As Isis surges ahead and the Syrian regime teeters on the brink of collapse, our Middle East correspondent, winner of the 2015 Orwell prize for journalism, reports on the deadly struggle for dominance in the region.
The Guardian, By Martin Chulov, May 23
One evening at the end of March, a Syrian rebel leader returned from a meeting across the border in Turkey and called an urgent gathering of his commanders. The five men turned up at their boss’s house in Idlib province expecting to receive the same pleas for patience that they had always heard and more grim news about cash and weapons being hard to find. This time, though, they were in for a shock.
“He arrived looking eager,” said one of the commanders. “That caught our attention straight away. But when he started to speak, we were all stunned.”
The leader, who asked that his unit not be identified, said he told his men that the grinding war of attrition they had fought against the Syrian government since early 2012 was about to turn in their favour.
“And the reason for that was that I could now get nearly all the weapons I wanted,” he told the Observer. “For the first time they were not holding anything from us – except anti-aircraft missiles. The Turks and their friends wanted this over with.”
NBC News, May 1
Istanbul — Istanbul went into a security lockdown on Friday as thousands of police manned barricades and closed streets to stop May Day rallies at Taksim Square, a symbolic point for protests.
Citing security concerns, authorities shut down much of the city’s public transport and dispatched riot police to block Taksim off from demonstrators. A traditional rallying ground for leftists, the central square saw weeks of unrest in 2013.
Hundreds of flag-waving protesters gathered in the nearby Besiktas neighborhood, where they were held back by lines of police. Thousands of protesters also gathered to march in the capital Ankara.
Critics say President Tayyip Erdogan and the government have become more authoritarian ahead of June elections.
“This meeting is peaceful and is not armed,” opposition politician Mahmut Tanal, holding a pocket-sized book of the Turkish constitution, told Reuters in Istanbul. “People want to express their problems but the government doesn’t want those problems to be heard ahead of elections.”
AFP, By Irakli Metreveli, April 23
Yerevan – The Armenian Church prepared Thursday to canonise up to 1.5 million Armenians massacred by Ottoman forces as tensions over Turkey’s refusal to recognize the killings as genocide reached boiling point.
The ceremony, which is believed to become the biggest canonisation service in history, comes ahead of commemorations expected to see millions of people including heads of state Friday mark 100 years since the start of the killings. The Armenian Apostolic Church announced the canonisation service for the “martyrs of the Armenian Genocide,” calling for a “prayerful participation in this historic event.”
The service will be held in Armenia’s main church, Echmiadzin, an austere fourth-century edifice believed to be the Christian world’s oldest cathedral. The ceremony will run from 1300 GMT and end at 1515 GMT to symbolize the year when the massacres started during World War I.
“Today’s canonisation unites all Armenians living around the globe,” Huri Avetikian, an ethnic Armenian librarian from Lebanon who arrived in her ancestral homeland to attend the service, told AFP.
The Independent: System Of A Down perform in Armenia for the first time to mark genocide’s 100th anniversary
NPR: System Of A Down, Armenia’s Favorite Sons, On Facing History
Reuters, By Oliver Holmes, April 4
Beirut – Islamic State has taken control of 90 percent of a Palestinian refugee camp on the Damascus outskirts where 18,000 civilians have suffered years of bombing, army siege and militia control, a monitoring group said on Saturday.
The hardline group’s offensive in Yarmouk gives it a major presence in the capital. Islamic State, the most powerful insurgent group in Syria, is now only a few kilometers from President Bashar al-Assad’s seat of power.
The United Nations has said it is extremely concerned about the safety and protection of Syrians and Palestinians in the camp. Civilians trapped there have long suffered a government siege that has led to starvation and disease.
“The situation in Yarmouk is an affront to the humanity of all of us, a source of universal shame,” U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesman Chris Gunness said.
“Yarmouk is a test, a challenge for the international community. We must not fail. The credibility of the international system itself is at stake,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain, said Syrian air force jet bombed the camp on Saturday.
Electronic Intifada: “Catastrophe” in Yarmouk as ISIS seizes camp
Comments from top US diplomat come as fighting continues in conflict that has displaced millions, killed around 220,000
Al Jazeera, March 15
The bloody civil conflict in Syria entered its fifth year Sunday, amid continued bombing of the country’s civilians and an admission by Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. will have to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad if an end of fighting is to be achieved.
Washington has long insisted that Assad must be replaced as part of a political transition in the country. But in the face of no end to the violence and the rise of a common enemy in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Kerry’s comments appear to indicate a softened stance towards the Syrian leader.
In the interview broadcast on Sunday, Kerry did not repeat the standard U.S. line that Assad had lost all legitimacy and had to go.
“We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said. “We’ve always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva process,” he added, referring to a 2012 conference that called for a negotiated transition to end the conflict.
AFP: Britain: Assad has no role in Syria’s future
Al Jazeera: Turkey slams Kerry’s call for dialogue with Assad
Al Arabiya, March 13
Marking the fourth anniversary of the civil war, the United States on Thursday made a fresh call for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on urged the Security Council to take “determined measures” to end the war.
“For four years the Assad regime has answered Syrians’ calls for freedom and reform with unrelenting brutality, authoritarianism and destruction,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
“As we have long said, Assad must go and be replaced through a negotiated, political transition that is representative of the Syrian people.”
Without the departure of Assad, it would not be possible “to fully stabilize” the country, Psaki said.
BBC, February 24
Islamic State (IS) has abducted dozens of Assyrian Christians from villages in north-eastern Syria, activists say.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 90 men, women and children were seized in a series of dawn raids near the town of Tal Tamr.
Some Assyrians managed to escape and made their way east to the largely Kurdish-controlled city of Hassakeh.
It comes as Syrian Kurdish fighters backed by US-led air strikes continue to advance into IS-held territory.
AP, By Desmond Butler, February 19
Istanbul — Turkey and the United States signed an agreement Thursday to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group, said the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.
The two countries have been in talks about such a pact for several months. The deal was signed Thursday evening by U.S Ambassador John Bass and Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, said Embassy spokesman Joe Wierichs. He gave no further details.
Sinirlioglu called the deal “an important step” in the strategic partnership between Turkey and the United States, according to Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency.
The Turkish government has said the training by U.S. and Turkish soldiers could begin as early as next month at a base in the central Anatolian city of Kirsehir, and involve hundreds of Syrian fighters in the first year. The U.S. has said the goal is to go after the Islamic State group, but Turkish officials have suggested that the trained rebels could also target the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.
Syrian president says details fed through third parties and denies army’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs.
Al Jazeera, February 10
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said third parties, including Iraq, have been conveying information to Damascus about a US-led campaign of air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in his country.
In an interview with the BBC, broadcast on Tuesday, Assad said there was no direct cooperation with the U.S., whose air force has been bombing ISIL in Syria since September.
Asked if there was indirect cooperation, he said: “That’s true, through third parties, more than one party, Iraq and other countries, sometimes they convey message[s], general message[s], but there is nothing tactical”.
Bombardments on opposition-held towns have killed at least 44 people and wounded more than 100, Syrian activists say.
Al Jazeera, February 3
Syrian government air strikes on opposition-held towns across the country have killed at least 44 people and wounded more than 100, according to activists opposed to the Syrian government.
In Jassem in the southern province of Deraa, 16 civilians were killed in four air strikes on Monday, while 25 were wounded, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said.
The strikes came in response to a major rebel offensive that has been under way in southern Syria for months, said the SOHR.
AFP, January 30
Beirut – Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate fought Western-backed rebels on Friday as the militants pressed their bid to take control of a northern area, a monitor and a rebel statement said.
The fighting comes nearly three months after the al-Nusra Front expelled another group of Western-backed opposition fighters from Idlib province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the militants launched their offensive against the Western-armed Hazem movement on Thursday in Aleppo province.
Deutsche Welle (Reuters, AP), January 28
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned the President Bashar al-Assad’s government against further rocket attacks on Wednesday as the focus remained on a Japanese hostage held in Syria by Islamic State (IS) extremists.
Israel evacuated its Mount Hermon ski resort on the Golan Heights on Tuesday after at least two rockets were fired, allegedly from Syrian army positions. Syria, however, made no claim of responsibility.
Yaalon on Wednesday said Israel had struck Syrian army artillery posts. It was a clear message, he said, that “we will not tolerate any firing towards Israeli territory or violation of our sovereignty.”
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Last week, an Israeli air strike killed a Hezbollah commander.
Al Arabiya: Hezbollah claims Israel border operation
The incidents came several hours after Israel launched an air strike in Syria. Tensions that have escalated in the frontier area over the past 10 days after an Israeli strike in Syria which killed several Hezbollah men and an Iranian general.
Iran has told the United States on Tuesday that Israel “crossed Iran’s red lines” for killing an Iranian general in the attack on the Golan Heights.
“We have sent a message to the United States through diplomatic channels telling the Americans that the Zionist regime crossed Iran’s red lines by this action,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
“In this message, we said those responsible should wait to suffer the consequences of their act,” he added, in remarks carried by the official IRNA news agency.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said before the Israeli response that Washington had seen the news of Tuesday’s rocket firing and did not want “an escalation of the situation.”
Reuters, By Doina Chiacu, January 22
Washington – U.S.-led forces attacked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets with 21 air strikes in Iraq and 10 in Syria since Wednesday, the American military said.
Al Arabiya, January 13
U.S.-led coalition military forces launched a total of 27 air strikes on territories controlled by the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group (ISIS), an operation report said Monday.
Coalition forces conducted 11 air strikes on ISIS-held positions in Syria over the past 24 hours, including Kobane and Deir Ezzour.
The latest attacks on Kobane struck two large ISIS units, an ISIS tactical unit and destroyed 10 militant fighting positions, the report said. The strikes also knocked down five ISIS buildings and two staging positions used by the militant group.
While in Deir Ezzour, the coalition struck an ISIS oil refinery.
Fighters, bombers and remotely controlled aircraft conducted 16 airstrikes in Iraq, including Beiji, Ramadi, Tal Afar and Mount Sinjar.
Coalition nations conducting airstrikes in Iraq include the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
While nations conducting airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
- In total 17 bombs were dropped on Syria and another 12 on Iraq targets.
- Raids destroyed vehicles, buildings and units belonging to Islamic State.
- Onslaught brings number of strikes since Christmas to more than 100.
Daily Mail, By Chris Pleasance, January 1
U.S. and Arab war planes launched 29 air strikes against Islamic State fighters and buildings across both Iraq and Syria overnight, according to military chiefs.
Syrian targets included he Islamic State’s defacto capital of Raqqa, and Kobane where Kurdish Peshmerga and YPG forces have been involved in street battles with extremists for months.
The city of Dayr az Zawr, which contains 600,000 people and is the largest in Syria’s east was also among the cities hit.
In Iraq targets were hit around the town of Mosul, which contains an important dam, Fallujah, which is located just to the east of Baghdad, and Sinjar, which thousands of Yazidis were forced to flee after ISIS fighters took the town earlier this year.
The latest round of bombings against ISIS targets in the Middle east takes the number of strikes since Christmas above 100, as the U.S.-led coalition attempts to weaken the radical group.
The news came as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that the death toll from the four-year civil war topped 76,000 in the last year alone.
An estimated 17,790 were civilians, including 3,501 children, making it the deadliest year of the war.