Syrian rebel fighters desert opposition-led all-Arab force, join SDF


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A group of Arab rebel fighters from the Baggara and Shaitat tribes in rural Deir ez-Zor have left the Ahmad Jarba’s Syrian Elite Forces and joined the Deir ez-Zor military council, according to military sources.

The Deir ez-Zor Military Council has been established recently by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to combat ISIS in eastern Syria.

The seven battalions of the two tribes said in a statement on Friday they initially joined the opposition-led Elite Forces to participate in battles to free cities and villages from ISIS.

“Unfortunately, many problems accompanied our work and many vague questions surfaced, such as the absence of a project, or a clear work program of these forces and lack of seriousness in the revolutionary work,” the groups said in a joint statement.

“We, the seven battalions of Baggara and Shaitat tribes, split from the Elite Forces and joined the Deir ez-Zor military council and consider the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] as our reference and military leadership and we are working under its banner to liberate our city from the Daesh [ISIS] terrorist abomination,” the groups said.

“We thank also the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces for receiving us and giving us the opportunity to join their ranks to fight terrorism. We pledge to our martyrs and people, that we will spare no efforts to defend them,” the battalions said.

Nicholas A. Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program, told ARA News: “SDF is now the vehicle, cutting down on groups outside of it. This is a big win for the SDF, and the Coalition. It makes the Deir al-Zoir Military Council more capable of being the foundation of a hold force if the Coalition decides to engage in a campaign to seize Deir al-Zor.”

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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Kurdish forces capture ATGM missiles in Afrin


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The Kurdish Asayish police force in the Afrin district, in Syria’s northwester Aleppo province, captured a car loaded with two ATGM missiles coming from the rebel-held Idlib city on the road to Azaz.

The missiles were discovered after the Asayish inspected a car.

The missiles were reportedly destined for Turkey-backed rebels.

Asayish forces arrested the driver and transferred him to “the competent authorities to conduct the necessary investigations,” local sources told ARA News on Saturday.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg 

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Coalition commander says Raqqa police force paid by US as vetted force


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Major General Rupert Jones, the deputy commander of the US-led coalition against ISIS, said that the Raqqa Internal Security Force (RISF) are paid by the United States as a vetted opposition force.

“So the Raqqa Internal Security Force are a vetted force, and so are being paid as part of the U.S. process.  You know, they’re essentially a Syrian opposition force, and they’re a vetted Syrian opposition force.  So that is how they are trained and equipped,” General Jones said.

“And clearly it’s for others to comment downstream in terms of how that may play out over time,” he added.

The first 50 RISF members were trained in May weeks before the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for the first time entered Raqqa on the 6th of June.

According to coalition and SDF officials, the RISF were established to provide security to these areas liberated by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

There are now a 1,000 strong force that man checkpoints and provide security to areas liberated from ISIS near Raqqa.

RISF forces receive a week-long training from coalition forces that include first aid, law of armed conflict, setting up and manning checkpoints, and also temporary detention operations.

“They work for the Raqqa Civil Council and, they’re local, they’re Raqqawis. They’re representative of the population and the demographic of Raqqa. About 80 percent of the RISF is Arab, and about 20 percent are Kurds,” coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon said in mid August.

According to the deputy coalition commander Rupert Jones now large parts of Raqqa province are already secured by the RISF.

“So the bulk of Raqqa province is already secured by the Raqqa Internal Security Force.  So the areas north of the city, west, east of the city, and in the south city, down around Tabqa.  And the RISF have started taking over some of the districts of Raqqa,” he said.

“Once the Syrian Democratic Forces are sufficiently confident that security is stable, then they are handing off those outer districts to the RISF so they, of course, can then concentrate their fighting power closer to the front,” he added.

“When the SDF commanders feel that security is good enough, they’ll liaise with the Raqqa Internal Security Force and the area is literally handed off.  So it’s really a judgment about is security good enough, is it stable enough, are we confident there aren’t about to be Daesh counterattacks, and then the handoff takes place.  And, just so you know, while you talk about the Raqqa Internal Security Force, I mean, they’re still a relatively new organization,” he concluded.

Moreover, the coalition general said he visited the training of the RISF last week. “I’ve seen them out and about all over Raqqa province, and they’re doing a really good job.  Of that, there’s no doubt.  They are overwhelmingly Arab, the people coming in.  They’re self-defining them as — when they come into the training as Arab.  They are very firmly from the areas that are being liberated,” he added.

“It’s a good job.  You get paid, you get uniform and get to secure your own village, because you go back and you secure the areas you’re from.  And that’s very appealing,” he stated.

“When I visited their training, I’ve been really struck. Your young, motivated, fit-looking men are coming forward to be part of the Raqqa Internal Security Force.  And what we see on the streets is that they’re doing a good job.  It’s low-level security, it’s checkpoints, it’s just maintaining.  It’s building confidence in the people,” he emphasized.

“And what you also see is them treating the people with dignity and respect, not least because, of course, they’re from their own villages.  So it’s a pretty smart way forward.  Long way to go, but positive steps by the Raqqa Internal Security Force,” he concluded.

Until now, the US-backed SDF forces have liberated around 55 to 60 per cent of Raqqa city and still around 10,000 to 25,000 civilians remain in the city. Moreover, the coalition believes around 2,500 ISIS fighters remain in the city, with the majority of them being foreign fighters.

“An inclusive, effective, and accountable police force is the foundation of a local security force that can support stability and good governance. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will pursue a strategy of supporting stability in post-ISIS Raqqa,” Nicholas A. Heras is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program told ARA news about the Raqqa internal security force.

“One of the best means to accomplish that strategy is to stand up a competent and respected police force for Raqqa. Raqqa is a communally complex area, and the Americans have learned from their experiences in post-Saddam Iraq, in similarly communally complex areas like Kirkuk, if they don’t set a strong foundation for local security immediately after ISIS, there could be big problems down the line. These problems could include inter-communal conflict, and the return of ISIS,” he concluded.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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Rojava administration opens military academy in northern Syria


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The Rojava Self-Administration’s Defense Authority in the Hasakah province opened the first military college for the federation in northern Syria within the framework of a project to establish a regular army for Rojava-Northern Syria.

The academy will follow a military rank system, officials told ARA News. “Courses are scheduled to last three months and include ideological and military courses by a special committee for the training of the academies.”

After completing the course, participants will be graduated and receive military ranks.

The “Defense and Self-Defense Authority” in the Cizire region [Hasakah province] declared in a statement the opening of the first military college at the level of the “Federation of Northern Syria” and announced the start of the first training course.

The opening ceremony was attended by the co-head of the Defense Authority Rezan Gullo and members of the local self-administration.

Gullo said the aim of the academy is to build a structured armed force.

“The joining of fighters to this academy has a great impact, especially at this stage, and the opening of such a large academy at the level of Rojava and northern Syria is a pride for our people,” Gullo said.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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Hezbollah captures much of ISIS enclave on Syrian-Lebanese border


Hezbollah has captured much of an ISIS pocket on Syria’s side of the border with Lebanon in a joint offensive with the Syrian army, its leader said on Thursday.

In parallel with the fighting, talks on a truce have begun with ISIS but a military victory is more likely, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

Syrian troops and Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting to oust ISIS from Syria’s western Qalamoun region.
The attack began last week, coinciding with a Lebanese army offensive against ISIS on its side of the border in northeast Lebanon.

The zone straddling the border is the last part of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier under militant control.

Both offensives have advanced toward the border from opposite sides. The Lebanese army says it is not coordinating the assault with the Syrian army or Shi’ite Hezbollah, which Washington classifies as a terrorist group.

Any joint operation between the Lebanese army on one hand and Hezbollah with the Syrian army on the other would be politically sensitive in Lebanon and could jeopardize the sizeable US military aid the country receives.

The frontier battle was nearing a “very big victory”, Nasrallah said.

“So far, more than 270 square km have been fully captured on Syrian land” by Hezbollah and the Syrian army, he said.

“Around 40 square km remain under ISIS control.”

ISIS is on the back foot in Iraq and Syria. It has lost ground in Syria to various separate enemies over the past year and the eastern Deir al-Zor province its last major foothold.

Hezbollah has played a major role in fighting Sunni militants along the border, and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s government against Syrian rebel groups.

Earlier this month, Nusra Front militants left Lebanon’s border region under an evacuation deal after Hezbollah routed them in their last footholds there. Thousands of refugees also departed with them to rebel territory in Syria.

Northeast Lebanon saw one of the worst spillovers of Syria’s war into Lebanon in 2014, when ISIS and Nusra Front militants briefly overran the border town of Arsal.

The fate of nine Lebanese soldiers that ISIS took captive then remains unknown.

ISIS leaders in Syria’s western Qalamoun had asked for negotiations, Nasrallah said on Thursday.

“The first condition of any deal reached with ISIS will be revealing the fate of the Lebanese soldiers,” he added.

If the Lebanese state wanted to negotiate an evacuation deal with ISIS militants on its own side, Damascus would be ready to cooperate, Nasrallah said.

“But the condition is an official Lebanese request, and public coordination, not under the table,” he said.

Hezbollah and its allies have been pressing Lebanon to normalize relations with Damascus, challenging the state’s policy of neutrality toward the conflict next door.

Hezbollah’s role in the six-year Syrian conflict has drawn criticism from its Lebanese political opponents, including Sunni leader and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

Source: Reuters 

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US-backed Iraqi forces expel ISIS from five villages near Tal Afar


Iraqi forces made further gains in their offensive to dislodge ISIS from Tal Afar, seizing five more villages on the eastern and southern outskirts of the city, the military said on Thursday.

In the fifth day of their onslaught, Iraqi forces continued to encircle militants holding out in the city in far northwestern Iraq close to the Syrian border, according to statements from the Iraqi joint operations command.

Within the city limits, Iraqi forces captured three more neighborhoods – al-Nour and al-Mo’allameen in the east and al-Wahda in the west, taking over several strategic buildings in the process.

The advances were the latest in the campaign to rout the militants from one of their last remaining strongholds in Iraq, three years after they seized wide swathes of the north and west in a shock offensive. On Tuesday, the army and counter-terrorism units broke into Tal Afar from the east and south.

The main forces taking part in the offensive are the Iraqi army, air force, Federal Police, the elite US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and some units from the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that began encircling the city on Sunday.

About three quarters of Tal Afar remains under militant control including the Ottoman-era citadel at its center, according to an operational map published by the Iraqi military.

Located 80 km (50 miles) west of Mosul, Tal Afar lies along the supply route between that city – which Iraqi forces retook from IS in July after nine months of fighting – and Syria.

Tal Afar has produced some of IS’s most senior commanders and was cut off from the rest of ISIS-held territory in June.

Up to 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in Tal Afar, according to US and Iraqi military commanders. Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians are estimated to remain in the city and its surrounding villages.

Source: Reuters 

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Military effort not enough to eliminate ISIS in Raqqa: US-coalition envoy


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Brett McGurk, the US-led coalition’s special envoy, said that 55 to 60 per cent of Raqqa is now liberated from ISIS extremists.

The coalition envoy, who visited northern Syria last week for two days, confirmed that over half of Raqqa is liberated by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“In Syria, spent about two days on the ground. Met, of course, with our team, and met with the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces, north of Raqqa. Raqqa now is about 55 to 60 percent or so finished. It’s a very difficult fight,” the General said.

“It’s not just a military effort. We also met with local councils and a number of tribal sheiks who are working very closely with us to defeat ISIS. And we have diplomats on the ground, working on the stabilization and humanitarian elements. It was a very encouraging visit, spent about two days there,” he added.

Moreover, the coalition envoy said around 2,000 fighters remain in Raqqa.

“It seems, from the information we have, that, of the 2,000 or so ISIS fighters that are left, bulk of them are foreign fighters,” coalition’s envoy said.

Moreover, the coalition envoy said the coalition has now collected over 10 terabytes of information and intelligence from documents captured from ISIS.

“Every time we do an operation, we plan what we call the sensitive site exploitation. So, in Manbij, it was 10 terabytes of information, Raqqa, now, very similar. And we have systems to process it, analyze it, and then, most importantly, share it with members of our coalition,” McGurk said

“So if we find information about foreign fighters from a certain country, we go through proper procedures to make sure it’s shared. And then key members of our coalition — as Secretary Mattis mentioned, Interpol — and we built a database, now, of 19,000 known ISIS, you know, foreign fighters, sympathizers. And that’s shared, of course, across our coalition,” he added.

“So it is a — it is a very comprehensive campaign, militarily, on the ground, taking territory back; collecting information; processing it; and then building the database and the system so it can be shared and acted upon. And certainly, in Raqqa, we’re learning an awful lot,” he concluded.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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Justice vital to help Iraqi victims of ISIS’s sexual violence rebuild lives: UN report


Geneva (UN) – The Iraqi Government must ensure that the thousands of women and girls who survived sexual violence by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) terrorist fighters receive care, protection and justice, and that children born because of such violence do not face a life of discrimination and abuse, a United Nations report published today says.

“The physical, mental, and emotional injuries inflicted by ISIL are almost beyond comprehension. If victims are to rebuild their lives, and indeed those of their children, they need justice and they need redress,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in a press release.

Victims have been subjected to rape and sexual assault, forced displacement, abduction, deprivation of liberty, slavery, forced religious conversion, and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. Women from the Yazidi and other minority communities have been especially vulnerable to abuses of human rights and violation of international humanitarian law.

The report notes that the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government have taken some positive steps to promote women and children’s rights and to address the needs of those who have suffered abuses at the hands of ISIL.

However, the report says, the criminal justice system largely fails to ensure the appropriate protection of victims, requiring significant legislative and institutional changes to facilitate access to justice and to ensure the care and protection of victims in such proceedings.

The situation of hundreds of children born to women in ISIL-controlled areas without birth certificates or whose ISIL-issued documents are not accepted by the Government of Iraq or the Kurdistan Regional Government is also deeply troubling, the report says.

Birth registration requires the parents to present proof of marital status and two witnesses must confirm the circumstances of the child’s birth – exceedingly difficult in the case of children whose parents may be dead or missing; where the father’s identity is not known; where a child has been abandoned due to stigma or for those who live in IDP camps where no civil status offices or courts operate.

“Children who were born in ISIL-controlled areas have the same legal rights as any other Iraqi citizen and the Government must ensure they are protected from marginalisation and abuse, neither exposed to discrimination through references on their birth certificate that they were born out of wedlock or have a father linked to ISIL, nor left unregistered and at risk of statelessness, exploitation and trafficking,” the High Commissioner stressed.

The report makes several recommendations on access to justice; provision of support and care for victims; information and counselling services to reunite separated families, and the importance of birth registration.

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UN condemns targeting of civilians, infrastructure as airstrikes hit Syria’s Raqqa


Senior United Nations humanitarian officials for Syria today expressed deep concern over many civilians reportedly killed in airstrikes and other attacks in the last few days in Raqqa city, where coalition forces are fighting Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists.

“The UN condemns attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure. The humanitarian community reminds all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and to spare no effort to prevent civilian casualties,” said a joint statement issued by Ali Al-Za’tari, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, and Ramesh Rajasingham, the acting Regional Humanitarian Coordinator.

These unconfirmed accounts come on the heels of an increasing number of reported civilian casualties due to intensified military operations, including airstrikes.

“In recent months, regular airstrikes and shelling in the city have reportedly resulted in scores of civilian casualties, including women and children,” the statement said.

An estimated 75,000 people have been displaced from Raqqa city, but 18,000 to 25,000 civilians who remain trapped risk being killed by ISIS snipers or mines if they try to flee, or being used as human shields or killed in indiscriminate airstrikes if they remain.

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Lebanon has driven ISIS from most of Syria border area: official


The Lebanese military is now in control of over 80 percent of the areas previously held by ISIS along the border with Syria, only days after launching a broad offensive there, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Brig. Gen. Ali Qanso told reporters that only 20 square kilometers (12 square miles) remain in the hands of the extremists. The US-backed Lebanese army launched its operation on Saturday and has since driven out the militants from some 100 square kilometers (62 square miles).

Qanso said no militants have been detained in the operation, adding that many were killed or retreated into Syria.

In an earlier statement, the army said a Lebanese de-miner was killed and four others wounded early Tuesday when explosives left behind by the extremists went off as they dismantled them.

Earlier Tuesday, the army announced it was starting the third phase of the operation, which includes mine clearing to open roads previously controlled by the militants.

The Syrian army and its ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, have launched a simultaneous operation to clear ISIS from the Syrian side of the border in the western Qalamoun mountain range. Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2013.

Qanso didn’t speculate when the border operation would end, but said the military has strong international support.

Lebanese officials insist the army is not coordinating its actions with the Syrian military, and Qanso said his forces would stop at the border. Lebanon’s main political factions are sharply divided over the Syrian conflict, with some supporting and others opposing President Bashar Assad.

Lebanese media say the remaining ISIS-held territory along the border is riddled with caves that the militants could use as hideouts.

Residents of al-Qaa, a village near the border which was attacked by ISIS militants last year, took to the streets to celebrate news of the army advance. Al-Jadid TV station showed dozens of residents waving Lebanese flags as fireworks cracked above.

Source: AP

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