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Syria Revolution - 2015

Daily News Updates

At the beginning of 2015 Assad’s forces were menacing the rebels in districts they held in the northern Syrian town of Aleppo and threatening an encirclement that would have severed insurgent supply lines to Turkey. With the encirclement just a handful of miles from being completed, Assad boasted that 2015 would see his victory over the rebels in a civil war that has cost at least 200,000 lives.

But in March, rebel units disrupted an effort by Syrian government forces to surround them and captured a strategic crossroads and a commanding hill controlling a key route into Aleppo. Later in the month insurgents, with al-Qaida’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in the lead, captured Idlib, the second biggest town to fall into rebel hands in the brutal four-year-long civil war.

By April 2015 Iran increasingly focused its military efforts in the Mideast on Iraq and the loser appeared to be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His forces had been losing ground to the country’s fractious rebels, who despite being engulfed by infighting, have managed to seize territory in the war-torn country’s north and south.

Assad’s forces appeared over-stretched in Idlib. Noticeably absent in the defense of the city in the country’s northwest were Iranian-coordinated foreign Shiite militiamen and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, who the Assad regime had relied on for past gains as well as to organize local fighters from Assad’s minority Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Many Shia militiamen from Iraq who had been fighting alongside Assad’s forces started to return in the autumn of 2014 to neighboring Iraq to assist in the pushback against the Sunni militants of the so-called Islamic State.

Arguing that recent battlefield gains by the insurgents are shaping “a new political reality” in Syria, rebel leaders argue that only the backing of Iran and Russia is prolonging the conflict. “The current coordination between the rebel factions can contribute to the acceleration of the liberation process of Syria from the Assad regime,” says Khaled Khoja, the president of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC). With jihadists from the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra excluded, and rebels scoring recent major military gains, the opposition has little reason for negotiating. And with President al-Assad’s leverage reduced because of government setbacks, the regime has little interest in engaging in serious talks.

By mid-May 2015, battlefield gains by insurgents in northern Syria, in an alliance dominated by al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and hardline Islamist militias presented the Obama administration with a dilemma — whether to support the new insurgent momentum against President Bashar al-Assad or to have nothing to do with it. While the victories in April and May over forces loyal to Assad in Idlib province west of Aleppo may mark a turning point in the fortunes of the rebels in the long-running, bloody civil war that had left more than 200,000 dead, US officials were alarmed at the composition of the alliance known as Jaish al-Fata, or the Army of Conquest, announced on 28 March 2015.

A coalition of Sunni states responded to counter Iran, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey putting aside differences to back Jaish al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest. With the help of a more centralized approach and an influx of weapons, Jaish al-Fatah made inroads against the regime, notably in Syria’s Idlib province. The anti-Assad forces hadn’t yet turned the tide of the war itself, but they had been able to make notable gains on some of the margins where pro-Assad forces were in some ways limited by the lack of deployment by some of these irregular supporting elements.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the militants' victory in Palmyra in mid-May 2015 meant they held sway over more than half of Syria. Much of the Syrian territory held by the IS group is uninhabited dessert in the center of the country, with Syria’s main cities – including the capital, Damascus – located on its western flank along the border with Lebanon and on the coast. However, the militant group controllrf most of Syria's oil and gas fields, and is using the income to fund its expansion. It now also had a springboard from which to make further territorial gains.

The Syrian regime retained control of about a quarter of the territory of the country and about half the population, with half the territory held by the extremist Islamic State, and the rest by myriad opposition rebels and Kurdish groups.

By mid-2015 the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad controlled, at best, 20 percent of the country. Assad really only needed the coastline and the capital, Damascus. To the east is desert.

On September 27, 2015 France said it had launched its first airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, on targets it identified after two weeks of surveillance flights. French President Francois Hollande told reporters at the United Nations that six jet fighters hit an Islamic State training camp near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. France had only taken part in airstrikes against the jihadists in neighboring Iraq. Paris had carried out 215 of the nearly 4,500 strikes there.

The fighting to the north of the Syrian city of Aleppo in late September 2015 illustrated how complex and tangled the Syrian civil war had become, featuring a dizzying array of rebel factions. Some are approved of by the West while others are favored by Turkey and the Gulf countries, and two rival jihadist organizations – not to mention the Kurds and Syrian government forces. While coalition airstrikes targetted Islamic State extremists, regime warplanes had pounded villages controlled by rebel factions and, according to insurgent commanders, chiefly those that are important for rebel supply lines into Aleppo.

International talks on Syria were held in Vienna 29-30 October 2015. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the talks the "most promising" opportunity in years to end the country's "nonstop horror" one in 20 Syrians has been wounded or killed, one in five is a refugee. The talks included Iran, but notably did not include members of either the Syrian government or the main groups trying to overthrow it. Iran and the United States remain far apart on the Syrian issue. Russia’s overall goal in Syria is to “stabilize” Assad by fighting the opposition elements that pose the greatest threat to his regime.

World powers involved in talks on Syria's political future agreed 30 October 2015 to a UN-led process that involved talks between the Syrian government and opposition and also to explore a cease-fire that would still allow strikes against terrorist groups. Notably absent from the talks on Syria's political future were representatives from the Syrian government and the country's moderate opposition groups.

The new plan to set up a ceasefire in Syria within the next four to six months was discussed in Vienna. The ceasefire could be followed by the formation of a transition government featuring President Bashar Assad and opposition members, according to the officials. A follow-up meeting is expected as early as next week, with top diplomats possibly returning to Austria’s capital.

Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani declared 13 November 2015 that Kurdish fighters have seized Sinjar from the Islamic State militants who had controlled it for more than a year. "I am here to announce the liberation of Sinjar," Barzani told a news conference as Kurdish forces raised their flag in the town center. The jihadists had killed and enslaved thousands of the minority Yazidi community at Sinjar as the insurgents swept across Iraq in August 2014. The Kurdish forces encountered little resistance in the face of their advance.

Kurdish fighters seized a key road on a major supply route between Islamic State-held Mosul to the east and the group's self-proclaimed capital to the west in Raqqa, Syria. The route (known as Highway 47) is used by the Islamic State group to transport weapons, fighters, illicit oil and other commodities that fund the militant group's operations, according to the U.S. Central Command. To cut the caliphate in half, you need to control the desert south of Sinjar between Sinjar and Baaj.

Some 7,500 fighters are taking part in the effort to control Sinjar. In addition to retaking Sinjar, they want to establish a buffer zone in the area to protect civilians. U.S. and Kurdish officials estimate there were 500 to 600 Islamic State fighters in and around Sinjar.

President Barack Obama said he believed the Islamic State advance in Iraq and Syria had been contained, but not destroyed. "I don't think they're gaining strength," Obama said. "From the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq.

Representatives for world powers including the US, Russia, Iran and the United Nations wrapped up their second round of talks in Vienna on 14 November 2015 with a broad plan for a political transition in Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry said under the plan, a cease-fire would be enacted as soon as Syrian government and opposition representatives took initial steps toward the UN-supervised transition. However, that cease-fire would not include the Islamic State or al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra groups.

The parties agreed:

  • to support Syria's unity, independence, territorial integrity, and pluralist character.
  • that Daesh and other terrorist groups have to be defeated.
  • that Syria's state institutions should remain intact so we don't have the implosion that we saw in Iraq.
  • that the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination, have to be protected in whatever government comes out.
  • that access for humanitarian relief has to be assured throughout the country, and that will be one of the topics we talk about on Saturday.

They agreed that the UN should convene members of the Syrian Government and the Syrian opposition to develop a plan along the lines of the 2012 Geneva communique, leading to a credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance followed by a new constitution and by free and fair, transparent, accountable elections run under the supervision of the United Nations to the highest standards of elections anywhere in the world. And they agreed to explore the possibility of a nationwide ceasefire to be initiated in parallel with this renewed political process. Such a ceasefire does not include Daesh.

"Kerry's approach is almost surely wrongheaded ... The most glaring mistake to emerge from Vienna is the provision that would have all outside powers stop arming and supplying belligerents once peace talks begin. This is a prescription for locking in the military superiority of Assad and the Islamic State terrorist organization while other groups, including Kurdish fighters and moderate Arabs, remain weak. Even if we could verify that Russia and Iran were no longer aiding Assad, as well as Hezbollah fighters sent from Lebanon, such a freeze would codify the unfair advantage that extreme forces have developed.... During drawn out negotiations, moderate factions would likely suffer battlefield setbacks as we deprived them of help."

The rise of Daesh was directly attributable to the policies and actions of the Assad regime, and that is why Assad was a magnet for terrorism. This was a case, and there are many in history, in which two supposed enemies were in fact symbiotic. Loathing towards Assad drove thousands of Syrians into the arms of Daesh. And fear of Daesh caused some Syrian groups to feel that they had no realistic option but to support the government. That's a symbiotic relationship, each piece dependent on the other.

Washington helped broker an agreement reached on 10 December 2015 by more than 100 members of Syria's opposition parties and more than a dozen rebel fighting groups ranging from Islamists to Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups - but not Islamic State - to send a joint team to meet the government under UN auspices in January 2016. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared on 11 December 2015 that he would not negotiate with armed groups, appearing to scupper peace talks that Russia and the United States hope to bring about next month.

The US-Russian initiative was adopted unanimously 18 December 2015 by the UN Security Council. It foresaw talks between the rebels and the regime and a rapid ceasefire. It also predicted a transitional government in Syria within six months, with new elections following within the next year and a half. The National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition grouping, criticized the latest UN peace plan. The resolution did not address the future of President Bashar al-Assad, the most divisive issue of the peace process. The US and its Arab allies agreed that Assad must step down during the peace process, while Moscow and Tehran insisted his future should be left to the Syrian people.

On 24 November 2015, a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey close to the Syrian-Turkish border. While Turkey asserted that the warplane was flying in Turkish airspace when it was shot down, the Russian Federation denied that and said the warplane was flying in the airspace of the Syrian Arab Republic. The United Nations did not have independent means of verification to certify the claim of either Member State.

Heavy air strikes were carried out by France, the Russian Federation and the United States-led coalition in Raqqah governorate during the reporting period, including repeated targeting of the New Raqqah bridge, public buildings and other critical infrastructure. The air strikes also led to interruptions in electricity and water service in Raqqah city. The National Hospital in Raqqah city had been closed since 4 November, after air strikes damaged the facility and forced patients to be relocated to neighbouring facilities.

The West is making a strategic mistake by focusing its anti-terrorist effort on Islamic State (IS. previously ISIS/ISIL) and overlooking other groups. Sixty percent of fighters in the country can be classified as Islamists and have goals similar to IS. Those fighters belong to at least 15 other militant groups, which are mostly being ignored by the West, British media cited the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, a think-tank run by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, said 20 December 2015.

Widespread conflict and high levels of violence continued throughout the Syrian Arab Republic. Indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombings and ground attacks in places with a large civilian presence, including the use of barrel bombs by government forces and indiscriminate shelling by non-State armed opposition groups and designated terrorist groups, continued to kill, injure and displace civilians. The conduct of hostilities by all parties to the conflict continued to be characterized by a widespread disregard for international humanitarian law and the obligation of all parties to protect civilians.

Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, said 24 December 2015 his country was ready to participate in peace talks in Geneva 'without any foreign interference,' nearly a week after the United Nations Security Council approved an international plan for a peace process to end the civil war in Syria.

An Amnesty International report detailed allegations of systematic torture of political prisoners and accused the Syrian government of killing more than 17,000 people held in custody from the outset of the conflict in 2011 to December 2015. The August 2016 report was based on the recollections of 65 torture survivors. The "catalog of horror stories" included in the report "depicts in gruesome detail the dreadful abuse detainees routinely suffer ... in Syria's notorious intelligence facilities," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa. Torture has long been used in Syrian prisons, but its scale increased “dramatically" since the 2011 conflict began, according to Amnesty’s Syria expert Claudia Scheufler, who was instrumental in putting the report together.

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Page last modified: 18-08-2016 15:49:38 ZULU