Bashar al-Assad – the useful tyrant?

President Bashar al-Assad remains at the center of the Syrian conflict. Fighting between troops, rebels and IS has claimed countless lives and the situation is still volatile. How has Assad stayed in power for so long in times of such instability?

Watch video42:31

According to UN estimates, the balance sheet after seven years of war in Syria is devastating: 500,000 dead or missing, 12 million people uprooted, besieged cities, air raids on the civilian population and endless suffering. Bashar al-Assad remains at the center of the conflict. He has been President of Syria since 2000. He succeeded his father Hafiz al-Assad, who ruled the country from 1971 to 2000. The son started as a reformer, initially courted by heads of state in the West. After all, he was considered a guarantor of stability and a partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism. But the “Damascus Spring” ended abruptly after the people’s demands for more freedom outstripped the Syrian leadership’s will to reform. Assad violently repressed the protests that began in Syria in the course of the Arab Spring in 2011. In the subsequent civil war, he stands accused of using chemical weapons against opposition fighters and civilians. Bashar al-Assad maintained his grip on power through a mixture of brute force, skillful tactics and above all through international aid, especially from his allies Russia and Iran. At the beginning of 2017, Syrian troops controlled 19 percent of the country: Now it’s more than half, including the four largest cities, access to the Mediterranean, ten out of 14 provincial capitals and 85 percent of the population. IS has largely been defeated and the area held by the last remaining rebels is shrinking steadily. So who is Bashar al-Assad? How could his clan hold on to power for so long? The film examines how the Assads have repeatedly managed to politically survive through changing international alliances. How does the dictator exploit the geostrategic interests of global players? We talk to close companions and opponents as well as other people who have met him.

Courtesy: DW

A Christmas tale of two liberated cities, Aleppo & Mosul

Robert Bridge
Robert Bridge is an American writer and journalist. He is author of the book, ‘Midnight in the American Empire,’ released in 2013. robertvbridge@yahoo.com
A Christmas tale of two liberated cities, Aleppo & Mosul
As eyewitness reports emerge from these two war-torn cities, the humanitarian conditions in Aleppo appear to be stabilizing faster compared to Mosul. The US obsession with Syrian regime change appears to be the reason.

A scene best described as miraculous emerged from the Syrian city of Aleppo on Christmas Eve as hundreds of Christian Syrians took to the streets in celebration of the religious holiday.

Social media overflowed with pictures of children dressed up in Santa costumes, happily strolling the once fear-filled streets. Churches that months earlier had been targeted by Jabhat Al-Nusra and Islamic State militants were once again festive places of song and worship.

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Merry Christmas from Syria’s Aleppo, free of ISIS and Al-Qaeda jihadists. A beautiful sight that won’t be seen on mainstream media.

Beyond all odds, joy and celebration have conquered the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that pervaded this city for many months during its captivity by IS forces. Even now, sporadic violence occasionally raises its head. Just days before the Christmas celebrations a neighborhood was shelled by anti-government forces. Two girls, age six and 13, were killed in the attacks.

In December 2016, after years of enduring a bitter siege, Aleppo was freed by the combined military forces of Syria, Russia, and Iran. Following the liberation, Russia was greeted with an outpouring of gratitude from the inhabitants of the city. And it certainly did not hurt Russia’s campaign that it provided a significant amount of humanitarian aid to citizens of Aleppo.

After the city was cleared of the rebel militants, the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria delivered nearly 35 tons of humanitarian aid – which included hot meals, food packages, warm clothes for children, blankets, and first aid – to the refugees of the al-Mahaledzh camp in eastern Aleppo. The importance of such assistance to people who have lost everything from the deprivations of war cannot be overestimated.

While the city will require many years of rebuilding, it looks as though the citizens of Aleppo have passed through the darkest hour of their plight. The same, however, cannot be said for their fellow war victims in Mosul, Iraq.

Not so merry Mosul

Judging by live, on-the-ground reporting from Mosul, this Iraqi city is not faring nearly as well as its Syrian counterpart. Liberated from Islamic State forces six months ago, much of the city remains uninhabitable following a nine-month siege by Iraqi troops supported by the US-led coalition.

An RT crew paid a visit to Mosul this month and what they found was not encouraging.

Many of those who have returned to the city (or never left) are forced to borrow money to feed their families. Others were filmed digging through the corpse-strewn, bomb-littered ruins to salvage material to sell, such as scrap metal.

One boy, aged 11, told the RT crew through tears that this was his daily task.

According to RT correspondent Murat Gazdiev, the ancient city has been turned into a “dead and miserable place,” where there is “more rubble than buildings.” Nevertheless, the residents of the city are beginning to return, but most often “not out of choice.”

They literally have nowhere else to go.

A middle-aged man, one of many people interviewed on the streets of Mosul, told RT: “My home is destroyed. My shop is destroyed. I’m borrowing money just to feed my family. I’m going to sell my car tomorrow to buy food. Why is it like this? Where are the countries that said they would support us?

The question is not an idle one. After all, it has been estimated that the US-led coalition forces spent tens of thousands of dollars per airstrike – hundreds and hundreds in the city of Mosul alone (The total cost for the US war in Syria and Iraq, from August 2014 to present, exceeds 14.3 billion US dollars, with a daily average of about 13.6 million).

The money from just a few airstrikes could feed all the civilians in this embattled Iraqi city for months. Yet the much-anticipated food shipments have not arrived, while residents are in a daily race against disease, dehydration, and starvation.

According to RT’s exclusive report, the local Mosul garrison, called ‘Division Five,’ shares its food with the locals, while some NGOs showed up and handed out blankets. But that has been the extent of the humanitarian assistance.

“The world has forgotten Mosul. It’s out of fashion, no longer trending. And locals have a well-founded suspicion that this was never about saving them,” Gazdiev commented.

Meanwhile, there are still some remnants of IS fighters left in the city, which makes the daily necessity of finding food and water even more of a challenge. Indeed, half a year after declaring the city liberated, the RT crew had to be escorted around the town by a soldier with his pistol always drawn and cocked.

At this point, there emerges an obvious question: Why the dramatic difference in conditions between these two places? Why does it seem that Aleppo is recovering not only at a much faster pace, but is also receiving a massive amount of humanitarian aid from Russia?

The answer, I believe, can be found in how both Russia and the US-led coalition approached their respective missions. First, Russia did not suddenly appear in Syria as an invader, as the United States did in Iraq in 2003 when it – wrongly – accused Saddam Hussein of harboring weapons of mass destruction. Syrian President Bashar Assad extended a formal invitation to President Putin to assist his country in routing the terrorist invader.

Second, it was arguably never the intention of the US-led coalition to eliminate Islamic State. This much was admitted in a 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document released by Judicial Watch. The DIA predicted the rise of Islamic State, yet did not categorize the group as an enemy. In fact, it expressed outright support for the emergence of the group.

According to the report: “…There is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime…”

In other words, the US-led forces planned for their mercenaries to supplant Assad in Damascus.

This revelation seems to support the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim the US-backed forces in September were facilitating the safe retreat of ISIS fighters out of Iraq and into Syria.

“The US-led coalition, which is simulating the fight against ISIS, primarily in Iraq, sees all this but continues to supposedly actively fight against ISIS, for some reason in Syria,”said Major General Igor Konashenkov.

There is a strong temptation here to say the US-led forces, more concerned about moving its terrorist chess pieces to checkmate President Assad, were not remotely interested in improving the plight of Iraqi and Syrian citizens. Their sole and very cynical interest was gaining a strategic advantage in the region with the help of renegade militants.

All things considered, the dramatically different Christmas pictures coming out of Aleppo and Mosul points to precisely such a grim conclusion.

The people of Mosul are paying the price for such folly.

@Robert_Bridge

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Courtesy: RT

$200bn to reconstruct war-torn Syria… the US and its partners should pay

Finian Cunningham
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.
$200bn to reconstruct war-torn Syria… the US and its partners should pay
With Syria’s nearly seven-year war now virtually over, the process of rebuilding the devastated country comes to the fore, with the financial cost of that effort put at $200 billion. Who pays for it?

When you view the ruins of Aleppo alone, Syria’s second biggest city, plus the carnage across the entire country, from towns, villages, bridges, roads, public utilities, hospitals, schools, and so on, the real figure for reconstruction could be far higher than $200 billion.

Then there is the inestimable cost of human suffering and families decimated. All told, the reparations could amount to trillions of dollars.

Syria’s war was no ordinary civil war, as Western mainstream media tended to mendaciously depict it.

From the outset, the conflict was one of an externally driven covert war for regime change against the government of President Bashar Assad. The Arab Spring unrest of 2011 provided a convenient cover for the Western plot to subvert Syria.

The United States and its NATO allies, Britain, France, and Turkey, were the main driving forces behind the war in Syria, which resulted in up to 400,000 deaths and millions of citizens displaced from their homes. Other key regional players sponsoring the campaign against the Syrian government were Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel.

Most of the militants who fought in Syria to overthrow the state authorities were not Syrian nationals. Self-styled jihadists from dozens of countries around the world made their way to Syria, where they were funded, armed and directed by covert forces from Western and Arab states.

The barbarian-like gravitation to Syria indicates the degree to which the effort to overthrow the Syrian government was orchestrated by foreign powers.

This was a planned, concerted project for regime change. The systematic violence imposed on Syria was very arguably due to an international criminal conspiracy perpetrated by the US and all of the above “partners.” The case can, therefore, be made for criminal responsibility.

That, in turn, means that financial reparations and damages can be sued by the Syrian state against those foreign powers which waged the war, albeit indirectly through proxy militant groups.

The bitter irony though is that the US and its Western allies are reportedly using Syria’s war-torn plight as leverage to pursue their political objective of ousting Assad. What these powers could not achieve on the battlefield with their terrorist mercenaries they now seem to be pursuing through their dominance over international financial institutions.

The Washington DC-based International Monetary Fund estimates the reconstruction of Syria’s devastated infrastructure will cost $200 billion. (As noted above, that’s probably a gross underestimate.)

As Bloomberg News reported last week: “The US and its European and Arab partners have for years insisted that Assad must go and are now using the carrot of funding for rebuilding the shattered nation in a final attempt to pressure the Syrian leader. The International Monetary Fund estimates the cost of reconstruction at $200 billion, and neither of Syria’s main allies, Russia and Iran, can afford to pick up the bill.”

It’s a moot point whether Russia and Iran cannot afford to help rebuild Syria. Who’s to say that those two powers along with China and other Eurasian nations could not club together to create a reconstruction fund for Syria, independent of Western countries and their Arab client regimes?

However, regardless of the source of funding for Syria, what Russia, China, Iran and other key international players should push for at the United Nations and other global forums such as the Non-Aligned Movement is the repudiation of Western efforts to link financial aid to future political change in Syria.

Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s envoy steering the peace process in Syria, has reiterated Moscow’s position that the political outcome for Syria must be determined by the Syrian people alone, free from external influence. That is also the position of several UN resolutions.

Lavrentiev says Bashar Assad should be free to run in next year’s presidential election if he chooses to and that it is unacceptable for the US and its allies to try to use financial aid as a bargaining tool.

“It’s a simplistic approach when some Western countries say that they’ll give money only when they see that the opposition comes to power or their interests are fully accommodated,” said the Russian envoy.

It’s not merely unacceptable for such Western conditioning. It’s outrageous. Far from quibbling about financial aid to Syria, the debate should be broadened out to hold governments to account for the destruction and loss of life in Syria.

To establish responsibility is not a mystery. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are known to have poured money and weapons into dozens of jihadist-styled groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al Islam under the umbrella of the Islamic Front or Army of Conquest. The precise distinction – if any – between these groups and the internationally proscribed terror organizations of Nusra Front (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and Daesh (Islamic State) is elusive and probably negligible.

American, British and French special forces are known to have trained militants under the faux banner of “moderate rebels” and “Free Syrian Army,” even when there is evidence these same groups were cooperating with Al-Qaeda-type extremist networks. Under President Barack Obama, the US government funneled $500 million into training “rebels” in Syria. Trump earlier this year closed down CIA training operations. This is, in effect, an admission of culpability by Washington of fueling the war.

The Americans and British forces were up to recently training the militant group Maghawir al Thawra at Al Tanf base on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The American government also funded another jihadist group Nour al-Din al Zenki, which came to notoriety in a video showing their members beheading a Palestinian boy.

Weapons caches recovered by the Syria Arab Army after the liberation of ISIS strongholds in Deir ez-Zor also show stockpiles of US-made arms and other NATO munitions, including anti-tank missiles.

The Western governments openly funded the fake emergency responders – the so-called White Helmets – who worked hand-in-hand as a propaganda front for Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

There have been systematic links between Western governments, their regional client regimes and the terror proxies who carried out the dirty war on their behalf in Syria over the past seven years.

It is an insult upon injury for Western governments to impose constraints on financial aid to Syria. Furthermore, the economic costs of reconstruction should not be levied on the Syrian people. Those costs should be paid in full by Washington and its partners who engaged in a criminal war on Syria.

Surely, Syria, Russia, Iran and other allied governments should form an international prosecution case for war crimes.

Not only should Washington, London, Paris and others be made to pay damages. Political and military leaders from these countries should be placed in the dock to answer personally for crimes against the Syrian people. To allow impunity is to let Washington and its rogue cohorts keep repeating the same crimes elsewhere, over and over.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Reporting what the mainstream media won’t: Follow RT’s Twitter account
Courtesy: RT

Syria Is Currently Host to Thousands of Foreign Troops: Who Are They and Will They Leave?

Assad’s rule is extremely reliant on continued assistance from Iranian-sponsored militias, which have spread across the war-ravaged country

The Associated Press Nov 28, 2017 12:56 PM
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This Tuesday, March 7, 2017 file frame grab from video provided by Arab 24 network, shows U.S. forces take up positions on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij Arab 24 network, via AP, File
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Syria’s long-running civil war may be winding down slowly, but the country is awash in weapons and a confounding array of local militias and thousands of foreign troops, some of which may never leave.
With crucial aid from allies Iran and Russia, President Bashar Assad has regained control over large areas of Syria in advances that appear to have put to rest the possibility of a military overthrow, at least for now. But his rule is extremely reliant on continued assistance from Iranian-sponsored militias, which have spread across the war-ravaged country.

The fight against the Islamic State group, which proliferated soon after the conflict began in 2011, has provided a convenient justification for foreign troops to be deployed in Syria with the pretext of fighting the extremists. Now that IS no longer holds any significant urban territory in Syria, the numbers of some forces may be scaled down, but foreign powers with longer-term ambitions and interests will try to maintain a presence in the country for years to come. That will further complicate prospects for a peace settlement.
Some countries have already indicated that they plan to stay for the foreseeable future.
The Americans
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The presence of U.S. troops in northern Syria was initially meant to help train and support Kurdish-dominated local forces fighting the Islamic State group.
The number of troops has grown gradually. Although the official limit on U.S. troops has remained at 503 since shortly before President Barack Obama left office, the actual number is now believed to be more than 1,500, including special forces, a Marine artillery unit, forward air controllers and others. They are spread across more than a dozen bases in northern Syria.

The end of the fight against IS takes away any legal justification for the presence of U.S. troops in Syria, but U.S. officials are now suggesting they plan to maintain a U.S. troop presence in the north until an overall settlement for the war is found. That has raised concern about a more permanent project that risks drawing the U.S. into a conflict with Syria and Assad’s ally, Iran.
“We’re not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has cracked,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said earlier this month, referring to the U.N.-backed political talks.
Kurdish officials have asked the U.S. to stay on, fearing that a quick withdrawal would facilitate Assad’s forces swooping in on Kurdish-held territory in the north.
Earlier this month, the Syrian government called on the United States to withdraw its forces now that the fight against the Islamic State group is nearly over. The Foreign Ministry statement said the presence of U.S. troops will not force a political solution to the conflict.
The Russians
Russia has never said how many of its military personnel, warplanes and other weapons are in Syria. Turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary election indicated the number of Russian military personnel in Syria at the time was about 4,300. The Russian presence has likely increased, as Moscow this year deployed its military police to patrol so-called “de-escalation zones” in Syria.
Open-source materials — including video from the Hemeimeem air base, the main hub for the Russian military in Syria since its campaign began in September 2015 — indicate that Russia has several dozen jets and helicopter gunships there.
Russia also has deployed special forces to conduct intelligence and coordinate airstrikes. Senior Russian military officers also have helped train and direct Syrian government troops. In recent months, Russian military police have become increasingly visible in Syria.
The chief of the Russian military general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, said last week that Russia will “significantly” reduce its military foothold in Syria as the campaign nears its end.
At the same time, he indicated Russia will maintain a presence at both the Hemeimeem air base and the navy supply facility in Tartus. Gerasimov added that the military’s Reconciliation Center, a group of officers who have helped negotiate and maintain truces in Syria and coordinated the delivery of humanitarian aid, also will stay.
Syria has allowed Russia to use Hemeimeem air base indefinitely without cost. Moscow also has signed a deal with Syria to use the Tartus base for 49 years, which could be extended if both parties agree.
The Russian military plans to modernize the air base to allow it to host more warplanes. It also intends to expand the Tartus facility significantly to make it a full-scale naval base capable of hosting warships, including cruiser-sized vessels.
The Iranians
Of all the foreign troops in Syria, perhaps none have been as widespread and potentially lasting as the Iranians. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made an enormous effort to keep Assad in power, providing extensive military and financial support throughout the six-year civil war.
It has deployed Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Syria as well as Iranian officers who provide military and political support. Iranian officials say more than 1,000 Iranian fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq after they were deployed to defend Shiite holy shrines.
Tens of thousands of Iranian-sponsored pro-government local militias known as the National Defense Forces are deployed across Syria, in addition to Iraqi Shiite militias and thousands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon who have been key factors in turning the war in the government’s favor. Hezbollah is deployed in wide areas along Syria’s border with Lebanon, where the Shiite group has built military facilities and long-term bases it is unlikely to leave anytime soon.
Iran’s strategy aims to ensure it can continue to pursue its vital interests after the war, using parts of Syria as a base and making certain that a land corridor from Tehran to Beirut remains open.
The Turks
Turkey first sent ground forces into Syria last year in a campaign dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield.” It was aimed at fighting the Islamic State group, although Turkey also seeks, above all, to limit the expansion of Syria’s Kurds along its border with Syria. Ankara perceives the Syrian Kurdish fighters to be an extension of the Kurdish insurgents who have waged a three- decade insurgency in Turkey.
Turkish officials have not disclosed how many Turkish soldiers are deployed in Syria but security experts estimate that at least 2,500 troops are stationed in a swath of territory revolving around the towns of al-Rai, al-Bab and Jarablus — a border zone that Turkey and Turkey-backed rebels took back from IS last year under “Euphrates Shield.”
An estimated 400 more Turkish troops are in the Idlib region as part of an agreement reached among Turkey, Russia and Iran to create a “de-escalation zone” in the area.
Turkey is building schools and hospitals in areas liberated under “Euphrates Shield” to encourage the return of refugees, and it was unclear how long the Turkish troops would stay in the zone.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested that the Turkish troops could target a Syrian Kurdish group that Turkey considers to be a security threat in the Afrin region, north of Idlib, once the “de-escalation” mission is over.

The Associated Press

Courtesy: Haaretz

‘US betrayal of Kurds an attempt to fix troubled relations with Turkey & failed Syria policy’

Syrian Kurdish militias will feel betrayed and will likely align closer with Damascus, if Donald Trump indeed delivers on his promise to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and “adjusts” US military support for the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, experts have told RT.

In a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Friday, Trump briefed Erdogan on “pending adjustments for [US] military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria.” Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was present during the call, said Trump explicitly promised to “not provide weapons to the YPG,” which Ankara considers a terrorist organization affiliated with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

But without support from Washington, Kurds are likely to seek closer ties with Damascus to resolve the Syria crisis and retain the country’s unity, investigative journalist, Rick Sterling told RT.

“What may happen, is that they may recognize and start working more closely with the Syrian government. Of course, they have never been fighting against the Syrian government forces. And I think what may happen here is that YPG will align and make it very clear that they are not seeking a federation or anything like that but they will be part of a future Syria,” Sterling said.

Trump’s intention to backtrack on his support for the Kurds, experts believe, is part of an attempt to “adjust” failing US policy on Syria, following a number of recent diplomatic markers, achieved with Russia’s direct and dynamic input. Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Sochi. He later convened a summit on the future of Syria with the leaders of Iran and Turkey, where all parties endorsed an initiative to convene an all-Syrian national dialogue. The developments in Syria were also discussed between Putin and Trump Tuesday, during a more than an hour-long phone conversation.

“What is happening in Syria involves basically a failure of US foreign policy. What I mean is that Washington had allied with the Saudis regarding backing religious zealots. However, with the intervention of Russia, and Iran, and Hezbollah of Lebanon, these forces defeated the so-called Islamic State, defeated the religious zealots and therefore US policy is now scrambling to try to find an alternative to that failed policy,” historian Gerald Horne explained.

“The timing [of Trump-Erdogan phone call] is being driven by Russia’s role in seeking a solution and really making a lot of progress in resolving the conflict, bringing different parties together to the table,” Sterling pointed out.

Sterling warned that some forces in Washington do not want peace to prevail in Syria. Furthermore, there is a chance that Washington might ally itself with Ankara’s troops in Syria, who are officially on the ground there to monitor the Idlib de-escalation zone, one of four established by Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran earlier this year. Erdogan, however, made little secret of the fact that Turkish forces might challenge the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin in northern Syria.

“There has been a lot of Turkish troops going into Northern Syria, so it may be that Washington will align more closely with Turkish troops which will refuse to leave Syria,” Sterling said. “I think what is going on in Washington is that there is uncertainty how to handle the situation. There are forces in Washington that want to play a spoiler in this [achieving peace]. They don’t want to see a resolution to the conflict, and that is what is dangerous.”

Washington’s decision to back away from the YPG, which has been the core of the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is nothing less of a “betrayal,” experts told RT.

“The Kurds have been betrayed many times in the past,” Sterling said. “They will not be surprised by this. And they have probably been making plans for some time that their patron, the United States, will abandon them.”

“The Kurds are in a corner” following the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum in September, which regional powers and the US failed to recognize, Horne said. “If the Kurds are getting a raw deal, this will not be the first time they have been traduced at the hands of Washington,” he added. He noted that following the Erdogan-Trump call, the “Kurds are really over a barrel.”

Courtesy: RT

‘Islamic State’ (IS) fighters evacuate as battle for Raqqa nears end

A US-backed alliance of militias said “Islamic State” (IS) fighters have evacuated the city of Raqqa under an agreement to release captive civilians. US-backed forces have almost completely captured Raqqa.

Syrian SDF soldiers in Raqqa (Reuters/R. Said)

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, on Sunday launched their final assault against the remaining “Islamic State” (IS) fighters in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa .

More than 3,000 civilians fled the city as part of the evacuation agreement, said SDF spokesman Talal Silo.

On Saturday, the SDF had agreed to a proposal that allowed Syrian IS jihadists to leave the city in exchange for the release of civilians held by the militants. However, IS’ foreign fighters were excluded from the evacuation deal.

Read more: ‘Islamic State’ facing imminent collapse in Syria’s Raqqa

“Last night, the final batch of fighters (who agreed to leave) left the city,” said SDF spokesman Mostafa Bali, adding that no foreign fighters had left the city. The SDF later said in a statement that around 275 local fighters and their families had left as part of the deal.

“The final battle will continue until the entire city is cleansed of terrorists, who have refused to surrender,” the SDF said.

However, Omar Alloush, an official in the Raqqa Civilian Council, disputed the SDF’s claim and said a batch of foreign jihadists had also departed with the convoy of local militants.

Map showing where main cities in Syria are located

‘Our aim is liberation’

The US had earlier protested a safe exit for the extremist group. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday the US would accept the surrender of IS militants who would be interrogated for intelligence purposes.

The tribal leaders said they appealed to the coalition and the SDF to allow IS fighters to leave the city to stem further violence.

“Because our aim is liberation, not killing, we appealed to the SDF to arrange for the local fighters and secure their exit to outside of the city with our guarantees,” the tribal chiefs said in a statement.

IS had seized Raqqa as part of a broad offensive in Syria and Iraq in early 2014, and the city has since served as the jihadists’ primary Syrian stronghold.

But IS has lost much of its territory after US and Russian-backed forces began separate offensives against the militant group. In July, US-backed Iraqi forces retook Mosul, the jihadists’ de facto capital in Iraq.

Watch video06:36

Syria: The Battle for Raqqa

‘Liberation within days’

Raqqa has practically fallen to the US-led coalition, but it is unclear how many militants are still in the city. There have been reports of continued fighting between SDF fighters and IS jihadists in some parts of the city.

Read more: Raqqa: US-backed forces declare end in sight for ‘Islamic State’ (IS)

A spokesman for the US-led coalition, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said Saturday that around a hundred IS militants had already surrendered and been “removed” from the city since Friday.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think ‘Islamic State’ will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said.

 Civil Council/local Arab tribal elders work to minimize civilian casualties as SDF & @CJTFOIR prepare for major defeat in Raqqa

But the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG told Reuters that coalition forces could clear the city of IS forces within days.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (IS) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said.

More defeats for IS

Separately, the Syrian government and allied Shiite militia retook the town of Mayadeen from IS after intense fighting and Russian airstrikes, the Syrian military said Saturday.

Read more: Syria: Civilians trapped in Raqqa as ‘Islamic State’ makes last stand

Located along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, Mayadeen had been a strategic IS stronghold as the group lost territory in Syria and Iraq.

Pro-Syrian regime forces have been trying to secure the Iraqi border and push IS out of a small pocket in the provincial capital, Deir al-Zor.

ls,shs/jm (AP, Reuters)

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Hezbollah co-leader: US nurtured ISIS monster against Syrian govt, now has to fight them

The US had to step back from its policy of regime change in Syria after multiple failures, as the jihadists they allegedly hoped to use as a proxy began posing a threat, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General, Sheikh Naim Qassem argued in an interview to RT.

For an exclusive interview with RT’s Eisa Ali, one of the most senior Hezbollah leaders agreed to meet –with the toughest security precautions in place – in a clandestine location in Beirut. Qassem told RT he believes US President Donald Trump has opted for a less confrontational approach in Syria of late after previous attempts to oust the Syrian government proved futile.

“When they failed by using the military option, or by using the opposition option, or by using their cooperation with the regional Arabic countries that wanted change in Syria in favor of Israel, America adopted a new non-confrontation policy with President [Bashar] Assad because of their inability to do more, and because they know that [Islamic State] is against them as much as they are against the Syrian people,” Kassem claimed.

READ MORE: No role for West & allies in Syria until they cut support to terrorists – Assad

He noted, however, that a perceived change in political strategy does not mean that the White House has reversed its opinion of Assad, arguing that the US has been left with no better option than to fight the “monster” of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) which they helped to create in the first place but which has “now shifted against them.” 

‘We’ll respect any choice made by the Syrian people’

Speaking of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah’s view on his role as the country’s head of state, Qassem said that the group regards Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria, re-elected by the people to serve as the country’s leader.

Arguing that the main interest of the US in the war was to “remove President Assad from power and change Syria’s stance from resistance to American-Israeli friendly,” he praised Assad for being an effective leader, guiding his country through difficult times of war.
However, he went on to stress that the Syrian President’s fate lies exclusively in the hands of the Syrian people.

We are with the Syrian people’s choice and when it is election time and Syria’s choice will be made without external intervention, we will respect any choice made by the Syrian people.”

Qassem said there is an “effective” cooperation between the Syrian and Russian armed forces, Iran and Hezbollah, which has contributed greatly to Syria’s driving jihadists out of swathes of its territory.

‘Israel plays part in Syria’s destruction’

Accusing Israel of fuelling the protracted Syrian conflict, Qassem in particular pointed to the Jewish state’s reported support of armed opposition groups fighting the Syrian forces and affiliated militias in the south-western Syrian city of Daraa and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“Israel plays the main part in Syria’s destruction, and it is an important supporter of the armed opposition, especially in the southern part of Syria,” Kassem said.

Qassem further claimed that over 3000 militants fighting the Syrian government have received treatment in Israeli hospitals, adding that there have been reports of cross-border supplies of munitions and food from Israel to Syria.

A US-Russian ceasefire agreement for south-western Syria dealt a blow to Israel’s alleged aspirations as it did not include removing Hezbollah from its positions in the border area, Qassem argued. Shortly after the deal was agreed in July, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the plan, saying it might strengthen Iranian influence in the country.

Criticism was levelled at Hezbollah in late August for allowing the evacuation of some 300 Islamic State terrorists and roughly as many family members from the Qalamoun Mountains to the eastern province of Deir al-Zor as part of the deal to return bodies of eight slain Hezbollah fighters. Qassem justified the controversial move by saying that the group did not know whether the fighters were alive or dead and that it was “an important chance that could not be [used] again.”

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The deal sparked outrage, with critics slamming the group for negotiating with terrorists. After the deal was struck and the militants departed to Deir ez-Zor, the US-led international coalition shelled the road to impede relocations of militants and their family members and struck some of the vehicles and fighters it “clearly identified as ISIS.” In a statement following the attack, the coalition said it “was not a party to any agreement” negotiated between Lebanon, ISIS and Hezbollah and considered the moving of terrorists from one part of the country to another “not a lasting solution.”

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict six years ago, Hezbollah has been embroiled in fighting IS and Al-Nusra Front terrorists in Syria in cooperation with government forces. The group, which is listed as a terrorist entity in the West and in most of the Arab League countries, has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli airstrikes on Syrian soil.

Courtesy, RT