SYRIA AND IRAQ NEWS

http://www.petercliffordonline.com/syria-news-3 “I so appreciate your Pulitzer-class reporting on the Kobane and Syrian conflicts and look forward to your updates. This is so much better than the superficial coverage that the major TV networks are providing.” JM.

NEW SYRIAN HUMANITARIAN CRISIS AS 900 RUSSIAN AIRSTRIKES ON OPPOSITION AREAS NEAR ALEPPO DRIVE TENS OF THOUSANDS TOWARDS TURKEY:

TIMELINE – 6th FEBRUARY 2016 11.48 GMT (scroll down for Rojava Update 181):

This week the so-called “Syrian Peace Talks” failed miserably just 2 days after they started with neither side being in the UN building in Geneva at the same time, never mind the same room.

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Current Situation Map For Aleppo Province

Both sides blamed each other. The Opposition wanted an end to sieges and the bombing of its fighters and civilians and Assad’s side just played for time.

The UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura delivered the dismal news to the press in driving sleet outside the Opposition’s hotel, but said the talks would “restart on February 25th”. Don’t bet any money on it.

As the talks fell apart, Assad and the Russians massively escalated their bombing campaign. The Russian Ministry of Defence said on Thursday that they had made 900 airstrikes in the previous 3 days, the majority of them, it appears, to the north of Aleppo city where the Opposition have lost ground.

Opposition members talked of 7 airstrikes an hour, 120 a day in some areas.

On Friday around 120 fighters on both sides were killed near Ratyan, an Opposition-held stronghold north-west of Aleppo which is now under threat. Video footage of the regime ground attack, HERE:

The Assad regime has this week also cut the Opposition’s supply route between the Turkish border and the eastern part of Aleppo, as well as breaking through to the Alawite enclaves of Zahraa and Nubl and the Opposition remaining in east Aleppo are now in danger of being completely encircled. Zahraa and Nubl had effectively been surrounded by the Opposition since 2012 until now.

Pro-Assad forces led by Hezbollah and Shia militia have also completely taken the Sheikh Najjer industrial area to the north of Aleppo, a sector which is very much the gateway to east Aleppo.

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Syrian Refugees Congregating at the Bab Al-Salman Border Gate to Turkey

Tens of thousands of Syrians are now fleeing northwards from the Russian and pro-Assad onslaught.

20,000 Syrian refugees are reported waiting to cross into Turkey at the Bab Al-Salam border post having travelled up to 50 miles by foot from the Aleppo area, but so far the Turkish authorities have kept the frontier gates closed.

Video footage from Bab Al-Salam crossing, (Arabic only) HERE:

Another 10,000 people are thought to have taken shelter in the Kurdish enclave in the north-west of Aleppo province, Afrin Canton, and a further 10,000 have fled to the Opposition-held town of Azaz which itself is under bomb and surface-to-surface missile attack.

Some estimates talk of 60 – 70,000 people on the move.

Several markets have been hit in the airstrikes and civilian casualties are high. Combine this with the destruction of 13 medical facilities in Opposition areas in January alone and thousands of people sleeping out in the open in winter weather and you have the ingredients of another humanitarian disaster.  The BBC has more.

Ironically, while all this was going on, a donor conference in London pledged $10 billion for humanitarian aid in Syria on Thursday, though many of the previous pledges has still not been paid to the UN.

With the latest developments, Turkey’s plans for a “no fly” or “safe zone” for refugees in the northern part of Aleppo province appear to be in tatters. Turkey dare not send up jets to overfly the Syrian border as they know that an angry Russia will shoot them down. You can read more, HERE:

Across Syria Opposition fighters are under pressure, but still able to strike back.

Iranian news agencies said on Friday that a brigadier general and 6 members of the Iranian forces had been killed in fighting near Aleppo. Lebanese sources indicated that at least 4 members of Hezbollah had died.

In Latakia 15 pro-Assad military officials, including 4 Russian Generals, were reported killed on Tuesday in the Turkman mountains after meeting to discuss recent military developments. One of the Russian Generals was apparently responsible for coordinating attacks on the Opposition in Latakia.

ROJAVA UPDATE 181: AS KURDS TAKE BACK 2 MORE VILLAGES FROM AL NUSRA CONTROL, THOUSANDS FLEE TO AFRIN TO SHELTER FROM RUSSIAN BOMBING ONSLAUGHT:

TIMELINE – 5th FEBRUARY 2016 15.55 GMT:

In January, the Kurdish YPG is reporting that they carried out 14 operations and had 10 clashes, in which they killed 98 “enemy forces”.

The vast majority of the enemy fighters will be members of the Islamic State (IS) but some will undoubtedly be members of the Al-Nusra Front who continue to attack YPG positions in Afrin Canton and in the Sheikh Maqsoud district in Aleppo city.

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Female Members of Kurdish YPJ Secure a Checkpoint in Hasakah Province

20 members of the YPG/YPJ died during these operations and clashes, but 24 AK-7s were seized, 4 x heavy machine guns, 2 x RPG rocket launchers, 44 hand grenades and other pieces of useful equipment.

Last Sunday, members of the YPJ associated with the YPG press office came under attack in Cizire Canton when their vehicle was hit by an IED, killing one female officer and wounding another.

On Tuesday a YPG/YPJ patrol in the southern part of Hasakah province came across IS Jihadists dressed in civilian clothes setting an IED. The IED exploded killing a Kurdish fighter and wounding a second.

On Wednesday south-east of Hasakah city, the YPG launched an operation against IS positions at the village of Elgana, though no immediate toll of casualties on either side is so far available.

Also on Wednesday around 11.00 am, IS launched another attack on Ain Issa in Kobane Canton with heavy weapons. The YPG/YPJ launched counter attacks to frustrate the IS plans of advancement.

On Tuesday, IS additionally attempted to infiltrate Tishreen village, not far from the dam of the same name across the Euphrates, in the south-west of Kobane Canton.

The IS attack started with a suicide bomb attack on a YPG checkpoint not far from the dam, followed by 30 x IS Jihadists attacking the YPG HQ in the area.

4 x IS fighters were killed before the rest of the group retreated northwards to IS-held Jarablous near the Turkish border.

West of the Euphrates in Afrin Canton, YPG units advanced yesterday, Thursday, against Al-Nusra Front (ANF) fighters and recaptured the villages of Al-Ziyara and Khrebka. 5 ANF fighters were killed in the clash and 6 wounded.

2 Kurdish fighters lost their lives in the battle and the YPG are now dismantling IED and landmines left by the Islamists in the area. There is video of the operation to recover the villages, (Kurdish only) HERE:

Over in Kobane city, the first school for disabled pupils opened this week with an intake of 15 students.

US Central Command (Centcom) reports 9 airstrikes in Syria on Thursday and 21 in Iraq.

The Syrian airstrikes struck an IS staging post near Raqqah, hit an IS tactical unit and destroyed 2 x IS fighting positions near Al-Hawl, hit 4 separate tactical units and destroyed an IS building 2 x IS fighting positions near Manbij and struck an IS tactical unit twice, destroyed an IS vehicle and an IS command and control node near Mar’a.

Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has said that it willing to send “ground forces” to Syria in the fight against IS, believing that an airstrike only solution is insufficient. The US is reluctant to comment until it has the detail.

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Tens of Thousands of Syrians Trekking to Turkish Border to Escape Russian Bombing

Afrin Canton, despite being under siege by the Al Nusra Front and its allies has opened its borders to tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing northwards from the new onslaught on Opposition towns and villages by the Russian and Assad air forces. (More on this later).

The YPG has set up an operations room to find shelter for the displaced refugees in schools and tents and provide blankets, food and medication.

In the north of Aleppo city, the YPG ventured out from the Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud on Wednesday and pinned down another Al Nusra Front vehicle on the Jandol road, killing or wounding 3 of the Islamic fighters.

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ROJAVA UPDATE 180: TOP US ENVOY VISITS KOBANE AS KURDISH DELEGATION TURNED AWAY FROM PARTICIPATION IN GENEVA PEACE TALKS:

TIMELINE – 1st FEBRUARY 2016 15.05 GMT -UPDATED (scroll down) 18.40 GMT:

On Saturday morning, Islamic State (IS) units attempted to send in a suicide vehicle bomb against YPG fighters protecting the Tishreen Dam in the south-west of Kobane Canton.

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View of the Tishreen Dam

Spotting the vehicle, a YPG team was dispatched to intercept it, destroying the vehicle and killing 3 x IS fighters and wounding a fourth.

Also on Saturday, IS once again attacked in the Ain Iss area in the southern part of the Canton near the village of Abdul-Razaq. The YPG led a search operation and found a small weapons cache of rifles, machine guns and mines as well killing 3 x IS Jihadists and capturing 2 more.

The YPG General Command has also issued a statement warning the Turkish Armed Forces to stay out of Rojava after they crossed the border on Thursday and Friday last week near the village of Sermisax, 13 kilometers to the west of the city Derik.

The Turks fired at local Kurds who gathered near the border to protest the incursion, but fortunately there were no casualties.

The Coalition is reported to have bombed the IS-held town of Shaddadi on Sunday, north of Raqqah, hitting several IS checkpoints and a weapons storage centre. 14 x IS Jihadists guarding the checkpoints were reported killed according to local sources.

US Central Command (Centcom) reports 5 airstrikes in Syria on Saturday, 2 near Hasakah hitting IS tactical units, destroying an IS structure and 2 x IS fighting positions and other strikes near Raqqah, Ayn Issa and Mar’a, destroying a crane and hitting 2 tactical units. The same day, 18 strikes were made in Iraq.

In Aleppo city, both the Al Nusra Front (ANF) and the Islamist Opposition group Ahrar Al-Sham (AAS) attacked the Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud on Saturday with mortars. In an immediate response, the YPG attacked a position on the Jandol Road, from where the attack originated, and destroyed 3 vehicles and a communications centre.

6 fighters from ANF and AAS were killed in the operation and another 8 wounded and taken prisoner.

Also in Aleppo, in retaliation for a barrel-bomb attack by the Assad regime on Sheikh Maqsoud (scroll down – see Rojava Update 179 below), the YPG attacked an Assad security checkpoint with mortars. 4 pro-Assad fighters were killed and 7 injured.

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Obama’s US Envoy on IS Meets Kobane Administration

Meanwhile, while the Kurds appear to have, for moment at least, been excluded from the Syria “Peace Talks” in Geneva, a high-level delegation from the US-led International Coalition made a 2 day visit to northern Syria at the weekend.

The delegation, which included British and French representatives plus most interestingly, President Obama’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, met with Kobane Canton Adminstration officials in Kobane City on Saturday and then with senior officers of the Syrian Democratic Force to discuss the campaign against the Islamic State.

McGurk’s visit, the first by a top US diplomat to Rojava, appears to be a deliberate attempt to assuage Kurdish anger over their exclusion from the talks in Geneva.

Despite not having a formal invitation, a Kurdish team, led by PYD co-chairman Saleh Muslim, travelled to Switzerland last week and based themselves in Lausanne, ready to step forward to Geneva if called.

According to US sources, the Kurds were discreetly asked to leave Switzerland on Saturday after Turkey said it would not participate in the talks if the Kurds remained. US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken apparently called Saleh Muslim to discuss “Washington’s view on the Kurdish issue and the peace talks” and assurances have been made that the Kurds will be involved “at a later date”.

Returning to Syria, Saleh Muslim said the Kurds would not recognise an agreements made under Geneva 3 unless their had been Kurdish participation in making those agreements. You can read more, HERE:

Over in Iraq, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed concern about the preservation of the sites of mass graves on and around Mount Sinjar, where 25 locations have been identified, 19 of them confirmed.

Already, many of the graves have been disturbed before experts can evaluate them and catalogue the remains of victims executed by the Islamic State as they rampaged across northern Iraq. You can read more at HRW.

40 kilometres east of Mosul, IS launched a mortar attack on a Peshmerga security centre in the Khazir district on Sunday evening, killing 8 Kurdish fighters and wounding another 6.

In Mosul city itself, IS are reported to executed on Sunday 4 Kurdish civilians from the Shabak clan for “spying for the Peshmerga” and on Friday another 20 of its own Jihadists for “abandoning their posts in western Mosul without permission”. The Jihadists were beheaded, according to local reports.

DEVASTATING ISLAMIC STATE ATTACK NEAR SHIA SHRINE IN DAMASCUS, WHILE ANOTHER 16 DIE OF STARVATION IN MADAYA:

As well as rejecting the Kurds, the “Peace Talks” got off to a shaky start on Friday, with only the Syrian Government delegation, led by Syria’s UN envoy, Bashar Jaafari, having arrived.

Jaafari started off well in typical “conciliatory” style by branding all Opposition representatives as “terrorists”, and the Opposition team, known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) did not even make a decision to attend at all until late Friday night.

Arriving in Geneva over the weekend, the HNC insisted that they would not negotiate with Assad’s representatives until women and children were released from government jails, air strikes on civilians ended and aid was allowed into besieged towns.

Meeting with the UN mediator Staffan de Mistura on Sunday, the Opposition were given some hope that the Assad regime will go some way to meeting those demands. Talks are expected to last for 6 months but not “face-to-face”.

Initially, “proximity talks” will take place with delegations in separate rooms and UN mediators moving between the parties to try and negotiate some steps forward. The BBC has a rather grim assessment of the likelihood of a “positive” outcome.

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Aftermath of Triple Explosion Near Sayyida Zeinab Shrine, Damascus

In a statement of some kind the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a huge bomb attack in southern Damascus early on Sunday morning near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.

Sayyida Zeinab was the grand-daughter of Prophet Mohammed and the shrine is of major importance to Shia Islam with regular visitors from all over the Moslem world.

Hezbollah has gone out of its way to protect the shrine and even now in the height of the war, many pilgrims travel there from Iran.

Altogether, there were 3 explosions near the shrine, one from a car bomb and 2 from suicide belts. The car bomb was exploded at the bus station in the Koua Soudan area and after people came to help the injured, two suicide bombers blew themselves up nearby.

Many death toll figures have been widely quoted, though the latest from Syria’s Ministry of Interior is 50 dead and 110 injured.

According to sources inside Syria, President Assad has replaced the commander in charge of the Republican Guard, the country’s elite unit charged with protecting the leadership.

Out goes Badiaa Ali and in comes one of Assad’s cousins from his mother’s side, Brigadier General Talal Mahklouf. Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified Mahklouf as one of the officers responsible for the brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in Syria in 2011. The officer commanding the surrounded garrison in Deir Ez Zour has also got the sack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of 4,680 people in Syria in January 2016 – 1,345 of them civilians, including 295 children and 190 women. The other 3,335 deaths were roughly split between the pro and anti-Assad combatants on the two sides, including IS.

Interestingly, Free Syrian Army (FSA) founder, Colonel Riad Al-Asaad, has said in an interview that the FSA is holding prisoner a “large number” of Iranian, Hezbollah and pro-Assad Shia militia fighters, including officers and an Iranian Captain. Asaad assured the interviewer that these prisoners were being looked after well.

Meanwhile, fighting goes across Syria. In Latakia the Opposition, having lost territory, have moved to a more “hit and run” campaign, destroying a Syrian Army ammunition truck with a TOW missile, HERE:

In their usual “compassionate” manner, Assad’s or Russian planes bombed a tented refugee camp in northern Latakia on Saturday in an attempt to drive the pro-Opposition residents out of the province and into Turkey.

In Hama province, Opposition fighters have gained ground, taking over all of Al-Buwaydah and destroying 2 of Assad’s tanks and a BMP armoured vehicle.

In Idlib province an exchange of prisoners between the regime and Islamist Opposition groups at the 2 Alawite villages of Kafraya and Al-Fuah has taken place, the second stage of an agreement reached in January, along with humanitarian access to Madaya near Damascus. The regime released 27 prisoners, the Islamists 18.

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Syrian Red Crescent Aid Convoy Approaches Madaya on January 14th, 2016

However, Medicin Sans Frontieres (MSF) is reporting that another 16 people have died from malnutrition in Madaya since humanitarian aid agencies gained access in January after a worldwide outcry, bring the total that have starved to death there to 46.

According to their estimates there are 320 outstanding cases of malnutrition and 33 so severe that they require urgent medical treatment. The Syrian Red Crescent said that they were allowed access on Saturday but only to make assessments, not to deliver aid.

This moving report from Marianne Gasser of the International Red Cross on her visit to Madaya says it all:

“A cold rain was falling as the men carried the small bundle towards me. They were insisting I should take it. A crowd had gathered. The only light came from the phones we carried; there had not been electricity for months.

The men stopped and slowly, carefully unwrapped the blanket. At first, I could not make out what was inside. Then it suddenly dawned on me that it was an old man”.

You can read more (recommended reading) via the BBC.

In Deir Ez Zour heavy fighting is reported today, Monday, in the northern outskirts of the city, around Assad Base Brigade 137 and to the south-west, despite an estimated 200 airstrikes by Russian jets. Heavy casualties reported on both sides.

Also today, the Assad regime launched a new attempt to gain ground north of Aleppo city around Duwayra Al-Zeytoun and Bashkuy but latest reports suggest it is not going to plan, with Opposition fighters destroying Assad’s tanks, an armoured vehicle and a technical (pick-up with mounted heavy machine gun) and retaking villages they had lost earlier to both the regime and the Islamic State.

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ROJAVA UPDATE 179: KURDS RETALIATE AGAINST BOMBARDMENT FROM THE ISLAMIC STATE IN JARABLOUS AND ASSAD REGIME BARREL-BOMBS KURDISH DISTRICT IN ALEPPO:

TIMELINE – 29th JANUARY 2016 14.30 GMT:

As the Kurds across Rojava celebrated the first anniversary this week of their victory over the Islamic State (IS) at Kobane in January 2015, YPG units launched an attack on IS positions in Jarablous west of the Euphrates.

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Kurdish Forces on the Move to Jarablous?

Attacking from the western countryside of Kobane Canton, the YPG bombed the IS-held town with artillery shells and mortars.

According to reports the YPG assault hit an IS security centre, several IS vehicles and a Sharia Court building, as well as killing 21 x IS Jihadists.

Jarablous, which is thought to be a main route for IS recruits and supplies entering Syria from Turkey is a major target of the YPG, despite Turkey’s objections to a Kurdish presence along a 100 kilometre stretch of the Aleppo/Turkey border, currently controlled by IS.

The US has been requesting Turkey to secure this border against IS infiltration for months but the Turkish authorities, who tend to support Islamist groups, have failed to act effectively.

Strong reports persist the the Syrian Democratic Force, consisting of the YPG and Arab, Turkman and Assyrian Christian units, is about to launch a major campaign in Aleppo province to take Manbij and Jarablous away from IS control.

It is also expected to target Azaz which is held by various Opposition brigades, but which from where the Islamist Al Nusra Front threatens the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Separately, Assad and his Russian allies are closing in on IS-held Al-Bab, 50 kilometres south-west of Manbij.

Other reports from Jarablous say that Sharia officials brutally beat 30 women there on Wednesday evening in the central market, before arresting them on charges of violating the IS dress-code.

The women are expected to be flogged with 50 lashes in a public display before being released.

By contrast, a number of Kurdish women journalists have launched their own radio station in Hasakah province broadcasting programmes in both Arabic and Kurdish and specialising on topics relevant to the full role of women in society (English sub-titles) here,

In the north-western countryside of Raqqah province this week, IS fired a number of missiles into Ain Issa, though no heavy casualties have so far reported.

Also for the first time, the Assad regime targeted Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish neighbourhood of Aleppo, with barrel-bombs this week. 5 civilians were killed, including 2 children and nine people were injured. 3 of the barrel-bombs hit a crowded market place.

US Central Command (Centcom) reports 10 airstrikes in Syria yesterday, Thursday, one hitting an IS tactical unit and a checkpoint near Hasakah, one hitting an IS oil and gas separation plant near Raqqah and 2 strikes near Manbij hitting 2 separate tactical units and destroying an IS building.

A further 5 strikes near Ma’ra in Aleppo province (probably in support of the SDF) hit 4 separate IS tactical units, destroyed 2 x IS fighting positions and disabled an IS vehicle. The tenth strike on Thursday hit an IED explosive manufacturing area in Palmyra in Homs province.

Over in Iraq on Thursday there were 14 airstrikes across the country, all with similar targets to those in Syria.

One of the Coalition’s airstrikes on Thursday evening in Iraq is reported to have killed the Islamic State’s supposed “minister of war”, Jalal Hamdan Al-Naama. The Coalition monitored a convoy which was taking senior IS members to a meeting in a building near Mosul and once everyone was inside, they destroyed it.

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Mosul Dam – A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen?

Around 20 x IS Jihadists are believed to have been killed in the operation on the building in the Al- Hadra suburb of Mosul city.

3 senior IS members in charge of security and finance were also reported killed on Wednesday near Tikrit in another Coalition raid.

The US military has also expressed concern over the state of Mosul Dam which has suffered from poor maintenance for a long time.

U.S. Army Lieutenant, General Sean MacFarland, said on Thursday that he had been working with the Iraqi government on a plan to protect civilians should the dam collapse when snow melt water fills the lake behind the dam in early Spring.

A collapse of the dam would send a surge of water down the heavily populated Tigris river valley. The dam was held for some time by IS but was later recaptured by the Kurdish Peshmerga.

An Italian company is negotiating with the Iraqi Government to sign a contract to reinforce the dam. Hopefully this will not be too late as a complete collapse would be catastrophic.

Latest reports from Europe say that the Dutch Parliament has agreed for its military to send jets to join the Coalition strike force in Syria.  Further details awaited.

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ROJAVA UPDATE 178: RUSSIA DENIES AIRBASE PLANS AS ISLAMIC STATE LAUNCHES NEW ATTACKS ACROSS HASAKAH:

TIMELINE- 25th JANUARY 2016 14.00 GMT – UPDATED 22.32 GMT:

In a motorcycle bomb attack in Qamishli or Friday evening, 4 are reported killed and 9 wounded.

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IS Bomb in Qamishli Causes More Destruction

The Islamic State (IS) have already claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place in the predominately Christian Assyrian area of Wista in the central part of the city.

This follows 3 similar bomb attacks on December 30th.

Yesterday, Sunday, IS also launched several other attacks across Hasakah province.

In the first IS used car-bombs and mortar shells against a headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Al-Hawl. 2 SDF fighters were killed and 5 others wounded.

The attack came from the IS-held town of Shaddadi which is a current target of the SDF advance.

The other IS attacks on Sunday were on villages and security posts around Mount Abdel Aziz in Hasakah province, using suicide bombs and heavy machine guns.

4 x IS Jihadists were killed in these clashes, with one Kurdish fighter killed and 2 more injured.

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Location of New US Base in NE Syria

Further to the previous report of preparations for a US airbase in north-east Hassakah province on an old agricultural crop-spraying airfield, the BBC has more information.

The size of the runway has been increased from 700 metres to 1.3 kilometres, long enough now to take Hercules transport aircraft.

In a rather tentative statement a spokesman for the US Department of Defence has justified the airfield by saying its small team in Syria needed “occasional logistical support”. You can read more, HERE:

Further to other reports (scroll down – see below) that the Russians were considering an airbase in Hasakah province as well, just 30 miles away from the American one, these were denied this morning, Monday, by Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia’s Ministry of Defence.

However, this is probably as reliable as recent Russian statements that they “are driving IS out of Latakia” (there are no Islamic State units in Latakia) and the Russian officer at the Russian airbase in Lattakia in the video below saying “Russian planes have not killed any civilians” (at the last count civilian deaths caused by Russian bombs were estimated from several sources as in excess of 1,000).

The BBC has returned to Russia’s main airbase in Syria, 2 months after its previous visit. Russia now claims to have made 6,000 sorties across Syria, HERE:

Off the coast, Russia, in an attempt to prove that it is a serious world power, has also now established an extensive well-armed battle force, HERE:

In Iraq, a new campaign is expected to be launched soon by the Kurdish Peshmerga south of Kirkuk in order to protect the oil rich town further. Joining them for the first time will be units of the Turkmen Popular Mobilization Forces who have been trained and equipped by the Coalition.

An Iraqi Government spokesman has also announced that launching a battle to retake Mosul is their next aim, “within the first half of 2016”. US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, has also recently expressed the strong view that removing the Islamic State from both Raqqah and Mosul are now priorities.

RUSSIAN BOMBING KILLS ANOTHER 200 CIVILIANS OVER THE WEEKEND AS PEACE TALKS STUMBLE:

Russia’s “civilian friendly airstrikes” are credited with killing as many as 160 people, the majority civilians, in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ez Zour over the weekend, where IS militants are closing in on the remaining regime held areas of Deir Ez Zour city.

Activists say that the dead included 35 children and 9 women. As many as 90 civilians were reported dead in the town of Khasham and 55 in Al-Tabyiya.

A Russian missile on the Idlib town of Salquin on Sunday is additionally reported to have killed and injured dozens more, bringing the total of Russia-caused civilian deaths to over 200 in 2 days.

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Pro-Assad Forces Capturing Opposition Strongholds in Latakia

In Latakia province, Russian fire power has enabled the Assad regime with its allies to retake the Opposition stronghold of Rabi’ah, first surrounding the town on 3 sides and capturing the villages of Daroshan and Al-Rawda.

Slowly, the Opposition are being forced out of Latakia province, having recently lost Salma as well after holding it for 3 years, and may have to retreat to Idlib and Hama provinces. The BBC’s Syria and Iraq News has more.

International peace talks on Syria due to start in Geneva this morning, Monday, appear to have stumbled with all sides still disagreeing over which groups should be allowed to take part.

UN special representative on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is expected to give a press conference this afternoon, while US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is still confidently predicting that everything “will be sorted out in the next 24 to 48 hours”. (The latest information is that the start of the talks has been put off until this Friday.)

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Coalition and Russian Airstrikes Across Syria

Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues to produce “delightful” videos, the latest one glorifying the IS killers who attacked 130 innocent people in Paris in November.

The video then goes to on to threaten the UK, showing its well-known landmarks and pictures of rifle crosshairs across the faces of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The Guardian has more.

However, IS may be beginning to feel the financial pinch. A leaked memo from the Islamic State’s
bureaucratic powers has warned fighters that they’re going to get a 50 percent pay cut across all positions “on account of the exceptional circumstances the Islamic State is facing.”

What exactly they mean by “exceptional circumstances” is unclear, but certainly their oil distribution business has been severely disrupted recently and the US now claims that they have bombed and destroyed 9 x IS cash distribution and storage facilities across Syria and Iraq, exploding and burning the equivalent of millions of dollars in notes.

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ROJAVA UPDATE 177: USA OPENING AIRBASE IN HASAKAH PROVINCE CONFIRMED. RUSSIA PLANNING TO DO THE SAME?

TIMELINE – 23rd JANUARY 2016 10.05 GMT:

As previously reported on this page, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have now confirmed that the US has secured and taken control of the Rmeilan airbase in the far north-east corner of Syria after reaching agreement with the Kurdish YPG who have controlled the former Syrian Government agricultural airfield for the last 2 years.

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Syrian Democratic Forces in Hasakah Province

The US plans to use the base to provide air and logistical support to the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting against the Islamic State (IS) and presumably it will be a conduit for weapons, ammunition and other supplies. 

The base near Rmeilan town is not far from both the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

The SDF is currently west of the Euphrates River battling with IS units south of Manbij where the Coalition aircraft destroyed an IS fighting position on Thursday.

Turkey remains obsessed at the possibility that its 98 kilometre border running west from the Euphrates could come entirely under Kurdish control.

The US is encouraging Turkey to seal this border in order to prevent the movement of “terrorists” across it, but Turkey’s ambivalence towards the Islamic State remains.

Assistance offered includes aerostat surveillance equipment, anti-tunneling technology, and methods for detecting materials used in improvised bombs.

Unconfirmed reports originating from Turkey say that Turkish troops “crossed the Turkish/Syrian border on Tuesday and entered the IS-held town of Jarablous without any resistance from IS” in order to counter any SDF advance in the area. (EDITOR: Treat this with some skepticism as there is no independent confirmation) SDF has a large contingent of Kurdish YPG in its make-up.

Jarablous is directly opposite Kobane Canton on the other side of the Euphrates and IS regularly bombs Kurdish villages and even the outskirts of Kobane city from there with mortars and other shells.

The Turkish Army on Tuesday also bombed the YPG headquarters east of Kobane Canton in the border town of Tal Abyad. 2 YPG fighters were injured and 3 armoured vehicles destroyed in the attack.

Turkey has repeatedly shelled Tal Abyad and its suburbs since the town was captured by the YPG in June 2015. Kurdish sources say that altogether the Turkish Army has attacked them 23 times recently in northern Syria.

Turkish soldiers also stopped an aid convoy destined for Kobane city this week. The convoy was halted just before the border in the Turkish town of Suruc, because it was trying to cross the border “illegally” in order to help “a terrorist organisation”.

Much of the aid was urgently needed medical supplies. Turkey sees the YPG as an ally of the PKK with whom it is fighting in Turkey’s south-east.

The Kurdish Red Crescent does its best to distribute the limited supplies it has around the countryside, HERE:

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Tabqa Dam – Base and Prison for IS?

Following a meeting between Assad’s Interior Minister and representatives of the the YPG and PKK in Qamishli recently (scroll down – see below), it has been reported, though remains unconfirmed, that Russia has an interest in opening another airbase near the city at Assad’s Base 154.

While Assad’s forces still have a small presence in Qamishli in central and southern areas and control Base 154, most of the city is in Kurdish YPG hands.

According to the reports “100 Russian soldiers, including ten officers of different ranks, arrived in Qamishlo airport on Monday, and afterwards inspected Base 154”.

The Russians have taken the side of the Kurds in the forthcoming International Peace Talks on Syria which due to begin in Geneva, Switzerland on January 25th.

This is an anathema to the Turks and Saudia Arabia who say the Kurds should not be allowed to attend, despite the fact that they have been the most effective fighting force against IS.

Germany has also backed a Kurdish seat at the talks. Salih Muslim, the co-chairman of the YPG’s political arm, the PYD, has suggested a compromise of a second opposition grouping which includes the Kurds and other minorities and sits separately from the main Opposition delegation. You can hear more in this English report from Rohani News, HERE:

On Wednesday, the Saudi backed Opposition group appointed Mohammed Alloush, as their chief negotiator. Alloush recently took over as commander of the Saudi-backed Jaish Al-Islam Brigade, after his well-known relative, Zahran Alloush, was killed in a Russian air strike.

Alloush is demanding a halt to sieges on Opposition areas and no third party attending the talks. Russia objects to the attendance of Alloush.

With so many contradictions it will be a miracle if the talks start at all on the 25th January. Invitations to the talks are due to be sent out this coming Sunday, but it will not be surprising if the start date is delayed.

There is an interesting article about a group of Canadian filmmakers who are making a video about Kobane and especially the role of women in the city, HERE:

In southern Hasakah province at IS-held Shaddadi, a current target of the Kurdish YPG and combined SDF force as they move towards Raqqah, activists have reported that they have been banned from private Internet access or using any Internet linked device at home.

Private Internet cafes have also been closed and only IS controlled Internet centres are now allowed, in a bid to restrict information leaking out and into the town. The local Sharia court ruling says that anyone violating these rules “will be mercilessly punished”.

There are also reports that the Islamic State is hiding prisoners and senior officials inside the Tabqa Dam 40 kilometres upstream from its Syrian HQ at Raqqah and at the head of Lake Assad, secure in the knowledge that the Coalition will not risk bombing it. IS has already used the dam to restrict the availability of water in nearby Iraq’s Anbar province.

In Iraq itself, 2 more Yezidi men are said to have been abducted in Sinjar province, IS infiltrating the village of Sakiniya in a search for people it could take hostage.

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Confirmation of St Elijah’s Monastery Destroyed in Mosul

Activists have also reported that as many as 20 top commanders of IS from Niveneh province in Iraq’s north-west have transferred to Libya and Yemen in the last 2 weeks.

The move is an attempt to avoid Coalition airstrikes which killed 9 leading IS members on Monday this week near Baiji and another 30 x IS fighters in Mosul on Thursday.

On Wednesday a group of unidentified gunmen attacked an IS base at Badoush west of Mosul and escaped after killing 4 x IS Jihadists.

Earlier on Sunday a bomb attack on an IS convoy near Badoush killed or injured 17 Jihadists. (EDITOR: These attacks have the ring of Western special forces operations about them, but that has not been confirmed)

Satellite pictures this week have revealed that IS has completely destroyed the 1,400 year old St. Elijah’s Monastery in Mosul, the oldest monastery in the whole of Iraq and a significant part of the country’s Christian heritage. 

The monastery was believed to have been destroyed in 2014 soon after IS took control of the city.

The Reverend Manuel Yousif Boji, a Chaldean Catholic priest resident in the US, who remembered attending mass at St. Elijah’s 60 years ago, said, “A big part of tangible history has been destroyed”.

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St Elijah’s Monastery in 2011 and Since 2014

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ROJAVA UPDATE 176: SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCE ADVANCE TOWARDS MANBIJ SUPPORTED BY RUSSIAN AIR ATTACK:

TIMELINE – 18th JANUARY 2016 14.05 GMT – UPDATED (scroll down) 18.00 GMT:

Clashes are reported this morning, Monday, between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Islamic State (IS) at the village of Abu Qalqal, which is south of IS-held Manbij in Aleppo province.

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YPG Heading towards Battlefront With Al Qaeda in Aleppo Province

At the same time, Russian jets are reported to have bombed IS positions in Manbij and also in the IS-held HQ of Raqqah, where as many as 40 civilians were reported killed including 8 children.

The Russian planes appear to have targeted small shops and restaurants, the industrial area and the National Hospital.

In the countryside near Raqqah, IS have also clashed with the Kurdish YPG at Ain Issa. Coalition aircraft supported the YPG with 4 airstrikes on IS positions around the town.

On Saturday, 3 x IS fighters were killed and 4 more injured and arrested after they managed to penetrate as far as Saddiq Square in the western part of Hasakah city.

Their target appeared to be the YPF HQ in the square, but they were intercepted before reaching it.

A leading Opposition commander, Ammar Kakkout, who was shot by Turkish military snipers as he tried cross the border from Syria to Turkey near Tal Abayad 2 weeks ago, has died from his wounds in hospital in Mersin, Turkey.

Kakkout was the general coordinator of the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Brigade 56-Banner of the Euphrates Brigade and had formerly been a well-known member of the Syrian National Council political Opposition. Kakkout had fought against IS in Hasakah province, as well in Deir Ez Zour and across northern Syria.

In order to deal with the ongoing struggle against IS and now Al Qaeda in Afrin and Aleppo City, the YPG has increased conscription time to its forces from 6 months to 9 months. This will not be popular with non-supporters of the YPG’s political arm, the PYD.

On Saturday, the YPG are reported to have attacked an Al-Qaeda checkpoint near the Jandul roundabout in the Shuqaif neighborhood with mortar shells, just outside the Sheikh Maqsoud Kurdish neighbourhood in Aleppo city. 6 Al-Nusra fighters are said to have been killed and 2 others wounded. 3 Kurdish fighters were injured in the fighting that followed.

A secret meeting is reported from Qamishli in the north of Hasakah province over the weekend between representatives of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is battling the Turks in southern Turkey and based in northern Iraq, and the YPG who control most of Qamishli city and Assad’s Interior Minister, Mohammed Al-Shaar.

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IS Supply Route Cut by Coalition Airstrike in Iraq

Shaar was accompanied by a number of Syrian Army military advisers and reportedly said that the Assad regime was trying to get the Kurds represented at the forthcoming Geneva lll conference on Syria, something which Saudi Arabia had so far prevented.

The Syrian regime still has a small military presence in Qamishli city.

Interesting article, which gives some clues to the political philosophy that underlies the structure of the PYD and YPG in Rojava, HERE:

Over in Iraq, Coalition planes have heavily attacked IS positions in the Gayarah district, destroying a bridge near Makhmour on a main IS supply route from Mosul towards Baghdad.

And in Sinjar, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have found the 20th mass grave dug by IS, revealing clothing, skulls and bone fragments believed to be those of yet more Yezidi men, executed when IS took over the area, HERE:

DESPITE UN PRESENCE IN MADAYA, 5 MORE PEOPLE DIE FROM STARVATION. AID WORKERS DESCRIBE SCENES THAT “HAUNT THE SOUL”:

Despite the presence of UN and Syrian Red Crescent staff in Madaya, the Damascus province town of 42,000 that was under siege by the Assad regime, another 5 people have died from starvation and malnutrition over the weekend.

The first UN aid convoy arrived last Monday and a second one on Thursday, plus a Syrian Red Crescent mobile clinic. However, UN staff estimate that 400 people in the town are in need of urgent medical attention.syria-iraq-news-5

2 people died while UN vehicles stood outside the town last week waiting for permission from the Assad regime to enter and another 5 have died since, bringing the total number of verified deaths to 35 in the past 4 weeks.

Around 50 people left the town after the siege was lifted on January 11th and another 10 have been evacuated for medical reasons. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has called for many others to be released from the town for urgent medical care and has identified 18 people in desperate need of critical support and treatment.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday that UN staff had reported scenes from Madaya that “haunt the soul” and said that using starvation as a weapon of war was “utterly unconscionable” and a war crime.

“We are working to get medical teams and mobile clinics on the ground right away. I want to make a special plea for those in besieged areas of Syria. I would say they are being held hostage – but it is even worse. Hostages get fed.”

There are another estimated 13 “Madayas” in Syria in need of urgent attention. In 2014 the Assad regime gave the UN permission to supply aid to only 5% of the locations where they requested permission to enter.

In 2015 that fell to 3%. Over the years of the war 80 requests to the Syrian Government to supply life-saving aid out a total of 113 have gone unanswered.

UN and Red Crescent staff who have entered Madaya reported seeing “the elderly and children, men and women, who were little more than skin and bones: gaunt, severely malnourished, so weak they could barely walk, and utterly desperate for the slightest morsel.”

Addressing the UN Security Council, Ms. Kyung-Wha Kang, the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the delegates on Friday, that they cannot let more people “die on their watch.”

“Food, water and medicine are not bargaining chips or favours that the parties to a conflict can grant or deny at will; they are basic necessities that lie at the very essence of survival and the right to life, which this Council and its members have a responsibility to protect,” she said.

Ms. Kang also pointed out that Madaya is not unique. As the war in Syria approaches the start of its sixth year in March, an estimated 400,000 people are at risk of a similar fate.

Apart from those at risk of starvation, Amnesty International estimates that 250,000 have now been killed in the war in Syria, including 10,000 children.

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The Remains of Deir Ez Zour

In other news at Deir Ez Zour in eastern Syria, very heavy fighting was reported over the weekend with the Islamic State who broke into the Ayash and Begayliya neighbourhoods of the city on Saturday, preceding the attack with several car bombs.

Accounts of events vary widely but at least 50 pro-regime fighters and 85 civilians were killed in the IS attack, plus 42 x IS Jihadists.

The Assad regime is reporting that it retook the districts on Sunday but that IS has “taken 400 people hostage”, though this has not been verified.

Latest reports from the area on Monday say that IS have captured a major Syrian Army weapons depot to the north-west of the city, plus ground to air missiles, a battle tank, a BMP armoured personnel carrier and a Shilka tank.

IS have also sent reinforcements to Deir Ex Zour in an effort to gain ground while a sandstorm rages and prevents Russian and Assad air support.

Reports later today, Monday afternoon, suggest IS has shelled the Euphrates Hotel in the city and taken control of the Basatin al-Nahr neighbourhood and the Deir Ez Zour Heart Hospital, but all detail yet to be confirmed.

Meanwhile IS continues its reign of terror throughout the territories it still holds, executing 4 of its own Jihadists in Manbij for “robbery and corruption”. The men were publicly executed by firing squad after being accused and “convicted” of “stealing gold and five million Syrian Liras ($22,700) from the Islamic Bank of Manbij”.

And in Iraq, 3 women were reported to have been burned to death in Mosul after being accused of “spying for the Crusader Coalition”.

Also in Mosul, the growing shortage of manpower and the financial strain are being to show after a Coalition campaign of airstrikes against IS fighting positions and its oil and gas supply infrastructure.

On Sunday more than 60 young boys in the city were forced to join the IS jihadi training camp in the city in order to become “Cubs of the Caliphate”. After 3 months of Sharia and military training the children will be distributed to all the towns and cities that IS still controls in Syria and Iraq.

IS is additionally reported to selling off property left by Christians who fled Mosul, including so far 400 houses, 19 commercial premises and 167 shops in order to bolster its flagging financial revenues.

In Latakia province, where the Assad regime, backed by Russian air support, has had some success recently in pushing Opposition fighters out of their base at Salma and other surrounding villages, the Opposition under cover of rain, fog and generally bad weather, has launched a counter-attack.

So far the Opposition are reported to have regained control of the villages of Tal Zaitoun, Tal Ablaq and Madrasat Atira in the Jabal Turkman Mountains.

In Daraa province, fighting between the Assad regime and the Opposition continues in Sheikh Maskin, with the Fallujah of Horan Brigade shelling the Government side, HERE:

While in Hama province, Opposition fighters destroyed an Assad tank just south of Hama city, HERE:

EDITOR: However, as you may have noticed, both the quality and number of Opposition videos, particularly those featuring the use of anti-tank missiles has decreased dramatically in the last few weeks.

Does this reflect the success of the Russian air campaign, hitting Opposition resources and personnel and cutting their supply lines? Your views welcome.syria-iraq-news-5

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ROJAVA UPDATE 175: ISLAMIC STATE MORTAR SHELLS HIT WESTERN SUBURBS OF KOBANE CITY CAUSING DESTRUCTION AND PANIC:

TIMELINE – 15th JANUARY 2015 15.55 GMT:

The Islamic State (IS) bombarded the western suburbs of Kobane city and nearby villages yesterday, Thursday, with mortar shells, causing panic among the Kurdish population.

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Kurds Fleeing From Kobane During the 1st IS Invasion

Fired from west of the Euphrates near IS-held Jarablous, the shells hit Kurdish residential neighbourhoods, sending many residents fleeing towards the countryside east of Kobane city.

Reports say there have been dozens of civilian casualties, houses destroyed and citizens displaced.

While other local residents sat tight during the bombardment, others were reminded of previous attacks by IS and their occupation of large parts of Rojava.

The YPG are expected to retaliate, while the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), which has a large YPG contingent, is expected to push further north to Manbij and then hopefully to Jarablous in northern Aleppo province.

The SDF has recently been reinforced with a decision of the Euphrates Martyrs Brigade to join with them, representing men from 35 Arabic villages south-east of Kobane.

SDF is believed to have set up a new headquarters in a former Assad regime army base near Hasakah which they captured from IS a few weeks ago.

There are also unconfirmed reports that the US has flown weapons and ammunition into this or another airstrip in northern Hasakah province by helicopter from its base in Turkey, in order to help the SDF in its preparations for a campaign to take Manbij.

The US is also said to be considering setting-up a training base in the far north-east of Syria at a former agricultural airstrip at Al-Malikiyah, where US advisers to the SDF would be housed.

Fresh Coalition airstrikes on IS positions around Manbij on Tuesday are reported to have killed 34 x IS Jihadists. The airstrikes were in support of an SDF attack on an IS HQ east of Manbij. 34 bodies were found by the SDF after the bombs had fallen, while the rest of the IS fighters retreated to Manbij town. 4 x IS vehicles and several machine guns were destroyed in the operation.

US General Command (Centcom) is also reporting one major airstrike near Manbij on Wednesday that destroyed 7 x IS fighting positions. 2 other strikes near Mar’a hit 2 separate IS tactical units and destroyed an IS vehicle and an IS fighting position.

Speaking at Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Florida, US Secretary for Defense, Ash Carter, described the Islamic State as a “cancer”, with its parent tumours based in Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. These 2 cities are now clearly the next major targets of Coalition attention.

Although the Coalition has 62 members, some are more active than others and Carter is due at a meeting next week with Australia and a number of leading European nations to ask for scaled up assistance in the fight against IS, including special forces.

The total cost to the US of operations against IS in both Syria and Iraq up until Decemmber 15th 2015, since they began on the 8th August 2014, is $5.53 billion, which works out at a daily cost of $11 million over 495 days!

The reported damage to IS is, here:

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Damage to IS Caused by Coalition Airstrikes to January 10th 2016

This video shows Coalition aircraft destroying an IS oil and gas separation plant near Deir Ez Zour on January 2nd, here:

The UK Government reports that last Monday, the Royal Air Force (RAF) identified an IS checkpoint somewhere in Syria and destroyed it using a Hellfire missile fired from a Reaper drone.

On Tuesday the RAF drones kept an eye on IS oil fields in eastern Syria and identified an excavator which was attempting repairs and an oil pump that had been brought back online. Both were again destroyed using Hellfire missiles.

At the same 2 RAF Tornado GR4s patrolling near Hasakah took out 2 x IS strongpoints using Paveway IV missiles. All aircraft returned to base safely.

In other news from Hasakah province, 16 more Assyrian Christians were released yesterday, Thursday, by IS at Tal Tamar after 11 months of captivity. The group consisted of 8 children, 3 women and 5 men.

So far 164 hostages out of 230 Assyrian Christians taken hostage by IS have been released, probably for large amounts of money.

In Rojava’s western Canton of Afrin, both YPG positions and residential buildings came under mortar fire on Wednesday once again from the Al Nusra Front (ANF) and other Islamist groups. The shells hit security checkpoints of the YPG and a YPJ, all female soldier position near the village of Bashmere.

The attacks are believed to be in retaliation for SDF successes in the area near Azaz in Aleppo province where the US-backed unit has captured several villages, including Keshtaar, a suburb of Tel Rafaat city which has been previously used by ANF as a base to attack Afrin.

The YPJ in Afrin are also reported to be actively recruiting and training more women for their fighting units.

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US Special Forces in Action

Over in Iraq, US sources have confirmed that an elite US special forces unit is now in place and has been tasked with going after IS fighters and commanders, “killing or capturing them wherever we find them” according to US Defense Secretary, Ash Carter.

US special forces are already said to have advised the SDF in Syria on taking the Tishreen Dam, which they did successfully a few weeks ago.

Britains’ RAF hit other IS oil sites in Iraq this week with Brimstone missiles, HERE:

Following an intelligence gathering operation, Iraqi jets destroyed a building in which an IS meeting was taking place early this week in the Al-Jamheer neighbourhood in the Qaeem district in western Anbar province.

11 x IS Jihadist commanders are reported killed and 7 others wounded.

The US has also sent experts to check the structural viability of the Mosul Dam, which suffers from poor maintenance and may be under threat of collapse in the coming Spring and Summer when rivers and streams are at their highest after the melting of winter snows in the mountains.

Potentially, 500,000 people could be killed and 1 million made homeless if the dam collapsed and a tidal wave tore downstream.

Army General Lloyd J. Austin III, who commands Centcom, said this week that, “A few days ago, we conducted a strike on bulk cash storage facility in Mosul. It was a good strike. And we estimate that it served to deprive IS of millions of dollars.”

In Sinjar, the Kurdish Peshmerga have discovered another tunnel running under the city, this one appearing to have been used for storing ammunition. The 500 metres long tunnel is riddled with booby-traps but was where IS fighters hid and moved about the city during airstrikes.

Estimates on rebuilding the destroyed city now stand at around $10 million, though few people have so far been allowed to return because of the large number of unexploded devices still present.

Recent reports say that IS has banned the sickening sale of Yezidi women to “strangers” after an IS fighter “bought” 2 Yezidi women for $12,000 each and then set them free. “Trading” of women is still allowed among approved Jihadists. At least 3,000 Yazidi women are still thought to be held in IS captivity.

Back in Kobane city some good news at last with the announcement that a new neighbourhood is to be built in on the site of the old Kurdish Red Crescent Hospital which was destroyed in IS attacks.

The new district will have 120 houses, schools, a market place and a park.syria-iraq-news-5

KOBANE CHRISMAS APPEAL: Also you will remember the Kobane Christmas Appeal which was featured on this page to raise Euros 25,000 for a school bus to bring very young school children from outlying areas into Kobane for primary education, raised only a disappointing Euros 12,011.

However, I am now very glad to say that after the end of the campaign, several large donations came in and an outstanding EUROS 37,000 was raised altogether – enough for a bus to bring another 250 children to school and more!

Many thanks to all who contributed and supported me in this campaign by @helpkobane.

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AID FOR STARVING HAS ARRIVED IN MADAYA, BUT 400K ESTIMATED TO BE STILL UNDER SIEGE IN SYRIA AND RUSSIAN JETS KILL 96 IN IDLIB RAID:

TIMELINE – 11th JANUARY 2016 14.00 GMT – UPDATED (scroll down for Rojava Update 174 below) 18.10 GMT:

A UN aid convoy due to arrive in besieged Madaya in Damascus province on Sunday to feed the starving there, was delayed because of “last minute complications”.

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Truck With Aid bound For Madaya

However, local reports now say that a convoy of 40 trucks and other vehicles that was heading for the town on Monday morning had arrived by Monday evening. Hundreds of people are packed up and waiting to leave.

(EDITOR: Though from what has been seen so far the Assad regime is about to use this as a media opportunity to attack the Opposition fighters still inside the town.)

The arrival of the food will come too late for another 5 people who starved to death yesterday, Sunday – a 9 year old boy and 4 men over 45.

The deaths were confirmed by Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) who have a medical centre within the town.

Simultaneously, a similar sized convoy has been sent to Kafraya and Al-Fuah, 2 Alawite villages besieged by the Al-Nusra Front in Idlib province.

The BBC has an updated video report.

According to the UN, approximately 400,000 people are currently living under siege in 15 areas across Syria in a form of medieval torture practised by all sides. In the last 12 months only 10% of the UN’s requests to the Assad regime to deliver aid to communities in Syria have been granted.

In Moadamiyah on the outskirts of Damascus, where there are an estimated 45,000 residents, the Assad government sealed off the last approach road 2 weeks ago, though it has effectively been under siege since 2013.

16 local residents have died since 2013 from malnutrition, plus an 8 month old boy who died yesterday, Sunday.

The UN reported in December that the Assad Government had 181,000 people under siege on the outskirts of the capital, including in Daraya, Ghouta and Zabadani not far from Madaya.

In Syria’s eastern province, the Islamic State has 200,000 under siege in Deir Ez Zour.

As well as lacking in food and water, these areas are also deprived of electricity and education for the children, things most of us take for granted.

France, this morning, Monday, has called on the Syrian Government to immediately end the siege of Madaya ahead of the so-called peace talks on January 25th and for both Assad and Russia to stop military operations against civilians. Opposition groups have said they will not take part in the planned talks unless the siege is lifted.

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Syria Civil Defense Searching for Bodies After Devastating Russian Attack in Idlib

While the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was visiting Damascus on Saturday in preparation for the “peace talks”, Russian planes bombed Opposition-held Ma’arat Al-Numan in Idlib province, initially killing 57, including 3 women and a child, and injuring 120.

The strike hit a court house and a jail. Since Saturday the death toll has risen to 96, many of the wounded dying from their injuries according to Syria Civil Defense who have spent more than 36 hours in a continuous rescue operation to find survivors.

Russian airstrikes also killed another 8 in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Sunday.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), the main political Opposition block, says it has documented 1,730 civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes since they started in September 2015.

135 of those killed in these attacks have been children and 29 hospitals have been destroyed, as well as schools, homes and mosques.

The SNC also claims that 94% of the 12,000 sorties Russia claims to have made in Syria have targeted civilians and the Free Syrian Army, an allegation which the Russians describe as “absurd”, “trite cliches” and “fake information”.

Also in Idlib province, the Al Nusra Front raided the offices of Radio Fresh FM and the news agency Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB) on Sunday morning in Kafranbel for a “breach of Sharia Law”.

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Hadi Al-Abdallah and Raed Al-Fares

Well known activists, Raed Fares, largely responsible for the banners and posters released by the citizens of Kafranbel to the media, and Hadi Al-Abdallah who has extensively reported on video from Opposition battlefronts across north-west Syria, were both arrested.

Their offices were trashed and recording and transmission equipment removed.

Abdallah was not detained but Fares was taken to another location and will have to appear at a Sharia Court to answer charges at a future date.

He was thankfully released after a few hours.

Fares “breach” that caused the strongly Islamist ANF to take offence was a post on Facebook that said, “We are more concerned about what women wear than what they should learn. We drive the people to prayer like animals and stuff schools with sharia books.”

Fares had to agree the “breach” would not be repeated before he was released.

There are also reports that the hardline Islamist group Jund Al-Aqsa, aligned with ANF, executed 5 men by firing squad on Friday for being members of an Islamic State cell targeting and assassinating Opposition leaders.

In Aleppo province this morning, Monday, 8 children and their teacher are reported killed in a Russian airstrike on a school at Anjara. Another 20 children and teachers have also been injured.

3 children are also reported killed in the western half of Aleppo city by Opposition rocket fire and ANF continues mortar attacks on the Kurdish suburb of Sheikh Maksoud, injuring a number of civilians.

In southern Daraa province, Russian jets carried out more than 39 jet attacks on Opposition positions at Sheikj Maskin and Nawa on Sunday morning, while Assad’s helicopters continued dropping barrel bombs on nearby towns.

Islamic State members continue to plumb new depths, after a report last week that a 21 year old Jihadist, Ali Saqr, publicly executed his own mother, Lena al-Qasem, 45, outside the Post Office where she worked in Raqqah.

Apparently concerned that they would all be killed in Coalition airstrikes, she implored him to leave the city with her. The reports say he told the IS authorities about her remarks and they ordered the execution.

Another 3 men were also reported executed in Manbij on Thursday accused of “apostasy” and “spying”. 2 were media activists and the other was responsible for coordinating humanitarian aid to people stranded in IS-held Manbij.

Unconfirmed reports say that Israeli jets attacked Hezbollah targets in Syria’s Qalamoun on Sunday night after mysterious explosions in the mountains shortly before midnight. Up to 5 strikes were reported near Flita, though the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) makes no comment on its offensive operations.

Better news from the Syrian/Israeli border on the Golan Heights where the IDF Israeli medics have now assisted more than 2,000 Syrians, including militant fighters, following serious battle injuries. You can read more, HERE:

By contrast, evidence has emerged that the Islamic State ran a sophisticated immigration operation at Tal Abyad on the northern Aleppo border with Turkey until the town was seized by Kurdish YPG fighters and the Turks promptly closed the border altogether.

Turkey continues to claim that it cannot control its 800 kilometre border with Syria and IS recruits continue to leak across. The Guardian in an interesting article has more.

ROJAVA UPDATE 174: COALITION ESCALATES BOMBING CAMPAIGN ON ISLAMIC STATE IN SYRIA ONCE AGAIN, AND REPORT ON KURDISH OIL FIELD:

Last Friday 3 car bombs were discovered in different parts of Kobane Canton by the Asayish (Kurdish security police) and the YPG before they exploded and new clashes erupted on Saturday with the Islamic State (IS) at the southern entrance to Ain Issa.

On Sunday, IS started a new attack in the south-west of Hasakah province near the villages of Al-Abed and Al-Sawda requiring the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to bring in reinforcements. Casualties unknown at this time.

In Raqqah province there were also clashes between the 2 sides over the weekend and local sources report that the bodies of 16 x IS Jihadists were brought to Raqqah hospital in the aftermath.

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IS Booby-Trapped Boards Used for Roadside Bombs

In the west of SDF held territory in the north of Aleppo province, the combined force discovered an IS bomb factory near Tishreen.

The facility appears to have been used to make IED roadside explosives and documents revealed an inventory of highly explosive materials, bomb-making components, a thousand booby-trapped boards to place near the roadside, homemade anti-personnel mines containing ball bearings and hundreds of metres of detonation cord.

Further to the west and beyond Manbij, north-west of Al Bab, the FSA are also putting IS under pressure, capturing over the weekend 2 villages near IS-held Dudiyan.

On Saturday, the Coalition made 11 strikes in Syria, 2 near Raqqah hitting 2 separate IS tactical units, 1 near Ain Issa hitting a tactical unit and destroying 4 x IS buildings and 3 strikes near Manbij hitting 3 tactical units and destroying 3 x IS fighting positions, an IS bunker and wounding an IS fighter.

Another strike at Deir Ez Zour destroyed 16 x IS skid mounted gas and oil separation plants. The other 4 strikes were at Abu Kamal, Mar’a and Washiya with similar results.

The UK is also reported to have made 5 strikes on behalf of the Coalition yesterday, Sunday, targeting an IS vehicle and tunnels near Raqqah and infrastructure at the Omar Oil Field. The UK military reported the use of Brimstone missiles in the mission (EDITOR: At an eye-watering cost of around $150,000 each!), which are designed to eliminate fast moving vehicles.

Interesting video report from RT on a Kurdish oil field in Hasakah province recently recovered from IS and the difficulties of selling the oil. (EDITOR: Take the claimed Russian bombing figures though with a large pinch of salt!), here:

Lastly, Britain’s leading tennis player, Andy Murray, ranked as the World No 2, has raised $121,000 for children in Syria donating money for every “Ace” he scored in his games. Last month British actor Sacha Baron Cohen and Australian actress Isla Fisher announced a $1 million donation to 2 charities working in Syria. You can read more, HERE:

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