Ten days on after Damascus finally reclaimed the city of Deir ez-Zor, held in an ISIS blockade for three years, daily life in the city seems to be returning to normal. Meanwhile, the army keeps pushing out the terrorists from the province.
On September 5, the provincial capital finally saw the terrorist siege broken, which brought relief for up to 125,000 inhabitants, trapped by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants. Largely left without functioning infrastructure, locals struggled to survive for nearly three years, mostly relying on aid airdropped by the UN, Russia, and the Syrian government.
With the land route opening, convoys with food and medical supplies have started to flow freely to exhausted citizens, ready to reclaim their lives after years of constant danger, hardships, and hunger.
“We spent [the time under siege] like slaves,” grocer Abu Mohammad says, according to Syrian news agency SANA. “Hunger killed some of us, both young and old, and it almost killed us but then the Syrian Arab Army’s vanguards arrived and brought us salvation and victory. ISIS terrorists used to target homes, shops, and even fields, preventing food from reaching the neighborhood and seizing all of it, leaving the locals to fall prey to hunger and disease.”
While the drone hovered over Deir ez-Zor, showing the locals walking freely on the streets, Syrian Army units kept advancing further along the Euphrates River and striking the remaining pockets of IS resistance. On Friday, the troops recaptured the Al-Baghiliyah district, lying northeast of Deir ez-Zor.
Syrian government forces, supported by Russian air power, have wiped out the last major pocket of terrorist resistance in central Syria, liberating the strategic town of Akerbat in Hama governorate, Russia’s defense ministry has announced.
“The units of the 4th tank division of Syrian government forces, in collaboration with the 5th Volunteer Corps and military intelligence unit (Mukhabarat), liberated the town of Akerbat,” the ministry said.
“The operation to destroy a large group of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters in the eastern part of the Hama province was carried out with the active support of the Russian Air Force.”
Russian planes destroyed terrorist strongholds and their armored hardware. The jets also targeted IS artillery positions, control points and communication outposts.
“The last major pocket of terrorist resistance in central Syria has been eliminated,” the ministry said, adding that the Syrian army is now targeting the rest of the completely surrounded IS forces in the area.
Clearing Akerbat can be considered one of the most important battles against the terrorists by government forces, Ivan Konovalov, head of military policy at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, told RT.
“The so-called ‘Akerbat pocket’ is one of the most important battles at this stage. Destruction of a large enemy grouping in this region certainly affects the balance of power,” Konovalov noted.
“Such successful military operations always matter – the enemy’s troops and equipment are destroyed. The more often such operations are conducted, the closer we get to the end of the war,” the expert explained, emphasizing the pivotal role Russian forces are playing in Syria.
The liberation of Akerbat is paving the way for a further offensive by the Syrian Army, in particular on Deir ez-Zor. The Syrian Army is expected to attack the terrorists from several directions and has been making rapid progress on that front.
“This is a strategic victory. Now all terrorists are locked up in Deir ez-Zore province,” Konstantin Truyevtsev, a senior researcher at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies told RT.
“Over time, this will have an impact on the development of the war, especially the capture of Deir ez-Zor, which is the last major stronghold of ISIS,” Konovalov added.
The Syrian Army, backed by the Russian Air Force, continues to ramp up pressure on the jihadists to drive them out of the city of Deir ez-Zor. On Saturday the ministry announced that Russian jets have intensified its bombing of ISIS positions there.
Over the past 24 hours, Russian warplanes destroyed nine armored vehicles, including two tanks, six artillery positions, one home-made multiple rocket launcher, three supply depots and over 20 supply trucks carrying fuel, weapons and ammunition.
The Russian defense ministry has previously stated that breaking the blockade of Deir ez-Zor will mark the defeat of the last capable grouping of IS terrorists in Syria.
Iraqi forces have seized most parts of the northern city of Tal Afar from “Islamic State” (IS). The city is strategically important as it lies on the supply route between Syria and the former IS stronghold of Mosul.
The Iraqi army said in a statement on Saturday its troops have “liberated” Tal Afar’s city center and its Ottoman-era citadel.
“Units of the Counter-Terrorism Service liberated the citadel and Basatin districts and raised the Iraqi flag on top of the citadel,” General Abdulamir Yarallah, the military offensive’s commander, said.
Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Saturday IS had been driven out from 70 percent of the city.
“God willing, the remaining part will be liberated soon,” Jaafari said at a news conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and French Defense Minister Florence Parly, who are currently visiting the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Tal Afar has long been a stronghold for hard-line Sunni insurgents. It was cut off from other IS-held territories in June during the Iraqi-led operation to recapture Mosul.
According to US and Iraqi military sources, there are roughly 2,000 IS militants in and around the city.
Over the past weeks, the US-led coalition against IS has carried out dozens of airstrikes in Tal Afar and the surrounding areas, targeting command centers and ammunition caches.
Humanitarian organizations are not expecting a mass exodus similar to that seen during the Mosul offensive and its eventual recapture. Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians are believed to be in Tal Afar and surrounding areas, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Iraqi army pushes to retake Tal Afar
shs/jlw (AFP, Reuters)
Iraq launches fresh offensive to reclaim IS-held Tal Afar
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NOW PLAYINGOfficials: US airstrike hits pro-Assad forces in Syria
The U.S. military launched fresh air strikes against pro-Assad troops in Syria after they ignored repeated warnings from both coalition and Russian forces, officials told Fox News Thursday.
The Syrian forces, in several vehicles including at least one tank, were near the Jordanian border and deemed a threat to coalition partners on the ground, a Pentagon official said. They were repeatedly ordered to stop their advance toward a de-escalation zone, but ignored the warning, officials said.
“The coalition commander assessed the threat and after shows of force didn’t stop the regime forces and those forces refused to move out of the deconfliction zone, the commander on the ground called for the air strike as a matter of force protection,” a senior U.S. defense official told Fox News.
Another military source told The Associated Press it appeared the Syrian forces were poised to attack an area that included U.S. advisers.
“They were building a fighting position” about 55 kilometers from a U.S.-coalition base close to At Tanf, where advisers train members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Arab Coalition, the second official said.
Defense Secretary James Mattis briefly addressed the strikes Thursday during a meeting with Swedish Defense minister Peter Hultqvist.
“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war but we will defend our troops, and that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops, and so we’ll defend ourselves,” Mattis said. “If people take aggressive steps against us, and that’s been a going in, a policy of ours for a long time.”
The U.S. and Russia, which is allied with the pro-Assad forces, have established buffer zones around their separate areas of operation to avoid collateral damage. Each side has agreed to notify the other if the deploy forces within the buffer zones.
In this case, an official told The Associated Press, Russia tried multiple times to contact the Syrian forces. It was at that point that U.S. and coalition jets escalated their warnings.
“We conducted a show of force. We conducted warning shots. All to no avail,” the official said.
The American strikes were the first against Assad positions since the Pentagon rained 57 Tomahawk missiles on the Shayrat air base near Homs. But the strikes confirmed Thursday were believed to be the first targeting Syrian personnel.
The attack on forces does not reflect an escalation, the Pentagon official said.
“There is no change in policy,” the official said.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin contributed to this report.
Shiites in two northern Syrian towns are being evacuated in exchange for moving Sunni rebels and civilians out of two others. More than 30,000 people are expected to be evacuated under the deal.
Under a deal brokered by opposition backer Qatar and regime ally Iran, the Syrian government and the opposition on Friday began a coordinated population swap of tens of thousands of people from four besieged towns.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said buses carrying rebels began leaving the rebel-held towns Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus on Friday morning in the first phase of the deal, which will also see the evacuation of residents from two pro-government Shiite villages in northern Syria.
All 16,000 residents of the majority Shiite towns of al-Foua and Kefraya – long besieged by insurgents in the northwestern Idlib province – are expected to leave, heading to government-held Aleppo, the coastal province of Latakia or Damascus.
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Zabadani evacuation delayed
Buses carrying mostly Sunni rebel fighters and their families also simultaneously left the town of Madaya near Damascus on Friday, encircled by government forces and their allies. Civilian residents there will reportedly be allowed to remain if they choose.
According to the Observatory, the evacuation of Zabadani, also besieged by the government side, has been delayed until Friday evening or early Saturday.
‘Deliberate demographic change’
Over the past year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has struck numerous deals enabling rebels and their families to leave opposition-held areas, often after months or years of being besieged by government forces.
The opposition, however, says the deals amount to forced population transfer and deliberate demographic change.
The armed opposition fighting for more than half a decade to unseat Assad is mostly Sunni Muslim, like most of Syria’s population. Assad is from the Alawite religious minority, and is supported by Shiite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.
WASHINGTON — In the days since President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians, his administration has spoken with multiple voices as it seeks to explain its evolving policy. But one voice has not been heard from: that of Mr. Trump himself.
As various officials have described it, the United States will intervene only when chemical weapons are used — or any time innocents are killed. It will push for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — or pursue that only after defeating the Islamic State. America’s national interest in Syria is to fight terrorism. Or to ease the humanitarian crisis there. Or to restore stability.
The latest mixed messages were sent on Monday in both Washington and Europe. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson — during a stop in Italy on his way to Moscow for a potentially tense visit, given Russian anger at last week’s missile strike — outlined a dramatically interventionist approach. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said.
Hours later, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said at his daily briefing that Mr. Trump would act against Syria not just if it resorted to chemical weapons, like the sarin nerve agent reportedly used last week, but also when it used conventional munitions. “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president,” Mr. Spicer said.
For Mr. Trump, who came to office espousing an “America first” policy that stayed out of the affairs of other countries where the United States had no interest of its own, responding to barrel bombs in Syria or to “any and all” humanitarian abuses “anywhere” would be a far more sweeping standard for American leadership. If anything, it sounds more like the activist advisers around President Barack Obama, such as Samantha Power, his ambassador to the United Nations, who pushed for more intervention to protect civilians in various conflict zones, often to no avail.
Just as likely, analysts said, neither Mr. Tillerson nor Mr. Spicer really meant it or, possibly, fully understood the potentially far-reaching consequences of what they were saying. Unlike chemical weapons, barrel bombs — typically oil drums filled with explosives — are used with vicious regularity in the Syrian civil war. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the government dropped 495 barrel bombs in March alone, and 12,958 in 2016.
By the end of the day Monday, fearing that a new “red line” had been drawn, the White House sought to unwind Mr. Spicer’s comment. “Nothing has changed in our posture,” officials said in a statement emailed to reporters. “The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.”
The confusion was only heightened when The Associated Press quoted an unidentified American official saying that Russia had known about Syria’s chemical attack in advance. The White House summoned reporters for a background briefing but then made the session off the record, leaving the matter unaddressed. Hours later, a senior administration official issued a brief statement saying there was no consensus within the American intelligence community that Russia had foreknowledge of the attack.
With all the murky signals, Mr. Trump has done little to clarify how he will proceed after firing Tomahawks at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the chemical attack, which killed more than 80 civilians. While his cabinet and other advisers seem to be reading from different talking points, the president has not spoken publicly about Syria at all since the missile strike last Thursday night. Even his famed Twitter feed has largely avoided the subject, beyond thanking military personnel.
The only substantive comment he has made on Twitter about the situation was to defend against critics who asked why the runway at the air base had been left untouched. “The reason you don’t generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!” he wrote on Sunday.
The resulting vacuum has left world leaders and American lawmakers scratching their heads over how the United States will proceed now that it has taken direct action against Mr. Assad’s government for the first time in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.
Mr. Tillerson made his comment a day before arriving in Moscow to confront Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, over the Kremlin’s support for Mr. Assad. There had been some expectation that Mr. Tillerson would meet with President Vladimir V. Putin. But Russia announced on Monday that Mr. Putin would be unavailable — another sign of the Kremlin’s growing displeasure.
Although Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has known Mr. Putin for years, he will now be the first secretary of state not to meet with the Russian president or top Soviet leader in his inaugural trip to Moscow in office, according to State Department records and news reports.
On Sunday, Mr. Tillerson called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons, and he accused Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.
European countries, which had been deeply uneasy with the Trump administration’s more transactional approach to foreign policy and its potential willingness to forgive Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in Ukraine, welcomed the strike on Syria and Mr. Tillerson’s reference to humanitarian issues’ guiding strategy.
“There is overwhelming support in what the U.S. did,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said on Monday, “signaling that we will not tolerate the barbaric use of chemical weapons.”
The foreign ministers of France and Italy have made similar remarks, with Angelino Alfano of Italy saying the American military strike had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between the United States and Europe.
Mr. Johnson said Europe also supported the Trump administration’s increasingly hard line on Russia, saying that Mr. Putin was “toxifying the reputation of Russia with his continuous association with a guy that has flagrantly poisoned his own people.”
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Still, the Europeans and others were left to puzzle out Mr. Trump’s strategy. Over the weekend, Mr. Tillerson suggested that the administration still wanted to stay out of Syria’s war. “We’re asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease the use of these weapons,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”
Yet Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, suggested on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Mr. Assad had to go. “There is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead,” she said.
By the time Mr. Tillerson met with other foreign ministers from the Group of 7 in Italy on Monday, he seemed to be emphasizing a shift from Mr. Trump’s focus on economic nationalism to a foreign policy at least partly defined by humanitarian values. Mr. Tillerson belatedly added a visit to a memorial at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a village near Lucca where 560 people, including children, were massacred by the Nazis during World War II.
After the blaring of trumpets and the laying of a wreath at the memorial, Mr. Tillerson approached a small news media contingent to make a three-sentence declaration that included the pledge to hold accountable “any and all who commit crimes” against innocent civilians.
But back in Washington, Mr. Spicer seemed to return to Mr. Trump’s “America first” formulation. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around the country — running around the world,” he said. “It’s our national security first and foremost.”
Asked if Syria fit within that doctrine, he said, “Absolutely.”
Correction: April 10, 2017
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the history of secretaries of state meeting with Russian leaders. Rex W. Tillerson will be the first secretary of state ever not to meet with a Russian president or top Soviet leader on his first trip to Moscow in office, not the first since Warren Christopher in 1993.
Blasts in the center of Damascus appear to have been part of a coordinated attack on Shiite Muslims. No one has yet claimed responsibility, but Sunni extremists have carried out similar attacks in the past.
At least 40 people are reported dead and more than 100 injured from a pair of bomb blasts in the heart of Damascus, according to the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
In what is being described as one of the bloodiest attacks on the Syrian capital, the bombs exploded Saturday morning near a cemetery in the Bab Masala section of the capital, according to SANA, Syria’s state-run news agency.
A roadside bomb detonated as a bus passed and a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, which houses several Shiite mausoleums that draw pilgrims from around the world, according to the SOHR.
The site of twin bomb blasts in the Syrian capital, Damascus, is stained with blood
A Lebanon-based TV station, al-Mayadeen, reported the bombings had targeted buses transporting pilgrims to the cemetery. Those pilgrims, it now appears, were all Iraqis, according to Iraq’s foreign ministry.
“Preliminary statistics indicate the fall of around 40 Iraqi martyrs and 120 wounded,” ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal said in a statement, terming it a “criminal terrorist operation.”
A short SANA report said “two terrorist bombs” near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery killed “a number of martyrs” and injured others. The cemetery is located near one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus.
Targets of attack
Shiite shrines are a frequent target of attack for Sunni extremists belonging to al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group, not only in Syria but also in neighboring Iraq.
The Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum to the south of the capital is Syria’s most visited Shiite pilgrimage site. It has been hit by several deadly bombings during Syria’s six-year civil war.
In January, a pair of suicide bombings in the high-security Kafr Sousa district of the capital killed 10 people, eight of them soldiers.
That attack was claimed by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, which said that it had targeted Russian military advisers working with the Syrian army.
Fateh al-Sham’s northwestern stronghold has been bombed repeatedly this year, not only by Syrian armed forces and their Russian ally but also by US-backed forces battling IS in both Syria and Iraq.
But attacks like the one today are rare in Damascus, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.