South Syrian rebels lay down arms as Assad seizes crossing

Syrians who fled regime strikes on Daraa province wait to cross the Syria-Jordan border at a make-shift camp near Nasib, in southern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 06 July 2018
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South Syrian rebels lay down arms as Assad seizes crossing

  • Syria's regime and its Russian ally take control of a key southern border post with Jordan
  • The move comes as rebels say they are close to a deal with Moscow over a handover of territory

AMMAN/BEIRUT: South Syrian rebels agreed to give up arms in a Russian-brokered cease-fire deal on Friday, rebel sources said, surrendering Daraa province to the government in another major victory for President Bashar Assad and his Russian alies.
The Syrian government recovered the crucial Nassib border crossing with Jordan, held by rebels for three years, state media reported, after a fierce assault in insurgent territory along the frontier backed by Russian air strikes.
State media made no mention of the agreement. Rebel sources said Russia would guarantee the safe return of civilians who fled the government offensive in the biggest single exodus of the war, with 320,000 people uprooted.
Seven years into the war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Assad now commands most of Syria with his allies’ help, though most of the north and a chunk of the east remains out of his hands. The presence of Turkish and US forces in those areas will complicate further gains.
As Assad seeks military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace, with some six million Syrians abroad as refugees and 6.5 million more internally displaced.
Russia has been at the forefront of the Daraa campaign, both bombing and negotiating with rebels who were told at the start of the offensive to expect no help from the United States.
Assad’s next target in the southwest appears to be rebel-held areas of Quneitra province at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where fighting between insurgents and the government escalated on Friday.
Israel said it had targeted a Syrian army post that shelled a frontier “buffer zone” in the Golan area.
Government advances in Daraa in an offensive since mid June had brought large parts of the province back under state control and caused a massive human exodus as hundreds of thousands of people fled.
Taking back the Nassib crossing paves the way for Assad to reopen a major trade artery vital to his hopes of reviving the Syrian economy and starting to rebuild government-held areas.
Rebel sources said the deal brokered by Russia would allow civilians to return to their villages and towns with Russia guaranteeing their protection.
Russian guarantees will also be extended to rebel fighters who wish to “settle their status” with the government — a process by which former insurgents accept to live under state rule again, the sources said.
Rebels who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule would leave for the insurgent stronghold in northwest Syria, they said.
It echoes the terms of previous opposition surrenders, but according to rebel sources, they also secured a concession that some government forces would withdraw from the area.
Russian military police would deploy instead with local forces overseen by Russia also deployed, they said.
The deal is to be rolled out across rebel-held areas of Daraa in phases, but there is no timeline as yet, said Abu Shaima, spokesman for an operations room for rebels under the Free Syrian Army banner.
BORDER CROSSING
He said Syrian and Russian jets had pummeled towns across the southwest and villages near the border crossing.
Most of the hospitals had shut down amid the destruction in insurgent territory, which now barely had access to water or electricity, he said.
Several witnesses along the Jordan border fence with Syria said they people saw a convoy of over hundred armored vehicles and tanks with Russian and Syrian state flags, along with hundreds of troops near Nassib.
Assad’s Iran-backed allies are also fighting in the campaign, defying Israeli demands they keep out of the border area. Hezbollah is helping lead the offensive but keeping a low profile, pro-Damascus sources told Reuters.
Both Israel and Jordan, which beefed up their borders, said they would not let refugees in but distributed aid inside Syria.
The UN refugee agency has urged Jordan to open its borders as Syrians flee the battles and heavy air strikes en masse. It says fighting has uprooted more than 320,000 people, with 60,000 gathered at the Jordan border crossing and thousands more at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan heights.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has called it the largest displacement of Syria’s seven-year war.


Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

Updated 23 March 2019
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Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

  • According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment
SOUSA, SYRIA: US-led warplanes bombed the north bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria on Friday to flush out holdout militants from the last sliver of their crumbling “caliphate.”
Friday’s bombardment ended two days of relative calm on the front line in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had paused its advance while it combed a makeshift militant encampment, which it overran on Tuesday.
An SDF official said warplanes of the US-led coalition resumed strikes on suspected militant positions before dawn on Friday.
Top SDF commander Jia Furat said his forces were engaging with the Daesh fighters on several fronts while the coalition warplanes provided air support.
The coalition said the “operation to complete the liberation of Baghouz is ongoing.”
“It remains a hard fight, and Daesh is showing that they intend to keep fighting for as long as possible,” it said. The SDF launched what it called its “final assault” against the rebels’ last redoubt in the village of Baghouz on Feb. 9.
Finally on Tuesday, they cornered diehard fighters into a few acres of farmland along the Euphrates River, after forcing them out of their rag-tag encampment of tents and battered vehicles.
The six-month-old operation to wipe out the last vestige of Daesh’s once-sprawling proto-state is close to reaching its inevitable outcome, but the SDF has said a declaration of victory will be made only after they have completed flushing out the last tunnels and hideouts.
According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment. They are hiding along the bank of the Euphrates River as well as at the base of a hill overlooking Baghouz, he told AFP.
“In around one or two days, we will conclude military operations if there are no surprise developments,” he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Daesh holdouts were hiding in underground tunnels and caves in Baghouz.
SDF official Jiaker Amed said several militants want to surrender but are being prevented from doing so by other fighters.
“We are trying our best to wrap up the operation without fighting, but some of them are refusing to surrender,” he said.
More than 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have quit the last Daesh redoubt since Jan. 9, according to the SDF.
They comprise 5,000 militants and 24,000 of their relatives as well as 37,000 other civilians.
The thousands who have streamed out have been housed in cramped camps and prisons run by Kurdish forces further north.
On Wednesday night, around 2,000 women and children from Baghouz arrived at the largest camp, Al-Hol, which is struggling to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of people, many in poor health.
Since December, at least 138 people, mostly children, have died en route to Al-Hol or shortly after arrival, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Daesh declared a “caliphate” in June 2014 after seizing a vast swathe of territory larger than Britain straddling Iraq and Syria.
The loss of the Baghouz enclave would signal the demise of the “caliphate” in Syria, after its defeat in Iraq in 2017.
But Daesh has already begun its transformation into a guerilla organization, and still carries out deadly hit-and-run attacks from desert or mountain hideouts.
In a video released on Daesh’s social media channels on Thursday, militants vowed to continue to carry out attacks.
“To those who think our caliphate has ended, we say not only has it not ended, but it is here to stay,” said one fighter.
He urged Daesh supporters to conduct attacks in the West against the enemies of the “caliphate.”
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted following the repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.