PHOTO: A Turkish tank supports advancing rebels in northern Syria on Wednesday
- Images: The Children Killed and Saved From Assad’s Bombs in Aleppo
- Reports: Regime Tries Again for Surrender of Besieged Darayya
- Aleppo Opposition Rejects “Humanitarian Corridor” Through Key Road from North
- For 1st Time, UN Explicitly Blames Regime for Chemical Attacks
UPDATE 0830 GMT: Maintaining pressure on Kurdish forces, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry is declaring that — according to US Secretary of State John Kerry — the Kurdish militia YPG have started withdrawing east of the Euphrates River.
The spokesman for the US forces fighting the Islamic State has verified the claim on Twitter, saying that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces will now concentrate on the Islamic State’s central position of Raqqa:
The Syrian Democratic Forces have moved east across the Euphrates to prepare for the eventual liberation of Raqqa, Syria #defeatdaesh
— OIR Spokesperson (@OIRSpox) August 25, 2016
However, a leader of a Kurdish council, created last week, declared that the fight will continue against Turkey and the rebels.
Armanc Cerablus of the Jarablus Military Council said Kurdish fighters would not allow the Turkish-backed rebels to cross through Amarinah village, 3 km (2 miles) south of Jarablus.
There were unconfirmed claims on Wednesday night of sporadic clashes between rebels and elements of the SDF in the area, and pro-rebel activists said today that Amarinah had been occupied.
Turkey has maintained that the Euphrates is a “red line” for Kurdish-controlled territory. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces crossed the river last December in their advance against the Islamic State.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Turkish-backed rebels quickly captured a key town in northern Syria from the Islamic State on Wednesday, in an advance with wider implications for the 5 1/2-year Syrian conflict.
Turkish armor and troops entered Syria for the first time yesterday morning, supporting thousands of rebels who had been gathered in Turkey to cross the border and attack the town of Jarablus.
Although Jarablus is a key point for the movement of ISIS personnel and supplies, the Islamic State chose not to fight, with members retreating towards the Euphrates River east of the town.
Turkish media claimed that at least 46 ISIS fighters were killed as rebels took surrounding villages, while one Free Syrian Army soldier was killed and ten other troops wounded.
Rebels v. Kurdish PYD/YPG?
The defeat is another major setback for the Islamic State. Pro-Assad forces took the city of Palmyra in central Syria from ISIS in March, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have advanced west from northeast Syria. Earlier this month, the SDF captured ISIS’s main position in Aleppo Province, the city of Manbij.
The retreats leave the Islamic State reliant on the city of Raqqa and surrounding area for their claim of a “caliphate” which includes Syria as well as Iraq.
But Wednesday’s development raises even wider questions about the future of the Syrian conflict, notably the relationship between the rebels — now with overt Turkish involvement in their position — and Kurdish forces who are opposed by Ankara.
The Turkish Government quickly seized the opportunity to press the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia, the most prominent Kurdish force in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, “[We act] against terror organizations such as Daesh [the Islamic State] and the PYD.”
Perhaps surprisingly — given the extensive US support for the SDF since its creation last autumn — Vice President Joe Biden issued his own warning to the PYD and YPG. Speaking during a two-day visit to Ankara, he said Syrian Kurdish forces “must move back [east] across the Euphrates River”, giving up much of the territory they have taken since last December.
Biden warned, “They cannot — will not — under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment.”
The declaration appeared to catch the PYD by surprise. Salih Muslim, the co-leader of the organization, had tweeted earlier on Wednesday, “Turkey is in Syrian Quagmire. [It] will be defeated just as Daesh. Turkey has much to lose in the Syrian swamp.”
On Thursday morning, a Kurdish official insisted to the BBC that Biden’s statement had been exaggerated by Turkish media and said that messages were awaited from the US military in the region.
The Maneuvers of Foreign Powers
It was not only the shifting US position that drew attention to outside powers on Wednesday.
The speed of the Turkish intervention and rebel advance fed speculation about the stance of key backers of the Assad regime, notably Russia and Iran, and whether they had cut a deal with Ankara — the long-time supporter of the Syrian opposition and rebels.
The regime, speaking through the Foreign Ministry, was in no doubt about its opposition to Turkish “aggression”: “Any move to combat terrorism on Syrian territories should have been coordinated with the Syrian government and army.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry, stopping short of outright objection, said it was “deeply concerned” with “cause for alarm in the possibility of further degradation of the situation in the conflict zone”.
However, the lack of a Russian military response to the sudden turn of events — or any appearance of resistance by the Syrian military — led some to argue that President Vladimir Putin may have bargained with Erdoğan, who visited Moscow earlier this month amid a “reconciliation” after Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last November.
Officials in Iran, even more fervent than Russia in its backing of President Assad, said little on Wednesday about the Turkish intervention. Instead, State outlet Press TV features an interview with a US conspiracy theorist, Gordon Duff of Veterans Today, as an “analyst” proclaiming “Turkey Has No Intention to Fight Daesh in Syria”.
As part of the attempt to court Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in Ankara last week.
Turkey’s “No-Fly Zone”?
The rebel victory in Jarablus and signals from Ankara revived the possibility of a “safe haven” in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
Turkey has promoted the idea since autumn 2014, suggesting a 98-km (61-mile) strip along the border, extending 40 km (25 miles) into Syria. The haven would run from the northwestern corner of Syria to the anchor of Jarablus, stopping short of the Euphrates River and Kurdish cantons.
Pursuing its own intervention against the Islamic State and wary of Syrian rebels, the US balked at the idea. Prospects were further complicated by the ISIS presence in much of northern Syria, by Kurdish operations not only in northeast but also northwest Syria, and by the Russian aerial intervention from September 2015.
Yesterday’s capture of Jarablus suddenly removes the ISIS obstacle, and it puts pressure on Kurdish groups to — reluctantly — accept the possibility of further opposition areas on the border.
After the surprise in Biden’s statement, it remains to be seen if the US will now be accommodating. And — for all the speculation of a grand deal between Turkey, Russia, and Iran — the reaction of Moscow and Tehran cannot be anticipated.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime — whpse dreams of seizing territory from ISIS in the north, including Raqqa, were quashed in military failure this spring — is a bystander.
Images: The Children Killed and Saved From Assad’s Bombs in Aleppo
Regime barrel-bombing of an opposition district of Aleppo city on Thursday killed at least 13 people, many of them children, according to activists.
White Helmets rescuers were able to save some children who were trapped.
— Khaled Khatib (@995Khaled) June 2, 2016
But there was no way to save them all.
we saved Omran, but unfortunately we couldn't save this girl, she was killed in Aleppo by Assad's barrel bombs today pic.twitter.com/6DwbulzLxU
— Khaled Khatib (@995Khaled) August 25, 2016
Reports: Regime Finally Gets Surrender of Besieged Darayya
Reports are circulating that the Assad regime has finally arranged the surrender of the Damascus suburb of Darayya, besieged and bombarded since November 2012.
A delegation from the Syrian military reportedly entered the suburb on Wednesday for talks. The negotiations were initially held up over the destination of rebels who leave the town, but agreement was finally reached that fighters will go to opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria, a day after civilians are evacuated to nearby towns.
The Syrian military surrounded Darayya after the opposition took control of the suburb and established its own council. Air attacks have escalated this year, with thousands of barrel bombs, missiles, and rockets fired as pro-Assad forces tried to overrun the suburb on the ground.
The regime has blocked the UN’s attempts to get aid into Darayya. One token shipment was allowed in June, but it was followed within hours by more shelling.
The attacks have succeeded in taking part of the area, including farmland needed to provide food during the siege. However, resistance continues to prevent a full occupation by regime forces.
Negotiations have been carried out periodically through the summer for a ceasefire in which the residents would accept regime conditions and rebels would leave the area.
Daraya has one of the best councils in the country, plus resistance militias under popular control. tragedy if it falls.
— Robin Yassin-Kassab (@Qunfuz1) August 25, 2016
— Lara Nelson – لارا (@LN_Lara1) August 25, 2016
— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) August 25, 2016
Aleppo Opposition Rejects “Humanitarian Corridor” Through Key Road from North
The local council in opposition-held areas of Aleppo city has rejected the proposal of a “humanitarian corridor” via the al-Castello road from the north.
Last month, pro-Assad forces — enabled by Russian airstrikes — effectively cut the road, the last route at the time into opposition districts, and imposed a siege.
The UN’s World Food Program is now proposing that the road be designated as the corridor into the city.
The local council responded that the WFP is coordinating with an Assad regime “which is in charge of the killing of the Syrians”.
As an alternative, it proposed the supply of assistance through a corridor to the southwest of Aleppo, opened by rebels in an offensive in early August.
Aid orgs want to use Aleppo's regime-controlled Castello Road to deliver aid, even though there is a better route. pic.twitter.com/rZ7mjmutPo
— Shakeeb Al-Jabri (@LeShaque) August 25, 2016
For 1st Time, UN Explicitly Blames Regime for Chemical Attacks
For the first time, a UN report has explicitly blamed the Assad regime for chemical attacks in Syria.
The 95-page document said Syrian military helicopters dropped chlorine canisters in barrel bombs on civilians, citing at least two attacks.
The report also found that Islamic State fighters used poisonous sulfur mustard last year.
Submitting the document to the Security Council, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said he looked forward to its consideration of the details.
Before now, UN investigators have been restricted by Security Council guidelines which rule out any attribution of blame for the chemical attacks, including the Assad regime’s killing of at least 1,400 people near Damascus in August 2013.
To avoid military intervention by the US and other powers, the regime was supposed to hand over all chemical weapons stocks and dismantle facilities after the 2013 attack. However, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, mandated to monitor compliance, reported last month that it has repeatedly found traces of deadly nerve agents in laboratories.
In a two-page summary of the report, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said majority of 122 samples, taken at “multiple locations”, indicate “potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities”.
Uzumcu concluded that the many of the regime’s explanations for the presence of undeclared agents “are not scientifically or technically plausible, and…the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified”.
The Assad regime did not comment on Wednesday’s report, which was submitted to the Security Council.
However, in possible anticipation of the criticism, Syria’s UN Ambassador said on Monday that France had carried out the August 2013 sarin attacks near Damascus.
The UN investigators looked at nine attacks in four visits to Syria, gathering 8,500 pages of documents, 950 photos and 450 videos.
They concluded that the Syrian Air Force had dropped chlorine canisters in “makeshift weapons deployed from helicopters” on two towns in Idlib Province in northwest Syria — Talmenes in April 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to US calls for action over the report:
They should look in the mirror and do what they have been promising to do since January – to separate the opposition which they consider loyal from terrorists. They cannot do this, they are either unable to do this or do not want to do it.