Posts Tagged ‘al-Nusra Front’

Russia blasts ‘bogus’ reports of Syria chemical attack — Russia continues to defend allies Iran and Syria

February 26, 2018

AFP

© AFP | Russia has rubbished claims that children were hurt in a chemical attack on the rebel-held Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta at the weekend

MOSCOW (AFP) – Moscow on Monday said reports of an alleged chemical attack on Syria’s rebel-held Eastern Ghouta were planted “bogus stories” and insisted armed groups attacked by regime forces there were terrorist allies.”There are already bogus stories in the media that yesterday chlorine was used in Eastern Ghouta, citing an anonymous individual living in the United States,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press-conference.

A child died and at least 13 other people suffered breathing difficulties in a village in the Eastern Ghouta region after the suspected chemical attack Sunday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a medic who treated those affected.

Eastern Ghouta has been under one of the most ferocious assaults of Syria’s civil war in recent days, with over 500 people killed in a bombing campaign by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces over the course of a week.

The UN Security Council on Saturday passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, but the document did not specify when the truce would go into force.

In a concession to Russia, the resolution also added wording saying that “individuals, groups, undertakings and entities” associated with Al-Qaeda would not fall under the ceasefire.

Lavrov on Monday said Eastern Ghouta has groups associated with terrorist al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, such as Jaish al-Islam.

“This makes Nusra’s partners unprotected by the ceasefire,” Lavrov said. “They are also subject to actions by the Syrian air force.”

Fresh strikes on Monday killed at least 10 civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which lies east of Damascus, according to the Observatory monitor.

The United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres demanded that the ceasefire is immediately implemented.

Russia is a key ally of Assad, and fought a campaign for over two years in Syria in his support, helping to turn around the multi-front war.

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US must immediately leave area it controls in southern Syria — Lavrov

February 19, 2018

Russia Today (RT)

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Edited time: 19 Feb, 2018 12:25

FILE PHOTO. © AFP

US troops must immediately shut down their zone of control in southern Syria in the area of Al-Tanf, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested when asked what should be done to help the Syrian peace settlement.

Lavrov was referring to an area on Syria’s border with Jordan and Iraq, which the US declared to be under its protection last year. Among other things, it contains the Rukban refugee camp. The facility is apparently used by radical militants, including members of UN-designated terrorist group best known by its former name Al-Nusra Front, to recover and raid other parts of Syria, Lavrov said at the Valdai Club conference on the Middle East in Moscow. The US is turning a blind eye to such abuses of its protection, he added.

“Inside the Al-Tanf zone, which the Americans unilaterally declared under their protection, and inside the refugee camp jihadists are regularly reported to recover strength. On several occasions they conducted raids from there into other territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. This zone must be shut down immediately,” the Russian minister said.

“Our colleagues from the UN for some reason are hesitant to say that humanitarian convoys cannot get into this US-controlled area because the US would not guarantee their safety,” Lavrov added. “Instead they focus attention on the humanitarian situation in Idlib or Eastern Ghouta.”

The minister added Russia has mounting evidence that the US has no intention to oppose this jihadist group in earnest.

The response came after a question from the think tank International Crisis Group about what “Russia could do more” in Syria to prevent an escalation of violence there, particularly between Iran and Israel. Lavrov said the question should be “what the US could refrain from doing” in Syria and that the answer was “stop playing dangerous games” and cease trying to partition the nation.

The Americans “in the territories they patronize east of the Euphrates River and all the way to the state border with Iraq create governing bodies which are designed by intention to have no links with Damascus,” he pointed out.

Lavrov also commented on the situation in the southwestern part of Syria on the border with Jordan and Israel – which was designated as a “de-escalation zone” by Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran – and Israel’s interests in Syria. Israel accuses Iran of using proxy forces to seize control of parts of southern Syria, including those along the border, and has threatened to use military force to reverse the situation.

“We negotiated the creation of this zone with Jordan and the US and it’s not a secret that our Israeli colleagues were informed about what we discussed,” he said. “Now to implement everything we had agreed on we have to focus on one particular article, which said all parties to the agreement would work to make sure that no non-Syrian forces were present inside and near this de-escalation zone.”

The Russian diplomat added that the US carving out the Al-Tanf area was the exact opposite – a unilateral move that no other party agreed to.

The dispute between Israel and Iran, Lavrov said, certainly complicated the situation in Syria, and Moscow believes both parties need to take steps to defuse it. For instance, Iran’s statements that Israel was a Zionist entity that needs to be destroyed are perceived as absolutely unacceptable in Russia. But neither does Russia see as constructive Israel’s policy of turning every problem in the region into a vehicle for opposing Iran, he said.

“This is what we see in Syria, this is what we see in Yemen, and even the latest developments around the Palestinian issue, including Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s exclusive capital, are to a large extent caused by the very same anti-Iranian bias,” Lavrov explained. “Both attitudes pose a risk of further damaging the situation in the region, which is already very pitiful.”

The Russian minister suggested that Israel and Iran should try to address their differences – including the latest flare-up involving an Iranian drone destroyed by Israel after reportedly violating the airspace of the Jewish state – by taking them to the UN for proper resolution. “Otherwise we will be rolling down the slope to a situation in which every incident is simply blamed on the other party and used to justify military action.”

https://www.rt.com/news/419177-us-safety-zone-syria/

 

Turkey urges Russia, Iran to stop Syria offensive on Idlib — as the bombardments on Idlib intensified

January 10, 2018
© AFP/File | Ankara has stepped up pressure on Moscow and Tehran as the bombardments on Idlib intensified.
ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkey on Wednesday called on Russia and Iran, the two chief allies of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, to halt an air offensive on the rebel-held Idlib province near the Turkish border.Ankara has been working closely with Russia and Iran to end the Syrian conflict over the last months but has stepped up pressure on Moscow and Tehran as the bombardments on Idlib intensified.

“Iran and Russia should fulfil their responsibility. If you are guarantors — and you are — they should stop the regime,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the official Anadolu news agency.

“This is not a simple air offensive. The regime is advancing inside Idlib. They have a different intention.”

Cavusoglu emphasised that in efforts to bring peace to Syria, Russia and Iran were the “guarantors” of the regime side and Turkey of the opposition.

Idlib province is almost entirely controlled by anti-government forces that are dominated by a jihadist outfit known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) consisting mostly of former fighters from the Al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Ankara has already summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors, in the biggest public flare-up of tensions with Moscow and Tehran in months.

It conveyed “uneasiness” to the Russian ambassador Tuesday, calling the strikes a “violation of the borders of the Idlib de-escalation zone” established by Turkey, Iran and Russia, according sources at the foreign ministry.

Cavusoglu said 95 percent of the violations in Idlib were carried out by the regime and the groups backing the regime.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could speak by phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation, he added.

“We cannot remain indifferent. We have exerted so many efforts and we cannot waste them.”

The escalation comes as Russia is hoping to hold a Syria peace congress in its Black Sea resort of Sochi on January 29-30 bringing together all the main parties in the conflict.

A previous attempt in November to convene talks in Sochi failed due to disagreements between the prospective participants.

But in a major potential obstacle for Sochi, Turkey says it will oppose any talks involving the Syrian Kurdish militia the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terror group.

Cavusoglu repeated Turkey’s red line over its presence in Sochi by saying that: “We have said we will not be in any environment… where the YPG is present.”

China’s new role in Syria

December 2, 2017

Maria Dubovikova |

What is China’s incentive for greater involvement in Syria, which will lead to further competition between Washington and Beijing? China will deploy troops in Syria as Beijing is very concerned about the increasing number of militants of Chinese origin (Uighurs) who have joined Daesh in Syria and Iraq. China does not interfere in any country unless there are economic and political benefits.

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Its Defense Ministry is considering sending two special forces units to fight terrorists in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, as some of them have Chinese nationality and would pose a high risk if they return home. An estimated 5,000 Chinese militants are fighting alongside various insurgent groups in Syria. Moreover, China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syrian infrastructure.

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Beijing does not want Syria to become a base for Uighurs to launch terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens and interests overseas. The Aug. 30 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, which was planned by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Syria and financed by Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), was cited as justification for the Chinese to be in Syria.

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Some analysts say Chinese and Russian involvement in Syria is similar to that of the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001, who wanted to deny Al-Qaeda a base to launch attacks against US targets.
The delayed involvement of the Chinese army indicates that China’s main objective in Syria is economic. Beijing recently received Syrian government representatives who asked for further Chinese economic support, resulting in the announcement of more than $6 billion in direct investments.

Chinese and Russian involvement in Syria is similar to that of the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001, who wanted to deny Al-Qaeda a base to launch attacks against US targets.

Maria Dubovikova

After the demise of Daesh, China will be investing heavily in Syria. Politically, Beijing will try to coordinate with all concerned parties, including Moscow and Washington. Last week, there were talks between Beijing and Damascus on countering ETIM terrorists in Eastern Ghouta. ETIM is said to have committed more than 200 terrorist acts in China in the last few years.

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China relies on Central Asian and Middle Eastern energy sources, and thus seeks stability in those regions. Meanwhile, Xinjiang in northwest China is restless and susceptible to violence, which Beijing blames on radical separatist movements such as ETIM. More than 10,000 Chinese police marched through Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in February in a show of force.

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According to sources, Chinese military advisers are already in Syria, paving the way for troops. And combat drones have been shipped from China to Syria for counter-terrorism operations.

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The extent of China’s involvement hinges on the conduct of the US, which is wary of a greater Chinese role in the Middle East and Central Asia that could affect American strategic interests. The coming few weeks will witness many meetings between Chinese and American military and security officials.

– Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1202236/columns

‘Channel of ISIS and Al-Qaeda’: Top UAE security official calls for Al Jazeera to be bombed

November 26, 2017

RT — Russia Today

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Dubai’s security chief Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan, known for his controversial social media posts, has called for Al Jazeera to be obliterated. The General accuses the Qatar channel of siding with the perpetrators of this week’s deadly Sinai attack.

“The alliance must bomb the machine of terrorism… the channel of ISIL, al-Qaeda and the al-Nusra front, Al Jazeera the terrorists,” Khalfan wrote on Twitter to his 2.4 million followers, using an older name for Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS)

“For how long will they continue to tamper with the security of Egypt and the Arab world?”

Khalfan, who has been a key agitator in the ongoing standoff between Qatar and other Gulf States, underlined his point by putting out a composite picture that placed the channel’s logo next to images of ISIS leader Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has his own show on the channel.

The Doha-based Al Jazeera has replied by saying that it is Khalfan who is inciting terrorism, and said that he would bear responsibility for any attacks against its journalists.

“The UAE needs to respond. Khalfan is not just an Emirati citizen but an official in the UAE government. He is using a moment of anger and grief over the terrible attack in Sinai to fuel his hatred against Al Jazeera.” Yaser Abuhilalah, managing director of Al Jazeera Arabic, told al-Quds al-Arabi.

“What Dhahi Khalfan is doing is incitement to terrorism. Terrorism is not just limited to committing a crime, but any act or statement that paves the way for a terrorist act or incites it, and incitement to terrorism is terrorism itself.”

On Friday, militants operating under the Islamic State banner carried out a shooting and bombing of a Sufi mosque in northern Sinai, killing over 300 people, including more than 120 children.

While Al Jazeera did not endorse this or previous terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam, it has been accused of terrorism links ever since it became the station to broadcast bin Laden’s messages to the world, which were handed over to its journalists by Al-Qaeda representatives.

Critics have also said that it serves as the propaganda arm of the Qatari state and particularly its security services, promoting their agenda in supporting various movements in the volatile region. Multiple Al Jazeera journalists were arrested in Egypt, where its offices were forced to close in 2013, at the behest of the current regime, over their on-air support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The channel, which began broadcasting in Arabic in 1996, says that it merely operates outside the national restrictions that hobble other regional broadcasters, insists that it is providing independent journalism, and cites its high ratings in multiple countries as evidence that its editorial lines find resonance with viewers.

https://www.rt.com/news/411006-dubai-chief-al-jazeera-bombed/

A Strategy for the Post-ISIS Middle East

November 8, 2017

The stakes are highest, and the current dilemmas most acute, in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.

With Islamic State nearly vanquished in Syria and Iraq, it’s time for a serious debate about the broader U.S. security strategy in the Middle East. Leaving aside the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its unpromising near-term prospects, this debate must address the array of issues affecting American interests in the region: violent conflict, alliances, political and economic reform, and the central challenge of dealing with Iran.

 

The U.S. currently leads a military coalition in support of the Iraqi government and moderate insurgent forces finishing off ISIS in Iraq and Syria. American naval and air power ensures the free flow of oil through Persian Gulf waterways. Working with the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, the U.S. bolsters regional defenses against ISIS, al Qaeda and Iran. And it wisely tries to de-escalate disputes among its coalition partners, such as the ugly row pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni-majority states.

But the U.S. and its allies struggle on other fronts. Most glaring is a lack of a promising strategy to end the region’s civil wars and strengthen the states suffering internal conflict. Also missing is any serious plan to advance economic and political reform in the region, which is essential for long-term stability. The stakes are probably highest, and the current dilemmas most acute, in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. Here is what Washington, working with allies and regional partners, should attempt in each:

• Pledge a longer-term U.S. military presence and aid package for Iraq, ideally supported by the Gulf states and NATO allies. Iraq has suffered generations of war and misrule, and years of low oil prices. With ISIS-held cities mostly liberated, a successful rebuilding effort engaging Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds and preventing a return to civil war or the arrival of ISIS 2.0 is urgent. The stakes, and America’s previous investment, warrant aid levels comparable to those showered on Afghanistan and Egypt. In the coming months Iraq will need significant help monitoring and restraining Iran-backed Shiite militias as they are disbanded and partially incorporated into Iraqi Security Forces.

• Similarly, limiting but not excluding Iran’s influence in Iraqi Kurdistan would help bridge the internal political schisms that created opportunities for Tehran in the first place. With President Masoud Barzani out of office, there is a fresh opportunity to make this diplomatic démarche in a way that restores cooperation between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq. A wise policy should insist on an end to land grabs by both sides.

• On Syria, the key word is regionalism. President Bashar Assad isn’t going anywhere soon, yet the U.S. cannot work with such a monster. He has permanently discredited himself in the eyes of much of the world. The U.S., its allies and global aid agencies should work around his government to secure and rebuild the regions free of Assad’s rule and ISIS’ interference. Some areas should be treated as temporary autonomous zones. The West needs more leverage in and around Idlib, where the al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as the al-Nusra Front remains active and our allies are vulnerable.

• The Yemeni civil war has spawned yet another humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle East. Since its 2015 invasion, a Saudi-led coalition has been stuck in a quagmire. More than half the country’s population has been displaced. Malnutrition is severe and widespread. The country is experiencing the world’s worst cholera epidemic in 50 years. The crisis presents a strategic opportunity for Iran as well as al Qaeda and perhaps ISIS. Washington and Riyadh must try to advance a durable peace process with support from diplomatic partners in Europe and elsewhere. The watchword here is compromise—no outright military victory appears to be within anyone’s reach. A national unity government could stop the killing and enable the kind of humanitarian and reconstruction effort necessary to avoid future violence.

• Elsewhere in the region, America should encourage political and economic reform. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is not the ideal American ally but he is preferable to chaos or extremism in that country. He has preserved the Israeli security partnership. But long-term progress will require respect for the law and political pluralism. American aid should be cut in half until Mr. Sisi establishes meaningful institutional protections for basic human rights. With strong Saudi and Emirati support, the Sisi government will survive such a cut, but American pressure can help restrain Egypt’s decline into authoritarianism.

• Jordan, which has absorbed 1.4 million Syrian refugees into a population of eight million, should become the anchor of a new, multilateral Marshall Plan. That term is often tossed around casually, but Jordan’s government is trustworthy enough to help steward a major inflow of resources. Winding down the Syrian civil war would ideally create an opening—and provide an imperative—for historic investment in the development of the Middle East and its people. Along with allies in Europe and the Gulf, Washington should spearhead a reconstruction program providing jobs to the region’s youth and reducing the appeal of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

The sum total of a serious U.S. strategy for the Middle East will require a greater financial investment by the American people—perhaps as much as a few billion dollars annually—and modest increases in Central Intelligence Agency and military involvement, in Syria in particular. It will not, however, bust the bank or drag American forces into another protracted war.

Ms. Maloney is deputy director and Mr. O’Hanlon is research director in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Saudi Commander of Tahrir Al-Sham Assassinated in Idlib

September 14, 2017

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FARS News

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.

Image result for Abu Mohammad al-Share'i, photos

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).

http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13960622001317

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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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tahrir_al-Sham

Lebanese army launches offensive against an Islamic State enclave on the northeast border with Syria

August 19, 2017

Reuters

© STRINGER / AFP | A picture taken on August 17, 2017, during a tour guided by the Lebanese army, shows soldiers holding a position in a mountainous area near the eastern town of Ras Baalbek during an operation against jihadist fighters

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-08-19

The Lebanese army launched an offensive against an Islamic State enclave on the northeast border with Syria, a Lebanese security source said on Saturday, as Hezbollah and the Syrian army announced an assault from the Syrian side of the border.

The Lebanese army was targeting Islamic State positions near the town of Ras Baalbek with rockets, artillery and helicopters,the source said. The area is the last part of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier under insurgent control. “We started advancing at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT),” the Lebanese source said.

The operation by the Syrian army and Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese group, was targeting Islamic State militants in the western Qalamoun region of Syria, the
Hezbollah-run al-Manar television station reported, an area across the frontier from Ras Baalbek.

Last month, Hezbollah forced Nusra Front militants and Syrian rebels to leave nearby border strongholds in a jointoperation with the Syrian army.

The Lebanese army, a major recipient of U.S. military aid, did not take part in the July operation, but it has been gearingup to assault the Islamic State pocket in the same mountainous region. A military source said around 500 IS fighters were holed up in the enclave.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun was following the army operation, called “Jroud Dawn”. “Jroud” refers to the barren,mountainous border area between Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanese security sources have previously said the army intends to fight Islamic State in Lebanese territory on its own,in response to suggestions Hezbollah or the Syrian army may help it.

(REUTERS)

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Lebanon army says to begin offensive against IS on Syria border

August 19, 2017

AFP

© Hezbollah media office/AFP/File | Smoke billows in Lebanon’s Jurud Arsal, a mountainous region bordering with Syria

BEIRUT (AFP) – The Lebanese army announced Saturday the start of an offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group close to the Syrian border in the east of the country, where jihadists have been operating for several years.

“In the name of Lebanon, in the name of kidnapped Lebanese soldiers, in the name of martyrs of the army, I announce that operation ‘Dawn of Jurud’ has started,” army chief General Joseph Aoun said, referring to the mountainous Jurud Arsal border region.

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General Joseph Aoun

Hezbollah, which provides military support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, launched last month an offensive to eliminate Syrian rebels as well as all jihadists formerly linked to Al-Qaeda from the region.

After six days of fighting, a ceasefire deal between Hezbollah and fighters from Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, previously known as the Al-Nusra Front, was announced.

Nearly 8,000 refugees and jihadists from Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch were bused back to Syria following the deal and on Monday the last Syrian rebels were evacuated from the region.

The army is now launching an offensive against the IS fighters still operating in the area.

Jurud Arsal had been used for years as a hideout by Syrian anti-regime militants but was also home to an unknown number of refugees seeking shelter from Syria’s six-year war.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said that IS holds around 296 square kilometres (115 square miles) on both sides of the border, of which around 140 square kilometres are in eastern Lebanon.

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Saudi-Qatar crisis puts Syria rebels in tricky position

June 17, 2017

AFP

© AFP / by Sammy Ketz | Smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on June 14, 2017

BEIRUT (AFP) – A diplomatic crisis pitting Saudi Arabia against Qatar has put Syrian rebels in a difficult position, analysts say, after rivalries between Gulf backers had already weakened the opposition.

Both Sunni-ruled monarchies sided with the protesters in March 2011, when the war started with the brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations.

They continued supporting the mostly Sunni rebels when unrest spiralled into conflict between the armed opposition and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who hails from the country’s Alawite Shiite minority and is backed by Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran.

But six years later, the rebellion has been plagued by rivalries between Riyadh and Doha, as well as weakened by Russia’s military intervention in support of Assad’s forces.

Moscow’s support for regime forces led to a series of setbacks for the rebels, including their landmark loss in December of second city Aleppo.

Last week, Saudi Arabia and allies, including the United Arab Emirates, severed or reduced diplomatic ties with Qatar over accusations the emirate supports extremism, claims Doha has denied.

“The current rupture puts the Syrian opposition in a very awkward position politically, as nobody wants to have to take sides publicly nor can afford to alienate either side,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

A rebel official in the opposition stronghold of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus said he hoped the crisis between Doha and Riyadh was just “a temporary storm”.

– ‘Sensitive’ issue –

“Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have supported the revolution of the Syrian people and shown solidarity throughout years of tragedy,” the rebel official said.

In a sign of the embarrassment the crisis is causing, several rebel groups approached by AFP refused to comment, saying it was a “sensitive” issue.

But Sayigh said the latest flare-up in relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia will have a limited impact on the Syrian conflict.

“It probably won’t have a major financial impact, nor a military one since the US and Turkey have stepped up their support for factions that previously were close to Qatar or to Saudi Arabia,” Sayigh said.

Riyadh “reduced its funding sharply starting” from the summer of 2015 “after it launched its intervention in Yemen” earlier in the year, he said.

Six years into the war, Syria’s fractured rebellion controls just around 10 percent of the war-torn country, with backing from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and the United States.

Pro-Doha rebels including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group are present in the north of the country.

In Eastern Ghouta, pro-Doha opposition groups exist alongside the pro-Riyadh Jaish al-Islam rebel alliance.

Rebels in the south, meanwhile, are trained by Amman and Washington.

Another influential player is Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, which now leads the Tahrir al-Sham group and which some analysts and Syrian factions say has links with Qatar, although Doha has denied this.

– Tensions in Eastern Ghouta? –

Qatar led most mediation efforts to obtain the release of hostages held by the group formerly known as Al-Nusra Front.

In Eastern Ghouta, even before the Gulf crisis, factions supported by Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other had already clashed, killing hundreds of fighters.

Raphael Lefevre, a researcher at the University of Oxford, said the latest Saudi-Qatari crisis could well spark further tensions between rival groups in the rebel enclave.

In 2013 and 2014, “Qatar and Saudi Arabia competed for influence within exiled opposition bodies, each by supporting different factions and leaders, something which largely contributed to paralysing and fragmenting the Syrian opposition,” he said.

But the consequences of the latest spat “could be much bloodier, especially as the two countries support rival rebel factions in areas already marked by a great degree of opposition infighting and regime violence such as the Eastern Ghouta”, Lefevre said.

Syria expert Thomas Pierret however said “local dynamics rather than external patrons determine alliances” in Eastern Ghouta.

He said Ahrar al-Sham risked “suffering financially from a reorientation of Qatari politics”, even if it continues to enjoy support from Turkey, which has intervened as a mediator in the Gulf dispute.

Syria’s exiled political opposition is also fractured. The High Negotiations Committee is based in Riyadh, while the National Coalition work out of Istanbul.

by Sammy Ketz
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