Posts Tagged ‘Ahrar al-Sham’

Assad regime responsible for crimes against humanity in Ghouta: UN

June 21, 2018

The method of warfare in Syria was barbaric … Assad regime deliberately starved civilians, used chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta, UN says.

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Forces loyal to the Assad regime committed what amounted to crimes against humanity, including deliberately starving civilians, during the siege of eastern Ghouta, U.N. investigators said Wednesday.

The five-year siege, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, ended in April when the regime regained control of the opposition enclave.

“Following the end of the longest running siege in modern history… the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (for human rights in Syria) has condemned this method of warfare in Syria as barbaric,” the U.N. investigators said in a statement.

The COI, tasked by the U.N. Human Rights Council in March to urgently investigate recent events in eastern Ghouta, released a 23-page report filled with horrific details of civilian suffering.

“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” commission head Paulo Pinheiro said in the statement.

As pro-regime forces dramatically escalated their campaign to recapture the besieged enclave between February and April this year, they used tactics that were “largely unlawful in nature,” the report said.

The tactics, it said, “aimed at punishing the inhabitants of eastern Ghouta and forcing the population, collectively, to surrender or starve.”

It described thousands of desperate people holed up for months in squalid basements with dwindling food rations and few if any sanitation facilities, as bombs and missiles rained down.

The investigators said chemical weapons were probably used in eastern Ghouta.

Referring to April 7, when regime air attacks hit the city of Douma, the inquiry said: “The available evidence is largely consistent with the use of chlorine.”

Some of the reported symptoms point to the additional use of a different gas, most likely a nerve agent, the investigative body said, without specifying the perpetrators.

The investigators have received reports about at least 49 deaths and up to 650 injuries during the air attacks on April 7.

Inspectors for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have also investigated the incident, but they have yet to issue a report.

‘Deliberate starvation’

The report concluded that “certain acts perpetrated by pro-Government forces during the siege laid to eastern Ghouta, including the deliberate starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare, amount to the crime against humanity of inhumane acts causing serious mental and physical suffering.”

The investigators slammed the widespread use of sieges throughout Syria’s seven-year conflict, which has killed more than 350,000 people.

“Hundreds of thousands of Syrian women, men and children countrywide have suffered for too long the perverse and long-lasting effects of this medieval form of warfare,” the report said.

The U.N.’s Syria commission, set up in 2011 shortly after the civil war began, has repeatedly accused the warring parties of crimes.

In Wednesday’s report, the commission also faulted armed opposition groups like Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for committing “war crimes” by launching “indiscriminate attacks” on Damascus, and killing and maiming hundreds of civilians.

“Through the entire duration of the siege, armed groups also regularly arbitrarily arrested and tortured civilians in Douma, including members of religious minority groups, repeatedly committing the war crimes of cruel treatment and torture, and outrages upon personal dignity,” the report said.

The investigators, who have never been granted access to Syria, said they based their findings for their latest report on some 140 interviews conducted in person in the region and from Geneva.

They also said they analyzed photographs, video recordings, satellite imagery, and medical records, as well as reports from regime and non-regime sources.

The report noted that by the time regime forces declared eastern Ghouta recaptured on April 14, around 140,000 people had been displaced from their homes.

Tens of thousands of them are still being unlawfully interned by regime forces in managed sites throughout the Damascus region, the report said.

Following local “evacuation agreements”, up to 50,000 civilians from eastern Ghouta were displaced to Idlib and Aleppo governorates, it said.



Thousands of well-armed rebel fighters remain in Syria’s Ghouta

February 28, 2018

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government’s battle to recapture the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus is likely to be a long and bloody fight because of the presence of thousands of battle-hardened fighters who have had years to prepare.

Many of the fighters entrenched in eastern Ghouta are originally from the area and move around using an elaborate network of underground tunnels, giving them an advantage against President Bashar Assad’s forces and their Russian- and Iranian-backed allies.

The territory of some 400,000 residents is the last major opposition-controlled area near Assad’s seat of power, and the rebels have been targeting the capital with volleys of mortar shells, disrupting life in a reminder that they can deprive the city of peace as the government backed by Russia rains down bombs and carnage on the besieged area. If the government retakes eastern Ghouta, only one small pocket south of the capital held by the Islamic State group will remain out of government control.

Among the more than 20,000 fighters in eastern Ghouta, a few hundred belong to the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, giving the government a pretext to continue with its assault. Rebel factions want the al-Qaida-linked fighters to leave and blame the government for preventing it.

In a letter on Monday to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the three main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta said they were committed to making al-Qaida-linked fighters and their families leave within 15 days. An official with one of the most powerful groups, the Army of Islam, said that if the al-Qaida-linked fighters don’t leave or abandon the fight, “all options” are open against them, including the use of force.

Here is a look at the rebel groups involved in the battle for eastern Ghouta.

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One of the most powerful rebel factions in Syria, the Army of Islam is backed by Saudi Arabia and adheres to the ultraconservative Salafi ideology of Islam. It was founded by Zahran Alloush, who was in prison for anti-government activities and adopting a hardline Islamic ideology when the uprising again Assad began in March 2011 and was released months later.

Since the rise of the Islamic State group in 2014, the Army of Islam has repeatedly clashed with the extremists as well as with al-Qaida-linked fighters. The group is headquartered in the town of Douma, the most populated area in eastern Ghouta.

The group started with a small number of fighters soon after protests in Syria turned into an armed insurgency, and grew under Alloush to an estimated at 10,000 fighters armed with tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and mortars.

The Army of Islam has been blamed for major human rights violations, including the 2013 kidnapping of a prominent opposition activist, Razan Zeitouneh, and her colleagues, who remain missing. The Army of Islam denies it was behind the kidnapping.

In 2015, when eastern Ghouta was under intense government bombardment, Alloush ordered members of Assad’s Alawite minority confined to cages in public areas and markets, using them as human shields to try to prevent further airstrikes, and drove the captvies around Ghouta in cages placed on trucks. Alloush was killed in an airstrike in eastern Ghouta on Christmas Day 2015 that was blamed on Russia.

Abu Ammar Dalwan, the Army of Islam’s political chief, vowed in an interview with The Associated Press to fight until the end. “We will not negotiate to leave Ghouta,” he said.

The Army of Islam is taking part in U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva as well as negotiations in the Kazakh capital of Astana sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

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Failaq al-Rahman, or Al-Rahman Corps, is the second-largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta after Army of Islam. Backed by Turkey and Qatar, it controls most of the central parts of the territory, including the towns of Arbeen, Kfar Batna, Saqba and Hammouriyeh, which have been among the hardest hit in recent fighting. The group also controls parts of the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar.

The group has about 8,000 fighters, the vast majority of them from eastern Ghouta. Like the Army of Islam, the group is well-armed, and a video released recently showed it has primitive factories that produce mortar shells as well as rocket-propelled-grenades.

The group’s military commander, Abdul-Nasser Shmeir, is a former captain of the Syrian army. The group is also taking part in the peace talks in Geneva and Astana.



Ahrar al-Sham has been involved in deadly battles against fighters of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee in the northern province of Idlib and Aleppo.

Although at the start of their rise the group adopted an extreme ideology, now it markets itself as a moderate rebel group. In eastern Ghouta, it has a strong presence in the Damascus suburb of Harasta and nearby areas.

Months after the uprising against Assad’s government began in March 2011, Ahrar al-Sham was founded by several Islamists, including Mohammed Baheya, who had links to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Baheya reportedly fought against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Baheya was killed in a suicide bombing in 2014 while trying to mediate between the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Ahrar al-Sham survived its most serious blow in September 2014 when an explosion in Idlib province killed some of its top figures, including its leader, Hassane Abboud.



The Levant Liberation Committee rejects any peace talks with the government and because of its ties to al-Qaida is considered a terror organization by the United Nations.

It has about 600 fighters in eastern Ghouta, a small number compared to the estimated 20,000 rebel fighters in the area.

Since the end of 2017, there have been on-and-off negotiations to try to evacuate the al-Qaida-linked fighters and their families from eastern Ghouta, but the rebels say Assad’s government has frustrated all such attempts as a pretext to attack the area.

Saudi Commander of Tahrir Al-Sham Assassinated in Idlib

September 14, 2017



Saudi Commander of Tahrir Al-Sham Assassinated in Idlib

TEHRAN (FNA)- A Saudi commander of Tahrir al-Sham Hay’at (the Levant Liberation Board or the Al-Nusra Front) was assassinated in the Eastern parts of Idlib province.

News websites affiliated to the terrorists reported that Abu Mohammad al-Share’i was killed by unknown assailants in Saraqib city in Eastern Idlib.

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They added that he was formerly a commander of Jund al-Aqsa terrorist group.

Relevant reports said on Tuesday that Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, the commander and Mufti (religious leader) of Tahrir al-Sham Hay’at has left the terrorist group only hours after leaked audio files indicated widening of rifts among the commanders of the Al-Nusra Front (Tahrir al-Sham Hay’at or the Levant Liberation Board), reports said.

Al-Muhaysini together with another mufti of Tahrir al-Sham named Mosleh al-Aliyani in a statement released on social networks on Monday declared their separation from the terrorist alliance, the Arabic-language media reported.

Al-Muhaysini and al-Aliyani mentioned the reason behind their separation as to be recent clashes between Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib province and also leakage of the audio files and disrespecting the religious leaders (muftis).

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Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Arabicهيئة تحرير الشام‎‎, transliterationHayʼat Taḥrīr al-Shām,[21] “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant” or “Levant Liberation Committee“),[19][20] commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham and abbreviated HTS, is an active Salafist jihadist militant group involved in the Syrian Civil War. The group was formed on 28 January 2017 as a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), the Ansar al-Din FrontJaysh al-SunnaLiwa al-Haqq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement.[2] After the announcement, additional groups and individuals joined. The merger is currently led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and former Ahrar al-Sham leaders, although the High Command consists of leaders from other groups.[22][23] Many groups and individuals defected from Ahrar al-Sham, representing their more conservative and Salafist elements. Currently, a number of analysts and media outlets still continue to refer to this group by its previous names, al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.[24][25]

Despite the merger, Tahrir al-Sham has been accused to be working as al-Qaeda‘s Syrian branch on a covert level.[26][27] However, Tahrir al-Sham has officially denied being part of al-Qaeda and said in a statement that the group is “fully independent and doesn’t represent any foreign body or organization”.[28] Furthermore, some factions such as Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which was part of the merger, were once supported by the US.[29] Some analysts reported that the goal of forming Tahrir al-Sham was to unite all groups with al-Qaeda’s extreme ideology under one banner, and to obtain as many weapons as possible. They also reported that many of the former Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters still answered to al-Qaeda, and held an increasing amount of sway over the new group.[11] It has also been claimed that despite the recent formation of Tahrir al-Sham, the new group secretly maintains a fundamental link to al-Qaeda, and that many of the group’s senior figures, particularly Abu Jaber, held similarly extreme views.[26][better source needed] Russia claims that Tahrir al-Sham shares al-Nusra Front’s goal of turning Syria into an Islamic emirate run by al-Qaeda.

US-backed Syrian fighters win strategic victory near Raqqa

August 12, 2017

France 24 and The Associated Press

© DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP | A fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) poses for a photo at sunset in the Syrian town of Ain Issi, some 50 kilometres north of Raqqa.


Latest update : 2017-08-12

US-backed Syrian fighters advancing on the Islamic State group from the eastern and western parts of the northern city of Raqqa have linked up for the first time since launching their offensive on IS’ de facto capital, officials said Friday.

Though the development marked a significant milestone in the battle for the IS stronghold, a USmilitary spokesman cautioned that there is still tough fighting ahead before Raqqa is completely taken from the militants.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, under the cover of US-backed coalition airstrikes, launched a wide offensive to capture the city on June 6 and have managed so far to take about half the city.

The linkup of the eastern and western fronts deprives IS from access to the Euphrates River — and effectively leaves the remaining militants in Raqqa and thousands of civilians surrounded.

US Army Col. Ryan Dillon said there remains still tough fighting ahead and that although the linkup of the Syrian opposition fighters’ east and west axis on the southern edge of Raqqa was significant, this does not in fact cut the city in two.

Dillon told The Associated Press in an email that the significance is that the SDF, despite IS’ best efforts, have successfully battled across the entire city from both sides and have joined forces. The US spokesman said this shows the steady progress the SDF fighters are making against IS in the militants’ self-declared capital.

“The fighting is ongoing from room to room and from house to house,” said Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media center. Bali also confirmed that SDF fighters pushing from opposite sides of the city have met up.

Bali said by telephone from northern Syria that the key difficulty facing advancing SDF fighters is to avoid striking civilians used by IS as human shields.


A ‘milestone’

The top US envoy for the international coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, tweeted about the linkup of the two fronts, describing it as a “milestone” that is tightening the noose around IS.

Also Friday, neighboring Turkey introduced new regulations at a border crossing with northwestern Syria, allowing only the transport of humanitarian aid, after an al-Qaida-linked group took control of the Syrian post.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after Friday prayers in Istanbul that the Cilvegozu crossing in southern Turkey would remain open for food, medicine and some supplies to go across. Turkey’s Cilvegozu stands across from the Bab al-Hawa in Syria’s Idlib province.

The al-Qaida-linked militant group Levant Liberation Committee captured the crossing after battles with the ultraconservative Syrian rebel Ahrar al-Sham group last month.

Erdogan said Turkey “cannot allow the passage of weapons,” suggesting humanitarian aid has “practically turned into an armament process.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported a three-kilometer tailback at the Oncupinar border crossing, located further east, after trucks were rerouted from Cilvegozu.

Meanwhile, the UN migration agency said Friday that over 600,000 displaced Syrians have returned to their homes this year, citing an increasing trend of returns while warning the situation remains “not sustainable.”

International Organisation for Migration spokeswoman Olivia Headon said the 602,759 returns between January and July was on track to surpass the figure of 685,000 returns for all of 2016.

But she also cautioned about the huge number of displaced Syrians this year — nearly 809,000.

IOM said that its partner agencies have found that two-thirds of the returnees have gone to the northern Aleppo governorate, where government forces ousted rebels from the city of Aleppo last year.

A third of the returnees said they went back to “protect their assets” while one-quarter cited “improved economic conditions,” IOM said.


Is Donald Trump Ceding Syria To Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran? — Confusion and lack of strategic clarity

July 29, 2017
 JULY 28, 2017 22:11


The CIA program, dubbed ‘Timber Sycamore,’ was created in early 2013 and was intended to support ‘moderate’ units from among the Syrian Sunni rebels.

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A rebel fighter of the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army. (photo credit:REUTERS)

US President Donald Trump this week appeared to confirm a number of recent media reports suggesting that the US has scrapped the long-standing covert CIA program to provide weapons and training to Syria’s rebels.


There was much subsequent merrymaking regarding Trump’s supposed ‘revelation’ of the program via his preferred medium of Twitter. This commentary was not serious. The existence of the program, if not its details, has been an open ‘secret’ for a while.

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 Free Syrian Army fighter collects himself after a blooby battle. Photo credit Reuters, Goran Tomasevic

Nevertheless, the decision to scrap the CIA program, now confirmed by General Raymond A. Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, is a significant development.

So is the US exiting the Syrian stage, and ceding the area in its entirety as a zone of influence to Russia. What will this mean for Syria? Does it imply the eclipse in the entirety of anti-Assad forces and an overall victory for the dictator in the long civil war in Syria?

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Observation of the available facts suggests that it isn’t that simple. The CIA program, dubbed ‘Timber Sycamore,’ was created in early 2013 and was intended to support ‘moderate’ units from among the Syrian Sunni rebels, at a time when Islamist and jihadi forces had already become entrenched and prevalent among them.

The first groups of fighters armed by Timber Sycamore began to appear in southern Syria in September 2013. Operating out of military operations centers in Jordan and Turkey, the program involved the vetting and training of Syrian rebels by US personnel, and from 2014, the provision of sophisticated weaponry.

The first reports, for example, of TOW anti-tank missiles in the hands of the rebels, appeared in April 2014. Media reports suggested the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the project, with Riyadh providing arms and money and the Americans responsible for training.

The precise extent of weaponry provided, the list of groups supported, the type of training offered, and the affiliations of the US personnel involved in the training remain classified. However, the impact of the program can be estimated from the results on the ground.

In northern Syria, US-supported groups never managed to dislodge the dominant Salafi-jihadi groups, supported by Qatar and Turkey, most importantly the Ahrar al-Sham group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (subsequently renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, after formally ending its al-Qaida allegiance).

Instead, the US-supported groups became de facto partners with these organizations.

In southern Syria, where Salafi jihadi Islamism was weaker, the program has had a greater impact.

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With US personnel responsible for training, mainly through the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, the US-supported forces (also supported by Jordan and Israel) have succeeded in largely preventing the Assad regime and its allies from reconquering Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

Parallel to the CIA program, the Pentagon has been running its own train-and-equip operation for the war against ISIS. This project, after some initial hiccups, has been notably successful and is slowly and relentlessly driving Islamic State back in its ‘capital’ city of Raqqa.

The beginnings of success for the Pentagon program, however, coincide with the commencement of US cooperation not with the Sunni Arab rebels, but rather with the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units).

This unlikely partnership, which began in October 2014, enabled the US to work with a ready-made coherent force on the ground, rather than to try to help establish and shape one. Subsequently, the Defense Department program has surrounded this Kurdish core with a variety of additional Arab forces, creating the multi-ethnic force which is now known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

This program has in addition offered training and support to rebel forces in southeast Syria wishing to fight Islamic State. At present, two Arab rebel militias, Maghawir al-Thawra and Shohada al-Quartayn, are receiving training and aid from the US and allied (reportedly British and Norwegian) forces in the desert of southeast Syria.

This train-and-equip program is not being wrapped up. That is, the US is not pulling out of involvement in Syria in toto. Rather, a particular project is being terminated.

So where is this likely to have an impact? For obvious reasons, in the area east of the Euphrates, where the Pentagon train-and-equip program is the relevant project, the termination of Timber Sycamore will have no impact at all.

It will also have little noticeable effect on the remaining rebel enclaves in northwest Syria.

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Free Syrian Army Fighters photographed by Goran Tomasevic for Reuters

There, the US-supported groups are largely irrelevant. The growing force in Idleb

Province is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which just this week drove the rival Ahrar al-Sham from 31 villages and consolidated its control in Idleb City, the last major urban center in the hands of the rebellion.

The area where the end of Timber Sycamore may have the largest impact is in southwest Syria, in the region adjoining the Golan Heights and the border with Jordan.

Here the decision to end the program seems to follow from the cease-fire concluded on July 7, and the subsequent deployment of Russian ‘military police’ (i.e. re-designated Russian soldiers) to enforce the ‘de-escalation.’ Israel has benefited from the previously existing balance of forces in the southwest, which provided a rebel presence as a kind of buffer against the advance of the regime and its Iranian, Hezbollah and Shia militia allies.

The ending of Timber Sycamore and the de-escalation agreement might tip this balance.

However, this is not a certainty even in the southwest. Firstly, it is possible that the vacuum left by the faltering CIA program may be replaced by another US channel of support, sufficient to prevent rebel collapse in the southwest.

Secondly, Israeli, Jordanian and Gulf support for the rebels may continue to play a similar role.

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U.S. Senator John McCain became the biggest U.S. advocate of the Free Syrian Army

Thus, the impact of the demise of the ill-fated ‘Timber Sycamore’ project may be somewhat less than might be immediately apparent. The main question facing Syria today is whether the regime (which really means Iran, Hezbollah and allied militias) will continue to expand its area of control under the cover of Russian support and in the face of confusion and lack of strategic clarity from other forces.

The end of the covert CIA program of support for the rebels removes one of the less consequential barriers to this, without making it inevitable.


Islamist Insurgents Clash Across Syria’s Idlib

July 19, 2017

BEIRUT — Clashes between rival insurgent groups broke out in Syria’s Idlib region in some of the heaviest fighting between Islamist factions which hold sway in the northwestern province, war monitors reported on Wednesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – a jihadist alliance that includes al Qaeda’s former Syria branch – had attacked positions of Ahrar al-Sham, a more moderate rival Islamist group allied with mainstream rebel factions.

The clashes began late on Tuesday, the British-based Observatory said and an online statement from Ahrar al-Sham blamed Tahrir al-Sham for starting the violence.

The two sides clashed earlier this year in a long-standing fight for influence in Idlib, where insurgents maintain a stronghold even as much of the rest of western Syria has been recaptured by government forces and their allies.

Fighting had on Wednesday spread to areas across Idlib, including the town of Saraqeb in the east, Dana and Sarmada in the northeast and Bab al-Hawa near the Turkish border, the Observatory reported.

Several fighters and at least two civilians had been killed, it said.

Idlib province is dominated mainly by Islamist groups although the moderate Western-vetted Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups have a presence there.

The province, which borders Turkey, has long witnessed infighting between the main jihadist groups vying for power.

Although opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, insurgents are riven by deep divisions on ideology and rivalry that erupts occasionally in deadly clashes. Rebels including Ahrar al-Sham say it takes the focus away from the fight against Damascus and weakens insurgents.

Ahrar al-Sham has sided with FSA groups in the fight with Tahrir al-Sham which was formed in January from a merger of several Islamist factions and Syria’s former al Qaeda affiliate, known as the Nusra Front until it cut ties with al Qaeda last year.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Qatar Pays Ransomes To Gain Release of 26 Hostages, Some From Royal Family, in Caper Apparently Involving Syrian Refugee Releases

April 22, 2017

AFP and the Associated Press

© HO, Iraqi Interior Ministry, AFP | Image grab from a handout video released by the Iraqi Interior Ministry on April 21, 2017, shows released Qatari hunters boarding a plane at Baghdad airport.

Qatar has secured the release of 26 hostages after nearly a year and a half in captivity, including members of its ruling family, in what became possibly the region’s most complex and sensitive hostage negotiation deal in recent years.

Several people with knowledge of the talks and a person involved in the negotiations said the hostage deal was linked to one of the largest population transfers in Syria‘s six-year-long civil war, and was delayed for several days due to an explosion one week ago that killed at least 130 people, most of them children and government supporters, waiting to be transferred.

The transfer of thousands of Syrian civilians was also tied to another deal involving 750 political prisoners to be released by the Syrian government.

The complexity of the talks highlights Qatar‘s role as an experienced and shrewd facilitator in hostage negotiations – this time involving members of the Gulf Arab state’s ruling family.

It also raised allegations that the tiny energy rich nation paid millions of dollars to an al-Qaida-linked group to facilitate the population transfer in Syria that led to the hostages’ release in Iraq on Friday.

Qatar is home to Centcom’s regional headquarters and is where the U.S. has its largest military base in the Middle East. It is also a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

The incident was sparked when the group was kidnapped Dec. 16, 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They had legally entered Iraq to hunt inside Muthanna province, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with the neighboring Shiite power Iran.

A person involved in the negotiations told the AP that 11 of the captives were members of Qatar’s Al Thani ruling family. He also said Qatar paid tens of millions of dollars to Shiite groups, and to the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee and Ahrar al-Sham, which are involved in the population transfers underway in Syria. Both groups were part of an armed opposition alliance that swept through Syria’s Idlib province, seizing it from government control in 2015 and laying siege to two pro-government villages now being evacuated.

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, the negotiator said the Qatari group was being held by Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’eb Hezbollah. The group officially denies it was behind the kidnapping and no other group has publicly claimed responsibility for the abduction.

He said Qatari officials were given assurances about the well-being of the hostages during negotiations.

Two Iraqi officials- a government and a security official – also confirmed details of the release to the AP.

The abduction of the Qatari group drew Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah into negotiations, resulting in millions of dollars in payments to Sunni and Shiite factions, according to Iraqi officials and a person involved in the negotiations. They say the talks took place in Beirut.

The negotiator said the ongoing evacuation and transfer of thousands of Syrians from four besieged areas was central to the release of the Qataris. The two pro-government villages, Foua and Kfarya, had been besieged by rebel fighters and under a steady barrage of rockets and mortars for years. The two opposition-held towns, Zabadani and Madaya, were under government siege for joining the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The opposition-run Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of on-the-ground activists, says the transfer included 800 armed men from both sides. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the group, told the AP that the population swap in Syria was directly tied to the issue of the kidnapped Qataris.

Abdurrahman, citing information from negotiators he’d spoken with, said the Qataris first proposed bringing the fate of the hunting group into the talks about the besieged four areas in Syria.

The population exchange has been criticized by rights groups, which say it rewards siege tactics and amounts to forcible displacement along sectarian lines.

Iraqi Interior Ministry official Wahhab al-Taie told The Associated Press the hostages had been released into the custody of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The group departed Friday afternoon on a private Qatari jet from Baghdad.

Qatar’s state TV showed the arrival of the group from Iraq as ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani waited to receive them on the tarmac. A short statement published on the state-run Qatar News Agency said the 26 Qatari citizens had arrived in the capital, Doha, after being kidnapped in Iraq while they were on a hunting trip.

Qataris on social media shared their elation at the release. With a population of around 2.6 million people, the crisis reverberated across the small country.

Their release was a priority of Qatar’s foreign policy for more than a year, said David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The AP reported last week that a Qatari ruling family member paid $2 million, in an effort involving hackers, to secure the release of the hostages.

Weinberg, who has testified before Congress about Qatar’s role in hostage negotiations, said alleged enormous payments paid to a group with ties to al-Qaida creates incentive for future hostage taking. He said Qatar continues to “punch above its weight” in ways that concern some people in Washington.

“This is going to confront the new (Trump) administration in Washington with a serious question … Is the U.S. administration going to push Qatar to ensure that it does not pay ransom to terrorist organizations in the future,” he said.

Defense Secretary James Mattis is due to arrive in Qatar on Saturday as part of his first region-wide official visit since President Donald Trump took office.

Qatar says it does not support extremist groups in Syria or elsewhere, despite aggressive efforts to back Sunni rebel groups fighting to oust the Syrian government, which is backed by Iran and Russia.

The country’s ambitious foreign policy efforts haven’t always succeeded. Gulf neighbors withdrew their ambassadors in 2014 over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt, where the group was ousted.

Still, Qatar plays an important role by talking to groups that many governments want to distance themselves from, said Ayham Kamel of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

For example, Qatar’s capital city of Doha has hosted talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. Qatar has also secured the release of hostages in Syria’s civil war, including 13 Greek Orthodox nuns held by an al-Qaida affiliate there.

Kamel says the deal struck to release the Qatari nationals shows that Doha’s politics have become more nuanced.


Tangled Alliances in Syria

April 8, 2017

The Wall Street Journal

This is well worth seeing:

Rebel groups in Syria | From most to least radical

1. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil): International jihadists, use extreme violence as propaganda in support of their transnational “caliphate”.

2. Jund al-Aqsa: Split off from Jabhat al-Nusra (see 3) owing to latter’s opposition to Isil, with which al-Aqsa has declared neutrality.

3. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham: (formerly al-Nusra Front) Initially set up as a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. It split from al-Qaeda in 2016 and forms alliances with other Islamist rebel groups against the Assad regime.

4. Ahrar al-Sham: Salafi Islamist jihadist group that says it is focused on Syria and has no international goal. Counted al-Qaeda-linked militants among founding members but has links to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

5. Jaysh al-Islam: Salafi Islamist rebel group backed by Saudi Arabia. Works with other rebel groups but is accused by some of abusing human rights in areas it controls.

6. Jabhat al-Islamiyya (Islamic Front): Alliance of the above two and a score of other Islamist groups.

7. Jabhat al-Shammiya (Levant Front): Another alliance of Islamist rebel groups, particularly in northern Syria.

8. Southern Front: Alliance of non-jihadist Islamist groups, typically backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and secular rebel groups.

9. YPG: Syrian Kurdish militia with links to the Marxist Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) in Turkey. The group has also past alliances with the Free Syrian Army (see 10)

10. Free Syrian Army: An umbrella group of rebels. The name is used to refer to a collection of secular rebel divisions, some US-backed, originally set up by regime army defectors..



How many countries (directly or indirectly) are involved in the Syrian war?
By John Hamzawsky — Worked in the Middle East in the field of education for over 16 years

Iran: wants to change the demographic structure of Syria and replace the majority Sunni by Shi’ite from Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Russia: wants an air base, a naval base, and domination over the politics of Syria. Supports the demographic changes.

The US: wants to secure a balanced situation where the Russians won’t get too much of the Syrian pie, with no clear further calculations for the military circumstances of the Russian presence. Willing to secure Israeli interest in keeping Assad, so has to cooperate with Russia for “fighting terrorism”.

Lebanese militia of Hezbollah, act as commanded by Iran.


Fighters of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, honor a comrade killed during combat in Syria.
Fighters of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, honor a comrade killed during combat in Syria. PHOTO: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Iraqi Shi’ite militia, act as commanded by Iran.

Turkey: wants to secure the limitation of Kurdish domination over the smallest area possible, yet preventing the rise of a Kurdish state.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar: willing to limit the Iranian ambition in controlling the strip from Iran all the way to the Mediterranean, threatening the regimes of the oil countries in the Persian gulf area.

Plus air force other forms of contribution in fighting ISIS by The United States, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands who all made the promise to participate in that fight. The total number of the western countries that are either participating or potential participant in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is 62 countries.

Syria itself is obviously a major participant in the war, but in the form of government exterminating the Sunni minority, or forcing it to move out of the “Useful Syria”, the Sunni forces backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

ISIS has troops from Syria, Russia, Afghanistan, and many other TWC’s, seemingly wanting to establish a Muslim state. ISIS actions lead to believe there are other countries backing it, particularly the Syrian regime and Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin: Syrian Cease Fire Will Come Into Force at Midnight (22:00 GMT) Thursday — Turkey and Russia would act as guarantors under the plan

December 29, 2016

BBC News

1145 GMT, December 29, 2016

The Syrian government and rebel groups have agreed a ceasefire and to begin peace talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced.

The ceasefire is due to come into force at midnight (22:00 GMT) Thursday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier that Turkey and Russia would act as guarantors under the plan.

The two countries back opposing sides in the conflict, which has raged for more than five years.


Fate of Syria ceasefire plan remains unclear

Opposition bloc tells Al Jazeera it has yet to receive a draft of a truce plan agreed by Russia and Turkey.

1045 GMT, December 29, 2016

Al Jazeera

  It remains unclear which opposition groups have been taking part in ceasefire negotiations [Mohamed Mounzer Masri/Reuters]
It remains unclear which opposition groups have been taking part in ceasefire negotiations [Mohamed Mounzer Masri/Reuters]

The fate of a nationwide truce for Syria remains unclear with the Syrian National Coalition, the country’s main political opposition bloc, telling Al Jazeera that it has still not received a draft plan from either Turkey or Russia.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency had reported on Wednesday that a ceasefire plan had been submitted to Syria’s rival parties and could come into force as early as midnight.

But the coalition, which represents the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups fighting across the country, told Al Jazeera that it was yet to receive a draft of the document.

Labib Nahhas, the foreign relations head of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, said the faction was “aware of ongoing discussions between Russia and Turkey about a nationwide ceasefire”.

He said rebel factions had not been presented with any official proposal.

“Russia wants to exclude Eastern Ghouta from the ceasefire, which is not acceptable,” he told the AFP news agency, referring to a rebel-held area outside Damascus.

Meanwhile, sources told Al Jazeera that a new meeting was planned in Ankara on Thursday, this time between Syrian rebels, Turkey and Russia.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, told broadcaster A Haber in an interview that Ankara was aiming to establish the ceasefire before the new year.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Gaziantep in neighbouring Turkey, said it remained unclear which opposition groups had been taking part in previous negotiations.

“A senior official from the Free Syrian Army says that the FSA has rejected a proposal by Russia that Douma, one of its strongholds near the capital Damascus, would not be included in the ceasefire agreement,” Stratford said.

OPINION: Who are we to say the Syrian revolution is dead?

On Wednesday, a source requesting anonymity had told Anadolu that “terrorist organisations” would be excluded from the deal.

This would most certainly exclude the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group formerly known as al-Nusra Front.

If successful, the latest proposal could form the basis for upcoming political negotiations between Damascus and the opposition, overseen by Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital Astana, Anadolu added.

Ankara has hosted a succession of closed-door talks between Russia and Syrian opposition rebels over the past weeks.

Ankara and Moscow have been on opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, with Turkey seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.

The Syrian civil war started as a largely unarmed uprising against Assad in March 2011, but quickly developed into a full-on armed conflict.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, estimated in April that more than 400,000 Syrians had been killed since 2011.

Calculating a precise death toll is difficult, partially owing to the forced disappearances of tens of thousands of Syrians whose fates remain unknown.

Almost 11 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies


Syrian Rebel Group Blames Iran for Holding Up Aleppo Evacuation

December 17, 2016

Munir al Sayal, the head of the political wing of the Ahrar al Sham rebel group involved in negotiations over the deal, said Iran was insisting people be allowed to leave two besieged Shi’ite villages before letting the Aleppo evacuation happen. He said Russia was failing to restrain its ally.

“Iran and its sectarian proxies are using the humanitarian situation of our people in besieged Aleppo and preventing civilians from leaving until the evacuation of their groups in al-Foua and Kefyra,” Sayal told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The operation to evacuate fighters and civilians from the last opposition-held area of Aleppo was suspended on Friday, its second day, after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people also be brought out of al-Foua and Kefraya, and protesters blocked the road out of Aleppo.



Sayal said Iranian-backed Shi’ite fighters led by Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia and other Iraqi Shi’ite groups were behind the detention of hundreds of people trying to leave on Friday, leading to some deaths before they were turned back, in an effort to disrupt the evacuation.

Numerous rebels and east Aleppo residents shared reports and videos of people fleeing the sound of shooting, being detained and returning home badly beaten and robbed of their possessions near a checkpoint as they tried to leave the city on Friday.

“These sectarian militias are responsible but we warn them the safety of our people in Aleppo is the priority and all options are open towards achieving that goal,” said Sayal, whose armed group has a countrywide presence and is particularly active in northwestern Syria.

The Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have played a leading role in the siege of rebel-held Aleppo and in the Syrian army’s retaking of near full control of the city.

  • aleppo-syria-1.jpg

A picture of Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander in a war-torn street in Aleppo was circulating on social media on Saturday by supporters. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the photo.

Sayal said Moscow’s assertion that most civilians had already been evacuated from Aleppo showed Russia was trying to renege on its responsibilities under the deal. Thousands of hungry and cold civilians needed to be evacuated as soon as possible, he said.

The agreement to evacuate the civilians and fighters was reached mainly between Russia, whose aerial bombing of Aleppo played a critical role in the defeat of the insurgents, and Turkey, which backs the mainstream rebels, acting as a go-between for the main insurgent groups.

“Russia has failed to restrain the sectarian Shi’ite militias in Aleppo to complete the deal and Moscow should abide by its commitments,” Sayal said.

“There are still civilians in Aleppo who need to be evacuated in harsh weather conditions and Russian statements that besieged Aleppo is empty is absolving itself from following up on the agreement,” he added.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Suleimani will reportedly supervise military axes, in which the Popular Mobilization Force is participating and trying to seize areas from ISIS. (AFP)