Syria: The Week in Review (February 23-March 1)

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A displaced Assyrian woman, who had fled her hometown due to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks against Assyrian communities, takes part in a prayer at the Ibrahim-al Khalil Melkite Greek Catholic church in the Jaramana district on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 1, 2015. AFP/Louai Beshara

Published Monday, March 2, 2015

The flashpoint areas in Syria this past week did not change much as the north of the country, namely Hasaka and Aleppo, and the southern front of Quneitra witnessed significant advances by Kurdish forces and the Syrian army against extremist groups.

On a political level however, the visit of four French lawmakers to Damascus highlighted the international divides on the Syrian crisis. Some hailed it as start of a European shift towards the Syrian government while others called it a “diplomatic transgression.”

French lawmakers meet Assad

Four French lawmakers met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday during a private trip to the war-torn country, despite a breakdown in diplomatic ties between Paris and Damascus.

The four MPs and senators, who hail from both the left and the right, belong to the France-Syria parliamentary friendship groups. One of the MPs is a member of President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialist Party (PS).

The French government was quick to deny that the lawmakers were there in an official capacity.

"We met Bashar al-Assad for a good hour. It went very well," Jacques Myard, an MP from the conservative opposition Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP), told AFP in a telephone interview. However he refused to reveal the content of the talks.

Myard said the trip was "a personal mission to see what is going on, to hear, listen."

Senator Francois Zocchetto said two days after the visit that Assad no longer wants to "remain isolated in the face of the terrorist threat.”

"Bashar al-Assad is reserved, he does not easily confide in people," Zocchetto told Radio Classique. "He said he expected to no longer remain isolated in the face of the terrorist threat."

Zocchetto said both the head of the Senate and its foreign affairs commission were made aware of the private trip. He added that one of the other lawmakers on the visit had also informed the presidency and the foreign ministry.

"We do not carry an official message from the French government," Zocchetto said.

"It's hard to say that we want to fight against terrorism in France and ignore what is going on in Syria,” he added. "This secular state could disappear tomorrow... because right now there is no longer any moderate Syrian opposition."

Gerard Bapt from the ruling Socialist Party (PS), who led the delegation but did not attend the talks with Assad, said on France Inter on Thursday that the visit was made in the hope of promoting a ceasefire.

"One does not have the sense, in Syria, of seeing a government that is about to fall," Bapt said. "If there is to be peace, we have to find a way to talk to each other."

It is important to note that the French delegation only visited government-held Damascus where the regime has established tight control over the past year, as well as on most of western Syria.

However, the Syrian capital still faces frequent suicide attacks and rockets hailing from Damascus suburbs, where some rebels are still fighting there.

On Monday, two simultaneous suicide attacks, at a security checkpoint near the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad, killed four people and wounded 13 in southern Damascus near a shrine.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that tracks violence in Syria also reported that a rocket hit the Adra prison northeast of Damascus on Monday, killing four people and wounding 15 without specifying if the casualties were prisoners, guards or visitors.

The French delegation also met People’s Assembly Speaker Mohammed Jihad Laham and talked about strengthening relations and joint interests.

A meeting with Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign and Expatriates Minister Walid al-Moallem also took place, in which Moallem discussed the need for united efforts to counter terrorism which constitutes a threat in Syria and internationally.

The Syrian media celebrated the French lawmakers’ visit as reflecting rising sentiment within Western countries that their governments should re-engage with Assad to try and resolve the four-year conflict and rein in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, which controls swathes of the country.

However, both Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned the lawmakers' talks with Assad, whom they described as a "dictator" and "butcher."

"(They) have taken it upon themselves to meet with a dictator who is the cause of one of the worst civil wars of recent years," Hollande told reporters on Wednesday during a visit to the Philippines.

Despite the Syrian government’s call for international cooperation to fight jihadist militancy, Britain, France and the US remain opposed to contacts with Assad, aiming to train so-called moderate rebels to fight both the regime and jihadist groups.

Syrian Army advances in the “triangle”

The Syrian army seized a number of villages over the past three days in the geographic triangle linking the countryside of Damascus to Quneitra and Deraa in the south, which resulted in dozens of deaths among militants, namely al-Nusra Front jihadists.

State media said on Saturday that the Syrian army took control of villages in southern Syria, as part of a campaign they started this month against insurgents posing one of the biggest remaining threats to Damascus. The large offensive is backed by the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah and initially made swift progress before slowing. The gains, made on Friday and Saturday, mark a new push in the army campaign.

A member of the Syrian government forces looks at enemy positions from the Fatima hill overlooking the town of Kfar Shams, north of the southern Syrian city of Deraa on March 1, 2015, after they regained control of the hill the day before. AFP/STRA member of the Syrian government forces looks at enemy positions from the Fatima hill overlooking the town of Kfar Shams, north of the southern Syrian city of Deraa on March 1, 2015, after they regained control of the hill the day before. AFP/STR

In the northwestern countryside of Deraa, the Syrian Army resumed its operations as climate conditions improved, aiming at fortifying the Syrian capital and its countryside. The army seized the villages of Habbariya and Tal Qarin on Friday, reached Hamrit, Tilal Fatima and Sabsa on Saturday, and finally took over Tal Sayyad on Sunday, approaching Kfar Shams, only two kilometers away from Kfar Nasej, believed to be the biggest opposition stronghold in the region.

Syrian troops shelled several opposition-led locations in Tal Antar, Tal al-Allaqyya, Sheikh Meskin, Atman, Enkel, and downtown Deraa, leading to the death of the head of the Enkel Martyrs brigade, Amin al-Shawish, also known as Abu Dani.

The militants spoke of a total of 150 deaths in the army’s military campaign. The numbers, however, couldn’t be independently verified.

Sources indicated that the combatants decided, according to the instructions of the Military Operations Command (MOC), the joint operations room in Jordan, to launch side operations in Deraa to distract the army.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the army, along with pro-government forces, took control of three villages and several hills in Deraa in clashes that left seven rebels dead. Syria's state news agency SANA said the village of Tal al-Majda in Sweida province was also taken.

A Syrian government tank is seen stationed on a hill in the village of Himrit, north of the southern Syrian city of Deraa on March 1, 2015. AFP/STRA Syrian government tank is seen stationed on a hill in the village of Himrit, north of the southern Syrian city of Deraa on March 1, 2015. AFP/STR

On Thursday February 26, Syrian army airstrikes on locations manned by opposition fighters in the northwestern countryside of Daraa resulted in the death of Nusra’s general military “prince” Abu Omar al-Mukhtar in Kfarnasej. Muktar had taken part in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alongside al-Qaeda, and is an eminent leader in the organization.

Another source revealed to Al-Akhbar that Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants were also killed near the village of Samaj, located on the Jordanian borders in the south-eastern countryside of Deraa. The army had targeted the group while transporting arms and ammunition from Jordan to Syria, thus thwarting their operation. Further clashes took place on the road from Nahta to al-Harak, as well as in the villages of Taysya and Atman, resulting in three deaths among opposition fighters.

Meanwhile, the National Defense Forces (NDF) ambushed a number of Nusra militants, trapping them between the villages of Lahitha and Radimat al-Liwa near the international Suwayda-Damascus road. According to sources, the NDF confiscated 90 B9 shells, 150 mortar shells of 82 millimeters, a TAO rocket, and various ammunitions.

The south is the last notable foothold of the non-jihadist opposition Assad, who has consolidated control over much of western Syria after almost four years of war. Al-Qaeda's Syrian arm, Nusra, is also active in the south and has clashed with western-back rebels. Rival ISIS jihadists control much of the north and east of the country.

The offensive aims to shield the capital Damascus, a short drive to the north. The insurgents had made significant gains in the south in recent months, taking several military bases.

In Damascus, the Syrian Army repelled an attack on February 26 launched by militants against its locations in al-Shoumarya mountains and al-Hawa hills in the countryside of the province, causing the death of three soldiers and of many more fighters. In Hama, Abu Aisha al-Malizi, a leader of Ajnad al-Sham — a coalition of Islamist rebel groups — died after being severely wounded in battles in the northern countryside of the province several months ago.

Over the past three days in the northwestern countryside of Damascus, eight rebels were killed in an attack in the outskirts of Qara and al-Jarajir in Qalamoun, while other fighters blew up gas pipelines leading to the Nasiriyah power plant. Meanwhile, dozens of Palestinians held protests at entrance of the Yarmouk refugee camp, south of Damascus, calling for the retreat of the fighters from the camp so its residents may return to it.

Kurdish forces advance in the north

Meanwhile in the north, Kurdish fighters pressed a big offensive against ISIS in northeast Syria on Wednesday February 25, cutting one of its supply lines from Iraq.

The new Kurdish offensive launched was focused on dislodging ISIS from areas some 100 kilometers (60 miles) further to the east, including Tal Hamis, a town that is one of ISIS’ strongholds in the Hasaka province.

The Observatory said at least 132 ISIS fighters had been killed in the fighting from February 21 till 25. Naser Haj Mahmoud, a Kurdish official in the YPG militia in northeastern Syria, said that seven members of the Kurdish YPG militia had been killed, including one foreigner.

In a telephone interview with AFP from the city of Qamishli, he said the YPG had cut a main road linking Tal Hamis with al-Houl, a town just a few kilometers from the Iraqi border.

"This is the main artery for Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. The Kurdish YPG seized more than 100 villages from ISIS in the area, he added. "We believe we will finish the battle of Tal Hamis in this campaign."

On Thursday February 26, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said that "(Kurdish) People's Protection Units (YPG) have reclaimed Tal Shamiran, Tal Masri, Tal Hermel and Ghbeish" in Hasaka. But fighting continues in the area, he added.

In Tal Shamiran, the jihadists burned down part of a church.

Meanwhile, in the village of Ghbeish, ISIS decapitated four men, and burned down houses and a school. They accused the villagers of "collaborating" with the Kurdish fighters.

As the Kurdish units took over Tal Hamis over the past three days, and the army regained control of more than 33 towns and villages in the southeastern countryside of Qamishli, Tal Tamir — 40 kilometers west of Hasaka — has been witnessing a cautious calm for a few days. But the area witnessed intermittent clashes as negotiations were taking place between the Assyrian diocese and tribal sheikhs in the region of Abdulaziz mountain, controlled by ISIS, in order to free the Assyrian hostages in exchange for money.

People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters sit in the back of pick-up truck in the town of Tal Hamis, southeast of the city of Qamishli, on February 26, 2015, after they retook parts of the town following six days of clashes with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group jihadists in Syria's Hasaka province. AFP/Delil SouleimanPeople's Protection Units (YPG) fighters sit in the back of pick-up truck in the town of Tal Hamis, southeast of the city of Qamishli, on February 26, 2015, after they retook parts of the town following six days of clashes with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group jihadists in Syria's Hasaka province. AFP/Delil Souleiman

ISIS kidnaps more than 220 Assyrians

On Tuesday February 24, the Observatory said that ISIS militants abducted at least 90 people from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria. The monitor updated the number on Thursday February 26 to note that at least 220 Assyrian had been kidnapped.

"No fewer than 220 Assyrian citizens (of Syria) were abducted by ISIS over the past three days from 11 villages" in Hasaka province, the Observatory reported, adding "negotiations are under way through mediators from Arab tribes and a member of the Assyrian community to secure the release of the hostages."

According to the monitor, the abductions took place after dawn raids in villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority near the town of Tal Hermez, a mainly Assyrian town, in the western countryside of the city of al-Hasaka, a city mainly held by Kurdish forces.

"ISIS now controls ten Christian villages," the Observatory’s Abdel-Rahman said by phone.

"They have taken the people they kidnapped away from the villages and into their territory," he added.

Several sources confirmed that they heard via wireless devices ISIS members saying that they detained “crusaders” — the jihadist group’s derogatory term for Christians — as other accounts reported that dozens of Assyrian people were kidnapped from the villages. However, ISIS has not claimed any of the abductions.

More than 1,000 families have since fled villages in the northeastern province of Hasaka since Monday's kidnappings to Kurdish- and government-controlled areas, according to the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network. About 800 of them have taken refuge in the city of Hasaka and 150 in Qamishli, a Kurdish city on the Turkish border, the group said, adding that the number of displaced people came to about 5,000.

Most of the hostages were women, children or elderly.

Jacques Behnan Hindo, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Hasaka-Nisibi, accused Turkey of preventing Christians from fleeing Syria while allowing jihadists responsible for their persecution to cross its border unchecked.

"Every day, families are emigrating from Damascus by plane because of the blockade we have around us," the bishop said on Vatican Radio. "In the north, Turkey allows through lorries, Daesh fighters, oil stolen from Syria, wheat and cotton: all of these can cross the border but nobody (from the Christian community) can pass over.”

According to a UN report published in November, Turkey has been singled out as a major transit point for ISIS’ oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

According to a recent report by the Huffington Post, it only costs $25 to cross from Turkey to ISIS-held regions in Syria.

On Sunday March 1, ISIS jihadists freed 19 of the 220 Assyrian Christians, after a ransom was paid for their release, activists said.

"Nineteen Assyrian hostages arrived on Sunday at the Church of Our Lady in Hasaka after they were released by ISIS," said Osama Edward, the director of the Assyrian Human Rights Network.

"They arrived on two buses from Shaddadeh," the ISIS stronghold in the northeastern province of Hasaka where they had been detained, he told AFP.

Edward said an ISIS religious court decided on Saturday to release the Christians in exchange for a sum of money for each family that ISIS considers as jizya, or tax, paid by non-Muslims. He was unable to say how much was paid but recalled that in November ISIS released Assyrians after receiving payments of $1,700 per person.

The activist said negotiations for the release of all hostages began on Saturday February 28 between Assyrian officials and Arab Muslim tribal chiefs.

According to the Observatory, 17 men and two women were released on Sunday.

Before the war erupted in Syria 2011, there were 30,000 Assyrians in the country, among an estimated Christian population of about 1.2 million. The Assyrians, from one of the world's oldest Christian communities, have faced an increasing threat since ISIS captured large parts of Syria, targeting in particular ethnic and religious minorities as well as anyone who does not swear allegiance to its self-declared "caliphate."

The group has also destroyed churches and Christian shrines in Syria, and demanded that Christians living under its rule pay the jizya tax.

“Moderate” rebel group joins Islamist faction as Sweden jails former FSA fighter

On Sunday, one of the main western-backed rebel groups in Aleppo announced that it had dissolved itself and joined a larger Islamist alliance, weeks into a battle which saw it lose ground and men to more powerful al-Qaeda insurgents.

Harakat Hazm, allegedly a non-jihadist opposition to Assad in northern Syria, said in a statement posted online that its fighters would join the Shamiyah Front, an alliance of Islamist brigades in Aleppo, to prevent further bloodshed.

The decision comes after heavy weekend fighting between Hazm and Nusra.

On Saturday, Nusra drove Hazm out of a strategic northern Regiment 46 base in Aleppo province and killed around 30 of its fighters, the Observatory said.

Both Hazm, which was part of the FSA collection of rebel groups that the United States classes as "moderate," and Nusra fight the Syrian army.

Hazm received what it described as small amounts of military aid from foreign states opposed to Assad, including US-made anti-tank missiles. But it has lost ground to better armed and financed jihadists.

Meanwhile, a Swedish court on Thursday sentenced 28-year-old Mouhannad Droubi, a former FSA militant, to five years in prison for war crimes over the beating of a pro-regime fighter that was shown in a "torture video."

In September 2013, Sweden announced it would grant automatic residency to all Syrians fleeing the conflict, except those found guilty of war crimes.

The verdict against Droubi was the first case of a Syrian citizen being convicted in Sweden for crimes committed in the war-torn country.

Droubi, who has lived in Sweden since 2013, was convicted of violating an article of the Geneva Conventions that prohibits "cruel treatment and torture" and of aggravated assault.

The court said it would not order the man's deportation because of the situation in Syria but that he was likely to lose his Swedish residence permit and refugee protection status pending an investigation.

Western countries have been pushing for a “moderate” armed faction to fight both Assad and Islamist groups. With time, however, many of these groups revealed growing ties with Islamist groups.

Western interference in the region and the double standards it imposes on sides in the Syrian conflict have raised question about those countries’ hidden interests. The blackout on civilian casualties of US-led airstrikes is an example of these double standards.

A rare report by Anadolu news agency on Sunday said that at least nine civilians were killed in a coalition airstrike on a village near the city of Qamishli.

The Syrian Local Coordination Committee said in a statement that bombs hit Zalak village in north-eastern Syria, near the Turkish border. Nine civilians were killed in the strike, the committee said without giving other details.

(Al-Akhbar)

Comments

Once again Hollande and Valls speak as ill-bred morons,
and of course that's what they really are.
they should be aware that Syria is no more a french mandate,
and the war against Syrian government
that they backed from the beginning is none of their business.
Funding and training armed oppositions instead of diplomatic work is a lack of culture and vocabulary.

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