The most fateful chapter of the war in northern Syria may be deemed to have commenced on Sunday with the launch of the offensive by Syrian Kurdish militia, backed by American and French Special Forces, to retake control of Raqqa, ‘capital’ of the Islamic State, situated almost mid-point between Aleppo and Mosul. (Japan Times )
Raqqa’s fall will be a lethal blow for IS. But expert opinion has been that US is ill-prepared for a full-bodied campaign on Raqqa. A former US Army colonel Daniel Davis wrote in the National Interest magazine last week that with no state-supported military unit leading the assault, no allied militia, no resupply lines through friendly territory, wresting control of a major city such as Raqqa, “in a hostile foreign land enmeshed in a years-long civil war… could… result in deadly consequences.” (National Interest )
Yet, President Barack Obama decided otherwise. US soldiers have been spotted on the frontline. (RT)
What is the US gameplan? Indeed, driving the IS out of Raqqa is invested with symbolism, as Obama will be fulfilling his pledge to “degrade and defeat” the IS before leaving office. With the November 8 election no longer constraining him, Obama hopes to notch up a legacy in Syria as the president who ‘defeated’ the IS.
Second, there is the ‘big picture’. Washington is hoping to stall the capture of Aleppo by Syrian government forces (backed by Russia and Iran) so that the next US president has the option to revisit Syrian conflict. Control of Raqqa would allow the US to keep a direct influence on Aleppo.
Again, in immediate terms, the IS fighters coming under pressure in Mosul may evacuate to Raqqa and the US intends to blockade Raqqa at least partially so as to revisit the front after the battle for Mosul has been won.
To be sure, Raqqa is shaping up to be the bloodiest battle yet in the Syrian conflict. An estimated 5000 IS fighters are located in Raqqa.
The ‘known unknown’ will be the reactions of Turkey and Russia. The Turkish-Russian rapprochement faces a litmus test here. Suffice it to say, Russia will be watching Turkey’s ‘strategic autonomy’ vis-à-vis the US. There are conflicting signals that US and Turkey have a tacit understanding over Raqqa. (KUNA )
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds also claim to have an understanding with the US to keep Turkey out in the cold. (Rudaw )
The Americans are playing a smart game. Turkey couldn’t have chosen this moment to push to capture the hugely strategic town of al-Babi without informing US, because the operation’s main aim is to thwart Kurdish plans to establish a contiguous enclave in northern Syria. Simply put, how is it possible that Turks are ostensibly hitting the Syrian Kurds hard just when the latter are fighting Obama’s war on IS in Raqqa? How could that possibly happen without some back-to-back US-Turkish understanding? (Read an excellent analysis in Al-Monitor on the Turkey’s plans in northern Syria)
In the developing situation, a Russian-Syrian consolidation in Aleppo becomes complicated if Americans and the French manage to establish a base camp in Raqqa from where they can lend support seamlessly to rebel groups in Aleppo. Prima facie, Obama’s one-year old warning of a ‘quagmire’ for Russians in Syria no longer seems far-fetched. (Reuters )
But then, Russians seem to estimate that capturing Raqqa is beyond the US’ capability anytime soon. For Tehran, too, Turkey and US’s control of al-Bab and Raqqa could foreclose a direct Iranian access route via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, which is crucial for bolstering the military capability of Hezbollah. In fact, Raqqa leads to Zeir e-Zor city in eastern Syria, just 120 kilometers away, which is under Syrian government control and is a gateway for Iran to access Lebanon. The US and Israel have been hoping to bring Zeir e-Zor under control of Salafi groups hostile to Iran.
Read an impromptu commentary by Russian news agency Sputnik titled Operation Euphrates Rage: What is Known So Far About Raqqa Offensive.
Building on an over five-year, almost entirely fictional narrative about a popular uprising in Syria, recent developments on the ground in Aleppo have triggered a new propaganda blitz complete with a new set of provable lies. The following are ten facts about Aleppo that must be accepted by any objective, informed and rational observer regardless of one’s political views and opinions regarding Syria.
1) Eastern Aleppo was overrun by a foreign-backed, Al-Qaeda-led terrorist alliance in 2012. At that time, approximately 600,000 Aleppans fled eastern Aleppo for the security and safety of western Aleppo where the Syrian government maintained control.
2) Estimates of how many civilians remained in eastern Aleppo vary widely, but official estimates place the number between 100 and 150 thousand. UN estimates of up to 300,000 are almost certainly inflated and politically motivated.
3) Eighty to eighty-five percent of the armed fighters in eastern Aleppo belong to the Jabhat Al-Nusra, the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that just underwent a rebranding, complete with a new name and logo (see image above, top row, second from the left). The remaining fighters belong to twenty-two (there are constant splits, mergers, and rebranding among them) terrorist groups that all share the same jihadi ideology, methods, and objectives as Al-Qaeda.
4) The overwhelming majority of Syrian fighters in eastern Aleppo are not from Aleppo itself, belying the notion that any part of the city rose up against the government.
5) The terrorist groups in Aleppo include a large number of foreign fighters from eighty-one different countries with significant contingents from Turkey, the Gulf Arab states, North Africa, and Russia’s Chechnya and North Caucasus region.
6) Armed groups in eastern Aleppo have been deliberately shelling civilians in western Aleppo. This has led to angry protests against the Syrian government demanding an end to the shelling and the complete extirpation of the terrorist presence in eastern Aleppo.
7) This past week eastern Aleppo was finally completely encircled by the Syrian Army, effectively cutting off the terrorist groups’ supply routes from Turkey.
8) The Syrian government has offered all Syrian fighters in eastern Aleppo amnesty in exchange for laying down their weapons and surrendering to the Syrian authorities.
9) The Syrian military has also established three humanitarian corridors for civilians to exit eastern Aleppo. The Syrian government had prepared 10,000 habitable apartment units in western Aleppo for civilians fleeing in anticipation of a possible final battle. As dozens of families started to exit armed groups immediately began preventing civilians from leaving, prompting speculation they intend to use them as human shields when and if the Syrian Army begins its final entry into the eastern part of the city.
10) After completing the encirclement of eastern Aleppo the Syrian government, in a joint mission with the Russian Air Force based at Hemeimeem Air Base, began a massive humanitarian airlift into eastern Aleppo. The tragic shoot down of the Russian helicopter this week took place as it was returning from a humanitarian aid delivery.
A 5-hour meeting between a visiting foreign minister and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only rare but difficult to recall. Putin makes rare exceptions to receive foreign ministers. And he always receives them after their talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. By all these yardsticks, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Putin last Thursday in the Kremlin was extraordinary.
He drove into the Kremlin straight after touching down in Moscow Thursday evening and had talks with Putin lasting till 1 am in the wee hours of Friday morning. Putin’s rare appearance for a joint press briefing with a foreign minister (Kerry), Puitn’s ‘body language’ and, of course, the subsequent joint press conference by Kerry and Lavrov — they distinctly sought to convey the impression that the US and Russia were on to a big joint venture apropos the Syrian conflict. (here and here)
None of the three statesmen – neither Putin and Lavrov nor Kerry – was even remotely affected by the negative energy radiated by the high-profile summit meeting of the NATO, which had taken place in Warsaw hardly four days ago whose leitmotif was the strong determination of the western alliance to defend and deter Russia’s perceived aggressive tendencies in Eurasia.
Kerry is going to meet a select group of European allies later today in London to brief them on “the concrete steps that the U.S. and Russia are planning to take”. He disclosed that he had a phone conversation with Lavrov on Tuesday, and,
- We both [with Lavrov] believe that we have understanding of the direction we are going in and what needs to be achieved. Our teams will meet shortly in order to continue to do that, in order to bolster the cessation of hostilities, in order to increase our capacity to fight against Al Qaeda, an Nusra, as well as fight back against ISIL.
It all sounds too good to be true. But then, Kerry is a seasoned diplomat with 30 years as a senator behind him during which he also headed the senate foreign relations committee and now as America’s top diplomat for over 3 years. Why is the US all of a sudden giving such hype to a peace project with Russia, an aggressive regional power, to kickstart a political process Syria?
The US has always sought a “selective engagement” of Russia on issues of concern to Washington while pursuing the containment strategy on another track. Lavrov may have gently rubbed this in when Kerry phoned him on Thursday to discuss the “concrete steps” on Syria as follow-up to his talks in the Kremlin last week. Curiously, the Russian Foreign Ministry readout makes a wry reference to Lavrov also, inter alia, availing of the opportunity to gently remind Kerry how the Obama administration is also simultaneously moving heaven and earth to humiliate Russia on another front by keeping it out of the Rio Olympics. These seasoned diplomats must be having the hide of rhinoceros — the readout says, “Mr. Kerry agreed that sports should not be politicized”. (here)
Won’t Moscow be aware that Kerry might even be dissimulating a concord with Russia over Syria? Won’t Moscow know that the Obama administration is on its last leg and time has run out? The point is, there is a powerful lobby in Washington, including the Pentagon and apparently within the State Department itself, which opposes any form of US-Russia cooperation in Syria that does not lead to the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in a near term. (Read a briefing by the Brookings Institution, on the hawkish opinion in Washington.)
Indeed, the US is engaging Russia assiduously against the backdrop of the dramatic events in Turkey. The ground has shifted in the geopolitics of the region. Interestingly, Kerry made the hurried unscheduled trip to Moscow last week within 4 days of the NATO summit even as the failed coup attempt was getting under way in Turkey. Actually, Kerry was about to meet with Putin in the Kremlin — or had been conversing with him already –even as the coup began in Turkey. Something doesn’t quite gel here, isn’t it? Suffice it to say, much depends on how far back Kerry (Obama administration) actually had known about the coup that was in the making in Turkey. (Read a breath-taking, blow-by-blow account of the ‘Turkish coup’ by senior editor Murat Yetkin in today’s Hurriyet.)
Of course, the failed coup in Turkey becomes a defining moment for the Syrian conflict. The Turkish military and state intelligence – and the political leadership – are all passing through such turbulence that Ankara simply lacks the presence of mind or the sheer capacity to continue to pursue an interventionist policy in Syria in a foreseeable future. Meanwhile, great uncertainties have crept into Turkey’s relations with the US and Europe. Moscow cannot but be aware that Turkey desperately needs to hold the Russian hand — and that indeed adds to Russia’s politico-military options in Syria. The thinking is reflected in a commentary by a top Kremlin pundit Fyodor Lukyanov in Moscow Times.
Clearly, the US policies on Syria are floundering. The Syrian forces have laid siege to Aleppo and the US-backed rebels are trapped inside the city, while Turkey may have begun disengaging from reaching aid to them. Washington has no option but to engage Moscow to work out some sort of face-saving compromise formula.
But what does Russia get in return? Participation in Rio Olympics? It shouldn’t be surprising if the International Olympics Committee has a last-minute change of heart and says ‘Da‘ to the Russian team, finally. If that happens, it will be in the best traditions of Russian-American trade-offs, and Kerry worked hard on it.
Activist Post | March 9, 2015
Putting its hypocritical and biased nature on full display once again, the alleged human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, was recently caught in an attempt to fabricate “evidence” of Assad’s use of barrel bombs in civilian areas for the purposes of further demonizing the secular Syrian government.
On February 25, HRW posted a photo of a devastated civilian area in Syria with the tagline “Syria dropped barrel bombs despite ban.” The “ban” HRW is referring to is the ban on bombing civilian areas that applies to both sides in Aleppo after the United Nations stepped in to save the Western-backed terrorists from annihilation. Assad’s forces had surrounded the city and had cut off a major supply route for the death squads from Turkey thus making the ultimate elimination of the jihadist forces a virtual inevitability.
As Somini Sengupta wrote for the New York Times on February 24,
Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that the Syrian government had dropped so-called barrel bombs on hundreds of sites in rebel-held towns and cities in the past year, flouting a United Nations Security Council measure.
In a report released Tuesday, the group said it relied on satellite images, photos, videos and witness statements to conclude that the Syrian government had bombarded at least 450 sites in and around the southern town of Daraa and at least 1,000 sites in Aleppo in the north.
The report focused on the period since Feb. 22, 2014, when the Security Council specifically condemned the use of barrel bombs, which are large containers filled with explosives and projectiles that can indiscriminately hurt civilians and are prohibited under international law.
There was only one problem with HRW’s tweet – the photograph the organization provided was not Aleppo.
In fact, the damage that had been wrought upon the civilian area in the photograph was not committed by the Syrian military but by the United States.
The photo was actually a picture of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab), the city which has been the site of heavy US aerial bombardment over the last several months as the US engages in its program of death squad herding and geographical reformation of sovereign Syrian and Iraqi territory.
But, while HRW was content to use the destruction of the city as a reason to condemn the Assad government and continue to promote the cause for US military action in Syria, the “human rights organization” was apparently much less interested in the exact same destruction wrought by US forces.
In other words, if Assad’s forces bomb a civilian area into the stone age, it is an atrocity, a war crime, and justification for international military involvement. If the United States bombs a civilian area into the stone age, it’s no biggie.
For instance, when Western media propaganda had reached a crescendo regarding the outright lie that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people, HRW stood right beside Barack Obama and John Kerry in their effort to prove Assad’s guilt. HRW even went so far as to repeat the lie that the UN report suggested that Assad was the offending party, driving the final nail into the coffin of any credibility HRW may have had.
When a last-minute chemical weapons deal was secured by Russia in an effort to avoid yet another US/NATO invasion of Syria, HRW did not rejoice for the opportunity of peaceful destruction of chemical weapons and a chance to avoid war, it attacked the deal by claiming that it “failed to ensure justice.” Of course, the deal did fail to ensure justice. There were no provisions demanding punishment of the death squads who actually used the weapons or the US/NATO apparatus that initiated and controlled the jihadist invasion to begin with.
Regardless, when Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross released her report that refuted what the US/NATO was asserting in regards to chemical weapons in Syria, HRW embarked upon a campaign of attack against her and her work.
Even as far back as 2009, however, HRW was showing its true colors when it apparently signed off on and supported renditions – the process of kidnapping individuals off the street without any due process and “rendering” them to jails and prisons in other countries where they are often tortured – in secret talks with the Obama administration.
If HRW ever had any credibility in terms of the question of actual human rights, then all of that credibility has assuredly been lost. HRW is nothing more than a pro-US, pro-NATO NGO that acts as a smokescreen for the continuation of the violation of human rights across the world – that is, unless those violations are committed by America’s enemies.
Given the massive destruction in large parts of Aleppo, Syria’s former economic juggernaut near the Turkish border, including in the city’s Medina souk and Industrial zone, claims of even more dire damage to Syrian heritage sites would perhaps be understandable. Even if not backed up with probative material evidence and sometimes made for political purposes by opponents of Syria’s government.
In the wake of the continuing conflict, questions from some quarters have repeatedly surfaced regarding the status of the 5th- or 6th- century Byzantium period, Great Synagogue of Aleppo. Known locally as Joab’s Synagogue or Al-Bandara Synagogue, lore has it that the building’s foundation was laid by King David’s general, Yoav, whom Jewish tradition holds captured Aleppo. Maimonides, in his letter to the rabbis of Lunel, speaks of Aleppo as being the only community in Syria where Torah learning survived.
The Times of Israel reported on 10/16/2012 that “Aleppo, once a trading center for Muslims, Armenians and Syrian Christians, was also home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities with its Great Synagogue which is now destroyed.” One of the US based anti-Arab Zionist organizations, the notorious Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claims that the synagogue was bombed by the Syrian army, with similar false reports being circulated via politically motivated internet conspiracy theories.
Another writer for the Jewish Times lamented: “While we continue to hear of the damage inflicted on Aleppo, it is almost unfathomable what is happening to its treasure trove of Jewish antiquity and Synagogues within its borders.” Claims have been made that Syrian government barrel bombs destroyed the cultural heritage site nearly two years ago.
These accusations and statements are patently false.
Susan Harris wrote in November of 2012 about massive damage in Syria to Jewish heritage sites, including in Aleppo, but without offering specific data, the author implied a frenzy of antisemitism. “Not only are the antiquities of Islam being destroyed, but a site of great interest to Jews sits in the eye of a hurricane swept in by the Arab Spring. For hundreds of years the Great Synagogue of Aleppo was the home to the Aleppo Codex, written around 930 CE.” And that it was caught up in “A labyrinth of medieval Jewish structures recently set ablaze, and the last fragile structural remnants of earlier civilizations crumbling into ash heaps under the weight of prolonged violence.” This statement is also false. The Codex has not been burned.
Articles and alarmist propaganda on the subject of Aleppo’s synagogues have appeared with titles like: “What’s left of Jewish Heritage in Syria”, “Who will save the remains of Syria’s ancient synagogues?” (JTA ), “Jewish Aleppo, Lost Forever The Syrian diaspora in Israel watches its once-vibrant ancestral home fall to ruin in the country’s civil war” (Joseph Dana, 8/22/2012). They are all misleading.
There have however been thefts of Syrian cultural artifacts; most of them have been done by agents of Israel. During a 10-year period in the 1980s, a collection of Jewish objects were stolen and smuggled out of Syria to Turkey by then-Chief Rabbi Avraham Hamra. The collection included nine ancient Bible manuscripts, known as the Ketarim, each between 700 and 900 years old. In addition, there were 40 Torah scrolls and 32 decorative boxes in which the Sephardic Torah scrolls were held. Israel offered a bizarre rationale that the thefts of antiquities belonging to Syria were “necessary because official requests for permission to take them out of Syria were denied”. Were this excuse to be accepted our global heritage in Syria and elsewhere would likely soon disappear.
Another theft of Syrian cultural heritage is The Aleppo Codex, believed to be the oldest manuscript containing the entire Hebrew Bible. It was stolen from the Great Synagogue of Allepo according to locals by the Mossad and in 1957 it was smuggled out of Aleppo to Israel, where it was presented in 1958 to President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and today it is housed in the Ben-Zvi Institute. The Aleppo Codex, part of Syria’s cultural heritage, is considered by some experts to be the most authoritative, accurate source document, both for the Biblical text and for the vocalization and cantillation. Some scholars claim it has greater religious and scholarly import than any other manuscript of the Bible. Unbeknownst to the thieves, 295 of the original 487 leaves of the Codex remain in Aleppo near the grand synagogue protected by a Syrian gentleman who was a volunteer caretaker and groundskeeper of sorts for many years. Apparently when the thieves pried open the vault underneath the basilica’s basement floor they failed to notice a cloth wrapping underneath what they stole or that the Codex had been divided for apparent study. The people of Syria and all who value cultural heritage await the return of the looted Codex from its thieves.
For over a week earlier this month, with the much-appreciated assistance of security personnel, this observer moved around Aleppo visiting endangered archaeological sites in order to chronicle some of them as part of a two-year research project across this cradle of civilization. Field visits and testimony of neighbors near Aleppo’s 11 synagogues present probative evidence that while they, as with many sites in Aleppo and elsewhere, are currently endangered, as of mid-December 2014 these places of worship, which are a valued part of Syria’s cultural heritage, are locked and secured. They do not exhibit signs of vandalism and are being watched over by authorities and by Syrian citizens in their respective neighborhoods.
With respect to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, although situated in the district of the current front-line separating rebel from government forces, it has not been destroyed and as of 12/16/2014 shows no signs of damage. This may be partly due to the fact that both sides have been widely criticized for endangering Syria’s heritage and, with the exception of Da’ish (IS), appear to be taking greater care these days in selecting “military targets.” Another reason may be because the Great Synagogue is located on a side street of little apparent strategic import that has experienced no armed conflict. As recently as two decades ago it was in use until Aleppo’s remaining Jews left and as with other Jewish sites in Aleppo and across Syria, including cemeteries, schools, and communal properties, are now under government protection.
Rather than destroy Jewish heritage in Syria her government and people have preserved and repaired them when necessary. As of mid-December 2014 only 13 Jews remain in Aleppo according to Rabbi Avraham Hamra with nine men and eight women, all over sixty years of age. One of the last to depart Aleppo was Dr. Haim Cohen, a general practitioner who lived down the street from the Samoual Synagogue, which this observer visited on 12/11/2014. Dr. Cohen used to frequent a shop across from the entrance to the Samoual Synagogue, which I also visited and according to the shop owner who has been in the same location for 47 years and whose main work these days includes the mending of piles of military uniforms there has been no damage to synagogues in the Governorate and certainly not to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo.
In February of 2011, coincidentally the month before of the beginning of the current Syrian crisis, President Assad signed an executive order to repair the Al-Raqi Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus by the end of the month as the renovation of 10 other synagogues in Syria’s major cities continued. On 12/11/2014 this observer photographed some randomly selected Aleppo synagogues, including the one in the Samoual district, and found them locked and saw no signs of desecration. Rather, normal citizens exhibit protective attitudes toward these heritage sites and even tend to keep the outside areas cleared of leaves and trash. Government workers also perform daily trash pickups along streets where the synagogues are located. Officials advised this observer that Syria sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus and repairs to synagogues across Syria in the context of preserving the secularism of Syria and its cultural heritage of which Jews were historically an important part.
Two months before the President signed the executive order to repair synagogues, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, discussed the Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in Syria and he reported that he received a “very positive response from Assad.” Syrian Jews centered mainly in Brooklyn NY whose numbers are estimated at 85,000, maintain close ties with Syria. Some of them visit their birthplaces and conduct regular business relations in the country often experiencing criticism and pressure from the Zionist regime still occupying Palestine.
In November 1989, the Syrian government facilitated the emigration of 500 single Jewish women, who greatly outnumbered eligible Jewish men in Aleppo. During the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference Syria agreed to ease restriction on its Jewish population. As a result, Syria lifted many restrictions on its Jewish community, and allowed Jews to leave on condition that they not emigrate to Israel. Beginning on the Passover Holiday of 1992, more than 4,000 remaining members of the Aleppo and Damascus Jewish community were granted exit permits and within a few months, thousands more left for the United States, France or Turkey. Approximately 300 remained in Syria, most of them elderly all choosing to stay in the culture their families had lived in for many generations.
With the dawning of the 21st century, there was only a small, largely elderly community left in Aleppo. Jews were still officially banned from politics and government employment, and did not have military service obligations. Jews were also the only minority to have their religion mentioned on their passports and identification cards. Though some were occasionally subjected to harassment by Palestinian protesters during violence in occupied Palestine, the Syrian government took measures to protect them.
The government protected Jewish primary schools for religious studies, and Hebrew was allowed to be taught (today Hebrew is one of the languages SANA, the Syrian news agency presents its news item in). Every two or three months, a rabbi from Istanbul visited Aleppo to oversee the preparation of kosher meat, which most residents froze and used until his next visit. The community gradually shrank. From 2000 to 2010, 41 Syrian Jews left for occupied Palestine, and its numbers further dwindled as members of the largely elderly community died.
In 2001, Rabbi Huder Shahada Kabariti estimated that there were still 200 Jews in the country, of whom 150 lived in Damascus, 30 in Aleppo, and 20 in Qamashli. In 2003, the Jewish population was estimated to be fewer than 100. In 2005, the U.S. State Department estimated the Jewish population at 80 in its annual International Religious Freedom Report. In May 2012, one year into the Syrian civil war, it was reported that only 22 Jews still lived in Syria, all of them elderly and living in Damascus, in a building adjoining the city’s only functioning synagogue. This report was not accurate. As of December 2014, approximately 15 Jews remain in Aleppo according to Rabbi Avraham Hamra with nine men and eight women, all over sixty years of age.
The Syrian government is ready to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with opposition forces in the flashpoint city of Aleppo, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem has said. A list of rebel prisoners has also been drawn up in preparation for a proposed exchange.
Damascus has handed Moscow a plan for a ceasefire in the city of Aleppo, Moallem announced at a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow on Friday.
“Taking into account the role of the Russian Federation in halting the bloodshed in Syria and our relationship of trust, today I have given Minister Lavrov a ceasefire plan for the city of Aleppo,” he said. Moallem asked Lavrov to coordinate with his contacts in the Syrian opposition in order to ensure the execution of the new plan, adding that if it is successful it could be implemented in other areas of the war-torn country.
“I really hope all sides will keep to the terms of the agreement. If this happens, then we can implement this plan in other cities.”
Moallem asked Lavrov to coordinate with his contacts in the Syria opposition in order to ensure the successful execution of the new plan.
Addressing the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Moallem said the Syrian government is already working with the UN to deliver aid to “a number of regions.” However, the success of the humanitarian program depends on rebel fighters keeping to their pledge not to open fire on humanitarian convoys, he said.
The UN estimates that over 100,000 people have died since the violence broke out three years ago.
‘Government forces do not target civilians’
Refuting claims the Syrian Army is bombing its own citizens, Moallem said that such allegations “do not reflect the reality of the current situation.” He laid the blame at the feet of terrorist organizations that are being supported by international players.
“According to the constitution, the Syrian government is obligated to protect its citizens and public institutions in Syria. Terrorists and terrorist groups are responsible for these acts of destruction,” said Moallem, adding that “these groups are growing in number because of outside support from known states.”
Lavrov echoed this opinion, calling accusations that Damascus is carrying out strikes on its own citizens “irresponsible.”
“In Syria, civilians are suffering on both sides, but it is totally irresponsible to accuse the government of purposely targeting civilians,” said Lavrov. “To make such accusations, serious proof is required.”
Both foreign ministers said that opposition representation is absolutely essential for the success of the Geneva-2 talks, which are set to kick off next Monday. They believe the conference will pave the way for the creation of a transitional government to bring an end to the three-year conflict.
The Syrian National Coordination Committee, a faction in the domestic Syrian political opposition, decided to boycott this month’s peace conference in Switzerland, UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has said. The Syrian National Coalition – the main political opposition group – is meeting in Istanbul on Friday to decide whether it will attend the Geneva talks.
Today, October 8, the Aleppo-Salamiyeh road will be opened to civilians and convoys carrying supplies and fuel, ending the weeks-long siege imposed by opposition militants on the city. According to sources on the ground, the move will usher in a new phase of military operations in the city and surrounding areas.
Aleppo – The city of Aleppo has breathed a sigh of relief. After weeks of the siege imposed by the militants, the Syrian army managed to reopen the road to the city of Salamiyeh, and from there, to Hama, Homs, Damascus, and the Syrian coast.
Starting today, the road will be opened officially to civilians and convoys carrying flour, food supplies, and fuel, according to a source in the governorate. Buses and supply convoys are traversing the road under military protection, led by units from the Engineer Corps to dismantle mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – which the militants often plant at night and detonate in the day, in order to slow down and then attack the convoys.
The Syrian army has regained control over the area extending from Syria’s economic capital to the southeast town of Khanasser, through the defense manufacturing facilities in Sfireh, allowing the army to secure a road more than 200-km long from Aleppo to Salamiyeh.
Official Syrian sources told Al-Akhbar, “This achievement was the result of cumulative gains from various military operations during the past weeks, and heralds a new phase in the city of Aleppo and its environs.” The sources likened what is happening in Aleppo to what the Syrian army had accomplished in east Ghouta between November 2012 and April 2013, culminating with the siege of opposition militants in the area, and the elimination of their immediate threat to the Syrian capital.
While the people of Aleppo are waiting for the reopening of the road to improve their daily lives, especially in terms of reducing the prices of goods and improving their availability in the markets, the Syrian army continues its efforts to secure the hills overlooking the Athraya-Khanasser and Khanasser-Aleppo roads. The army also tightened its grip on the villages of Rasm Okeiresh, Rasm al-Sheikh, Rasm al-Helou, Rasm Bakrou, al-Wawiyeh, Rasm al-Safa, Barzanieh, Jalagheem, Zarraa, and Kafar Akkad.
However, dozens of cars and buses heading from Aleppo to Hama, Homs, and Damascus along the international highway – which extends from Aleppo to the southwest – were forced to return to Aleppo after militants attacked the Souran army checkpoint north of Hama. The road was blocked for three hours, and buses were forced back to the town of Zarbeh, south of Aleppo.
The Syrian air force carried out a series of strikes against encampments belonging to radical Islamic groups in various areas of the Aleppo countryside, killing large numbers of militants from different nationalities, according to a military source. Air strikes and artillery shelling pounded areas in Ikarda, Barqoum, Tall Hadiyyeh, al-Zarieh, Azzan, Andan, Babis, Kafar Naha, Mennagh, Hraytan, Kaffin, Maarasta, and the vicinity of the Aleppo Central Prison.
In Afrin, northwest of Aleppo, thousands of local residents attended a funeral of seven members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPD), who were killed while staving off an attack by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The mourners chanted slogans against Turkey and takfiri groups.
A YPD source told Al-Akhbar that the seven men were stationed on the Qastal Jendo-Azaz front, where attacks by takfiri groups are frequent. The source indicated that the residents of the villages and farms nearby dug trenches to defend against a possible large-scale attack by ISIS, after large numbers of fighters and vehicles equipped with medium to heavy machine guns were seen flocking to the flashpoints there.
After fighting between the YPD and ISIS militants resumed, dozens of Kurds from Afrin were kidnapped while traveling along the Aleppo-Afrin road, near the village of Deir Jmal.
Adham Sheikho, a lawyer from Afrin, shared with Al-Akhbar his account of the incident. He said, “Militants from the opposition forced dozens of passengers to leave their small buses and cars, and took them to an unknown location, for the sole reason that they came from Afrin.”
In the meantime, the tragedy of 63 women and children who were kidnapped from the towns of Nbel and Zahraa on their way to Damascus continues. A source in Nbel said that the kidnappers have moved the hostages to a farm they had seized in the village of Bawabieh, southwest of Aleppo.
In the Damascus countryside, the Syrian army launched a series of attacks against militant concentrations and weapons caches in Qaboun, Jobar, and other villages and towns across the countryside, according to SANA. The operations killed dozens of militants from Liwaa Omar al-Mukhtar and al-Baraa Brigades.
In Deir al-Zour, Syrian army forces bombarded militant outposts in al-Mraiyyeh. According to al-Mayadeen TV, an explosion took place under the National Hospital building in Deir al-Zour, while militants from al-Nusra Front were attempting to dig new tunnels underneath it.
Clashes between the Free Syrian Army and ISIS continued in al-Raqqa, meanwhile, killing and injuring scores on both sides.
The Battle of Wadi al-Deif
In the Idlib countryside, 20 armed brigades, most notably Ahrar al-Sham, announced the start of a battle to “liberate” military bases in Wadi al-Deif and al-Hamdieh in Maarrat Numan. The Wadi al-Deif base is located east of the strategic city of Maarrat Numan. It is the largest military complex in the area, containing large quantities of military hardware and ammunition. The opposition fighters previously besieged the complex for eight consecutive months before the Syrian army managed to end their siege nearly four months ago.
In Homs, opposition forces issued a statement announcing that indirect negotiations with the regime had failed. The negotiations focused on trying to get a number of people out of the neighborhoods besieged by the Syrian army in the city. The statement’s authors pledged to begin a new offensive in Homs.
- FSA on verge of collapse in Syria: Analyst (presstv.ir)
The Syrian government has accepted the ‘essential modalities’ under which the UN was ready to investigate whether chemical weapons had been used in the country, the body has announced, signalling that experts will shortly be traveling to Syria.
“The departure of the team is now imminent,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. “As agreed with the Government of Syria, the team will remain in the country to conduct its activities, including on-site visits, for a period of up to 14 days, extendable upon mutual consent.”
The Secretary-General has expressed his appreciation to the Syrian government for accepting “the modalities essential for cooperation to ensure the proper, safe and efficient conduct of the Mission.”
The statement also reminded that the use of chemical weapons “by any side under any circumstances” would constitute an “outrageous crime.”
Two weeks ago the United Nations said that an agreement had been reached with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government as to the three locations that UN inspectors would be investigating, led by Swedish scientist, Ake Sellstrom.
One site to be visited by the UN team is Khan al-Assal in Aleppo, where the country’s government says rebels used chemical weapons in March. The two additional locations have yet to be confirmed.
Both Syria’s government and rebel forces have long been accusing each other of using chemical weapons, and both have denied it.
Russia welcomed the move, saying on its Twitter feed that “Damascus is ready to bring clarity into the situation”, and expressing hope that the move will “provide a springboard for a political solution of the ongoing crisis”.
Last month Russia submitted “a full set of documents” to the UN and its analysis of samples taken west of Aleppo. Russia’s findings indicated that it was rebels behind the Khan al-Assal incident, in which more than 30 people died.
The United States cast doubt on the Russian findings saying its own intelligence services believed Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons. However, Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN commission’s inquiry into rights violations in Syria, said the evidence provided by the US did not meet standards as his commission was “very worried about the chain of custody of the substances.”
Back in March Damascus requested UN investigators to visit Khan al-Assal. The UN formed a mission then, but was reluctant to send it, demanding “unconditional and unfettered” access across the country, according to Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry rejected the UN’s effort to broaden the probe claiming that it was “at odds with the Syrian request” and that its “possible hidden intentions” could violate Syrian sovereignty.
In total, the UN received some 13 reports of alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and the UN inspectors will be investigating the “allegations” of chemical weapons use, rather than determining who was responsible for the attacks.
There was a time during the 30-month covert dirty war on Syria when the Western governments and mainstream media would make a clamor over reported massacres.
Now, despicably, these governments and media just ignore such atrocities.
Why? Because it is increasingly clear that the groups committing these crimes against thousands of Syrian civilians are the foreign-backed mercenaries, whom the Western media and their governments have tried to lionize as “rebels” fighting for “democratic freedom”.
That charade is rapidly disintegrating, exposing not just criminal Western governments sponsoring the violence against civilians, but an entire media industry that is also guilty of war crimes through its willful complicity.
This is not mere hyperbole. To disseminate false information and lies about conflict – under the guise of independent news – is to be complicit in covering up war crimes. You can hardly get more serious misconduct than to tell lies about crimes against humanity.
These toxic lies and propaganda are now being exposed as the Western-backed plot to subvert the sovereign state of Syria unravels; this unraveling is accentuated by the West’s death squads becoming even more unhinged as they stare at looming defeat at the hands of the Syrian army.
The latest massacre occurred in the town of Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo. Some 150 people, mostly civilians, were reportedly slaughtered in cold blood. Many of the victims were shot in the head execution-style. The groups claiming responsibility are the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and Ansar al Khalifa.
Reliable sources say that the killers tried to cover up their barbaric crimes by mutilating the corpses and burning the remains. Only days before this orgy of murder, the same groups are believed to have massacred at least seven civilians in the town of Maqbara in the province of Hasakah.
Elsewhere, as the Syrian national army makes searing advances against the militants, it is apparent from the identities of the dead that the majority of these fighters are foreigners, from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, Turkey, as well as from the US and Europe, including Britain, France and Germany.
Just last week, it was reported that Saudi Arabia bought $50 million-worth of heavy arms from Israel to supply this foreign network in its endeavor to terrorize the people of Syria into submission.
Already, the US, Britain and France have stumped up over $200 million which they claim is provided to “the Syrian opposition” in the form of “non-lethal aid”.
This is just cynical semantics to cover up the fact that the Western governments and their regional Turk, Arab and Israeli proxies are sponsoring genocide in Syria.
Over the weekend as the mass murders in Khan al-Assal and Maqbara emerged there was a telling silence in the Western media. A cursory glance at outlets such as New York Times, Washington Post, Voice of America, the Guardian, BBC, France 24, Deutsche Welle, Reuters, among others, showed no or negligible reports on the atrocities.
A notable exception was the London-based Financial Times, which headlined: “Syria opposition condemns rebel attack”. The FT tried to obfuscate the mass murder of civilians by claiming that “extremist rebels” had executed captured Syrian army soldiers and by giving prominence to condemnation of the “abuses” by the exile non-entity group, the Syrian National Coalition.
Similar Western silence followed another massacre last month in the village of Hatlah in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. In mid-June, more than 60 mainly Shia inhabitants were slaughtered again by Western-backed foreign militants. Most of the victims were women and children. Syrian government appeals for international condemnation at the United Nations were ignored.
Contrast this void in Western government and media reaction to earlier massacres. In May and June 2012, the Western media went viral with reports of mass killings in the villages of Houla and Qubair where some 108 and 78 inhabitants were murdered, many of them with throats slit. Immediately, the Western media then claimed or implied that the perpetrators were Syrian state forces and roundly condemned President Bashar al-Assad.
Back then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Assad of “ruling by murder and fear” and led the chorus of Western governments calling for Assad to step down.
It later transpired that the Houla and Qubair massacres were the work of the Western-backed foreign militants. But Western media did not follow-up with corrective reporting. This is the conduct of a propaganda ministry, not independent journalism.
The same propaganda formula of sensationalist headlines and innuendo, with minimal evidence, was repeated in subsequent massacres, such as in Tremseh in July 2012, or the bomb attack on Aleppo University in January this year in which more than 80 were killed. Also in that same month, more than 100 bodies were fished out of the Queiq River in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo – all of those victims with gunshot wounds to the head. Never mind that the district was under the control of foreign militants, the Western media continued their campaign of innuendo that it was the Syrian state forces that carried out the executions.
The Syrian government has consistently alleged that all these mass killings are the work of Western-backed militants. This sickening terrorist methodology concatenates with the Takfiri mentality of killing everyone who is deemed to be an infidel – Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian, non-believer alike, who does not subscribe to their fundamentalist twisted theology.
It is entirely in keeping that Western governments and Wahhabi Arab despots sponsor such groups given the long history of collusion between these protagonists, going back to the creation of al-Qaeda by Western military intelligence in Afghanistan during the 1980s to fight the then Soviet-backed government in Kabul.
The indiscriminate murder of civilians in wholesale massacres by Western-backed death squads operating in Syria to overthrow the Assad government is also consistent with the countless no-warning car bombs that have ripped through markets, streets, hospitals and schools all across Syria. Days before the latest slaughter in Khan al-Assal, a car bomb killed at least 10 in the Jaramana district of the capital, Damascus.
A few months earlier, another deadly bomb attack also targeted Jaramana, killing more than 30. The district is a mixed community of Muslim, Christian and Druze, which is largely supportive of the Assad government. As with the many other massacres in Syria, the aim is to terrorize the civilian population, to sow sectarianism and to coerce
the populace to relinquish support for the government.
As the foreign criminal conspiracy to force regime change in Syria flounders – with the turning point being the Syrian army victory in Qusayr early last month – the Western-sponsored terrorists are resorting to more and more desperate methods. This depravity was manifested yet again in the slaughter of civilians in Khan al-Assal and Maqbara. Tragically and despicably, we can expect more such atrocities in the coming weeks and months as the Western criminal conspiracy suffers more defeats.
But what is truly remarkable is how the Western governments and their propaganda machine, known euphemistically as the mainstream news media, are ignoring these latest massacres. That is because their vile game is up. They can no longer dissimulate on the reality of who is carrying out these massacres and how it is all part of a criminal genocidal campaign directed from Washington, London and Paris. That is why they are feigning to ignore such atrocities. To look into them honestly would uncover the ugly face of Western imperialism and the unconscionable role played all along by so-called Western news media.
Meanwhile, proper journalistic services like Press TV that are reporting the reality of what the Western governments are really doing in Syria via their death squads are being banned from satellite networks controlled by Western authorities.
Indeed, a very real extension of this censorship is how Press TV correspondent Maya Nasser was murdered last September by Western-backed death squads in Damascus for the very reason that he was helping to uncover the truth about what is being inflicted on Syria. Assassination is just an extreme act of censorship, as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once noted.
Western government and media silence over the latest massacres in Syria is not just a matter of indifference or sloppy journalism. It is indicative of their complicity in the covert genocidal war on Syria.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that “political games” prevented Russia from investigating the data on the use of toxic substances in Aleppo: the UN Secretariat couldn’t respond promptly to Moscow’s demand to look into the matter.
In March, the Syrian government invited the United Nations to investigate possible chemical weapons use in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo. Military experts and officials said a chemical agent, most likely sarin, was used in the attack which killed 26 people, including government forces.
Several countries, including Israel, the UK, France and the US – all vocal critics of Syrian President Bashar Assad – all claimed they had evidence that chemical weapons were used in Syria.
Damascus denied that a chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian army, blaming the rebels and Turkey for the incident: “The rocket came from a place controlled by the terrorists and which is located close to the Turkish territory. One can assume that the weapon came from Turkey,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi alleged in an interview with Interfax news agency.
Lavrov spoke following the reports that Turkish security forces found a 2kg cylinder with sarin gas after searching the homes of Syrian militants from the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front who were previously detained.
The sarin gas was found in the homes of alleged Syrian militants, who were reportedly planning a terrorist attack on the southern Turkish city of Adana.
Russia expressed concern over the incident, urging for a thorough investigation into the matter.
Almost a month ago, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad said that Damascus was ready to have the UN investigation team look into alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.
“We were ready and we are always ready, right now, to receive the delegation that was set up by [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon to investigate what happened in Khan al-Assal,” Muqdad said, referring to the March 19 incident near Aleppo.
Syrian rebels are accused of using a rocket with a chemical warhead, killing 25 people and injuring 86, according to SANA news agency.
The Syrian civil war has been raging for more than two years now, with more than 80,000 people killed, according to UN estimates.
In his latest statement on the matter, Lavrov noted the Russian government’s concern over the issue due to the chance of provocations around the situation.
As the battle for Qusayr winds down, regime forces are preparing to wrest Aleppo from the Syrian opposition, which overran the city last July.
According to Syrian security sources, the Syrian army has begun building up its forces in several areas in preparation to storm opposition-controlled Aleppo. The sources explained that they are in the process of surrounding the city in order to cut off the oppositions supply lines.
If it were to succeed, then the regime would have managed to regain two of Syria’s most important governorates: Homs and Aleppo.
Homs was the “capital of the Syrian revolution,” until government troops retook the city. Ten months have passed since opposition fighters managed to flood Aleppo by the thousands, surprising both the regime and the city’s residents. The city had remained solidly in the loyalist camp for more than a year into the Syrian crisis and no one expected it to fall into the hands of the opposition so quickly and easily.
Government sources attributed the fall of Aleppo to the collusion of Mohammed Mufleh, the former chief of Syrian Military Intelligence in Hama, with the opposition’s Tawhid Brigade. According to military sources, Mufleh was paid a large sum of money to facilitate the passage of thousands of opposition fighters into the city.
Military sources maintained that the Aleppans were not particularly welcoming of the opposition, which committed massacres against whole loyalist families, like the Bazzi clan. The same sources estimated the number of fighters in the city may have now reached 20,000.
Mufleh’s defection and the role he played in Aleppo is old news by now. What has not been known until now, however, is his relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tawhid Brigade, particularly in its initial phases.
Reports suggested that the intelligence chief – before announcing his defection – was in cahoots with Tawhid as it tried to establish its hold in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib.
The relationship reached a point in which Mufleh was prepared to hand over all the weapons at his disposal to the brigade. Tawhid waged a series of successful side battles with other armed groups, accusing them of working for the regime.
After Mufleh’s defection, contacts between Tawhid and commanders loyal to him continued. The breaking point, however, came when these commanders requested that Tawhid “lay down its weapons and declare that it will enter into negotiations with the regime,” only to discover that the opposition brigade had opened up new channels with Turkey and Qatar, before finally announcing its loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Syria: Border Clashes Pit FSA Against Kurds (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Have Washington and Tel Aviv Miscalculated Events in al-Qusayr (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Tension returns to the already unstable relationship between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Kurdish Popular Protection Units in the countryside of Aleppo, following attempts by the FSA to raid Kurdish-controlled villages in the Afrin region.
The clashes in the Afrin region – between units of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tawhid Brigade and Islamist and Kurdish groups supported by Ankara – resulted in the displacement of some villagers and the closure of the Afrin-Aleppo road.
Kurdish sources confirmed to Al-Akhbar that 14 members of the opposition units and two Kurdish fighters were killed over the weekend. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes caused the death of 11 rebel fighters and the injury of more than 20.
Reports on injuries and the clashes’ cause conflicted. In a statement, the Popular Protection Units (YPG) announced the deaths of 11 members of armed groups, including a battalion commander, and the injuring of 15 other fighters.
On the other hand, the Tawhid Brigade said that the “commander of Battalion 21” was killed, as well as the commander of the Sayyid al-Shuhada al-Hamza, AKA Shamel. Dissident Kurdish captain Bioar Mustafa, commander of the Salaheddin Battalion fighting alongside the FSA against the YPG, was also injured.
The Tawhid Battalion accused one of the Kurdish checkpoints of “facilitating the passage of residents of Kfar Nebel,” which the FSA has put under siege.
The YPG, however, said in a statement that “FSA groups attacked the village of Aqiba in Nahiet Shirawa and the YPG responded to the attack.”
FSA units kidnapped two Kurdish citizens from the village of Bassila on the Aleppo-Afrin road. The Syrian army exploited the clashes between the two opposition groups. A source close to the FSA was reported saying that the regime’s forces sent military and logistical reinforcements to the besieged Ming Military Airport.
In the meantime, the Sheikh Said Piran battalions fighting alongside the FSA at the Ming Airport and some neighborhoods of Aleppo announced its “complete withdrawal from Aleppo and the beginning of a march to Afrin to defend it against the FSA.”
The Kurdish Front Brigade, which is close to the YPG despite fighting against the Syrian army alongside the FSA, announced that they are coordinating all their operations with the YPG. “They are with us in the same trench,” it said.
The YPG, however, maintained that the FSA’s attack “targets the entire Afrin region and was planned in advance.” Kurdish sources maintained that there is a plan by the FSA in the Aleppo countryside to attack the villages of Afrin and impose an economic siege.
However, this is not the first attempt by FSA groups in Aleppo to attack villages under the control of the Kurdish units. In this respect, a Kurdish source explained to Al-Akhbar that the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood “is a bigger threat to the Kurds from the entire Baathist doctrine.”
“But anytime the Brotherhood thinks about cleansing Aleppo or its countryside, they will find that the Kurds will be their biggest challenge,” he added.
“Despite the Brotherhood knowing that they are fighting a losing battle in Afrin, which will weaken and drain them, they seem to be pulled ideologically,” he said. “This cancels the pragmatic side.”