Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels drive on a street in the Turkish border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats
By Ellen Francis and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russia-backed Syrian forces wasted no time in taking advantage of an abrupt U.S. retreat from Syria on Monday, deploying deep inside Kurdish-held territory south of the Turkish frontier less than 24 hours after Washington announced a full withdrawal.

Washington’s Kurdish former allies said they invited in the government troops as an “emergency measure” to help fend off an assault by Turkey, launched last week with “a green light” from President Donald Trump that the Kurds describe as a betrayal.

The Syrian government’s deployment on Monday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally Russia, who gained a military foothold across the biggest swathe of the country that had been beyond their grasp.

Under their deal with the Kurds, government forces are poised to move into border areas from the town of Manbij in the west to Derik, 400 km (250 miles) to the east.

Syrian state media reported that troops had already entered Tel Tamer, a town on the strategically important M4 highway that runs east-west around 30 km south of the frontier with Turkey.

State TV later showed residents welcoming Syrian forces into the town of Ain Issa, which lies on another part of the highway, hundreds of km (miles) away. An SDF media official said he could not confirm these deployments.

Ain Issa commands the northern approaches to Raqqa, former capital of the Islamic State “caliphate”, which Kurdish fighters recaptured from the militants two years ago in one of the biggest victories of a U.S.-led campaign.

Much of the M4 lies on the southern edge of territory where Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria. Turkey said it had seized part of the highway. An official of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said clashes were ongoing.

U.S. STRATEGY CRUMBLES

The swift Syrian government deployments came as the strategy the United States has pursued in Syria for the past five years crumbled overnight. Washington announced on Sunday it was abruptly pulling out its entire force of 1,000 troops which had fought alongside Syrian Kurds against Islamic State since 2014.

A U.S. official said on Monday a diplomatic team working to help stabilize territory captured from Islamic State. U.S. troops were still on the ground but early phases of their withdrawal had started, the official said.

Two other U.S. officials have told Reuters the bulk of the U.S. pullout could be completed within days.

Sunday’s announcement of the U.S. retreat came just a week after Trump said he would shift a small number of troops out of the way near the border, allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds in what Kurdish officials branded a stab in the back.

Thousands of fighters from a Kurdish-led force have died since 2014 fighting against Islamic State in partnership with the United States, a strategy the Trump administration had continued after inheriting it from his predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump says he aims to extract the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East, in keeping with his view that Washington cannot be the world’s policeman. However, he has announced the Syrian retreat even as he has sent thousands of troops on a new deployment to Saudi Arabia.

His Syrian policy reversal allowed Turkey to launch a cross-border assault last week that sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing and the Kurds scrambling to find new friends.

“After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks,” senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said.

Jia Kurd described the new arrangement with Assad’s forces as a “preliminary military agreement”, and said political aspects would be discussed later.

The Kurds have led an autonomous administration across a wide stretch of north and east Syria. Assad aims to restore his government’s authority across all of Syria after more than eight years of war.

Another senior Kurdish politician, Aldar Xelil, called the pact with Damascus “an emergency measure”.

“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” Xelil said. “We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common (ground) in the future.”

The biggest change for years in the battlefield of the world’s deadliest ongoing war, the developments create a potential new frontline hundreds of kilometers long between forces of Russia and Turkey and their Syrian allies and proxies.

The U.S. exit leaves Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, along with Assad’s other ally Iran, as Syria’s undisputed foreign power brokers.

Russia and Turkey have hammered out a fragile truce for the northwest, the only other part of Syria still beyond Assad’s grip. Both predicted they would avoid conflict as the area where they face each other is now set to spread across the breadth of the country.

“There are many rumors at the moment. However, especially through the embassy and with the positive approach of Russia in Kobani, it appears there won’t be any issues,” Erdogan said when asked about the prospect of confrontation with Russia. Kobani, on the Turkish border, is one of the first Kurdish-held cities where reports emerged of possible government deployment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the suggestion that Russia could clash with Turkish forces. “We wouldn’t even like to think of that scenario,” he said.

ALARM

The Turkish assault has drawn widespread international criticism and alarm that it could allow Islamic State fighters in Syria to escape Kurdish-run prisons and regroup.

Ankara says it aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia – the leading component of the SDF – which it views as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper indicated on Sunday that one factor behind the U.S. pullout was that the Kurds aimed to strike a deal with Russia and Syria. Hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had made precisely such a deal.

Turkey says it aims to form a “safe zone” in Syria to settle many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. Erdogan said on Sunday that the operation would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east.

Turkey’s European allies have criticized the incursion, threatening to impose sanctions. Erdogan says Turkey will send Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU does not back the offensive.

The fighting has raised Western concerns that the Kurds would be unable to keep thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

The region’s Kurdish-led administration said 785 Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped a camp at Ain Issa over the weekend. The British-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in the camp, said the number who escaped was smaller, around 100.

Trump, providing no evidence, tweeted on Monday that the Kurds might be releasing Islamic State prisoners deliberately to lure U.S. troops back. Escaped fighters were “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly,” Trump said.

(This story restores dropped word “forces” in headline)

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Scores poisoned in Aleppo gas attack, Syria and Russia blame rebels

A woman breathes through an oxygen mask after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – More than 100 people were wounded in Syria’s Aleppo late on Saturday in a suspected toxic gas attack which the government and its ally, Russia, blamed on insurgents.

A health official in Aleppo said victims suffered breathing difficulties, eye inflammation and other symptoms suggesting the use of chlorine gas. Rebel officials denied the allegations and said their forces did not possess chemical weapons.

Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday its warplanes bombed militants in the insurgent stronghold of Idlib who it accused of firing poison gas at Aleppo.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Moscow sent advance warning to Ankara, which backs some rebel factions and helped broker a ceasefire in Idlib.

A monitoring group said air strikes hit rebel territory in northwest Syria on Sunday for the first time since Russia and Turkey agreed to a buffer zone there in September.

In Aleppo city, which the government controls, the shells had spread a strong stench and caused breathing problems, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said.

State news agency SANA said on Sunday 107 people were injured, including children, after militants hit three districts with projectiles containing gases that caused choking.

It marks the highest such casualty toll in Aleppo since government forces and their allies clawed back the city from rebels nearly two years ago.

“We can not know the kinds of gases but we suspected chlorine and treated patients on this basis because of the symptoms,” Zaher Batal, the head of the Aleppo Doctors Syndicate, told Reuters.

Hospitals had discharged many people overnight. Batal said this was the first gas attack against civilians in the city since the conflict erupted more than seven years ago.

People stand in front of a hospital after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

People stand in front of a hospital after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

STRETCHERS AND OXYGEN MASKS

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart agreed on Sunday that “recent provocations” were aimed at harming the agreement on Idlib, the ministry said.

“There was an exchange of views to the effect that … they could continue and that one needed to be ready for them,” the ministry said in a statement.

Nobody has claimed the Aleppo attack so far.

“The explosive (shells) contain toxic gases that led to choking among civilians,” the city’s police chief Issam al-Shilli told state media.

Pictures and footage on SANA showed medical workers carrying patients on stretchers and helping them with oxygen masks.

Syria’s foreign ministry urged the U.N. Security Council to condemn and punish the attack.

Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razak, an official from the Nour el-Din al-Zinki insurgent faction, said rebels did not own chemical weapons or have the capacity to produce them.

Abu Omar, a Failaq al-Sham spokesman, accused Damascus of trying to create “a malicious charade” as a pretext to attack rebel towns.

The UK-based Observatory said government shelling earlier on Saturday had killed two women and seven children in a village in Idlib.

The Russian-Turkish deal in September for a demilitarized zone staved off an army offensive against the Idlib region, including nearby parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces.

The dominant force among an array of factions holding sway in Idlib is Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist alliance led by fighters formerly linked to al-Qaeda.

A past U.N.-OPCW inquiry found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in 2017 and also used chlorine several times. It also blamed Islamic State for using mustard gas.

Damascus has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the war.

No rebel group has been confirmed to have used chemical weapons in the war by the by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Turkey talking to all sides in Syria conflict for Idlib ceasefire: minister

FILE PHOTO: A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal//File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk and Tom Perry

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday it was talking to all parties in the Syrian conflict to prevent a government offensive on Idlib ahead of talks between Russian and Turkish leaders, who support rival sides in the looming battle for the rebel-held region.

Ankara failed last week to win agreement for a ceasefire from Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers, but there has been a recent lull in air strikes and a pro-Damascus source indicated a ground attack may not be imminent.

Rebels also said some pro-Assad forces had left frontlines in northwest Syria in recent days.

Turkey has reinforced a dozen military posts inside the Idlib region, which lies across its southern border and is controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and jihadist fighters, trying to forestall a government assault.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had also contacted foreign ministers of several countries and was in touch with “all actors in Syria”.

“We are making an effort for a ceasefire in Idlib,” he said, repeating Turkey’s call for targeted operations against jihadist militants, including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, instead of an indiscriminate onslaught.

“We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organizations. But killing everyone – civilians, women, children – like this in the name of fighting terrorist organizations is not right and is not humane,” he said on a visit to Pakistan.

GRAPHIC: Syria’s Idlib assault – https://tmsnrt.rs/2NHAqh3

The United Nations has warned that an offensive in Idlib could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe in an area where 3 million people live. Turkey, already hosting 3.5 million Syrians, says it cannot take in another wave of refugees.

RUSSIA TALKS

President Tayyip Erdogan will hold talks in Russia on Monday with Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian crisis, 10 days after similar talks in Tehran, Turkish and Russian officials said.

Despite the deadlock at the Iran meeting, calm has largely prevailed in northwest Syria this week following a wave of air strikes which killed several dozen people and generated speculation of an imminent ground offensive.

A pro-Assad source in Syria said: “There is patience and repositioning currently. The operation is not canceled, but we have time.”

A second source, an official in the regional alliance that supports Assad, said there was a “political tug of war” over Idlib, accompanied by air strikes on militants from Tahrir al-Sham.

Two rebel sources in the northwest said some government forces have been observed withdrawing from frontlines in the Hama region, which adjoins Idlib, this week.

“It appears that the Russians and the Assad regime have temporarily looked the other way,” said one of the sources, Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Ezza rebel group. He added that several hundred pro-Assad forces had withdrawn from frontlines in the northern Hama countryside.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm mostly prevailed again on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would keep bombing militant targets in Idlib if need be, but would also open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee, the Interfax news agency reported.

Lavrov, who was speaking in Berlin, was cited as saying that the Russian air force would strike what he called terrorist weapons-making facilities as and when it found out about them, but would also encourage local reconciliation deals.

Putin also discussed the situation Idlib with members of Russia’s Security Council on Friday, telling them he was concerned by militant activity there, the RIA news agency cited the Kremlin as saying.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Dominic Evans and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

More than 30,000 displaced in Syria’s Idlib in latest offensive: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: An internally displaced woman sits outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – More than 30,000 people have been displaced within rebel-held northwest Syria by bombardment by Syrian government and allied forces which began last week, a United Nations official said on Monday.

“As of 9 Sept. 30,542 people have been displaced from northwest Syria, moving to different areas across Idlib,” David Swanson, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said.

Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing a major assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of northwest Syria from rebels. The area is Syria’s last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

About 3 million people live in the opposition-held area, which comprises most of Idlib province and adjacent small parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

Swanson said that since Friday mortar and rocket attacks had increased, especially in the northern Hama countryside and southern Idlib rural areas.

He said 47 percent of those displaced have moved to camps, 29 percent are staying with families, 14 percent have settled in informal camps and 10 percent are in rented accommodation.

(Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Angus MacSwan)

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)

As some ‘White Helmets’ escaped Syria, most were left behind

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets holds a document at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

By Khalil Ashawi

MIZANAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Fearing for his life, Daman Ayed registered to be evacuated from Syria along with hundreds of other members of the White Helmets rescue service, hoping for a new life in Canada.

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

But the 20-year-old was not among the several hundred people who were spirited out of the country last weekend over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and into Jordan. When the list of names approved for evacuation arrived, his was not on it.

“They told us at midnight that the names had come. We were surprised how many names had not been approved,” said Ayed. Only two of the people working at his rescue center were on the list.

Instead, he joined thousands of other people boarding buses for opposition territory in northwest Syria under the terms of the rebels’ surrender to the government.

Many of the rescue workers and their families originally supposed to join the evacuation were not able to reach the frontier because of fighting, the White Helmets said.

Of about 800 people, including about 250 White Helmets, along with 550 family members, in the plans, only about 100 rescue workers and about 300 relatives were able to cross through the Golan Heights and Jordan.

However, other White Helmets, including Ayed, were never cleared for evacuation. “We sent these lists…and some names were refused and some names were accepted,” said Ammar al-Selmo, a White Helmet working at the group’s headquarters in Turkey.

Britain, Canada and Germany were among the countries that offered resettlement and helped to arrange the evacuation.

Asked why some White Helmets were not included in the evacuation plans, a British Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “This was a response to a specific and urgent situation”.

“We have worked, alongside our partners, to use our diplomatic channels to evacuate the maximum number of White Helmets and their families as was possible in an extremely constrained security context.”

German officials declined to comment.

Ayed, who has arrived in the northwest along with his parents and younger brother, said he still sees leaving Syria as his best hope of surviving the war.

“Regarding our departure for Canada, I consider it the only solution to save our lives,” he said.

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

IDENTIFICATION PAPERS

The northwest is the last major area still held by rebels. Idlib faces frequent bombardment and President Bashar al-Assad has said it is now his target.

Rescue workers with the White Helmets, which operates only in opposition-held parts of Syria, are at great risk if captured by the government, Ayed said.

“Our fate is worse than that of army defectors,” he said.

Assad has accused the White Helmets of being an al Qaeda front, and his government says they fabricated chemical weapons attacks as a pretext for Western air strikes.

The group, which receives funding from Western governments, says it is a civilian rescue organization that works under bombardment to pull people from the rubble.

Adding to his fear of capture by Assad’s forces, Ayed said when the army advanced into his district of the southwest this month, it seized paperwork at the White Helmets base.

“The most important thing is the names and identities of the volunteers, and our special identification cards. This is what damages us the most. The papers and the names were not destroyed, but stayed as they were and are in the hands of the regime,” he said.

SHELLING

Assad has crushed one center of the rebellion after another in recent years and last month turned to the opposition stronghold straddling Deraa and Quneitra provinces in the southwest.

Air strikes were followed by ground attacks and offers of surrender in return for safe passage to northwestern Syria for any who refused to come back under government control.

Ayed, who said he has been a White Helmet for 16 months, was based in Lajat, the first rebel area in Deraa to come under attack.

As the army closed in, it shelled the White Helmets center and the rescue workers fled before it was captured, he said. Its 30 staff split up, heading for different parts of the remaining rebel territory.

Some sought refuge in towns that were later captured by the government. “They were surrounded and their fate is unknown,” he said.

Ayed and his family ended up in Quneitra, near the frontier with the Golan Heights, the last patch of rebel ground in southwest Syria to surrender to the government.

He worked at the White Helmets center there for several weeks. Then one evening all its rescue workers were called in for an urgent meeting.

They were told to submit their names for evacuation through Israel and Jordan with the prospect of resettlement in Canada, he said. When the names came back, Ayed was not among them.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Andrew MacAskill in London; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Syrian rebels and Iran reach deal to evacuate villages: sources

FILE PHOTO - People that were evacuated from the two villages of Kefraya and al-Foua walk near buses, after a stall in an agreement between rebels and Syria's army, at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian rebels and Iranian-backed negotiators have reached a deal to evacuate thousands of people from two rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages in northwest Syria in return for the release of hundreds of detainees in state prisons, opposition sources said.

They said the negotiators from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel coalition spearheaded by Syria’s former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had reached the secret deal, under which all residents would be evacuated from the mostly Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province.

“An initial agreement has been reached but talks are ongoing,” said an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret negotiations that Turkey was also involved in and which builds on a deal reached last year that was never fully implemented.

In April 2017 thousands of people in the two Shi’ite towns were evacuated to government-held areas in a swap deal that in exchange freed hundreds of Sunnis living in former rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani that were then besieged by Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

But the evacuation of the remaining 7,000 people in al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the release of 1,500 detainees prisoners never went through.

The resumption of talks now to complete the deal was to ward off a possible military campaign by the Syrian army and Iranian backed militias to end the siege of the two Shi’ite towns, another opposition source said.

“Over 1,500 civilian and rebel prisoners held in regime prisons will be released,” said an opposition source familiar with the talks told Reuters.

The deal also includes release of thirty four prisoners captured by Hezbollah during its siege of the Madaya and Zabadani.

There was no official word on the deal but state-owned Ikhabriyah television station said there were “reports of an agreement to liberate thousands from the two towns”.

Iran, which backs President Bashar al Assad against the mainly Sunni insurgents and has expanded its military role in the country, has long taken a interest in the fate of its co-religionists in the two-besieged towns.

It has arranged dozens of air lifts of food and equipment to circumvent the siege by rebels of the two towns.

Past deals have mostly affected Sunni Muslims living in former rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces and their allies after years of crushing sieges that have in some cases led to starvation. Damascus calls them reconciliation deals.

Rebels say it amounts to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centers in the west of the country, and engenders demographic change because most of the opposition, and Syria’s population, are Sunni.

But backed militarily by Russia and Shi’ite regional allies, Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, has negotiated the deals from a position of strength.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Assad, aided by Russia, poised to snuff out ‘cradle’ of revolt

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a Syrian flag in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad is poised to snuff out the Syrian rebellion in the place it first began more than seven years ago, as rebels enter talks with his Russian allies on withdrawing from Deraa city or accepting a return of state authority.

Government forces backed by Russia have seized most of Deraa province in the campaign that got underway last month and on Monday encircled rebel-held parts of Deraa city and seized the entire Jordanian frontier that was once in opposition hands.

Assad, whose control was once reduced to a fraction of Syria, now holds the largest chunk of the country with crucial help from his Russian and Iranian allies.

Deraa was the scene of the first anti-Assad protests that spiraled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people. The conflict has driven over 11 million people from their homes, with some 5.6 million Syrian refugees in neighboring states alone and many more in Europe.

Rebels in Deraa are due to hold talks with Russian officers on Tuesday, a spokesman for the rebels, Abu Shaimaa, said. The talks were due to take place in the town of Busra al-Sham.

Some are seeking evacuation to opposition-held areas of the north while others are negotiating to remain as a local security force, he said.

“Today there is a session with the Russians over the forced displacement,” he said in a text message, referring to the expected evacuation of a yet-to-determined number of rebels to opposition areas of the northwest at the border with Turkey.

A pro-Syrian government newspaper, al-Watan, said “the coming hours will be decisive on the level of ending the chapter of terrorism in Deraa city”.

As Assad pushes for outright military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace settlement to the conflict.

The north and much of the east however remain outside his control and the presence of U.S. and Turkish forces in those areas will complicate further advances for Damascus.

“EXTREMELY SCARED”

Government forces began thrusting into Deraa province last month. Heavily outgunned rebels surrendered quickly in some places as the United States, which once armed them, told opposition forces not to expect its intervention.

Deraa rebels agreed to a wider ceasefire deal brokered by Russia last Friday and to surrender the province in phases. Syrian and Russian forces then took control of the main crossing with Jordan, which has been in rebel hands since 2015.

On Monday, government forces extended their control all the way along Deraa province’s border with Jordan up to a pocket of territory held by Islamic State-affiliated militants, severing a once vital opposition lifeline to Jordan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said army helicopters dropped leaflets on the rebel-held town of al-Haara saying “there is no place for militants”.

The government offensive is expected to turn next to nearby rebel-held areas of Quneitra province, at the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The offensive has triggered the biggest single displacement of civilians in the war, uprooting more than 320,000 people. Large numbers of people have moved again in the few days since the ceasefire was agreed, some returning to their villages.

Rachel Sider, Syria advocacy and information adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said displaced people had been crossing back to areas that are subject to the agreement “because the expectation is that now there is a ceasefire that is holding, that will be the most stable and safe place”.

“But we also know that people still feel extremely scared. They are not very clear about who is in control of the places that they are from. We have seen a lot of confusion amongst people who are trying to make a decision about their families’ safety and their future,” she said.

Tens of thousands of displaced people are still thought to be sheltering in the Tel Shihab area of Deraa province, and many more are at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

(The story corrects to show talks over fate of rebels in Deraa city are being held in Busra al-Sham, not Deraa city itself.)

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

South Syrian rebels lay down arms as Assad seizes crossing

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian opposition flag is erected at the Syrian-Jordanian border at the Nasib crossing in Deraa province, Syria August 27, 2017.REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) – South Syrian rebels said they had agreed on Friday to lay down arms in a Russian-brokered deal that appeared to surrender Deraa province to the government in another major victory for President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian government recovered the crucial Nassib border crossing with Jordan, held by rebels for three years, state media reported, after a fierce assault in insurgent territory along the frontier backed by Russian air strikes.

Deraa province encompasses most of the area held by rebels in the southwest, one of their last remaining strongholds in Syria. Assad is also aiming to recover control of rebel-held areas of Quneitra province at the frontier with the Israei-occupied Golan Heights.

Government advances in Deraa in a two-week offensive had brought large parts of the province back under state control and caused a massive rapid human exodus as hundreds of thousands of people fled.

Rebel sources said the deal brokered by Russia would allow civilians to return to their villages and towns with Russia guaranteeing their protection.

Russian guarantees will also be extended to rebel fighters who wish to “settle their status” with the government – a process by which former insurgents accept to live under state rule again, the sources said.

Rebels who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule would leave for the insurgent stronghold in northwest Syria, they said.

Several witnesses along the Jordan border fence with Syria said they spotted armored vehicles and a tank with a Russian flag heading to the Nassib crossing, an important trade artery.

A commander in a regional military alliance that backs Assad said an Israeli air strike had hit a Syrian village in Quneitra on Friday, causing no casualties. Israel’s military said it had hit a Syrian army post in that area.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Ellen Francis, Editing by Alison Williams, Tom Perry, William Maclean)