Coalition says ‘good progress’ in north Syria buffer zone, thousands return to government-seized areas

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Abu Ahmad, a displaced Syrian from Termala and one of his young sons clear material as they dig a cave for shelter in the village of Kafr Lusin near the Syria-Turkey border, on September 9, 2019. (AFP)
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The children of Abu Ahmad, a displaced Syrian from Termala clear material as he digs a cave for shelter in the village of Kafr Lusin near the Syria-Turkey border, on September 9, 2019. (AFP)
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Abu Ahmad, a displaced Syrian from Termala chats with one his young sons outside a cave he dug for shelter in the village of Kafr Lusin near the Syria-Turkey border, on September 9, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 15 September 2019

Coalition says ‘good progress’ in north Syria buffer zone, thousands return to government-seized areas

  • The Syrian Observatory reported “around 3,000 people” going home from other areas under regime control
  • The Idlib region is one of the last holdouts of opposition forces

TAL ABYAD, Syria: The US-led coalition said Sunday that “good progress” was being made in implementing a buffer zone in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
Turkey and the United States last month agreed on the so-called “security mechanism” to create a buffer between the Turkish border and Syrian areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG led the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views the Kurdish fighters as “terrorists.”
The United States and Turkey launched their first joint patrol of the border areas on September 8, but Ankara has accused Washington of stalling in the week since.
A coalition delegation on Sunday met with members of a military council in Tal Abyad, a northern town from which Kurdish forces started withdrawing late last month.
“We are seeing good progress for the initial phase of security mechanism activities,” the coalition said in a statement handed out to journalists.
“The coalition and SDF have conducted multiple patrols to identify and remove fortifications to address concerns from Turkey,” the statement said.
“Four joint US and Turkish military overflights” by helicopter were also carried out, it said.
Little is known about the buffer zone’s size or how it will work, although Ankara has said there would be observation posts and joint patrols.
“We will continue the removal of certain fortifications in the security mechanism area of concern to Turkey,” the coalition statement said.
Riad Al-Khamis, a joint head of the Tal Abyad military council, said the SDF had withdrawn from the area, to be replaced by the local forces.
He announced US-Turkish “joint patrols in the coming days to ensure the security of the border and the area.”
“They will be joint patrols between the coalition or United States and Turkey in coordination with us, the Tal Abyad military council,” he said.
“The coalition has promised to train the military personnel (of the council) — who are from this area — and support them logistically,” he told reporters.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to go his “own way” if the buffer zone was not set up by the end of September “with our own soldiers.”
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday belittled efforts to create the safe zone as largely “cosmetic.”
Syria’s Kurds have established a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Syria during the country’s eight-year war.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria, and the prospect of a US withdrawal after the territorial defeat of Daesh in March again stoked fears of an incursion.
Damascus labelled the first patrol last week as a flagrant “aggression” that seeks to prolong Syria’s war.
Turkey has already carried out two cross-border incursions into Syria, the latest of which saw Turkish troops and Ankara’s Syrian rebel proxies seize the northwestern enclave of Afrin last year.
Meanwhile, state media reported on Sunday that thousands have returned to their hometowns in northwest Syria after military advances by government loyalist against militants and allied rebels, .
“Thousands of citizens return to their villages and towns of the northern Hama countryside and the southern Idlib countryside,” state news agency SANA said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported “around 3,000 people” going home from other areas under regime control.
Since August 31, a cease-fire announced by regime backer Russia has largely held in northwestern Syria, though the Observatory has reported sporadic bombardment.
SANA said the returns came amid “government efforts to return the displaced to their towns and villages.”
The Idlib region of around three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition to forces backing Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Moscow announced the cease-fire late last month after four months of deadly violence that displaced 400,000 people, most of whom fled north within the militant-run bastion, according to the United Nations.
Regime forces had chipped away at the southern edges of the militant-run stronghold throughout August, retaking towns and villages in the north of Hama province and the south of Idlib province.
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 370,000 people since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.
Assad’s regime now controls more than 60 percent of the country after notching up a series of victories against rebels and militants with key Russian backing since 2015.
But a large chunk of Idlib, fully administered by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate since January, as well as a Kurdish-held swathe of the oil-rich northeast, remain beyond its reach.


Libya’s navy intercepts about 150 Europe-bound migrants

Updated 19 October 2019

Libya’s navy intercepts about 150 Europe-bound migrants

  • Three rubber boats with 148 Arab and African migrants were stopped off Libya’s western towns of Zuwara and Sabrata
  • Libya has emerged as a major transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty to Europe

CAIRO: Libya’s coast guard says it has intercepted around 150 Europe-bound migrants off the country’s Mediterranean coast.
Spokesman Ayoub Gassim said Saturday the migrants had been returned to shore and would be taken to a detention center in the capital, Tripoli.
Gassim said the three rubber boats with 148 Arab and African migrants were stopped off Libya’s western towns of Zuwara and Sabrata Friday, and included 15 women and 11 children.
Libya has emerged as a major transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty to Europe. In recent years, the EU has partnered with Libya’s coast guard and other local groups to stem the dangerous sea crossings.
Rights groups, however, say those policies leave migrants at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers rife with abuses.