Jihadists sell Syrian oil to Iraqi businessmen

Beirut, July 21, 2014 by AFP

The jihadist Islamic State is selling oil and liquid gas products extracted from fields under its control in Syria to Iraqi businessmen across the border, a monitoring group said Monday.

IS has captured large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, including all of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province’s oil fields in eastern Syria.

"Trucks with Iraqi number plates have in the past few days travelled to Deir Ezzor’s oil fields from Iraq, to fill up and transport oil towards western Iraq," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based monitoring group added: “These trucks belong to Iraqi businessmen who came [to Syria] to buy oil from fields under IS control.”

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said “a considerable number of trucks” had been sighted, travelling from Syria into Iraq each day.

"Each barrel of oil is sold to Iraqi businessmen for $20 to $40," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Much of Syria’s border with Iraq is under IS control.

The Observatory said the IS was also selling oil to Syrians living in areas under their control for $12 to $18, “to draw the support of the local population.”

Oil is sold at more than $100 per barrel on global markets.

Syria’s official oil production has dropped by 96 percent since the March 2011 outbreak of its civil war.

The revolt, demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, morphed into a war after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent.

Months into the conflict, jihadists started pouring into Syria. They have been accused of committing some of the war’s worst atrocities.

Damascus says sure of “victory,” thanks to Russia

Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem (AFP.)

Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem (AFP.)

Damascus, July 21, 2014 by AFP

The Syrian regime believes its “victory” over the rebellion is assured, thanks to Moscow and its other allies’ support, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in a letter to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

"Syria’s unwavering confidence in its victory is thanks to its people’s resistance, and to the support of its friends, especially Russia," said Muallem in his letter, sent to mark the 70th anniversary of the opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"The leaders and people of Syria are respectful and full of gratitude for Russia’s stance," said Muallem, adding that Moscow "is supporting Syria in the face of a world war launched by obscurantists and terrorists."

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has consistently refused to recognize the existence of any genuine popular revolt seeking his ouster, and has instead blamed all violence in Syria on a foreign-backed “terrorist” plot.

Syria’s war, which began as a peaceful movement for change but later grew into an armed rebellion after the army unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent, has killed more than 170,000 people.

"Syria is more determined than ever to crush the terrorists and to defend its sovereignty… and the security of the region," said Muallem.

Like China, Russia has blocked three UN Security Council draft resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on the Syrian regime.

Syria rebels press offensive against jihadists near Damascus

Fighters from the Islamic State stand guard in Damascus (AFP.)

Fighters from the Islamic State stand guard in Damascus (AFP.)

Beirut, July 21, 2014 by AFP

Syrian rebels battled jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) near Damascus on Monday, pressing their bid to expel them from their strongholds, a monitoring group said.

Rebels holding positions in southern Damascus and the outskirts of the capital and seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, launched an offensive some three weeks ago to expel IS.

IS was initially welcomed by some rebels as a potential ally in the armed revolt, but the opposition, including Islamists, has turned against it.

IS fighters have in recent days been expelled from the towns of Mesraba and Maydaa, in the Eastern Ghouta area east of Damascus.

They have also been forced out of Yalda and Beit Sahem, in the capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The expelled jihadists fled to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, Tadamon and Qadam in southern Damascus, “where they have a strong presence”, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Then, at dawn on Monday, fighting broke out in the battered neighborhoods of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad and Qadam, pitting rebels against jihadists, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

A rebel spokesman in Damascus province confirmed the reports.

"There were many reasons for the battle against IS, first among them its abuses. They were going into the (rebel) Army of Islam’s bases and those of other opposition fighters, and killing fighters in their sleep," said Captain Abdel Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam.

"For us, there was no choice but to fight IS. It was in self-defense. We are in a suffocating (regime) siege. We are fighting the regime, while IS is shooting us in the back," Shami said.

"Now, they no longer have any official bases in Eastern Ghouta. But we are chasing the remnants of IS… Overall, IS no longer has a strong presence in the Damascus area," he told AFP via the Internet.

IS controls much of eastern Syria, and it has its main stronghold in Raqa, in the north of the war-torn country.

Rebels seeking Assad’s ouster launched a major offensive against IS in January, expelling them from Idlib province in the northwest, as well as much of Aleppo.

If the UN really wants to protect Syria’s people, stop these futile resolutions

July 18, 2014 by Barry Andrews

In her book A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power (now US ambassador to the UN) wrote about the policy of the US and the international community in relation to the Burundi and Rwanda genocide in the following terms: “The normal operations of the foreign-policy bureaucracy and the international community permitted an illusion of continual deliberation, complex activity, and intense concern, even as Rwandans were left to die.”

Continual deliberation, complex activity and intense concern have been the hallmarks of the UN’s approach to the Syria crisis. Speaking in Dublin last week, Simon Adams, the executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that Syria has been the UN’s single biggest failure of the century so far. He also described it as “an unprecedented display of callous indifference”.

The latest UN security council resolution – 2165, passed on Monday – is an attempt to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches the 4.5 million Syrians either in hard to reach areas or under siege. However, it represents a significant climbdown from what the security council previously stated is required.

In a bid to appease Russia and China, language was revised to say the council “affirms” rather than “decides” that it will “take further measures in the event of non-compliance with this resolution or resolution 2139 by any Syrian party”.

In my opinion, this resolution is going nowhere.

The security council should be guided by the first principle: “do no harm”. The “busy inertia” of the security council might give the impression of great endeavour to please those who demand action. However, each failure either to pass a security council resolution or to deliver on those that are passed has unintended and deadly consequences.

As Adams pointed out, the Assad government is extremely sensitised to what happens at the security council. He made the point that after each false start Bashar al-Assad’s violence “metastasised” accordingly, giving him greater confidence that no consequences would flow from the atrocities he was committing against his people.

The security council’s failure to do anything meaningful is often criticised for not preventing the increasing level of violence. But Adams’s analysis suggests that its failure is actually contributing to the increasing level of violence.

With each aborted initiative, Assad takes heart and turns the screw on the innocent populations he routinely targets. In other words, the security council would better serve the protection of innocent populations if it stopped trying to conceive new resolutions while walking over the remains of previous ones.

The best example of the unintended consequences of the international community’s fumblings occurred last August, following the use by Assad of Sarin gas in Damascus, resulting in hundreds of deaths. When the US and Russian governments hammered out a deal on chemical weapons, Assad took this as permission to do even greater damage with conventional weapons. This is clearly not to say that the chemical weapons deal should not have been sought and achieved – but what should be pursued with equal vigour is a deal on the use of conventional weapons.

Western journalists often refer to indiscriminate bombing as though the civilian victims of these raids were collateral to some legitimate military objective. The truth is that those civilians are the objective.

Would it not be better therefore to return to that first principle: namely, do no harm? Another failed resolution might give the impression of people working very hard in New York to find a solution, but it will also be picked up in Damascus as a laissez-passer for new atrocities, if previous patterns are to be followed.

Apart from these wider political issues, for NGOs such as Goal working in Syria, the resolution is imperfect and potentially dangerous anyway. By contrast with NGOs, the UN has not demonstrated any capacity to properly monitor the distribution of aid to ensure that it goes to the intended beneficiaries. Moreover, it is expected that the delivery of aid will be checked by border monitors, with the Assad regime approving lists of beneficiaries. This is highly unlikely to be deliverable or workable.

If the security council wants to look like it is doing something to justify the salaries of the thousands of bureaucrats busying themselves at computer terminals all day in New York, then it should work at removing the veto or setting it aside in circumstances of dire humanitarian need. Alternatively, it could do the unthinkable and try to make the previous agreed resolutions actually work. For instance, resolution 2139, passed in February to great acclaim, sets out a very reasonable and perfectly workable mechanism for the delivery of humanitarian aid over national borders to the most inaccessible parts of Syria.

A popular saying has it that wise men talk because they have something to say; but fools talk because they have to say something.

Turkey hatching plan to clear Syrian beggars off Istanbul streets

Syrian refugee children walk outside their tents in the southeastern city of Kilis, near the Syrian-Turkish border, March 2, 2014. REUTERS/Nour Kelze

Syrian refugee children walk outside their tents in the southeastern city of Kilis, near the Syrian-Turkish border, March 2, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/NOUR KELZE

Istanbul, July 21, 2014 by Dasha Afanasieba and Seda Sezer

Authorities in Istanbul are working on plans to clear the streets of Syrian beggars and house them in camps like those on the border, as Turkey struggles with an influx of over a million refugees and the hospitality of locals starts to wear thin.

Beggars have become increasingly visible in Istanbul, many of them Syrians displaced by their country’s three-year war, including women and young children, passports in outstretched hands, tapping on car windows in the city’s dense traffic.

They represent a tiny fraction of the Syrians sheltering in Turkey, some housed in well-equipped camps along the border, others living with friends or family or in modest rented accommodation in cities in the southeast, Ankara or Istanbul.

But what feels like a growing number are living in derelict buildings or sleeping in parks, eking out a living by begging - illegal in Istanbul - and raising the concern of locals and other Syrians trying to integrate seamlessly into Turkish life.

"We warned them continuously and told them not to beg. But they’re insisting. If they don’t give up begging we will take an administrative decision and send them to a camp," the city’s governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, told Reuters.

"Istanbul residents have demanded this. We receive complaints," he said, noting that Syrians too were unhappy with a situation that they say gives their countrymen a negative reputation in the eyes of Turks.

Some, Mutlu said, had already volunteered to go to camps, leaving behind the abandoned buildings they had made home, often with no electricity or running water. Others had yet to be convinced and, if necessary, would be taken against their will.

"We always help them if they want to go, we pay their fees, hire vehicles and send them, give them all support they need," Mutlu said, estimating that of 67,000 Syrians in Istanbul only a few hundred were persistently begging.

Turkey has spent billions of dollars sheltering refugees and kept an “open-border” policy throughout the conflict in its southern neighbor. But, like many in the international community, it bet on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rapid demise in the early stages of the war, and little anticipated a humanitarian crisis on such a scale.

The government and civil society groups have given many Syrians access to education and healthcare, and turned a blind eye to them gaining informal employment, but there are growing concerns about their long-term integration.

There have been isolated protests in the southeast against refugees accepting lower wages and pushing up prices for accommodation and food.

TURKISH HOSPITALITY

After arriving 20 days ago from the Syrian city of Homs, taken by government forces following a year-long siege, 36-year-old Turkmen Abdel’s family is among several who live in a run-down two-storey house in Istanbul’s Fikirtepe suburb.

Old carpets hang in the place of doors and windows. They have been told to leave to make room for a huge gentrification project in a neighborhood so decrepit it was, ironically, recently used as the set of a film about Syria’s war.

Neighbors donated food and turned on the tap water for them, but privately say they often call the police to complain about the noise and dirt.

"I don’t want more Syrians in Turkey. There are other countries. Why do they come here?" said a young woman next door to the Abdel family’s home, declining to give her name.

"They bother us. I want them to leave. It’s dirty and we get sick from them," she said.

But those who have found jobs and accommodation in Istanbul, the vast majority, are grateful for Turkish hospitality.

In Fatih, the historic heart of the city, many traditional Anatolian restaurants are staffed by Syrians. In one of them, more than a dozen are without work permits.

"In the Arab countries people used to tell us to go back to Syria. In Istanbul no one bothers us on the street and they are trying to help," said Bilal, who left Damascus more than 18 months ago and first went to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

He said he had been promised a residency permit by the authorities after only a month in Istanbul.

Turkey has built new camps - officially called “temporary protection centers” because it does not consider the Syrians as refugees - in its southern border provinces to meet additional demand, complete in some cases with facilities such as supermarkets, schools, and even a cinema.

Yet as they fill up, Syrians complain of being turned away and many families such as Abdel’s prefer the chance to earn money and fend for themselves in its big cities.

A centralized plan to register the urban-dwelling majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey has faltered, meaning officials have little idea exactly who is in the country and what their needs are, leaving them at risk of exploitation and dependent - for now - on the goodwill of their hosts.

ISIS Is Sneaking Onto Syrian Rebel Bases And ‘Killing Fighters In Their Sleep’

iraq ISIS fighters

Stringer/Reuters

July 21, 2014 by AFP

Syrian rebels battled jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) near Damascus on Monday, pressing their bid to expel them from their strongholds, a monitoring group said.

Rebels holding positions in southern Damascus and the outskirts of the capital and seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, launched an offensive some three weeks ago to expel IS.

IS was initially welcomed by some rebels as a potential ally in the armed revolt, but the opposition, including Islamists, has turned against it.

IS fighters have in recent days been expelled from the towns of Mesraba and Maydaa, in the Eastern Ghouta area east of Damascus.

They have also been forced out of Yalda and Beit Sahem, in the capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The expelled jihadists fled to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, Tadamon and Qadam in southern Damascus, “where they have a strong presence”, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Then, at dawn on Monday, fighting broke out in the battered neighbourhoods of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad and Qadam, pitting rebels against jihadists, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

A rebel spokesman in Damascus province confirmed the reports.

"There were many reasons for the battle against IS, first among them its abuses. They were going into the (rebel) Army of Islam’s bases and those of other opposition fighters, and killing fighters in their sleep," said Captain Abdel Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam.

"For us, there was no choice but to fight IS. It was in self-defence. We are in a suffocating (regime) siege. We are fighting the regime, while IS is shooting us in the back," Shami said.

"Now, they no longer have any official bases in Eastern Ghouta. But we are chasing the remnants of IS… Overall, IS no longer has a strong presence in the Damascus area," he told AFP via the Internet.

IS controls much of eastern Syria, and it has its main stronghold in Raqa, in the north of the war-torn country.

Rebels seeking Assad’s ouster launched a major offensive against IS in January, expelling them from Idlib province in the northwest, as well as much of Aleppo.

Pentagon Envisions ‘Small’ Training Program for Syria Opposition

A Syrian rebel readies a machine gun near the city of Idlib this week. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

July 16, 2014 by Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes

A Pentagon plan to aid Syrian rebels is emerging as far smaller than advocates hoped, ramping up slowly over an extended period while offering no quick support to moderate fighters, who are losing ground both to the Assad regime and to jihadists.

President Barack Obama promised in May to work with Congress to raise support for the moderates. But critics inside and outside the administration say the limited steps he is taking are too modest to make a difference on the battlefield, reflecting his own and the Pentagon’s reluctance to get entrenched in another Middle East conflict.

Military officials told congressional committees in closed-door briefings last week that the $500 million program could be used to train a 2,300-man force—less than the size of a single brigade—over an 18-month period that probably wouldn’t begin until next year, said meeting participants.

Senior congressional committee staffers briefed on the 2,300 figure questioned the low number and told the Pentagon and the State Department to “go back to the drawing board” and come up with a “concept that works,” said one meeting participant.

Pentagon officials said in interviews that the plan was evolving and that the actual number of forces in the proposed training program would be higher than 2,300, but didn’t say by how much. They said the effort would be scalable in size and would depend on the number and caliber of moderate fighters who they allow to participate. The plan requires congressional approval to proceed.

Opposition leaders have issued increasingly dire warning to the administration in recent weeks that moderate forces were under siege in key areas and could be routed in their Aleppo stronghold without more rapid support from the U.S. “We’re losing ground every day,” said Aiad Koudsi, deputy prime minister of the opposition Syrian interim-government.

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, senior Pentagon officials offered few details about the proposed train-and-equip program, prompting a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

"If the White House is going to push a policy like this, they have got to…push the policy," Mr. Smith said. "For the United States Congress to vote to authorize a train and equip mission for a rebel force is a big damn deal. I think it is something we ought to do but…sell it. If you don’t, there is no way we are going to pass it."

Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the details of the plan were classified and that military leaders were working on a presentation for Mr. Obama.

"We would provide them with weapons, intelligence, logistics support, military advice and they would conduct the insurgency struggle" and counter the Islamic State insurgency that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, Adm. Winnefeld said.

In addition to training, the $500 million initiative would also provide arms and other military equipment to a yet-to-be-determined pool of additional fighters, according to officials.

But Adm. Winnefeld cautioned that Pentagon planners were “still, frankly, working through what are some fairly challenging legal issues, some fairly challenging partner issues,” and congressional officials said the program was unlikely to get up and running until well into 2015, if ever.

Pentagon officials said the small size of the training effort reflects the difficulty the Pentagon anticipates it will have finding moderate fighters in sufficient numbers that would be able to clear a U.S. screening process designed to weed out hard-line Islamists. “Fewer people are going to qualify and it’s going to be a painstaking process,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the Pentagon’s latest planning for the initiative.

A military-led training program has long been advocated by State Department leaders and U.S. military officers have been working to prepare train-and-equip options on and off for about two years.

Still, Pentagon leaders have yet to iron out basic details such as how fighters will be vetted and where the training would take place, in addition to the program’s legal underpinnings, officials said.

The list of unanswered questions has left some in the Pentagon—and on Capitol Hill—frustrated by what they see as a lack of initiative by the top brass.

"I get the sense no one really wants to do it," said a defense official.

"Where’s the urgency?" a senior congressional official asked.

Senior Pentagon officials say they are working through the issues as quickly as they can but that the effort was set back by obstacles outside their control, including indications that Jordan won’t agree to host the training program.

U.S. officials say Amman is worried that the Assad regime and al Qaeda-linked militants will target the kingdom in retaliation. Officials said Amman first raised those concerns with Washington in the winter, so it is unclear why the Pentagon was caught off guard.

Syrian opposition officials said Jordan hasn’t seen a full U.S. plan yet and may be hedging because they doubt Washington’s commitment to the effort. Jordanian officials in Washington had no immediate comment.

Bases in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey may be used in lieu of facilities in Jordan, U.S. officials said, though it is unclear to what extend those discussions are under way. The Central Intelligence Agency already operates a small train-and-equip program for hand-picked moderate Syrian rebels out of Jordan but that effort is covert, unlike the proposed military program.

Pentagon and State Department officials told key congressional committees that the purpose of the military-led training and arming effort would be limited to enabling the moderate opposition to hold the ground it now controls and to fight against extremists. Officials have sent mixed messages about whether the program would also be designed to support offensive operations by the moderate opposition against the Assad regime.

Even with revisions to increase the number of rebels who would undergo the training, Pentagon officials say the initiative wouldn’t be designed to result in quick changes on the battlefield.

"Rather, in tandem with building up partners in the region, it could ultimately be a way to impact the situation on the ground," a senior U.S. official said.

A White House official said the administration has “proactively advocated for this policy” and continues to “refine our proposal based on consultations with Congress and our allies.”

Islamic State seizes major Syrian oil fields, aids Assad regime

WORLD NEWS USSYRIA-OIL 8 MCT

OIl fields in Deir el Zour, eastern Syria, are now under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). Photo: ANDREE KAISER — MCT

Istanbul, July 18, 2014 by Roy Gutman

Extremist fighters of the Islamic State, already in control of a third of Iraqi territory, are on the attack in Syria, where they’ve seized more oil fields, facilitated the Assad regime’s advance in Aleppo and started a new offensive against Kurds, Syrian opposition figures say.

The Islamic State now controls more than 35 percent of Syrian territory, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based pro-rebel group, reported Friday. Its holdings include nearly all of Syria’s oil and gas fields.

The latest gain of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” was the seizure Thursday of the oil field in the desert at Palmyra, after the takeover of the country’s biggest oil fields, in Deir el Zour in eastern Syria, earlier in the week.

The Assad regime still controls the military airport and parts of Deir el Zour, but there are no signs that it’s challenging the Islamic State or vice versa, a kind of coexistence seen in many parts of northern and eastern Syria.

It’s in Aleppo that the regime owes a major debt to the Islamic State, according to senior aides in the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition. President Bashar Assad’s forces captured the industrial zone in the northeast of the city earlier this month by “carpet bombing” with air-to-ground missiles, bombs and artillery, according to Monzer Akbik, the senior aide to Ahmad Jarba, the outgoing president of the anti-government coalition.

The advance was facilitated by Islamic State forces, which allowed it to proceed unopposed. “No one fired a bullet at the advancing forces as they moved through villages” held by the group, said Hussam al Marie, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army rebel troops in northern Syria. “And the regime did not fire a bullet at IS.”

“We lost the industrial zone for a lack of weapons,” Marie said. “The FSA is fighting on two fronts, IS in the east and the regime in the north.”

Both fronts “are very active now, putting the rebels in a very difficult situation,” said Akbik.

Rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city as well as its economic center, fear the regime might encircle them and force a strategic defeat. “We should do everything possible to make sure Aleppo does not fall in the hands of the regime,” Akbik said. “But if we want to do that, we really need more weapons and anti-aircraft, anti-tank weapons. More firepower,” he said.

He noted approvingly that President Barack Obama, speaking at West Point’s graduation in May, promised to “ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition, who offer the best alternative to terrorists and dictators.” Obama said in so doing, the U.S. would also be “pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven” in the chaos of that war.

Obama effectively made the Syrian opposition a strategic partner, Akbik said. Nevertheless, the administration rejected the pleas of the opposition’s leadership for anti-aircraft weapons to stop the barrel-bombing of Aleppo and other cities. “Unfortunately, there is no good news,” Akbik told McClatchy.

He welcomed Obama’s subsequent call for $500 million in arms for the Syrian opposition, but he said the proposal didn’t seem “practical or effective.” He said the White House had no detailed plan for spending the money, leading to confusion in Washington about how it will take place.

“It is going to take a year before we will see any changes on the ground,” Akbik said. “We don’t have a year. We have days, or weeks.”

The other major front in northern Syria is around the predominantly Kurdish border town of Ain al Arab, or Kobane in Kurdish, where Islamic State forces are said to be attacking from three directions.

In an assault that started at the beginning of July and apparently is aimed at splitting the predominantly Kurdish Rojava region and seizing another border crossing with Turkey, the Islamic State has been deploying tanks, rockets, heavy machine guns and U.S.-supplied Humvees the group took from the Iraqi army when it overran Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq in early June.

The size of the Islamic State force isn’t certain. Free Syrian Army spokesman Marie said it was probably around 600 to 700. But Idriss Nassan, the deputy foreign affairs minister in the self-proclaimed Kurdish canton of Kobane, said the Islamic State had deployed some 2,000 fighters to the east of Kobane and hundreds more in the south and west.

He said the group had attacked and seized Kurdish villages in its path as well as kidnapped civilians - more than 130 children who were returning from final exams in Aleppo and 160 civilian workers who were traveling to Iraq.

The Kurdish official said that at least four of their fighters had died after the Islamic State deployed chemical weapons, and they’ve sent tissue samples to Turkish labs to be examined.

Nassan said the entire adult population of 500,000 in the region had been mobilized and everyone was armed or would be. In addition, he said hundreds of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party _ the PKK in its Kurdish initials _ and other volunteers had crossed in from Turkey to support the fight. Turkey and the United States have designated the PKK as a terrorist group.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia, an offshoot of the Iraq-based Kurdish Democratic Party, controls the region but it’s also viewed by the United States as a terrorist organization, and by the rest of the Syrian opposition as an ally of the Assad regime.

Syrian regime lost 60 in gas field offensive

Beirut, July 20, 2014 by AFP

The Syrian regime offensive to retake a gas field in the center of the country after jihadists killed 270 people has left 60 soldiers dead, a media report said Sunday.

Citing a military source, Al-Watan newspaper which has strong government links announced the regime had suffered the loss of “60 martyrs.”

The counter-offensive was in its third day on Sunday, a security source told AFP.

"Fighting is continuing in the Shaar gas field" in  Homs province, the source said, confirming that "the operation is not at an end.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, which has provided much of the information about the conflict, also said that “violent clashes were continuing in and around the gas field.”

The watchdog said it had documented “the deaths of 270 people killed in the fighting or executed” by the jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) group.

"A large majority of the men killed were executed at gunpoint after being taken prisoner following the takeover of the camp," said director Rami Abdel Rahman.

"Eleven of the dead were civilian employees, while the rest were security guards and National Defense Forces members," he added.

Regime forces backed by warplanes had pressed a counter-attack Saturday around Shaar, recapturing large areas, said Abdel Rahman.

The counter-attack killed at least 40 IS militants, said the Observatory, which relies for its information on a network of activists and medics on the ground.

It described Thursday’s takeover of the Shaar field as the “biggest anti-regime operation by the IS” since the jihadist group rose to prominence last year among rebel groups in the Syrian conflict.

The jihadists proclaimed an Islamic “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq last month and have also taken over Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.

Deir Ezzor borders Homs province as well as Iraq, where the jihadist group has spearheaded a major Sunni militant offensive that has seen large swathes of territory fall out of the Baghdad government’s control.

Syria’s Assad reappoints woman VP but mum on Sharaa

Damascus, July 20, 2014 by AFP

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reappointed Najah al-Attar as his vice president but made no mention of his other deputy, the veteran diplomat Faruq al-Sharaa.

Attar, 81, the only woman to reach that post, took the oath on Sunday, a day after Assad issued a decree re-appointing her as his deputy, the official SANA news agency reported.

But the decree made no mention of Sharaa, a veteran politician who headed the foreign ministry for 22 years before being appointed by Assad as one of his two vice presidents in 2006.

In fact the 75-year-old Sharaa seems to have disappeared from the political limelight since Assad replaced him in the ruling Baath Party’s leadership in July 2013, without officially sacking him.

Sharaa was the only top Syrian official to speak out against Assad’s military campaign to crush dissent and to advocate a political compromise to the country’s bloody civil war, now in its third year.

Like rebels trying to topple Assad, the veteran politician belongs to the Sunni Muslim community whereas the president comes from the minority Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In an interview with Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar in December 2012, Sharaa said that Assad “does not hide his desire for a military solution that achieves a decisive victory.”

"No rebellion can bring an end to the battle militarily. Just as [operations] of the security forces and units of the army will not bring an end to the battle," he said.

In the interview, he also revealed that while Assad held all the key powers in Syria, there were differences of opinion within the political elite, but not to the extent that they were “deep divisions.”

Sharaa comes from Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising that erupted in March 2011.

European diplomats have said that Sharaa found himself torn between his loyalty to the regime and the bloodshed and destruction suffered by his home town.

Following a deadly crackdown by regime forces against peaceful protesters, Syrians took up arms and the conflict exploded into an all-out war.

The conflict has killed more than 170,000 people, according to a monitoring group, a third of them civilians, while nearly half the population has been forced to flee their homes.

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