Assad regime renews threat to attack Idlib after militants refuse to pull out

A Syrian rebel-fighter from the National Liberation Front (NLF) walks in a street in the rebel-held al-Rashidin district of western Aleppo's countryside near Idlib province on October 15, 2018. (AFP / Aaref Watad)
Updated 16 October 2018
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Assad regime renews threat to attack Idlib after militants refuse to pull out

  • Province ‘must return to Syrian sovereignty,’ minister warns as buffer-zone deal hangs in balance
  • Syrian FM says it is now up to Russia to judge whether the agreement, which averted a regime offensive last month, was being fulfilled

BEIRUT: The Assad regime renewed its threat on Monday to launch an offensive in Idlib province in northwest Syria after militants defied a Russia-Turkey deal for them to pull out.

The fighters failed to meet the Oct. 15 deadline for them to withdraw from a planned buffer zone around Syria’s last opposition stronghold.

“Our armed forces are ready around Idlib to eradicate terrorism if the Idlib agreement is not implemented,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem said at a press conference in Damascus with the Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari.

“Idlib, as any other province, has to return to Syrian sovereignty. We prefer to have it through peaceful means, through reconciliation, but if not there are other options.”

Al-Moualem said it was now up to Russia to judge whether the agreement, which averted a regime offensive last month, was being fulfilled. “We have to wait for the Russian reaction. Russia is monitoring and following the situation,” he said.

When Idlib was recaptured from the opposition, the regime would turn its attention to territory held by the Kurdish-led and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the minister said. “After Idlib, our target is east of the Euphrates,” which must also return to Syrian sovereignty, he said.

Civilians in Idlib said they were concerned about an increase in violence if the Russian-Turkish accord collapsed. “We fear the deal’s sponsors will fail to implement all its points, and that the bombardment and battles will return,” one said.

The deal provides for a 15-20 km horseshoe-shaped buffer zone around opposition-held areas in Idlib and the neighboring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.

The dominant militant force in the region is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch. The group has signaled that it would abide by the terms of the deal, although it has not explicitly said so.

“We value the efforts of all those striving — at home and abroad — to protect the liberated area and prevent its invasion and the perpetration of massacres in it,” HTS said.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Assad regime on Monday reopened a vital border post with Jordan and a crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Two white jeeps crossed into Israeli-occupied territory during a low-key ceremony to mark the reopening of the Quneitra crossing in the Golan, four years after it was closed when Syrian opposition forces seized nearby territory.

In the south, and three years after it too was closed, a black metal border gate opened at the Nassib crossing into Jordan as police and customs officials stood nearby.

The Jordan crossing was previously a major trading route, while the remote Quneitra post is used primarily by a UN force that monitors a cease-fire line separating Israeli-occupied parts of the Golan Heights from Syria.

Syrian businessman Hisham Falyoun, who lives in Jordan with his wife and children, was the first person to cross the border in his black Mercedes SUV.

“I wanted to be the first person to cross to show everyone that Syria is safe, Syria is back,” said Falyoun, who was hoping to surprise his parents in Damascus.


Israel restores Gaza fishing zone to ease humanitarian crisis

Updated 31 min 32 sec ago
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Israel restores Gaza fishing zone to ease humanitarian crisis

  • COGAT, the defense ministry unit that oversees such regulations, said the fishing zone was being “expanded to 15 nautical miles”
  • It restores the fishing zone to the limits set in April ahead of Israel’s general election, and is the largest allowed in years

JERUSALEM: Israel said it eased on Sunday fishing restrictions off the blockaded Gaza Strip with the aim of preventing a deterioration in humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian enclave.
The move came just three days after Israel had reduced the offshore fishing limits in response to Palestinians floating balloons fitted with incendiaries over the border.
COGAT, the defense ministry unit that oversees such regulations, said the fishing zone was being “expanded to 15 nautical miles,” back up from 10.
It restores the fishing zone to the limits set in April ahead of Israel’s general election, and is the largest allowed in years.
“This measure is part of the civilian policy for prevention of deterioration in humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip and is consistent with the policy of distinguishing between terrorists and the unimplicated population,” COGAT said in a statement.
Palestinians in Gaza have frequently floated balloons fitted with firebombs over the border to damage Israeli property and have succeeded in setting fire to large areas of farmland.
The additional nautical miles are important to Gaza fishermen as they bring more valuable, deeper water species within reach.
Around 80 percent of Palestinians in impoverished Gaza are reliant on international aid, according to the United Nations.
Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since Hamas assumed power over the enclave more than a decade ago.
Four Israeli civilians and 25 Palestinians, including at least nine militants, were killed in an escalation earlier this month.
According to reports, a May 6 cease-fire included Israel taking steps to ease its blockade on Gaza, while Hamas in return would calm border protests.