Syrian rebels launch attack to break Aleppo siege

Syrian rebels including jihadists counter-attacked the Syrian army and its allies on Friday aiming to break a weeks-long siege on eastern Aleppo, insurgents said.

The assault, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based in the countryside outside Aleppo. It included Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former affiliate of al Qaeda previously known as the Nusra Front, and groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner.

The offensive prompted the Russian Defence Ministry to ask President Vladimir Putin for permission to resume air strikes against militants in rebel-held eastern Aleppo after 10 days in which the army said it had not struck, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. But Putin said it was unnecessary to resume strikes yet, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 15 civilians had been killed and 100 wounded by rebel shelling of government-held western Aleppo. State media reported that seven civilians were killed.

There were conflicting accounts of advances in areas on the city’s outskirts. Photographs showed insurgents approaching Aleppo in tanks, armored vehicles, bulldozers, make-shift mine sweepers, pick-up trucks and on motorcycles, and showed a large column of smoke rising in the distance after an explosion.

Fateh al-Sham said in a statement that rebels had gained control over Dahiyet al-Assad, a suburb with a low-rise residential district of about a square kilometer on the southwest corner of the city.

A screenshot from a propaganda video published by the Islamic Front showing bombardment of Dihayat Al-Assad in southwestern Aleppo [29/10/2016]
A screenshot from a propaganda video published by the Islamic Front showing bombardment of Dihayat Al-Assad in southwestern Aleppo [29/10/2016]

Zakaria Malahifji, an official with Fastaqim, a nationalist rebel group in the offensive, said insurgents had captured the residential area but not the whole of Dahiyet al-Assad. The Observatory said rebels had gained most of the suburb.

But a Syrian military source said earlier that the army and its allies had thwarted what he called “an extensive attack” on south and west Aleppo. A state television station reported that the army had destroyed four car bombs.

Rebel bombardment

Abu Anas al-Shami, a member of the Fateh al-Sham media office, told Reuters from Syria the group had carried out two “martyrdom operations”, after which its fighters had gone in and had been able to “liberate a number of important areas”. A third such attack had been carried out by another Islamist group.

A senior official in the Levant Front, an FSA group, said: “There is a general call-up for anyone who can bear arms.” “The preparatory shelling started this morning,” he added.

Heavy rebel bombardment, with more than 150 rockets and shells, struck southwestern districts, the Observatory said.

Fateh al-Sham played a big part in a rebel attack in July that managed to break the government siege on eastern Aleppo for several weeks before it was reimposed. Abu Youssef al-Mouhajir, an official from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group, said the extent of cooperation between the different rebel factions was unusual, and that the largest axis of attack was  on the western edge of the city. “This long axis disperses the enemy and it provides us with good cover in the sense that the enemy’s attacks are not focused,” he said.

Jihadists

The powerful role played by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, listed by many countries as a terrorist group, has complicated Western policy toward supporting the anti-Assad opposition. The United States has prevented more powerful weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles from being supplied to rebels partly out of fear they could end up in jihadist hands.

The Syrian military source said Friday’s attack had been launched in coordination with Daesh. Daesh jihadists did clash with the Syrian army on Friday at a government-held airbase 37km (23 miles) east of Aleppo, next to territory the jihadist group already controls, the Observatory reported.

Mouhajir, the Ahrar al-Sham official, said cloudy weather was helping to reduce the aerial advantage enjoyed by the Syrian military and its Russian allies. Inside Aleppo, tyres were also burnt to create a smokescreen against air strikes.

Grad rockets were launched at Aleppo’s Nairab air base before the assault began said Malahifji of the Fastaqim rebel group, adding that it was going to be “a big battle”. The Observatory also said that Grad surface-to-surface rockets had struck locations around the Hmeimim air base, near Latakia.

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

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Kerry and Lavrov talk about Aleppo, while the rebels announce major assault to break siege

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday about renewed fighting and air strikes in the Syrian city of Aleppo after a break of several days, the State Department said.

Lavrov and Kerry discussed the situation in Syria in a phone call and agreed that experts from several countries meeting in Geneva would continue searching for ways to resolve the Aleppo crisis, the State Department and Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.

Lavrov told Kerry the United States must fulfil its obligation to separate moderate opposition groups from “terrorists” in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ruusian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a joint press conference in Geneva [10/9/2016]
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ruusian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a joint press conference in Geneva [10/9/2016]

The geographic proximity between moderate Syrian rebels and groups considered terrorist by Russia and the United States was one factor in the failure last month of a ceasefire negotiated by Moscow and Washington.

“They talked about the importance of the continued multilateral discussions in Geneva and how … to get a meaningful cessation of hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said of Kerry and Lavrov. During the call, Kerry expressed concern about the renewal of air strikes and ground attacks in Aleppo by Syrian government forces and their Russian supporters after a pause in the fighting for several days, Kirby said. He noted that humanitarian aid had still not made it through to people under siege in Aleppo, despite the pause in fighting.

Asked whether the multilateral talks on Syria in Geneva had made progress, Kirby said only that the dialogue was “ongoing” and he had nothing further to report.

SAA and Hezbollah capture Bazo hill in SW Aleppo

Syrian government forces and their allies on Monday captured strategic high ground in embattled Aleppo as Russia — a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad — said it was not planning more “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting in the city’s eastern, rebel-held districts.

Fighting resumed in Aleppo over the weekend, following a days-long lull announced by Moscow that was meant to allow rebels and civilians to leave the eastern districts. The rebels rejected the Russian offer and none of the civilians left.

Government troops launched a fresh offensive and on Monday took the hilltop of Bazo on the southern edge of Aleppo, near military bases, and shelled the rebel neighborhoods, according to opposition activists. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Bazo was taken amid heavy bombardment. Both the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, reported government shelling in eastern parts of the city.

A video released by the Syrian army showed tanks and cannons pounding rebel positions in the area. The state SANA news agency, meanwhile, said the rebels shelled government-held neighborhoods in western Aleppo, killing one person and wounding seven.

The rebels announce major assault to break Aleppo siege

A pro-opposition media outlet circulated footage of a powerful and hard-line Islamist rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah announcing that the campaign to break the government’s siege of the city’s east would begin “within hours.”

Syrian troops have besieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo for weeks, subjecting the districts to some of the worst air raids since a cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia collapsed on Sept. 19. Opposition activists say more than 600 people have been killed in Aleppo and neighboring villages since then.

Jaish al-Fatah commander Ali Abu Odai al-Aloush told the Qasioun News Agency that “zero hour has drawn near,” and that his militants had begun moving toward Aleppo. It was unclear when the interview was recorded.

A spokesman for the Nour el-Din al-Zinki rebel faction in Aleppo said an operation to break the government’s siege of the rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo was “coming.” The spokesman, Yasser al-Yousef, said the rebels would not intentionally target civilians in Aleppo’s government-held districts, but warned of collateral damage from the anticipated operations.

Rebels shell West Aleppo, 3 people killed

Three people have been killed, including a seven-year-old girl, and 28 more injured after militants shelled residential areas of government-held West Aleppo on Sunday, according to Russia Today reporter Murad Gazdiev. The attacks, which targeted West Aleppo’s Hamdaniya district and Salah-Eddin neighborhood, lasted for hours, Gazdiev said, citing his sources on the ground.

 

Sources: Reuters/Associated Press/Russia Today/Syria & Iraq News

Peshmerga repel new Daesh attack on Kirkuk, curfew lifted

Security forces managed on Sunday to put down a complex Daesh state attack on the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, as clashes with militants erupted for the third straight day. Local security forces said they repelled another attack early in the day, clashed intermittently with the fighters and ferreted out militants who remained in the city.

The three-day assault was a show of resilience by Daesh, launched days after an array of U.S.-backed Iraqi forces began a long-planned offensive to retake Mosul, about 100 miles northwest of Kirkuk and the group’s last remaining stronghold in the country. Daesh has been fighting back against the offensive by sending suicide bombers in explosive-laden cars charging into columns of advancing Iraqi forces. The militants also set fire to sulfur stocks at a factory south of Mosul, sending up a plume of noxious smoke that drifted over the nearby Qayyarah military base, where U.S. and Iraqi troops involved in the Mosul offensive are stationed. A regional health official on Sunday said about 500 people had been sickened by the smoke and treated at a hospital, adding that he didn’t know of any deaths from the fumes.

Iraqi Kurdish security forces patrol a street in the city of Kirkuk on Saturday 22/10/2016 [photo by Reuters]
Iraqi Kurdish security forces patrol a street in the city of Kirkuk on Saturday 22/10/2016 [photo by Reuters]

The assault on Kirkuk began with nearly 100 Daesh fighters fanning out into the city on Friday, using suicide bombers and gunmen and targeting police buildings and patrols. They battled security forces for two days. By late Saturday, officials said they had mostly cleared the attackers and were back in control of the city. However, Daesh launched fresh attacks late Saturday and early Sunday. Before dawn, Kurdish Peshmerga forces defeated Daesh jihadists who were driving armored vehicles and Humvees, said Kamal Karkookli, a Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk. Police killed a suicide bomber in the city center, local security officials said. Some Peshmerga units were redeployed from the Mosul front to aid security operations in the Kirkuk area, said Brig. Gen. Halgord Hekmet, a Peshmerga spokesman. “We have no choice. We pulled some forces from front lines to support Kirkuk,” he said.

A senior U.S. official on Saturday said the Kirkuk attacks had no major impact on the Mosul operations and a Peshmerga commander near the front said the troops sent to Kirkuk had finished their mission in Mosul before being called to Kirkuk. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil on Sunday, his second day in Iraq, to get battlefield assessments of the fight against Daesh. Mr. Carter met with Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and other officials, as well as troops. He was expected to raise the issue of a large group of Sunni Arab fighters trained in Bashiqa by the Turks. Baghdad has said Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq violates Iraqi sovereignty. Mr. Carter on Friday hinted that he could broker a deal between the two countries after a brief visit to Ankara and that Turkey could be allowed to contribute to the operation in Mosul pending approval from Baghdad. But on Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the offer, saying he didn’t need the Turks’ help.

In Kirkuk, local police Capt. Star Muhammad said fighters were likely still hiding in the city. “There are suicide bombers,” he said in front of a government building pocked by bullets. When the attack began on Friday, some militants set up firing positions from a police station across the street. Their goal may have been to break into the jail next to the station to free comrades, local residents said. Abu Mohammad, 51 years old, scrubbed the inside of his barber shop in a building across from the police station that was targeted, the walls dusty and sooty from the clashes. Two bullet holes had pierced his glass front door. “I was at home and watched all this on television,” he said of the attack. “I’ve not been here for two days.” He said the repulsed attack showed people from Kirkuk aren’t scared of Daesh anymore. “From our point of view, Daesh are like ants now,” he said proudly, using another name for the group. “We have belief in our hearts. We are Muslims and we don’t want to give our city to unbelievers.”

Sources: Wall Street Journal/Syria & Iraq News

Syrian army begins East Aleppo ceasefire, while Germany and France threaten Russia with sanctions

The Syrian military said on Thursday a unilateral ceasefire had come into force to allow rebels to leave the besieged eastern part of Aleppo city. The rebels said was the ceasefire was part of a psychological campaign to make them surrender.

aleppo-161020-02State media earlier said the army had opened exit corridors in two designated areas in the Bustan al Qasr quarter and near the Castello road in northern Aleppo where waiting green buses were shown on state television.

Intensified Russian and Syrian bombing of besieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo have knocked down scores of hospitals, bakeries and water pumping stations in an offensive that has killed hundreds of civilians in the past few weeks.

Merkel and Hollande do not rule out sanctions on Russia over Aleppo ‘war crimes’

On Wednesday night, the leaders of France and Germany lashed out at President Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s bombardment of Aleppo and refused to rule out imposing sanctions on Russia. “What is happening in Aleppo is a war crime. One of the first demands is that the bombardments by the regime and its [Russian] backers must end,” French president François Hollande said after a meeting of the three leaders in Berlin. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, condemned the air raids on Syria’s second city as “inhumane and cruel”.

Both leaders warned that they could not exclude imposing sanctions on Russia, hours ahead of an EU summit where Russia’s role in Syria is set to be discussed. “Everything that can constitute a threat can be useful,” Hollande said at a press conference. Merkel added: “We cannot remove this option.”

Hollande said Putin appeared to be ready to extend Thursday’s temporary truce, set to last for 11 hours. “We came out of the meeting with the impression that there could be an extension of the truce, but it’s up to the Syrian regime and Russia to show it,” he said. A truce of just a few hours would not be enough to deliver the necessary humanitarian aid and allow civilians to leave the area, Hollande added.

Earlier this week, the Syrian military said the temporary ceasefire would allow trapped civilians to escape and said it had pulled back to enable rebel fighters to leave the city via two designated corridors. “We guarantee a safe exit, save your families,” an army loudspeaker blared near an exit corridor shown live on the pro-Hezbollah news channel Mayadeen. But rebels say the goal of Moscow and President Bashar al-Assad’s government is to empty rebel-held parts of civilians so they can take over the whole city. The rebels say they are preparing a large-scale offensive to break the siege of Aleppo and say the Russian air force has failed, despite a relentless bombing campaign. They say the army and its Iranian-backed militias are finding it harder to make headway after initial progress on the outskirts of the city that allowed the army to tighten its grip.

Syrian Red Crescent

Sources: AFP/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

Russia, Syria stopped airstrikes on Aleppo at 0700 GMT: Russian DefMin Shoigu

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that Russian and Syrian air forces had stopped airstrikes on Aleppo from 10:00 local time (0700 GMT), ahead of the announced “humanitarian pause” scheduled for October 20.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Monday that a pause in strikes on Syria’s largest city would be in force on Thursday, from 0800 (0500 GMT) until 16:00, to allow civilians and rebels to leave the city.

Military experts will meet in Geneva on Wednesday to begin work on separating “terrorists” from Syria’s opposition, Russia’s state Rossiya 24 channel showed Shoigu saying.

sergei-shoigu-01

Source: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

 

Russia’s UN ambassador Churkin says New Zealand’s draft resolution on Syria ‘worth consideration’

Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said the UN Security Council draft resolution on the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo prepared by New Zealand is worth consideration.

“I think this is an interesting effort, and I think that we can definitely consider it. I hope they [New Zealanders] will be persistent in their efforts,” the diplomat said.

The UN Security Council draft resolution proposed by New Zealand provides for the withdrawal of rebels from eastern Aleppo in compliance with the initiative of the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura. It also requires combatants to “immediately and completely cease all attacks that can lead to death or injury of people or damage to civilian objects.” First of all, this concerns air strikes on Aleppo, according to the text of the draft document.

The document also provides for the regular introduction of 48-hour truce for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The first truce, according to the draft resolution, should occur within 24 hours after its adoption. In addition, the document indicates the need for demarcation of the opposition groups and terrorist groups included in the UN Security Council lists.

vitaly-churkin-01

Source: Tass/Syria & Iraq News

EU calls for immediate cessation of hostilities in Aleppo

The Foreign Ministers of the European Union have issued a statement on the “appalling” situation in Syria, claiming that “the escalating violence in Aleppo is causing untold and unacceptable suffering for thousands of its inhabitants”, and calls for “end of military flights over Aleppo city”, the “immediate cessation of hostilities”,”end of sieges” and “full unhindered sustainable country-wide humanitarian access granted by all parties”.

Here is the full statement:

  1. The EU is appalled by the deteriorating situation in Syria. The escalating violence in Aleppo is causing untold and unacceptable suffering for thousands of its inhabitants. Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate and the deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure, as well as the use of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons, constitute a catastrophic escalation of the conflict and have caused further widespread civilian casualties, including amongst women and children and may amount to war crimes.
  2. The Syrian regime has the primary responsibility for the protection of the Syrian population.  The EU therefore strongly condemns the excessive and disproportionate attacks by the regime and its allies, both deliberate and indiscriminate, against civilian populations, humanitarian and healthcare personnel and civilian and humanitarian infrastructures and calls on them to cease indiscriminate aerial bombardments. The EU condemns the continued systematic, widespread and gross violations and abuses of human rights and all violations of international humanitarian law by all parties, particularly the Syrian regime and its allies. The targeting of a UN humanitarian convoy on 19 September is a clear violation of international law, which requires full investigation. The EU looks forward to the findings of the internal UN board of inquiry. Those responsible for such violations and abuses must be held accountable.
  3. In these deteriorating circumstances, the EU calls urgently for: an end of all military flights over Aleppo city; an immediate cessation of hostilities to be monitored by a strong and transparent mechanism; sieges to be lifted; and full unhindered sustainable country-wide humanitarian access granted by all parties. These steps are essential to save the people of Aleppo and in other parts of the country and to lay the ground for a resumption of credible intra-Syrian talks to provide security for the entire population of Syria. In this context regional actors bear special responsibility, particularly neighbouring countries.
  4. The EU will continue intensive humanitarian diplomacy and seek ways to improve access and protection as well as to promote humanitarian principles and local consensus on guidelines for the delivery of aid.  The EU calls upon all parties, especially the Syrian regime, to provide full and unhindered countrywide access to all those in need and to end all obstruction to the delivery of humanitarian aid. The use of starvation of civilians through the besiegement of populated areas for which the regime bears the greatest responsibility, as a tactic of war, and forced population transfers are a clear breach of international humanitarian law and must stop. Providing immediate relief to the suffering is imperative. The Council therefore welcomes the EU emergency humanitarian initiative launched on 2 October in close coordination and cooperation with UN agencies, to deliver humanitarian relief to eastern Aleppo and other besieged areas and allow the safe and monitored evacuation of urgent medical cases. It urges the Syrian regime to deliver without delay authorisations for crossline humanitarian convoys to be delivered, including to Eastern Aleppo. The EU stresses the importance of the ISSG and its humanitarian taskforce to achieve results on the ground and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. It calls on all partners and all parties to the conflict to protect civilians, including humanitarian and medical structures and personnel in all parts of the country and to help facilitate the work of the UN and other humanitarian organisations on the ground to deliver vital assistance to vulnerable groups, especially women and children, and evacuate wounded and sick.
  5. The EU firmly believes that there can be no military solution to the conflict. The EU reiterates its commitment to the unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the Syrian state. Recalling its Conclusions of 23 May 2016, the EU actively participates in the ISSG and its taskforces and fully supports the UN Special Envoy de Mistura in the efforts to create the conditions for resumption of intra-Syrian talks, noting his proposal for Eastern Aleppo. The EU recognises the efforts made to re-establish a full cessation of hostilities and regrets that they have not yet succeeded and encourage further attempts to do so. The EU deplores the Russian veto on 8 October to the UN Security Council Resolution to restore the cessation of hostilities and allow humanitarian access in Aleppo which was co-sponsored by all EU Member States. A renewed cessation enabling efforts to find a political solution in line with the provisions of UN SCRs 2254, 2268 and the Geneva Communique of 30 June 2012 cannot wait further, in order to allow all parties to reengage in negotiations for a genuine political transition. Such a transition must include a broad, transitional governing body with full executive powers formed on the basis of mutual consent. The EU will continue to support the efforts of the Syrian opposition and in particular the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) as the opposition delegation in the UN-brokered talks in Geneva. The Council welcomes the HR commitment to further engage with the Syrian opposition and the civil society. The EU urges again the Syrian regime to finally lay out its plan of truly implementing a genuine political transition. There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the current regime and until the legitimate grievances and aspirations of the Syrian society are addressed. Only once an inclusive political transition is in place will the EU be able to assist with the reconstruction of the country directly and through international organisations, an EU objective that will enable the millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes to return to them and live in peace and security in their own lands. The Council welcomes the High Representative’s constant coordination with the UN and support to the efforts of the UN Special Envoy de Mistura as well as her intensified outreach with key actors with a view to laying the ground for the resumption of an inclusive and Syrian led political process under UN auspices, and invites the High Representative to report back and suggest additional action that could be taken. The Council takes note of the commitment of the High Representative and the Commission to build upon existing EU efforts since the outbreak of the conflict including humanitarian aid, relief and recovery assistance as mentioned in the EU Regional Strategy.
  6. The Council calls on Russia, including as co-chair of the ISSG, to demonstrate through policies and actions all efforts, in order to halt indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime, restore a cessation of hostilities, ensure immediate and expanded humanitarian access and create the conditions for a credible and inclusive political transition.
  7. The EU condemns in the strongest terms the confirmed use of chemical weapons (as detailed in the JIM report) and widespread attacks on civilians and human rights violations and abuses by the Syrian regime and Da’esh. The findings of the JIM report require strong action by the OPCW and UNSC. All those responsible for such breaches of international law, in particular of international humanitarian law and human rights law, some of which may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, must be brought to justice, including those committing crimes against religious, ethnic and other groups and minorities. Impunity for such crimes is unacceptable and thus the EU will continue to support efforts to gather evidence in view of future legal action. The EU recalls its conviction that the situation in Syria should be referred to the ICC and renews its call to the UN Security Council to take action in this respect. The EU and its Member States will seek to explore possibilities of concerted action inter alia through the UN General Assembly. In this context, the EU will act swiftly, according to established procedures, with the aim of imposing further  restrictive measures against Syria targeting Syrian individuals and entities supporting the regime as long as the repression continues.
  8. The EU condemns the atrocities committed by Da’esh and other UN-designated terrorist groups, and reaffirms its strong commitment to combat them. The EU continues to support the efforts of the Global Coalition to counter Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. Da’esh and other UN-designated terrorist organisations constitute a threat for the future of Syria as well as to the interests and values of the EU. The EU calls for the prevention of material and financial support reaching individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with these UN-designated terrorist groups and the dissuasion of any party from collaborating with them.  The Council calls for the expeditious separation of all combatants not designated as terrorist entities, from those designated as such. Only a political solution will enable a decisive defeat of Da’esh and other UN-designated terrorist organisations in Syria.

EU to start “post-conflict” talks on Syria

European Union High Commissioner Federica Mogherini said that the EU “will start with the key actors in the region for the post-conflict phase” as a “complimentary track”.

Sources: European Council/Syria & Iraq news