Russia puts out conflicting statements over involvement with Daraa assault
UPDATE 1330 GMT: The Russian Defense Ministry has denied leaving the agreement with the US for a “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria.
However, the Ministry acknowledged that it is carrying out airstrikes in support of a pro-Assad offensive, labelling these as a “response to violations by extremist terrorist groups against Syrian government forces”.
Russia has officially announced that it is joining the pro-Assad offensive against Syria’s opposition in the south of the country, confirming its violations of a “de-escalation zone” announced with the US last July.
The Russian military at the Hmeimim airbase in western Syria issued the announcement on Tuesday, a week after the start of the pro-Assad shelling, bombing, and ground attacks on Daraa Province, where the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
“The end of the period of reduced escalation in southern Syria can be confirmed after it was breached by extremist groups and illegitimate armed groups operating against Syrian government forces, while the agreement remains in the [northwest] Syrian province of Idlib,” base official wrotes on Facebook.
Russia had already joined the bombing last weekend, with local sources saying they had tracked warplanes from Hmeimim carrying out dozens of raids.
The statement falsely declared:
Russian bombers do not target civilian sites by any means. Our missions are limited to the destruction of the terrorist bases belonging to the Nusra Front and ISIS terrorists, in order to support friendly land forces advancing on the ground.
There are no Islamic State fighters in the zone, except for a pocket of western Daraa Province controlled by a local ISIS affiliate. Jabhat al-Nusra, now part of the jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, also has no significant presence in the area, in which the rebel Southern Front is the largest force.
Russia issued similar false declarations to cover its essential involvement in the Assad regime’s recapture of eastern Aleppo city in December 2016, in the conventional and chemical attacks that subdued the East Ghouta area near Damascus this spring, and in assaults on other areas of Syria which ended the “de-escalation zones”.
Russia Breaks Its Declaration on “Non-Syrian Forces”
Tuesday’s statement puts to rest last month’s call by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for all “non-Syrian forces” to withdraw from Daraa and Quneitra Provinces, near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The Foreign Minister spoke after meetings with Israeli officials, who warned of intervention if any Hezbollah or Iranian-led foreign militia were involved in the offensive. In response, Lavrov pointed to a political process to obtain rebel departure from the area controlled by the opposition since 2012.
But the Assad regime’s forces, which have not made a major advance in the Syrian conflict without Russian airpower and the Hezbollah and Iranian-led fighters, struggled over the past week to make any gains despite shelling and bombardment that displaced up to 50,000 people. As of Tuesday, only a couple of villages in eastern Daraa Province were confirmed in regime hands, while there were disputed accounts about the status of the town of Busra al-Harir, where much of the attacks have been concentrated.
The US had said on four occasions since late May, including three last week, that it would take “firm and appropriate” measures against any pro-Assad offensive. However, over the weekend, US officials in Jordan warned rebels that they could not count on any American intervention.
Washington issued no statement in response to the Russian burial of the de-escalation agreement. National Security Advisor John Bolton is due in Moscow on Wednesday for talks with Lavrov and other Russian officials.
The Russians have also conferred with Jordanian officials, who said earlier this week that they will not open their border to any people displaced by the pro-Assad assault.
Pro-opposition sites reported a Facebook announcement by the Iranian-backed Iraqi Zulfiqar militia that it has joined the offensive.
“The soldiers of the Syrian regime army and the Zulfiqar Brigade are now in the heart of Basr al-Harir town in eastern countryside of Daraa,” the militia declared.
Pro-Assad forces bombed across Daraa Province on Tuesday, including attacks on Nawa, the largest city in the territory. Pro-opposition activists said 11 people, including two women and three children, were killed.
My cousin’s house was bombed today in musseifra , my cousin’s son was injured as shrapnel hit his eye & leg. pic.twitter.com/G9Cz7ao4vF
— اغين الزعبي (@Augiedamous) June 26, 2018
OPCW Given Authority to Assign Blame for Chemical Attacks
Members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have voted to give inspectors the authority to assign blame for chemical attacks.
The vote obtained a two-thirds majority despite the opposition of Russia, which has provided diplomatic cover for the Assad regime’s attacks with chlorine and sarin.
British delegate Peter Wilson, who drafted the proposal, summarized:
The @OPCW voted through the UK Decision co-sponsored by 30 States that will now allow it not just to say when chemical weapons are used but by whom
An overwhelming majority to restore the taboo against CW
— Peter Wilson (@PeterWilson) June 27, 2018
Between 2015 and 2017, the OPCW as able to apportion responsibility through a Joint Investigative Mechanism.
However, Russia vetoed the extension of the JIM’s mandate, after the inspectors found the Assad regime culpable for the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, killing about 90 people and wounding hundreds.
Multiple Casualties from Bombings in Afrin in Northwest
Bombings in Afrin city in northwest Syria caused multiple casualties on Wednesday.
Afrin was the center of the Syrian Kurdish canton of the same name, but the city and much of the canton was captured in March by a two-month Turkish-rebel offensive.
The explosions were a square in front of a rebel faction’s headquarters, the first with a rigged car and the second by an attacker with an explosive al-Jabha al-Shamia headquarters: the first one because of a booby-trapped car and the second due to an explosive belt. Local activists also reported a third explosion in front of Dersim Hospital, causing injuries.
Claims of people killed range from three to 20.