Coalition hits back over reported civilian deaths in east Syria

The US led coalition launched strikes on Saturday, killing 43 people, including 36 family members of Daesh fighters. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 November 2018
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Coalition hits back over reported civilian deaths in east Syria

  • 43 people were killed in the strikes launched by the coalition
  • The US-led coalition has consistently denied reports by the Observatory in recent days

BEIRUT: The US-led anti-militant coalition hit back Sunday at reports its air strikes on a Daesh group holdout in eastern Syria had killed civilians, appearing to accuse regime forces of targeting the area.
The militant Daesh group overran large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” in territory it controlled, but has since lost most of it to various offensives.
In war-torn Syria, multiple offensives have now whittled down territory Daesh once controlled to a small pocket in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on the Iraqi border.
A Kurdish-led alliance backed by the coalition is battling to expel Daesh from that holdout on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, while Russian-backed regime forces have been fighting the militants west of the river.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said coalition strikes on Saturday killed 43 people, including 36 family members of Daesh fighters in the village of Abu Al-Husn in the militant pocket.
But the coalition denied that its air raids there had killed any non-combatants.
The US envoy for the coalition, Brett McGurk, on Sunday appeared to blame regime forces stationed “across the river” for bombarding the area.
“Reports of civilian casualties attributed to coalition strikes are false. All other forces should cease uncoordinated fires from across the river immediately,” he said on Twitter.
In a statement late Saturday, the coalition reported 19 coalition strikes on Daesh targets “free of civilian presence” between late Friday and Saturday afternoon in the militant enclave, which includes the town of Hajjin.
But the coalition “detected a total of ten additional strikes in the same area of Hajjin that did not originate from the coalition or partner forces,” it added.
It called “on all other actors to cease uncoordinated fires across the Euphrates.”
The Observatory said regime forces and Daesh fighters exchanged fire across the river on Saturday, but pro-government shelling did not hit Abu Al-Husn.
The Britain-based war monitor says it obtains its information from sources inside Syria, and determines who carries out air strikes according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions involved.
The US-led international coalition has consistently denied reports by the Observatory in recent weeks that its air raids have killed civilians.
It says it investigates allegations of civilian casualties thoroughly.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Since 2014, the US-led coalition has acknowledged direct responsibility for over 1,100 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq, but rights groups put the number much higher.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by the coalition, launched an assault to seize the eastern pocket around Hajjin from Daesh in September.
The SDF assault was slowed by a fierce militant fightback, and then briefly put on hold to protest Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria.
An SDF commander Saturday said his forces were advancing cautiously due to “fields of land mines, trenches, tunnels and barricades set up by IS,” referring to another acronym for Daesh.
On another front, regime forces on Saturday regained control from Daesh of a volcanic plateau in the south of the country after weeks of fighting.
Pro-government fighters took over Tulul Al-Safa between the provinces of Damascus and Sweida “after IS fighters withdrew from it and headed east into the Badia desert,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
State news agency SANA reported regime forces had made “a great advance in Tulul Al-Safa” and were combing the area for any remaining militants.
Government forces had been fighting Daesh in Tulul Al-Safa since a deadly militant attack against the country’s Druze minority in Sweida province on July 25.
In the deadliest attack against the Druze in the seven-year war, Daesh killed more than 260 people, most of them civilians, in suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings.
Saturday’s victory in Tulul Al-Safa leaves Daesh contained in the Deir Ezzor pocket, although it also has a presence in the vast Badia desert stretching across the country to the Iraqi border.
After pushing back the militants from parts of northeastern Syria, analysts say the SDF is also likely to oust Daesh eventually from its eastern holdout.
“IS does not have great chances to remain in control of the pocket of Hajjin,” said Julien Theron of the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
The coalition-SDF alliance “has already shown a great efficiency against IS-held territory in the recent past,” he said.


Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

Updated 54 min 45 sec ago
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Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

  • Divers find pottery and stone in shipwrecks dating back 2,300 years
  • Discoveries are from Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre in 332 BC

BEIRUT: Forty meters down, on the Mediterranean seabed off the coast of Lebanon, the divers knew they were looking at history.

Among the shipwrecks they investigated this month at 11 sites south of the city of Tyre, they found pottery and stone that had been there for more than 2,300 years.

“The shape of the pottery confirms that it dates back to more than 332 BC,” said the Lebanese archaeologist Dr. Jafar Fadlallah.

Mohammed Al-Sargi, captain of the diving team that found the wrecks, is even more certain. “The pottery and stone found on these wooden ships indicate that they were part of the campaign of Alexander the Great, who in 332 BC attempted to capture the city of Tyre, which was then an island,” he said.

“According to the history books, Alexander built a causeway linking the mainland to the island. These vessels might have been used to transport the stone required for the construction of the road, but due to the heavy loads and storms, they might have sunk.”

UNESCO recognized the archaeological importance of Tyre in 1979, when it added the city to its list of World Heritage Sites. Lebanon’s Directorate of Antiquities, in cooperation with European organizations, has carried out extensive excavations since the 1940s to uncover its historical secrets. They have revealed that the ancient maritime city included residential neighborhoods, public baths, sports centers, and streets paved with mosaics. The discoveries date back to the Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine periods.

During the Phoenician era, Tyre played an important role as it dominated maritime trade. It contributed to the establishment of commercial settlements around the Mediterranean and the spread of religions in the ancient world. It also resisted occupation by the Persians and the Macedonians, choosing to remain neutral in the struggle between the two bitter enemies. However, Macedonian king Alexander the Great considered gaining control of the island and establishing a naval base there to be a key to victory in the war, and he set out in January 332 BC to conquer it at any cost.

The area in which the diving team discovered the wrecks is “an underwater desert with no valleys or seaweed, a few hundred meters from the coast of Tyre,” said Al-Sargi.

“We found 11 sites, some of them close to each other and others far apart. In each location, there were piles of stones and broken pots.

“We continued to explore the sites quietly to keep away fishermen and uninvited guests. We sought the help of archaeologists, who assured us that the discovery rewrites the history of the city, and specifically the campaign of Alexander the Great. So, we decided to put the discovery in the custody of the General Directorate of Antiquities for further exploration and interpretation.”

The most recent find, which Al-Sargi described as a “time capsule,” is only the latest important discovery made by the team in Lebanon.

“In 1997, the divers discovered the submerged city of Sidon,” Al-Sargi continued. “In 2001, we discovered the city of Yarmouta opposite the Zahrani area. In 1997, we discovered sulfuric water in the Sea of Tyre. We conducted studies on fresh-water wells in the sea off the city coast.

“We are not archaeologists and we cannot explain what we have seen. Our role is to inspect and report to the relevant Lebanese authorities and abide by the law.”

Fadlallah, an archaeologist with 40 years experience of working at Lebanon’s ancient sites, picks up the story to explain what he believes to be the significance of the discovery at Tyre.

“The sites are about 700 meters from where Tyre beach was when it was an island,” he said. “The piles of stones were 50 meters to 200 meters apart and the pots seemed to have been broken by a collision because there was not one left intact. This means that these stones and pots were on ships and there was a violent collision between them.”

He said that studies of the remains of the pots suggest that they are of Greek origin.

“There are various forms of them,” he said, “and it is clear that the ships that were carrying them were related to the ships of Alexander the Great during his campaign on Tyre, and they appear to have been hit by storms.”

There are, of course, always skeptics — among them Dr. Ali Badawi, director of archaeological sites in the south at Lebanon’s General Directorate of Antiquities. The pots alone did not constitute sufficient “evidence that the ships belonged to the campaign of Alexander the Great,” he said.

“What was published by the captain of the divers contains unclear details, and the subject should be based on scientific explanations. I think that the sea is wide and piracy was possible at the sites of the submerged ships.

“Exploration operations are taking place in the breakwater area, involving a French mission and Lebanese archaeologists. Before that, a Spanish expedition along with marine archaeologists participated in examining the remains of a ship dating back to the BC era.

“Ship exploration is very expensive, and the city of Tyre was subjected to numerous military siege campaigns and many ships sank. But this does not mean that we will not investigate this new discovery, according to the instructions of the minister of culture.”