Strikes on Syrian medical facilities appear deliberate: U.N.

Strikes on Syrian medical facilities appear deliberate: U.N.
By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 60 medical facilities have been hit in Syria’s Idlib province in the past six months, including four this week, and appear to have been deliberately targeted by government-affiliated forces, a U.N. rights spokesman said on Friday.

Idlib in Syria’s northwest, the target of a Russian-backed offensive launched this summer to capture it and surrounding areas, is part of the last major rebel bastion in Syria’s 8 1/2-year war.

Since April 29, 61 medical facilities have been hit there, including some that were struck several times, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told journalists.

“We can’t determine if every single attack is deliberate but the large scale of these attacks…strongly suggests that government-affiliated forces conducting these strikes are, at least partly, if not wholly, deliberately striking health facilities,” he said at a Geneva news briefing.

“They can’t possibly all be accidents,” he told Reuters later. He said that, if it is proven that any or some of these were deliberate, they would amount to war crimes.

Damage was reported at the Kafr Nobol hospital on Nov. 6 – which had also been hit in May and July – and two air strikes also directly hit the al-Ikhlas hospital in southern Idlib, incapacitating it this week, Colville said.

Pressure is building for an investigation into attacks on Syrian hospitals amid allegations that hundreds have taken place over the course of the 8-1/2 year conflict.

The United Nations passes on information provided by NGOs about the location of medical facilities along with other data to parties to the conflict. The aim of this is to avoid attacks on such facilities, which are protected under international humanitarian law, but it has been criticized as a means of facilitating exactly the opposite.

Syria’s war has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and forced 13 million people from their homes, half of whom have left their wrecked country.

Since a Turkish-led offensive across Syria’s northern border a month ago to push out Kurdish YPG fighters, at least 92 civilians have been killed in northern and northeastern Syria, Colville added.

That offensive displaced 200,000 people, of whom nearly half of them remain displaced are dispersed across camps and shelters, Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, said on Friday.

A U.N.-backed panel met for the first time in Geneva this week, with delegates from the government, opposition and civil society, in what the United Nations says is an important step on the long road to political rapprochement in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Marina Depetris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. accuses Syrian government of chemical weapon attack in May in Idlib

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, U.S. September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the United States had concluded the government of President Bashir al-Assad in Syria had used chlorine as a chemical weapon in an attack in May during a battle with insurgents in Idlib.

“The Assad regime is responsible for innumerable atrocities some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Pompeo told a news conference in New York, where he has been attending the United Nations General Assembly.

“Today I am announcing that the United States has concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon on May 19,” Pompeo said.

The United States said in May it had received numerous reports that appeared consistent with chemical exposure after an attack by Syrian government forces in northwest Syria, but it had made no definitive conclusion as to whether they used chemical weapons.

The Trump administration has twice bombed Syria over Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018.

The United States, Britain and France launched airstrikes in April 2018 against what they described as three Syrian chemical weapons targets in retaliation for a suspected gas attack that killed scores of people in a Damascus suburb earlier that month.

Assad launched an offensive at the end of April this year on Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces, saying insurgents had broken a truce.

“This is different in some sense because it was chlorine… but know that President Trump has been pretty vigorous in protecting the world from the use of chemical weapons,” Pompeo said, said declining to say what the U.S. response could be.

Pompeo said Washington had also added sanctions on two Russian entities for providing fuel to the Syrian government. Russia supports Assad in the more than eight-year-long Syrian war.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by John Irish; editing by Grant McCool)

Stay or go? Syrian refugees face a life-changing choice

A Syrian refugee girl stands near luggage of Syrian refugees returning to Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2018. Picture taken December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – As the bus pulled out of a Beirut car park heading for Damascus, Ahmed Sheikh waved from the window, excited, he said, to be returning home to Syria after years as a refugee in Lebanon.

Sheikh and his two sons are part of a steady trickle of refugees going back as the Syrian government tightens its grip on areas it controls and the prospect of new fighting recedes.

But not everyone wants to go home just yet. While Beirut says 90,000 Syrians have returned this year, more than a million remain in Lebanon, including many who fear reprisals or army conscription, or whose homes were destroyed in the war.

In a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Abu Ibrahim recalled how government shellfire had obliterated his hometown, saying it was too dangerous to return to Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains president.

Whether the millions of refugees outside Syria, like Sheikh and Abu Ibrahim, will return to areas where fighting has ended is becoming a pressing issue in the country and abroad.

Assad now controls most of Syria and the front lines appear stable for now between government territory and two big enclaves in the north and east still outside Damascus’ control.

The refugees’ fate is important to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which have each buckled under the strain of hosting so many, but also to Europe, where the refugee crisis has caused political ructions. It will play a critical role in shaping Syria’s own gradual economic recovery too.

About half Syria’s pre-war population fled after war broke out in 2011, 6.3 million of them as refugees abroad and 6 million displaced in their own country. Many were forced to flee numerous times.

About a million remain in Lebanon, 3.6 million in Turkey and nearly 700,000 in Jordan, the UNHCR said. One million Syrian children have been born in exile as refugees since the crisis began.

The agency said on Tuesday that up to 250,000 Syrian refugees were expected to go home next year, while around 37,000 returned in 2018, a figure its officials say may not be complete.

GOING HOME

For Sheikh, 46, the decision to return came after a legal problem in Lebanon. His residency permit had expired and he faced a large fine. Police told him he would not have to pay if he agreed to return to Syria.

Still, with the war calmer, he was happy to be going. “There is security here, but living conditions are hard. There is not much work and everything is very expensive,” he said.

He had fled Aleppo with his family in late 2012 after rebels there threatened him, accusing him of links with the government.

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

In Syria, he owned a bakery and later worked in Lebanon as a baker after making the long, circuitous journey through war-ravaged Syria with his wife and five children.

But he will not go back to his old Aleppo district, ruined in the fighting. He and his sons will stay with his sister in Manbij, which is controlled by local U.S.-backed forces.

His wife and three daughters will not return to Syria yet. The young women have married and had children while in Lebanon.

Returning is complicated. Syrian security checks on those who seek to come back can take weeks. Not all are approved. Important documents may have been lost. Young children may have no passport at all.

The Lebanese and Syrian governments have organized numerous returns for groups of refugees who register to go back. Sheikh’s return was one of these.

As he got on his bus, another family group hugged and cried – some staying, some going. A father looked through the window at his wife and disconsolate child who were returning to Syria while he stayed on to work in Lebanon.

STAYING ON

Abu Ibrahim, by contrast, swears he will not take his wife and three children back. He is haunted by the carnage of an early battle that destroyed Baba Amr, their neighborhood of Homs, which they fled by night as bullets sang overhead.

He had a workshop there, repairing televisions. His parents lived nearby, as did his 11 siblings with their families. People in Baba Amr were close-knit. “Everyone used to know each other,” he said.

When protesters marched in 2011, he joined them, though he did not take up arms, and by early 2012, protests had given way to war.

In a fierce assault on Baba Amr, the army shelled his street, which faced the front line. His building took a direct hit, wounding him and his son. A nephew disappeared, presumed among the hundreds killed.

When the bombardment abated, they left by night, braving sniper fire to cross the fields. “The children couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.

In a new neighborhood, as the army advanced again, he witnessed summary shootings. The family kept on moving, before paying money to cross into Lebanon.

Abu Ibrahim’s old house and his neighborhood are now rubble – a military zone controlled by army checkpoints. His siblings scattered during the fighting. None stayed in Syria.

In Lebanon, he still fixes electrical goods, going house to house on a motorbike with his toolkit. He makes little money and sees no future there.

But he is alarmed by rumors among the refugees in Lebanon that some who have returned were abused or killed, which Damascus denies. In Syria, his oldest boy, now 16, would soon face conscription. His two-year-old daughter lacks a proper birth certificate or passport.

“I will never go back unless the regime is changed, and especially Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

He wants to go to the West, a journey few manage. Of the million Syrians in Lebanon, only a small number have gained permission to relocate there as refugees.

Others attempt the dangerous sea crossing to Cyprus. In September a boat sank, drowning a child whose family could not face a return to their homeland.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Thousands more leave enclave in Syria’s Ghouta as Assad takes back control

A convoy of buses that carry rebels and their families waits at Harasta highway outside Jobar, in Damascus, Syria March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of people departed eastern Ghouta for Syrian rebel territory near the Turkish border on Tuesday, the third group to leave under a deal brokered by Russia to surrender the enclave near Damascus to the Syrian government.

Some 7,000 people – most of them fighters and their families – left on 100 buses in the early hours of the morning, to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. More buses drove into eastern Ghouta ahead of a further evacuation.

Rebels have been leaving Ghouta in batches with their families since Thursday, accepting safe passage to the Idlib region in northwestern Syria after they were beaten into retreat in a fierce assault by the Russian-backed Syrian army.

It marks the biggest defeat for the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad since insurgents were driven from eastern Aleppo in 2016, underscoring his unassailable military position in the seven-year-long conflict.

“We faced two choices: go to Idlib or make peace with the regime,” said Sakhr Yousef, a 24-year-old fighter with the Failaq al-Rahman faction as he was preparing to leave eastern Ghouta with his wife and four young siblings.

“Making peace with the regime is very difficult, making peace with those who bombed us with criminal Russia,” he added in a voice message to Reuters, referring to Assad’s main backer in the conflict.

The rebels being evacuated on Tuesday are leaving from a tract of territory centered around the towns of Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka that was controlled by Failaq al-Rahman rebels.

The last remaining insurgent-held area in Ghouta is the town of Douma. The United Nations said it is highly concerned for 70,000-78,000 people it said were trapped inside.

The Islamist group that controls Douma, Jaish al-Islam, is in talks with Russia that have yet to yield a result.

DISPLACED PEOPLE SUBJECTED TO “SCREENING PROCESS”

Backed by Russia and Iran, the government has repeatedly forced rebels to surrender areas and withdraw to Idlib. The opposition has called this a policy of “demographic change” aimed at forcing dissidents out of Syria’s main cities.

State television, broadcasting from the outskirts of Arbin, showed buses moving along a dusty road through a wasteland of heavily damaged buildings.

A correspondent with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said it could take four to five days to evacuate the tens of thousands of people who had agreed to leave Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka.

Hezbollah, a heavily armed Lebanese group backed by Iran, has fought on Assad’s side during the war.

The Russian news agency TASS said 13,190 rebels had left eastern Ghouta in the last three days.

Many tens of thousands of people have fled eastern Ghouta this month into areas controlled by the Syrian government.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said more than 80,000 people had left formerly besieged parts of eastern Ghouta as control shifted since March 9.

The displaced “have to proceed to collective shelters and are not permitted to leave, until they have undergone a screening process and are able to prove a sponsor”, OCHA said in a situation report.

Syrian state TV said the army freed 28 people who had been held captive by militants in Arbin. The Observatory said their release was part of the deal agreed by rebels.

The Syrian military split eastern Ghouta into three separate zones during its assault that began on Feb. 18 and has killed more than 1,600 people, according to the Observatory.

The government says the offensive is securing Damascus from insurgent mortar fire that regularly used to hit the capital including its Old City.

In addition to their foothold in the northwest, anti-Assad rebels still hold a chunk of territory along the southern frontier with Jordan and Israel, and enclaves near Damascus, Homs and Hama.

(Additional reporting Katya Golubkova; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syrian Observatory: Turkish jets attack pro-government forces in Afrin

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish warplanes attacked pro-Syrian government forces overnight, killing at least 17 people in a village in the north of the Afrin region in northwestern Syria, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

The dead included three members of the Syrian Kurdish YPG force, while the rest came from militias that support President Bashar al-Assad and entered Afrin last week to help repel a Turkish offensive, the Observatory said.

The Turkish military declined to comment on the Observatory report, but the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Friday that Turkish attack helicopters had killed nine YPG fighters in the west of Afrin.

Another Turkish news agency, Dogan, reported that Turkish and allied forces had started an operation on Friday morning to take control of the town of Rajo in Afrin.

Turkey and allied Syrian rebel groups began their operation against the YPG in Afrin in January, aiming to drive out the Kurdish militia, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group linked to an insurgency inside Turkey’s borders.

Despite making slow progress at first, the offensive has gained control over all Afrin’s border areas adjoining Turkey. Late on Thursday, the Turkish military said eight Turkish soldiers had been killed and 13 injured in clashes in Afrin.

Last month, after the YPG asked the Syrian government to send its army to repel the offensive, pro-Syrian government militias crossed into Afrin and deployed along the frontlines with Turkey.

However, the move did not deter the Turkish offensive and has not so far heralded any wider escalation involving the Syrian government and the forces that support it.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Syrian government ground forces attack Ghouta despite Russian truce plan

People watch as smoke rises in eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces launched a ground assault on the edge of the rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave on Wednesday, seeking to gain territory despite a Russian plan for five-hour daily ceasefires, a war monitor and sources on both sides said.

Hundreds of people have died in 11 days of bombing of the eastern Ghouta, a swathe of towns and farms outside Damascus that is the last major rebel-held area near the capital.

The onslaught has been one of the fiercest of the civil war, now entering its eighth year.

The U.N. Security Council, including President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest ally Russia, passed a resolution on Saturday calling for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire, but it has not come into effect, with Moscow and Damascus saying they are battling members of terrorist groups excluded from the truce.

Russia has instead called for daily five-hour local ceasefires to establish what it calls a humanitarian corridor so aid can enter the enclave and civilians and wounded can leave.

The first such truce took place on Tuesday but quickly collapsed when bombing and shelling resumed after a short lull.

There were no air strikes during Wednesday’s five-hour ceasefire, but heavy bombardment resumed in the afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

There has been no sign of aid delivered to the besieged area.

Moscow and Damascus have accused rebels of shelling the corridor to prevent people leaving. Rebels deny this, and say people will not leave eastern Ghouta because they fear the government. A senior U.S. general accused Moscow of acting as “both arsonist and firefighter” by failing to rein in Assad.

Wednesday’s ground assault targeted the Hawsh al-Dawahra area at the eastern edge of the rebel-held area.

The Observatory reported advances by the government forces in the area, describing it as the resumption of an assault that first began on Feb. 25. It said rebels had inflicted heavy losses on government forces.

An official with one of the rebel groups in eastern Ghouta said fighters were battling to repel an attempted incursion, and characterized the battle as “back and forth”.

A commander in the military alliance that backs Assad said an elite unit of the Syrian army, the Tiger Force, was taking part in the assault and advances had been made.

France’s foreign ministry called on Russia and Iran, Assad’s other military ally, to exert “maximum pressure” on the Syrian government to implement the 30-day ceasefire.

But with no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta appears on course to eventually meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government in lengthy, punishing assaults, where rebels and civilians who oppose Assad were finally evacuated in negotiated withdrawals.

Damascus appears to be applying tried and tested military means, combining air strikes and bombardment with ground assaults, as it did to win back eastern Aleppo in 2016.

A senior Western diplomat said Russia appeared intent on a repeat of Aleppo in eastern Ghouta by evacuating the area and then killing “the terrorists even if it’s not just Nusra”, a reference to a jihadist group with al Qaeda links.

US, RUSSIA CLASH OVER CHEMICAL WEAPONS

Diplomatic sources have said the chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, opened an investigation into attacks in eastern Ghouta to determine whether banned munitions were used.

The United States says it has evidence Syrian forces have used chlorine, which is permitted for civilian purposes but banned as a weapon, in attacks in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere.

U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood said on Wednesday that Russia has violated its duty to guarantee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and prevent the Assad government from using poison gas.

Syria agreed to give up its stockpile of poison gas and join the international chemical weapons ban in 2013 under a Russian-brokered deal that averted U.S. retaliatory air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people. Washington accused Damascus last year of again using nerve gas and carried out a round of air strikes as punishment.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria had eliminated its poison gas stockpiles, and called allegations it was still using chemical weapons “absurd”.

Lavrov said militants entrenched in eastern Ghouta were blocking aid and the evacuation of people who want to leave. Moscow would continue to support the Syrian army in totally defeating the “terrorist threat”, Lavrov told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

A Syrian army officer told journalists insurgents had shelled the corridor again on Wednesday.

Rebels have intensified shelling of nearby government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

The United Nations said on Tuesday it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate wounded, and said all sides must abide by the 30-day truce sought by the Security Council.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.

As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region.

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, John Irish in Paris; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Turkey to U.S.: End support for Syrian Kurd YPG or risk confrontation

Turkish soldiers are pictured in a village near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 24, 2018.

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dahlia Nehme

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey urged the United States on Thursday to halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria, some of Ankara’s strongest comments yet about a potential clash with its NATO ally.

The remarks, from the spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan’s government, underscored the growing bilateral tensions, six days after Turkey launched its air and ground operation, “Olive Branch”, in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region.

In Washington, the Pentagon said that it carefully tracked weapons provided to the YPG and would continue discussions with Turkey.

“We carefully track those weapons that are provided to them, we ensure that they, to the maximum extent possible, don’t fall into the wrong hands and we’re continuing discussions with the Turks on this issue,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, joint staff director, told reporters.

McKenzie said Turkey’s operation into Afrin was not helpful and was taking focus away from fighting Islamic State.

Turkey’s targeting of the YPG, which it views as a security threat, has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war. The Syrian Kurdish group is a main part of a U.S.-backed rebel alliance that has inflicted recent defeats on Islamic State militants.

Any push by Turkish forces towards Manbij, part of a Kurdish-held territory some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, could threaten U.S. efforts in northeast Syria and bring them into direct confrontation with U.S. troops deployed there.

“Those who support the terrorist organization will become a target in this battle,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said.

“The United States needs to review its solders and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” Bozdag, who also acts as the government’s spokesman, told broadcaster A Haber.

The United States has around 2,000 troops in Syria, officially as part of an international, U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. Washington has angered Ankara by providing arms, training and air support to Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.

The Kurdish-led autonomous administration that runs Afrin on Thursday called on the Syrian government to defend its border with Turkey in Afrin despite Damascus’ stance against Kurdish autonomy.

“We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders with Turkey from attacks of the Turkish occupier,” it said in a statement on its website.

The Syrian government has said it is ready to target Turkish jets in its airspace, but has not intervened so far. It suspects the Kurds of wanting independence in the long-run and does not recognize the autonomous cantons they have set up in northern Syria.

U.S. forces were deployed in and around Manbij to deter Turkish and U.S.-backed rebels from attacking each other and have also carried out training missions in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Erdogan on Wednesday to curtail the military operation in Syria, the White House said.

However Turkey has disputed that characterization of the conversation.

Turkey’s foreign minister said Erdogan told Trump that U.S. troops should withdraw from Manbij.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said she had seen media reports about the comments, but was not aware of any change in U.S. posture.

McKenzie added the United States and Turkey closely coordinated in the region but the United States would also ensure the safety of its troops.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag and Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli upon his arrival at the border city of Hatay, Turkey January 25, 2018.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag and Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli upon his arrival at the border city of Hatay, Turkey January 25, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.

LIMITED GAINS

Six days into the campaign, Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army rebel fighter allies have been battling to gain footholds on the western, northern and eastern flanks of Afrin.

They appear to have made only limited gains, hampered by rain and clouds, which have limited the air support.

Turkish warplanes struck the northern borders of Afrin, in tandem with heavy artillery shelling, and one civilian was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Dozens of combatants and more than two dozen civilians have been killed so far in the offensive, the Observatory has said.

The Turkish military said in a statement it had killed 303 militants in northern Syria since the operation started.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-dominated umbrella group backed by the United States in the fight against Islamic State, has previously said that Turkey was exaggerating the number of the dead.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have neared breaking point recently over U.S. support for the YPG and other issues.

Ankara considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. Washington sees the YPG as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey said the United States had proposed a 30 km (19 mile) “safe zone” along the border.

“(But) in order for us to discuss the security zone or any other issue with the U.S., we have to reestablish trust,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

In Washington, McKenzie said the U.S. and Turkey were continuing talks about a “secure zone” but there had been no final decision.

McKenzie said that he had not yet seen a movement of SDF fighters moving from the Euphrates River Valley to reinforce Afrin or Manbij, but was watching closely.

The Afrin operation has also triggered concern in Germany, another NATO ally, where the caretaker government said it would put on hold any decision on upgrading Turkey’s German-made tanks.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Tom Perry in Beirut; Michael Nienaber Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alistair Bell)

Syrian, Russian jets bomb residential areas in eastern Ghouta: witnesses, monitor

People are seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3,

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Jets believed to be Syrian and Russian struck heavily crowded residential areas in a besieged rebel enclave near Damascus, killing at least 27 people and injuring dozens in the third week of a stepped-up assault, residents, aid workers and a war monitor said on Monday.

Civil defense workers said at least 17 were killed in the town of Hamoriya in an aerial strike on a marketplace and nearby residential area after over nearly 30 strikes in the past 24 hours that struck several towns in the densely populated rural area east of Damascus known as the Eastern Ghouta.

Four other civilians were killed in the town of Arbin, while the rest came from strikes on Misraba and Harasta, the civil defense workers said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said the casualties on Sunday were the biggest daily death toll since the stepped-up strikes began 20 days ago. The monitor said nearly 200 civilians were killed in strikes and shelling, including many women and children, during that period.

The Eastern Ghouta has been besieged by army troops since 2013 in an attempt to force the rebel enclave to submission.

The government has in recent months tightened the siege in what residents and aid workers have said is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

The United Nations says about 400,00 civilians besieged in the region face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the Syrian government were blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Eastern Ghouta is the last remaining large swathe of rebel-held area around Damascus that has not reached an evacuation deal to surrender weapons in return for allowing fighters to go to other rebel-held areas farther north.

“They are targeting civilians … a jet hit us there, no rebels or checkpoints,” Sadeq Ibrahim, a trader, said by phone in Hamoriya.

“May God take his revenge on the regime and Russia,” said Abdullah Khalil, another resident, who said he lost members of his family in the air strike on Arbin and was searching for survivors among the rubble.

A boy is seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3,

A boy is seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The intensified bombardment of Eastern Ghouta follows a rebel attack last month on an army complex in the heart of the region that the army had used to bomb nearby rebel-held areas.

Residents said, however, that the failure of the army to dislodge rebels from the complex had prompted what they believe were retaliatory indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Eastern Ghouta.

Government advances since last year have forced people to flee deeper into its increasingly overcrowded towns. The loss of farmland is increasing pressure on scarce food supplies.

The Eastern Ghouta is part of several de-escalation zones that Russia has brokered with rebels across Syria that has freed the army to redeploy in areas where it can regain ground.

Rebels accuse the Syrian government and Russia of violating the zones and say they were meant as a charade to divert attention from the heavy daily bombing of civilian areas. The Syrian government and Russia deny their jets bomb civilians and insist they only strike militant hideouts.

 

 

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Peter Cooney)

 

U.N. investigators tell states to stop Syria war crimes

Journalists and civilians stand near the damage after rockets fired by insurgents hit the al-Dabit maternity clinic in government-held

GENEVA (Reuters) – States backing Syria’s peace process must stop the warring parties from attacking unlawful targets such as hospitals and other civilian sites, U.N. war crimes investigators said in a statement on Wednesday.

Air strikes, shelling and rocket fire had been consistently used in recent attacks on civilian areas, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a statement.

“Failure to respect the laws of war must have consequences for the perpetrators,” its chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said.

“Until the culture of impunity is uprooted, civilians will continue to be targeted, victimized and brutally killed.”

International law requires all parties to the conflict to distinguish between lawful and unlawful targets, but that distinction had been ignored and some recent attacks had been war crimes, the statement said.

It cited an attack on the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo governorate on April 27 and other attacks on nearby medical facilities, and air strikes on markets, bakeries and a water station, as well as the May 5 attack on a refugee camp in Idlib.

Those attacks all happened after a two-month ceasefire, brokered by Russia and the United states, unraveled, and Syrian government forces said they would launch an assault to recapture rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

The statement did not explicitly attribute blame for attacks on civilians, but only Syria’s government and its ally Russia are using aircraft in the conflict.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said last week that initial reports suggested Syrian government aircraft were responsible for the attack on the refugee camp in Idlib governorate, which killed about 30 people. Syria’s military said they had not targeted the camp.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Louise Ireland)