Syrian troops take villages, push toward key opposition-held town

The troops captured Arbaeen the night before, following intense clashes with Al-Qaeda-linked militants. (File/AFP)
Updated 07 August 2019

Syrian troops take villages, push toward key opposition-held town

  • Kfar Zeita town, under regime offensive, has been held by opposition fighters since 2012
  • Syrian troops have been attacking Idlib and a stretch of land around it controlled by insurgents since April 30

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces captured two northwestern villages in an intensified offensive on the last opposition-held part of the country, inching closer to the town of Kfar Zeita which has been held by fighters since 2012, opposition activists and state media reported on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, neighboring Turkey reiterated threats to attack northeastern Syria to push back US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces there — even as Turkish and US officials held in Ankara on establishing a so-called “safe zone” within Syria.

The two developments — the Syrian regime offensive and Turkey’s threats — herald new escalations in Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year.

The Syrian forces first captured the village of Arbaeen overnight, then the nearby Zakat early in the morning as part of their offensive on Idlib province, the last remaining major opposition stronghold in Syria. 

The developments were reported by the regime-controlled Syrian Central Military Media and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group.

Earlier this week, the Syrian military forces announced it was resuming an offensive on the opposition-held northwest, accusing insurgents of violating the latest truce there. 

If the army keeps pushing into the northwest, Syrian forces could get in contact with Turkish troops that man 12 observation posts along the border of Idlib. The closest Turkish point is in Morek, about 12 km east of Zakat.

Syrian troops have been attacking Idlib and a stretch of land around it controlled by insurgents since April 30. The three months of airstrikes and shelling have displaced some 400,000 and left more than 2,000 people dead on both sides.

Zakat and Arbaeen were controlled by Jaish Al-Izza, one of the main opposition groups in northern parts of the central province of Hama.

The Observatory said “regime forces are at the gates” of Kfar Zeita now, adding that fighting in the two villages killed 18 fighters and 10 pro-regime troops.

Kfar Zeita is one of the largest towns in the northern parts of Hama province and lies on the edge of Idlib, which is home to some 3 million people, many of them internally displaced by fighting elsewhere in Syria. Kfar Zeita and the nearby town of Latamneh appear to be main targets of the latest regime offensive.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported in 2014 that it has strong evidence that Syrian army helicopters dropped bombs carrying chlorine gas on three opposition-held towns, including Kfar Zeita.

Also Wednesday, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country would like to establish a so-called “safe zone” in northeast Syria jointly with the US but will act alone if necessary. Akar spoke as Turkish and US military officials continued to hold talks in Ankara over the zone.

He said the talks were progressing in a “positive” manner, adding that the American officials’ views were “moving closer” to Turkey’s.

Ankara wants to control — in coordination with the US — a 19-25 mile-deep zone east of the Euphrates River in Syria, and wants no Syrian Kurdish forces there. Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists aligned with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

Turkey has threatened to attack this part of Syria to push back the US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces, known as Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

Also on Wednesday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported that a car bomb exploded in the SDF-controlled northern village of Qahtaniyeh, killing several people and wounding others.

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

Updated 10 December 2019

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

  • Former US vice president sounds warning during panel discussion on ‘The global order 2030’
  • Remarks seen as indirect criticism of President Trump’s pledge to pull forces out of Syria

DUBAI: Dick Cheney, one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, has warned that “American disengagement” from the Middle East would only benefit Iran and Russia.

The 78-year-old politician’s warning came during a speech at the Arab Strategy Forum (ASF) in Dubai, an annual event in which the world’s leading decision-makers address global challenges and opportunities in “a precise, balanced and politically scientific manner.”

Cheney’s remarks could be seen as indirect criticism of US President Donald Trump’s pledges to pull forces out of northern Syria.

Addressing conference delegates, he cited the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the 2015 lifting of sanctions against Iran during Barack Obama’s presidency, as events that amplified instability in the region.

“Our allies were left abandoned, and no one wants to feel that way again,” said Cheney, who was chief executive of Halliburton between 1995 and 2000 and held high posts in several Republican administrations.

The former VP’s remarks came during the forum’s concluding session titled, “The global order 2030: The Unites States and China,” which was attended by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Joined by Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese foreign minister, in a candid panel discussion, Cheney offered his views on the world order in the next decade within the context of Iran’s regional ascendancy, China’s rise and Russian ambitions in the Middle East.

“I am not here to speak on behalf of the US government, or to speak to it,” Cheney said, adding that his talking points reflected concerns he suspected everyone shared.

“For decades, there’s been a consensus of America’s influence in the world and how to use it,” he said, citing instances where US disengagement had caused the political situation in the Middle East to implode.

“Humanity has benefited from America’s protectionism of the world and its relationship with its allies in the region.”

According to him, the upcoming decade would be bleak should the US adopt a disengagement policy, with the pressures most felt by supporters and partners in the Middle East.

Turning to the role that the US and China would play in the global status quo by 2030, Cheney said there were still concerns over China’s reputation.

“We had hoped that there would be a political evolution in China, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he added.

Li said: “China will never learn from a world superpower and will never try to be hegemonic,” citing as examples China’s strong relations with the UAE and the wider Arab world, and the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (a global development strategy) on Chinese foreign policy.

“History is the best teacher, but the US has forgotten its own history. You don’t keep your promises,” added Li, directing his statement at Cheney.

Cheney said that since the end of the Cold War, the US had expected that its policy toward China would have had a beneficial effect on its behavior and helped to deepen bilateral relations.

“It was disappointing to see that these expectations were not borne out – China has only grown richer, the regime has become more oppressive, and instead of evolving, it became more assertive,” he said.

In a separate ASF meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Center, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, discussed Iran’s policies in a session titled, “The race for relevance and influence in the region: GCC, Iran, Turkey and Russia.”

Sadjadpour said he expected in the next 10 years to see the arrival of “an Iranian Putin” with a military background as the country’s next leader.

“After 40 years of a clerical regime and a military autocracy, there is now a rise of Persian nationalism. This is a shift from the sheer revolution ideology,” he said.

Sadjadpour said there had been an evolution of “Shiite Arab” identity during the past two decades, with the focus more on religion than nationality.

Under the circumstances, he noted that Sunni Arab powers had an important role to play in welcoming Shiite Arabs into their fold “and luring them away from Iran.”

The analyst added that the future of the Arab world could not be explored and forecast without considering a growing mental health crisis. “Today, hundreds of millions of people in the region suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and the effects of this will be with us for decades to come, resulting in issues like radicalism.”

He said there was a need for training thousands of counselors in the field of mental health in order to reach out to those whose lives had been robbed by extreme violence and conflicts.