USA says ‘grave’ consequences if Tahrir al-Sham dominates Idlib

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.

Abu Muhammad al-Julani in a screenshot from an 2016 video

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

Russian navy fires Kalibr cruise missiles on Daesh targets in Hama: Russian defense ministry

Russian Navy ships fired 3M-54 “Kalibr” cruise missiles on Daesh targets in Hama province, the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced.

The Russian Defense said that the attacks were carried out from the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea by “Admiral Essen” and “Admiral Grigorovich” frigates, as well as the “Krasnodar” submarine. At the same time, “Krasnodar” performed missile launches from an underwater position.

The targets were reportedly command posts and large ammunition stores of Daesh jihadists Hama province, and the missiles hit their targets and caused an explosion of the ammunition arsenal.

The Russian Ministry also stressed that the army commands of Turkey and Israel had been informed prior to the attack.

archive photo by the Russian Defense Ministry

Source: Syria & Iraq News

SDF announce the start of the “Great Battle” for the liberation of Raqqa

SDF have begun the “long and difficult” battle to capture the city of Raqqa, Daesh’s de facto capital, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Jihadist group said Tuesday.

YPG-led rebels began laying the groundwork for the offensive in November, edging through the surrounding province and cutting supply lines into the city. But a showdown for the city itself will prove a major test for the coalition, with the potential for high civilian casualties. “The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult,” Lt. Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, said in a statement.

In northeastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that “Great Battle” had begun for the liberation of the city of Raqqa, with the participation of the Army of Revolutionaries (Jaysh al-Thuwar), Jabhat al-Akrad, Democratic al-Shamal Brigades, Tribal Forces, Maghawir Humus Brigades, Siqur al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Tahrir, Seljuk Turkmen Brigade, Hamam Turkmen Martyrs Battalion, Sanadid Forces, Syriac Military Council, Manbij Military Council, Deir ez-Zor Military Council, Self-Defense Forces, Asayish Forces, YPG/YPJ and Nuxbe Forces.

Western diplomats and experts monitoring the Jihadist group say Daesh has relocated foot-soldiers and senior leaders to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, where an even tougher fight against the Jihadists will be expected. But U.S. officials estimate that at least 3,000 Daesh fighters are still holed up inside Raqqa, where they have erected defenses against the anticipated assault. Among them are as many as 200,000 civilians, who aid groups fear may be used as human shields, a tactic employed by Daesh in its strongholds across Syria and Iraq as coalition forces closed in. Conditions inside the city are understood to be dire. According to a recent assessment by the Syria Relief Network, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, two-thirds of the population are living on two meals a day amid dwindling supplies of essentials caused by the siege on the city.

SDF forces reached the northern and eastern gates to Raqqa last week after intense clashes under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the SDF, said Tuesday that the “great battle” had begun. “Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition,” he told reporters in northeast Syria, flanked by representatives of Kurdish male and female fighting units, as well as Syrian rebel groups and Arab tribesmen.

Ankara’s sour reaction

Washington’s decision to back a Kurdish-led force has soured relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, which is battling PKK militants within its own borders. In Ankara, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday that the army is not ruling out military force if the battle for Raqqa is seen as a threat to Turkey.

As Daesh forces dig deep across their remaining territory, civilians have increasingly been caught in the cross-fire, dying at the hands of the militants’ bombings and land mines as well as U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and SDF shelling. The International Rescue Committee said Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned” for Raqqa’s civilians and warned that they risked “facing the full brunt of the assault to come.”

The text of the “Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in Syria”

Here is the text of the “Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in Syria”

The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey as guarantors of the observance of the ceasefire regime in the Syrian Arab Republic (hereinafter referred to as “Guarantors”):

guided by the provisions of UNSC resolution 2254 (2015);

reaffirming their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic;

expressing their determination to decrease the level of military tensions and to provide for the security of civilians in the Syrian Arab Republic,

have agreed on the following.

1. the following de-escalation areas shall be created with the aim to put a prompt end to violence, improve the humanitarian situation and create favorable conditions to advance political settlement of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic:

Idlib province and certain parts of the neighbouring provinces (Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces);

certain parts in the north of Homs province;

in eastern Ghouta;

certain parts of southern Syria (Deraa and Al-Quneitra provinces).

The creation of the de-escalation areas and security zones is a temporary measure, the duration of which will initially be 6 months and will be automatically extended on the basis of consensus of the Guarantors.

2. Within the lines of the de-escalation areas:

hostilities between the conflicting parties (the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the armed opposition groups that have joined and will join the ceasefire regime) with the use of any kinds of weapons, including aerial assets, shall be ceased;

rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access shall be provided;

conditions to deliver medical aid to local population and to meet basic needs of civilians shall be created;

measures to restore basic infrastructure facilities, starting with water supply and electricity distribution networks, shall be taken;

conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons shall be created.

3. Along the lines of the de-escalation areas, security zones shall be established in order to prevent incidents and military confrontations between the conflicting parties.

4. The security zones shall include:

– Checkpoints to ensure unhindered movement of unarmed civilians and delivery of humanitarian assistance as well as to facilitate economic activities;

– Observation posts to ensure compliance with the provisions of the ceasefire regime.

The functioning of the checkpoints and observation posts as well as the administration of the security zones shall be ensured by the forces of the Guarantors by consensus. Third parties might be deployed, if necessary, by consensus of the Guarantors.

5. The Guarantors shall:

take all necessary measures to ensure the fulfillment by the conflicting parties of the ceasefire regime;

take all necessary measures to continue the fight against DAESH/ISIL, Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL as designated by the UN Security Council within and outside the de-escalation areas;

continue efforts to include in the ceasefire regime armed opposition groups that have not yet joined the ceasefire regime.

6. The Guarantors shall in 2 weeks after signing the Memorandum form a Joint working group on de-escalation (hereinafter referred to as the “Joint Working Group”) composed of their authorized representatives in order to delineate the lines of the de-escalation areas and security zones as well as to resolve other operational and technical issues related to the implementation of the Memorandum.

The Guarantors shall take steps to complete by 4 June 2017 the preparation of the maps of the de-escalation areas and security zones and to separate the armed opposition groups from the terrorist groups mentioned in para.5 of the Memorandum.

The Joint Working Group shall prepare by the above-mentioned date the maps of the de-escalation areas and security zones to be agreed by consensus of the Guarantors as well as the draft Regulation of the Joint Working Group.

The Joint Working Group shall report on its activities to the high-level international meetings on Syria held in Astana.

The present Memorandum enters into force the next day after its signing.

Done in Astana, 4 May 2017 in three copies in English, having equal legal force.

Signatures

Islamic Republic of Iran   Russian Federation   Republic of Turkey

Source: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Rebels reject Syria ‘de-escalation zones’ plan

Syria’s armed opposition on Thursday rejected Russia’s plan to create ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria, calling it a threat to the country’s territorial integrity, and said it would also not recognize Iran as a guarantor of any ceasefire plan. Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels, and Iran, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, agreed earlier in the day to Russia’s proposal for “de-escalation zones” in Syria, a move welcomed by the United Nations but met with scepticism from the United States.

“We want Syria to maintain its integrity,” opposition delegate Osama Abu Zaid said after Russia, Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum on creating safe zones. The three countries are sponsoring talks in the Kazakh capital Astana aimed at ending Syria’s fighting. “We are against the division of Syria. As for the agreements, we are not a party to that agreement and of course we will never be in favor (of it) as long as Iran is called a guarantor state,” Abu Zaid said. He also cited what he called “a huge gap” between the promises of Russia, which intervened militarily in 2015 on Assad’s side and gave him back the upper hand in the conflict. “We have an agreement already (in) our hands, why isn’t it implemented?” he said, referring to a truce deal announced by Russia in December that was largely ignored on the ground. “Why are we jumping now to safe zones?” “Russia was not able to or does not want to implement the pledges it makes, and this is a fundamental problem.”

Russia, Turkey and Iran did not immediately publish the memorandum, leaving its details unclear. But the safe zones appear intended to be conflict-free to help widen a ceasefire, and would potentially be policed by foreign troops. The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it was skeptical of Iran’s involvement as a guarantor of the accord and Damascus’ track record on previous agreements. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that he was encouraged by the proposal but cautioned it must “actually improve the lives of Syrians.” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said while on a visit to Washington, D.C., that the kingdom supported creation of safe zones but he wanted to see more details. Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev said that under the plan Russia could send observers to safe zones. He said third-party monitors could be invited provided Iran and Turkey agreed.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Russia, US and UN meeting on Syria scheduled for April 24 in Geneva: Tass

A trilateral meeting between Russia, the United States and the United Nations on Syria is scheduled to take place in Geneva on April 24, Russia’s semi-official Tass agency reports.’The meeting is tentatively scheduled for April 24 and Russia is expected to be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov‘, agency’s source noted.

Earlier on Monday, Russia’s special envoy Syria Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said in Moscow that the meeting on Syria could be held in Geneva early next week, Washington’s confirmation is expected. “The tripartite meeting of Russia, the United States and the United Nations in Geneva is planned, we are waiting for confirmation from our American colleagues,” the Russian diplomat said, adding that the talks could be held at the beginning of the next week at deputy foreign ministers or department directors level.

The United Nations building in Geneva [archive photo]
Source: Syria & Iraq News/Tass

US intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts ahead of Khan Sheikhoun attack

The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5, CNN reports citing an unidentified ‘senior US official’.

The intercepts were allegedly part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. ‘The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen’, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.

So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. The official said the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted.

US assesses that SAA has re-established a chemical weapons unit

The US now assesses that Syria has re-established a unit of personnel associated with chemical weapons that existed before the 2013 agreement in which the Syrian government pledged to give up its weapons inventory. And there is some indication they are getting outside help. “We know they have the expertise. And we suspect that they have help,” a US military official told reporters at a background briefing Friday. At that briefing, the official also noted, “We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country. We cannot talk about openly any complicity between the Russians and the Syrian regime in this — in this case, but we’re carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with the Syrian capability.” But even if there is a definitive finding of Russian complicity, it’s not clear the Pentagon or the White House would make that information public, a senior US official said. First, it would have to be ironclad proof, which could be difficult to determine. But also, the US feels right now that it has made the case that Russian support for Assad must end. For now, the official said the most specific evidence of Russian involvement remains a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack. The US has specific intelligence showing it was a Russian drone. While the drone operator may not have known why the aerial vehicle was flying in the area, it was a Russian-controlled asset.