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.

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US, Russia agree Syria truce holding, extend it by 48 hours

The United States and Russia agreed that the Syrian cessation of hostilities that began on Monday had largely held and should be extended for another 48 hours despite sporadic violence, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday. The cessation of hostilities, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday, went into effect on Monday night.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Kerry and Lavrov had spoken by telephone earlier on Wednesday and agreed it was worth extending the truce. Under the deal, the United States and Russia are aiming for reduced violence over seven consecutive days before they move to the next stage of coordinating military strikes against Nusra Front and Islamic State militants, which are not party to the truce.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ruusian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference in Geneva [10/9/2016]
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ruusian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference in Geneva [10/9/2016]

“There was agreement that as a whole, despite sporadic reports of violence, the arrangement is holding, and violence is significantly lower in comparison with previous days and weeks,” Toner told a briefing. “As part of the conversation they agreed to extend the cessation for another 48 hours,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict through contacts on the ground, said no deaths from fighting had been reported in the first 48 hours of the truce.

“This recommitment will initially be for 48 hours, and, provided it holds, the U.S. and Russia will discuss extensions, with the aim of achieving an indefinite extension to lower the violence,” Toner explained later. He said Russia needed to use its influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to ensure that humanitarian aid was delivered to besieged communities under the agreement. “We haven’t seen the humanitarian access yet so we’re still continuing to assess this, talking to the Russians,” he said. “We’re pressuring them to pressure the Assad regime.”

Two aid convoys, each of around 20 trucks carrying mostly food and flour, that were headed for the city of Aleppo have been held up since crossing the Turkish border, according to United Nations and other officials. The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said on Tuesday the United Nations was waiting for Damascus to issue letters authorizing the aid deliveries, which are desperately needed in Aleppo, the scene of Syria’s fiercest fighting in recent months. The U.N. has estimated that well over half a million people are living under siege in Syria.

Source: Reuters

Residents and rebels start evacuating Darayya

Aid convoys arranged by the medical charity Red Crescent have entered the besieged Syrian town of Darayya as hundreds of rebel fighters prepared to lay down their arms after ceding control of the area to government forces. A convoy of Red Crescent ambulances reached Darayya early on Friday, a town located just a few kilometres from President Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus palace and the government-held Mazzeh airbase.

On Thursday, Syrian state news agency SANA announced a deal had been struck for the evacuation of civilians and fighters in the town. According to sources around 8,000 civilians and 800 rebels would be evacuated from the Damascus suburb, which before the war was home to a quarter of a million people, to Sahnaya – a town in Damascus governorate – under regime control.

The rebels, meanwhile, will then be taken to northern Idlib,  held by Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition of armed anti-government groups, our correspondent said

The rebels who controlled Darayya belonged to two rebel groups: Ajnad al-Sham and Liwa’ Shuhada al-Islam, groups allied with Jaish al-Fatah. However, activists told Al Jazeera that they were extremely concerned over the safety of civilians, many of whom are relatives of the rebels, as the government offered little to no guarantees. Some opposition groups also criticised the deal, calling it a major setback as Sunnis would be forced from their homes, further fracturing the country along sectarian lines.

Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]
Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]

“Forced to leave”

Darayya has a strategic position – given its proximity to Daraa Road, it is not far from the capital and from the Mazzeh military airport, too. The armed opposition had used the town as a connection hub between western and eastern Ghouta, Damascus. The suburb saw some of the first protests against the Syrian government, an uprising that transformed into a full-blown civil conflict.

The withdrawal of the rebels only a few miles from Damascus is a boost for President Bashar al-Assad, analysts say. “We are being forced to leave, but our condition has deteriorated to the point of being unbearable,” Hussam Ayash, an activist in the town, told the Associated Press news agency. “We withstood for four years but we couldn’t any longer.”

Sources: Al Jazeera News/SANA/BBC News/AP/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

Truce agreed in Hasakah

A truce agreement was reached in Hasakah between the official governmental sides and the Asayish, the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party.

As SANA reports from Hasakah the agreement involves applying a truce system as of 5pm on Sunday and evacuating the wounded and transporting them to hospitals in Qamishli, in addition to restoring the situation in Hasakah to how it was before and beginning new dialogue on Monday to resolve the remaining unresolved issues.

Situation map of Hasakah, as of August 20, 2016 [map by @deSyracuse]
Situation map of Hasakah, as of August 20, 2016 [map by @deSyracuse]

Source: SANA/Syria & Iraq News

Syria & Iraq developments, August 16 2016

Syria & Iraq developments, August 16 2016

  • Russian Tu-22M3 bombers attack Daesh targets in al-Bab using Hamedan airbase in Iran
  • Peshmerga forces continue operation in southeast Mosul, free 12 villages
  • SAA and allies advance at Aleppo’s 1070 housing project
  • Levant Front rebels try to liberate al-Rai from Daesh
  • Operation Inherent Resolve full briefing

Syria & Iraq developments, August 15 2016

Syria & Iraq developments, August 15 2016

Peshmerga forces advance in southeast Mosul — SDF establish ‘Al-Bab Military Council’ with aim to capture al-Bab — Update from Aleppo front — Syrian refugees in Jordan struggle — Manbij residents celebrate liberation from Daesh — Iraqi parliament approves appointment of 5 new Ministers

Fierce battle for al-Ramouseh district as rebels try to break Aleppo siege

Two rebel groups said on Saturday they had broken the siege of Aleppo after days of fierce fighting in the southwest of the city, but a monitoring group and pro-government online media outlets denied the claim.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, said in an online statement: “Fighters from outside the city met their brother fighters from inside the city and work is under way to establish control over remaining positions to break the siege.” A commander from another, more moderate rebel group also told Reuters the siege had been broken, but said it was early days and matters were “not easy”.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the siege had not been broken but that fighting was very intense in the Ramousah area of southwest Aleppo, where rebels have been battling for control of a major military artillery base. A pro-Syrian government news outlet affiliated with the Lebanese group Hezbollah, fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said in an online statement there was no truth to reports the siege had been broken.

Situation map os SW Aleppo as of early hours of August 6, 2016 [via Peto Lucem]
Situation map os SW Aleppo as of early hours of August 6, 2016 [via Peto Lucem]

Source: Reuters/SANA/Syria & Iraq News