Syria Deeply: Battle updates from Arsal outskirts, a good week for Russia in Syria and thinning ties between the U.S. and rebels
Jul. 28th, 2017
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Battle in Arsal outskirts: Hezbollah and an al-Qaida-linked militant group reached a cease-fire agreement on Thursday, a week after the Lebanese group and the Syrian army launched a joint offensive against militants in the rugged mountainous area along the Lebanese and Syrian border.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s general security agency, reportedly brokered the truce, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency (NNA). Under the terms of the deal, which extends to al-Qaida’s former Syria affiliate but not to fighters from the so-called Islamic State, fighters will be granted safe passage to Idlib province in Syria.
At least two dozen Hezbollah fighters and some 150 militants have been killed in clashes since the battle began last week, according to Al Jazeera.
But the battle in the outskirts of Arsal is not yet over. The next phase of the joint operation is expected to target nearby ISIS-held territory.
Moscow had been in talks for several weeks about deploying its military police to buffer zones on the edges of the four de-escalation zones. At the last round of Astana talks earlier this month, however, Moscow, Turkey and Iran failed to reach a definitive agreement about “which specific forces” would police the zones, Russia’s chief negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev said. In addition, the opposition delegation told Reuters that they remained skeptical of the proposal.
Less than three weeks later, on Monday Russian military police set up “two checkpoints and four monitoring posts” in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs outside the capital, according to Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the Russian general staff. This followed an earlier deployment in southwest Syria over the weekend, where Russia’s forces set up two checkpoints and 10 observation points.
The deployment comes after two individual cease-fire declarations in the respective areas. Violations have been reported in southern Syria and the cease-fire between government forces and opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta crumbled on Sunday after only 24 hours.
Russia further solidified its role in Syria later in the week, when President Vladimir Putin approved an agreement with the Syrian government that would allow Moscow to deploy at the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province for the next 49 years, with the option of extending the agreement for a further 25 years, according to documents seen by Reuters.
Thinning ties between U.S. and rebels: Days after news broke that President Donald Trump had ended the covert CIA program that provided arms and training to Syrian rebel groups, the U.S.-led coalition urged its Syrian allies to only fight the so-called Islamic State.
“We have made it very clear time and again our goal in Syria and Iraq is to fight ISIS and fight ISIS only [and] we’ve asked [our partner forces] to be committed to that same mission,” coalition spokesperson U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Ending the CIA program was a “signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia,” a U.S. official told Reuters last week. According to the New York Times, the decision came more than a month ago and revealed that ousting President Bashar al-Assad was no longer a U.S. priority.
The move has led at least one U.S-backed rebel group to split off from coalition forces and pursue independent operations against the Syrian government. In response, Dillon said Washington had begun the “process of ceasing our support,” for Shohada al-Quartyan, a local rebel group that had been fighting ISIS in southern Syria.
At least 32 children in the besieged Houla region are suffering from an inherited blood disorder that requires frequent transfusions. Though fatality rates for thalassemia are not exceptionally high, the absence of supplies and blood banks has made it life-threatening.
The economic strain of Syria’s six-year civil war has encouraged hidden forms of child labor, as an increasing number of youngsters take up work in dim factory buildings, dusty workshops and in the dingy backrooms of Damascene cafes.
Like all wars, Syria’s conflict has taken not just a massive human toll, it has also had a significant environmental impact. But green initiatives in rebel and Kurdish areas – even failed ones – have brought a small measure of hope to local people.
Lina Sinjab, Syrian Journalist and Middle East Correspondent at the BBC
The conflict in Syria has given way to a new class of nouveau riche, dominated by warlords and independent businessmen who benefit from the status quo, and may make it difficult for an international deal to be implemented locally, writes Syrian journalist Lina Sinjab.
Though international nonprofits hope their empowerment and decision-making workshops will prove useful to Syrian refugee women, many women express a desire for more pragmatic and economic-oriented training courses.
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