Syria regime forces surround Turkish army post

Syrian army soldiers in Idlib province. The Syrian regime has upped the stakes with Turkey in its months-long Russian-backed offensive in the region. (Reuters)
Updated 23 August 2019

Syria regime forces surround Turkish army post

  • The town of Morek, where the Turkish troops have been cut off, lies in Hama province, part of the region centered on neighboring Idlib province that has been under government assault
  • Extremists and allied rebels withdrew ahead of the army’s entry into the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on Wednesday and government forces took control without resistance

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces surrounded a Turkish observation post in the northwest Friday after overrunning nearby areas, sparking anger from Ankara which vowed not to leave its outpost.
Speaking at a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “our observation point there is not cut-off and nobody can isolate our forces and our soldiers.”
“We are there, not because we can’t leave but because we don’t want to leave,” he said, adding that the issue was being discussed with Damascus allies Russia and Iran.
The Syrian regime has upped the stakes with Turkey in its months-long Russian-backed offensive against the extremist-ruled Idlib region.
Moscow said on Friday that it has agreed with Ankara to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in Syria’s last major opposition bastion.
The town of Morek, where the Turkish troops have been cut off, lies in the north of Hama province, part of the region centered on neighboring Idlib province that has been under government assault since late April.
Government forces took control of Morek and nearby towns including Kafr Zita on Friday, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
Extremists and allied rebels withdrew from the area ahead of the army’s entry into the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun on Wednesday and government forces took control without resistance, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Regime forces have surrounded the Turkish observation post in Morek after capturing other towns and villages in this pocket,” said the Britain-based monitor.
The Morek observation post, established under a deal with Moscow, is one of 12 the Turkish army set up along the front line between Syrian government forces on one side — and the extremists and Ankara’s rebel allies on the other side — last year.
On Tuesday Cavusoglu vowed that the Turkish army “will do whatever is necessary” to defend these positions.
The Turkish presidency has also said that it will not abandon any of its observation posts in Syria.
The Turkish troops’ mission was to oversee the establishment of a buffer zone agreed by Ankara and Moscow in September.
But the extremists failed to pull back from the zone as agreed and in April, government and Russian forces resumed intense bombardment of the region.
The Kremlin on Friday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to “activate mutual efforts” to ease the situation in the Idlib region.
“They discussed the issues of Russian-Turkish cooperation in the context of stabilization of the de-escalation zone,” a statement said.
Erdogan is to host his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Ankara next month to discuss the latest developments.
The Turkish presidency on Friday said regime attacks in Idlib have led to a “grave humanitarian crisis.”
“These attacks damage the efforts to regulate the Syrian conflict,” it said.
The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper on Friday said the latest regime gains in Idlib will force amendments to the buffer zone deal.
Since January, the Idlib region has been ruled by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance, which is led by extremists from Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Other rebel groups allied with Turkey were forced to cede overall control.
On August 8, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive with Russian support against the southern part of the rebel-held region, eyeing control of the main highway from Damascus through Idlib province to second city Aleppo.
Khan Sheikhun and Maarat Al-Numan both lie along the highway.
The Syrian army on Friday said that its military “push is ongoing,” after it captured Morek and neighboring areas.
“Armed terrorist groups have lost the ability to stop our army’s heroes” it said.
Damascus said Thursday it will open a corridor for civilians to leave the area.
But most civilians had already fled before the pocket was cut off, according to the Observatory.
Since the end of April, more than 400,000 people have fled their homes, particularly in the south of Idlib and north Hama, the United Nations says.
Around 900 civilians have been killed, according to the Observatory.
Following a string of victories against extremists and other rebel groups, Assad’s government now controls around 60 percent of Syrian territory.
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people since it started with the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2011.


US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

Updated 12 November 2019

US troops at Syria base say they’ll keep pressure on Daesh

A BASE IN EASTERN SYRIA: At a base in eastern Syria, a senior US coalition commander said Monday that American troops who remain in Syria are redeploying to bases, including in some new locations, and working with the Kurdish-led forces to keep up the pressure on the Daesh militants and prevent the extremists from resurging or breaking out of prisons.
The commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Eric T. Hill, said even though Bradley armored vehicles have arrived in eastern Syria, the mission’s focus has not changed. He said the “force mix,” including the mechanized armored vehicles deployed in Syria for the first time since the war against Daesh, has an array of capabilities to deny Daesh the chance to regroup.
“The mission still continues. And Daesh is trying to resurge wherever they can,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. He said the forces have captured 700 IS fighters since its last territorial holding fell in March. “We’ve destroyed many and war remnants and we continue to do so as we find them.”
Speaking at a remote base in Syria where the Bradleys arrived last week, he said “our primary way that we do that” is through working with the US partners, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The deployment of the mechanized force comes after US troops pulled out from northeastern Syria, making way for a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters that began last month. Only several miles away from the base, fighting between Turkish-allied fighters and the SDF was ongoing, despite a cease-fire that has so far curbed the Turkish invasion but didn’t end the violence.
Smoke billowed in the distance, visible from across a major highway that has become a de-facto frontier between Turkish-held areas and areas where US troops are going to operate. An SDF official on the scene said Turkish shelling was continuing.
Further north, three car bombs went off Monday in the town of Qamishli, killing at least six people while a priest was shot dead. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack that killed the Armenian Catholic priest and his father as they drove from Qamishli to the city of Hassakeh, in a sign that the extremists still have reach.
The US withdrawal from northern Syria was widely criticized, even by allies of President Donald Trump. The Kurdish-led force, deserted by Washington in the face of the threat of a military operation by NATO ally, leaned on the Syrian government and Russia for help. The cease-fire reached in late October left Turkey in control of a stretch of land along the border that is roughly 120 kilometers (70 miles) wide and 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep. But fighting south of that zone continued. Kurdish officials say Turkey is seeking to expand its area of control.
Hill’s stress on the continued partnership with the Kurdish-led forces comes as US troops sent reinforcements to bases in the oil-rich region of eastern Syria.
Trump approved an expanded military mission which he said was to secure an expanse of oil fields across eastern Syria. The directive raised questions about how the troops will operate, particularly in an area where there are Russian-backed Syrian troops, who may try to take back oil facilities.
The decision was a partial win for those who were against the withdrawal from Syria. Pentagon officials said as many as 800 may stay in Syria, down from about 1,200 and including about 200 in a southern garrison.
Hill said while some troops are going home or withdrawing to Iraq, others are redeploying to Qamishli area, Deir Ezzor and Derik, an area where no US bases were before.
In a day visit to some of the bases where reinforcements were sent, Associated Press journalists spoke to some of the troops, many of them newly arrived. The military required that the names and exact locations of the bases not be identified.
First Lt. Jacob Moore said a group of his Bradley armored vehicles were asked to provide security for a US convoy passing through the fighting area, Tal Tamr, setting up a security blockade to allow the forces to pass.
“We were prepared for the worst,” said Moore, who arrived last week in Syria, “but we got the best. There was no fighting when we got there,” Instead, he said, locals were happy to see the new deployment.
In the crowded terrain, US officials say de-conflicting with Russia and Turkey is essential to avoid any friction.
But the reality created on the ground by US withdrawal and the Turkish invasion has made for a tense and at times, surreal terrain, where Russia, Turkish troops patrol together, while Syrian government forces clash with Turkey-backed allies despite a cease-fire brokered by Moscow, a main ally of Damascus. An earlier cease-fire negotiated between Washington and Ankara ensured that the two NATO allies don’t come into confrontation. But it left the Kurdish forces, which were in control of 30 percent of Syria’s territory, pushed away from the borders and reliant on a new political agreement that would protect a five-year experiment in self-administration.
If the US insists its mission is still fighting Daesh, for the Kurds their priority has now shifted. It is time for the alliance with the US to bear political fruit, said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, who was present at one of the bases.
He said keeping the oil in the hands of his forces was a good card for political negotiations.
“Here in northeast Syria, we are part of the total picture that is dealing with a crisis and requires finding a track for a political resolution,” Bali said. “The presence of the US forces, a military weight, will have a positive role in finding a political way out.”
Pentagon officials have stressed that securing oil facilities was a way to ensure that the Kurdish fighters maintain control of an important source of revenue.
One of the bases visited by journalists Monday was close to oil fields, but there was no way of telling if there was an increase of security around the facilities. While one base was provided with the Bradley vehicles, Apache helicopters had moved in to another, apparently from a base dismantled further north.
US officials say the enhanced presence of Apaches and artillery are a deterrent to any hostile forces in the area.
Adding to the complicated terrain in Syria, Deir Ezzor province is divided between the Kurdish-led forces on one side of the Euphrates River and the Syrian government and their Iranian-backed militias on the other. In February 2018, US forces responded firmly to an attempted advance on Kurdish-held areas by Syrian troops, at the time backed by Russian contractors.
At the base, soldiers said the troop presence also secures other infrastructure, such as water facilities and major highways.
Hill said the continued US presence is also to assist and train Kurdish-led forces, including in securing prisons where over 10,000 Daesh militants are held. The US does not guard the facilities but helps the Kurdish forces do so.
“One of the missions that we will continue to support with the Syrian Democratic Forces is to contain the prisons and make sure that all the prisoners that are under SDF control remain in those prisons and secure,” he said.