Rouba El Husseini – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 04 Dec 2021 05:16:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Even after Trump’s Announced Withdrawal, US & Kurdish Allies Still Assaulting last ISIL Redoubt in Syria Mon, 11 Mar 2019 05:55:41 +0000 co-author: Tony Gamal-Gabriel

Syria (AFP) – US-backed forces said Sunday time was up for Islamic State group jihadists hunkering down in their eastern Syrian holdout and resumed their assault on the pocket.

The extremists once ruled over millions in a swathe of Syria and Iraq, but they have since lost all that land except for a riverside encampment in the village of Baghouz.

The Syrian Democratic Forces has slowed down its months-long campaign against IS in recent weeks to allow civilians and surrendering jihadists out from their shrinking enclave.

But the Kurdish-led alliance, which is backed by air strikes of a US-led coalition, on Sunday said a deadline for surrenders had passed and the assault would resume.

“We have not seen any movement of civilians inside so the Syrian Democratic Forces have resumed their military operations against the group,” SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said.

The head of the SDF press office Mustefa Bali said air strikes had started up again on IS positions, and fighters on both sides were locked in violent clashes.

“The timeline (we gave) ISIS to surrender themselves is over,” he said earlier on Twitter, using another acronym for IS.

“Our forces have received orders for military action to finish off what is left of the terrorists in Baghouz,” a village near the Iraqi border, he said.

– Exodus –

Since December, nearly 59,000 people have left the last IS redoubt, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around a tenth of them suspected jihadist fighters.

Thousands of dust-covered women, children, and men have trundled out of the village of Baghouz in the past weeks, but that exodus has slowed to a trickle in recent days.

Suspected jihadists — including several wounded — have also been detained after making their way out in the crowd.

On Saturday, “only about 100 people left, including three Chinese Uighurs and three Moroccan women”, Bali told AFP earlier.

No one came out of the redoubt on Friday, he said.

It is unclear how many people remain inside the ragged camp on the edges of the Euphrates River.

AFP journalists on Saturday saw figures wearing the long black clothes of women stroll inside what remains of their doomsday camp, and bearded men zip down dirt tracks on motorbikes.

The SDF pushed into the encampment some 10 days ago, discovering spent ammunition lying between zig-zagging trenches, scorched pots and pans, and scraps of clothes left behind.

At the height of its brutal rule, IS controlled a stretch of land in Syria and Iraq the size of the United Kingdom.

The jihadists had their own courts, currency and school curriculum, and meted out bloody punishment to anyone who disobeyed their authoritarian rule.

– Symbolic end? –

The total capture of the Baghouz camp by the SDF would be a symbolic blow to IS, and mark the end of the cross-border “caliphate” it proclaimed in 2014.

But beyond Baghouz, IS maintains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has claimed a series of deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

The SDF launched their battle to expel IS from the east of the Euphrates in September.

Throughout the battles, they have detained hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for IS, as well as members of their families.

Their home countries have been weary of repatriating them, and Britain has stripped several of their citizenship.

Two women of Pakistani heritage have become the latest targets, a newspaper reported Sunday, raising questions about the fate of their children.

Reema Iqbal, 30, and her sister Zara, 28, left east London for Syria in 2013, and between them now have five boys under the age of eight, The Sunday Times newspaper said.

US President Donald Trump in December stunned his allies when he declared his country would pull out all 2,000 American troops from Syria because IS had been defeated.

The White House has however since said it would maintain a “peace-keeping” force of 200 soldiers in the north of the war-torn country.

The standoff in Baghouz is the latest chapter in Syria’s grinding civil war, which started eight years ago with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Since then, it has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions.

© Agence France-Presse

Featured Photo: “A fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) takes aim with his Kalashnikov assault rifle after seeing a man walking towards his position in the town of Baghouz, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, on March 9, 2019 (AFP Photo/BULENT KILIC).”

Syria: ISIL kills 220, mostly minority Druze, in Massive attacks on Southeast Thu, 26 Jul 2018 04:17:52 +0000 Beirut (AFP) – A string of suicide blasts and raids claimed by the Islamic State group killed more than 220 people in southern Syria on Wednesday, in one of the jihadists’ deadliest ever assaults in the country.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacks hit several areas of the largely government-held southern province of Sweida, where IS retains a presence in a northeastern desert region.

The bloodshed came almost a week into a Russia-backed regime campaign to oust IS fighters from a holdout in a neighbouring province of the country’s south.

IS claimed responsibility for the violence, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” attacked Syrian government positions and security outposts in Sweida city, then detonated explosive belts.

The Britain-based Observatory said four suicide bombers targeted Sweida city while others hit small villages to the north and east and shot residents in their homes.

At least 221 people were killed, including 127 civilians, the Observatory said.

The remaining 94 dead were pro-regime fighters, mostly residents who took up arms to defend their homes, it said.

The overwhelming majority of the dead “were in (Sweida’s) northern countryside, where the bodies of civilians executed inside their homes were found,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Sweida, whose residents are mostly from the Druze minority, has been relatively insulated from the war that has ravaged the rest of the country since 2011.

“It’s the bloodiest death toll in Sweida province since the start of the war” and one of the deadliest ever IS attacks in Syria, the Observatory chief said.

He said regime forces eventually ousted IS from several villages its fighters had seized and put an end to the attacks.

AFP / AFP. Map of Syria locating Sweida.

“Some residents who fled the attacks on their villages are returning and finding people dead in their homes,” Abdel Rahman said.

At least 38 IS fighters were also killed, including the suicide attackers.

– Abandoned shoes –

State media confirmed the attacks had killed and wounded people in Sweida city and villages to the north and east but did not give a specific toll.

“Today’s crime shows that countries supporting terrorism are trying to breathe life back into the terrorist organisation to keep it as a card in their hand that they will use to achieve political gains,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he received Russia’s envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev.

“These attempts will only succeed in… shedding more innocent blood,” he added, in comments carried on his social media accounts.

Omar, a resident of Sweida city, told AFP explosions began rocking the city around 5:30 am local time (0230 GMT).

“The blast was sudden and unexpected. Never in its history has Sweida seen such a tough day,” he told AFP.

State news agency SANA published images from the city of the attack’s aftermath, showing a victim’s remains sprawled on a staircase near a damaged wall.

Abandoned shoes lay in the middle of the road among fruit that had spilt out of cartons.

An eyewitness said Sweida’s national hospital was “packed”.

He said he saw “people bringing in a lot of wounded in their own private cars.. Others were coming to the hospital to ask if loved ones they had lost track of were there”.

The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Zaatari condemned the “terrorist bombing in Sweida city”, saying all civilians should be protected.

Government ally Russia said the IS attacks “confirm the need for energetic and coordinated efforts by the international community to eradicate this universal evil from Syrian territory”.

AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN. A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) removes an Islamic State group flag in the Syrian town of Tabqa, about 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqa city, on April 30, 2017.

Pro-government forces ousted IS from urban centres in eastern Syria last year, but IS raids in recent months have killed dozens of regime and allied fighters.

The jihadists still hold some territory in Syria’s south, including in Sweida and another isolated but larger patch in neighbouring Daraa province, to the west.

That pocket is held by Jaish Khaled bin al-Walid, a jihadist faction whose 1,000 fighters have pledged allegiance to IS.

After ousting mainstream rebels from most of the south, Assad’s troops backed by his Russian allies are now closing in on the IS pocket in Daraa.

SANA said the attacks on Sweida were an attempt to relieve pressure “on IS remnants facing their inevitable end in the western Daraa countryside”.

– Desert holdouts –

On Wednesday, Russia-backed regime forces pressed their heavy bombardment of IS territory in Daraa.

At least 41 civilians have been killed in air strikes on the jihadist holdout since July 19, while clashes have killed 49 regime fighters and 67 jihadists, says the Observatory.

AFP / JALAA MAREY. A picture taken on July 24, 2018 from the Tal Saki hill in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising across the border in Syria during air strikes as regime forces pressed an offensive against Daraa province.

Last month, Assad’s forces launched a lightning assault that battered rebel areas in the south and brought most of Daraa province under his control.

They then moved on to Quneitra, the neighbouring province which borders the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.

On Tuesday, a Syrian military source accused Israel of firing at one of its warplanes as it carried out operations against jihadists in Quneitra.

Israel’s army on Tuesday said it had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had infiltrated Israeli airspace, risking another escalation around the sensitive buffer zone.

The Damascus regime has long accused Israel of backing IS, which overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014 but has since lost most of that territory.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Featured Photo: SANA/AFP / Handout. A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on July 25, 2018 shows a member of the Syrian security forces walking past a truck damaged in a suicide attack in the southern city of Sweida.

Syria Rebels Surrender Zone Bordering Israeli-Occupied Golan Fri, 20 Jul 2018 04:30:58 +0000 With Omar Haj Kadour in Al-Eis | –

Beirut (AFP) – Syrian rebels have agreed to surrender a sensitive area bordering the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, a monitor and opposition source said Thursday, the latest in a series of deals expanding regime control over key territory.

The agreement follows another deal that saw thousands of residents evacuated Thursday morning from two pro-regime towns in northern Syria long besieged by hardline rebels.

Both deals, negotiated by regime ally Russia, will be seen as victories for President Bashar al-Assad over the seven-year uprising that once threatened his rule.

With a mix of military power and negotiated surrenders, his forces this month captured more than 90 percent of Daraa, the southern province where protests against him first erupted in 2011.

They then began intensely bombing rebels in Quneitra, a crescent-shaped province wedged between Daraa and the buffer zone with the Israel-occupied Golan to the west.

Under pressure, rebels have agreed to hand over Quneitra and the buffer to government forces, an opposition negotiator and a monitoring group told AFP on Thursday.

“The deal provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons, and the return of government institutions to the area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Syrian forces would take over opposition territory in the buffer and some rebels would be bussed to opposition territory in northern Syria, he added.

– Carrot-and-stick –

The agreement, according to the Observatory, does not include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist-led alliance that holds territory straddling Quneitra and Daraa.

State news agency SANA said it had information on a deal for the army to return to its pre-2011 positions in the area, without providing more details.

AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR. Members of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, watch as busses get ready to enter the towns of Fuaa and Kafraya to evacuate their residents on July 18, 2018.

A rebel negotiator confirmed a preliminary ceasefire agreement on Quneitra had been reached with Moscow but said it was unclear when it would be implemented.

Under it, he told AFP, Syrian government forces accompanied by Russian police would enter the buffer zone.

There was no comment from Israel on Thursday, but its military said it was keeping a close eye on the border, where tens of thousands of Syrians have sought safety from fighting.

The Israeli Defence Forces said it was “monitoring the events transpiring in southern Syrian closely and is prepared for a wide range of scenarios, including additional humanitarian aid distribution to displaced Syrians.”

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in 1967 and later annexed it, in a move never recognised internationally.

It sees security in the area as a top priority, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussing the south with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this month.

Russia is a decades-old ally of Syria’s government and has used a carrot-and-stick strategy against rebels to help Assad regain the upper hand.

Moscow began bombing Syrian rebels in 2015 but has also reached out to them, securing negotiated surrenders of vital areas.

It even brokered a deal this week to evacuate thousands of besieged people from a pair of pro-regime towns in northwest Syria.

– ‘A huge loss’ –

Fuaa and Kafraya in Idlib province were the last remaining areas under blockade in Syria and a rare example of pro-government towns surrounded by rebel forces.

Besieged for three years by rebels and HTS, the Shiite-majority towns had become a rallying cry for the government and Iran, another key regime ally.

A deal between Russia and rebel ally Turkey saw thousands of residents bussed out on Thursday to regime-held areas in Aleppo.

The departure was emotional and bittersweet, said Shilan Shuweish, a Fuaa resident who left with her husband and two children.

“It’s a huge loss,” Shuweish, 28, told AFP, writing from the bus via a mobile messaging app.

“We left our homes behind, but at the same time we’ve got kids here that until this day don’t know what an apple is,” she said.

AFP / George OURFALIAN. Busses transporting residents and fighters from the towns of Fuaa and Kafraya arrive in Syrian regime-held territory at the Al-Eis crossing point south of Aleppo on July 19, 2018.

Some 6,900 civilians and fighters left, fully emptying the towns.

HTS has said that 1,500 detainees would be released from regime jails in exchange for the evacuation.

On Thursday, a gaunt man released from regime custody could be seek tearfully hugging a younger rebel fighter at a staging ground between opposition and government territory in northern Syria.

But a Syrian advocacy group slammed the regime, saying long-detained rights activists were not among those freed.

“They are releasing detainees who’ve been detained for two or three months — so the peaceful activists detained for years are not included in such deals,” said Laila Kiki, executive director of the Syria Campaign.

“Again, the regime was able to (maintain) its crackdown on the civil, peaceful, non-violent activists.”

Featured Photo: AFP / JALAA MAREY. A picture taken on July 16, 2018 from the Israeli side in the annexed Golan Heights, shows smoke plumes rising from reported Syrian and Russian air strikes across the border in Syria’s southern Quneitra province.

Backed by Putin Air Force, Syrian Army rapidly takes 90% of Daraa Tue, 17 Jul 2018 04:03:23 +0000 Beirut (AFP) – Syrian regime forces backed by Russia made sweeping advances on Monday against rebels holding out in the country’s vital southern zone.

For nearly one month, Syria’s government has worked to capture the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra with a mix of heavy bombardment, ground attacks and surrender deals brokered by Moscow.

Despite an international outcry, government forces have retaken swathes of the area including the border with Jordan and are inching closer to the sensitive frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Regime troops made another “quick advance” against rebels on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor which relies on a network of sources inside the country.

“Regime forces took a number of towns in western parts of Daraa province, some through clashes with those refusing to join the handover deals, and others after agreements were reached,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

A string of towns — Al-Hara, Samlin, and Zimrin — had agreed to fall back into regime control, while troops overran Al-Tiha militarily.

“With that advance, the regime holds more than 90 percent of Daraa province,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Citing a military source, Syrian state news agency SANA also said the army had captured new territory, including Al-Tiha and Zimrin.

– Key hilltop hit –

Heavy fighting had been raging over a hilltop known as Tallet Al-Hara and held by Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), said the Observatory.

AFP / Mohamad ABAZEED. A Syrian girl looks out of a bus window during the evacuation of rebels and their families from Daraa city on July 15, 2018.

HTS had refused a surrender, ushering in a wave of regime and Russian shelling that have killed 30 jihadists since Sunday. An HTS ambush then left 12 regime forces dead, Abdel Rahman said.

An AFP photographer there saw a plume of smoke emerging from the sloping hilltop overlooking agricultural plains on Monday.

By the afternoon, Syrian state news agency SANA said government forces had captured Tallet Al-Hara.

Beyond the hilltop, the sliver of Daraa that still escapes regime control includes the rebel town of Nawa and a small pocket held by an Islamic State group affiliate.

Rebels in Nawa, where tens of thousands of people live, are in talks with Russia for a potential handover deal too, according to the Observatory.

Moscow has helped the regime secure these negotiated surrenders in several key areas, including second city Aleppo in 2016 and the rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus in April.

For the south, it pressured rebels to agreed to hand over eastern parts of Daraa province in early July and the provincial capital last week.

Opposition forces there handed over territory as well as heavy weapons to government troops, in exchange for a halt to bombing and transfer to rebel territory elsewhere.

On Sunday, several hundred rebels and civilians were bussed from Daraa city to opposition-held Idlib in the northwest, paving the way for it to return fully to the government fold.

The regime’s recapture of Daraa city would be a huge propaganda win for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the seven-year uprising against him has its roots there.

– Strikes on Quneitra –

On Monday, state news agency SANA reported that journalist Mustafa Salama of pro-regime television channel Sama was killed by rebel shelling in the Masshara area of Quneitra province.

Syrian and Russian bombardment battered the province of Quneitra, which remains mostly in rebel hands, for a second day on Monday.

Quneitra lies directly west of Daraa and is bordered on the other side by the highly sensitive buffer zone with the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Government forces have made a modest ground advance there, the Observatory and state media both said.

Israel has been on high alert since hostilities erupted last month in the south.

It says its main priority is preventing its archfoe Iran, a key backer of Assad, from building up its military installations in Syria.

Late Sunday, suspected Israeli missiles hit a military position in Syria’s northern Aleppo province where the Observatory says elite Iranian forces are stationed.

The Britain-based monitor said nine pro-regime fighters were killed in the strikes, at least six of them Syrian.

But Syrian state media denied any casualties and said Israel had launched the raids to try to help beleaguered rebels in the south.

Israel has refused to comment.

Featured Photo: AFP / JALAA MAREY. A picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising from reported Syrian and Russian air strikes across the border in Syria’s Quneitra province on July 16, 2018.