Trump says he canceled peace talks with Taliban over Kabul attack

U.S. President Donald Trump departs after presenting NBA Hall of Fame player Jerry West with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Oval office of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Phil Stewart and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he canceled peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders after the insurgent group claimed responsibility last week for an attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 other people.

Trump said he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban’s “major leaders” on Sunday at a presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland. Trump said he also planned to meet with Afghanistan’s president.

But Trump said he immediately called the talks off when the insurgents said they were behind the attack.

“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” Trump said on Twitter.

The surprise announcement left in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out last week by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, for a drawdown of thousands of U.S. troops over the coming months.

There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban but the decision appeared to catch them by surprise.

Just hours before Trump’s tweet, a senior Taliban leader privy to talks in Doha with U.S. officials including Khalilzad and Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an agreement to sign the deal appeared close.

Taliban fighters, who now control more territory than at any time since 2001, launched fresh assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri over the past week and carried out two major suicide bombings in the capital Kabul.

One of the blasts, a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday, took the life of U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Puerto Rico, bringing the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 16.

A spike in attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has been “particularly unhelpful” to peace efforts there, a senior U.S. military commander said on Saturday as he visited neighboring Pakistan, where many Taliban militants are based.

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversees American troops in the region, declined to comment on the diplomatic negotiations themselves but criticized a wave of Taliban violence that has cast a long shadow over the deal.

“It is particularly unhelpful at this moment in Afghanistan’s history for the Taliban to ramp up violence,” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him.

McKenzie said for the peace process to move forward, “all parties should be committed to an eventual political settlement” which, in turn, should result in reduced violence.

“If we can’t get that going in, then it is difficult to see the parties are going to be able to carry out the terms of the agreement, whatever they might or might not be,” McKenzie said.

Under the draft accord, some 5,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the coming months in exchange for guarantees Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

However, a full peace agreement to end more than 18 years of war would depend on subsequent “intra Afghan” talks involving officials and civil society leaders as well as further agreement on issues including the remainder of the roughly 14,000-strong U.S. forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops.

The Taliban have rejected calls for a ceasefire and instead stepped up operations across the country and it remains unclear whether they will accept direct negotiations with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime.

NEW CIVIL WAR?

For Afghans, the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks has underscored fears it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement following any complete U.S. withdrawal.

Ghani dismissed the talks as “meaningless” following Thursday’s suicide bombing and his spokesman said an official reaction to Trump’s announcement would come soon.

The Taliban’s strategy appears to be based on the assumption that battlefield success would strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Afghan officials. Some of their field commanders have also said they are determined not to surrender gains when they are close to victory, suggesting the leadership is under internal pressure not to concede a ceasefire.

But that has risked undermining acceptance of the deal by Washington and its NATO allies as well as by Kabul.

“The Taliban’s leaders will have to show they can stop the attacks, if not, then what is the point of holding long negotiations with Baradar?” said one Western diplomat in Kabul.

Even within the Taliban ranks, there appears to be doubt about how any agreement would take effect, given growing opposition to the deal from the government side.

“Don’t ask me how to implement the peace accord,” the Taliban official said.

Memories of the bloody 1990s conflict between the Taliban and rival militia groups are vivid. Former U.S. envoys who worked on Afghanistan warned last week that “total civil war” with “catastrophic” consequences for U.S. national security was possible.

Many have worried about a fracture along ethnic and regional lines, with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns, the group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support.

Some Taliban are based in neighboring Pakistan, where McKenzie held talks on Saturday with a top Pakistani general. More talks are scheduled for Sunday.

McKenzie said he did not know whether any of the planning for the recent wave of attacks in Afghanistan came from Pakistan-based militants.

But McKenzie commended Pakistan for supporting the peace efforts in Afghanistan, in the latest sign of an improvement in long-fraught relations between Washington and Islamabad.

“A lot of Pakistanis have been killed by militant attacks inside Pakistan. I think Pakistan sees the benefits of a stable Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.

(Additional by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Rupam Jain and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Chris Reese and Michael Perry)

Son of Afghan resistance hero criticizes ‘secretive’ U.S. Taliban deal

Ahmad Massoud, son of the slain hero of the anti-Soviet resistance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, shakes hands with his supporters at his house in Bazarak, Panjshir province Afghanistan September 5, 2019. Picture taken September 5, 2019.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

By James Mackenzie

JANGALAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A “secretive” peace deal between United States and the Taliban could face wide resistance in Afghanistan if it opens the door to the insurgents’ hardline regime, said the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the slain hero of the anti-Soviet resistance.

Ahmad Massoud, who was 12 years old when his father was assassinated days before the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, is among several Afghan politicians critical of the accord reached with the Taliban this week.

While he is still relatively new to Afghan politics, the aura of his father’s name adds weight to his words in a country where the habits of dynastic politics remain deeply ingrained.

“It’s very secretive. It has happened behind closed doors,” Massoud told Reuters in an interview.

“We see the peace deal as a great opportunity but how it has been managed is unfortunately disappointing,” Massoud said. “We want to see clarity, we want to see people from all over the country involved in it.”

Speaking after some 10,000 supporters rallied at his father’s mausoleum in the Panjshir Valley on Thursday, Massoud’s comments reflect the deep suspicion many Afghans have of a deal reached without their involvement.

The accord would see thousands of U.S. troops withdrawn in exchange for Taliban promises not to let Afghanistan be used as a base for future attacks on the United States and its allies.

It is intended as a first step to a peace deal between the Taliban and wider Afghan society but it remains unclear what will happen next. The insurgents have refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, which they consider an illegitimate “puppet” regime and mistrust abounds.

President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said this week the government had serious concerns and wanted further clarification from Washington.

Although details have not been made public, the fact that the accord appears to acknowledge the Taliban’s self-described status as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has aroused particular anger.

‘RED LINE’

Many Taliban officials have said the country’s constitutional status should revert to the Islamic Emirate, but opponents see the term as a direct challenge to the internationally recognized Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the state formed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

“For us, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is our red line,” Massoud said, adding that any change to the country’s status could only come through a referendum.

Opposition to the deal has been deepened by the Taliban’s recent escalation of attacks, heightening fears that it may be impossible to reach a stable settlement once U.S. forces leave.

Many have worried about a fracture along ethnic and regional lines, with Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns, the group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support. Memories of the 1990s civil war are vivid.

“We do not want to see another war break out,” Massoud said. “This peace must end war all at once.”

The aggressive displays by supporters on the Sept. 9 anniversary of the death of Massoud’s father, when armed bands drive through the streets of Kabul firing into the air, have led many to suspect that the old Mujahideen Northern Alliance could reform to oppose the Taliban.

However, Massoud insists that only a political settlement will be effective and that only government forces should be armed.

“After the peace process, no political group … but the government should have guns,” he said.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Deadly Taliban attack in Afghan capital casts shadow on peace deal

Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – A Taliban attack on a housing complex used by international organizations in the Afghan capital, Kabul, late on Monday killed at least 16 people and angered local residents who demanded the heavily fortified compound be moved.

The blast, which shook buildings several kilometers away, happened just as Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, was outlining details of a draft accord with the insurgents in a television interview.

Following major Taliban attacks on two northern cities over the weekend, the bombing of the Green Village compound in a mixed business and residential area added to questions around the peace deal reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Habib Jan, who was in his house nearby when the blast occurred, said the area has been attacked repeatedly and many residents wanted the compound, used by foreign staff of international groups including aid organizations, moved.

“This isn’t once or twice, it’s the fourth or fifth time, all by the Taliban. A lot of my friends, a lot of my family have been wounded or killed,” he said, as smoke spiraled into the sky from burning tires lit by protesters demanding that the complex be moved.

“Our young people have been killed, our children have been killed, our old men have been killed, our girls have been killed. What can we do?”

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast was caused by a tractor packed with explosives but armed attackers, who planned to follow up the blast, were killed by security forces.

He said around 400 foreign nationals were evacuated from the heavily protected site, located off a major road in an area of houses and shops.

Like other compounds built to house the thousands of foreign contractors and agency staff who work in Kabul, Green Village is a fortified complex of concrete blast walls and steel gates protected by armed guards.

While such compounds have been attacked repeatedly over the years, the main victims are often Afghan civilians living in the surrounding area.

The timing of the attack, as Khalilzad’s interview was still being broadcast, appeared to be deliberate, with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declaring the blast had destroyed rooms and offices and caused countless casualties among “invaders”.

“Enemy claims of civilian losses are false as no civilians were allowed close to the site of the attack,” he said in a tweet.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born diplomat who has been leading U.S. negotiations, said almost 5,000 U.S. troops would be pulled out and five bases closed in exchange for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

But the deal did not include a formal ceasefire and Monday’s attacks, as well as major assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, underlined doubts about whether it would lead to an end to violence.

On the other side, officials in the southern province of Helmand, one of the Taliban’s main strongholds, said 15 insurgents, including the commander and deputy commander of a special operations unit, were killed by U.S. air strikes.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Darren Schuettler)

Satellite images show fields in northwest Syria on fire

A satelite overview image of Kafr Nabudah that shows damaged and destroyed buildings, Idlib Province, Syria May 26, 2019. Picture taken May 26, 2019. Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – New satellite images show fields, orchards and olive groves burning in northwest Syria, where the army has waged an assault against rebels in their last major stronghold.

Government air strikes, backed by Russia, have focused on the south of Idlib province and nearby parts of Hama, uprooting nearly 250,000 people. The bombing has killed 229 civilians and injured 727 others, according to the UOSSM medical charity.

In the photos by satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe Inc, plumes of dark smoke rise from the countryside around al-Habeet village in Idlib and the small town of Kafr Nabouda in Hama.

The before and after images, collected at the start and end of last week, show patches of scorched earth, fields blackened by fire, and clusters of destroyed buildings. Some of the fires appear to be still burning.

The civil defense in the northwest, a rescue service in opposition territory, said on Monday that government warplanes had been pounding crop fields in Idlib, setting them on fire.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Tuesday that militants had shelled villages in the northern Hama countryside, damaging houses and burning wheat fields.

While al-Habeet is in the hands of insurgents, government forces recaptured Kafr Nabouda on Sunday, the third time it changed hands in the latest fighting. State media said the army seized it from Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front until it broke away from al Qaeda.

The army onslaught in the northwest over the past month marks the most intense escalation between President Bashar al-Assad and his insurgent enemies since last summer.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Heavy fighting flares between Taliban, Islamic State in Afghanistan

Afghan villagers who flee from the resent conflicts arrive at the Behsud district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Parwiz

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban insurgents are battling fighters loyal to Islamic State over control of territory in eastern Afghanistan in some of the heaviest clashes over the past year between the rival militants, officials said on Wednesday.

The fighting erupted on Monday in two districts of the eastern Afghan border province of Nangarhar, when Islamic State fighters attacked villages under Taliban control.

“Islamic State fighters have captured six villages in Khogyani and Shirzad districts but the fighting has not stopped,” said Sohrab Qaderi, a member Nangarhar’s the provincial council.

About 500 families had fled from the fighting, he said.

Casualty figures were not available.

A spokesman for the Taliban, who control more territory than at any point since they were ousted from power nearly 18 years ago, was not available for comment.

Islamic State fighters first appeared in eastern Afghanistan in around 2014 and have battled the Taliban as well as government and foreign forces.

The Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, sometimes known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region that includes Afghanistan, has made some inroads into other areas, in the north in particular.

It has also established a reputation for unusual cruelty, even by the standards of the Afghan conflict, and has been behind some of the deadliest attacks in urban centers.

While Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, has been an Islamic State stronghold, some villages in Khogyani and Shirzad districts have been controlled by the Taliban.

Fleeing villagers said they had to run for their lives.

“I could only rescue my family. We had to leave everything,” said Shawkat, 36, a resident of Markikhel village in Shirzad district who sought safety in a neighboring village.

Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor said, authorities would help the displaced villagers with food and medicine.

In August, more than 150 Islamic State fighters surrendered to the Afghan security forces after they were defeated by the Taliban in the northwestern province of Jawzjan.

The U.S. military estimates there are about 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.

Many are former Taliban. There is scant evidence of direct links with Islamic State in the Middle East, where the group has lost territory it once held in Syria and Iraq to Western-backed forces.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Exclusive: As Venezuela crisis deepens, U.S. sharpens focus on Colombia rebel threat

FILE PHOTO: A Venezuelan flag hangs from a building in Caracas March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the United States makes its biggest diplomatic push in Latin America in years to try to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. military is zeroing in on a byproduct of the crisis: a strengthening of Colombian rebels on both sides of Venezuela’s border.

U.S. Admiral Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command that oversees U.S. forces in Latin America, told Reuters the United States had sharpened its focus on the rebels and increased its sharing of intelligence with Colombian officials. 

U.S. officials see a growing threat from both Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that refuse to adhere to a 2016 peace agreement to end five decades of civil war.

The United States believes the rebels are taking advantage of Venezuela’s crisis to expand their reach in that country and the scope of long-standing illegal activities, including drug trafficking.

“Our principal role working with our Colombian partners is to assist in intelligence sharing. What we know, we share,” Faller said. Asked whether the intelligence sharing on the rebels had ramped up as Venezuela’s crisis deepened, Faller responded: “Absolutely.”

The risks from the insurgents on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border add another layer of complexity to the crisis in Venezuela, where U.S. President Donald Trump says all options are on the table to remove Maduro from office.

U.S. officials have uniformly emphasized diplomatic and economic tools to accelerate Maduro’s departure, like sanctions, but Faller acknowledged the U.S. military stood ready to provide options if needed.

At the same time, he noted that no U.S. allies in the region were seeking a military solution to the crisis in Venezuela.

“My job is to be ready, be on the balls of my feet, at all times. But we’ve been talking to our partners and no one, no one, thinks that a military option is a good idea,” Faller said.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido says the May 2018 vote in which Maduro won a second term was a sham and he invoked a constitutional provision on Jan. 23 to assume the interim presidency. Most Western nations including the United States have backed Guaido as head of state.

Maduro, a socialist who has denounced Guaido as a U.S. puppet seeking to foment a coup, retains the support of the armed forces and control of state functions.

Jeremy McDermott, a Colombia-based expert on the insurgencies and co-founder of the Insight Crime think tank, said he believed the Colombian insurgents were operating in Venezuela with at least the blessing of Maduro.

The rebels’ aim is to exploit Venezuela’s lawlessness for safe haven and for economic gain, he said. But he noted there could be an added benefit for Maduro.

“If the Americans invade, or if Colombia promotes a military intervention, then they (Maduro’s supporters) would be able to call upon an insurgent force with more than 50 years of combat experience,” McDermott said.

Asked whether the United States had any evidence of communications between Maduro and the guerrilla groups, Faller said: “I’d rather not discuss the details of the exact connections but we’re watching it very closely.”

Venezuela’s Information Ministry and ELN contacts did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Colombia’s ambassador to Washington, former Vice President Francisco Santos, said ELN and FARC factions had long been present in Venezuela but had grown stronger and more integrated into the country as a result of Venezuela’s crisis.

“They have become the paramilitary groups of the Maduro administration,” Santos told Reuters.

ELN EXPANSION

A Cuba-inspired Marxist insurgency formed in 1964, the ELN claimed responsibility for a January car bomb attack against a police academy in Bogota that killed 22 cadets. It was an escalation by insurgents who have kidnapped Colombian security forces, attacked police stations and bombed oil pipelines.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the ELN is increasingly using Venezuelan territory to carry out narco-trafficking and illegal mining of minerals like gold and coltan.

The Venezuelan security forces were believed to be getting kickbacks from the guerrillas, they said.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. collection of intelligence on the guerrilla groups had increased in recent weeks, including looking at the militants’ activities on the Venezuelan side of the border with Colombia.

Several U.S. officials said they believed senior leaders of both the ELN and the so-called FARC dissidents who do not adhere to the peace agreement were now located inside of Venezuela.

“Their leadership is there,” a second U.S. official said, who also declined to be named, without providing evidence.

An International Crisis Group report cited estimates that the ELN had been active in a minimum of 13 of Venezuela’s 24 states, “absorbing new recruits and shifting from a guerrilla force that embraced armed resistance against Colombia’s ruling elites to one with many core operations in Venezuela.”

Opposition lawmakers in Venezuela also regularly denounce growing ELN activities in Venezuela, but Reuters has been unable to independently verify the extent of its presence or its operations.

Faller declined to discuss any specifics about the collection of U.S. intelligence or identify which insurgent leaders were in Venezuela.

But he acknowledged the trend and added that the flow of illegal narcotics “from Colombia into Venezuela, and then from Venezuela out in the region, has risen as the misery of the Venezuelan people has risen.”

“It’s essentially a lawless region now inside Venezuela along the border and the FARC dissidents and the ELN have taken advantage of that,” Faller said, adding: “They operate with impunity inside Venezuela.”

Santos said the big concern for Colombia was that the strengthening rebel forces would upend efforts to crack down on narcotics trafficking.

“That’s a big worry because in this situation of chaos, obviously, they are going to grow. They are growing,” he said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

Turkey calls for ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib, Russia opposes

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, Iran September 7, 2018. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

(Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire in the rebel-held region of Idlib in northwest Syria on Friday and said an anticipated government assault on insurgents there could result in a massacre.

But Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Moscow opposed a truce, and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.

The three presidents, whose countries’ are key foreign players in Syria’s long civil war, were speaking at a summit in Tehran aimed at charting a way to end the conflict.

The situation in Idlib, the insurgents’ only remaining major stronghold, is an immediate issue as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, prepare for what could be the conflict’s last decisive battle.

The United Nations has warned a full-scale assault could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

But as the leaders gathered in Tehran, Russian and Syrian government warplanes hit rebel-held parts of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Tehran and Moscow have helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to Islamist militants, while Turkey is a leading opposition supporter and has troops in the country.

Their discussions in Tehran mark a crucial point in a seven-year-old war which has killed more than half a million people and forced 11 million to flee their homes.

Erdogan called on Putin and Rouhani to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib, saying such an accord would be a “victory” of their summit. Turkey could no longer take in any more refugees from any new assault in Idlib, he said.

However, Putin responded that he opposed a ceasefire because Nusra Front and Islamic State militants located there were not part of peace talks. Syria should regain control of all its territory, he said.

“The fact is that there are no representatives of the armed opposition here around this table. And more still, there are no representatives of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS or the Syrian army,” Putin said.

“I think in general the Turkish president is right. It would be good. But I can’t speak for them, and even more so can’t talk for terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS that they will stop shooting or stop using drones with bombs.”

FINAL MAJOR BATTLE

Rouhani also said the battle in Syria would continue until militants were pushed out of the whole country, especially in Idlib, but he added that any military operations should avoid hurting civilians.

He called on all militants in Syria to disarm and seek a peaceful end to the conflict.

“The fight against terrorism in Idlib is an indispensable part of the mission to return peace and stability to Syria, but this fight should not harm civilians and lead to a “scorched-earth” policy,” Rouhani said.

Erdogan also said Turkey no longer had the capacity to take in any more refugees from Syria should the government offensive in Idlib go ahead. Turkey has accepted 3.5 million refugees from Syria since the start of the war in 2011.

“Whatever reason there is an attack that has been made or will be made will result in disaster, massacre and humanitarian drama,” he said. “Millions will be coming to Turkey’s borders because they have nowhere to go. Turkey has filled its capacity to host refugees.”

The Assad government was not directly represented at the summit, nor was the United States or other Western powers.

Widely abhorred internationality for the brutal conduct of the war, Assad has largely reclaimed most of Syrian territory though much of it is ravaged.

As the conflict approaches its endgame, Iran, Turkey and Russia are seeking to safeguard their own interests after investing heavily militarily and diplomatically in Syria.

Meanwhile, the fate of Idlib hung in the balance.

“The battle for Idlib is going to be the final major battle,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told Reuters before the summit.

“It will be waged irrespective of civilian casualties, even though they will make an effort to minimize it.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut and Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Shells hit Syria’s Idlib as rebels brace for assault

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian military shelled the last stronghold of active rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday as a war monitor said insurgents blew up another bridge in anticipation of a government offensive.

Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing an assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of the northwest and resumed air strikes along with Russia on Tuesday after weeks of lull.

Idlib’s fate now appears likely to rest on the results of Friday’s Tehran summit between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran – a meeting that Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov on Wednesday said would make the situation “clearer”.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said Tuesday’s air strikes had only targeted militants and not struck populated areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said they had killed 13 civilians, including children, but no fighters.

The ministry said it had targeted buildings used to store weapons and explosives including a facility used to assemble explosive-packed drones that rebels have used to attack Russian planes stationed at Hmeymim air base.

Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that pro-government forces focused their shelling overnight and on Wednesday on the western and southern edges of the rebel enclave.

The countryside around Jisr al-Shughour in the west of the enclave was also the main target for Tuesday’s air strikes, rescue workers, a rebel source and the British-based Observatory said.

Turkey, which has a small military presence in observation posts it has erected along the frontlines between rebels and government forces, reiterated its warnings against an offensive.

Its president, Tayyip Erdogan, was quoted by a Turkish newspaper saying an attack on Idlib would be “a serious massacre” and he hoped for a positive outcome from a summit with Russian and Iranian leaders on the matter on Friday.

ALARM

The prospect of an offensive in Idlib has alarmed humanitarian agencies. The United Nations has said displaced people already make up about half of the 3 million people living in rebel-held areas of the northwest.

The human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement on Wednesday that the lives of “millions of people in Idlib are now in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran”, and urged all parties not to attack civilians.

Idlib’s rebel factions are divided, with a jihadist alliance that includes al Qaeda’s former official Syrian affiliate holding most ground. The alliance, Tahrir al-Sham, is designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations.

Russia has described Idlib as a “nest of terrorists” and a “festering abscess” that must be resolved. The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday urged Russia and Turkey to find a solution and avert a bloodbath.

Several other factions in Idlib, including some that fought under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, this year joined together into a new alliance backed by Turkey.

This grouping, known as the National Liberation Front, also holds several important areas in and around Idlib. On Wednesday, one of the factions in it, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, destroyed a bridge on the western side of the enclave, the Observatory said.

Two other bridges were destroyed last week in anticipation of a government offensive, which a source close to Damascus has said is ready, and will be carried out in phases.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Andrew Osborn and Christian Lowe in Moscow and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alison Williams)

Germany urges Russia to help prevent humanitarian crisis in Syria

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference at the presidential villa in Abuja, Nigeria, August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel expects the Kremlin to use its influence with the Syrian government to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the rebel-held northern region of Idlib, a government spokeswoman said on Friday.

Merkel has raised the issue in recent days with both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the German government is watching developments in the region with growing concern.

“We expect … Russia to prevent the Syrian government from escalating the situation and thereby prevent a humanitarian catastrophe,” Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told a regular government news conference.

She said it was imperative that humanitarian organizations be given unfettered access to the affected civilian population.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Thursday government forces will “go all the way” in a planned offensive in Idlib, the last major insurgent bastion in Syria, and that Damascus’s main targets were Islamist al-Nusra militants.

But he said Syria would not use chemical weapons in any offensive and that it did not have such arsenal. Syria would try to avoid civilian deaths, Moualem added.

Russia, meanwhile, has said it will begin a major naval exercise in the Mediterranean on Saturday, a move that appeared to be aimed at deterring Western forces from carrying out strikes on Syrian government forces.

The United Nations has called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to delay a battle that could affect millions of civilians, calling for humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians.

Putin will attend a three-way summit in Tehran on Sept. 7 with the leaders of Turkey and Iran, his spokesman said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Insurgents start leaving south Damascus pocket, release hostages

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad forces talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of hostages held by militants in northern Syria reached army lines on Tuesday, launching a deal for insurgents to quit an enclave south of Damascus, state media and a monitor said.

State news agency SANA said 42 people were freed in the first step of the agreement, arriving in government territory at a crossing near Aleppo city.

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Women, children, and men including some soldiers wept and hugged on the bus, live on state TV. Islamist rebels had kidnapped the people in a village in rural Idlib as they swept into the province three years ago.

South of Damascus, buses shuttled 200 fighters and relatives out of the Yarmouk enclave under the swap between the government and insurgents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fleet arrived at the same crossing near Aleppo in the early hours, the UK-based war monitoring group said. The fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, would go to Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

President Bashar al-Assad’s military and its allies have pushed to crush the last insurgent footholds around the capital Damascus through a string of offensives and withdrawal deals.

The pocket south of Damascus includes zones held by Islamic State and others by rebel factions, which have fought each other. It has been the focus of intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta last month with Russian and Iranian help.

Bombing has left parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in ruins, and the United Nations raised warnings over the fate of civilians still stuck there.

The evacuation deal for Tahrir al-Sham to surrender also includes allowing people to leave two pro-government Shi’ite villages, which the insurgents have encircled in Idlib.

State media said ambulances carried some critically ill patients out of the villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, on Tuesday morning in the first step of the agreement.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)