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Syria - 2017

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Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "nationwide" Syrian cease-fire that 29 December 2016 — a truce that Moscow said can pave the way for Russian-brokered talks on a settlement of the five-year-long war. Turkey's participation gives the cease-fire added significance. Ankara can do much to strangle rebel militias that break the cease-fire, having the ability to block arms resupplies crossing its border.

The truce was supported by seven major armed opposition groups that had over 60,000 fighters in their ranks, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said. The Russian Defense Ministry has released a list of the groups that have pledged to stop fighting, which includes Faylaq Al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Thuwar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Muwahhideen, Jaysh Idlib and Jabhat al-Shamiyah.

The minister said under the deal any armed group that refuses to cease hostilities would be considered a legitimate target for the use of force, as is the case with terrorist groups Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front, which are not included in the truce.and "groups linked to them."

The participation of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria talks would be discussed once they stop backing militancy, Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on 19 Janury 2017, rejecting their attendance at forthcoming peace talks. Alleging that Qatar and Saudi Arabia supported militancy, Faisal Meqdad said he would discuss the matter of their participation in the talks once they stop aiding militancy.

The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western- and Gulf-backed political opposition group, said it would abide by the truce but warned it would respond to cease-fire violations. Rebel leaders complained that Moscow and the Assad regime were gerrymandering the map, excluding areas they want to move on while prohibiting' rebels from trying to seize territory important to them. The rebel groups attending the talks include FSA factions fighting in northern Syria, some of them the groups defeated in Aleppo. Jaish al-Islam, is one of the bigger rebel groups, with a strong presence in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus.

Syria’s main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), expressed its support for the upcoming round of peace talks. The HNC, which was backed by Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries in the Middle East and the West, had previously attended the UN-backed talks with Damascus representatives in Geneva.

Turkey's priorities in Syria appear to have shifted away from toppling Assad towards combating Kurdish forces and the Islamic State (IS) group in areas of northern Syria near its border. Its ties with Russia had also improved in recent months. Kurdish groups that control wide areas of northern Syria were excluded from the talks in line with the wishes of Turkey.

The talks, beginning on January 23 in the Kazakh capital Astana, built on a nationwide truce that has largely held despite escalating violence across several battlefronts in recent days. Russia, Iran and Turkey, the sponsors of peace talks between Syrian rebels and Damascus, agreed 24 January 2017 to establish a joint "mechanism" to monitor the frail truce in the war-torn country. The sides will "establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the ceasefire," according to a final statement read by Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov following the talks in Astana. Rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran also support the presence of the armed opposition at political negotiations under UN auspices set to take place next month in Geneva, the statement said.

By March 2017 Russian and Turkish soldiers were facing off over the Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin. Ankara said the area that borders its territory was under the control of PYD ‘terrorists’ affiliated with the Kurdish insurgent group the PKK. But Moscow, like Washington, viewed the PYD and its YPG militia which controls Afrin as key to fighting Islamic State.

“Practically it means the end of Operation Euphrates Shield,” former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served across the region, said 23 March 2017. "The military operation cannot move down south towards Raqqa, because there is the Syrian Arab Army or Assad together with the Russians. It cannot turn east towards Manbij as it’s suggested by the Turkish government. Why? Because there is [the] Syrian Army backed by … Russia and also you have the U.S. special forces there along [with] U.S. Army Rangers. Militarily it means the end of the operation."

With the capture of a strategic airfield in northern Syria from Islamic State in late March 2017, US-backed forces and the American military had access to five air installations in the region, a network that could prove decisive in the fight against Islamic State. American engineers and crews worked on repairing and restoring the airfield near Tabqa dam that was taken by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces 26 March 2017. the airfield was in tatters when it was captured, and that Islamic State fighters had destroyed much of the infrastructure. With repairs, though, the airfield could be used for flying in supplies, military hardware and troops to help SDF rout IS from its nearby de facto capital, Raqqa.

Air Force engineers restored a Syrian airfield so it is capable of receiving regular shipments of ammunition and supplies. In March 2017 alone, Silveria said, the airfield was used for at least 50 landings by C-17s and more than 100 landings by C-130 military cargo planes.

An airbase in Kobani, about 110 kilometers north of Raqqa, would be the headquarters for US-led coalition operations to retake Raqqa. The Kobani base includes an airfield that was built from scratch by US forces. By early April 2017, the base had been up and running for a while, but was still a work in progress.

Those bases add to three others already controlled by US allies in the region: Syrian Kurds built an airbase on farmland known as Abu Hajar airport in the Rmelan area in 2016, and nearly doubled the length of the runaway to initially allow for delivery of cargo. Two other airfields in the region, one formerly used for agricultural purposes and the other a former Syrian military base, had also been expanded by Kurdish forces.

A new deal aimed at reducing violence in Syria went into effect 06 May 2017, but questions remained as to its implementation and its consequences. The agreement signed on 04 May 2017 by Iran, Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital, Astana, was the latest in a series of ceasefire proposals aimed at ending Syria's war, now in its seventh year. The plan called for the cessation of hostilities between rebel groups and forces fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad's government in four so-called "de-escalation zones" in mainly opposition-held areas of the country. The deal covered four areas:

  • Zone 1: Idlib province, as well as northeastern areas of Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province. There are more than one million civilians in this zone and its rebel factions are dominated by an al-Qaeda-linked alliance.
  • Zone 2: The Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in northern Homs province. There are approximately 180,000 civilians in this zone and its network of rebel groups includes al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
  • Zone 3: Eastern Ghouta in the northern Damascus countryside. Controlled by Jaish al-Islam, a powerful rebel faction that is participating in the Astana talks. It is home to about 690,000 civilians. This zone does not include the adjacent, government-besieged area of Qaboun.
  • Zone 4: The rebel-controlled south along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces. Up to 800,000 civilians live there.

Russia will continue to fly over the areas but will refrain from conducting air raids. The Syrian government is to allow "unhindered" humanitarian aid into rebel-held areas, and public services like electricity and water are to be restored where they have been cut off.

Syrian government forces said 09 November 2017 they had recaptured the border town of Albu Kamal, the last major Islamic State stronghold in eastern Syria. Iraqi government forces recaptured the town of al Qaim, their side of the border crossing with Syria, several days earlier. A Syrian military spokesman said the army and its allies, including Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia, were involved in the effort to drive IS out of Albu Kamal. He said Islamic State militants fled the town after bitter fighting and were being pursued by government forces as they dispersed in several directions. Syrian state TV showed government forces firing long range artillery at Islamic State militants fleeing into the desert. It was not clear how many IS fighters were in Albu Kamal before the Syrian army recaptured it. Now that the Iraqis and Syrians have connected at Albu Kamal, it means that the road has become wide open from Tehran to Beirut, and that represents a major victory for Iran in the Middle East.

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Page last modified: 16-11-2017 18:39:01 ZULU