The main U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia has begun withdrawing its fighters from two towns near Turkey’s border, part of a deal for a so-called safe zone in northeastern Syria involving the U.S. and Turkey, the Kurdish-led regional administration in northern Syria said Tuesday. Turkey has been pressing for a safe zone, running east of the Euphrates River toward the Iraqi border, to push U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militias away from its frontier. Turkey wants to control — in coordination with the U.S. — a 19-25 mile (30-40 kilometer) deep zone within civil war-ravaged Syria. Turkey wants the region along its border to be clear of Syrian Kurdish forces and has threatened on numerous occasions to launch a new operation in Syria against Syrian Kurdish forces if such a zone is not established. Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters, who make up the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces and are allied with the U.S., as terrorists aligned with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey. American troops are stationed in northeast Syria, along with the Kurdish forces, and have fought the Islamic State group together. The differing positions on the Kurdish fighters have become a major source of tension between NATO allies Turkey and the U.S. The administration said “the first step” in these understandings began three days ago in the town of Ras al-Ayn, from where members of the militia known as YPG withdrew with their heavy weapons. The statement that was read by Zeidan al-Assi, head of defense office at the
Syrian government forces looked set to recover a strategic town that has been in rebel hands since 2014 in a major Russian-backed offensive into the opposition’s last major stronghold. An organisation that monitors the war and a pro-Damascus military source said insurgents had withdrawn from Khan Sheikhoun overnight, though the main insurgent group in the area said rebels still held part of the town and fighting continued. Capturing Khan Sheikhoun would be an important gain for President Bashar al-Assad into the northwestern region where his bid to recover “every inch” of Syria has hit complications including Turkish forces on the ground. Syrian state media, in a broadcast from near the town, reported that government forces had widened their control including by seizing a highway running through Khan Sheikhoun, which was targeted in a sarin gas attack in 2017. The pro-Damascus military source told Reuters the town was under army control after the rebels were caught in a pincer movement and fled. “There are some pockets and explosive devices, there are a few who refuse to withdraw and want to die,” the source said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitoring group, said rebels had withdrawn from their last piece of territory in neighbouring Hama province in addition to Khan Sheikhoun. The most powerful insurgent group in the area, the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, denied this and said the battle continued. In a statement on its Telegram channel, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham said rebels still held part of Khan
Members of the al-Ali family were walking home from shopping when several shells slammed into the busy street on the western edges of the Syrian city of Aleppo. The blast tore through them, killing 2-year-old Salam and one of her cousins, and incinerated a car nearby with a woman and her infant daughter inside. It was one of multiple attacks by rebels firing from Aleppo’s outskirts that killed more than a dozen civilians last month. Nearly three years have passed since President Bashar Assad’s forces gained full control of Aleppo, sweeping out rebels who had held the eastern half of the city through years of fighting. That victory made Aleppo — Syria’s largest city — a symbol of how Assad succeeded with crucial assistance from Russia and Iran in turning the tide of the long civil war, clawing back most opposition-held territory in the country’s heartland and ensuring Assad’s survival. But Aleppo is equally a symbol of how Assad has been unable to secure full victory in the war or bring total security to Syria’s people — and appears unlikely to in the near future. Half of Aleppo remains destroyed, much of its population is scattered, and deadly attacks like the July 24 mortar fire that killed Salam — whose name means peace in Arabic — are still common. Aleppo still sits on the edge of the opposition’s last major stronghold, a territory stretching across the neighboring province of Idlib and parts of Hama province. From positions on Aleppo’s outskirts,
A Canadian citizen held in Syrian prisons since last year and freed after Lebanese mediation said Friday he had no idea if anyone knew he was still alive. Kristian Lee Baxter appeared emotional and at times jittery at a press conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The Lebanese general who mediated his release said Baxter was heading home. It was not clear when Baxter was released from Syria. Details of Baxter’s detention were not immediately available but Canadian media reported last December he was detained while in war-torn Syria, where he was traveling seeking an adventure. Canadian officials declined to provide further information, citing privacy provisions. Lebanon’s General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim said Baxter was detained for what Syrian authorities considered a “major violation” of local laws, adding that authorities there may have considered the incident security related. He didn’t elaborate. Baxter appeared briefly on a podium, shared with Ibrahim and the Canadian ambassador to Lebanon, Emmanuelle Lamoureux. He was emotional and choked on his words as he tried to hold back tears. “I’d just like to thank the Canadian embassy for helping me,” Kristian Lee Baxter said, reaching to hold the shoulder of the Canadian ambassador. “I would like to thank the Lebanese for helping me get free. I thought I would be there forever, honestly.” He added, wiping his eyes: “I didn’t know if anyone knew if I was alive.” Baxter’s release marked the second time Lebanon has helped free a foreigner held in Syria. Last month, Ibrahim
Syrian government forces seized ground from insurgents in northwestern Syria on Thursday, sources on both sides said, building on advances since the military declared an end to a brief ceasefire earlier this week. The humanitarian adviser to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria said the new upsurge in violence in the northwest threatened the lives of millions after more than 500 civilians were killed since late April. The Russian-backed army operations resumed on Monday after the government accused neighbouring Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in the area, of not abiding by commitments in the truce. The army’s capture of al-Sakhr in northern Hama province on Thursday followed the taking of two villages on Wednesday. A rebel commander said government forces had been able to advance in the northern Hama area due to heavy air and artillery strikes. “The situation is difficult but recovering the positions we lost is not impossible and we will work on that,” Colonel Mustafa Bakour of the Jaish al-Izza rebel group told Reuters by text message. Assad’s side has struggled to make significant gains in more than three months of military operations in the northwest, the last major foothold of rebel groups in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the eight-year-old conflict, said the advances by Assad’s side over the last two days were its most significant since June, noting that the army was closing in on three rebel-held towns. Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said 64 combatants had been killed in the
Turkey’s combative president is threatening to launch a military operation in northeastern Syria that is designed to push back U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces — an invasion that carries major risks for a highly combustible region in war-devastated Syria. An operation would mark the third Turkish incursion into Syria in the past four years — all seeking to limit the growing influence of Syrian Kurdish fighters, which Turkey views as terrorist along its border. Turkish and American military officials were meeting Monday and Tuesday in Ankara for last-ditch negotiations amid warnings from Turkish officials about a military buildup. Here’s a look at what Turkey wants and what could happen if it invades northern Syria: WHAT DOES TURKEY WANT? Turkey wants to establish a safe zone 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 kilometers) deep east of the Euphrates River in Syria, all the way to the Iraqi border. That effectively amounts to almost all the territory in northeastern Syria that is currently controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, America’s only partners on the ground in Syria. This has deeply infuriated Turkey and been a major source of tensions between Washington and Ankara in the past few years. With U.S. backing, the SDF has spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State group on the ground, announcing the territorial defeat of the extremist group in March. Turkey considers the YPG an existential threat and as
Mohammed Haji Abed drives his yellow taxi through the busy streets of the Syrian capital for about 12 hours a day, toiling in the sweltering summer heat but earning barely enough for his family of five to get by. It was easier for him to make ends meet at the height of his country’s civil war, when rebels regularly lobbed mortars into Damascus from their strongholds on the outskirts of the city. In the past year, as the Trump administration tightened sanctions on Syria and re-imposed sanctions on its chief regional ally, Iran, living conditions have become steadily worse, compounding the daily struggles of a worn-out population that has lived through eight years of conflict. “The economic sanctions are affecting the whole country,” said Haji Abed, sitting behind the wheel of his car in an eastern Damascus neighborhood that until last year was a front-line with insurgents. “People can’t take any more,” added the gray-haired man in his late 50s. Sanctions by the U.S., European Union and some Arab countries have been in place since 2011, after President Bashar Assad’s security apparatus cracked down on protests against his rule. The sanctions targeted the oil industry, money transfers and a number of institutions and officials, including Assad. The Trump administration has hiked up the punishment, particularly by moving to stop oil exports by Iran — including its shipments to its ally Syria. In November, the U.S. Treasury Department added a network of Russian and Iranian companies to its blacklist for shipping
President Bashar al-Assad’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful rebel counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force. More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015. While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey. “They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” a rebel source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing rebel military capabilities. Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to rebels. With Turkey committed to the rebels, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area. Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.