The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have handed over territory in northern Syria to the Assad regime, in a deal brokered by Russia.
The handover of five villages west of Manbij, in Aleppo Province, is the first transfer in a developing alliance amid a frontline and clashes with a Turkish-rebel offensive.
“The handover has taken place,” Sharfan Darwish, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, an SDF element, said on Monday.
The SDF-regime alliance has been fostered by both pro-Assad and Turkish-rebel gains against the Islamic State since the start of the year. The Turkish-rebel offensive, launched last August and moving southwards through Aleppo Province, captured al-Bab, 30 km (19 miles) south of the Turkish-Syrian border and 40 km (25 miles) northeast of regime-held Aleppo city. Meanwhile, pro-Assad forces advanced south and east of al-Bab, linking with Kurdish-controlled territory for the first time.
Captured by the SDF from ISIS in June 2016, Manbij has been a likely point of conflict between the Turkish-rebel offensive and the Kurdish-led force, which has been supported by the US since its creation in autumn 2015. Turkey consider the Syrian Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and its YPG militia, the leading element in the SDF, to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised that Manbij will be taken as part of a drive on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s central position in northern Syria.
The US has been unable and/or unwilling to press the SDF to pull out of Manbij. Instead, Washington has provided small — but visible — reinforcements of armored vehicles and special forces in recent days.
Russia, the leading backer of the Assad regime, has also begun supplying military assistance to the SDF.
Turkey-Russia-US Military Discussions
Turkish, Russian, and US military commanders are meeting for the first time during the Syrian conflict.
The meeting is being held in Antalya in southern Turkey between Turkish Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, and Russian Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov.
A statement said the three men discussed security issues concerning Syria and Iraq, without providing details.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım indicated late Monday that the conversation would be about an offensive to regain the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s primary position in northern Syria:
There is no point in doing an operation [on Raqqa] without coordinating with Russia and the U.S. It would be futile and the consequences may become more complicated. For that, there are military, technical negotiations going on.
Yıldırım repeated Turkey’s insistence that the Kurdish military YPG, the chief element in the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, be excluded from the operations:
We have conveyed our offer to the U.S. There has not been a formal response yet. So it would not be right to say ‘they have other plans’ just by taking what has been written about the issue into account. But we will not be anywhere there are terrorist organizations. It is that clear.
He said Turkey’s main objective, in its offensive alongside rebels, is to push the YPG out of Manbij and any areas west of the Euphrates River.
TOP PHOTO: Fighters of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces near Manbij, June 1, 2016 (Rodi Said/Reuters)
Rebels Shell Damascus Neighborhood in Retaliation for Pro-Assad Attacks
Rebels have been shelling a pro-regime neighborhood in Damascus on Monday in response to the pro-Assad offensive bombarding and trying to capture areas east of the capital.
Scores of mortars have reportedly struck the district of Dahiyat al-Assad in northeast Damascus since Sunday, killing up to four civilians and injuring dozens of others.
Dahiyat al-Assad was built in 1982 to create a new bastion of Alawite support for the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the President, by housing new officers and their families.
The rebels are retaliating for a two-week regime assault on the opposition-controlled districts of Qaboun, Barzeh, and Tishreen. The pro-Assad forces have been trying for months to quell resistance in the East Ghouta area, taking much of the territory but struggling to conquer the rest.
Regime warplanes have hit Tishreen and Qaboun with more than 30 airstrikes and scores of mortars, artillery fire, and tank shells since Sunday, local opposition media said.
Up to 85T of Tishreen and 60% of Qaboun have been demolished since mid-February, said Eyad Abu al-Joud, head of the Syrian Civil Defense in eastern Damascus.
The attacks on Qaboun and Barzeh are being pursued even though the two areas signed truces with the regime in early 2014.
“Blood for blood, destruction for destruction…in response for the massacres in Ghouta and the east Damascus neighborhoods,” Ali Abdulbaqi, chief of staff for East Ghouta’s largest rebel faction, Jaish al-Islam, wrote. “God willing, the fortress of the tyrants is going to shake.”
Local pro-opposition media said “mortar fire targeted positions of regime militias”.
“There have been at least five shells falling every day since the start of military operations in Qaboun,” Nour, a member of the Dahiyat al-Assad News Network, told Syria Direct on Monday. “Previously, we could go a day or two without any.”
Russia Confirms Death of Another Soldier Near Palmyra
The Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed the death of another soldier near Palmyra in central Syria.
The Ministry said:
Contract soldier Artyom Gorbynov was conducting a mission in the Syrian Arab Republic to protect a group of Russian military advisors. Gorbunov died on March 2 in the area of Palmyra, rebuffing an attempt by a group of Islamic State militants to attack positions of Syrian troops, where Russian military advisers were at the moment.
The Ministry said another soldier, reportedly killed in action in Syria, was not on active duty. Russia’s RBC news site said that Slyshkin was in Syria with a private Russian security company, the Wagner Group.
Russian media reported last week that Major General Pyotr Milyukhin lost both legs and an eye when the Islamic State blew up his vehicle with a remotely-controlled land mine on February 16 in Homs Province. He is the highest-ranking Russian casualty since Moscow’s military intervention with airstrikes and “military advisors” in September 2015.
Four servicemen were killed in the attack.
Russia has acknowledged the deaths of 28 of its troops in Syria in the past 18 months.
More Fighting Between Anti-Assad Factions in Northwest Syria
There was more fighting between anti-Assad factions in northwest Syria on Monday.
The leading bloc Ahrar al-Sham issued a statement accusing the bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), of attacks and propaganda threatening unity.
Clashes were reported yesterday between an HTS group and Ahrar al-Sham, with casualties on both sides, in the town of al-Mastumah in Idlib Province.
Rebel factions say Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has been carrying out attacks throughout the winter against their headquarters, positions, and storage facilities in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces. Ahrar al-Sham has taken in some factions, guaranteeing their protection, while others have joined the HTS bloc.
Monday’s statement by Ahrar al-Sham said HTS was trying to block an anti-Assad merger. It called on the bloc to go through Sharia court with any grievances.