Al-Qaeda’s advance in northern Syria threatens fragile truce

This photo released Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018 by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ibaa News Agency, shows Al-Qaeda-linked militants learning how to use a heavy weapon in the countryside of Idlib, Syria. (Ibaa News Agency/AP)
Updated 30 January 2019
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Al-Qaeda’s advance in northern Syria threatens fragile truce

  • The advance by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or the Levant Liberation Committee, was the most serious blow yet to a September cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey
  • HTS includes large numbers of battle-hardened Al-Qaeda fighters, and its capture of most of rebel-held Syria could force aid agencies to withdraw

BEIRUT: It only took a few days for Al-Qaeda-linked militants to seize more than two dozen towns and villages in northern Syria from rival insurgents earlier this month, expanding and cementing their control over an area the size of neighboring Lebanon.
The advance by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or the Levant Liberation Committee, was the most serious blow yet to a September cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that averted a major government offensive in Idlib province, the last main stronghold of the Syrian opposition.
It highlighted the growing threat posed by Al-Qaeda at a time when its rival, the Daesh group, is on the verge of defeat and the US is preparing to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria. Although HTS has formally severed ties with Al-Qaeda, experts say it is still closely linked to the global network founded by Osama bin Laden and could use its base in Syria to launch attacks in the West.
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says there is a “real danger” that the group’s advance “will not only worsen the humanitarian crisis for the 3 million inhabitants there, but also give (President Bashar) Assad and his allies the justification to assault the province.”
“Such a scenario would be as devastatingly bloody as the battle for Aleppo,” he said, referring to the months of heavy fighting over Syria’s largest city in 2016, which killed thousands of people and ended with government forces and their allies capturing the rebel-held east.
HTS includes large numbers of battle-hardened Al-Qaeda fighters, and its capture of most of rebel-held Syria could force aid agencies to withdraw, leaving tens of thousands of civilians to fend for themselves. The opposition’s Free Aleppo Medical Directorate said that some 250,000 people will lose medical support after 43 facilities it runs cease operations due to a drop in aid from Western agencies after the latest HTS offensive.
The government has meanwhile stepped up its bombardment of Idlib and neighboring rebel-held areas. Pro-government media say Defense Minister Gen. Ali Ayoub and Brig. Gen. Suheil Al-Hassan, who commands the elite Tiger Force, have recently visited the front lines with Idlib, raising fears of a new government offensive.
HTS now controls an area of about 9,000 square kilometers (3,475 square miles) or about 5 percent of Syria’s territory. The area is home to some 3 million people, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
Turkey has nearly a dozen observation posts in Idlib, but has shifted its focus further east, where it is preparing to launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara, which supports the opposition, fears the Syrian government is trying to undermine the September agreement. Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, has urged Turkey to act more resolutely in reining in militants in Idlib, who have launched attacks on Syrian government forces and the Russian military. Russia said last week that the escalation of hostilities in Idlib threatens the Russian air base in the neighboring coastal province of Latakia.
The first 10 days of January turned rebel-held parts of northern Syria upside down.
The powerful Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group dissolved itself after days of fighting with HTS during which it lost more than two dozen villages. The ultraconservative Ahrar Al-Sham, one of the largest groups in northern Syria, also surrendered following attacks by HTS.
Two other groups, Thuwar Al-Sham and Bayareq Al-Islam, handed over Atareb, an important stronghold in Aleppo province, to HTS and withdrew north toward a region held by Turkish troops. Jaysh Al-Ahrar handed over its checkpoints and said it would recognize the HTS-run civil authority.
A week after HTS crushed its opponents, a bomb targeted one of the Al-Qaeda-linked group’s checkpoints at the southern entrance to Idlib, the provincial capital. The blast killed 11 people, including militants, and wounded several others.
Days later, HTS claimed that it captured 12 members of the Daesh group who were allegedly behind the bombing. The group then released a graphic video like those produced by IS that showed the men being led to the scene of the blast and forced to kneel, blindfolded, before a line of gunmen. The video cuts out before they are shot in the back of their heads.
After the advance by HTS, which now controls a border crossing with Turkey and major highways, some international aid agencies suspended their work for fear of reprisals. HTS has been known to crack down on independent groups and civil society in areas under its control.
Mohammed Hajj Omar, who heads the opposition’s health department in Aleppo province, said 250,000 people will be immediately affected and more than 3 million at a later stage.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said earlier this month that the United Nations was still providing aid to the region.
He added that while the “full implications” of the HTS takeover were not yet clear, the UN and its partners “are closely following developments to ensure that independent, impartial and principled humanitarian action continues.”
The Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank, said the HTS takeover “alters the trajectory of the next phase in the civil war, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Assad regime.”
“From the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Assad has consistently sought to transform the narrative by making the fight about supporting his government or supporting terrorists, defined as any group fighting against the regime,” it said.


Yemen govt, Houthis to start first phase of Hodeidah pullout

Updated 51 min 16 sec ago
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Yemen govt, Houthis to start first phase of Hodeidah pullout

  • The UN statement said both sides ‘made important progress on planning for the redeployment of forces as envisaged in the Hodeidah agreement.’
  • Under Phase 1, the Houthis would withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef, used for grains, and Ras Isa, used for oil.

NEW YORK: Yemen’s government and the Houthi militias have agreed on the first stage of a mutual pullout of forces from the port city of Hodeidah, a key entry point for humanitarian aid, the United Nations said.

The Iran-aligned Houthi movement and the government agreed in talks in December to withdraw troops by Jan. 7 from Hodeidah under a truce accord aimed at averting a full-scale assault on the port and paving the way for negotiations to end the four-year-old war.

“The parties reached an agreement on Phase 1 of the mutual redeployment of forces,” the UN spokesman’s office said in a statement without giving details on what was agreed.

Under Phase 1, the Houthis would withdraw from the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef, used for grains, and Ras Isa, used for oil. This would be met by a retreat of Saudi-led coalition forces from the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah, where battles raged before a cease-fire went into effect on Dec. 18.

The Houthis occupy Hodeidah, the main entry point for the bulk of Yemen’s commercial and aid imports, while Yemeni government forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi are massed on the outskirts.

The UN statement said the two sides also agreed “in principle” on Phase 2, entailing full redeployment of both parties’ forces in Hodeidah province.

Two sources involved in the negotiations said both sides had yet to agree on a withdrawal timeline or on a mechanism for local forces to take over security at the ports and city.

“The UN is still discussing how to reduce the gap between the two sides on how to choose the forces that will control the city,” one source told Reuters.

The parties could decide within 7-10 days on where they would reposition forces, said the other source, adding that Houthi fighters could pull back as far as 20 km from the port.

Disagreement on withdrawal had delayed opening humanitarian corridors in Yemen.

Under the first phase, the two sides agreed to reopen main roads linking Hodeidah to the Houthi-occupied capital Sanaa and in Yemen’s third city of Taiz, said a UN source.

They also agreed to enable access to Red Sea Mills, which holds some 50,000 tons of World Food Program grain, enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month, the source said. Access to the site has been cut off since September due to fighting.

The Hodeidah truce has largely been respected but there have been intermittent skirmishes in flashpoints on the city’s edges.

Hodeidah became the focus of the war last year when the coalition twice launched an offensive to seize the port and weaken the Houthis by cutting of their main supply line.