Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters load ammunition at a frontline near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province. (AP)
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Updated 27 February 2020

Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

  • Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways
  • Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting

AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb, the first significant reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains, the rebels said on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways, following advances by the Syrian army in its bid to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting.
“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front, said in a statement, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on Thursday that Russian-backed government forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after fresh advances against the rebels.
Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in the southern Idlib area and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Observatory said.
The opposition advance on Saraqeb comes ahead of an end-February deadline set by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back.
Turkish and Russian officials were expected to hold a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday on the conflict.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey to back the rebels and set up new outposts that rebels say was in preparation for a Turkish operation to push back Assad’s forces.
Ibrahim Al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said the seizure of the town eases pressure on rebels who in recent days lost a string of significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.
“The rebels this morning completed their control of Saraqeb after having advanced from several fronts. This eases the pressure after the Syrian army’s recent gains,” Idlibi said.
Saraqeb is at the juncture of two main roads linking the capital of Damascus and its second largest city of Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.
Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, from the insurgents had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.
Opening major highways in rebel hands to revive a shattered war economy has been a key goal of the Russian-led campaign.
“The opposition have now cut the highways and brought the regime to square one,” said Syrian opposition defector general Ahmad Rahhal.


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

Updated 01 April 2020

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.