US-backed Syria force advances against ISIS in Tabqa
[4/30/2017 3:18:41 PM]
AMMONNEWS - A US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance is advancing against ISIS in the key town of Tabqa near the militant bastion of Raqa in northern Syria, a monitor said Sunday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces now control over half the town of Tabqa, including most of its heart, the Old City, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said fighting was continuing in the town on Sunday morning.
The SDF published photos Sunday it said showed items retrieved from newly captured parts of the town, including at least a dozen guns, as well as missiles, ammunition, and an ISIS flag.
The SDF entered Tabqa on Monday as part of their offensive against Raqa, ISIS’s de facto Syrian capital.
Supported by US-led coalition air strikes and Special Forces advisers, the SDF surrounded Tabqa in early April.
The town sits on a strategic supply route about 55 kilometers (35 miles) west of Raqa, and served as an important IS command base, housing the group’s main prison.
It is also adjacent to the Tabqa dam, another important strategic prize which remains under ISIS control.
The assault on Tabqa began in late March when SDF forces and their US-led coalition allies were airlifted behind ISIS lines.
The city is home to an estimated 85,000 people, including ISIS fighters from other areas. ISIS has put up fierce resistance, including using weaponized drones, a tactic the group perfected in neighboring Iraq.
The group is also fighting street-to-street and using suicide attackers and car bombs to slow the SDF’s advance, according to the Observatory.
The assault on Raqa, dubbed “Wrath of the Euphrates,” was launched in November and has seen SDF fighters capture large swathes of countryside around the city.
More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s war began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
Lavrov says Russia ready to cooperate with US on Syria
[4/29/2017 4:43:31 PM]
AMMONNEWS - Moscow is ready to cooperate with the United States on settling the Syrian crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday, Russian news agencies reported.
Russian authorities reiterate periodically that they stand ready to renew cooperation with Washington on Syria and, more globally, on fighting terrorism.
Relations between the two countries, however, are seen reaching another low after US fired missiles at Syria to punish Moscow's ally for its suspected use of poison gas earlier in April. Russia condemned the US action.
Lavrov's deputy Mikhail Bogdanov also said on Saturday that Russian authorities hope that Syrian armed opposition will take part in Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan's Astana on May 3-4, Interfax reported.
Security tight as Pope Francis celebrates open-air mass in Cairo
[4/29/2017 4:48:52 PM]
AMMONNEWS - Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in Cairo on Saturday, the last day of a brief visit during which he urged Muslim leaders to unite against religious violence as Islamic militants threaten to rid the Middle East of its ancient Christian communities.
Francis’ trip, aimed at rebuilding ties with Muslim religious leaders, comes three weeks after Islamic State killed at least 45 people in attacks on two Egyptian churches. He has used the visit to launch a strong appeal for religious freedom and accuse extremists of distorting the merciful nature of God.
After a dense first day of meetings with political and religious leaders, the highlight on Saturday was the Mass in the Air Defence Stadium, where Vatican officials said 15,000 people gathered, among them Coptic and Anglican bishops.
Crowds began to arrive early, waving Egyptian and Vatican flags to welcome Francis, who toured the stadium in a golf buggy to the sound of hymns performed by a choir and orchestra.
At the end of his Mass for the Catholic community, Francis blessed Egypt as one of the earliest nations to embrace Christianity and repeated his call for tolerance.
“True faith leads us to protect the rights of others with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which we defend our own,” he told the crowd.
“God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity! Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him!”
His words echoed his message on the opening day of his visit, when he told an international peace conference at Al-Azhar, Cairo’s 1,000-year-old Sunni Muslim seat of learning: “Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith belief and hatred.”
He also lamented the rise of “demagogic forms of populism” -- a possible reference to right-wing nationalist parties in Europe pushing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agendas.
The unusual choice of venue for Saturday’s religious service highlights the security concerns surrounding the trip.
Helicopter gunships circled the perimeter of the stadium and military jeeps patrolled the streets of the Egyptian capital on Saturday. The pope himself declined the use of an armored limousine, preferring instead to travel in an ordinary Fiat car to be closer to people.
Francis will have lunch with Egyptian bishops and lead prayers at a Catholic seminary in the south of Cairo before heading back to Italy in the late afternoon.
The visit was the first by Francis to Cairo but the second by a Vatican pope. Pope John Paul II came to Egypt in 2000, a year before the September 11 attacks on the United States that convulsed Western relations with the Muslim world.
Egypt’s Christians comprise roughly 10 percent of the 92 million population -- making them by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Most of Egypt’s Christians are Coptic Orthodox with barely 200,000 members of Churches within the Roman Catholic fold.
While Egypt has escaped the sort of sectarian violence that has decimated ancient Christian communities in Syria and Iraq, it is under threat from Islamic State militants who launched a campaign in December to wipe out Egypt’s Christians, carrying out three church attacks that have killed more than 70 people.
The campaign presents a challenge for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has vowed to crush Islamist extremist and is fighting a long-running insurgency in North Sinai, where Islamic State murders have forced hundreds of Copts to flee.
Sisi, who declared a three-month state of emergency after the Palm Sunday church attacks, appealed for more international cooperation to combat terrorism when he met Francis on Friday.
US troops monitor situation along Syria-Turkey border
[4/29/2017 5:47:11 AM]
AMMONNEWS - A commander of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Friday US forces would begin monitoring the situation along the Syria-Turkey frontier after cross-border fire between the Turkish military and YPG this week.
The monitoring had not yet begun, but the forces would report to senior US commanders, Sharvan Kobani told Reuters after meeting US military officials in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border.
The officials had toured Darbasiya which was hit by Turkish artillery fire earlier in the week. Turkish warplanes carried out air strikes against Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria and Iraq's Sinjar region on Tuesday in an unprecedented bombardment of groups linked to the PKK, which is fighting an insurgency against Ankara in Turkey's southeast.
Those attacks killed nearly 30 YPG fighters and officials, a monitoring group reported. Since Tuesday the YPG and Turkish forces have traded artillery fire along the Syria-Turkey border.
US military vehicles drive in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017.
Turkey's bombardment of YPG positions complicates the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria, where the YPG has been a crucial partner on the ground for Washington.
The YPG is a key component of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighting groups involved in a campaign to drive ISIS out of its Syria stronghold, Raqqa.
US NATO ally Turkey views the YPG and other PKK-affiliated groups as terrorists. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said on Friday US troops were deployed along the border.
“We continue to urge all the parties involved to focus on the common enemy which is ISIS,” he told reporters.
Hundreds of US troops are deployed on the ground in Syria to support the Raqqa offensive.
Israeli missile shoots down ‘target’ over Golan
[4/27/2017 3:02:26 PM]
AMMONNEWS - Israel shot down what it identified only as “a target” over the occupied Golan Heights on Thursday, hours after Syria accused it of hitting a military position near Damascus airport.
“The Patriot Aerial Defense System intercepted a target above the Golan Heights,” the official Israeli army Twitter account said, without elaborating.
A military spokeswoman refused to comment on Israeli media reports that the object was a drone.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said earlier that several Israeli missiles hit near Damascus airport at dawn.
Israel has not confirmed or denied the reported Damascus attack.
But Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said it was consistent with Israel’s policy to prevent arms transfers through to Hezbollah, while stopping short of confirming his country was behind the incident.
Israel has carried out multiple air strikes in Syria since that country’s civil war erupted in 2011, most of which it has said targeted arms convoys or warehouses of its Lebanese arch-foe Hezbollah, which is a key supporter of the Syrian regime.
Last month, it said it had conducted several strikes near the Syrian desert city of Palmyra, targeting what it said were “advanced weapons” belonging to Hezbollah.
The strikes prompted Syria to launch ground-to-air missiles, one of which was intercepted over Israeli territory in the most serious flare-up between the two neighbors since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.
Israel minister says Damascus blast consistent with country’s policy
[4/27/2017 11:14:05 AM]
AMMONNEWS - Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said a massive explosion near Damascus International Airport on Thursday was consistent with Israel’s policy, but stopped short of confirming his country was behind it.
Israeli warplanes have hit the airport and other bases around the Syrian capital in the past, targeting what it said were weapons stockpiles of its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, which is allied with the Syrian government.
“We are acting to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” Katz told army radio.
“When we receive serious information about the intention to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, we will act. This incident is totally consistent with this policy.” In line with its usual practice, Israel's military has declined to comment on the incident.
Weapons to Hezbollah
Israel has sought to avoid being dragged into the six-year civil war in Syria, but acknowledges carrying out air strikes there to stop what it says are deliveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
Last month, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syria conflict began, Israeli warplanes struck several targets, drawing retaliatory missile fire.
Israel used its Arrow interceptor to destroy what was believed to have been a Russian-made SA-5 missile, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria's air defense systems “without the slightest hesitation” if it happened again.
Trump says Assad’s future is ‘not a deal breaker’ on Syria war
[4/26/2017 11:00:34 AM]
AMMONNEWS - US President Donald Trump told UN Security Council ambassadors that the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “not a deal breaker” in negotiations on ending the war, Russia’s envoy said Tuesday.
Trump, who has branded Assad “a butcher”, said it was up to the Syrian people to decide, during a White House luncheon meeting on Monday with the 15 ambassadors, said Russian charge d’affaires Petr Iliichev.
“He said that the future of Assad is not a deal breaker,” Iliichev told AFP.
“He said that whether he stays or he leaves is not important. What is important is the political process, the cessation of bloodletting, of hostilities.”
“And then the people will decide.”
Iliichev insisted that Trump specifically used the words “not a deal breaker” in reference to the future of the Syrian leader.
UN-brokered talks on ending the six-year war in Syria have hit a wall over opposition demands that Assad step down as part of any settlement.
Russia, Assad’s top ally in the war, has long insisted that Assad’s fate would be settled through elections to be held as part of a transition.
British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said his understanding of Trump’s policy on Syria was to “end this conflict as swiftly as possible” and that this entailed “political talks that will lead to a transition, after which Assad will no longer be in power.”
Following a suspected chemical attack that prompted the United States to fire missile strikes, US Ambassador Nikki Haley said that peace in Syria would be impossible with Assad in power.
“There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she said.
“If you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it’s going to be hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”
The United States toughened its tone toward Assad following the suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun that Washington blamed on his forces.
Trump, who had floated the idea during his campaign of cooperation with Damascus to fight ISIS, said Assad had “crossed a lot of lines” with the alleged use of chemical weapons and that his attitude towards him had changed “very much.”
Syria and North Korea were the main topics at the meeting between Trump and the Security Council, but the ambassadors also raised concerns about proposed cuts to US funding to the United Nations.