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.

UNSC Reviews Syria’s Humanitarian Condition amid Divisions

UNSC

New York – United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien briefed the UN Security Council on the exasperating humanitarian situation in Syria on Thursday.

O’Brien’s speech focused on the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Syria, as the conflict leaves behind more victims and displaced civilians escaping the violence.

A political solution would key in alleviating the suffering of Syrians worldwide.

“The Secretary-General has said time and again that there will be no military end to this conflict. Yet, military might continues to be used against civilians in a way that defies all reason, let alone morality or the law,” O’Brien told the Security Council.

He said that the use of “abhorrent chemical weapons” on 4 April in Khan Shaykhun was yet another horrific account of such brutality.

“I wish I could say mindless brutality – but no, it was deliberate, planned, predetermined, by other humans against their own fellow human beings, sheer unbridled cruelty by leaders and commanders. And we await the investigation to confirm which ones.”

“The humanitarian situation is deteriorating, if that were possible, and the need for active engagement by members of the [Security] Council is urgently needed,” he said.

In the same context, the British representative at the session criticized Russia’s support of Syri’sBashar al-Assad and his regime, which curbed the Council’s capacity to pressure regime forces to stop the bloodshed, and allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians.

Russia’s deputy described members’ remarks on regime forces curbing aid as hypothetical, pointing out that the humanitarian convoys in Syria face risks, so some pro-regime military accompanies them for protection.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley urged the UN Security Council on Thursday to ratchet up pressure on Russia to end sieges in Syria and help advance peace talks.

“All eyes and all pressure now need to go to Russia, because they are the ones who could stop this if they wanted to,” Haley told a council meeting on the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Haley argued that years of appeals to Assad to allow aid deliveries to reach civilians in besieged areas had failed and that the focus must now squarely be on the Syrian regime’s main ally.

The core needs of the Syrian people from the international community remain largely unchanged, noting that they include the protection of civilians by all parties to the conflict; immediate, unimpeded and sustained access to all in need throughout Syria; an immediate lifting of all sieges; and a political solution to the conflict.

In besieged eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, civilians remain trapped amid reports of relentless shelling, airstrikes, and ground fighting, he said, noting that the last informal access routes have reportedly been closed further restricting movement for the some 400,000 people who live in the area, and who the UN has been unable to access since October last year.

Saudi Woman, Two Syrians Arrested in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Woman, Two Syrians Arrested in Saudi Arabia

Riyadh- Saudi judiciary sentenced on Wednesday a Saudi citizen to six years in prison and banned her from traveling for supporting ISIS and seeking to join it.

Saudi authorities foiled her attempt to travel to Syria with her children, through Yemen, and arrested her in the border area with Yemen.

Saudi judiciary also issued verdicts against two Syrians, who coordinated with her using social media.

The convict, a Saudi national, confirmed her support for ISIS and admitted that she was planning to travel illegally with her children and the third convict, Syrian national, through Yemen to reach Syria.

She resided with her children and the Syrian national in Najran for about one month before they decided to leave the city to Syria.

She coordinated with someone through social media and paid the other convict around SR 33,000 to help her travel.

The Saudi court decided to imprison the citizen for six years, close her account on social media and prevent her from traveling abroad for six years after the date of her sentence.

Notably, Saudi authorities foiled several attempts from extremists to convince a number of men and women to join terrorist organizations and facilitate their departure by helping them travel illegally through Yemen.

The Syrian national convict admitted the role he played in helping the woman leave from Jeddah to Najran with her children in preparation for sending them to Syria.

Thus, the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court decided to imprison him for five years and expel him from the country after the liquidation of his rights.

Syrian Opposition Makes Advances in Eastern Ghouta

The Syrian regime has increased the pace of its military operations in the area of Wadi Barada which is situated in the north-western countryside of the capital Damascus. It has launched violent attacks, in coordination with Hezbollah fighters and militants loyal to it, on locations occupied by opposition factions in Ain Al-Fijah and the town of Ifrah in an attempt to crack down on the region and regain control of towns in Wadi Barada. Meanwhile, the opposition continue to advance, albeit slowly, in eastern Ghouta and they managed to kill a number of Syrian soldiers after tunnels used by Assad’s forces near the city of Harasta were bombed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the clashes that took place yesterday were concentrated in the vicinity of Ain Al-Fijah and on the Kafeer Al-Zayt and Wadi Allouz fronts. It added that the clashes occurred at the same time as “strikes carried out by warplanes and helicopters on the village of Ain Al-Fijah and the area surrounding it”. The observatory also said that the regime’s forces “targeted the area where the clashes were taking place with ground- to-ground missiles that it launched from its positions overlooking Wadi Barada”.

An activist in Damascus named Diaa Husseini said that “attacks carried out by the regime and its allies focused, in the last few hours, on the towns of Ain Al-Fijah, Deir Muqrin, Ifrah and Kafeer Al-Zayt”. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the regime is giving the factions two options; either they lay down their arms and become displaced or they will continue to be bombed and the dire humanitarian situation will deteriorate.

Opinion: Russia’s Options – Fighting or Negotiations

The Russian plane and the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey are events that are not deemed critical enough to make the Kremlin change its policies. Rather, the continuation of regional and international conflict and the insistence of the opposition on war are two factors that are more important and significant. Even after Aleppo fell, and the Russians, Iranians and the Syrian regime’s forces captured it, the opposition did not raise white flags, and everything we see indicates that we will begin another year without celebrating a real triumph.

In addition to the Russian authority’s interest in holding propaganda motivated celebrations in areas that it has captured in Syria, it also appears to be keen on cleaning up and reinstating orderliness to the Syrian regime under the umbrella of negotiations for a political solution, a task which seems unlikely to succeed so far.

In recent days, I have tried to understand the nature of the upcoming Russian approach and what direction it will go in after recent major events. The fall of Aleppo and the end of Barack Obama’s presidency in Washington means one of two things. It could mean that Moscow is determined to continue with the war, enable the Syrian and Iranian regimes to regain all of Syria and achieve complete victory by force which will make next year another year of war. Alternatively, it could mean that Russia wants to impose an intermediate political solution that takes advantage of its military presence. After all, its power saved the Syrian and Iranian regimes from being defeated in the war after it entered with its intelligence services, air force and involvement in diplomacy at the Security Council.

In this regard, I have heard two contradictory opinions. One confirms that Moscow is ready to do what Washington failed to do – bring together two warring sides, the Syrian opposition and the regime, and form a mixed government that discards the marks of the two sides. The other opinion refutes this and insists that Moscow has not changed any details of the proposal that it put forward two years ago; a regime led by Assad that gives marginal positions to the opposition and promises to reduce the influence of the central authority on opposition-held areas.

The latter solution confirms the authority of Assad because all future promises regarding elections and the independent powers of provinces are delusive temptations from a repressive regime that did not hesitate to kill and displace millions of people.

One of the people whom I was listening to said that the Syrian opposition has become ineffective since Turkey retreated and that it has accepted the results of the war in Aleppo. He also said that Ankara now considers it a priority to fight Kurdish separatists and ISIS, and accordingly the opposition must accept whatever prominent powers are generous enough to offer it at the negotiation table.

Some are of the opinion that the situation in Syria has imposed itself on countries in the region, including Turkey and the Gulf countries, and that the countries in the region did not invent the crisis. Therefore, the lights won’t go out simply because the rebels have left Aleppo or because Turkey has stopped supporting the Syrian opposition.

One-third of Syria remains outside the control of the Syrian regime. A part of this area is strategic such as the Damascus countryside which the Syrian regime’s forces and Iranian militias have started to bomb again. Thousands of fighters, whether they are members of the armed Syrian opposition or terrorist groups, will make the plan for negotiations and the imposition of a Russian or Iranian formula for governance difficult to implement on the ground, unless they include a minimum of the main political demands.

Even if Russian negotiators really decide to adopt a moderate solution and present appropriate suggestions to the opposition, this will mean the possibility of an end to the war. What would remain are terrorist groups that are deterrable if there is popular support for the political solution.

We cannot be certain about the direction of events during the coming weeks, but there is no doubt that for now, only Russia and neither Washington nor Iran will decide, as it is capable of pushing matters towards a continuation of fighting or an end to the war.

I do not expect that even Iran, despite its strong commitment to the Syrian regime, is interested in the continuation of the war that has cost it a lot at home and abroad. Iran is aware that it has failed to bring the war to an end and that this has forced it to rely on Russia’s power. The regime in Tehran will find that returning with half a victory is better than continuing to fight in the middle of a region that is completely hostile to it.

Emergency UN Security Council Meeting Criticises Russia’s Role in Aleppo

An unexpected emergency UN Security Council meeting was held yesterday after there was an increase in violence in Aleppo yesterday that was caused by the Syrian regime’s forces and militias affiliated to them advancing on the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo that are under the control of the opposition. The meeting was held at the request of France.

The Permanent Representative of France to the United Nation Francois Delattre said that France requested an immediate Security Council meeting to discuss the situation in Aleppo “where the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century is unfolding before our eyes”. Delattre said in a press statement that we must “stop the bloodshed, evacuate populations safely and assist those in need”.

When asked about the purpose of this call for a meeting, Delattre emphasised that Russia “has the means to put pressure on the Syrian regime to stop this massacre” in eastern Aleppo. The French Representative to the UN added that this crisis has put the UN’s credibility at stake and may encourage “the terrorists”. He also warned that “the worst is not necessarily behind us, and other massacres committed in cold blood may take place”.

The Permanent Representative of the UK to the UN Matthew Rycroft demanded that Russia “change its position” and stop blocking western initiatives to reach a political solution in Syria. He said that Aleppo is witnessing “a dark day” and that “there are laws of war and all of these rules have been breached in Aleppo”.

The Permanent Representative of the US to the UN Samantha Power demanded that “neutral international observers” be deployed to Aleppo to ensure that civilians are evacuated “completely safely”.

In her speech to the Security Council, Power said that the civilians who want to get out of the eastern districts of Aleppo “are afraid, and rightly so, of being killed on the road or from being transferred to a prison camp”. However, her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin had a completely different account of the situation in Aleppo to that of the UN and other members of the Security Council.

During the emergency meeting, Churkin said that the Syrian army backed by Moscow liberated the city, dozens of schools, care homes for the elderly and places of worship from the grip of terrorists. He also added that there is no evidence that Syrian forces killed the dead people in the streets.

Opinion: Iran’s Dilemma After Aleppo

There are more than 70,000 Iranian troops in Syria and some estimates are double that figure. These troops include militias that the Iranian regime brought in from throughout the region and whose expenses it pays for. They have been fighting to gain control of Aleppo and are now on the verge of doing that by destroying the east of the city. They are progressing under Russian bombardment that is targeting civilians, and have assigned the Assad regime’s planes with the task of dropping chemical bombs and chlorine gas in order to empty areas before advancing on and occupying them.

I’m not going to deny the possibility that Aleppo will fall or the impossibility of expelling ISIS from Raqqa, but I aim to clarify the true reality as opposed to the propaganda in Syria. This is because the war in Syria is deeper and more complex.

Even if the Iranians and Assad’s forces seize eastern Aleppo, Syria will not become stable and surrender to the regime that has been fighting for five years because it will take many years for the regime to impose its presence and this is doubtful. This makes us wonder about the wisdom behind the actions of the Syrian regime’s allies – Iran and Russia. Do they intend to continue to support the regime on the ground with the same amount of force and incur losses during the future so that it stays in power? Do they prefer the war to continue for years over a political solution which would represent a mutual concession – a mixed regime composed of the old one and the opposition but without the current leadership?

What will the Iranians and Russians do after they have seized eastern Aleppo that has been ruined by crazy bombardment which has caused most of the population to leave? Will they spend 2017, which is fast approaching, fighting to take over the remaining Syrian towns including the Damascus countryside which is still partly under the control of the rebels?

What will happen after that? How will the Syrian regime rule a state that has been torn apart and is filled with fighters against it whilst its troops form only 30 per cent of the current forces? The other forces are made up of Iranian troops and militias brought over from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere! Does Iran intend to keep foreign and sectarian militias in Syria during the coming years in order to stabilise Assad’s rule? There is no doubt that the presence of sectarian militias will be a magnet for more fighters from the region and the world and that the war will continue.

This is the dilemma that the regime in Iran discovered too late; if it is victorious and leaves, the regime in Damascus will fall. If it continues with its military presence, the war will continue with its costs and its internal dangers to the Iranian regime.

Why are the invaders overdoing the celebrations in the outskirts of Aleppo these days and giving the impression that the war is ending? This is because they need to raise morale within their own countries; Iran and Russia, and amongst the Lebanese Hezbollah’s militias, the Iraqi Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq militias and others. The propaganda is directed at their people and the world who have been watching this conflict for a long time and who have failed to attain victory despite being heavily armed as opposed to the opposition that does not have quality weapons.

The Iranians are more aware than the Russians that they are involved in this failed war and that even if they win the current rounds of it, the war will continue and will finally force them to accept what they continue to oppose and fight against – a political solution. As for their Russian allies who see the fighting in Syria from the perspective of international conflict, they will have no objection to a sudden withdrawal, just as they entered suddenly without considering the consequences of that for Damascus and Tehran.

Current Iranian policy in the region seems different from that of the past; it seems as though the Iranians care about rapid gains, having previously been known to have a long-term strategy. We see this in Iran’s insistence on engaging in fighting in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as well, even though there is nothing in those countries that guarantees that the Iranians will achieve conclusive victories. The fighting in Syria will continue and peace will not be restored in Iraq because Iran is building sectarian forces. Likewise, the pro-Iranian group in Yemen, the Houthis, is too small to achieve victory in the conflict there, although it was able to bring about chaos.

Other countries in the region may not say anything about the defeat in Aleppo, but they know that the Syrian pit is deep and that Iran will not come out of it except by paying a high price.

Turkish Sources Deny Allegations That Syrian Refugees Are Being Killed

Turkish diplomatic and security sources denied reports stating that dozens of Syrian refugees including women and children were killed as they tried to cross into Turkish territory in order to escape the fighting in the areas that they inhabited in Syria.

The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that these allegations were not true and that they are merely attempts to discredit the role played by Turkey in receiving Syrians fleeing areas of conflict in their country. The sources stressed that Turkey’s doors to refugees from Syria and Iraq are open, just as they were open previously in similar circumstances. They also stressed that Turkey hosts nearly 3 million refugees, including 2,700,000 or more Syrians and tries to provide them with a decent life despite not receiving adequate aid from either the European Union or the international community in general.

The sources pointed out that this is one of the principles of Turkish policy in dealing with humanitarian crises and that Turkey does not close its doors in the faces of those fleeing to it because of the tragic situation in the areas of conflict in their country. Rather, the sources added, it makes every effort to provide aid to needy people in Syria and Iraq on the basis that they are from neighbouring countries.

Security sources confirmed that troops stationed on the borders of Turkey do not shoot directly at those trying to cross the border and only shoot warning shots. They also arrest smugglers and those trying to enter Turkey illegally whilst Syrians coming from areas where there is conflict are given special treatment.

Syrian Opposition Resists an Attack by Iranian Fighters in Eastern Aleppo

Syrian opposition factions yesterday resisted attacks carried out by the Syrian regime’s forces and its allies to expand the area that they control in besieged neighbourhoods in eastern Aleppo. They were able to regain the lead on more than one front by seizing areas that they had lost last week, and this coincided with an increase in the loss of Russian lives and equipment in Syria.

The military spokesman for the Fastaqim Kama Umirt group Ammar Saqqar said that “the Syrian regime, the Russians and the Iranians yesterday prepared a massing of troops to storm the western part of eastern Aleppo, specifically the neighbourhoods of Al-Iza’ah and Jubb Al-Jalabi. However, the Syrian opposition resisted them and inflicted great loss of life and equipment on them”. In a statement that he made to Asharq Al-Awsat, he said that most of the attacking forces were Iranian and not Syrian. He added “We were also able to confirm that Russian soldiers were on the field. They were not fighting but were managing back line operations”.

The German Press Agency (DPA) quoted an “Army of Aleppo” military commander as saying that it had “regained control of the Eye Hospital in the Qadi Askar neighbourhood after violent clashes with the regime’s forces”. He also pointed out that more than 20 soldiers belonging to the regime’s forces were killed in a bombing that took place in the Maysir district, 15 others were killed in battles near the Eye Hospital and the areas of Karam Al-Turab and Al-Qatarji and a group of others from the Syrian regime were detained.

In contrast, the Russian news agency Sputnik said that “the Syrian regime’s forces and its allies continue to advance at the cost of armed opposition factions in Aleppo, northern Syria”. The agency also alluded to the Syrian regime’s control of more eastern neighbourhoods after fierce battles took place between the two sides and amidst Russian – Syrian air strikes.

A military source on the ground told the Russian agency that the regime’s forces “have seized control of the neighbourhoods Karam Al-Turab and Al-Qatarji and the Eye Hospital that were considered to be Jabhat Fath Al-Sham’s most important strongholds.”

Masses of People Leave Eastern Aleppo

“There are still corpses in the streets, there are wounded people everywhere and hunger is killing those civilians that remain. I do not know if the term “humanitarian disaster” is sufficient to describe the situation of the city, but the reality is worse than can be described in words.”

The above is a description of the situation in the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo that is situated in northern Syria. The description was made by a prominent Syrian opposition activist named Hadi Al-Abdullah and he gave this account five days after the Syrian regime and its allies launched a major offensive on the city through which they were able to make advances into the areas that have been controlled by the Syrian opposition since 2012.

Al-Abdullah said that opposition factions remain devoted to fighting but said that “all options remain open” with regards to the possibility that they might accept to withdraw at a later time or continue with the fighting. He added that “there are a number of reasons for the opposition’s withdrawal in the city; the most prominent of these is the unprecedented bombing in the south, the fact that hospitals have been bombed and taken out of service as a result and wounded people are unable to leave for treatment. This has led to the collapse of both citizens and fighters’ morale, and has naturally led to withdrawal from some neighbourhoods. He continued by saying “As for talk of the military fall of the city, this is incorrect considering that the regime does not control more than 18% of Aleppo”.

The director of the Free Aleppo Health Directorate Abdelbasset Ibrahim said in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat that “the situation in the city is going from bad to worse” and pointed out that “the wounded are dying in the streets because we are unable to save them”. He continued by saying “More than 50 women and children were killed in one place.”