Syrian government forces reenter strategic town, Turkey vows to keep up strikes

By Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian government forces entered parts of a strategic rebel-held town on Monday, and Turkey said it would keep hitting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops after ramping up operations in its biggest intervention yet into the Syrian civil war.

Turkey and Russia, which have come closer than ever to direct confrontation in Syria in recent days, traded threats over air space after Turkish forces shot down two Syrian government warplanes and struck a military airport.

Fighting has escalated dramatically in recent days in northwest Syria, where Turkey has sent thousands of troops and military vehicles in the last month to counter Syrian government forces’ advances in the last remaining bastion held by rebels.

A million people have been displaced since December near Turkey’s southern border, causing what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in nine years of war.

A Syrian state television correspondent in the town of Saraqeb said the army was combing the town after the retreat of Turkey-backed rebels. Rebel sources said clashes were continuing in western parts of the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said rebels were trying to regain control.

Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance as a gateway to the government-controlled northern city of Aleppo and to rebel-held Idlib city to the west.

Rebels said Turkish drones had been striking Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb frontline, hitting at least two rocket launchers.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting Assad for much of Syria’s nine-year civil war, stepped up its intervention in response to the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week, the deadliest strike against the Turkish army in decades.

On Sunday it shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, taking the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

“The (Syrian) regime’s human and equipment losses are just the beginning,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “If they do not withdraw to the borders Turkey has determined as soon as possible, they will not have a head left on their shoulders.”

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had so far destroyed eight helicopters, scores of tanks and five air defense systems.

Russia, for its part, said it could not guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft over Syria, and Damascus said it was closing Syrian air space over the Idlib region.


Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are due to meet in Moscow on Thursday to seek agreement on Idlib.

“We will go to Moscow to evaluate these developments with Mr Putin. My hope is that we take the necessary steps there, whether it is a ceasefire or any other steps needed,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has insisted it seeks no conflict with Moscow, but its barrage of strikes on the Russian-backed forces around Idlib have raised the risk of a direct confrontation.

“A solution is expected to emerge from the talks but attacks and attempts which the (Syrian) regime carries out in this period will not go unanswered,” a senior Turkish security official told Reuters.

Backed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes, rebels say they have now retaken several villages that they lost last week in the Syrian government offensive.

Erdogan demanded in early February that Syrian forces withdraw by the end of the month from a “de-escalation zone” around Idlib agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in 2017, or face being driven back by the Turkish military.

“The (Syrian) regime will be forced to leave the de-escalation zone before the Putin-Erdogan meeting,” a senior Syrian opposition source said.

Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx of migrants from Syria.

Turkey opened its western borders on Friday to let migrants reach Europe, in an apparent move to demand EU support in Syria by repudiating a 2016 agreement to shut the frontier.

The European Union’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed sympathy with Turkey over the conflict in Syria, but said sending migrants to Europe cannot be the answer.

Turkey had shut the border in return for EU funds under a 2016 deal to end a crisis in which more than a million people entered Europe and 4,000 drowned in the Aegean Sea. On Monday, a child died after being pulled from the sea when a boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek officials said, the first reported fatality since Turkey re-opened its border last week.

Two Turkish security sources told Reuters a Syrian migrant also died from injuries on Monday after Greek security forces acted to stop migrants entering Greece by land. Athens denied the incident.

More than 1,000 migrants have arrived by sea on Greek islands since Sunday and more than 10,000 have attempted to cross by land at the border, where guards from both sides have fired tear gas into crowds caught in no-man’s land.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Alex Richardson and Peter Graff)

Chemical arms watchdog wins right to assign blame for attacks

The logo of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is seen during a special session in the Hague, Netherlands June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The world’s chemical weapons watchdog won new powers on Wednesday to assign blame for attacks with banned toxic munitions, a diplomatic victory for Britain just months after a former Russian spy was poisoned on its territory.

In a special session, member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted in favor of a British-led proposal by a 82-24 margin, easily reaching the two-thirds majority needed for it to succeed.

The motion was supported by the United States and European Union, but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria and their allies.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the vote would empower the OPCW “not just to identify the use of chemical weapons but also the to point the finger at the organization, the state that they think is responsible.”

“That’s crucial if we are going to deter the use of these vile weapons.”

Russia said that the vote called the future of the organization itself into question.

“The OPCW is a Titanic which is leaking and has started to sink,” Industry Minister Georgy Kalamanov told reporters.

“A lot of the countries that voted against the measure are starting to think about how the organization will exist and function in the future,” he told reporters.

Though the use of chemical weapons is illegal under international law, the taboo on deploying them has been eroding after their repeated use in the Syrian civil war, but also in Iraq, Malaysia and Britain since 2012.

The poisoning of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Moscow and the West and was one reason for Britain’s push to strengthen the OPCW. Russia has denied any involvement in their poisoning.

From 2015 to 2017 a joint United Nations-OPCW team had been appointed to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria. It found that Syrian government troops used nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on several occasions, while Islamic State militants were found to have used sulfur mustard.

But at a deadlocked U.N. Security Council, the joint team was disbanded last year after Moscow used its veto to block several resolutions seeking to renew its mandate.

The British proposal declares the OPCW will be empowered to attribute blame for attacks, though details of how it will do so will still need to be further defined by the organizations’ members.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch. Additional reporting by Toby Sterling, Editing by Jon Boyle)

Russia sees growing acceptance of Assad as key to Syria talks

FILE PHOTO - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on September 26, 2013. SANA/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N.-led Syria talks have a chance of making progress because demands for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad have receded, Russia’s ambassador in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, told reporters on Saturday.

The seventh round of talks, which ended on Friday, had produced positive results, especially a “correction” in the approach of the main opposition delegation, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, he said.

“The essence of this correction is that during this round the opposition never once demanded the immediate resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the legitimate Syrian government.”

The HNC and its backers in Western and Gulf capitals had realized that peace needed to come first, and then political reforms could be negotiated, he said.

“Assad must go” was long the mantra of the HNC and its international backers, a call flatly rejected by Russia, which is widely seen as holding the balance of power in Syria because of its military involvement and alliance with Assad.

But over the past year the opposition suffered military defeats at the hands of forces loyal to Assad, and neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor French President Emmanuel Macron is calling for his immediate ouster.

Assad’s negotiators at the U.N. talks have avoided discussion of any kind of political transition, preferring to focus on the fight against terrorism.

They have not yet had to negotiate directly with the opposition because there is no unified delegation to meet them, since the HNC and two other groups, known as the Cairo and Moscow platforms, all claim to represent the opposition.

In the seven rounds so far, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura has met each side separately, a laboriously choreographed negotiation that has succeeded only in deciding what to discuss: a new constitution, reformed governance, fresh elections and fighting terrorism.

The three opposition delegations’ leaders have been meeting to try to find common ground, raising hopes of direct talks at the next round in September.

Borodavkin said the success of such a unified delegation would depend on its willingness to compromise with Assad’s team.

“If they will be ready to make deals with the government delegation, that is one thing. If they again slide into… ultimatums and preconditions that are not realistic, then this will not fly. This will lead the negotiations, be it direct or indirect, into a deadlock.”

He also called for wider opposition representation, citing the Kurds as a striking example, since they were Syrian citizens with their own political and military influence.

But he said it was up to de Mistura to decide how and when to incorporate them in the peace process.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Ros Russell)

U.N. sees direct Syria talks soon but not pushing for it

FILE PHOTO: United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference during the Intra Syria talks at the U.N. offices in Geneva, Switzerland, May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy/File Photo

By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syria’s government and opposition negotiators could soon hold face-to-face talks for the first time, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday, the penultimate day of a round of peace talks in Geneva.

He did not expect the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) to unite with two other dissident groupings, the “Moscow” and “Cairo” platforms, in time for direct talks with Syria’s government during this round.

But asked if it could happen before the next round of Geneva negotiations, slated for late August, de Mistura told reporters: “Perhaps even earlier.”

“I’m not pushing for it. Because I want, when it happens, that there should not be a row but should be real talks. We are actually pushing for areas where they do have common points.”

The Moscow and Cairo platforms each comprise a handful of activists and are named after the cities where they first convened, at meetings held with Russia’s approval and support. They do not control territory on the ground or have strong links with armed groups engaged in the war.

De Mistura was speaking before a meeting with Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, promising to “go into much more substance on the political side”.

The glacial pace of the Geneva talks, which some observers see as simply a way of keeping an avenue for peace talks open in case of an unexpected breakthrough, owes much to the fact that de Mistura has to meet each delegation separately.

Some diplomats suspect the Moscow and Cairo platforms, which are much less opposed to President Bashar al-Assad than the HNC is, are little more than a mechanism created by Assad’s ally Russia to prevent direct negotiations and force the HNC to dilute its stance.

“It’s always been a trap for the opposition laid by the Russians, through their continual needling of the HNC about there being more than one opposition, which is mostly nonsense with the relative weight of these groups,” a Western diplomat said.

“If the HNC succeed in defusing this trap, and coming together with the Moscow and Cairo groups in some way, then it puts Ja’afari under quite a lot of pressure.”

Another Western diplomat said it was a “Russian narrative” that the various groups needed to unite.

“I feel this is a lever the Russians will keep to destabilize the opposition, they want to have a handle to weaken the opposition, therefore to have a handle on the process as such.

“To us, the broader the opposition the better, but at the same time the most important thing is to have an opposition that is cohesive, can act as one party in the political process.”

The three opposition groupings have recently held technical talks, aligning their positions to the extent that they might be able to field a single delegation, if not a united one.

“We’re coming together on substance, not just principles but operationally,” HNC negotiator Basma Kodmani told Reuters. “We’re building an alternative to Assad.”

(Writing by Tom Miles; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Iran: U.S.-Russia ceasefire deal should be expanded to cover all Syria

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries a weapon as he walks past damaged buildings in a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

LONDON (Reuters) – A partial ceasefire in southwestern Syria agreed between the United States and Russia should be expanded to all of Syria if it is to be successful, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said on Monday.

The United States, Russia and Jordan announced a ceasefire and “de-escalation agreement” for the southwest on Friday and starting on Sunday after a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg.

“The agreement can be fruitful if it is expanded to all of Syria and includes all the area that we discussed in Astana talks for de-escalating the tension,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.

In Astana peace talks, Russia, Turkey and Iran tried to finalize an agreement on creating four de-escalation zones in Syria but failed to reach an agreement.

Russia and Iran are the main international backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Washington supports some of the rebel groups fighting to topple him.

“Iran is seeking Syria’s sovereignty and security so a ceasefire cannot be limited to a certain location…No agreement would be successful without taking the realities on the ground into account,” Qasemi added.

Previous similar ceasefires have failed to hold for long and it was not clear how much the actual combatants — Assad’s government forces and the main Syrian rebel armies in the southwest — are committed to this latest effort.

Qasemi said Iran has been fully informed by the Russians on the ceasefire agreement but added that they see some “ambiguities in the deal mainly related to the American recent measures in Syria”.



(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Angus MacSwan)


U.S. threatens Syria, says Assad is planning chemical weapons attack

FILE PHOTO: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Croatian newspaper Vecernji List in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 6, 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Jeff Mason and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that he and his military would “pay a heavy price” if it conducted a chemical weapons attack and said the United States had reason to believe such preparations were underway.

The White House said in a statement released late on Monday the preparations by Syria were similar to those undertaken before an April 4 chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians and prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base.

“The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

“If … Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” he said.

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on potential U.S. plans or the intelligence that prompted the statement about Syria’s preparations for an attack.

Trump, who took to Twitter not long after the statement went out, focused his attention on a Fox News report related to former President Barack Obama and the 2016 election rather than developments in Syria.

Trump ordered the strike on the Shayrat airfield in Syria in April in reaction to what Washington said was a poison gas attack by Assad’s government that killed 87 people in rebel-held territory. Syria denied it carried out the attack.

Assad said in an interview with the AFP news agency earlier this year that the alleged April attack was “100 percent fabrication” used to justify a U.S. air strike.

The strike was the toughest direct U.S. action yet in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, raising the risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad’s two main military backers.


U.S. and allied intelligence officers had for some time identified several sites where they suspected the Assad government may have been hiding newly made chemical weapons from inspectors, said one U.S. official familiar with the intelligence.

The assessment was based in part on the locations, security surrounding the suspect sites and other information which the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to describe.

The White House warning, the official said, was based on new reports of what was described as abnormal activity that might be associated with preparations for a chemical attack.

Although the intelligence was not considered conclusive, the administration quickly decided to issue the public warning to the Assad regime about the consequences of another chemical attack on civilians in an attempt to deter such a strike, said the official, who declined to discuss the issue further.

At the time of the April strike, U.S. officials called the intervention a “one-off” intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks and not an expansion of the U.S. role in the Syrian war.

The United States has taken a series of actions over the past three months demonstrating its willingness to carry out strikes, mostly in self-defense, against Syrian government forces and their backers, including Iran.

The United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Twitter: “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia and Iran who support him killing his own people.”

Washington has repeatedly struck Iranian-backed militia and even shot down a drone threatening U.S.-led coalition forces since the April military strike. The U.S. military also shot down a Syrian jet earlier this month.

Trump has also ordered stepped-up military operations against the Islamic State militant group and delegated more authority to his generals.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and John Walcott; Additional reporting by Eric Beech, Patricia Zengerle, and Michelle Nichols; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Jeff Mason; Editing by Paul Tait)

U.S., Russia discuss de-escalation zone for southwest Syria: diplomats

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes a position in the eastern part of the rebel-held town of Dael in Deraa Governorate, Syria, June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – The United States and Russia are quietly holding talks on creating a “de-escalation zone” in southwestern Syria, Western diplomats and regional officials said, but could face fierce opposition from Iran.

The Russian and U.S. special envoys for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev and Michael Ratney, and other officials have met at least twice in the Jordanian capital Amman in the past two weeks and will talk again soon, the officials and diplomats said.

The talks are at an early stage of discussing the boundaries of the proposed de-escalation zone in Deraa province, on the border with Jordan, and Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, they said.

Diplomats say the talks could represent a major new attempt by Washington and Moscow, Syria’s main foreign backer, to reach an understanding on how to end six years of conflict which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, estimates has killed close to half a million people.

Iran, Russia and Turkey brokered a deal in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in May to create four de-escalation zones in Syria. But the United States wants no role in the southwest, Russia’s ally in the war, the diplomats said.

Washington has misgivings about the Astana talks and wants to forge a bilateral understanding with Moscow in an area of strategic interest to the United States and its allies, Jordan and Israel.

“The Americans are talking to the Russians and proposing a deconfliction zone outside the Astana process without the Iranians and their proxies,” said one senior diplomat.

The United States is proposing a de-escalation zone covering areas held by both rebel and government forces that could eventually turn into a safe area, the envoys and officials said.

“The two sides are in the process of drafting its borders… and which outside forces will be on the ground. But there are many flaws on how to implement it,” said a regional intelligence official who is familiar with the talks but is not authorized to speak publicly.

Time may be of the essence. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, is expanding its foothold in the southwest and dozens of raids this week by the Syrian army and new troop deployments by Hezbollah in Deraa city were intended to pre-empt or wreck any agreement, a Western intelligence source said.

The Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A U.S. State Department official said: “We have nothing to announce regarding reports of discussions about southern Syria. The United States remains committed to supporting a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict, one which can bring about a more representative and peaceful Syria, free of terrorism.”


Under the Astana accord, de-escalation was envisaged as the halt of hostilities between government forces and opposition groups and the creation of conditions for humanitarian access, medical assistance, the return of displaced civilians to their homes and restoration of damaged infrastructure.

Safe zones should be guaranteed by all parties to a conflict.

U.S. officials have told the Russian negotiators that the Syrian army and Iranian-backed troops are exploiting the Astana agreement to free up additional troops for other battles, the source familiar with the negotiations said.

The United States has taken a tough stance against Tehran under President Donald Trump. But Iran and allied militias are integral to groups supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Although Trump has voiced support for safe zones in Syria, Washington opposes Iran’s involvement as a guarantor of the de-escalation zones set out in the Astana accord, and regards Assad’s track record in upholding previous agreements as poor.

In the talks with Moscow, Washington has proposed a halt in military offensives by Western-vetted rebels who control swathes of Deraa and Quneitra, a regional intelligence official said. Jordan’s role in the deal is important because of its leverage over rebels in that area.

Deraa and Quneitra are home to tens of thousands of people and form a center of the insurgency against Assad. They are a potential launchpad for rebel attacks on the Syrian capital Damascus, 40 miles (64 km) to the north.

U.S. enthusiasm to push the deal depends on Russia forcing the Iran-backed militias to leave the area. “Iran and its proxies have to be out of this zone. This is key to the deal being proposed,” he said.

Regional tensions are on the rise and the warfare in southern Syria has worsened, pitting Western-backed rebels around the Tanf base near the border with Iraq against Syria’s army and militias backed by Iran.

There are doubts in the West that Russia can rein in the growing involvement in the region of Iran and its allies, two senior diplomats familiar with the talks said.

There are other difficulties. Jordan wants a deal that keeps the Deraa front quiet and eases the plight of civilians under the threat of army bombardment. But it has rejected a Russian proposal for its troops to police the proposed de-confliction zone, another regional source said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Polio outbreak in Syria poses vaccination dilemma for WHO

A health worker administers polio vaccination to a child in Raqqa, eastern Syria November 18, 2013. REUTERS/Nour Fourat

GENEVA (Reuters) – Vaccinating too few children in Syria against polio because the six-year-old war there makes it difficult to reach them risks causing more cases in the future, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, posing a dilemma after a recent outbreak.

Two children have been paralyzed in the last few months in Islamic State-held Deir al-Zor in the first polio cases in Syria since 2014 and in the same eastern province bordering Iraq where a different strain caused 36 cases in 2013-2014.

Vaccinating even 50 percent of the estimated 90,000 children aged under 5 in the Mayadin area of Deir al-Zor would probably not be enough to stop the outbreak and might actually sow the seeds for the next outbreak, WHO’s Oliver Rosenbauer said.

Immunisation rates need to be closer to 80 percent to have maximum effect and protect a population, he told a briefing.

“Are we concerned that we’re in fact going to be seeding further future polio vaccine-derived outbreaks? … Absolutely, that is a concern. And that is why this vaccine must be used judiciously and to try to ensure the highest level of coverage,” Rosenbauer said.

“This is kind of what has become known as the OPV, the oral polio vaccine paradox,” he said.

The new cases are a vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2, a rare type which can emerge in under-immunised communities after mutating from strains contained in the oral polio vaccine.

“Such vaccine-derived strains tend to be less dangerous than wild polio virus strains, they tend to cause less cases, they tend not to travel so easily geographically. That’s all kind of the silver lining and should play in our favor operationally,” he said.

All polio strains can paralyze within hours.

Syria is one of the last remaining pockets of the virus worldwide. The virus remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Fighters move cautiously into Islamic State-held Raqqa

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighters gather at the eastern outskirts of Raqqa city, Syria June 7, 2017. Picture taken June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – At Raqqa’s eastern edge, a handful of Syrian fighters cross a river by foot and car, all the while relaying their coordinates to the U.S.-led coalition so they don’t fall victim to friendly fire.

This is their only way into al-Mishlab, the first district the Kurdish and Arab militias have swept into, in what the coalition says will be a long and difficult battle for Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto “capital” in Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched their assault to capture the city this week.

As artillery and coalition aircraft pounded targets in the city, SDF fighters moved in small groups into the district during a media trip organized by the SDF.

“The comrades are advancing and Daesh forces are collapsing in front of us, but there are snipers obstructing our movements, and they are also shelling our positions with mortars,” said an SDF fighter who gave his name as Khalil.

For months, air strikes and special forces from the U.S.-led coalition have helped them encircle Raqqa, which Islamic State seized in 2014 and has used as a base to plan attacks abroad.

In a statement sent to Reuters, coalition spokesman Colonel Joseph Scrocca said the militants’ resistance had been “minimal” outside the city and that they were retreating “to protect their fortifications inside the city”.

A few civilians left farmland near Raqqa on Wednesday, waving white flags to SDF fighters heading toward al-Mishlab on a road littered with blown-up vehicles.

At the gates of the city, a bridge lay collapsed, testament to the air strikes that have left Islamic State with no way in or out except by boat across the Euphrates river.

Large plumes of smoke rose nearby. SDF fighters crossed the river into the district through pathways made of piles of rocks, soil and pipes.

A field commander who gave her name as Clara said fighting continued in some parts of the district. Islamic State militants had drawn on mines, car bombs, and suicide attackers as they sought to defend the district in recent days, she said.

The SDF fighters moved in units of five or less, waiting in bombed-out buildings or trenches for air strikes to clear the way for further advances, they said. With every movement, the unit commander relayed their GPS coordinates for pilots to pinpoint SDF and enemy positions.

Away from the frontlines, fighters in green camouflage uniform, some with colourful scarves wrapped around their heads, unloaded crates of weapons from trucks.

An SDF field commander said the coalition had recently delivered the weapons, including mortar bombs.

“These weapons recently arrived to us because we had sent our fighters for training by coalition forces,” said Ankiza Mahmoud, the commander of an SDF unit, one of many Kurdish female fighters taking part in the attack.

Some of the fighters unloading weapons wore the shoulder patch of the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF’s most powerful component. Its role in the Raqqa campaign has strained ties between the United States and NATO ally Turkey, which fears growing Kurdish ascendancy along its border.

The United States said last week it had started supplying arms to the YPG for the Raqqa assault, deepening Turkey’s anger. Ankara views the YPG as a part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency within Turkey.

Yet the militia has emerged as the main U.S. parter in the fight against Islamic State in northern Syria.

The shipment of weapons reached the eastern outskirts of Raqqa city on Wednesday, and the newly trained SDF fighters would soon head to the frontlines, they said.

(Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry and Catherine Evans)

Syrian rebels begin to leave last opposition-held Homs district

FILE PHOTO: A road sign that shows the direction to Homs is seen in Damascus, Syria April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

HOMS, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels started leaving the last opposition-held district of Homs city on Saturday in the final phase of an evacuation deal that will see President Bashar al-Assad’s government take back the area.

Fighters took with them their light weapons, as agreed, and boarded buses along with women and children. Many were headed for insurgent-held Idlib province in Syria’s northwest, or the town of Jarablus on the border with Turkey.

At least four buses had left al-Waer by mid-afternoon, and dozens more were expected to follow, to bring more than 2,500 people out of the district long besieged by government forces and their allies in the country’s civil war.

The evacuation of al-Waer is one of the largest of its kind. It follows a number of similar deals in recent months that have brought many parts of western Syria long held by the opposition and besieged by government and allied forces back under Assad’s control.

Syria’s government calls the evacuation deals, which have also taken place in besieged areas around Damascus, and in Aleppo at the end of last year, reconciliation agreements. It says they allow services and security to be restored.

The opposition has criticized the agreements, however, saying they amount to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents away from Syria’s main urban centers, often after years of siege and bombardment.

The United Nations has criticized both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.

The al-Waer deal, backed by Syria’s ally Russia, began to be implemented in March. Thousands of people have left in a several stages. By the time it is completed, up to 20,000 people will have left the district, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says.

Homs Governor Talal Barazi said the final phase of the evacuation would last some 20 hours, and expected it to be completed late on Saturday or early on Sunday.

“This is the last day. The number of militants expected (to leave) is around 700. With their families the total number could be around 3,000,” he told reporters in al-Waer.

Barazi said at least 20,000 inhabitants remained in al-Waer, and tens of thousands displaced during fighting would begin to return to the neighborhood after the deal was completed.

“Over the next few weeks communications networks will return” as well as electricity and water, he said.


As in other evacuation deals, some rebels have decided to stay in al-Waer and hand over their weapons as Syria’s military and its allies move in.

Young men of conscription age will be required to join the armed forces for military service.

A Russian officer helping oversee the deal’s implementation told reporters Russian military police would help with the transition inside al-Waer.

“Russia has a guarantor role in this agreement. Russian military police will stay, and will carry out duties inside the district,” Sergei Druzhin said through an Arabic interpreter.

Assad’s government, backed militarily since 2015 by Russia and since early on in the war by Iranian-backed militias, has negotiated the pacts from a position of strength and brought Syria’s major urban areas in the west back under its control.

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city before the conflict, was an early center of the popular uprising against Assad in 2011 that turned into a civil war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced more than 11 million.

As the government brings more areas under its control, rebels still hold pockets of territory around Damascus and in the south, as well as almost all of Idlib province.

Islamic State holds swathes of territory in the east of Syria, and is being fought by separate forces, including U.S.-backed fighters and Russian-backed Syrian troops.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)