Iraqi Militant Dragged into Iranian Proxy War in Syria Claims being Deceived


Baghdad- Resting in a modest home in a humble neighborhood just off Baghdad’s outskirts lives an ex-recruit who spends his days trapped in a body heavily scared after surviving a heatseeker attack in Syria.

His eyes, ears, right leg and an arm have all been a heavy price he paid for partaking in the Aleppo proxy war.

Despite the morbid outcome, H.A. feels like he’s been blessed with him being one of the only three of his platoon of 15 that survived the attack.

Recalling the 2013 recruitment campaign which hit his impoverished neighborhood, H.A. tells Asharq Al-Awsat that in a not so lucky day he picked up a flyer enlisting fighters for ‘Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba,’ an extremist militia which was founded by the ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)’ defector Sheikh Akram Al-Kaabi .

“The way to volunteer was to either simply call the contact information found on the flyers, or to get an in on the militia through around the block members– and I chose the latter,” said A.H.

He then recites his journey accompanied by one of his friends to the militia’s Baghdad headquarters.

In a sorrowful notion, A.H. explained that as of 2014 his family continued to plunge deeper and deeper into poverty.

Moving merchandise from a nearby market place was their family’s breadwinning job, which would bring back home 20,000 Iraqi Dinars on a good day. For a family of seven, that much money wasn’t remotely sufficient.

Lured in by the handsome paycheck at the point of enrollment, amounting to $1,400, and bought out by the emotional campaign run about the glory found in defending religious Islamic and Shi’ite shrines, A.H. found himself dragged into an outrages battlefield a thousand miles away from home.

Speaking about the life-defining moment when he decided to March to Syria, A.H. said that it looked like an easy win-win situation for him given the much needed cash, the chance to fight for a cause and against shrine-desecrating terrorists, and last but not least, the fact that he had no wife and children make parting all the more challenging.

A.H. also made not of the fact that he received close-to-zero education, leaving him with the bare minimum literacy, but it was enough to read the flyers.

After arriving to the headquarters, A.H. says that they were admitted on spot, delivered their luggage and prepared papers to travel to Iran first, then be deployed to Syria battlefields.

He noted that most volunteers were young and come from underprivileged slums in Baghdad and some other provinces.
“The next day after arriving at the headquarters, movement high-ranking members were waiting for us with five transport buses, with the boarding capacity of 40 people,” he said.

“We then headed us to Basra, where Iraq shares borders with Iran.”

Most of the new recruits heading to Basra did not even need an official passport , an identification piece was more than sufficient to cross borders.

“No one stood in our way until we reached Iran.”

Recruits then boarded a plane at an Iranian airport, later finding themselves at Iranian founded training boot camps south of Damascus, said the ex- Nujaba recruit.

Eventually becoming cannon fodder, they were transported to an Aleppo stronghold for Iranian-backed militias.
“Iranian trainers put us in an intensive 15-day training course on light weapons, and then we were taken to the fighting in Tel al-Ais, in the countryside of Aleppo,” he said.

Feeling misled by the recruitment campaign, as he was promised to defend sacred shrines and land near Damascus, A.H. said that he felt short to deceived.

“I felt a bit of fear, and I felt early that we had been subjected to some sort of deception. We were supposed to defend the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, so we are fighting hundreds of kilometers away,” he said.

Jasmine City Puts on Miles with Unparalleled Neglect,War

Stalls are seen on a street beside damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo

Damascus- Six years into a devastating war, Damascus plunged into the darkness of neglect and waste accumulating in its slums and upper-class neighborhoods.

The city which once the sweet scent of jasmine was bursting all across its streets, now has a sickening reek of sewage poisoning its fresh air. And not stopping at that, the spread of homelessness and begging has taken toll over the once booming capital.

The streets of the center of the city have been neglected as the number of popular street kiosks has increased despite many attempts by authorities to remove them. Failing each time to gauge the influence of their owners, it shows that the street-trade counters are owned by highly ranking regime figures.

Degrading environmental sanitation, unregulated stall activity led to the accelerated cramming of medium-sized waste containers distributed.

Plastic wastes and perishables line up heavily on the sidewalks.

More so, it is near impossible to miss the hundreds of roadblocks and cement blocks set up by security forces and pro-regime militias on the streets. It is also common to see sidewalks in the old neighborhoods of Damascus without paving stones after them being dismantled to maintain electricity and sewage networks.

Damascus’ main river, Barada, had its fair share of distortion, turning into a stream of pungent odors; resembling more a sewerage and less a river.

The Syrian capital is likely the largest city of Syria, following the decline in population of Aleppo due to war.

It is also known in Syria as ‘ash-Sham’ and nicknamed as the City of Jasmine. In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Although Damascus was once also known as the city of light, being introduced to electricity in 1907, many of its residents and visitors today have negated that title, calling the city the ‘City of Darkness’ as power outage became a daily challenge.

At Aleppo’s Historic Baron Hotel, Nostalgia for a Syria Lost


Aleppo – On the terrace of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, the owner’s widow, Roubina Tashjian, sorted through old photographs of its happier past in a more peaceful Syria.

Founded by an Armenian family in 1911, the Baron played host to adventurers, writers, kings, aviators, Bedouin chiefs and presidents until war forced it to close five years ago, said a Reuters report.

Tashjian sees the Baron as part of a Syria that values religious and ethnic diversity, openness to the outside world, culture and respect for the country’s great antiquities.

“A Syrian is a mixture of all these ethnic groups and cultures … this is a big pot and it’s all mixed up. But we cook the same kibbeh,” she said, referring to a Levantine dish.

Trying to revive that vision of Syria amid a war that has aggravated social fractures would involve reconciliation between political opponents, religious sects and economic classes.

But with hundreds of thousands dead, more than half the country’s pre-war population displaced and fighting ongoing, there seems little hope of that for now.

For the Baron, whose business depended on stability, safety and the draw of Syria’s cultural treasures, the 2011 uprising was a catastrophic assault on everything that allowed it to thrive.

During most of the fighting, Aleppo’s regime-held western districts were subjected to shellfire, an influx of refugees and shortages of water, electricity and food.

East Aleppo, held by rebels until December when regime forces swept through it after months of siege and air raids, was left all but a wasteland.

The Baron, in west Aleppo near the front line, was hit by mortar bombs, including one that sprayed shrapnel across an upper floor and another that crashed through the window of its “Oriental Room” onto delicate floor tiles but failed to explode.

The tail fin from that round now sits in the Baron’s cabinet of curiosities alongside such relics as pottery given by visiting archaeologists and T.E. Lawrence’s hotel bill.

In the upstairs room she always took during her frequent stays in Aleppo stands the glass-topped wooden desk where Agatha Christie wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express.

For supporters of regime leader Bashar al-Assad it is the fault of rebels they describe as terrorists, viewing them as extremist militants who despise diversity and criminal gangs who loot cultural treasures.

But any characterization of Assad’s Syria as diverse, secular, open and tolerant is rejected by the opposition, as well as some Western countries and rights groups. Critics say Syria’s regime has long been one of the most oppressive in the Middle East and this was a root cause of the war.

While the regime has promoted the idea of a secular Syria throughout the war, the conflict’s sectarian edge has been hard to miss.

As rebels rallied around Islamist slogans, Assad drew on allies including Shi’ite Islamist militias backed by Iran. They played a big part in the campaign to retake eastern Aleppo, reported Reuters.

In the city, the conflict’s socio-economic dimensions are readily apparent. Areas where the rebellion was strongest included places bypassed by economic growth and poor quarters to which rural people flocked.

In the Baron, the wood-panelled dining room, the bar stocked with antique bottles, the pink furniture of the high-ceilinged smoking room and the bedrooms all seem worn and tired.

It stopped taking paying guests in 2012 – bar a few old friends – when Syria’s civil war came to Aleppo and mortars and sniper fire began to plague the streets around.

Tashjian, a 66-year-old former teacher, chases away street kittens that creep through broken french windows into the dining room and tries to keep the mostly deserted hotel from falling further into disrepair in a city with little electricity or water.

Her husband, Armen Mazloumian, the grandson of the hotel’s founder, died in 2016, two years after they married following a 30-year friendship. The Baron now belongs to his sisters, who left Syria years earlier, she said.

On the terrace from which Egypt’s nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser once addressed a huge crowd, the boxes of old photographs were surrounded by other detritus recently hauled from a basement after the fighting abated.

Kilims, antique sewing machines, a set of 1950s towels and moldering linen imported from Europe and embroidered with the hotel’s name, cascaded from large rattan trunks.

During the fighting, the hotel took in refugee families from east Aleppo. While they were there they used so much water cleaning the floors of their rooms each morning that the elegant geometric tiles were damaged, Tashjian said.

In the late afternoon heat, the hotel is cooled by a breeze that drifts in through broken windows on the ground floor and up the grand staircase.

Vets Help Animals Rescued from Syria Zoo

Syria’s war was not kind to the nine animals that had been kept alive at Magic World.

As clashes became intense around the damaged amusement park near Aleppo, people struggled to find food and medicine for themselves, let alone for the wild animals in cages.

So last week, an animal charity rescued two bears, three lions, two hyenas and two tigers, driving them 1,000 kilometers to a wildlife reserve in northwestern Turkey, where they are receiving medical care in preparation for permanent homes in sanctuaries in the Netherlands and Jordan.

“There was a wonderful man who went and fed them, and he took up collections from Aleppo, from people he knew, and he had just enough food to keep some of them alive,” Eric Margolis, an American journalist and businessman who financed the rescue project, said in an interview.

“These animals are trapped,” said Dr. Amir Khalil, who heads the effort for Austria-based Four Paws. “They cannot go anywhere. It’s very difficult to supply food and medical care.”

Doctors said some of the animals, including a female tiger, are in decent shape, all things considered.

“There were some skin lesions. She had a massive load of ticks, ectoparasites,” said veterinarian Frank Goeritz. “But due to the fact that she’s still young, everything was OK.”

Others have more worrisome conditions. One of the tigers went into cardiac arrest when he was tranquilized for an exam, and was resuscitated. Both bears need root canals. One of the hyenas has cataracts and the other has end-stage kidney disease.

But with proper care, both vets are hopeful most of the animals will lead good-quality lives.

“We hope their condition will improve in the coming weeks and months,” Khalil said.

The zoo’s owner fled during battles. Some animals were killed by bombs or shells, while others were left to starve in their cages.

Ankara Hints About Military Operation Against Syrian Democratic Forces in Aleppo


Beirut, Ankara- In the past few hours, the option of a military solution advanced on the talks sponsored by Washington between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Ankara-backed opposition factions in the countryside of northern Aleppo.

While all efforts failed to reach a deal in which Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) would hand over Arab-majority villages to Liwa al-Mutassim, Ankara decided to allude about a military operation, even if such a decision was still not final.

A military opposition source in north Syria told Asharq Al-Awsat that Turkey has not yet informed the factions fighting in the countryside of Aleppo about its decision to open a combat in the face of the SDF. However, the source said that such an operation could kick off at any time.

“Turkey granted the SDF two much time to withdraw from the Arab villages it entered. There was even an agreement in the past months to hand over those villages to Liwa al-Mutassim. However, the Kurdish forces withdrew from the deal,” the source said.

The source also said that “Ankara sent reinforcements to the countryside of northern Aleppo in a first step towards the start of a military operation,” adding that “in case the battle kicks off, it would not be managed by the same operation room that handled the Euphrates Shield operations.

“There is a new and independent operation room,” the source said.

Meanwhile, a leading Kurdish official said his forces refuse to hand over any area, village or farm previously liberated by the SDF to Turkey, the Syrian regime or the opposition factions.

“We will not back out of our decision,” the official told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Kurdish source warned that in case any force or group advances towards SDF-controlled areas, those forces would be treated as an occupying power.

Ankara Intervenes to Halt FSA Infighting in Syria’s al-Bab


Beirut – The clashes that erupted between the Free Syrian Army’s Euphrates Shield unit and other factions in the Syrian city of al-Bab and others regions in the northeastern Aleppo countryside have come to a halt.

Ankara had reportedly intervened to stop the infighting that has left scored dead and injured.

The “Dorar al-Sham” network reported informed sources as saying that Turkey had intervened on Sunday night in order to stop the fighting between the “al-Hamza Brigade” and “al-Sultan Murad” factions on the one side and the “First Regiment” and “Ahrar al-Sham” on the other.

The network reported that clashes erupted when “al-Hamza Brigade” and “al-Sultan Murad” attacked “First Regiment” and “Ahrar al-Sham” positions near al-Bab north of Aleppo. Ten fighters from both sides of the attack were killed in the clashes.

The “Ahrar al-Sham” movement issued a statement saying that fighting broke out between the so-called al-Bab military council and first regiment rebels. The movement then intervened to stop the unrest, but they were instead attacked in what was seen as a plan to uproot “Ahrar al-Sham”.

It said that its positions in Abla, Awlan and Qabasin were attacked by the “al-Hamza Brigade” and “Sultan Murad” factions. The movement also accused these two Turkish-backed groups of shelling their positions in Awlan near al-Bab, resulting in many injuries among its members.

Military sources told the “Ahrar al-Sham” network that there was a plot to remove the movement from areas that have been recently liberated from ISIS.

The al-Bab city coordination authority also reported on the infighting among the Free Syrian Army factions, urging calm and restraint. It also demanded the formation of a judicial body that can investigate the claims and accusation made by both sides of the fighting.

It stressed the need for the voice of “reason to prevail over the fighting that creates divisions in society and depletes the revolution.”

Syria Regime Says ISIS ‘Minister of War’ killed

Syrian forces said on Wednesday they had killed ISIS’ “minister of war” among other senior figures in the terrorist organization in operations in northern Syria.

A Syrian source cited by regime media identified the war minister as Abu Musab al-Masri, without saying exactly when or where he was killed.

He was named among 13 senior ISIS figures killed in Syrian operations east of the city of Aleppo.

A previous ISIS minister of war, Abu Omar al-Shishani, died last year. The Pentagon said Shishani was likely to have been killed in a US air strike in Syria.

The jihadist group confirmed his death in July but said he had died fighting in the Iraqi city of Shirqat south of Mosul.

ISIS faces separate campaigns in northern Syria by the Russian-backed Syrian regime forces, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and Turkey-backed rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner.

Baghdad-based ISIS expert Hisham al-Hashimi said the death of Masri, if confirmed, would be a “significant blow to the terrorist group ahead of the battle of Raqqa”. He said al-Masri was the fourth most senior figure in the organisation.

Also Wednesday, Syrian regime forces carried out a series of airstrikes on the southern city of Daraa that has been declared a safe zone under a recent Russia-sponsored deal, opposition activists and an independent monitor said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces carried out at least 12 airstrikes and dropped at least nine barrel bombs on rebel-held parts of Daraa as intense clashes with fighters, including members of Levant Liberation Committee, continued in the city’s Manshiyeh neighborhood.

The monitoring group added that at least two rockets were launched by regime forces in the area.

Iran Plans to Secure Corridor towards Mediterranean


Beirut, London – Syria’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) admitted on Monday that Iran has increased its “infiltration” in Syria to protect a land corridor towards the Mediterranean Sea, at a time when the Syrian regime sent Palestinian militias to Deir Ezzor.

Last week in Geneva, the HNC handed UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura a document, seen by Asharq Al-Awsat, saying that regime forces “had issued a paper on April 6, approved by head of the regime, concerning the creation of groups that should join the Iranian forces to fight along the Assad forces.”

The document said these forces will be known by the name of “regiments for local defense in the provinces” and would increase the Iranian infiltration in Syria.

The document added: “We can now say that the Iranian presence in Syria has strategic objectives to expand Tehran’s powers in the Middle East and to secure supply lines for its arm (Hezbollah) in Lebanon, and therefore assure a permanent access point to the Mediterranean Sea.”

On Sunday, reports said Iranian militias affiliated with the Syrian regime had continued to infiltrate the desert towards where the borders where Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet, to get closer to the US-linked al-Tanf military camp.

Meanwhile, reports on Monday said that groups from the Quds Brigade, also known as Liwa al-Quds, were preparing to move from Aleppo towards Deir Ezzor and Palmyra.

Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman told Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday: “Just a few days ago, groups from the Quds Brigade located in Aleppo, have started moving to participate in the Palmyra desert battles and the military operation, through which regime forces aim to advance towards the administrative borders of Deir Ezzor.”

Evacuations of Besieged Syria Towns Continue after 48-Hour Halt

The evacuation of Syrian civilians and fighters from four besieged towns, part of a Qatari-mediated swap deal between the warring sides, resumed on Friday after a two-day halt, regime media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Five buses carrying rebels and their relatives from towns in Zabadani and surrounding areas near the capital Damascus left a transit point outside Aleppo city where they had been waiting to cross into rebel territory in Idlib province in the northwest, regime media said.

Meanwhile, ten of the 45 buses carrying people from the rebel-encircled Shi’ite towns of al-Fua and Kefraya arrived in Aleppo city, which is under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Thousands of evacuees from the two Shi’ite towns have been stranded for two days at a second nearby staging area outside Aleppo, where scores of people were killed on Saturday in a bomb attack on an evacuation convoy.

Dozens of armed rebels were on Friday guarding the buses at Rashidin for fear of another attack.

The Britain-based Observatory said the 48-hour suspension was due to rebel demands for the regime to free 750 prisoners as part of the agreement.

The war monitor said it remained unclear if authorities had released the prisoners.

Under the deal, thousands of rebels and civilians have been moved out of Zabadani and Madaya, which have long been under siege by pro-regime forces, mainly Lebanon’s “Hezbollah.” They departed for Idlib, bringing the two towns near Damascus under regime control.

In exchange, thousands of civilians and pro-regime militants were moved out of al-Fua and Kefraya, besieged by rebel groups in Idlib.

Asharq Al-Awsat has learned that Qatar accepted the mediation in order to secure the release of its abducted nationals in Iraq.

The Qataris were kidnapped on December 16, 2015 from a desert hunting party in the province of Muthanna in Iraq.

Six Killed in Aleppo Bombing as Evacuation of 4 Syrian Towns Resumes


Six people were killed and dozens others wounded in a blast that rocked the northern Syrian city of Aleppo at a time when a complex evacuation deal was being carried out a few kilometers away in Rashidin, a southwestern suburb of the city.

Syrian state TV said an explosive device went off in the northern city of Aleppo, killing six people and wounding 30 others.

It did not provide further details on Wednesday’s blast in the regime-held Salaheddin neighborhood. Opposition media groups, including Aleppo Today, said the explosion occurred near a mosque during the funeral of a regime fighter.

Aleppo was divided between regime and rebel-held districts for years, but regime forces managed to drive rebels from the city in December with a Russian-backed offensive. Some contested areas remain.

Meanwhile, the widely criticized evacuation of thousands of Syrians from four besieged areas resumed Wednesday, state media and activists said, days after a bombing killed more than 120 evacuees and delayed the population transfer.

The Central Military Media said 3,000 residents of two pro-regime villages, Foua and Kafarya, left Wednesday in 45 buses bound for regime-controlled Aleppo. Another 11 buses carrying some 500 people, including opposition fighters, left Madaya and Zabadani, near Damascus, heading toward the northern rebel-held Idlib province.

The opposition-run Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the transfer, which it said includes 800 armed men from both the rebels and regime. Some 160, mostly gunmen, had remained in Zabadani.

“The process has resumed with 3,000 people leaving Foua and Kafraya at dawn and nearly 300 leaving Zabadani and two other rebel-held areas,” the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

Security was tightened up for Wednesday’s departures. Several dozen armed rebel fighters stood guard over the marshalling area where the buses were parked.

The AFP correspondent said all other vehicles were carefully searched.

After repeated delays, the first phase of the deal began on Friday. Some 30 hours after the first two batches reached exchange points, a massive explosion struck near buses carrying evacuees from the pro-regime areas, killing more than 120, mostly women and children. Many of the rebel fighters who guarded the buses were also killed. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which the regime blamed on the rebels.

The transfer deal is not overseen by the United Nations. Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, rewards siege tactics and amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines.

All four areas have been under siege for years, their fate linked through a series of reciprocal agreements that the UN says have hindered aid deliveries.