All posts by Sophie Mangal

What did the US-led Coalition Decide to Defeat: Islamic State or Raqqa?

PART ONE

The ancient mud brick walls circling Raqqa’s deserted old city are almost the only structure still intact. Inside, shops and homes spill crumbling concrete onto either side of the narrow roads, block after block.

Fighting between U.S.-backed militias and Islamic State in the jihadist group’s former Syria stronghold has peppered mosques and minarets with machine-gun fire while air strikes flattened houses. No building is untouched. Senior council member Omar Alloush estimated at least half the city has been already completely destroyed.

“The old clock tower could be heard from outside the walls once. It’s damaged now. It’s silent,” Mohammed Hawi, a Raqqa-citizen, said at a nearby home occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (SDF). Driving militants out has caused destruction that officials say will take years and cost millions of dollars to repair. A major bridge leading into eastern Raqqa lies collapsed after a latest coalition air strike. Beyond it, damaged water towers and the skeletons of teetering residential blocks dot the skyline. “We’re waiting for help to repair the east bridge,” co-president Leila Mustafa, a civil engineer, said. “If it doesn’t arrive soon, we’ll begin ourselves, using any means we have, though we have practically nothing.”

Smoke rises at the positions of the Islamic State militants after an air strike by the coalition forces near the stadium in Raqqa, Syria, October 4, 2017. (Reuters/Erik De Castro)

The nascent Raqqa Civil Council, set up to rebuild and govern Raqqa, faces a huge task. It says aid from countries in the U.S.-led coalition bombing and burning all around while fighting IS is ridiculous. The failure to quickly return services to the city that was once home to more than 200,000 people, mostly now displaced, risks unrest, Council warns.

“Infrastructure is completely destroyed by the airstrikes and mortar shelling. Water, electricity networks, bridges – all of the facilities are practically ruined or in very poor condition. There’s not a single service functioning,” said Ibrahim Hassan, who oversees reconstruction for the Raqqa council at its headquarters in nearby Ain Issa.

The other problem is civilians of Raqqa dying every day as a result of assaults. “There are also bodies under rubble, of civilians and terrorists. These need reburying to avoid disease outbreaks,” Omar Alloush said. Amnesty International has said the U.S.-led campaign, including air strikes, has killed hundreds of civilians trapped in Raqqa. Residents have reported civilian deaths, but it is difficult to establish how many people have died.

The coalition says it allegedly does all it can to avoid civilian casualties. But the city is densely built up and militants firing from homes are often targeted by air raids. Corridors for locals don’t work. People bear the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe now taking place in Raqqa. There’s a gap in humanitarian assistance at a glance. The council said coalition countries were reluctant to aid the Raqqa council, made up of local engineers, teachers, and doctors.

“It seems that we gave our city as a sacrifice for the sake of defeating terrorism. Now it’s the world’s duty to help us,” say people of Raqqa. The questioned people also say that they have no support of the US-led coalition and of Western countries in restoring and reconstruction. The US-led coalition is fighting terrorism for months without considerable success but with significant damage to all. So it seems the coalition is trying to defeat Raqqa instead of ISIS. The only question is who will rebuild the city after horrible airstrikes of the coalition? People of Raqqa are asking themselves about it. They also seek help and justice and are crying out for care. Many locals described themselves as overwhelmed by fear about the future and feelings of hopelessness.

• Logical deductions of John Davison from Reuters were used in the piece.

PART TWO

Restoration of Syria: Who will Gain What?

Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has successfully defeated or neutralized much of the insurgency in his country, domestic and international attention has begun to turn toward stabilization and reconstruction. It is now possible to envision a postwar Syria, at least in parts of the country.

Yet large sections of the international community—including, critically, key donor countries—continue to reject the legitimacy of President al-Assad and his regime. The United States and its allies have given up on their proxy war in Syria, with which they had pushed for al-Assad’s negotiated removal from power. But now restoration seems like the next battle to shape Syria’s political order. For backers of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition, restoration funds are their last remaining tools to pressure the Government. Experts are now proposing convoluted schemes for how the West can rebuild Syria in spite of al-Assad or how it can condition its restoration money on political concessions from the regime.

There is a less complicated solution: Do not fund the restoration of al-Assad’s Syria.

In a high-profile speech in August, President al-Assad warned his adversaries that they would not negotiate their way to victory. “We won’t let enemies, adversaries, and terrorists, through any means, accomplish through politics what they failed to accomplish on the battlefield and through terrorism,” he said.

The West should take al-Assad at his word. Syria’s restoration cannot be dictated or meaningfully shaped by Western donors—at least not to any satisfactory political ends. There are limited humanitarian arguments for investing in reconstruction. But in political terms, the West does not have a role to play.

It seems that the West won’t put a dime in the restoration of Syria without any profit whether it would be political, economic or some other gains. President al-Assad may be faced with the problem onto one. The only thought that springs to mind is the help of al-Assad-backers. Hope a United Nations committee will help. Syrian Government allies have been already lending a helping hand despite the absence of visible plausible futures. Where are others?

Sam Heller ‘s logical deductions were used in the piece.

Flagship Resort in Damascus Back to Peaceful Life

According to the statements of local authorities, Zabadani resort town in Damascus province, which is located 25 kilometers from the Syrian capital, is now fully liberated after fierce clashes between the Syrian Army and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants (ex. Al-Nusra front). Residents who left the city more than five years ago began to return to their homes and manage their further life.

It is worth noting that prior to the outbreak of hostilities Zabadani was regarded as one of the flagship resorts in Syria. The town was popular due to its favorable location near the Barada River (not far from the Syrian-Lebanese border) and attracted tourists with its extraordinary mountain scenery and picturesque landscapes.

Happy people on the streets of newly liberated Zabadani

In recent years the town was run by HTS militants, but after the defeat they were forced to retreat, leaving behind only ruins. Before the war, the population of the town was around 190,000 people. Currently this figure is only 80,000.

Unfortunately, most of the houses in the town are partly destroyed because of militants’ actions, and now they will have to be demolished to build new buildings. Rehabilitation works is not yet in full swing, but the Syrian engineers have already conducted mine-sweeping in the area. This fact allowed builders to prepare the central part of the town for large-scale reconstruction works.

Destroyed streets of Zabadani

The restoration of the railway station and railway communication with Damascus is also planned in nearest future (the railroad that connects the capitals of Syria and Lebanon goes through Zabadani).

Local residents reported to Inside Syria military correspondents that the electricity and water supply have already been restored as well as access to drinking water. At the same time, a number of grocery stores and pharmacies were reopened.

Partly destroyed altar of Zabadani Church

The majority of Zabadani population is orthodox Christians, so the local authorities decided to rebuild the main Orthodox Church, as its altar was partly destroyed as a result of a mortar attack. Despite the partial destruction of the Church, the priests are holding church services and parishioners bring saved icons.

Sunday Church Service

Restoration of peace in Zabadani and in Damascus province as a whole has become possible due to cessation of hostilities and establishment of de-escalation zones. Via such initiatives by the Syrian government and the guarantor states of Syrian ceasefire (Iran, Russia and Turkey) more and more militants are laying down weapons and joining a nationwide reconciliation plan. For its part, civilians can safely return to their homes, knowing that they are no longer threatened.

Reports concerning the liberation of the new settlements have started to emerge more frequently. This brings hope that the entire country will be soon completely liberated from terrorist organizations and illegal armed groups.

Despite the fact that the war in Syria isn’t yet over, the de-escalation zones have actually accelerated the post-war reconstruction process. The government forces and the nation demonstrated to the whole world an incredible willpower in fighting terrorism and the persistence of character in confronting all kinds of external threats.

Restoration of Aleppo is Well Under Way

According to Inside Syria Media Center military correspondence on the ground, Aleppo, the largest Syrian city, is beginning to come back to peaceful life. Just in December a number of districts of the city were held by terrorists, who were destroying urban infrastructure and keeping the entire region in fear.

However, after eight months of the city’s complete liberation, rehabilitation works are boiling in the streets right now. The locals and the representatives of the authorities are taking part in them. At the same time, Aleppo governor Hussain Diab personally supervises repair works at key infrastructure facilities.

Satellite view of Sheikh-Najjar area

The repair works are currently concentrated in the Sheikh-Najjar district, where there are a lot of factories, plants and power plants. The water and electricity supply of the whole of Aleppo depends on the smooth functioning of the region. Moreover, the economic well-being of the city also depends on the working capacity of the Sheikh-Najjar, as the cotton production facilities are concentrated there.

Hussain Diab inspects water pumping station

Last week, Diab, along with local entrepreneurs, inspected the assessment of this area and drew up a plan of further restoration works. Also during this visit, the governor was shown a newly launched water pumping station and treatment facilities that provide the city with drinking water.

Despite the fact that the two-thirds of the railway tracks in Syria are destroyed due to hostilities, their restoration is also in full play. According to Najib Fares, head of Syrian railways, almost after a five-year break, the railway communication between Aleppo, Homs and Latakia provinces is restored.

Notably, since the beginning of 2017 more than 280 thousand Syrians have used rail transport.

Restoration of railway communication 

It also should be mentioned that the pharmaceutical factory, which supplies Syrian medicines in more than 100 newly opened pharmacies in the city, is reopened in Aleppo. Before the war, there were about 30 similar enterprises in the city.

Newly opened pharmacy in Aleppo

People buying medicines

Most of the restorations works take place in extremely difficult conditions, since Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham militants (ex Jabhat Al-Nusra) commit terrorist acts. Earlier this week, on August 7, a large explosion occurred inside the Tariq Bin Ziad base in Masaken Sabil area.  Four people were badly wounded.

Undoubtedly, the process of post-military restoration of Aleppo and the country as a whole will take place against the background of the international economic sanctions, which have been imposed by the U.S. and several European states.

Unfortunately, many European leaders do not understand that the imposed restrictions affect just ordinary people. Only by lifting the sanctions, having developed and accepting a joint post-war plan for the restoration of Syria, the Western countries can assist the Syrians, in rebuilding their destroyed homeland.

SAA Intends to Cut off ISIS Escape Routes Bounding As-Sukhnah with Al-Kadir

The Syrian Arab army (SAA) backed by the allies began a large-scale offensive and the assault of the city of As-Sukhnah, a gateway to the province of Deir ez-Zor located in the eastern part of Homs province.

According to Inside Syria Media Center’s military correspondents the SAA and the allied formations captured on Thursday night the last hills to the west of the ISIS stronghold, the city of As-Sukhnah, and established complete fire control over the city.

After that, the army units advanced towards the outskirts of As-Sukhnah and began an assault of the city both from the West and from the South. Aviation provides air support inflicting massive strikes at the defense and communication of terrorists.

The biggest threat now to the Government forces is suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. Land-mines contaminated fields and roads prevent soldiers from advancing deeper into the city.

In order to capture As-Sukhnah a large number of SAA’s surge reinforcement were redeployed in Homs. A day ago it has been informed that new units are being sent to the east of Homs province from the south-western regions of Syria.

The SAA surge reinforcement was spotted in the eastern part of Palmyra and in Khamimah area

These fresh units began to unfold for a new large-scale offensive in the direction of the T-2 airbase held by ISIS terrorists.

The forces that arrived in East Homs include the elite 800th regiment of the SAA Republican Guard, the Al-Quwah Al-Jafariyah and Saraya al-Rin groups, as well as the units of 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions and elite Tiger Forces.

Almost all of these reinforcements were previously deployed in the provinces of Rif-Dimashq and As-Suwayda where they had been fighting pro-American Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The possible scenario

Most likely, the terrorist group is in the process of withdrawing its main forces from As-Sukhnah realizing the fact that they won’t be able to confront the advancing SAA forces.

Thus, the Government forces are making every effort to advance in the direction of Deir ez-Zor – Al-Mayadin – Al-Qa’im as ISIS main forces are concentrated in these areas, not in Raqqa. It is also likely that using newly redeployed reinforcements the Syrian Government forces will attempt to block bounding As-Sukhnah with Al-Kadir in order to encircle them and prevent the militants from fleeing the strongholds of Deir ez-Zor and Al-Mayadin.

Kurds May Face Turkish Army in Syria One-to-One

Recently Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his readiness to conduct a new military operation in the north of Syria to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state there.

Turkey has already confirmed its seriousness on this issue by the recent air strikes carried out by Ankara at the positions of the Kurds and by continued armed clashes between the opposition sides. Moreover, Turkey has redeployed some of its armored units in the area of Azaz settlement.

In this regard, the Kurdish officials urged Assad and his partners to protect them from external threats.  According to the Syrian expert, Ziad Shibli, the Syrian Kurds can face the Turkish aggression all alone due to some objective causes.

In fact, Kurds continue playing a double game in their own interests. By playing along with the U.S., the Kurdish authorities do their best to break ties with the Syrian government and its allies. They have sold their loyalty for arms supplies. Particularly, the Pentagon delivered more than 100 trucks loaded with weapons including 12,000 rifles, 10,000 machine guns, 4,000 grenade launchers and 300 mortars only for the past week.

However, these weapons are used not for fighting ISIS. It’s not a secret that the Kurdish formations let terrorists flee from besieged Raqqa to strengthen their positions in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor. Later these facts were confirmed by al-Arabiya. The channel also announced that Raqqa Civilian Council was established by Kurds under the support of the U.S. amnestied dozens ISIS-terrorists.

Obviously, the actions of the Kurdish formations contradict the interests of Damascus and its main ally in fighting terrorism, Russia.

According to the Russian media, SDF-leaders ignored Russian military advisers who had persuaded the Syrian High Command to use its units to protect the Kurdish enclaves near Afrin and Manbij. But collaborating with the U.S. Kurds rose against the SAA.

Yet, just after a threat of direct clashes with Turkey appeared, SDF-leaders started thinking about the assistance of Damascus and Russian AF. Clearly, Kurds realize that they shouldn’t rely on the U.S. help in this issue. Unlikely, Washington will be against its NATO ally. If the contradictions on the Kurdish issue between Turkey and the U.S. get worse Ankara would ban using the Incirlik Air Base by the U.S. military.

Nobody likes traitors. Apparently, Kurds will stay alone with Turkish armed forces. Neither Damascus nor Moscow will provide any assistance to them. And only Kurdish leaders are responsible for that.

People In Aleppo Fight with Booby Traps and Deadly Bombs of Militants

It’s not a secret for anyone, how much hardship, how much grief and suffering people endure as they confront many various explosive devices, booby-traps and other deadly bombs especially on the territory of settlements. Aleppo, the largest city of Syria, was literally loaded and the fields strewn with all kinds of explosives and mines left by terrorists. Syrian sappers recently shared the first results of their activities on mine clearance in the territory of Aleppo and also their impressions and experience from the missions in a discussion moderated by Inside Syria Media Center’s military correspondents.

A Syrian sapper demined a bomb

Outwardly, an explosive device with photovoltaic cells doesn’t seem like a mine, which could be triggered by remote control or from a spring.

Syrian Arab Army’s sappers pay special attention to large settlements, where the vital infrastructure of the country is being restored. First and foremost, the specialists demine roads leading to hospitals, water supply and electricity, transport, communications, information facilities and other social infrastructure.

The Syrian sappers have already cleared hundreds of the settlements mined. One of the last is the settlement of Tiyarah which is to the east of Aleppo. It had been under the control of ISIS for several years. Sappers have already cleared the Ancient City of Aleppo and the town’s landmark, the Citadel.

Improvised and camouflaged explosive devices

Locals highly respect sappers, because only after a full verification of cleaning every building from all the explosive devices people will be able to return their homes. Often they try to give the last thing they have in mind, give their eye teeth to the sappers to express gratitude for their work. Often people even organize crowdfunding with the only aim to purchase some kind of equipment for sappers. However, a special heavy protective suit (and a helmet with a visor and a stylus similar to a spear) that can safeguard from flying glass, debris and splinters when a small landmine or grenade is blown up, well, you shouldn’t imagine this equipment come cheap.

Yasan Muhammad, a Syrian Arab Army’s sapper

The crew of sappers are clearing the territory

Syrian Army Special Forces backed by allied engineer units organized round-the-clock search and neutralization of mines, bombs, booby-traps and other improvised explosive devices at newly liberated areas. And judging by the nature of the mining, the terrorists’ miners are not amateurs. They have passed training in special military camps. While retreating, the terrorists turned a number of Aleppo’s neighborhoods into a minefield.

A homemade mine in a bucket

The process of mine clearance

The photo above shows a homemade mine in a bucket, which was placed under a staircase with bomb explosive power of which is about 15 kg of TNT. The explosive was placed so that it couldn’t be removed. It is a complex mining system, when the detonator is on a spring and it is impossible to get to it without moving the bucket. The spring is ready to detonate from any vibration.

The sappers have to blow up the land mine on the ground. First of all, to carry out this mission it is necessary to set up a cordon and then evacuate civilians in a radius of up to 500 m from the bomb area. Then they put the other detonating charge of TNT on it and blast it.

For the past three month the Syrian experts have inspected more than 5,000 hectares in Aleppo, detecting and defusing up to 40,000 different explosives. Now the engineer units have to defuse thousands hectares of fields. Only after this work will the local farmers be able to continue cultivating land and harvesting crops.

Syrian sappers have gained self-confidence and a bit of an eye for finding various traps. They even visually can determine the places where booby-traps or other land mines were planted. For example, the burnt-out wreckage probably wouldn’t be mined. Explosives are placed under things that could be useful in everyday life most often.

Improvised explosive device camouflaged as prayer beads

Improvised explosive device camouflaged as toy

This is Mahmoud from Aleppo, who lost both of his legs as a result of a mine explosion

Mahmoud, a six-year-old Syrian boy found such a toy that was actually a booby-trap, planted by the militants in Syria’s Aleppo. Mahmud was born without arms, and recently lost both of his legs after touching the toy that attracted his attention with his foot.

Through hard experience, the older guys have already learned to move away from these terrible finds. Most of the boys and the girls in Aleppo know a lot of stories similar to the tragedy with Mahmoud. “My younger brother and I came to our house to move things around and run into a land mine in the bathroom. There was another one in the kitchen and the wires leading to the third one,” says Ahmad, the young resident of Aleppo.

Syrian sappers discovered a lot of insidious traps of militants and saved thousands of lives in the latest three months. The experience of demining shows that the planting of the mines by ISIS and the Free Syrian Army was carried out with extreme violence that knows no boundaries. In addition, the sappers claim Western-made weapons were often used when mining the infrastructure. So, it is the time for the West (who has fostered IS and FSA) to think about how to help the Syrian Arab Army to reduce the danger of landmines and other traps.

France Has No Evidence of Chemical Weapons’ Usage

The French president Emmanuel Macron, in an interview with El Pais (22 June 2017), said that the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power is no longer a priority in resolving the Syrian crisis.

“France no longer sees the displacement of Assad as a priority for anything as well as I do not see who could become his legitimate successor,” Macron said.

President Emmanuel Macron (center), in an interview with El Pais. Jean-Christophe Marmara

The French president also called on countries to concentrate on fighting terrorism. He stressed it is necessary to work out an entirely new plans of action in Syria. Special attention, he said, must be paid to the allies of Assad since effectively fighting the threat of terrorism requires the active participation of all the parties — especially Russia.

During the interview, Makron criticized Barack Obama for not keeping promises. Namely, that the former U.S. President had declared a tough response in case Assad would cross the so-called Red Line. “If the evidence of the use of chemical weapons arose,… and we knew who used it and where this weapon came from, France will respond immediately by carrying out airstrikes,” Macron said.

The president of France also hinted that his country is ready to launch air strikes on Syria without U.S. support.

The second question dealt with how the world community could accuse Assad then. Emmanuel Macron stated that there are still no clear reasons for this.

As early as in 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had pointed out an absence of evidence of the Syrian president’s involvement with chemical weapon attacks.

New Facts of the White Helmets’ Stage in Khan Shaykhun

On April 13, The Syrian Observer published an article related to the fact that the chemical attack in Khan Shayhun was staged by the White Helmets.

Tuesday, April 4, the White Helmets activists reported the chemical attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun of Idlib province. The national coalition of the Syrian opposition and revolutionary forces was the first to report 80 dead and 200 injured.

In fact, this chemical attack was a premeditated false flag operation aimed to blame the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians.

A lot of high-ranking opposition journalists took part in this bloodcurdling staging that involved slain and drug intoxicated children and adults.

The high-quality performance was covered by the Smart News Agency and Edlib Media Center. The world’s mainstream media immediately reported this staged attack.

Moreover, photos taken from the stage were immediately posted on Twitter and Facebook and shared by the White Helmets activists and popular opposition bloggers. This plot is proved by correspondence between Mustafa al-Haj Yussef, one of the White Helmets leaders, and Sakir Khader, a well known photographer.

JAsIrX, a Malaysian hacker, has published a letter on his blog that reveals preparations for filming the damage of the alleged chemical attack. The hacker has promised to publish more information on the activity of the Syrian opposition and collaborating with it NGOs.

“one letter from White Helmets leader Mustafa al-Haj Yussef to Syrian opposition journalist Sakir Khader”

Thus, the revealed information demonstrates once again that there are various opposition groups who are behind such provocations. It’s worth thinking about who may benefit from this chemical attack. In the context of progress in the Syrian crisis political settlement, it is advantageous only for those who don’t want the Syrian conflict to end.