Fragile truce holds over northwest Syria

A convoy of Turkish military vehicles passing through the village of Kafr Halab on the western edge of Aleppo province on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 02 September 2019

Fragile truce holds over northwest Syria

  • Regime, Russian warplanes have not been seen over Idlib since a truce went into effect

BEIRUT: A fragile Russian-backed cease-fire was holding on Sunday in Syria’s violence-plagued northwest, following months of heavy bombardment of the anti-regime bastion, a war monitor said.

“Relative calm prevails” over the Idlib region, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Regime and Russian warplanes have not been seen over Idlib since a unilateral cease-fire went into effect at 6 a.m. on Saturday, he added.

But the Observatory head did report some “skirmishes” in Idlib, where regime forces have been battling fighters of the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance and allied opposition groups.

HTS, Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, controls almost all of Idlib as well as parts of neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

The area is one of the last holdouts of opposition to forces of Syria’s Bashar Assad.

The region of some 3 million people has been hit hard by four months of bombardment by the regime and its ally Russia.

More than 950 civilians have been killed since the end of April, according to the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

The UN says more than 400,000 people have fled.

The truce is the latest Russian-led effort to avert what the UN has described as one of the worst humanitarian “nightmares” in Syria’s eight-year conflict.

It is the second such agreement between Assad’s regime and opposition since Aug. 1.

But on Saturday, an Assad adviser said that the cease-fire was “temporary.”

It “serves the grand strategy of liberating every inch of Syrian territory,” Buthaina Shaaban told Lebanon’s pro-Damascus Al-Mayadeen TV.

Just hours after the cease-fire went into effect, regime bombardment on the Idlib town of Kafranbel killed one civilian — the first casualty recorded by the Observatory since the start of the truce.

Two regime loyalists were reported killed when their car was targeted by opposition and militant fighters along Idlib’s southern border with Hama, according to the war monitor.

It said HTS fighters had also downed a Russian reconnaissance drone.

Also on Saturday, the US Defense Department said a US strike targeted Al-Qaeda in northern Idlib province.

The Observatory said the missile attack hit a meeting of Al-Qaeda leaders at a base near the city of Idlib, killing at least 40.

Russia accused the US of having “compromised” the cease-fire with the “indiscriminate” attack.

The US said it targeted leaders of Al-Qaeda in Syria (AQ-S) “responsible for attacks threatening US citizens, our partners and innocent civilians.”

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.


US to pull last troops from north Syria

Updated 14 October 2019

US to pull last troops from north Syria

  • The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria
  • Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of US’s Kurdish-led ally the Syrian Democratic Forces

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: The United States said on Sunday it will withdraw its remaining 1,000 troops from northern Syria in the face of an expanding Turkish offensive while Syria’s army struck a deal with Kurdish forces to redeploy along its border with Turkey, both major victories for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria and the failure of the US policy of keeping Assad from reasserting state authority over areas lost during the more than eight-year conflict with rebels trying to end his rule.
The developments also represent wins for Russia and Iran, which have backed Assad since 2011 when his violent effort to crush what began as peaceful protests against his family’s decades-long rule of Syria exploded into a full-blown civil war.
While the US withdrawal moves American troops out of the line of fire, the return of Syrian soldiers to the Turkish border opens up the possibility of a wider conflagration should the Syrian army come in direct conflict with Turkish forces.
The Turkish onslaught in northern Syria has also raised the prospect that Daesh militants and their families held by the Kurdish forces targeted by Turkey may escape — scores were said to have done so already — and permit the group’s revival.
The remarkable turn of events was set in motion a week ago when US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw about 50 special operations forces from two outposts in northern Syria, a step widely seen as paving the way for Turkey to launch its week-long incursion against Kurdish militia in the region.
Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key US ally in dismantling the “caliphate” set up by Daesh militants in Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said the offensive would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east and extend some 30 kilometers into Syrian territory, with the town of Ras al Ain now in Turkish control.
US Defense Secretary Mike Esper said the United States decided to withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops in northern Syria — two US officials told Reuters it could pull the bulk out in days — after learning of the deepening Turkish offensive.
It was unclear what would happen to the several hundred US troops at the American military outpost of Tanf, near Syria’s southern border with Iraq and Jordan.
Another factor behind the decision, Esper indicated in an interview with the CBS program “Face the Nation,” was that the SDF aimed to make a deal with Russia and Syria to counter the Turkish onslaught. Several hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had struck just such an agreement for the Syrian army to deploy along the length of the border with Turkey to help repel Ankara’s offensive.
The deployment would help the SDF in countering “this aggression and liberating the areas that the Turkish army and mercenaries had entered,” it added, referring to Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, and would also allow for the liberation of other Syrian cities occupied by the Turkish army such as Afrin.
The fighting has sparked Western concerns that the SDF, holding large swathes of northern Syria once controlled by Daesh, would be unable to keep thousands of militants in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.