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.

Temporary Syrian Resolutions Could Possibly Wage New Wars

London- As ceasefire in three to four regions becomes active within pursuit to reduce escalation, the fight between Syrian regime forces and factions of the Free Syrian Army as well as other Islamic factions calmed down. However, ISIS parties – in Eastern Syria – continue to fight and Tahrir al-Sham members are moving to Idlib where they will wait for their destiny to unveil.

This doesn’t mean that the war is over since there are potential conflicts and wars in the medium and long term, especially if the stable regions weren’t included in an urgent comprehensive political solution.

South Syria

Washington considers that it has achieved a breakthrough with Moscow’s approval not to have non-Syrian troops in the south truce regions: Daraa, Qnaitra and Sweida. This means that groups supported by Iran and “Hezbollah” will withdraw 8-32 kilometers.

The Syrian south truce includes establishment of a supervision center in Amman, the opposition perseverance of its arms, determination of battle lines, commencement of trade exchange with regime regions, forming a local opposition council and possibly the return of refugees from Jordan or near the border.

However, the uncontent Israel makes war an option because this agreement has limited its warplanes capability to strike “Hezbollah” and Iranian organizations near Joulan or in the south.

Regime Forces Ambitions

Damascus plan to adopt a military resolution has not changed. It is still anticipating the opportunity to attack opposition regions and let everyone return to the state. Damascus also rejects existence of local opposition councils unlike Moscow’s stance and truce agreements.

Army and Militias

Reconstruction in regime-ruled regions has become a struggle because some Western states reject that unless there is an acceptable political solution and there is also the absence of financial capability of regime allies in Russia and Iran to compensate the destruction cost (more than USD250 billion).

Another war also looms in the horizon between new business men and war figures, in which both are competing to grab the biggest stake of the country’s future. Other possible wars are between Iran affiliated militias and the regime forces.

Idlib: between War and Isolation

In Idlib there are around 2 million civilians and more than 50,000 fighters. Washington assumes that there are thousands who belong to Qaeda, given that Jabhat al-Nusra is part of Qaeda. Ankara, however, seeks compromised solutions.

Syria: Opposition Demands Comprehensive Ceasefire to Introduce Political Transformation

Syria

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.

Syrian Opposition Group Slams Russian Proposed De-Escalation Deal

The main Syrian opposition umbrella group criticized a Russian proposal to establish “de-escalation zones” in Syria as vague and illegitimate and said it rejected the role of Iran as guarantor in any deal.

The Riyadh-based HNC, which includes political and armed groups, cautioned against attempts to “partition the country through vague meanings of what has been called … ‘de-escalation’ zones,” in a statement on Friday.

Iran and Turkey agreed on Thursday to Russia’s proposal, but the signed memorandum has not been published, leaving its details unclear. The Russian Defense Ministry said the deal will come into force as of midnight.

“We oppose the division of Syria and we are not an active party to the agreement signed,” said opposition spokesman Oussama Abu Zaid in a press conference in Astana, calling for a timetable for the departure of foreign militias from Syria.

“We were surprised by the dangerous Russian escalation and its bombardment on the liberated areas,” he stated, noting that Russia has broken its promises to stop bombing and stop supporting Assad.

“We have received promises to stop the shelling on the liberated areas before our participation in the negotiations,” he asserted, adding that “we attended the negotiations with the aim of stopping the shedding of Syrian blood.”

Osama Abu Zaid stressed the need for the international community to take practical measures to reduce Iran’s influence and ambitions in Syria.

The spokesman refused to respond to a question by a Syrian regime Channel on fighting the Nusra front, while a member of the delegation answered by saying, “We will fight all those who kill the Syrians, either with explosive barrels or by chemical weapons or arms.”

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.

France to ‘Prove’ Assad Forces behind Syria ‘Chemical Attack’

France will produce proof “in a few days” that the regime of Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical strike on a Syrian village that killed 87 people earlier this month, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Wednesday.

“We have elements that will allow us to show that the regime knowingly used chemical weapons,” Ayrault said of the suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun on April 4.

“In a few days I will be able to bring you the proof,” he told French television.

In an exclusive interview last week with AFP in Damascus, Assad said the suspected chemical attack was a “fabrication” to justify a US missile strike on Syrian forces.

“Definitely, 100 percent for us, it’s fabrication,” he said.

Western leaders including US President Donald Trump have accused Assad of being behind the attack in the rebel-held town, saying his forces used a chemical weapon during an air strike.

The suspected attack killed at least 87 people, including many children, and images of the dead and of suffering victims provoked global outrage.

The missile strike was the first direct US military action against Assad’s forces since the start of Syria’s civil war six years ago and precipitated a downward spiral in ties between Washington and Moscow.

US: Russia Isolates itself When Backing Assad Crimes

The United States told Russia at the United Nations on Wednesday that is it isolating itself by continuing to support Syrian regime head Bashar al-Assad, while Britain said its scientists found sarin was used in a deadly toxic gas attack on Syrian civilians last week.

Russia is set to block a push by Western powers at the United Nations later on Wednesday to bolster support for international inquiries into the April 4 toxic gas attack in Syria. It will be Moscow’s eighth veto in support of the Assad regime since the Syrian war began six years ago.

“To my colleagues from Russia – you are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad’s planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, told the UN Security Council.

During a heated Security Council meeting, Russia’s deputy UN envoy Vladimir Safronkov told the 15-member body that Western countries were wrong to blame Assad for the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

The attack prompted the United States to strike a Syrian air base with cruise missiles and worsened relations between the United States and Russia.

President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday trust had eroded between the two countries under President Donald Trump, as Moscow delivered an unusually hostile reception to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a face-off over Syria.

Britain’s UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the Security Council that samples taken from the site of the gas attack, in a rebel-held area of northern Syria, have tested positive for the nerve gas sarin.

He accused Russia of siding with “a murderous, barbaric criminal, rather than with their international peers.”

Safronkov, who demanded Rycroft look at him while he was speaking, responded: “I cannot accept that you insult Russia.”

Haley also accused Iran of being “Assad’s chief accomplice in the regime’s horrific acts,” adding: “Iran is dumping fuel on the flames of this war in Syria so it can expand its own reach.”

Western powers blame the gas attack, which killed scores of civilians – many of them children – on Assad’s forces. Syria’s regime has denied responsibility for the attack, which prompted a US strike on a Syrian air base.

UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura warned the Security Council on Wednesday that fragile progress in peace talks was now “in grave danger.”

Syrian Rebels Delay Astana Meeting to Evaluate Ceasefire

Syrian opposition groups demanded Russian-backed peace talks in Kazakhstan this month be delayed and said further meetings would depend on whether the government and its allies obeyed to a newly declared March 7-20 ceasefire.

In a statement, the rebels said they had received an invitation to a third round of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana but this should be delayed until after the end of the ceasefire.

The third round of talks is due to take place in Astana on March 14-15. The previous meetings aimed to shore up a widely violated ceasefire between the sides that was brokered in December by Russia and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

“The continuation of the meetings is linked to an assessment of the results of the ceasefire and commitment to it,” the rebel groups said.

The rebels said the regime and its Iranian-backed militia allies were continuing to bombard opposition-held areas near Damascus, Homs, Deraa and Idlib, and preparing to storm two districts on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

This was going on “before the eyes and ears of the Russian guarantor”, the statement said. Russian warplanes had also bombed civilians, it said.

The March 7-20 ceasefire was declared by Russia’s defense ministry and applies specifically to the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus – one of the areas the rebels said remained under attack.

The ceasefires do not include the extremist group ISIS.

Syrian Opposition Says Regime Attacks Sabotage Ceasefire Efforts

Syrian rebel groups who have participated in peace talks said on Sunday that an upsurge in pro-regime army shelling and bombing was wrecking the prospects of maintaining a Russian-Turkish-brokered ceasefire.

The rebel groups, mostly backed by Turkey, who attended two rounds of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana said they had supported a political solution to end the bloodshed, but that war had been “imposed” on them by the Syrian army and its allies.

In a statement, they said they reserved the right to respond to these attacks, which have mostly taken place in the south, in Homs and in the outskirts of Damascus.

On the other hand, the Syrian opposition is fully committed to peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 23, a senior official said on Sunday, adding the talks would need to pave the way for a political transition.

“We are fully committed for the Geneva talks,” Syrian National Coalition President Anas al-Abdah told delegates at the Munich Security Conference.

“We cannot address the profound security threats … while Assad remains in power,” he said.

Brett McGurk, the United States’ envoy to the coalition against ISIS, said the new U.S. administration was still reviewing its Syria position, but that it was seeking a role to reinforce Russian and Turkish efforts to cement a ceasefire in the country.

Syrian Regime Warplanes Hit areas of Homs, Deraa

Syria regime warplanes reportedly bombarded a besieged rebel-held district of Homs on Saturday, killing at least two people and raising the death toll to more than 20 in two weeks, an activist and monitoring group said.

Warplanes also hit rebel-controlled areas in Deraa in southern Syria during a series of heavy raids over the last day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

In Deraa, regime and Russian warplanes increased their bombardment of rebel-held areas, carrying out at least 70 air strikes on the city and towns in the eastern Deraa countryside on Friday and Saturday, the Observatory reported.

At least four people were killed by air strikes in the town of Umm al-Mayadhin, and one person in Busra al-Sham, it said.

For months, Al-Waer, the last rebel-held neighborhood in the western city of Homs, had been spared much of the intense violence raging elsewhere in the country, as the regime tried to conclude an agreement with Syrian opposition factions there.

Bombardment of the area resumed earlier this month, rescue workers and the British-based Observatory said.

The Observatory said three people were killed on Saturday, bringing the death toll since then to at least 30 people. An opposition media activist in al-Waer said two people had been killed and put February’s overall death toll at more than 20.

Damascus has tried to conclude a deal in al-Waer that would see rebel fighters and their families leave the district and regime forces take over.

The opposition says such accords are part of a regime strategy to forcibly displace populations from opposition-held areas after years of siege and bombardment.

In September, some 120 rebel fighters and their families left al-Waer in agreement with the government, but there have been no further reports of any rebels leaving. The Observatory estimates several thousand opposition units remain there.

Russia backs Damascus in its fight against insurgents, but has supported along with rebel-backer Turkey a ceasefire deal that was put in place on Dec. 30 and covers western Syria.

The warring sides have accused each other of violating the ceasefire and fighting has tarnished it almost since it began.