Civilians’ Evacuation Speeds Up Liberation of Raqqa


Beirut – The global coalition against ISIS announced on Saturday brokering a deal to evacuate Raqqa from civilians, excluding the foreign members of the terrorist group, a step that would drive the Coalition-led Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces to speed up its announcement of liberating the city.

Sources said that Washington rejected that ISIS foreign-born militants be part of the deal, which stipulates the evacuation of civilians from the last pockets of Raqqa.

“The US insists that those militants either be killed or surrender,” the source said.

There are maximum 200 foreign-born militants trapped in the center of the city.

Buses had arrived on Saturday night to the village of Hawi al-Hawa, west Raqqa, to transport local members of ISIS and civilians, according to a deal reached between the SDF and ISIS, and led by the tribal Sheikhs.

Abu Mohammad al-Raqqawi, an activist in the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Asharq Al-Awsat that 90 percent of the deal has been already been completed, adding that the file is now exclusively in the hands of the Coalition.

Separately, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced on Saturday that regime forces and their allies controlled the city of Mayadeen, the last stronghold of ISIS in eastern Syria.

Although several sources confirmed the regime’s full control of the city, head of the activist-run Euphrates Post group Ahmad Ramadan told Asharq Al-Awsat that regime forces had only the neighborhoods located at the entrance of the city.

“ISIS militants are withdrawing from Mayadeen towards the town of Bukamal, on the border with Iraq,” he said.
According to Ramadan, regime forces launched more than 200 strikes on Mayadeen and had targeted the city with 200 explosive barrels, destroying 50 percent of the city.

Meanwhile, Damascus demanded on Saturday that Turkish troops immediately leave the province of Idlib in the northwest of the country.

Quoting a source from the foreign ministry, a statement carried by the Syrian official news agency SANA said “Syria condemns in the strongest possible terms the incursion of Turkish army units into Idlib province, stressing that it constitutes a blatant aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and a flagrant violation of international law.”

The source added that the Turkish aggression has nothing to do with what has been agreed upon by the guarantor states during the latest round of talks in Astana, emphasizing that Turkey should abide by provisions of Astana statement.

Turkish Forces Say Installing ‘Observation Posts’ in Syria’s Idlib

The Turkish army has begun setting up “observation posts” in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province in its efforts to create a de-escalation zone, the military said on Friday, although the move was seen partly aimed at containing the Kurdish YPG militia.

“On October 12, we began activities to establish observation posts,” the military said in a statement.

Over 100 soldiers, including special forces, and 30 armored vehicles entered Idlib, Turkey’s Hurriyet daily reported on Friday, as it speculated more troops could be sent to the province over the next few days.

Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which has ousted more moderate rebels in recent months.

The Turkish army is backing the pro-Ankara Free Syrian Army that will need to oust HTS members in the area to allow Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces implement the de-escalation zone.

The move comes after the Turkish army launched a reconnaissance mission on Sunday as part of efforts by Ankara along with Moscow and Tehran, to set up the zone in line with accords in Astana peace talks.

They agreed on four such ceasefire zones in Syria as a prelude to negotiations.

Three zones are already in place — in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, in central Homs, and in parts of southern Syria — which are being monitored by Russian military police.

However, the Turkish deployment is also intended to rein in the Kurdish YPG militia, which holds the Afrin region next to Idlib, a senior rebel official involved in the operation said.

“(It is) in line with Astana 6 resolutions to ensure the area is protected from Russian and regime bombing and to foil any attempt by the separatist YPG militias to illegally seize any territory,” said Mustafa Sejari, an official in an FSA rebel group.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed late Thursday that a military convoy of Turkish forces entered Idlib before heading towards the western part of Aleppo province.

The fourth de-escalation zone includes Idlib but also parts of the neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo regions.

Truce in Southern Damascus Brokered by Egypt

Beirut, Cairo — Three Syrian factions, including Jaysh al-Islam, signed in Cairo Thursday a ceasefire deal in the southern of Damascus to go into effect on the same day.

The deal, brokered under an Egyptian mediation, stipulates the opening of the crossings controlled by militants in the area and an end to the forced displacement of residents. It also affirmed the possibility that any militant faction would be capable to join the agreement.

The “Cairo Bawaba” website then quoted Mohamed Aloush, the head of Jaysh al-Islam’s political office as saying that the Egyptian side had pledged to lift the siege of the eastern Ghouta region to allow the entrance of aid and alleviate the suffering of residents in the region.

In addition to Jaysh al-Islam, the deal includes Jaysh Ababil and Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis.

At the battlefield, regime forces advanced in the city of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor by controlling at least four new neighborhoods during fierce battles with ISIS militants in the area.

“Regime forces, led on the ground by Russian forces, took control of at least four neighborhoods of Mayadeen,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Meanwhile, last-hours talks were ongoing to secure the exit of ISIS militants and civilians from Raqqa.

Reports published on Thursday said that announcing the near liberation of Raqqa is related to a final deal for the exit of ISIS militants from the area.

Abu Mohammad al-Raqqawi, an activist in the ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, told Asharq Al-Awsat that despite some obstacles facing the talks, there are ongoing efforts to withdraw the remaining ISIS militants from the area.

Also in Syria, Reuters quoted two rebels and a witness as saying that a first convoy of the military operation that Turkey is carrying out in Syria’s Idlib province crossed into the area late on Thursday.

The convoy included about 30 military vehicles, said Abu Khairo, a commander in a Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group based in the area, and it entered Syria near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, according to a civilian witness.

Turkey: Idlib Operation Aimed at Curbing New Refugee Wave from Syria


Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced on Tuesday that his country’s military operations in rebel-held Idlib in neighboring Syria are aimed at curbing the flow of refugees towards it.

“The reason for our activities is to prepare the groundwork and prevent a potential migrant wave into our country and lower tensions,” Yildirim told a parliamentary meeting of the ruling AK Party.

The premier also said Turkey aimed to create control points in Idlib for future deployments, and that the activities of the armed forces in Idlib would help prevent internal conflicts between civilians and militant groups in the region.

On Sunday, a Turkish army reconnaissance team scouted the Idlib province before an expected military operation to impose peace in the bitterly contested Syrian northwest.

It launched the operation on Monday after clashes were reported with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had announced the operation on Saturday.

He said that it was possible following an agreement with Russia and Iran and that it was being launched in cooperation with the Free Syrian Army.

Putin Allows Foreigners to Join Army for International Missions


Moscow – Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an amendment to the military service law that allows foreigners to serve in the Russian army.

The foreigners, serving on a contractual basis, would be allowed to take part in international security missions, said the RBK newspaper.

The daily said that the amendment does not indicate if the fighters would be engaged in missions on Russian territory, meaning that they would be contracted for foreign assignments.

Observers said that Putin’s decision primarily stemmed from the developments in Syria.

A source in Moscow said on condition of anonymity: “The current amendments are aimed at bolstering the Russian military presence in Syria and other regions in the future if the need arises.”

The measure also avoids the deployment of large numbers of Russian troops for fear of a large number of casualties in their ranks in combat missions, it explained.

RBK reported that Russian contractual military personnel are currently deployed in Russia, but the Defense Ministry did not reveal any information about the deployment of foreigners in the war-torn country.

In a related development, the Russian spy Yantar ship sailed to the eastern Mediterranean after crossing the Black Sea straits, reported Turkish sites that monitor the passage of vessels through the Bosphorus strait. It was said that the ship was headed to Victoria Port, but observers stated that that is just a ploy to cover its actual destination.

In 2015, US forces detected the Yantar while marines were carrying out drills at Kings Bay base. The Pentagon said at the time that the vessel was on a spying mission through the use of submersibles.

Russia has meanwhile not yet commented on the Turkish military operation in Syria’s Idlib province even though Turkish officials have stressed that Ankara is coordinating its operations with Moscow.

An informed source in Moscow described Russia’s silence over the issue as “strange.”

Anton Mardasov of the Russian International Affairs Council told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The official authorities do not know how to explain this issue to the public after they had previously said that Russia would counter any foreign force on Syrian territory.”

ISIS Attacks Al-Nusra in Syria’s Southern Idlib


Ankara, Beirut – The ISIS terrorist group launched a surprise offense on Monday against militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jabhat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria’s northern Hama and southern Idlib and were able to control a number of villages after infiltrating from regime-held areas.

Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS militants, who had escaped from the city of Raqqa, which is now 90 percent controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces, were currently taking refuge in the countryside of Hama and the province of Idlib.

An opposition military source revealed that ISIS terrorists, who had launched a surprise attack against HTS fighters in the countryside of northeastern Hama, came from the side of Akayrabat after crossing regime-held areas.

The source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the HTS leadership operating there had allowed those militants to enter the Rahjan village on condition of handing over their arms and joining their ranks.

However, after they arrived to the area on Sunday night with three tanks and 20 trucks, ISIS launched an unexpected attack against the HTS militants, seizing control of a number of villages there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that ISIS had taken 15 villages from Tahrir al-Sham, but that the alliance then took five of them back.

HTS, led by al Qaeda’s former affiliate the Nusra Front, said in a statement that ISIS had stormed several villages in the area and accused the Syrian regime forces of allowing it to cross regime territory.

Separately, a new rebel faction dubbed Ansar al-Furqan fi Bilad al-Sham announced its formation, vowing to fight both Turkey and the Free Syrian Army.

The new faction includes fundamentalists from “al-Muhajereen and al-Ansar” in HTS.

Meanwhile, the Turkish army announced on Monday that its reconnaissance team had commenced on Sunday scouting the territory in order to deploy troops inside the Idlib province. This is part of the military movement launched by Turkish troops to help push its forces inside Idlib and part of a joint mission with Russia and Iran to monitor a ceasefire agreement in Syria’s de-escalation zones.

Syria, Idlib, Hama, ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Turkey

Idlib Battle Kicks Off as Turkish Forces, Al-Nusra Clash

Ankara, Beirut- Turkish forces entered Idlib in northern Syrian Sunday following clashes with militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), triggering the first signs of a battle announced two days ago by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to re-impose security in the province.

The two sides exchanged fire on Syrian grounds as Ankara deployed its forces at the border before an expected military operation to oust the Qaeda-linked militants from the province of Idlib.

Field sources at the border said that Turkish tanks offered a cover for Free Syrian Army fighters on Sunday morning while the Turkish army continued moving in the province of Reyhanli in Hatay province, near the Syrian border to help push its forces inside Idlib, part of a joint mission with Russia and Iran to monitor a ceasefire agreement in Syria’s de-escalation zones.

HTS is not part of a deal brokered by the three countries for the safe zone in the province, one of four such “de-escalation” zones across Syria.

Turkish armored vehicles and troops were waiting on the border, from where smoke could be seen from the mortar fire, an AFP photographer said.

Meanwhile, talks continued on Sunday among figures close from HTS in a bid to find an exit to the crisis.

Those figures want to allow the National Rescue Government led by its newly-elected president Mohammed al-Sheikh to become the civilian representative of Tahrir al-Sham and therefore shoulder the mission of negotiation concerning Idlib to keep the terrorist stain away from the HTS.

Separately, a final assault on ISIS’ last line of defense in its former Syrian capital Raqqa should begin on Sunday night, a field commander for the US-backed forces operating there told Reuters.

The assault on militants in the center of the northern city will focus on surrounding the sports stadium there, said a field commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in western Raqqa, who gave his name as Ardal Raqqa.

Erdogan Launches Idlib Offensive, Rebel Factions Prepare to Fight Nusra Front


Ankara, Beirut – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a “major military operation” in Syria’s northwestern province Idlib.

The offensive is led by rebel factions belonging to the Free Syrian Army but with the support of Turkish forces and Russian air support to fight off Tahrir al-Sham factions, among which is al-Nusra Front.

“There’s a serious operation in Syria’s Idlib today and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party on Saturday, adding that Turkey would not allow a “terror corridor” on its border with Syria.

“For now the Free Syrian Army is carrying out the operation there,” he said. “Russia is supporting the operation from the air, and our armed forces from inside Turkey’s borders.”

Late on Saturday, Turkey deployed tanks and military vehicles on the its Syrian border, building up military presence, a Reuters witness said.

Erdogan told reporters after the meeting that Russia supports the operation from the air while supported by Turkish soldiers from within the Turkish border.

“As for the Russians, they will not have a role in the areas of our control at all. The role of the Russians is limited to areas under regime control,” he said.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran announced a deal last month to establish and patrol a “de-escalation” zone in the Idlib region, where Erdogan has said Turkey will deploy troops.

Turkey’s foreign minister said late on Saturday that Turkey aimed to prevent clashes in Idlib.

“Russian and Iranian observers will be in some regions here, and we will have our observers inside Idlib. Of course they will be in safe places so there will be no risks,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

More so, Erdogan said that his country is currently taking a new step to achieve security in Idlib as part of its efforts to expand the scope of the “Euphrates Shield”.

He pointed out to the presence of serious action currently taking place in Idlib to achieve security.

In the same context, the Turkish army deployed a large number of special forces and armored military vehicles, which were sent over the past week to the town of Reyhanlı, a town and district of Hatay Province, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, near the country’s border with Syria.

Erdogan: FSA in New Idlib Operation

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey and Syrian rebel groups it backs are starting a military operation in Syria’s Idlib province with the aim of pushing out militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that control the region.

Idlib and surrounding areas of northwest Syria are among the largest bastions for rebel groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but have increasingly fallen under the sway of insurgent factions.

Erdogan said the operation, part of a de-escalation deal agreed between Turkey, Iran and Russia, will involve Free Syrian Army groups crossing into Idlib supported by Turkish soldiers from inside Turkey’s borders.

HTS is not party to the deal. 

“There’s a serious operation in Syria’s Idlib today and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party in the western city of Afyon.

“Now this step has been taken, and it is underway,” he said, adding that Turkish forces were not yet involved and that it was a rebel operation so far.

Russia, an ally of Assad, is backing the operation from the air, he said.

Much of Idlib is controlled by the HTS alliance, spearheaded by formerly al-Nusra Front.

“We will never allow a terror corridor along our borders in Syria,” Erdogan said. “We will continue to take other initiatives after the Idlib operation.”

HTS has pledged to keep fighting Syrian regime forces and their allies, casting doubt on the de-escalation agreement, but Ankara has worked to lure militants from it, and two groups have defected from the alliance.

Renewed De-Escalation Deal in Homs, Hama’s Countryside


Beirut, Ankara — Syrian opposition factions in the countryside of Homs and Hama announced on Thursday signing a renewed “de-escalation” agreement with Russia, six weeks after the Syrian regime breached a similar deal.

A delegation of the Syrian opposition negotiators met with a Russian delegation at Al-Dar al-Kabeer crossing and agreed on an immediate ceasefire and the opening of humanitarian corridors,” a negotiation committee created by opposition factions announced on Thursday.

The delegation of opposition negotiators also submitted to the Russian side a list of over 12,000 regime-held detainees from across the province, and received “a pledge that Russia is willing to seriously work on their release.”

Leading opposition representative Osama Abu Zeid told Asharq Al-Awsat on Thursday that the agreement was preceded last week by a series of meetings held between the two sides without the presence of any representatives from the Syrian regime.

“The agreement, similar to previous agreements signed in other regions, did not include any deal concerning the deportation of civilians and armed fighters from their villages or the handing over of weapons,” Abu Zeid said.

He said that the negotiation committee told the Russian mediator that it completely rejects opening the Homs-Hama international road, which constitutes a part of the Aleppo-Damascus international railway.

However, the regime insists on opening it, prompting the opposition to note violations of the agreement only hours after it was singed.

Last August, Al-Ghad, a Syrian political opposition group based in Cairo and headed by Ahmad Jabra, brokered a deal between opposition factions and the Damascus government, sponsored by Egypt and Russia in the northern countryside of the Homs province.

However, days after the deal was announced, Syrian warplanes conducted airstrikes on agricultural regions in the area, violating the agreement.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan announced on Thursday that the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) would be positioned within Idlib.

“In the upcoming days, the relevant departments will take the necessary steps. A division of duties has been made regarding the de-escalation zones. Steps will be taken to ensure the safety and security of the residents,” Erdogan said on his return flight from a one-day trip to Iran.

The Turkish president added that TAF would be positioned within the borders of Idlib, while the Russian armed forces will be positioned outside its borders.