The Syrian branches of the Red Crescent and the International Red Cross have said on late Tuesday on their Twitter accounts. According to the medical organizations some “critical medical cases” were transported from Eastern Ghouta to Damascus hospitals following intense negotiations between Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s president Khaled Hboubati and IFRC president Francesco Rocca.
Around 40 FSA rebel groups on Monday rejected Russia’s planned Sochi conference on Syria, saying Moscow was seeking to bypass a U.N.-based Geneva peace process and blaming Russia for committing war crimes in the war-torn country. Russia received backing from Turkey and Iran for holding a Syrian national dialogue congress in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.
In a statement by around 40 rebel groups who include some of the military factions who participated in earlier rounds of Geneva peace talks, they said Moscow had not put pressure on the Syrian government to reach a political settlement. “Russia has not contributed one step to easing the suffering of Syrians and has not pressured the regime that it claims it is a guarantor by move in any real path towards a solution,” the rebel statement said. “Russia is an aggressor country that has committed war crimes against Syrians… It stood with the regime militarily and defended its politically and over seven years preventing U.N. condemnation of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s regime,” the statement said.
Moscow says it targets militants but rebels and residents say the Russian air strikes conducted since a major aerial campaign over two years ago has caused hundreds of civilian casualties in indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas away from the frontline.
Some rebels said they had not yet made up their mind and U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said that Russia’s plan to convene the congress should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the U.N.-led Geneva talks on ending the war in Syria.
Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters
Daesh is prepared for the eventual collapse of its so-called ‘caliphate’ and has developed contingency plans for this event, according to analysts and former commanders of the jihadist organization.
Source: Syria and Iraq News/CNN
Erdoğan also said Turkey was considering counter-measures, including imposing sanctions, against Kurdish northern Iraq over a planned referendum. Iraqi Kurdish authorities have defied growing international pressure to call off the referendum on independence. Iraq’s neighbors fear it will fuel unrest among their own Kurdish populations and Western allies said it could detract from the fight against Daesh. Turkey has brought forward a cabinet meeting and national security council session to Friday over the referendum, Erdoğan said. He said that parliament would also convene for an extraordinary meeting on Saturday. “Without any further delay we are going to discuss what kind of sanctions should be imposed and when the sanctions will be imposed,” he said without elaborating on what they might be. Turkish troops are also carrying out military exercises near the border and Erdoğan said on Saturday the resolution on troop deployment abroad will be submitted to parliament for a vote.
‘Turkish troops will be deployed inside Idlib’
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday Turkey will deploy troops in Syria’s northern Idlib region as part of a so-called de-escalation agreement brokered by Russia last month. The “de-escalation” zones, agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran, would be further discussed in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip to Ankara next week, Erdoğan said in an interview with Reuters while he was in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly. “Under the agreement, Russians are maintaining security outside Idlib and Turkey will maintain the security inside Idlib region,” Erdoğan said. “The task is not easy … With Putin we will discuss additional steps needed to be taken in order to eradicate terrorists once and for all to restore peace.”
Meeting Erdoğan on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday praised his leadership and said he “has become a friend of mine.” Relations between Turkey and the United States were strained over Turkish security officials involved in street fighting with protesters during a visit to Washington in May.
Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh in Syria and Iraq but Ankara’s ties with Washington are strained over support provided by the United States to the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. Viewed by Turkey as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the YPG has been among the most effective partners on the ground in the U.S.-led fight against the Daesh. Erdoğan warned Washington that arming the YPG could end up hurting Washington and its allies. “Weapons are being deployed to YPG … We are strategic allies with the United States …, we should avoid helping YPG,” he said.
Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News
The hunt for Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very much on. According to a report by CNN, at one point over the summer the US believed they had their best shot at killing the jihadist leader in an airstrike, several US officials said. The strike, which has never been publicly disclosed, was based on intelligence that indicated a senior Daesh leader, quite possibly al-Baghdadi, was at the particular location. The officials familiar with the strike tell CNN it has never been definitively determined if al-Baghdadi was actually killed. But one official said that over recent months “we tried to take several shots at him.” One reason the US remains uncertain if it killed al-Baghdadi is that in the days and weeks that followed the strike, US intelligence did not intercept any Daesh communications confirming his death and there was no discussion on Daesh social media accounts, US officials said. Given al-Baghdadi’s stature, the US expects to see significant chatter discussing his death, if he is killed. The strike occurred after a claim by Russia in June that the Daesh leader might have been killed in one of its airstrikes on the outskirts of Raqqa on May 28. The US has long believed that the Russian claim is not true.
In another instance CNN has learned that US military planners for a ground mission being conducted by US forces thought they were on al-Baghdadi’s trail for a significant period of time. Intelligence indicated an individual with the name al-Baghdadi was at a target site, a US official confirmed to CNN. Senior US administration officials were briefed but a raid did not happen because of concern over the potential number of civilians at the site. The US official says they now believe al-Baghdadi was likely not at the location. It remains unclear if that individual was any relation to the Daesh leader.
A consistent problem the US has faced is that intelligence tips on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts are often not timely, meaning he is likely to have moved on before they are able to mount an operation to take him out. Al-Baghdadi is believed to remain fairly mobile, often moving by vehicle with just a driver one official told CNN. Because he potentially remains on the move, the best chance of killing him might come with last minute intelligence that would require a strike by a drone already loitering nearby.
Over the last several months, the top US commander in Baghdad has given several tantalizing answers to reporters about al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. In a July 11 press briefing, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told Pentagon reporters: “I’m unable to confirm or deny where he is or whether he is alive or dead.” Townsend recently departed Iraq after his tour of duty as commander was completed. In his final press conference on August 31, Townsend told reporters “I really don’t know where he is.” He then added “I believe he’s alive? Yes. Why? Because I’ve seen no convincing evidence, intelligence or open source or other — rumor or otherwise, that he’s dead. So, therefore, I believe he’s alive.” Without offering details Townsend also said “there are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s still alive.”
Officials say that now Daesh has largely been forced out of Raqqa as well as Mosul, they believe al-Baghdadi is somewhere in the middle Euphrates River Valley, which could put him in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime and Russian aircraft operating in the region. Two administration officials also say that over the last several weeks the CIA assembled specific intelligence that prompted undisclosed drone strike missions carried out by the military mainly in Syria to go after Daesh targets. The CIA declined to comment on the matter. Because of the lack of confirmation about al-Baghdadi’s death, the working assumption by the US is that he still remains alive. Officials say they will continue to pursue him even though they believe that his relevance in the Daesh organization may be diminished as the coalition drives fighters out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Sources: CNN/Syria & Iraq News
The Syrian Arab Army and its allies were fighting on Saturday in Daesh’s last pocket in Hama governorate after taking the heavily defended village of Uqayribat on Friday.
The enclave lies close to the main road running between the cities of Homs and Aleppo near the town of al-Salamiyah, and has been the site of intense fighting for months. Evicting jihadists from the area is viewed as necessary to improve security on the road.
The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al-Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped. In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, spearheaded by former al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.
“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war. “In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said. “Everyone should know that al-Julani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Muhammad al-Julani who effectively leads Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
In less than three days al-Julani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al-Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict. An emboldened Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolize power. The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.
Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.” He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.
The expanding influence of the former al-Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run. Al-Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.
The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods. Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains. The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.
Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News