Government Blackout on Markets’ Fires in Damascus

Damascus- Once again, fires are swallowing up archaeological sites in Old Damascus amidst authorities’ discretion towards the real causes and with accusation against Iran of causing the fires to seize the region, with the complicity of the regime.

The last fire, believed not to be the least, flared up at the evening of October 1 in Al-Asrounieh Market, meters away from the Umayyad Mosque from the south-east, Al-Hamidiyah Souq from the north while the Citadel of Damascus lays at the south and Al-Manakhlia Market at the west.

As reported in a social network, the news was restricted to the following: Fire flares up in Al-Asrounieh Market in Old Damascus for an anonymous reason, and there are no casualties.

This market, which includes hundreds of stores and is considered a vital market in Damascus, is specialized in selling necessities of kitchens and women from perfumes, makeup, and kids’ toys. Its name attributes to the historian Ibn Abi Asroun while other historians say its name goes back to the fact that the market always becomes busy in the “afternoon” which is equivalent to the Arabic word “aser”.

Since the beginning of the war, towns and markets of Old Damascus have been witnessing a widespread of militias that are supported by Iran under the pretext of defending shrines.

Despite the reservation of the majority of stores’ owners towards the new fire out of security fears, someone stood out and revealed what he knows to Asharq Al-Awsat: “It is certain that the fire is intentional by pro-Iran individuals to lay their hands on the economic center of Damascus. How did this fire occur with all the widespread of Iranian militias and security members? Why don’t they interfere when there are fires?”

This fire is the third of its kind after the last one that took black back in December which burned 10 stores and two warehouses. Back then, stores’ owners affirmed that militants made up a fire on Thursday, followed by another one on Friday.

Regime forces claimed that the reason was a short circuit.

Suicide Attacks Hit Damascus Police Center

Three suicide bombers blew themselves up near the police headquarters in central Damascus on Wednesday, Syrian state media said, in the second such attack to hit the capital this month. Terror group ISIS later claimed that attack.

The blasts killed one person and injured six others, state television said, citing the interior ministry.
The suicide bombers tried to storm the police command center and clashed with guards before detonating explosive belts at the entrance, it said.

The police cornered the third attacker behind the building, where he blew himself up on the street, state media added.

Earlier this month, suicide bombers struck a police station in another part of the capital, with 17 people reported dead.

On that note, Syria’s Kurds were reportedly cited as ‘competitive’ against the pro-regime forces, seeking control over oil-producing areas, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Wednesday.

“They (the Kurds) know well that Syria will not allow its sovereignty to be violated under any conditions,” Moualem told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“They are now drunk on US assistance and support. But they need to understand that this assistance won’t last forever.”

US-Backed Syrian Opposition Say Won’t Allow Regime Forces to Cross Euphrates River

US-backed Syrian opposition factions will not let forces backing the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad cross the Euphrates River in their bid to recover eastern Syria, their commander said.

Syrian opposition commander Abu Khawla said a civilian administration would be set up to run areas of Deir al-Zor province being captured from ISIS by his fighters, including its oil fields. The Syrian government was “not fit to lead and rule the people”, he said.

The Deir al-Zor military council, fighting as part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has advanced toward Deir al-Zor from the eastern side of the Euphrates River since launching an offensive into the province a week ago.

Government forces, supported by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias, have simultaneously advanced into Deir al-Zor from the west. Last week, they broke an ISIS siege of the provincial capital, Deir al-Zor city, which sits on the western bank of the river.

Deir al-Zor province is ISIS’s last major foothold in Syria and Iraq. Rich in oil, it is bisected by the Euphrates River and abuts Iraq.

The Russian- and US-backed campaigns against ISIS in Syria have mostly stayed out of each other’s way as the sides seek to avoid conflict, with the Euphrates often acting as a dividing line between the sides. Talks have been underway to extend a formal demarcation line that has separated the campaigns, officials have said.

Abu Khawla warned government forces and their militia allies against firing across the river as his fighters close in – something he said had happened in recent days.

“Now we have 3 km between us and the eastern riverbank, once our forces reach the area, any shot fired into that area we will consider an attack on the military council,” he said.

Deir al-Zour-Damascus Highway in Regime’s Grip


Beirut – Syrian regime forces were able on Sunday to completely lift the siege of Deir al-Zour after controlling the international highway linking the city to Damascus.

“Regime forces were able to achieve a strategic advancement today (Sunday) by breaking the siege of neighborhoods inside Deir al-Zour,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Observatory added that regime forces arrived to the western entrance of the city, controlled the Deir al-Zour-Damascus road and crossed the Maqabir area to the Deir al-Zour military airport, only a few days after lifting the Brigade 137 siege.

The military achievement against ISIS came amid reports that at least 34 civilians were killed and several others injured when Russian warplanes attacked buses carrying civilians, who were traveling to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River near Deir al-Zour city.

The Observatory said that residents in the area were now using buses to move between the western and the eastern banks of the Euphrates River after most of the bridges over the river had been shelled during the past months.

Meanwhile, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reached on Sunday a hilltop that lies seven kilometers from the eastern bank of the Euphrates across from Deir al-Zour city, the Observatory said.

The SDF announced on Saturday it had begun clearing ISIS militants from areas east of the Euphrates.

On Sunday, their forces surprised ISIS militants in the industrial city of Deir al-Zour and were able to reach its first streets.

Director of the Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman told Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday that the real battle between ISIS and SDF forces has not yet started.

“The advancement that was achieved until now is limited to the desert areas and the hilltops in the absence of any clashes,” Abdel Rahman added.

Russian Warplanes Break Deir Ezzor Siege


Beirut- Russian warplanes allowed on Monday the Syrian regime and its allies to reach the outskirts of Deir Ezzor for the first time in three years ahead of breaking the siege in the ISIS-controlled city.

Pro-regime websites announced on Monday evening that the Syrian forces came to within 1800 meters from breaking the siege of Deir Ezzor, which populates around 93 thousand civilians.

The governor of the Deir Ezzor said that the Syrian army would reach the city by Tuesday night.

Mohammed Ibrahim Samra said on Sunday that the Syrian army will arrive at the ISIS-controlled city in 24-48 hours at the most.

A military media unit run by Hezbollah said the advancing forces were heading to the besieged military’s garrison camp on the outskirts of Deir Ezzor.

While the latest advancement was surprising, Syrian opposition sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Russian warplanes “had largely facilitated the regime’s move” towards the city of Deir Ezzor.

“The Russian warplanes participated actively in attacking the ISIS militants’ travels and in targeting their vehicles, positions and booby-trapped cars,” the sources said.

Meanwhile, reports revealed on Monday that the convoy of buses carrying ISIS militants, who had left the Qalamoun Jurud at the Syrian-Lebanese border last week as part of a deal between Hezbollah and the terrorist group, have already reached the towns of Anah and Rawa in Iraq at the border with Syria, taking shortcut roads in the Syrian desert.

The reports also revealed that their families were still trapped inside the Syrian territories.

However, military officials at the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq asserted that the convoy of 17 buses was still waiting for the seventh day under their observation near the town of Sukhnah in the desert while 6 buses from the convoy had returned to the regime-controlled city of Palmyra.

Syrian Regime Bypasses ‘Southern Truce’…Reaches Jordanian Border

Beirut- Syrian regime forces and their allies managed to capture on Thursday areas at the borders of Souweida province with Jordan, a movement considered as bypassing the west southern truce signed under a US-Russian-Jordanian patronage, including the countryside of Deraa.

“The Syrian regime-linked Team 15 in addition to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah have already reached the Syrian-Jordanian borders and controlled the areas of Bi’r Saboun-Tal Assada, reaching the entire Abu Sharshouh border crossing and border posts,” the German news agency quoted sources in the countryside of Souweida as saying.

Also, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday that the advancement made by the Syrian regime forces and their allies has ended the presence of opposition factions at the Syrian-Jordanian border, inside the administrative borders of the Souweida province.

According to the Observatory, “with this advancement, the factions are now left with no external access in east and southeast of Syria, except for a border strip on the southeast border of the Damascus countryside with Jordan, in addition to a border strip with Iraq extending over the provinces of Damascus countryside and Homs, which includes al-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq.”

Meanwhile, regime forces intensified their attacks on the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus and other areas in the Ghouta area using surface-to-surface missiles despite an agreement ratified last month in Cairo under an Egyptian-Russian brokerage to involve the city of Deraa.

The Observatory also spoke about regime forces airstrikes in the areas of al-Manasher, Zhahab, Taldo and Kfarlaha in addition to other areas in the Houla region.

“Warplanes targeted at least two villages in the Houla area causing material damage, without information about casualties, in the first such strike on the northern countryside of Homs since the Egyptian-Russian truce was put in effect last Aug. 3.”

Meanwhile, opposition-linked websites reported that several civilians were killed by the intensified regime forces shelling on the region of Houla in the countryside of north Homs, despite an announced truce in the area.

US Downs Syria Regime Jet that Targeted Kurds

Beirut- A US coalition warplane downed on Sunday evening a Syrian regime army jet as a response to attacks targeting a group of Kurdish fighters.

The coalition announced in a statement that a Syrian SU-22 jet dropped bombs near Syrian Democratic Forces positions in southern Tabqa.

“In accordance with its right to defend itself or its partnered force, the Syrian jet was immediately shot down by a US F/A-18 Super Hornet,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime said in a statement that the pilot of the downed jet was missing.

The regime statement also claimed that its jet was downed while on a mission against ISIS militants.

On Sunday evening, rare fighting erupted between regime forces and SDF fighters in two towns located 40 kilometers south of the city of Raqqa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Separately, Lebanese sources from the March 8 alliance said that “Hezbollah” is preparing for a battle to control the Syrian-Lebanese border by the end of this summer.

The “Hezbollah” battle, therefore, aims to secure the borderline stretching from the sea to the South and put it under the control of its fighters and those of the Syrian regime.

“Hezbollah is awaiting the results of some negotiations that would empty the area of Arsal’s outskirts, which the party is not allowed to enter on sectarian grounds,” the sources said.

“Even if the negotiations fail, the party has already made up its mind and is determined to resolve the situation on the border, the sources added.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced on Sunday that its paramilitary force launched surface-to-surface missiles into positions located in Syria’s Deir Ezzor.

In a statement, the Revolutionary Guards said the move came in response to the two recent attacks on Iran’s parliament and a shrine in Tehran, which were both adopted by ISIS.

Syria: Opposition Demands Comprehensive Ceasefire to Introduce Political Transformation


Beirut – The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) did not carry out any amendments regarding the delegation members to attend the negotiations in Geneva due next week.

During its meetings in Riyadh, the committee discussed the political transformation and stressed that it represents a priority in the negotiations – it also discussed demanding a comprehensive ceasefire in Syria and not only in certain areas – as stated in Astana Agreement – as well as breaking the siege and rejecting displacement.

Though the opposition pins no high hopes on this round, yet it sees that the US presence will positively affect it, especially that the representation will be on a higher-rank compared to round five. Also, the negotiations come after US-Russian meetings and agreement to activate Geneva negotiations.

Member of the High Negotiation Committee Fuad Aliko told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We don’t expect huge changes. We are aware that the mission is challenging, but we hope that the updates and international acts hold some change.”

Aliko asserted that negotiations should be resumed from where they ended in the last round, majorly at the point of political transformation.

Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the HNC, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the meetings in Riyadh discussed Geneva negotiations scheduled for next Tuesday.

Discussions underscored importance of Russian commitment to the ceasefire, knowing that Moscow is one of Astana Agreement guarantors.

Ramadan pointed out that the committee will demand not to restrict alleviating escalation to certain areas– as mentioned in Astana Agreement – but to attain a comprehensive and prompt ceasefire.

During the previous five rounds, negotiations weren’t direct between the regime and opposition delegations but through UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.

Syria’s Michael Conte, UN Special Envoy for Syria, expected no change in this regard during the sixth round.

Russia Stops Bombing Proposed Syria Safe Zones, Bans US Coalition Jets Access

Russia announced on Friday that it had ceased bombing in areas of Syria set to be designated safe zones under an agreement it inked with Iran and Turkey. However, Russia also said the proposed “de-escalation” zones in Syria will be closed to aircraft from the United States-led coalition.

“From 00:00 May 1 the use of Russian airforce aviation in areas corresponding to the de-escalation zones was halted,” senior Russian military commander Sergei Rudskoi told a news briefing.

For his part, Alexander Lavrentyev, Russia’s envoy to the peace talks in Kazakhstan, said Friday in remarks covered by Russian media that “the operation of aviation in the de-escalation zones, especially of the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged, either with notification or without,” he said. “This question is closed.”

In an effort to consolidate a fragile ceasefire, the three parties signed off on a Russian plan Thursday to establish four “de-escalation zones” in rebel-held territory of the war-torn country.

Under the pact — which Moscow said comes into force from Saturday — the three sides have a month to define the exact borders of the safe zones where fighting and air strikes should be halted.

Moscow — which is flying an air campaign in support of regime head Bashar al-Assad — said that in order to ease the deal it has stopped bombing the proposed zones.

The safety zone initiative is the latest attempt by Moscow to forge an end to the six-year conflict.
Rudskoi outlined the proposed zones in the northwestern Idlib province, the north of central Homs province, Eastern Ghouta near Damascus and an area of the south involving Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

Along the frontiers of the “de-escalation zones” will be “security zones” with checkpoints and observation posts to monitor and secure access run by the three guarantor countries.

Moscow said that it was talking to “Jordan and a number of other countries” to sign up as backers of the initiative.

Russia’s military underlined that it will keep on fighting against ISIS and the former Al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al-Nusra, including inside the “de-escalation zones”.

Rudskoi said that Syrian regime troops freed up after the safety zones come into force will be sent to fight ISIS in central and eastern Syria and along the Euphrates River with Russian air support.

Syrian Opposition Suspends Participation in Astana Peace Talks

The Syrian opposition said on Wednesday it had suspended its participation in peace talks
being held in Kazakhstan and demanded an end to government bombing of areas under its control.

A senior official from Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, however, told reporters he expected Syrian opposition figures to return to the talks on Thursday. Another diplomat close to the talks also said the rebels were not walking out completely.

“The delegation has suspended its participation after presenting a memorandum for a total commitment to stopping (regime) bombardments,” Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), said.

In the memorandum, the rebels demanded “clear implementation procedures” for matters such as enforcing a ceasefire, withdrawal of government forces from areas taken by them since Dec. 30 last year, and release of detainees.

They also again insisted on regime head Bashar Assad’s departure and objected once again to Iran’s role in the process, describing it as an “aggressor state”. Iran, along with Russia, are Assad’s main supporters against rebels trying to topple him.

In a phone call on Tuesday, United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to defuse tension arising from US air strikes on Syrian regime forces in April, expressing a wish for a ceasefire and safe zones for the civil war’s refugees.