Syria’s opposition objects to Russia-Turkey-Iran plan — & Russia and regime could still use loophole to attack opposition areas
- 50 Days Later, US Admits It Hit Mosque in Western Aleppo Province
- Report: Jaish al-Islam Rebels Defeat Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham Jihadists Near Damascus
UPDATE, 1500 GMT: Russia has put pressure on the US over Moscow’s plan for “de-escalation zones” with the proclamation that four areas will be closed to overflights by US-led coalition warplanes.
Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian envoy to the Astana political talks, told journalists, “As for [the coalition] actions in the de-escalation zones, starting from now those zones are closed for their flights.”
Lavrentiev said the ban was not in the Russia-Turkey-Iran agreement, but asserted, “As guarantors we will be tracking all actions in that direction. Absolutely no flights, especially by the international coalition, are allowed. With or without prior notification. The issue is closed.”
The vast majority of US strikes inside Syria have been against the Islamic State outside the four proposed de-escalation zones; however, American warplanes have carried out occasional raids, targeting leaders and fighters of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and occasionally rebel factions in Idlib and western Aleppo Provinces. In March, American strikes killed at least 56 civilians in a mosque, apparently when it was misidentified as a complex where fighters had gathered.
Lavrentiev said the US-led coalition can continue airstrikes near Raqqa, ISIS’s central position in northern Syria and near some towns along the Euphrates River and close to the city of Deir ez-Zor.
The Russian Foreign Ministry did not explicitly refer to a ban, saying that “these issues are being discussed at the military level”.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed a Russian proposal for four “de-escalation zones” in Syria on Thursday, but they immediately faced objections from the Syrian opposition and concerns from the US.
The three countries agreed on the approach at the political talks in the Kazakh capital Astana. The zones cover opposition territory in Idlib and northern Hama Provinces, the East Ghouta area near Damascus, and parts of southern Syria. Overflights by the Assad regime’s warplanes would be halted and security on the ground would be provided by Russian, Turkish, and Iranian forces.
The proposal is similar to that of no-fly zones promoted by the opposition since 2012 and the Turkish Government since 2014; however, the opposition resisted Thursday’s initiative because of the involvement of the Iranians, whom they said cannot be a guarantor of any agreement.
The opposition sees Iranian-led foreign militias, which have increasingly taken over the leading role in the fight on the ground from the regime’s armed forces, as their primary threat alongside intensive Russian bombing.
They also objected to a plan which would lead to the long-time partition of Syria with President Assad remaining in power. Delegate Osama Abu Zeid summarized:
We want Syria to maintain its integrity.
We are against the division of Syria. As for the agreements, we are not a party to that agreement and of course we will never be in favor as long as Iran is called a guarantor state.
Earlier in the day, rebels in the delegation issued a final statement explaining the end of their participation in the political process.
They said it was impossible to accept any agreement that did not abide by UN resolutions since 2012, and repeated the demands for an end to sieges, release of political detainees, and creation of conditions for a “safe and voluntary return” of refugees.
As the Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement was announced, rebel officials walked out with one loudly declaring that the Iranians are “criminals”.
The US State Department said that it supported the de-escalation efforts, but that it “continues to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor’”. Spokeswoman Heather Nauert continued: “We expect the regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done. We expect Russia to ensure regime compliance.”
But Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev maintained that implementation would proceed from Saturday, with the Syrian Foreign Ministry agreeing to the end of military overflights. He added, “Further observance of the ceasefire will largely depend directly on armed opposition formations staying in de-escalation zones and also on terrorist organizations, first of all, Jabhat al-Nusra, whose presence on these territories is quite considerable.”
A clause in the proposal also provides a possible loophole for Russia and the Assad regime to renew airstrikes on the opposition areas, allowing “all necessary measures to continue the fight against DAESH/ISIL, Nusra Front, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qa’eda or DAESH/ISIL as designated by the UN Security Council within and outside the de-escalation areas”.
Since its military intervention in September 2015, Russia has used the pretext of strikes on the Islamic State to instead carry out the large majority of its attacks on opposition areas.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura welcomed the development while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that he was encouraged by the proposal but that it must “actually improve the lives of Syrians.”
TOP PHOTO: Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev signs the agreement for de-escalation zones in Syria, May 4, 2017
50 Days Later, US Admits It Hit Mosque in Western Aleppo Mosque
The US military is finally acknowledging that its warplanes hit a mosque complex in western Aleppo Province, an attack in which at least 56 civilians were killed.
“Two US defense officials” said a Central Command investigation found that the March 26 airstrike hit a building that was part of the complex.
Following the strike, the Pentagon firmly denied that a mosque was hit and that there were civilian casualties, despite videos and photographs showing people being taken out of the building, with a sign identifying it as a mosque. It declared that a site “40 feet away”, where “Al Qa’eda” fighters meeting, was the target.
The officials said that at the time of the strike, the US still believed the building was being used by Al Qa’eda. Neither would say that whether the building — like any mosque — had ever been on a no-strike list or had been listed as a religious site.
Complementary investigations by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat, and Forensic Architecture established that the US had in fact hit the mosque as people were at evening prayers. They supported witness statements that no fighters were present.
Report: Jaish al-Islam Rebels Defeat Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham Jihadists Near Damascus
Local sources report that the rebel faction Jaish al-Islam has almost cleared the jihadists of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham bloc from the East Ghouta area near Damascus.
A week ago, clashes broke out between Jaish al-Islam, the largest faction in the area, after HTS. Some units from another faction, Failaq al-Rahman, became involved, with scores of fighters reportedly killed.
The sources said that East Ghouta is now “free” of HTS: “A few fighters are on the run. JAI has asked the other factions (in the areas towards which they fled) to deal with them.”
They add that, to calm relations with Failaq al-Rahman, Jaish al-Islam have retreated since Thursday from some areas: “There are talks now and the situation is expected to be cleared today or tomorrow.”
In a statement, Jaish al-Islam announced the end of the offensive on “[Jabhat al-] Nusra”, the leading group in HTS, after the attacks “fulfilled most of their goals”.
I have to admit I was wrong in my assessment;
Jaysh al-Islam announce end of offensive on "Nusra" after they "fulfilled most of their goals" pic.twitter.com/cAQnxmpl2N
— Ibn Nabih (@IbnNabih1) May 5, 2017