Iraqi army readies to retake Hawija

Iraqi forces backed by tribal fighters are manoeuvring into position in the western desert bordering Syria to launch an offensive against one of the last bastions of Daesh.

The jihadist group has suffered a string of defeats on the battlefield that have left in tatters its “caliphate”, three years after it was declared. After driving Daesh out of Nineveh province earlier this year, the Iraqi government set its eyes on Hawija, north of Baghdad, as well as the towns of Al-Qaim, Rawa and Anna in the western desert.

On Tuesday an AFP correspondent who toured the region saw several artillery units positioning themselves around Rawa and Anna, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with Syria. Moving in clouds of dust, gunners set up their equipment in the rugged terrain and dug trenches before test-firing mortar rounds.

Further in the distance the infantry deployed, backed by tribal fighters. Sheikh Qatari Kahlan, who commands one of the tribal units, said his forces were ready for battle. “All the tribes wanted to take part to liberate the region and fight against Daesh,” he told AFP. “Tribe members inside Anna and Rawa are giving us information and assuring us that the battle will be ferocious but quick,” he added, pointing an automatic rifle at the horizon. Up ahead a few palm trees dotted an otherwise desert landscape, through which runs an asphalt road.

An Iraqi general, who declined to be named, estimated that “more than 1,500 jihadists” were in Anna, Rawa and Al-Qaim. Al-Qaim lies closer to the Syria border and just across from Deir Ez-Zor province where Daesh jihadists are facing separate offensives from US-supported SDF and government troops backed by Russia. The Iraqi general said the battle for the three towns could begin after an expected assault on Hawija — 300 kilometres (185 miles) — or simultaneously.

‘We know their methods’

Another Iraqi commander, Qotaiba Assaad, said he expected the offensive to retake Rawa, Anna and Al-Qaim to be “quick and to our advantage”. “We have fought Daesh for three years and we know their methods: car bombs, snipers and bombs,” said Assaad, who set up his unit in Al-Sagra a few kilometres away from Rawa and Anna. Lieutenant Colonel Jamal Amr said huge efforts and “a real coordination between all our forces” are needed to keep the jihadists from across the porous Iraq-Syria border.

The battle for Hawija is expected to be more complicated because of its location in oil-rich Kirkuk province, which is at the centre of a long-running dispute between the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad and regional Kurdish authorities. An offensive targeting Hawija could also be postponed due to a referendum on Kurdish independence planned for September 25 — which Baghdad has called “unconstitutional” and “untimely”. On Tuesday Iraq’s parliament voted against plans by Kurdish leaders to hold the referendum.

Iraqi forces and paramilitary units announced plans to retake Hawija on September 1, a day after recapturing Tal Afar and weeks after ousting Daesh jihadists from second city Mosul. Daesh once held almost one-third of Iraq’s territory, but the US-led coalition supporting the fight against them said after the fall of Tal Afar that the jihadists were left with no more than 10 percent of that.

Sources: AFP/Syria & Iraq News

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SAA and allies capture Uqayribat in Hama governorate

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.

U.S. asks Barzani to ‘postpone’ KRG independence referendum

Unites States government has asked the Kurdistan Regional Government to ‘postpone’ the independence referendum planned for September 25 and reiterates that “the issues between the Kurdistan Region and the federal government in Baghdad should be addressed through dialogue between the two sides”.

Rex Tillerson

KRG president Masoud Barzani‏ announced on Friday night that he held a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and that the top US diplomat expressed the request of the US government for the postponement of the referendum. According to the announcement, president Barzani “expressed his gratitude to the people and government of the United States for their support to the Kurdistan Region, especially against the terrorists of the Islamic State. On the issue of the postponement of the referendum, the President stated that the people of the Kurdistan Region would expect guarantees and alternatives for their future.”

It is the first time the U.S. government explicitly expresses its opposition to the referendum, while it is worth noting that Barzani did not reject the request, but asked for ‘guarantees’.

Update 1 – 12/8/2017 10:00 GMT | Zebari: “The date is standing, Sept. 25, no change”

Barzani’s close adviser Hoshyar Zebari says that the referendum date has not change despite the U.S. request to postpone it. “The date is standing, Sept. 25, no change”, he told Reuters on Saturday.

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