After President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Syria last month, the US military ramped up its bombing campaign against territory still held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in the eastern part of the country, according to sources on the ground and photographs obtained in a joint investigation by Al Jazeera and The Intercept.
The fiercest attacks in the past week occurred in Al Kashmah, a village on the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq, according to three sources in eastern Syria. Amid US air attacks and artillery fire by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), civilians and family members of ISIL fighters fled to villages to the south, the sources said. While Al Kashmah has not yet fallen, the only people remaining there are fighters representing what has become the front line of the war against ISIL in Deir Az Zor province.
The ISIL fighters are clustered in villages along the Euphrates, from the border with Iraq to south of Hajin, a former ISIL stronghold that fell to the SDF, a Kurdish-led militia, in mid-December.
There are about 50,000 to 60,000 people who remain in those areas, according to a civilian activist in Deir Az Zor who documents rights abuses and asked not to be named due to safety concerns. “The civilians in these areas have no place to go or hide from the US bombardment of their villages,” the activist said, noting that the residents have been harmed at the hands of the Syrian government, the US, and ISIL alike.
Bombing of hospital
The ISIL-held villages along the Euphrates have been the targets of US bombing sorties since November as part of Operation Roundup. In addition to military targets, Operation Roundup bombed civilian areas, including a hospital, The Intercept and Al Jazeera reported last month.
The US could not attack the hospital without warning it first — and without giving the hospital a reasonable amount of time to either stop ISIS from using it or to evacuate civilian personnel and wounded.
Kevin Jon Heller, professor of international law
A senior ISIL fighter said the al Yarmouk Hospital was the region’s last public health facility that treated civilians in the area. He also acknowledged that ISIL might have used it to treat its fighters if treatment was not available in its own field hospitals.
Kevin Jon Heller, an international law scholar, told Al Jazeera that the US could not legally attack the hospital simply because it believes some ISIL fighters were there.
“The US could not attack the hospital without warning it first — and without giving the hospital a reasonable amount of time to either stop ISIL from using it or to evacuate civilian personnel and wounded,” said Heller, a professor of international law at Australia National University and the University of Amsterdam
Heller said the bombing of a hospital in a combat zone without considering the civilian casualties or warning them is a fundamental violation of International Humanitarian law (IHL), a component of international law that regulates the conduct of war and the protection of civilians.
Fighters and civilians in the villages have reportedly been describing the US bombing campaign as a scorched-earth policy, using an Arabic term that translates to “burn the ground” [Zoe Garbarino/US Army Photo/AP Photo]
Trump’s abrupt December 19 decision to withdraw US ground troops involved in the fight against ISIL in Syria took even the US Defense Department by surprise. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the president declined to give a timeline for the pullout, and said instead that it would happen “over a period of time.” The increased intensity of the bombings, however, belie claims by Trump and others that ISIL has been defeated or that the US war in Syria, which has largely been carried out from the skies, is over. It remains unclear whether US air attacks will continue once the troops leave.
During the final days of 2018, the US campaign bombed villages up and down the Euphrates, focusing primarily on Al Kashmah. On the night of New Year’s Eve, the bombs relentlessly assaulted Al Kashmah, leaving the village largely destroyed by the next morning, according to an ISIL fighter who was there. (We interviewed members of ISIL and the SDF, as well as a tribal leader, for this article via messaging services, and we’ve granted them anonymity because they all stand to be targeted by the various warring factions for speaking to journalists.)
The coalition against ISIL appears to be targeting internet cafes, according to two sources on the ground. Internet cafes in the villages are used by civilians and ISIL fighters alike. They are not part of ISIL’s tactical communications infrastructure, according to sources, but the fighters typically use them to communicate with the outside world, especially their families in other countries.
“They just like to disrupt and mess everything up,” an ISIL fighter said in an interview. “They bombed the places where they sell gasoline for the motor, or they sell cooking oil, or where they filter the water – they bomb all these places. Not just the net, they bomb everything just to make your life horrible.”
The aftermath of the US bombing campaign in Al Kashmah, from where civilians have fled due to relentless attacks [Courtesy: The Intercept]
The risk of civilian casualties from bombings in Deir Az Zor is high because the rural villages have become densely populated with the families of ISIL fighters and civilians fleeing in recent months from more densely populated cities and towns that have fallen to Kurdish-led forces. “No building is empty here,” the ISIL fighter said, referring to the remaining ISIL-controlled villages in Deir Az Zor. Fighters and civilians in the villages have reportedly been describing the US bombing campaign as a scorched-earth policy, using an Arabic term that translates to “burn the ground”.
On Sunday, the US military admitted that it’s killed 1,139 civilians in Iraq and Syria since the start of its campaign against ISIL in 2014. That number is significantly smaller than the estimates of civilian casualties put out by monitoring groups, like Airwars, which says between 7,308 and 11,629 civilians have been killed.
In response to a list of questions about the bombings in Syria, Danielle Covington, a spokesperson for US Department of Defense, said the coalition dictates “the pace of our strikes against ISIS targets deliberately and with careful consideration of their impact to civilians. The increase in strikes in late December were selected specifically to degrade ISIS capabilities and were unrelated to any other variable.”
Following Trump’s withdrawal announcement, the Kurds, who lead the on-the-ground forces that had partnered with the US in fighting ISIL in Syria, reached out to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for protection. Feeling betrayed by the US, the Kurds are concerned about a possible attack by Turkey, which has long feared that its own minority Kurdish population might be emboldened by the existence of a Kurdish state or autonomous region south of Turkey. (In March 2018, Turkish Armed Forces and allied militia seized control of the Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurds.)
In addition, after the evacuation of civilians from Al Kashmah, ISIL negotiated a three-day ceasefire with the Kurds, according to three sources on the ground. On Monday, seven trucks carrying food and humanitarian aid entered ISIL-controlled areas under the agreement, according to one ISIL and one SDF source. The ceasefire was initially scheduled to end December 31, but ISIL officials are discussing a possible six-month extension, according to an ISIL fighter familiar with the talks but who is not directly part of the effort. During the temporary ceasefire, some ISIL fighters and defectors fled Deir Az Zor to other parts of Syria, according to two sources who made such journeys themselves.
A lasting ceasefire would allow badly-needed supplies to reach civilians in the villages, and ISIL would also use it to regroup. The Kurds would receive a safeguard from a two-front war if the Turks attack.
A ceasefire between ISIL and the Kurds, coupled with the Syrian government’s potential protection of the Kurds from Turkey, would largely undercut part of Trump’s public rationale for withdrawing US troops from Syria. In a tweet, Trump described how Turkey could “easily take care of whatever remains” of ISIL. In a subsequent tweet, Trump spoke of his conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey:
President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria….and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right “next door.” Our troops are coming home!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2018
But the prospect of Turkey’s completion of a clean-up job against ISIL in Syria seems increasingly unlikely given the rapidly shifting alliances there.
Meanwhile, the US military continues to drop bombs on Deir Az Zor, despite the fact that the Kurds, expected to be abandoned by the US, are not currently engaging ISIL fighters.
“They’ve backstabbed all their allies and they’re killing the people here, and eventually the Islamic State will survive and spread or it will fall,” the ISIL fighter said, referring to the US. “But there will be people here who will remember what happened here, and they will carry on this information and it will spread throughout the Middle East.”
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Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case
BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari told Lebanese religious figures on Tuesday that the Kingdom “cares for Lebanon’s security, stability, institutions and co-existence between Christians and Muslims.” The Saudi embassy’s media office said: “There is no legitimacy for the discourse of strife, nor for one that goes against Lebanon’s Arab identity.” This was…
BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari told Lebanese religious figures on Tuesday that the Kingdom “cares for Lebanon’s security, stability, institutions and co-existence between Christians and Muslims.”
The Saudi embassy’s media office said: “There is no legitimacy for the discourse of strife, nor for one that goes against Lebanon’s Arab identity.”
This was the first Saudi statement since the bloody clashes in Tayouneh on Oct. 14.
At least seven people were killed in the violence in Beirut amid a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s blast at the city’s port.
The protestors, gathered by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, demanded the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar from the investigation.
According to the embassy’s statement, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian “expressed his appreciation for the Kingdom, led by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for never abandoning Lebanon and its people, despite the unfair stances against the Kingdom by some Lebanese parties that only represent themselves.”
Sheikh Derian added that “the Saudi-Lebanese relations have always been and will remain solid regardless of any offensive speeches because our relations are above these speeches and Saudi Arabia will always see Lebanon as an Arab brotherly country.”
The statement comes after the Intelligence Directorate summoned the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, to the Defense Ministry on Wednesday as part of the investigation into the bloodshed in Tayouneh.
The summoning was the motivation for Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi’s spontaneous visits on Tuesday to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun.
Al-Rahi denounced “the summoning of Geagea only by the Intelligence Directorate to testify.”
Charles Jabbour from the Lebanese Forces party told Arab News that “Geagea will not appear at the Defense Ministry on Wednesday.
“They should start with summoning Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah. All parties should give testimonies, beginning with the party that called for the demonstration. Only when a judge dares to summon Nasrallah, will we be able to talk about a state and a judiciary in Lebanon.”
The move to summon Geagea was condemned by several political figures.
Former Premier Saad Hariri refused “to engage in an absurd conflict and the frontlines of a civil war and sectarian divisions.”
He added: “Announcing that Dr. Geagea was informed to appear before the Intelligence Directorate via a plastered notification is absurd and leads the country into further division along with using state machinery for revenge politics.”
Former Premier Fouad Siniora also denounced “the bias of the judicial authorities in the military court over the deplorable Tayouneh events and the continuing violations of the constitutions by those who were entrusted with the task of preserving and protecting it.”
Siniora rejected “the practices seeking to use the judiciary for reprisals against political opponents, and not for its main mission: To seek the truth and achieve justice.”
Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat criticized the “selectivity instead of a transparent and just investigation for a comprehensive justice.”
He said: “All those who fired shots in the Tayouneh events should be arrested, without discrimination, and this destructive and futile political dispute must be ended.”
Samy Gemayel, head of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, announced his rejection to “all the means Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have resorted to in hampering the investigation into the Beirut port blast.”
Hezbollah accused Geagea of firing the first shot on Oct. 14 at the demonstrators who penetrated the anti-Hezbollah and Christian-majority Ain Remaneh area.
Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is also a defendant in the Beirut port explosion investigation, visited Sheikh Derian on Tuesday, reiterating his demand “to either lift immunity from everyone without exception, or adopt the legal and constitutional mechanisms in force in the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.”
So far, all the politicians who have been accused of being involved in the Beirut port blast have declined to appear before Judge Bitar.
Amal Movement and Hezbollah ministers have refused to attend Cabinet sessions unless Judge Bitar is removed and the investigations into Tayouneh are halted, causing a governmental paralysis at a time when Lebanon is in desperate need of reforms to unblock the international aid that would lessen its dire economic situation.
Prime Minister Mikati hoped on Tuesday that “Cabinet meetings will resume as soon as possible to make the decisions required to activate the work of commissions and committees and do what is needed from the government.”
Mikati added that he hoped his government would supervise “the parliamentary elections with full integrity, to enable these elections to renew the political life in Lebanon.”
The joint parliamentary committees held a session on Tuesday and voted to keep the electoral law as it was, thus rejecting Aoun’s proposal to make amendments.
Aoun had objected to holding the elections on March 27 and to the proposals to change the expatriate voting formula by canceling the six seats allocated for Lebanese voters who live abroad.
Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture
LONDON: A former Iranian air force pilot exiled in Turkey has said he still feels unsafe after a failed kidnapping attempt last month. Mehrdad Abdarbashi, a former helicopter pilot who defected from the military when he was ordered to fight in Syria, had previously tried to resign from the armed forces, but Tehran rejected his…
LONDON: A former Iranian air force pilot exiled in Turkey has said he still feels unsafe after a failed kidnapping attempt last month.
Mehrdad Abdarbashi, a former helicopter pilot who defected from the military when he was ordered to fight in Syria, had previously tried to resign from the armed forces, but Tehran rejected his resignation and seized his passport.
In 2018, he said he received orders to be deployed to Syria on behalf of the Assad regime and decided it was time to flee Iran.
“It was the first time I was being deployed there, and I refused because I did not want to be involved in a proxy war going on there,” he told Al Jazeera.
He is now in hiding in eastern Turkey, and was recently targeted by two Iranian agents who tried to drug and kidnap him.
Turkish intelligence, which had been in contact with Abdarbashi, foiled the plot. The Iranian agents were charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit a crime in a Turkish court earlier this month.
But Abdarbashi said he still fears the Iranian regime will reach him despite Ankara’s protection.
“I don’t think I am safe in any city in Turkey right now. I think Iranian intelligence will come after me, and this time they won’t try to kidnap me, this time they will just kill me,” he said.
“Of course, Turkish police and intelligence are still looking after me. But I still think Iranian agents will somehow reach me.”
Iranian exiles in Turkey are often targeted by Tehran’s agents, who try to kidnap them to bring them back to the Islamic Republic.
In June 2020, Eisa Bazyar, a writer critical of the Iranian regime, was forced into a car in western Turkey and held for two days before he managed to escape.
The following November, Habib Chaab, an Iranian dissident with Swedish citizenship, was seized as he transited through an Istanbul airport.
For a period of time, it appeared that Ankara was complying with and even directly cooperating with Tehran’s attempts to kidnap foreign dissidents and bring them back to Iran.
In two cases, Ankara assisted with the capture and deportation of men sentenced to death for their role in anti-regime protests.
But last year’s war between Azerbaijan — perhaps the nation with the closest ties to Ankara — and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh appears to have prompted a cooling in relations between Turkey and Iran. Their opposing sides in the Syrian conflict has also proved a more subtle bone of contention.
As relations between the two large Middle Eastern states — which share a long border and have a centuries-old history of Persian-Turkic competition — have declined, Ankara’s cooperation with Iranian intelligence operations on Turkish soil appears to have ceased.
In February this year, Turkish police arrested an Iranian diplomat at the Istanbul consulate in connection with the assassination of spy-turned-dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in November 2019.
Kuwait Times Wednesday, October 27, 2021
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