sectarian militias from Iran, and Hezbollah, which are trying to occupy this land and divide its people,” they said in a statement.
But the government has also hinted a political settlement could be reached over the south’s fate.
“We have moved toward the south and we are giving the political process a chance,” Syrian President Bashar Assad said last week.
“If that doesn’t succeed, we have no other option but to liberate it by force.”
Assad has regained the upper hand since 2011, when protests erupted across the country demanding he step down.
Demonstrations then turned into an armed conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people, drawn in world powers, and given rise to militants like the Daesh group.
IS has been defeated across much of Syria but the militants hold a few positions in desert areas of Sweida, where it has clashed with government troops recently.
On Tuesday, eight regime forces were killed in clashes with Daesh in the area.


Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

Updated 23 January 2019
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Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

  • The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict
  • Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday vowed to coordinate their actions more closely in Syria.
“Cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a touchstone for Syrian peace and stability,” Erdogan said in translated comments at a joint press conference after their talks, which lasted around three hours.
“With our Russian friends we intend to strengthen our coordination even more.”
“We agreed how we’ll coordinate our work in the near future,” Putin said, calling the talks which included the countries’ defense ministers “effective.”
At the start of their meeting in the Kremlin, Putin addressed Erdogan as “dear friend,” saying that their countries “work on issues of regional security and actively cooperate on Syria.”
Erdogan used the same term for Putin and said “our solidarity makes a weighty contribution to the security of the region.”
The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict: Russia provides critical support to the Syrian government, while Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Despite this, they have worked closely to find a political solution to the seven-year conflict.
Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month about pulling 2,000 American troops out of Syria.
Putin said that if carried out, the withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria “will be a positive step, it will help stabilize the situation in this restive area.”
Turkey has also welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal, but the future of US-backed Kurdish militia forces labelled terrorists by Ankara has upset ties between the NATO allies.
Erdogan had said on Monday he would discuss with Putin the creation of a Turkish-controlled “security zone” in northern Syria, suggested by Trump.
The US-allied Kurds, who control much of the north, have rejected the idea, fearing a Turkish offensive against territory under their control.
Putin said Wednesday that Russia supports “establishing dialogue between Damascus officials and representatives of the Kurds.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week said that Damascus must take control of the north.
The northwestern province of Idlib earlier this month fell under the full control of a jihadist group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Russian foreign ministry said earlier Wednesday that the situation in the province remained of “serious concern.”
Putin said that the leaders discussed the situation in Idlib “in great detail today.”
“We have a shared conviction that we must continue jointly fighting terrorists wherever they are, including in the Idlib zone,” the Russian leader said.
Erdogan said that the countries will wage a “lengthy fight” in Syria.
Nearly eight years into Syria’s deadly conflict, the planned US pullout has led to another key step in Assad’s Russian-backed drive to reassert control.
Kurdish forces who were left exposed by Trump’s pledge to withdraw have asked the Syrian regime for help to face a threatened Turkish offensive.
The Kremlin hailed the entry by Syrian forces into the key northern city of Manbij for the first time in six years after Kurds opened the gates.
Moscow plans to organize a three-way summit with Turkey and Iran early this year as part of the Astana peace process, launched by the three countries in 2017.
Putin said Wednesday the next summit would be held “in the near future” in Russia, saying the leaders still needed to agree the time and location with Iran.
The last meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani took place in Iran in September last year with the fate of rebel-held Idlib province dominating the agenda.
Ties between Russia and Turkey plunged to their lowest level in years in November 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.
But after a reconciliation deal in 2016, relations have recovered at a remarkable speed with Putin and Erdogan cooperating closely over Syria, Turkey buying Russian-made air defense systems and Russia building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.