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.

Suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun kills more than 90, dozens injured

A suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, near Idlib, has killed more than 90 people on Tuesday, while dozens were injured.

Airstrikes on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun began just after daybreak, delivering an unidentified chemical agent that killed at least 90 people and filled clinics across the area with patients foaming at the mouth or struggling to breathe.

Three doctors said in interviews that the symptoms they saw were far more serious than they would expect from chlorine, which Syrian government forces have used as a chemical weapon in the past. The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed “serious concern” and said it was investigating.

Images from the area showed the bodies of at least a dozen men, women and children splayed across the ground between two houses. It was not possible to independently verify the reports, but video footage showed lifeless bodies wrapped in blankets and packed on the back of a truck. The youngest were wearing diapers.

In another video, several children were seen slumped on hospital beds, apparently unresponsive to the medics and chaos around them. Syrian government warplanes in recent months have launched heavy attacks across northern Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of civilians — many having fled other battle zones — are squeezed together among much of what remains of the armed opposition to Assad.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry denied involvement in Tuesday’s attack, saying the government was committed to its obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the convention in 2013 after launching sarin attacks on several Damascus neighborhoods — strikes that killed hundreds of civilians and pushed the United States to the brink of military intervention.

The attack came as European diplomats gathered in Brussels for a flagship conference aimed at pledging billions of dollars for Syria’s reconstruction, six years into a civil conflict that has shattered much of the country and prompted refugees to pour out across the Middle East and Europe.

Photographs of lifeless bodies in Khan Sheikhoun were passed from phone to phone in the Brussels conference hall, attendees said, a stark reminder of the limitations of European power in a war now heavily driven by Iranian and Russian influence.

Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. [photo by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters]

Emergency U.N. Security Council meeting

The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday morning on the suspected chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, which opposition activists say has killed dozens of people. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the current council president, made the announcement Tuesday in response to a request from Britain and France for an emergency council session. She said council members have seen reports “of the terrible chemical weapons attack in Syria.” Haley said the council will get a briefing at an open meeting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Wednesday “and we are hoping to get as much information on the Syrian attack as we can.”

White House condemns attack

The White House has condemned what it describes as a “heinous” chemical attack against civilians by the Syrian government. Spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday’s attack in the Syrian province of Idlib is “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” But Spicer says the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government are a consequence of the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” in addressing the Syrian civil war. Spicer says that President Barack Obama said he would draw a “red line” at chemical attacks, “then did nothing.” Spicer would not say whether the White House believes Russia played a role in the attack, saying President Donald Trump has been briefed. He says Trump is “extremely alarmed” by this “intolerable act.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia and Iran bear “great moral responsibility” for deaths from an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to use their influence over Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. He said they bear moral responsibility because they have declared themselves to be the guarantors of a ceasefire they helped broker in Astana, Kazakhstan. He said in a statement that Iran and Russia shouldn’t have any illusions about Assad or his intentions. Tillerson says anyone using chemical weapons to attack his own people must be held accountable for a “fundamental disregard for human decency.” He also said the chemical weapons attack makes clear that Assad operates “with brutal, unabashed barbarism” and that Syria needs a “genuine ceasefire” and that anyone supporting armed combatants there must help ensure compliance.

A senior U.S. State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said that if a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria is what it appears to be, it is “clearly a war crime.” The official said both the United States and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are currently gathering information about the attack.

The attack comes as the U.S. has been softening its stance on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future and leaving open the possibility the U.S. could cooperate with Assad’s government on fighting the Islamic State group. But the U.S. official says that’s “highly unlikely.” He says the U.S. isn’t currently focused on that possibility. He says the Syrian government’s behavior would have to change before the U.S. would seriously consider that step.

U.N. says can’t verify use of chemical agents in attack

The United Nations says it isn’t in a position to independently verify reports of a chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province but Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply disturbed” at the incident. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. chief extends “his heartfelt condolences to victims of the incident and their families.” He pointed to the OPCW, the international chemical weapons watchdog, which announced that it has started gathering information to determine if chemical weapons were used. Dujarric said Gutteres recalled the U.N. Security Council determination that the use of chemical weapons threatens international peace and security, and if confirmed “constitutes a serious violation of international law.”

Russia confirms attack was carried out by Syrian airforce planes

A Russian official confirmed on Wednesday morning that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was carried out by the Syrian Arab Airforce but wouldn’t confirm use of chemical agents.