Rebels began withdrawing from Qalamoun on Saturday and will go to northern Syria, state TV and a rebel official said, in a surrender agreement that marks another victory for President Bashar al-Assad. The withdrawal will restore state control over the eastern Qalamoun enclave, some 40 km from Damascus.
State TV said rebel fighters and their families would be transported from eastern Qalamoun to Idlib and Jarablus, with 3,200 militants and their families expected to leave on Saturday. The spokesman for one of the rebel groups in eastern Qalamoun said the insurgents had agreed to the deal after intensified Russian shelling killed six people in areas near the town of al-Ruhaiba earlier this week. “This made the Free (Syrian) Army factions sit at the negotiating table with the Russian side and an agreement was reached the most important articles of which are the surrender of heavy weapons and the departure of fighters to the north,” Said Seif of the Ahmad Abdo Martyr brigade said. A first convoy of 10 buses had left al-Ruhaiba and was being searched in a nearby area before continuing to the north.
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.
At least 60 people were killed and 50 others wounded in a car bomb explosion in rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria, according to medical sources. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor had reported, earlier, the death toll of 43 people.
SOHR said six rebels were among the dead, but most were believed to be civilians, adding that dozens of people had also been injured in the blast in the town near the Turkish border. Dozens were also wounded in the attack which struck in front of an Islamic courthouse where a market is located, the Observatory said. The group said the toll was likely to rise in the attack, which was the latest in a string of bombings to hit Azaz.
Daesh likely behind the attack
Daesh is suspected of being behind the attack but no statement has been released yet.
Syrian authorities have accused rebel fighters of executing 21 civilians, including women and children, at close range as they quit second city Aleppo last week, state media reported.
The bodies were found in two neighborhoods in east Aleppo, state news agency SANA said late Sunday. The head of Aleppo’s forensic unit Zaher Hajjo told SANA that “21 corpses of civilian victims, including five children and four women, killed by terrorist groups” were examined. “The bodies were found in prisons run by the terrorist groups in Sukkari and al-Kalasseh, and they were found to have been executed by gunshot at very close range,” Hajjo was quoted as saying.
Under a landmark deal brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, 35,000 rebels and civilians left the former opposition stronghold of east Aleppo last week. Days before the evacuations began, the UN said it had received credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed by pro-government forces in Aleppo. On Monday, the Russian defence ministry said “dozens of Syrians” were summarily executed in east Aleppo by rebels. “Mass graves containing dozens of Syrians who were summarily executed and subjected to savage torture have been discovered,” spokesman Igor Konachenkov said, according to Russian agencies. He said most had been killed by gunshot wounds to the head and many bodies “were not whole,” and that thorough investigations would force opposition backers in the West to “recognise their responsibility for the cruelty” of rebels.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that bodies had been found in east Aleppo’s streets, but could not specify how they had been killed.
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.
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.
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.
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.