Air strikes pound Syria’s last rebel strongholds, gas chokes civilians

A man is seen near the remains of a rocket in Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 22, 2018.

By Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Warplanes launched heavy attacks on the two last major rebel-held areas in Syria, killing at least 29 people in the Ghouta suburb near the capital and choking people with gas in Idlib in the northwest, rescue workers and a war monitor said on Monday.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has vowed to retake all of Syria from rebels who have lost large swathes of the territory they have held in a war now entering its eighth year.

A years-long siege on the last major rebel-held area near the capital Damascus, the suburb of eastern Ghouta, has tightened in recent months. In the northwest, the government and its militia allies have been trying to advance in mostly rural Idlib, the last province still largely under rebel control.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said warplanes attacking eastern Ghouta near Damascus had struck the towns of Zamalka, Arbaeen, Hazza and Beitu Soua, killing at least 29 people. State media said rebel fighters shelling the government-held capital killed a woman.

International concern has been growing over the fate of eastern Ghouta, where residents say they have been running out of food and medicine.

In the northwest, the other main battlefield in the war between Assad’s government and its main rebel opponents, bombing also intensified on Sunday night after rebels shot down a Russian warplane on Saturday.

Rescue workers said at least nine people had suffered breathing problems from chemicals dropped from the air. Aid groups and rescuers said three hospitals had also been struck.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a charity which supports hospitals in Syria, said its doctors in Idlib reported 11 patients “with symptoms indicative to usage of chlorine”.

Two barrels containing chemical gasses had been dropped from helicopters on Sunday night, Radi Saad, from the chemical weapons team of the White Helmets civil defense group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, told Reuters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the White Helmets and the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) said healthcare facilities in northwestern Syria had been hit by air strikes.

“With the majority of hospitals no longer operating in these areas, these latest attacks will deprive tens of thousands of life-saving care,” the ICRC said on Twitter.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chlorine or other chemical weapons during Syria’s conflict. Rescue workers and medical groups have accused government forces of using chlorine gas against the rebel-held eastern Ghouta at least three times over the last month, most recently on Thursday.


Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013. In the past two years, a joint inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon. The inquiry also said the Islamic State group has used sulfur mustard.

The German government called on Monday for a thorough investigation into reports Syria had used chemical weapons in both Idlib and eastern Ghouta.

“If it is confirmed that the Syrian government has once again used chemical weapons, that would be an abhorrent act and an egregious violation of the moral and legal obligation to avoid the use of chemical weapons,” a German foreign ministry official said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that the Syrian government had repeatedly used chlorine as a weapon, and Washington was also concerned about the potential use of sarin.

The Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes. Neighbors and global powers have been drawn into the multi-sided conflict, sponsoring allied groups on the ground.

Turkish forces are in northwest Syria, entering Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement reached with Assad’s backers Russia and Iran. They also expanded their operation two weeks ago into the nearby Afrin region to fight against Kurdish militias who hold that territory.

The Turkish army said on Monday its forces had set up a military post southwest of the Syrian city of Aleppo, the deepest position they have established so far inside northwest Syria under their deal with Russia and Iran.

The “de-escalation” in violence they were supposed to monitor has collapsed. In December, the Syrian army alongside Iran-backed militias and heavy Russian air power launched a major offensive to take territory in Idlib province.

The Observatory said the new Turkish observation post was near the village of al-Eis. That would place it less than five km (three miles) from territory held by Syrian government forces and their allies, and deeper inside Syria than the three observation posts set up by the Turkish army so far.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Angus McDowell in Beirut, Daren Butler and Tulay Karadeniz in Turkey, Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by William Maclean)

Boy’s death shows danger for besieged Syrians seeking food

Heba Amouri, mourns as she holds the body of her two-year-old son, Emir al-Bash at a medical center in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 8, 2018.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two-year-old Emir al-Bash’s blood still showed on his mother’s hand as she sat in a medical center in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta where his body was taken after he died from a shellblast.

His family had left their home in the village of Kafr Batna on Monday for a market in a nearby village, seeking food for their malnourished children, but a mortar shell landed close to them, instantly killing the boy.

“My child died hungry. We wanted to feed him. He was crying from hunger when we left the house,” said the mother, Heba Amouri. Emir is the second child she has lost since the war began six years ago.

Eastern Ghouta is the last big stronghold of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad near the capital Damascus and has been besieged for years.

The United Nations estimates it is home to 400,000 civilians and says food and medical supplies have run low. The army and its allies – Russia and Iran-backed militias – bombard it daily. Rebels there shell government-held Damascus.

After Emir’s death, Amouri tried to quiet her surviving baby, a hungry two-month-old girl, by placing her finger in her mouth at the medical center. Malnutrition means she is unable to breastfeed, she said.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was alarmed by the ongoing violence in eastern Ghouta and the growing number of civilian casualties and displacement since the start of the year.

“Now I lost my second child. My baby daughter is the only surviving child,” Mahmoud al-Bash, 27, Emir’s father said. A year ago, the family lost another son to the bombardment.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under five in eastern Ghouta suffered acute malnourishment.

Mothers of infants had reduced breastfeeding or stopped it altogether because of their own poor nutrition, it said.

On Monday evening, Emir’s father carried Emir’s tiny body wrapped in bright white cloth, marked with a big blood stain, to the village’s cemetery.

“May God protect the children, and everyone, and take the life of Bashar (al-Assad),” he said, fixing his eyes on his child as he bid him a last farewell.

(Writing by Beirut bureau; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Islamic State gone, Mosul district residents adjust to new life

A woman waves a white flag in Mosul, Iraq

By Isabel Coles

GOGJALI, Iraq (Reuters) – Until three weeks ago, many of Abu Osama’s customers were Islamic State militants who brought their wives and children to his pharmacy on the eastern edge of Mosul for injections and treatment.

Now, most of them are Iraqi security forces who recaptured the Gogjali neighborhood earlier this month and are pushing further into the city, which has been under Islamic State control for more than two years.

As the militants retreat, civilians are adjusting to a new reality in their wake and a clearer picture is emerging of what they did to survive the punishments and deprivation of Islamic State rule.

“Whether Daesh (Islamic State) or army: my door is open to everyone,” said Abu Osama, taking the blood pressure of an Iraqi policeman. “If my worst enemy comes here, I must treat him.”

Several Islamic State militants, both local and foreign, lived in Gogjali and it was mainly their families that visited the pharmacy because the militants themselves were often away, Abu Osama said.

The front of his shop and those next door are marked with the Arabic letter “z” for zakat, meaning alms, and beside it an identification number Islamic State bureaucrats assigned to record donations made at the shop for their self-proclaimed caliphate.

Advancing Iraqi forces have sprayed Shi’ite slogans over it.

The 40-year old opened the pharmacy after Mosul fell to Islamic State and the salary he received as an employee of the Iraqi health ministry was cut by the government as it sought to choke off funding to the militants, who were skimming the pay of public sector workers in areas they controlled.

The militants wanted Abu Osama to work for them in a hospital, but he refused because it would have meant pledging allegiance to the group, and he does not agree with their hardline ideology.


A displaced woman who was injured in clashes and fleeing from Islamic State militants of Mosul, receives treatment at a hospital west of Erbil, Iraq. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

A displaced woman who was injured in clashes and fleeing from Islamic State militants of Mosul, receives treatment at a hospital west of Erbil, Iraq. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

According to that ideology, the depiction of living creatures is un-Islamic because it can lead to idolatry. After a militant upbraided him for displaying a poster with an image of a baby on the wall of his pharmacy, Abu Osama blotted out its eyes with a black marker pen and then did the same to every label featuring a human being.

The 500 dinar note ($0.40), which bears an image of a statue, was banned for the same reason, according to several civilians.


All medicine came from Syria — Mosul’s only outlet to the world as an array of forces slowly closed in on the city in Iraq. Syrian traders imported cheap Chinese and Indian medicine via Turkey and paid Islamic State a tax to bring it to market in Mosul, Abu Osama said.

By the time medicine reached his still sparsely stocked shelves, the price had tripled, and many of his customers could not afford to buy it, so he sold it to them on credit and is now owed 1.25 million Iraq dinars ($1,016).

Since women were obliged by Islamic State to veil their faces completely, Abu Osama cannot be sure who owes him what, he said.

Standing in the pharmacy, forty-three-year old Sohaib commented that if he became separated from his wife in a crowded marketplace, she would have to find him, as he could not distinguish her from all the other women shrouded from head to toe in black.

Abu Osama could treat women only when they were accompanied by a male relative, and if a female patient lifted her veil before him and Islamic State’s vice squad found out, he would be held accountable. It never happened to him, but the militants punish such infractions with fines and whipping.

Residents of Gogjali said Islamic State’s laws were less strictly enforced there because it is far from the city center.

When Iraqi special forces took the neighborhood, two of the militants left their wives behind, locals said, identifying the women as Russian. The jihadi brides tried to flee Mosul among displaced civilians but were found out and detained by Iraqi security forces, according to a soldier sitting in the pharmacy.

“They were unbelievably beautiful,” he said.

Several doors down, twenty-seven year old Ammar, who runs a grocery shop, said the militants were his best customers because they had more money than anyone else.

“They chatted with us and said we must fight jihad. Everyone preached to us, but each to their own,” he said.

A woman holds up a white flag as she runs to greet her relative in Mosul, Iraq November

A woman holds up a white flag as she runs to greet her relative in Mosul, Iraq November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

All the goods he sold came from Syria, he said, but now that route is blocked too, and several traders from the nearby Kurdish region are taking advantage of the opening in the market.

Outside the grocery shop, a Kurdish trader unloaded goods from a van, including items banned by Islamic State such as cigarettes, biscuits made in Iran and Brazilian canned meat.

“It says halal on the tin, but they said it wasn’t,” Ammar said, shrugging.

Occasionally, the sound of a mortar or a burst of gunfire sends people milling in the street scattering and diving for cover, but some, now accustomed to the sounds of war, barely flinch and continue as normal.

(Editing by Patrick Markey and Peter Graff)