Clashes kill nearly 60 fighters in northwest Syria

A fighter from the former Al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) fires an anti-aircraft gun in Syria’s southern Idlib province. (AFP)
Updated 13 August 2019

Clashes kill nearly 60 fighters in northwest Syria

  • Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighboring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces
  • Fighting in southern Idlib and rural Latakia on Tuesday claimed the lives of 29 pro-government forces as well as 30 extremists and allied rebels

BEIRUT: Clashes between regime loyalists and insurgents in rebel-held northwest Syria killed 59 combatants on Tuesday, a war monitor said.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an extremist group led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighboring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
Several other armed rebel groups also operate in the region.
Fighting in southern Idlib and rural Latakia on Tuesday claimed the lives of 29 pro-government forces as well as 30 extremists and allied rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It came as regime warplanes pummelled the Idlib region with air strikes, killing three civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the Britain-based monitor added.
Regime forces and anti-government fighters have been caught in fierce battles in the region for days, as the former presses with an advance toward a strip straddling the Hama and Idlib governorates.
On Sunday, regime forces seized the town of Al-Habeet in Idlib’s southern countryside, in their first major ground advance in the province since an escalation on the extremist-dominated enclave more than three months ago.
The region was supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by a Turkish-Russian buffer zone deal struck last September.
But it has come under increasing bombardment by Damascus and its backer Moscow since the end of April that has killed 816 civilians, according to the Observatory.
The violence has also pushed 400,000 people from their homes, according to the United Nations.
Syria’s conflict has killed a total of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.


US, European allies clash on militants’ fate in Daesh talks

Updated 43 min 36 sec ago

US, European allies clash on militants’ fate in Daesh talks

  • Senior officials from more than 30 countries pledged greater coordination in the campaign against Daesh

WASHINGTON: The US and its European allies clashed on Thursday over what to do with thousands of militants jailed in Syria, with Washington calling a French proposal to try fighters in Iraq “irresponsible.”

Senior officials from more than 30 countries pledged greater coordination in the campaign against Daesh in a meeting in Washington proposed by France, which has been particularly concerned by President Donald Trump’s decision last month to pull US troops from Syria.

Trump’s move allowed an incursion by Turkey aimed at destroying Kurdish guerrillas, who had led the fight against Daesh and run jails for captured extremists in their effectively autonomous area in northern Syria.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed the Europeans on foreign fighters, telling them, “we’ll hold them to account.”

“Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody and impose accountability for the atrocities they have perpetrated,” Pompeo said.

But Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, acknowledged that “there is, candidly, a difference of opinion about the best way to resolve this problem.”

“The United States thinks that it’s inappropriate to ask Iraq in particular to shoulder the additional burden of foreign fighters, particularly from Europe,” Sales told reporters after the one-day meeting.

“It would be irresponsible for any country to expect Iraq to solve that problem for them,” he said.

“We think there should be a sense of urgency to repatriate now while we still can,” he said.

Sales’s comments clearly were directed at France, which has opened talks with Iraq about trying foreign nationals.

European nations such as France and Britain have no desire to see the return of battle-hardened supporters of the ultra-violent group, which has claimed responsibility for a slew of grisly attacks against civilians.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his government was seeking the “certain and lasting detention” of fighters and noted that the vast majority of prisoners were Iraqis and Syrians.

“For our part, we will continue to say that they should be tried as close as possible to the crimes they committed,” he told reporters.

“Let’s never forget that these women and men who joined Daesh made a fully conscious choice to fight for a terrorist organization,” he said, using the group’s Arabic initials.

European governments have revoked the citizenship of a number of citizens over alleged Daesh links.

Such a step is virtually impossible in the US, although a court Thursday backed the State Department’s finding that one US-born recruit, Hoda Muthana, did not have US citizenship as her father was a diplomat from Yemen.

Trump argues that the US accomplished its military mission in war-ravaged Syria by crushing Daesh, although he has since said that US troops will stay on to secure oil fields.

Pompeo dwelled little on Trump’s decision but said US forces remained positioned to make sure Daesh “will never get a second wind,” using a common acronym for the group.

The United States will continue to lead the coalition and the world on this essential security effort,” Pompeo said.

He scoffed at criticism of Trump’s move, pointing to the October 26 raid by US forces that killed the group’s chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as well as an operation that killed his would-be successor.

“Ask them if there’s a deficit of American leadership in fighting” Daesh, Pompeo said.

The talks came a day after Trump welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House, a rapid turnaround in symbolism just weeks after Trump threatened to destroy the NATO ally’s economy over its incursion.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking alongside Pompeo, acknowledged that there were “differences” among alliance members on Syria, where the situation he said “remains fragile and difficult.”

But Le Drian said France felt reassured by a joint statement’s reaffirmation of a coalition, saying that all members agreed “to avoid unilateral steps without consulting with others.”

The ministers also said they would hold a meeting next year focused on Daesh in West Africa, where the extremists have staged increasingly destructive attacks.