Mounting global fears of ‘massacre’ in Syria’s Idlib

Syrian children stand outside a tent next to a metal crib at a camp for displaced civilians fleeing from advancing Syrian government forces, close to a Turkish military observation point near the village of Surman in the rebel-held northwestern Idlib province on September 5, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 05 September 2018
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Mounting global fears of ‘massacre’ in Syria’s Idlib

  • Troops have been massing on the edges of the northwestern province on the border with Turkey for weeks, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster
  • Global concern has risen in recent days over a threatened regime assault to oust rebels and extremists from Idlib

BEIRUT: International calls mounted Wednesday to avoid a “massacre” by regime forces in Syria’s last rebel-held province of Idlib, two days before a summit between key powers backing the government and opposition.
Troops have been massing on the edges of the northwestern province on the border with Turkey for weeks, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster on a scale not yet seen in Syria’s seven-year conflict.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday was the latest to warn Damascus against an all-out offensive against a region the United Nations says is home to nearly three million people.
“God forbid, a serious massacre could take place if there is a rain of missiles there,” said Erdogan, whose country has supported Syrian rebels.
He spoke two days before he is set to meet the presidents of regime backers Iran and Russia in Tehran to discuss the future of the province.
Global concern has risen in recent days over a threatened regime assault to oust rebels and extremists from Idlib province and surrounding areas, the last major chunk of Syria still in opposition hands.
On Tuesday, the UN peace envoy for Syria urged Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to speak on the phone before Friday’s summit.
Staffan de Mistura called for efforts “to avoid that the last probably major battle of the Syrian territorial conflict... ends in a bloodbath.”
More than half of Idlib is controlled by militants from Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), while much of the rest is held by rebels backed by Turkey.
The regime holds a small southeastern sliver.
The United Nations and aid groups have warned a military campaign could spark one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in a war that has already killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions.
Some 2.9 million people live in Idlib and surrounding areas, among them one million children.
Many are rebels and civilians who were bussed out of their hometowns in other parts of the country that have come back under regime control.
Late Monday, US President Donald Trump also warned against a full scale assault on Idlib, which he said could trigger a “human tragedy.”
Turkey, Russia and Iran last year designated Idlib a so-called “de-escalation zone,” but that deal did not cover former Al-Qaeda affiliate HTS.
On Tuesday, Russian warplanes resumed air strikes on Idlib after a 22-day pause.
Air raids across the province killed at least 13 civilians, including six children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Moscow said four of its jets “inflicted strikes by high-precision weapons” on targets belonging to HTS.
On Wednesday, regime artillery and rocket fire targeted several areas of the province including the HTS-held town of Jisr Al-Shughur, the Britain-based war monitor said.
President Bashar Assad’s regime has retaken large swathes of the country from rebels and jihadists since Russia intervened militarily on its side in 2015.
Russian planes are based at the Hmeimim air base in Latakia province, a coastal regime stronghold adjacent to Idlib.
Moscow has accused armed groups in Idlib of sending weaponized drones to attack Hmeimim.
On Wednesday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Idlib was the “subject of increased concern and worry” and was the focus of a flurry of diplomacy.
Just a day earlier, Peskov had slammed Idlib as a “pocket of terrorism,” and said “Syrian armed forces are getting ready to solve this problem.”
Friday’s summit in Tehran between key power brokers Erdogan, Putin and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is expected to determine the scope and timing of any assault on Idlib.
A UN Security Council meeting is also set to be held the same day to discuss Idlib, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has said.
She warned on Tuesday against the use of any chemical weapons in Idlib, after the White House pledged to “respond swiftly and appropriately” to any such attack.
Since the start of the conflict in 2011, Assad’s regime has repeatedly been accused of using chemical weapons, including in its battle this year to retake the former rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
Rescue workers accused regime forces of using “poisonous chlorine gas” in the town of Douma in April that killed more than 40 people.
In response, the United States, France and Britain unleashed missiles on three regime chemical weapons facilities.


US weighing options on American Daesh sympathizer in Syria

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard on top of a building on February 17, 2019, in the frontline Syrian village of Baghuz. (AFP)
Updated 20 February 2019
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US weighing options on American Daesh sympathizer in Syria

  • Neither option would likely pass muster in the cases of US citizens, who enjoy strong legal protections under the Constitution

WASHINGTON: The United States said Tuesday it wanted to ensure foreign terrorists remain off the battlefield as it weighed options on an American detained in Syria who says she wants to return home.
The United States has urged European powers to take back hundreds of their citizens who fought with the Daesh group in Syria, but acknowledged the situation was complex in the rare case of an American terrorist.
Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old from Alabama who became a prominent online agitator for the extremists, said in an interview published Sunday with The Guardian that she had been brainwashed online and “deeply regrets” joining the movement.
While declining to discuss Muthana’s case specifically, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said that the status of US citizens detained in Syria “is by definition extremely complicated.”
“We’re looking into these cases to better understand the details,” he told reporters.
Palladino said that the United States generally did not see a different solution between what to do with US fighters and with foreigners, saying the fighters pose “a global threat.”
“Repatriating these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin, ensuring that they are prosecuted and detained — that’s the best solution, preventing them from returning to the battlefield,” he said.
The situation of foreign terrorists detained by US-allied Kurdish forces has taken a new urgency as President Donald Trump plans to withdraw US troops from Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces say they may have to refocus on fighting Turkey, which has vowed to crush Kurdish fighters it links to separatists at home.
Trump has contemplated reopening the US military base at Guantanamo Bay to take in new foreign inmates, while Britain on Tuesday revoked the citizenship of a female terrorsist who wanted to return home with her newborn baby.
Neither option would likely pass muster in the cases of US citizens, who enjoy strong legal protections under the Constitution.
Muthana, who was married three times to terrorists and has a son with one of her husbands, fled her family in 2014 to join the Daesh group in Syria, where she took to Twitter to urge attacks on fellow Americans.
In the interview with The Guardian, Muthana said that she was “really young and ignorant” when she joined Daesh and has since renounced radicalism.
“I believe that America gives second chances. I want to return and I’ll never come back to the Middle East,” she told the newspaper.
Hassan Shilby, a lawyer for Muthana, told ABC television’s “Good Morning America” that the young woman had been “brainwashed and manipulated” and is “absolutely disgusted” by the person she became.