Syrian troops press ahead with campaign as strikes kill 16

People check the damage in a street following an air strike by pro-Syrian regime forces in the town Maarrat Misrin in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on February 25, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 25 February 2020

Syrian troops press ahead with campaign as strikes kill 16

  • The violence came as Turkey’s president announced that a Russian delegation would arrive the following day to resume talks
  • Erdogan said no consensus was reached for a four-way meeting next month between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey

ANKARA: Airstrikes on rebel-controlled northwestern Syrian killed at least 16 people Tuesday, including two students and two teachers, opposition activists said, as government forces closed in on a town considered a symbol of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
The violence came as Turkey’s president announced that a Russian delegation would arrive the following day to resume talks aimed at easing tensions in the northwest Idlib region. The area is the country’s last rebel-controlled stronghold and the Syrian government’s military campaign there, backed by Russia, has created a humanitarian catastrophe with nearly 1 million people displaced from their homes since Dec. 1.
Most of them are now crowding areas close to the border with Turkey, living in camps, shelters, abandoned homes and in open fields. It is the largest single displacement of Syria’s war, now in its ninth year.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said no consensus was reached for a four-way meeting next month between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey meant to address the crisis. He added, however, that Russia’s Vladimir Putin may still come to Turkey next week for a bilateral meeting. Moscow has so far not confirmed a March 5 visit by the Russian president to Turkey.
Tensions have been running high between Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides of the war in Syria. The Syrian government offensive has shattered a fragile cease-fire agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in 2018 and Turkey has threatened military action unless Syrian forces retreat to positions they held before the advance by the end of February.
“Russia supports Syria at the highest level,” Erdogan told reporters before departing for a visit to Azerbaijan. “Even if they deny it, we have evidence. We are forced to be in this fight.”
Turkish officials had reported small progress in two previous rounds of Turkey-Russia meetings but said the results were not satisfactory.
Turkey had set up a dozen observation posts as part of the 2018 agreement, many of which are now behind Syrian government lines. Ankara also sent thousands of additional troops into Idlib in recent weeks and has frequently engaged in military exchanges with Syrian troops.
At least 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes this month during the Syrian government’s push on the last rebel stronghold.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a news conference at the State Department Tuesday that the Syrian government’s offensive “only heightens the risk of conflict with our NATO ally, Turkey,” adding that the US was working together with Turkey “on seeing what we can do together.”
He called for a permanent cease-fire, saying “the regime will not be able to obtain military victory.”
The fighting appeared to intensify, however, with dozens of airstrikes reported Tuesday.
Opposition activists and a war monitor said at least 16 people were killed in Idlib province Tuesday. They included two students and two teachers who were killed in Idlib city when a school was struck with a cluster bomb-filled rocket, and 10 civilians who were killed in airstrikes on the town of Maarat Misreen in Idlib province. The deaths were reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Idlib-based opposition activist Hadi Abdullah.
The Observatory and Idlib-based opposition activist Taher Al-Omar said insurgents captured the village of Nairab late Monday after intense fighting with government forces that had captured the village earlier this month. The village is close to the town of Saraqeb where two major highways in the country meet.
To the south of Nairab, Syrian troops captured two new villages raising to 10 the number of areas captured in the province since Monday, according to state media.
The capture of Maaret Tamater and Maaret Seen brings government forces closer to Kafranbel, a major opposition-held town that gained attention in the early years of the Syrian conflict during weekly anti-government protests because of humorous English-language banners carried by protesters.
The banners were initiated by anti-government journalist Raed Fares who was shot dead in the town along with his friend Hammoud Al-Juneid in November 2018. Fares was a harsh critic of Islamic militants that control much of Idlib.
In Damascus, one civilian was killed and two others were injured by bombs planted in two cars near the Umayyad square in the Syrian capital Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said. It was not immediately clear who the target was.


Godfather of the Assad regime takes Rafik Hariri secrets to the grave

Updated 18 min 55 sec ago

Godfather of the Assad regime takes Rafik Hariri secrets to the grave

  • Abdul-Halim Khaddam, dead at 88, warned Lebanese prime minister before 2005 assassination

PARIS: The warning from Abdul-Halim Khaddam to Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was unequivocal: “Beware of these crazy people … they can harm you.”

As the man who served for 30 years in the upper echelons of the Syrian state under President Hafez Assad and then his son Bashar, Khaddam knew what he was talking about; in February 2005, Hariri was assassinated in Beirut by terrorists linked to the Syrian regime.

Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president who died from a heart attack early on Tuesday at the age of 88, recounted the story to Saad Hariri when the murdered man’s son visited him in his Paris residence a few months after the assassination.

In May 2015 Khaddam openly accused Hezbollah and Syrian regime members of the assassination. Officials from the tribunal investigating Hariri’s murder also visited Paris to question Khaddam.

For three decades in Syria, no one was closer to the Assad family than Khaddam, the Sunni Syrian Baathist from a middle-class family in the Mediterranean resort town of Baniyas.

Once seen as a possible successor to Hafez, instead he helped Bashar tighten his grip on power after he took office in June 2000.
In the days following the elder Assad’s death, Khaddam pushed through decrees elevating Bashar’s military rank to general and making him commander of the armed forces — key moves in the uncertain process of succession.
A lawyer by training, Khaddam was foreign minister for 14 years before becoming vice-president in 1984. He also took part in shaping Syrian policy in Lebanon. A former French ambassador to Syria, Jean Claude Cousseran, told Arab News Khaddam was the hard-line politician closest to Assad’s father, and a hard-liner also on the Lebanese question. Many Lebanese detested Khaddam because he represented the Syrian occupation and all its tragic consequences.

Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, another former French ambassador who headed the Middle East desk at the French Foreign Ministry, told Arab News he remembered Khaddam accompanying Bashar Assad on a state visit to Paris in 2000, when president Jacques Chirac had invited him after the death of his father.

De la Messuziere, an Arabist , recalled waiting in a side room of the Elysee Palace with an angry and impatient Khaddam while the two presidents had their one-to-one meeting. “Why is it taking so long, what are they doing?” he asked, in a loud voice.

In 2005, Khaddam was a vocal critic of both the Hariri assassination and Syria’s foreign policy in general, and he resigned from the Baath party.

Khaddam moved to Paris in December 2005, claiming that he needed medical treatment, and established a residence on the exclusive Avenue Foch, where his home was guarded round the clock by French police.

In 2011 he became one of the most prominent opponents of Bashar Assad and his war against his own people. From his Paris base, Khaddam tried to carve out a role in the opposition to Assad but struggled to win the trust of other dissidents because of his decades of work in the Baath party.
As the uprising continued, Khaddam said Syrians would have to take up arms in self-defense unless the world intervened to protect them, and he accused Assad and his family of instigating sectarian strife.

Khaddam’s presence in Paris was not popular with French public opinion, and criticized by many French officials who opposed his policy in Lebanon. Nevertheless, his vocal opposition to Bashar Assad had to some extent rehabilitated him.

Khaddam will be buried in France, where his funeral will be organized by the Paris municipality. His son Jihad is stranded in Turkey by the coronavirus pandemic, and his other son Jamal is recovering from open heart surgery in Paris.