John Kerry declares Syria regime has broken chemical weapons deal

September 18, 2014 by Damien McElroy

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has declared Syria had breached its commitments to stop using chemical weapons in the civil war by using chlorine gas in attacks earlier this year.

Following a Telegraph investigation established that chlorine gas was used in attacks on the villages of Kfar Zita and Talmenes in April, Mr Kerry confirmed that the attacks amounted to a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

“We believe there is evidence of [President Bashar al-] Assad’s use of chlorine, which when you use it - despite it not being on the list - it is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Mr Kerry told the US House of Representatives. “He’s in violation of the convention.”

A fact-finding mission by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found “compelling confirmation” that a toxic chemical was used “systematically and repeatedly” as a weapon in the villages in northern Syria last week.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former British army officer who led the Telegraph investigation, said Mr Kerry’s comments showed that war crimes were continuing to take place in Syria.

“Five months after we proved that Assad had the US red line that chemical weapons must not be used, Secretary Kerry has now stated that Assad has broken international law,” he said. “Since then there have been multiple other incidents including another attack on Kfar Zita that killed one person just a few days ago. Surely there must be action to stop this now.”

Mr Kerry went on to add Washington was studying ways to hold Assad to account, after the world’s chemical watchdog earlier this month confirmed the systematic use of chlorine as a weapon in war-torn Syria.

While Damascus promised to hand over all its chemical arms, and tonnes of chemical agents have been destroyed by international monitors, Syria did not have to declare its stockpile of chlorine under an a disarmanent deal. Chlorine is a weak toxic agent that can be considered a chemical weapon if used in battle but the material is widely used for commercial and domestic purposes.

Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical munitions has either been destroyed in country or exported for destruction as part of a deal agreed a year ago in a bid to head off US-backed air strikes on the Syrian regime following an chemical attack in Damascus in August 2013 that killed at least 281.

At least 34 Syrian children die from contaminated measles vaccine

Idlib measles deaths

 Many of the dead children come from Idlib province, which is controlled by moderate rebels. Photograph: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

September 17, 2014 by Mowaffaq Safadi in Gaziantep and Patrick Kingsley in Cairo

At least 34 children have died in rebel-held Syria after being injected with contaminated measles vaccines, the rebel government said on Tuesday, warning that the deaths might be caused by saboteurs linked to the Assad regime.

The death toll is expected to rise, with many children from eight towns in Idlib province, north-west Syria, still in intensive care on Tuesday night.

Parents accused opposition health authorities of failing to store the vaccines properly, and of supplying out-of-date medication. But opposition officials denied accusations of negligence, saying that the vaccines came from Unicef and WHO, via the Turkish government, and that the same batch had successfully vaccinated 60,000 schoolchildren in 30 locations in recent days.

Instead, the opposition health ministry attributed the deaths to foul play, with health minister Adnan Hazouri promising to resign if an investigation upheld allegations of negligence. “Primary investigations point to a limited security breach by vandals likely connected to the regime, which has been attempting to target the medical sector in Free Syria in order to spread chaos,” the ministry said in a statement.

"The symptoms don’t just indicate spoiled vaccines – it suggests they’ve been contaminated," Bashar Kayal, another health official, told Radio Hawa Smart, a Syrian-focused station based across the border in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Blood samples have been sent to Turkey for analysis, and the vaccination programme suspended. These moves have done little to convince parents in Idlib province, who fear many more children might be affected.

But the head of Idlib’s medical department, Monther Khalil, claimed the worst was over. “The department assures all parents who have had their children vaccinated that the vaccine is completely fine and there is no risk to children who have already been injected,” Khalil told Radio Hawa Smart, a Syrian-focused station based across the border in Gaziantep, Turkey.

"We have already vaccinated 60,000 children against measles and there has been no previous problem. The same crews also previously carried out a polio campaign, where they vaccinated 252,000 children across seven rounds, and there were no abnormal complications."

Idlib province is held by moderate rebel groups opposed to both Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and the extremist Islamic State (Isis). The area was the subject of a fierce military campaign earlier this year, which saw the rebels regain control.

The Syrian civil war has already claimed the lives of over 191,000 Syrians, and created more than three million refugees. The US is currently rallying global support.

Islamic State goes underground in Syrian stronghold

Beirut, September 17, 2014 by Reuters

Islamic State has gone underground in its Syrian stronghold since President Barack Obama authorised U.S. air strikes on the group in Syria, disappearing from the streets, redeploying weapons and fighters, and cutting down its media exposure.

In the city of Raqqa, 450 km (280 miles) northeast of Damascus, residents say Islamic State has been moving equipment every day since Obama signalled on Sept. 11 that air attacks on its forces could be expanded from Iraq to Syria.

Islamic State activists who typically answer questions on the Internet have been off line since then. Its leaders have not given a direct response to Obama: his speech last week was not mentioned in a video released on Saturday showing the beheading of British hostage David Haines by an Islamic State militant.

As the United States tries to assemble a coalition to fight Islamic State, the jihadist group appears to be trying to leave as much uncertainty as possible about its strategy.

Facing U.S. air strikes in Iraq, Islamic State fighters abandoned heavy weaponry that made them easy targets and tried to blend into civilian areas. In anticipation of similar raids in Syria, the group may already be doing the same.

In Raqqa, the group has evacuated buildings it was using as offices, redeployed its heavy weaponry, and moved fighters’ families out of the city.

"They are trying to keep on the move," said one Raqqa resident, communicating via the Internet and speaking on condition of anonymity because of safety fears. "They have sleeper cells everywhere," he added.

"They only meet in very limited gatherings."

The top U.S. general promised on Tuesday “a persistent and sustainable campaign” against Islamic State in Syria, and Washington is probably already watching its positions in Raqqa. Obama approved surveillance flights over Syria last month, and footage taken by activists earlier this month appeared to show an American-made drone over the city.

The militants are not dormant; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in the country’s civil war, said they had shot down a Damascus government war plane near Raqqa using anti-aircraft guns.

However, another resident said: “Islamic State is now carrying out tactical defensive moves by relocating their assets to different places so that their heavy weaponry is not all concentrated in one place.”

Raqqa and the surrounding province is Islamic State’s main base in Syria. Last month, its fighters drove the final government forces from the area when it seized an air base.

Since seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, the group has also extended its control over neighbouring Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq. Making good on its promise to redraw the Middle East, Islamic State has declared a new province including territory on both sides of the frontier.

FEAR DRIVES UP PRICE OF DOLLAR

In Raqqa, Islamic State had taken charge of many aspects of civilian life, managing everything from traffic to bakeries in an effort to establish a state run according to its own, radical interpretation of Islam.

Islamic State has been trying to give a sense of business as normal even as it has reduced its presence in the streets, said another resident of the city whose population numbered about 200,000 before the civil war. “They are giving the impression they don’t care,” the resident said.

"These days the fighters are not deployed heavily on the streets. Only those who have to are appearing. The streets are empty and the people are worried and scared."

Some activists did appear on the outskirts of Raqqa on Tuesday. They were pictured collecting wreckage of the downed Syrian war plane and loading it into the back of a truck flying the group’s black flag.

Since Obama’s speech, shops in Raqqa have been closing early and the value of the U.S. dollar has jumped in the local hard currency market, residents said. Dozens of people have left the city, though there has been no sign of mass migration.

While preparing for an attack, Islamic State has also been trying to promote its cause among residents. Some already express support for the group whose rule has brought a modicum of stability, albeit in a hardline form.

A 14-point statement distributed in recent days reminded residents of Islamic State rules such as its ban on smoking and drinking, and requirement for women to cover up and stay at home. It also warned that anyone who dealt with President Bashar al-Assad’s government would face death.

But the statement also tried to promote the group, telling residents they would see “the great difference” between Islamic State rule and that of the “oppressive secular government” - a reference to Assad. “Live joyfully and in plenty in an Islamic government,” declared the statement, which was obtained by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, said the statement amounted to a carrot and stick approach. “It was obviously a move to reassure people but warn them at the same time,” he said.

However, governing Raqqa would come second to survival in the face of U.S. air strikes. “(Islamic State) has always had that back-up plan, even before the news of an imminent action by Americans,” Hassan said. “It’s important to realise these people don’t need to be in bases.”

In one of the few responses to Obama’s announcement, an Islamic State supporter warned of attacks on the United States and its allies if they continued to carry out military action against the group, the SITE monitoring service said on Tuesday.

Hassan said the group had yet to issue a proper response. “They are reflecting on what to do next. It’s probably their way of making it vague - so that people don’t know what to expect.”

IS quits Syria bases as US poised to strike

Beirut, September 17, 2014 by AFP

Jihadists in a Syrian stronghold near Iraq have abandoned some bases and redeployed their forces and armor from other positions, with the US military poised to strike, activists said Wednesday.

The Islamic State group (IS) has “started to empty out many of their bases and positions in Deir Ezzor province,” said Abu Osama, an activist from the eastern region mostly under jihadist control.

Speaking to AFP via the Internet, Abu Osama said all of IS’s known positions in Eshara, a town about 60 kilometers (45 miles) east of Deir Ezzor’s provincial capital, had been “shut down.”

Abu Osama also said the jihadists had emptied out the former governorate building in Deir Ezzor city, which IS had turned into their main weapons storage depot in the area.

And in the city of Mayadeen near the Iraqi border, “Daesh [IS] pulled out of eight bases, leaving only three open — the [former] post office, the military intelligence building and the religious court,” he told AFP.


"Even the oil fields are being emptied out. The families of the foreign jihadists who had been living in the residential buildings by the fields have been evacuated," he added.

IS fought a major battle against rival jihadists and rebels earlier this year, taking control of the vast majority of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province and expelling all its rivals.

The Damascus regime still controls parts of Deir Ezzor city, as well as the province’s military airport.

The jihadists pulled out amid the threat of expanded US air strikes against their positions.

In August, the United States launched air strikes targeting IS positions in neighboring Iraq, where the jihadists had spearheaded a lightning offensive beginning in June that saw large swathes of territory fall from government hands.

The United States has since called for a global coalition to fight IS and has threatened strikes on jihadist “safe havens,” including those in Syria.

According to an activist in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, IS’ main bastion, the jihadists have maintained their positions.

"The bases have stayed put, though Daesh have pulled out their weapons from some of their positions," said Furat al-Wafaa, using a pseudonym for fear of retaliation.

"But inside the city, Daesh’s presence has been maintained despite the threat," he told AFP via the Internet.

Syria opposition to probe measles vaccine deaths

Beirut, September 17, 2014 by AFP

Syria’s opposition said Wednesday it had launched an investigation into the deaths of 15 children inoculated against measles in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The vaccination program was carried out in areas under rebel control near the Turkish border but halted on Tuesday after reports of the deaths.

Some 100 other children are believed to have been affected and suffered reactions.

The opposition said it had set up a team bringing together health and justice officials to establish “the circumstances of this human tragedy.”

In a statement, the opposition justice ministry announced the creation of a commission of inquiry “aimed at establishing the circumstances around the accident, to determine the real causes…and to take the necessary judicial procedures.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said medical sources had suggested that the vaccines could have been compromised, either because they were expired or poorly stored, but there was no immediate confirmation of their claims.

The opposition’s health ministry said the affected children started showing symptoms “half an hour after inoculation. They suffered diarrhea, allergic reactions and breathing difficulties.”

"The vaccines are the same as the ones used everywhere in the world," it said, adding that the expiry date on the vaccines was January 2016.

Syria’s war has caused more than half of the population to flee their homes and millions of children are among the displaced, both inside and outside the country.

Medical groups have rushed to head off the spread of measles, mumps, rubella and polio in Syria, where normal medical services have disintegrated because of the civil war, which erupted in 2011.

Syria air strikes kill dozens in rebel town

Beirut, September 17, 2014 by AFP

Syrian air strikes on a besieged rebel town in the heart of the country have killed nearly 50 people over the past two days, a monitoring group said on Wednesday.

"On Tuesday, 25 people, including seven women and a child, were killed in air strikes on Talbisseh, in Homs province," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that a rebel commander was also among the dead.

On Monday, air strikes killed 23 people in the town, which has been under siege by the army ever since rebels seized it two year ago.

Activists appealed for help on Facebook.

"The town’s hospital has received a large number of wounded patients. The hospital has no more medicines or bandages," said one activist from Talbisseh.

A security source in Damascus confirmed the air strikes.

"There are a large number of armed terrorist groups. On Tuesday, Talbisseh’s most important terrorist and his brother were killed," the source said, using the regime’s standard term for the rebels.

He identified the dead commander as Abu Hatem al-Dahik, head of the rebel Al-Iman Brigade.

"We will continue to target the terrorists in all their hideouts," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Observatory said that rebels in Talbisseh had shelled regime positions around the nearby rebel-held town of Umm Sharshuh as fighting raged around it.

The towns are among a number that the rebels still hold in Homs province after their withdrawal from Homs city earlier year.

The Observatory meanwhile updated to 18 its toll for the number of rebels killed in an abortive attempt to infiltrate the heart of Damascus on Monday. Two pro-regime militiamen were also killed.

One person was killed in central Damascus on Wednesday by rebel fire from its outskirts, the state SANA news agency reported.

Some 191,000 people have been killed since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011.

Syria reveals more chemical weapons facilities to watchdog – sources

A container (top L) is moved from the Danish ship Ark Future, carrying a cargo of Syria's chemical weapons, after it arrived at Gioia Tauro port in southern Italy July 2, 2014. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

A container (top L) is moved from the Danish ship Ark Future, carrying a cargo of Syria’s chemical weapons, after it arrived at Gioia Tauro port in southern Italy July 2, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/CIRO DE LUCA

The Hague, September 17, 2014 by Antony Deutsch

Syria has revealed a previously undeclared research and development facility and a laboratory to produce the poison ricin to the global chemical weapons watchdog, diplomatic sources told Reuters.

Syria has detailed three new facilities to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as part of an ongoing review of the state’s toxic arsenal, three sources said.

The disclosures appeared to support assertions from Western governments in recent months that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad had not been fully transparent to the world body in detailing its chemical weapons program.

Damascus agreed last year to eliminate its entire chemical weapons program after a sarin attack on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of people in Ghouta, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus.

Under the agreement reached with Washington and Moscow, which averted threatened U.S. military action, the Nobel Peace-prize winning OPCW is overseeing the destruction of 1,300 tonnes of chemical weapons that Syria declared to the Hague-based body.

Syria was supposed to have already destroyed all production, filling and storage facilities, but still has 12 cement hangars and underground bunkers. Those are due to be destroyed in the coming months.

The new disclosures described by diplomats came as part of an ongoing review of “discrepancies” in Syria’s initial OPCW declaration, which Britain and the United States have said they feared excluded some chemicals, notably sarin.

The risk that stray chemicals fall into the hands of hardline militants has grown with the spread of Islamic State forces, who have taken large swathes of Iraq and Syria since the summer.

Syria has never declared it had any sarin or the rockets used to kill more than 1,000 people and blamed the worst chemical weapons attack in a quarter century on insurgents.

Damascus disclosed dozens of sites to the OPCW last year, but has now told a team of inspectors about three more facilities.

One is a laboratory for the highly toxic ricin, the site of which Syrian officials said was inaccessible to inspectors due to ongoing fighting between insurgents and government forces, sources said.

A second diplomatic source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ricin plant had been destroyed before Syria joined the OPCW.

At a third location “small amounts of experimental work” was done on chemical weapons development, two diplomatic sources in The Hague said.

OPCW officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

As part of joining the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, Damascus is prohibited from developing, storing or using any chemicals as weapons and must declare any stocks of toxins to the OPCW.

"That information is having to be extracted, piece by piece, demonstrating that he (Assad) didn’t properly come clean when he joined the convention," one diplomatic source said.

Nearly all of the chemical stockpile Syria declared has been destroyed on a converted U.S. cargo ship, the Cape Ray, while the toxic effluent, or discharge, is being processed in commercial waste facilities abroad.

A joint UN-OPCW team overseeing the process, headed by Sigrid Kaag, is due to return to the region this month for another round of discussions with Syrian officials.

"Syria will argue that the facilities were not revealed earlier because they were in a rush when they first had to report them," said one diplomatic source. "They had said the ricin was for medical purposes, but we don’t believe that’s true."

CHLORINE BARREL BOMBS

Two diplomats said a report published last week on chlorine attacks by an OPCW fact-finding team showed that Syria had violated the agreement to get rid of all of its chemical weapons and that three western governments were considering raising the matter at the UN Security Council.

An OPCW fact-finding team was assembled to look into dozens of reports of chlorine “barrel” bomb attacks this year in Syria’s civil war, which has killed around 200,000 people in less than four years.

The report last week, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, described through eyewitness testimony how dozens of attacks in villages, said to be carried out with helicopters, killed several people and injured hundreds.

"You have to keep in mind that these attacks killed hundreds and maybe thousands of people, so we need to keep the pressure on the Assad regime," the third source said. "Going to the UN would send that signal."

Reacting to the findings, Britain and the United States last week blamed Assad’s regime, which they said was the only party in the civil war with helicopters.

"It is a clear violation of Security Council resolution 2118," one diplomatic source said. "We are considering raising this in New York, along with other countries."

The head of the OPCW has ordered the team to continue investigating the use of chlorine in Syria’s war, which occurred as recently as Aug. 28, according to the report.

The use of chemical weapons by either side in the conflict is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the U.N. Security Council resolution issued to support Syria’s chemical weapons destruction plan.

With ISIS in U.S. Cross Hairs, Syria Pounces on Other Foes

Beirut, September 17, 2014 by Anne Barnard and Mohammad Ghannam

One bomb struck an insurgent meeting place and weapons storehouse. Another hit the Islamic law court. A third hit a heavy machine gun position, but not just any position — the leader of the largest local insurgent formation was manning a gun there, and was killed.

The people of Talbiseh, a rebel-held village north of Homs in central Syria, have seen many government air raids, but the strikes on Wednesday morning surprised them with their ferocity and their precision.

“Something new is going on,” said Hassan Abu Nouh, an antigovernment activist in Talbiseh who has close ties to the local insurgent force, the Iman bil Allah (Faith in God) Brigade.

“They are hitting us like crazy,” Mr. Abu Nouh said of the government’s air campaign. “Maybe no one will be alive to tell the story next week.”

In Talbiseh and across Syria, insurgent fighters who oppose both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the foreign-led militants of the extremist group called the Islamic State are being pummeled by a new wave of attacks and assassination attempts. The assaults are coming at a crucial moment, as President Obama tries to ramp up efforts to defeat the Islamic State extremists.

Some background on goals, tactics and the potential long-term threat to the United States from the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Video Credit By Natalia V. Osipova and Christian Roman on Publish Date September 10, 2014. Image CreditReuters

Mr. Obama has ruled out cooperating with Mr. Assad’s military against the extremists, because of the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on an uprising that started with peaceful protests and grew into civil war. Instead, the United States hopes that insurgent groups it sees as more moderate can, with increased aid, provide the necessary ground forces to fight the extremists in conjunction with American-led airstrikes.

Non-ISIS insurgents of all stripes say the Syrian government appears to be stepping up its attacks on them ahead of the threatened American air campaign. Both pro-government and antigovernment analysts say Mr. Assad has an interest in eliminating the more moderate rebels, to make sure his forces are the only ones left to benefit on the ground from any weakening of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Mr. Assad has maintained from the start of the conflict that he and his allies are the only force in Syria capable of battling the extremists effectively. But Islamic State activists in Homs said on Wednesday that there had been no recent government airstrikes against the group, adding to opposition suspicions that Mr. Assad prefers to focus on attacking his other opponents while letting the Islamic State’s unchecked brutality argue the case to Syria and the world that his rule is the best alternative.

The Faith in God Brigade in Talbiseh is probably one of the most moderate forces left on the battlefield. Many others have been radicalized by years of inconclusive violence and the influence of foreign fighters and deep-pocketed Islamist donors. For several months recently, parts of the brigade operated under Harakat al-Hazm, an insurgent umbrella group that has received American-made TOW missiles and other aid that the United States has tried to keep out of the hands of more extreme groups.

Before the war, Mr. Abu Nouh, 29, was an Internet technician. In the early days of the uprising, he wore his hair long, kept an Iron Maiden poster in his house, watched American movies like “Fight Club” with civilian activists and asked them to bring him vodka from Damascus along with medical supplies and computer equipment.

The brigade was one of the local groups that first formed the loose-knit Free Syrian Army, founded by defectors from the Syrian Army who had refused to take part in crackdowns on demonstrations. It is the kind of group that the Syrian government has recently seen as a possible partner for reconciliation. State employees in Talbiseh received their salaries, some residents kept up contacts with Mr. Assad’s governor in Homs, the provincial capital, and students traveled out of Talbiseh to take exams. There have been intermittent talks to reach local cease-fires.

Airstrikes on the village never completely stopped, but they had become random and sporadic lately, hitting civilian areas or fields without taking a heavy toll on the fighters.

That changed on Wednesday, Mr. Abu Nouh said.

The new airstrikes killed around 50 people, including at least a dozen fighters and several leaders. Residents said about 18 civilians had been killed, including a mother and her five children. Syrian state media said the attacks were aimed at “terrorists.”

Mr. Abu Nouh said it appeared that the government knew just where Abu Hatem al Dahiq, the commander of the brigade, would be. “They hit accurately,” he said. “Maybe they have a mole.”

The hardships of war have made informants easy for the government to recruit with money, Mr. Abu Nouh said, adding that informants sometimes mark targets for airstrikes by dropping electronic beacons on the ground.

The brigade in Talbiseh has refused to join with more extreme groups like the Islamic State or the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, Mr. Abu Nouh said. He said the brigade raised money mainly from Syrian émigrés in Gulf states who have local relatives.

Its history illustrates why Syrian insurgents have never gelled into a unified fighting force able to coordinate efforts across the country.

Two battalions from the brigade joined Harakat al-Hazm, the American-aided group, and accepted new American weapons, Mr. Abu Nouh said. But after four months, they broke away again — keeping the weapons — because they did not want to follow Hazm’s orders to deploy to another front.

“They just want to protect Talbiseh,” he said.

And while they are more moderate than the Islamic State, the brigade’s Sunni fighters nonetheless express sectarian hatred toward the minority Alawite sect that forms Mr. Assad’s base. Mr. Abu Nouh shrugged at the news that 18 civilians were wounded in pro-government neighborhoods on Wednesday, saying, “They are Alawites.”

In Souknah, farther to the east in Homs province, an Islamic State activist who goes by the name Abu bilal al-Homsi said on Wednesday that the group had neither attacked nor been attacked by the government in recent weeks.

“We are establishing a state here, and trying to bring services to Muslims, and to avoid any security breach,” he said. “There have been no assaults from ّthe infidel regime forces.”

But the group, he said, was preparing for American strikes. “Now we will be facing a crusade world war,” he said, “and we should be ready.”

Syrian Regime Intensifies Attacks on Rebels in Damascus Suburbs

A woman sits amid damage after what activists claim were airstrikes by the Syrian regime on the rebel-held city of Douma near Damascus on Tuesday. Reuters

Beirut, September 17, 2014 by Sam Dagher

Syrian warplanes bombarded rebel-held areas near the capital Damascus and in the center and north of the country on Wednesday, the latest round of attacks in an intensified campaign of airstrikes that began a week ago.

At least 10 people, including women and children, were killed and dozens wounded after planes fired missiles and dropped bombs on the rebel-held city of Douma, about 10 miles northeast of Damascus, according to opposition activists. They hit several targets in Douma, including a market.

The deaths brought to at least 105 the number of those killed since Sep. 11 by regime airstrikes on Douma and surrounding towns, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group tracking the conflict through a network of activists inside Syria.

The stepped up attacks were concentrated in the west in territory that is not under the control of the extremist group Islamic State, according to residents, opposition activists and some media outlets affiliated to the regime.

The group, which has captured large tracts of territory in eastern Syria and Iraq, is now the target of a growing international military campaign. The U.S. has threatened to extend its airstrikes on Islamic State targets from Iraq into neighboring Syria.

But the Syrian regime on Tuesday rebuked the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies for threatening to strike Syria without coordinating with Mr. Assad.

Opposition activists in Douma posted several short video clips on the Internet showing large gray plumes of smoke engulfing the city moments after Wednesday’s airstrikes as well as human casualties and extensive material damage.

"Move dad move, the plane is still in the sky!" a male voice is heard on one of the videos as residents walked past several multistory buildings reduced to heaps of rubble.

Other videos showed the bodies of badly burned or disfigured children that activists said were killed in the airstrikes.

In a video of the aftermath of airstrikes on the nearby town of Hamouriyah on Tuesday, a young girl and her brother are covered in dust and seated in what looks like a field hospital.

"I was under the rubble and they pulled me out," says the girl, trying to hold back her tears.

"What were you doing?" asks a male voice.

"We were with mom preparing pickled eggplant," answers the girl, referring to a Syrian staple food.

Douma and surrounding areas, collectively known as the Eastern Ghouta, are considered the epicenter of opposition to the Assad regime in suburban Damascus. Ghouta is home to tens of thousands of rebel fighters dominated by Islamists unaffiliated to extremist groups as well as hundreds of thousands of civilians, according to United Nations estimates.

Regime forces tightened their siege of the area in late 2012 and then the U.S. accused the regime of using chemical weapons there in Aug. 2013 in an attack that killed about 1,300 people, according to residents and activists.

In recent weeks, regime forces and allied fighters from the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah have ratcheted up operations around Ghouta to try to force rebels to surrender. But rebels went on the counteroffensive, attacking and occupying adjacent areas previously controlled by the regime.

In addition to Douma and the Ghouta, the regime appears to be escalating airstrikes against other rebel strongholds.

At least 48 people including a woman and five of her children were killed since Monday in an aerial bombardment on the rebel-held town of Talbiseh north of the city of Homs, according to the Observatory.

The monitoring group accused the international community on Wednesday of acting like “partners of the regime” for “not doing what’s needed to restrain this regime from committing more war crimes.”

As has been the case since the start of the conflict 3-1/2 years ago, Syrian state media said the army was targeting “terrorist hide-outs” in the Damascus and Homs countrysides without giving details. But several regime-affiliated media outlets confirmed the airstrikes with the Al-Watan newspaper saying on its website that they were hitting “the bastions of the armed groups.”

Syria’s envoy to the U.N., Bashar al-Jaafari, said at a news conference in New York on Tuesday that the regime has been fighting “terror on behalf of the whole world for the past two years.”

The regime ridicules the idea there are moderate rebels and calls all opposition fighters terrorists.

Mr. Jaafari said the decision to exclude his government, Iran and others from the U.S.-led coalition unveiled in Paris Monday to combat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria showed the ill intentions of Washington and its Western allies.

"They do not want to combat terror in a serious way, they just want a pretext to interfere more and more in our internal affairs," he said.

Iraqi Official Briefs Syria’s Assad on Efforts Against Islamic State

Beirut, September 16, 2014 by Reuters

Iraq’s national security adviser briefed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on efforts to counter Islamic State on Tuesday, in the first such meeting since the United States launched air strikes on the radical group in Iraq.

The United States and other Western governments have dismissed the idea of cooperating with Syria in the fight against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria. Western governments see Assad as part of the problem and say he must leave power.

But the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, together with Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have been important allies for Assad since the uprising against his rule erupted in 2011. Shi’ite Iraqi militias have fought on Assad’s side against the insurgency spearheaded by Sunni Islamists.

The meeting between Faleh al-Fayad, the Iraqi national security adviser, and Assad indicated that the Iraqi government aims to maintain those ties. It also points to the scope for possible indirect contact between Syria and the West over the fight against Islamic State via third parties such as Iraq.

Fayad “put Assad in the picture of the latest developments in Iraq and the efforts that the Iraqi government and people are making to combat the terrorists”, Syrian state news agency SANA said.

The meeting stressed “the importance of strengthening cooperation and coordination between the two brotherly countries in the field of combating terrorism that is hitting Syria and Iraq and which threatens the region and the world,” SANA said.

There was no immediate comment from Iraq. Islamic State militants took over Iraq’s the northern city of Mosul in June and have loose control over northern and western parts of the country and around a third of neighboring Syria.

Territory held by Islamic State in Syria includes most of Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq.

INDIRECT MESSAGES BETWEEN FOES

Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma in the United States, said it was likely Washington and Damascus would use Iraq to communicate indirectly about Islamic State.

"We talk to the government in Iraq, they are going to talk to the government in Syria, and it is only going to be a matter of seconds before it is communicated," he said.

"I am sure American intelligence officers will factor that in and send messages through the Iraqis."

U.S. President Barack Obama said last week he would not hesitate to strike Islamic State in Syria. The Syrian government has said any military action taken without its consent would amount to an act of aggression.

Assad told Fayad that efforts to counter terrorism must start with pressure on the states that support and finance it — a reference to Gulf Arab states Saudi Arabia and Qatar which Damascus accuses of sponsoring hardline insurgent groups.

The United States, which backs the more moderate rebels fighting Assad, is leading efforts to forge an international coalition against Islamic State. Iraq has attended two conferences in recent days to rally international support to the cause but Syria has not been invited.

A Lebanese official with close ties to the Syrian government said Fayad had expressed Baghdad’s displeasure at Syria’s exclusion from international efforts against Islamic State, echoing sentiments from Assad’s allies Russia and Iran.

The Iraqis had told Assad that a new Baghdad administration of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would continue the cooperation that existed when Nuri al-Maliki was premier, said the official who was briefed on the talks.

That cooperation would remain as it was in Maliki’s era, or could be even closer “given that Syria and Iraq are in one trench confronting the ISIS danger”, the official said.

Russia on Monday urged Western and Arab governments to overcome their distaste for Assad and engage with him to fight Islamic State. Iran has criticized U.S. efforts and its supreme leader has said he personally rejected an offer from Washington for talks with Tehran to fight the group.

Assad’s allies are developing their own response, said Salem al-Zahran, a Lebanese journalist close to Damascus.

Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, Assad supporters from Iran and Russia have been looking at new ways to work with Syria to counter the threat, Zahran said, citing discussions and observations on a recent trip to Tehran.

"Syrians, Lebanese, Russians were there, and there were foreign meetings about an actual confrontation strategy."

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