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.

SYRIA AND IRAQ NEWS

ROJAVA UPDATE 216: SDF AND COALITION PREPARE FOR IMMINENT ATTACK ON RAQQAH, WHILE IS RESIDENTS WARNED TO LEAVE:

TIMELINE – 21st MAY 2016 14.50 GMT – Updated 16.14 GMT:

All the indications are that the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), backed by Coalition airstrikes, will begin a campaign to retake Raqqah from the Islamic State (IS) very shortly.

Senior US officials and military were reported as meeting with the SDF leadership in Kobane this week (though the US denied that Brett McGurg, President Obama’s special envoy on Syria was present) and a leaflet drop yesterday, Friday, on Raqqah urged civilians to flee the city, saying in Arabic, “The time you have been waiting for has arrived , the time to leave Raqqah”.

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Leaflet Dropped on Raqqah May 2016

Talal Silo, speaking for the SDF, said that the battle for Raqqa “is going to be difficult” and indicated that they might well take rural villages around the city first. IS has upgraded its defences of Raqqah over the last few months and declared a state of emergency a few days ago, banning any civilians from leaving.

Preparations by the SDF to create a “military council” for Raqqah in conjunction with local Arab tribes are also underway, just as they have already done for Manbij which is still, for the moment, in IS hands.

Inside Raqqah, IS is reported to have moved its security HQ to a secret location within the city and deployed hundreds of fighters to the suburbs. Members of the Sharia Courts and Islamic Police have also been ordered to join the military.

As they move down the road towards Raqqah, judging by this video, the SDF appear to be in good dancing form as well as moving heavy equipment including tanks, here:

BREAKING: SDF have this afternoon, Saturday, captured Al-Hishah, directly north of Raqqah.

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SDF Capture Al-Hishah

The impeding attack on Raqqah has not stopped IS attacks on Rajava in general, mortar shells from Shamiya Hill near IS-held Jarablous striking the Kurdish village of Gire Erbi in western Kobane Canton until midnight on Friday. Firing only stopped after several Coalition airstrikes hit the hill and silenced the mortar firing tubes. More than 12 Kurdish villagers were injured.

More than a week ago, IS also attacked the village of Zawr Mugar in the same area, both near the Euphrates and the border with Turkey.

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Kobane Aleppo Province Border with Turkey

Turkey continues to press for a vast “security zone” in northern Aleppo province between Azaz and Jarablous and is supporting the formation and arming of a “Northern Army” of anti-Assad/anti-Islamic State forces to try and bring this about.

Discussions about this apparently continue with the United States, though the Islamic nature of this Northern Army will probably put off the US and Russia remains resolutely opposed. The Kurds, the most likely group to defeat IS in the region, still want to join Afrin Canton with Kobane and the Euphrates.

Meanwhile in Aleppo city, those same Turkish supported Islamic leaning Opposition units have continued to bombard the Sheikh Maqsoud district, home to around 30,000 Kurds. Much of the defense of Sheikh Maqsoud is down to the Kurds female protection force, the YPJ. You can read more HERE:

This HD video footage (with slightly wonky English sub-titles) gives a good overview of life within Sheikh Maqsoud despite the regular mortar shelling which has killed or injured hundreds, HERE:

Amnesty International has condemned the regular attacks by the Syrian Opposition on the civilian housing in Sheikh Maqsoud as a “war crime”, HERE:

North of Aleppo, the SDF continue to push towards Manbij with the help of Coalition airstrikes. Map courtesy of @ChuckPfarrer, here:

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Manbij Situation Map 18.05.16

Elsewhere in Rojava, clashes once again between Assad’s forces stationed in Qamishli and Hasakah city erupted on Wednesday, but so far no heavy fighting is reported.

Others have complained of the difficult and expensive living conditions in Rojava since the border with Iraq Kurdistan was closed at Semalka by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil in northern Iraq, preventing the importation of food and other materials.

Combined with the falling value of the Syrian pound, a kilo of tomatoes in Hasakah city now costs 450 SP compared with 150 SP in Damascus. You can read more, HERE:

The Kurdish National Congress has called for the re-opening of the crossing, saying that borders between Kurdish regions should be completely removed. The Semalka crossing was closed immediately after Rojava declared itself a unified northern entity in Syria, an action disapproved off by the Kurdish authorities in Erbil – and the Turks with whom the Iraqi Kurds have considerable commercial trade in oil and other goods.

Political disagreements between various Kurdish political factions is at the root of the problem. You can read more, HERE:

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Kobane Gets a New Future

The border gate at Kobani city into Turkey remains closed, except for twice a week when returning Kurds are allowed to cross back into Rojava. Nobody is allowed to go the other way into Turkey and humanitarian aid and re-building materials for Kobane are not allowed through.

One of the Britons who fought with the YPG in Rojava against IS for 10 months, Aiden Aslin, has been arrested on his return to the UK on “terrorism” charges. A petition, with 1500 signatures at the time of writing, has been started to obtain his release and you can add yours, HERE:

Some excellent photographs from Mauricio Morales on Al Jazeera about the rebuilding of Kobane, HERE:

And another collection from the same source about the work of the YPJ Kurdish female fighters, HERE:

Despite all the difficulties in Rojava, 7 schools in Kobane are now functional again out of 25 and the Kurdish Red Crescent has launched an anti-polio campaign to inoculate children all over Rojava in the last 10 days, (English sub-titles) HERE:

Lastly, regular readers will remember Nujeen, the brave wheelchair-bound 16 year old from Kobani who with the help of her sister crossed Turkey, got a boat to Europe and all the way to Germany to start a new life in Cologne.

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Nujeen Arrives in Europe

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Now doing well at school, a book has been written about her achievement and will be published in September by a major British and US publishing house. You can follow Nujeen at @NujeenMustafa on Twitter – give her your support!

 

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Spring in Serhad, Northern Kurdistan

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Taking a break for a couple of weeks ….. Next bulletin around 20th May 2016

ROJAVA UPDATE 215: ISLAMIC STATE LAUNCH NEW OFFENSIVE IN IRAQ, WHILE RIOTING PRISONERS IN HAMA MANAGE PRISONER RELEASE:

TIMELINE – 4th MAY 2016 17.25 GMT:

As a likely assault in the not too distant future on Mosel in Iraq looms, more and more Iraqi Arabs are now fleeing the area.

1,600 are now being sheltered and housed in a camp near Kobane in Syria and in Iraq itself Kurdish authorities and the Peshmerga are also gearing up for a flood of refugees from the Mosul area.

Also at the Mistanour camp near Kobane, the Kurds have a specific section for the displaced wives and children of YPG fighters who have been killed.

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YPG Wounded Pictured by US Photographer

US photographer Andrea DiCenzo, embedded with the YPG for a while, focused on the wounded rather than the dead and has released via the New Yorker, a series of pictures with the patients and doctors permission. Click on the right arrow, HERE:

Meanwhile, the Al Nusra Front has continued shelling Afrin Canton, this time hitting the town of Jindires and an IS landmine struck an Asayish (Kurdish Police Security) vehicle, injuring 3 yesterday, Tuesday.

In the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo city sporadic fighting continues with Opposition Islamist groups who have surrounded the neighbourhood continuing to shell and snipe, but the pressure on the Kurds was relieved a little by Russian airstrikes on the Jihadists who remain outside the terms of any “cessation of hostilities”.

The complications of the the Kurds’ relationship with both Russia and the US are discussed, HERE: and with Turkey and IS, HERE:

The latest Coalition report from Monday says that they conducted 4 strikes in Syria and 25 in Iraq. The Syria strikes included one hit on an IS tactical unit near Shaddadi, 2 strikes near Raqqah on an IS finance centre and a weapons storage facility and one more strike on an IS tactical unit near Mar’a.

Of the many strikes in Iraq, 7 were near Mosul, hitting 6 separate IS tactical units and destroying 2 x IS vehicles, 3 x IS fighter assembly areas, 3 caches of weapons, an IS mortar system, an IS rocket rail and suppressing an IS mortar position.

On Tuesday, the Islamic State (IS) launched a new offensive at several points across northern Iraq against positions held by the Kurdish Peshmerga.

On the Nawaran frontline, north-east of Mosul, the Islamic State this morning, Wednesday, fired rockets against Peshmerga positions.

In a counter-attack the Peshmerga destroyed several IS vehicles and facilities and Coalition jets called in to assist destroyed IS rocket launchers in 4 locations. 13 Jihadists are thought to have been killed.

At Telskuf, Ba’shiqah, Khazar and Kweir on Tuesday, IS also launched suicide car-bomb attacks but was able to break the Peshmerga lines.

The new offensive is thought to be in retaliation for the capture of the key strategic village of Al-Bashir on Sunday and the mounting pressure on their headquarters in Mosul.

Reports say that up to 110 Jihadists were killed in the Bashir battle, plus 18 armoured vehicles destroyed and 3 x IS bulldozers. 7 Peshmerga fighters died in the engagement.

On Tuesday morning a third US soldier, believed to be a Navy Seal, part of the special forces deployment, was killed by IS rocket or shell fire in the Tellskoff district while supporting the Peshmerga in the area.

Back in Syria, IS suffered further casualties on Monday night when no less than 35 airstrikes struck the Islamis State’s Syrian headquarters at Raqqah. 13 people are reported killed and many wounded. It is still not clear though whether this is a series of Russian or Coalition airstrikes.

Interesting report that the UK, originally blocked by Parliament from directly engaging against IS in Syria, has been preparing and running Syrian Opposition media reports for vetted groups through a professional communications contractor. You can read more in the Guardian.

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Tunnel Bomb Explodes Under Regime Building in Aleppo

Heavy fighting persists around Aleppo with the Opposition launching a new offensive against the Assad regime on Tuesday, at first seizing the “family amusement park” and several blocks in the Al-Zahraa district after detonating a huge tunnel bomb under the old Air Intelligence Building.

A car bomb also destroyed the front of the Dabbitt Hospital in Government-controlled west Aleppo, killing 25.

By this morning, Wednesday, however, the Opposition had been pushed back, with huge losses on both sides.

The Opposition can be seen making the advance in this video footage, using several BMP armoured vehicles, HERE:

Opposition fighters also destroyed a 57mm cannon mounted on a truck in west Aleppo, HERE:

And further south, the Opposition additionally took out a 14.5mm regime gun with a TOW anti-tank missile, HERE:

Some excellent pictures of the “White Helmets” continuing to save lives in Aleppo, HERE:

The BBC has a video report of the latest Aleppo situation, HERE:

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Map Showing Latest Positions of Warring Parties in Aleppo. 03.05.16

In Hama city, a prison riot that started on Monday has escalated during the week with a number of wardens and senior prison officers held by the rioters and eventually exchanged for the release of “prisoners of conscience” held at the facility.

Despite being surrounded by Assad’s military, including on the roof of the building, so effective was the takeover that the rioters were able to get a first batch of 32 prisoners bussed today to Opposition held Qalaat al-Madiq, 45 kilometres north-west of Hama, under Syrian Red Crescent supervision.

Under the deal potentially 200 prisoners will be released, though the prison normally holds up to 1,400 inmates. Currently the regime have cut off both water and electricity.

Video footage released by the rioters can be seen, HERE: and HERE:

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First Batch of Hama Jail Prisoners Released

In Homs province the Islamic State is once again reported to have retaken 50% or more of the Shaer oil and gas field not far from Palmyra after 3 days of fighting and several suicide vehicle bomb attacks on Assad’s forces.

In Damascus, as the “cessation of hostilities” runs out, the Opposition and civilians have taken a battering from more than 20 Assad airstrikes in eastern Ghouta, while to the south the regime appears to have launched a new offensive against Opposition positions in Daraa city, HERE:

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Taking a break for a couple of weeks ….. Next bulletin around 20th May 2016

ROJAVA UPDATE 214: OPPOSITION ISLAMISTS FOOLISHLY CONTINUE ATTACKING KURDS, WHILE ISLAMIC STATE COME CLOSE TO WIPING THEM OUT ON THE TURKISH BORDER:

TIMELINE – 2nd MAY 2016 16.10 GMT:

On Saturday, the Islamic State (IS) targeted another Asayish (Kurdish Security Police) checkpoint in Qamishli in the Al-Khalij district with a vest suicide bomb.

The explosion caused by the bomber killed 6 members of the Asayish and wounded 5 others, as well as causing physical damage to property.

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Kurdish Fighters of the YPG

To the south near Al-Hawl, 2,000 Iraqis fleeing from the Mosul area in Iraq have been settled in a newly built camp by the Rojavan Kurdish administration, HERE:

At the same time, the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), which liberated Al-Hawl from the Islamic State in November 2015, has at last declared it safe from booby-traps, IEDs and landmines and allowed its citizens to return home, HERE:

Not far from Al-Hawl, the Coalition struck at IS on Sunday hitting an IS tactical unit and destroying an IS fighting position. Near Shaddadi, 2 more Coalition airstrikes hit 2 separate IS tactical units and destroyed 2 x IS fighter staging areas and 2 x IS vehicles.

Near Raqqah on Sunday, the Coalition destroyed an IS crane and near Mar’a, 3 strikes hit 3 separate IS tactical units and destroyed 6 x IS fighting positions.

Local sources are also reporting that the Coalition has struck IS at Dabiq in Aleppo province, not far from Azaz near the Turkish Border, hitting a main weapon storage warehouse and killing all the Jihadists inside, though this has not as yet been confirmed by the US military.

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Coalition Jets Bomb Islamic State Positions (File Photo)

Last Friday, IS are also said to have attempted another vehicle bombing at the village of Al-Hamdouniya near the Tidhreen Dam but the SDF destroyed the oncoming vehicle before it reached its target.

In ongoing fighting between the Opposition Islamist brigades and IS in the northern part of Aleppo province, IS have today, Monday, recaptured Dudiyan, Aykadah and possibly Tall Sha’ir in a battle in which the same territory goes back and forth between the 2 sides.

However, as IS press northwards towards the Turkish border, some of the Opposition Islamists are in severe danger of being cut off from the west and having no choice but to flee across the Turkish border.

IS have also targeted the northern suburbs of Mar’a with homemade missiles.

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Map of Latest IS and Opposition Positions in Northern Aleppo Province 02.05.16

Meanwhile, the Opposition Islamists also continue to attack the Kurdish population of Afrin Canton in north-west Aleppo province, keeping up a barrage from their positions in Azaz since midnight on Friday.

10 shells hit residential buildings in Qatama on Saturday, killing 9 civilians, mostly women and children, and wounding many others. The Islamist brigades also bombed Bufalun near Shirawa township and Qastal Jindo.

Many Kurds believe that the Opposition Islamists are being armed and encouraged to attack the Kurds by Turkey, especially after the recent failed attack on Afrin Canton (scroll down – see below) when a large number of their men died in a major explosion.

The General Command of the YPG has additionally condemned the lurid display of the dead Islamist bodies in Afrin (scroll down – see below) last week and vowed that those responsible will be severely disciplined.

In similar clashes between the Opposition Islamists and the YPG near the Sheikh Maqsoud Kurdish enclave in Aleppo city, the YPG destroyed an ammunition warehouse and a military vehicle belonging to the Islamist fighters.

The Islamist Opposition fighters launched attacks on the Kurds in Sheikh Maqsoud through the areas of the Muthallath, Ashrafiyeh, Youth Housing and Shaqif Housing on Saturday but were repulsed with an unknown number killed.

The US made it clear on Sunday that it wants the Kurds and the Opposition groups to stop fighting in Aleppo province and said that it does not support the activities of the SDF in Aleppo province and west of the Euphrates, presumably under pressure from its NATO ally Turkey.

“This fighting has to stop. It’s destabilizing, to say the least; it’s counterproductive, and I’ll leave it there,” a US spokesman said.

EDITOR: However, if the Islamic State overrun all the positions of the Opposition fighters near the Turkish border, which seems increasingly likely, they may have no choice but to hand the job to the Kurds.

Turkey, in support of the Opposition Islamists and in retaliation for shell strikes on the Turkish town of Killis, attacked IS in Syria with shells and drones, claiming on Sunday that they had destroyed 6 x IS vehicles, 5 x IS gun positions and killed 34 Jihadists.

Over in Raqqah, IS are reported to have executed by beheading 4 teenagers for “spying on behalf of the Crusader Coalition” and filming and releasing co-ordinates of the Islamic State headquarters in Raqqah city.

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Western Volunteers Training YPG Emergency Medical Units

In more benign news, additional information on the new international medical unit set-up by former British banker Macer Gifford. The unit is helping to train the Kurds to carry out better battlefield emergency first-aid so that many unnecessary deaths can be prevented, HERE:

And the adventures of 2 other Brits who went and fought for the YPG in Syria are now published in the Daily Mail. The 2 guys now intend to return to safer occupations of repairing roofs and painting and decorating! HERE:

In other Syria news, US Secretary of State John Kerry has gone to Geneva to try and rescue the failed “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, especially in Aleppo where hundreds have died  in t he last 2 weeks, including one of the city’s last pediatric doctors who was killed in an horrific Assad air attack on a hospital. The BBC has a video report.

After the recent “parliamentary elections”, President Assad is expected to announce a new government with some senior changes, while in the Druze dominated south-eastern province of Suweida, IS are reported to making inroads towards Syrian Army bases there.

Lastly, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, they have documented the deaths of 5799 people since the Russian airstrikes started on 30th September 2015 and 30th April 2016.

2005 of those deaths were civilians, including 481 children, 305 women and 1,219 men.

2035 deaths are attributed to be those of members of the Islamic State and 1759 to fighters from the Al Nusra Front, Islamist groups and other Arab and foreign participants.

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ROJAVA UPDATE 213: ISLAMIST OPPOSITION BRIGADES HUMILIATED IN ATTACK ON KURDS, BUT SDF CROSS LINE IN DISPLAY OF DEAD BODIES:

TIMELINE – 29th APRIL 2016 14.25 GMT:

In a massive battle that started Wednesday and ran into Thursday, Islamist Opposition brigades and their allies attempted to drive the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) out of Tell Rif’at and Ain Daqna near Kurdish Afrin Canton in north-west Aleppo province.

Reports say that as many as 500 – 600 Islamists were involved in the assault and the main thrust of the attack fell on the YPG/YPJ and Jaish Al-Thuwar components of the SDF.

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Weapons and Ammo Taken from Islamist Opposition by SDF

Apparently the Islamists, led by the Al Nusra Front and the Sultan Murad Brigade, sent in a vehicle bomb (VBIED) which the SDF exploded before it reached its target and lost 15 men when the SDF also destroyed a BMP armoured vehicle.

The worst disaster for the Islamist brigades was when an ammunition truck exploded during the fighting, killing as many as 40 of their men.

Altogether the assault was a disaster for the Opposition grouping, who count Free Syrian Army (FSA) units among their allies. In total, the SDF estimate that they killed 83 Islamists and recovered 66 of their bodies, plus wounding more than 100.

SDF casualties are given as 11 dead with 9 civilians, including 5 children, injured from Islamist shelling on Afrin villages. More shelling occurred on Afrin villages after the Islamists had been forced to retreat. The village of Qestelê was also attacked, one of the last Yezidi villages left in Syria.

The SDF also gained good quantities of weapons and ammunition, including 72 AK-47s, 254 AK ammunition clips, 7 rocket grenade launchers (RPGs), 17 hand grenades, 9 radios and 4 sniper rifles.

Provoked by this unexpected assault, Jaish Al-Thuwar, a mainly secular Arab brigade within the SDF, has said it “will not relent” in freeing Azaz and Mar’a from Opposition control.

The SDF victory was widely celebrated in Afrin Canton, but the SDF made a serious error in parading a long low-loader strewn with the dead bodies of Opposition Islamist fighters through the streets of Afrin city.

This terrible display, reminiscent of Islamic State behaviour, was widely condemned by Kurdish leaders, including senior commanders of the SDF.

Sharvan Darwish, a spokesman for the SDF said, “What happened in Afrin cannot represent our principles and morals and we cannot slip into such a behavior, we have grown up with values.”

Many activists thought this was not the normal behaviour or culture of the Kurds, but as 85 Kurdish civilians have been killed in Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish district in Aleppo, by Opposition shelling since 16th February, some individuals obviously thought it was a “good idea”. Hopefully, it will not be repeated.

This map, published previously a few days ago, shows the area of the most recent fighting around Tell Rifa’t to the south-east of Azaz and almost due west of Mar’a:

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Afrin/Azaz Pocket Border With IS to the East:

The SDF has accused Turkey of supplying 2 tanks to the Ahrar Al-Sham and Sultan Murad Islamist brigades, perhaps encouraging them to use them against the Kurds. Both sides of course should be concentrating their efforts against the Islamic State who are an immediate and dangerous threat to everyone still in northern Syria.

11 Turkish tanks are also reported near the frontier at Tal Abyad and a Turkish attack was made last night on the border gate there at around 22.40. Turkish soldiers have also been seen digging ditches not far from the frontier.

A mutual exchange of fire was also recorded yesterday between the Turkish Army and the Islamic State (IS) around the village of Dekink, 7 kilometres west of Jarablous.

IS have additionally published pictures of the cross-border destruction of 3 Turkish tanks with anti-tank missiles near the Turkish town of Killis.

At the request of Russia, the YPG have recovered the body of a Russian officer, Lieutenant Alexander Prohorenko, who was killed several weeks ago in the battle to retake Palmyra from the Islamic State.

The YPG exchanged him for the bodies of several IS commanders and the Russian has now been returned to Moscow for burial.

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Shells Used By Islamist Opposition to Attack Afrin Villages 28.04.16

Following President Obama’s announcement of a further deployment of US special forces to Syria, the first contingent of 150 men is reported to have arrived at the YPG protected airbase of Rmeilan in Hasakah province. It is also said that some are at a forward base near Ain Issa, just north of Raqqah.

The Assad regime described the arrival of the Americans as a “blatant act of aggression that constitutes a dangerous intervention and a gross violation of the Syrian sovereignty” and the Iranian Defence Minister, Hossein Dehqan, described it as “an obvious hostile intervention”.

The US-led air Coalition reports 7 airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday and 15 in Iraq. The Syrian strikes destroyed an IS bunker near Ain Issa, hits on 4 separate tactical units and the destruction of 2 x IS fighting positions and 4 x IS vehicles near Mar’a and hits on 2 separate tactical units and the destruction of an IS command and control node and 5 x IS vehicles near Washiyah.

Photojournalist Felipe Passolas has published this very nice piece of work on the saving of Kobane and the Suruc Kurdish Refugee Camp, here:

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ROJAVA UPDATE 212: ISLAMIC STATE ADVANCE ON OPPOSITION SQUEEZING AZAZ IN ALEPPO PROVINCE BETWEEN THEMSELVES AND SDF:

TIMELINE – 27th APRIL 2016 16.59 GMT – UPDATED 23.07 GMT:

Funerals and a ceremony today for all those civilians, including a 10 year old girl, members of the Asayish (Kurdish police security force) and YPG fighters, 34 in all, who died last week in fighting with Assad regime militia in Qamishli.

Video footage of last week’s takeover of the Allaya Prison in Qamishli by the Asayish shows the freeing of prisoners, here:

Reading between the lines, it looks likely that the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) will be the most likely beneficiary of the US announcement (scroll down – see below) to send 250 more troops to Syria.

Mainly special forces operatives, the new military personnel will also include medical and logistic teams and be in addition to the 50 special forces already on the ground.

The US is particularly keen to increase the number of Sunni Arab fighters under the SDF (mainly Kurdish) umbrella, as this will make it easier for Turkey to accept their presence in the 98 kilometre border strip along the Turkish frontier.

This press conference with Peter Cook, Pentagon Press Secretary, especially from 00.02, explains more in answer to numerous questions, HERE:

Reports coming in this afternoon of clashes between the Islamic State and the SDF south of Ain Issa, but no detail yet.

In retaliation to Islamic State (IS) rocket attacks from Syria that are hitting the Turkish town of Killis, the Turkish military says that they destroyed 2 x IS missile launchers on Tuesday and the US has announced that it is supplying a mobile HIMARS rocket launching system in May to be deployed in Turkey along the Syria/Turkey border.

HIMARS (which stands for “High Mobility Artillery Rocket System”) missiles have a range of 90 kilometres (55 miles) in contrast to the Turkish shells which can only reach 40 kilometres.

Unfortunately, for Turkey, the Islamic State fighters have advanced in this area of north Aleppo province overnight and this morning, Wednesday, taking 6 villages away from Opposition Islamic groups and are now within 5 kilometres of the Opposition stronghold of Azaz.

After launching a car bomb attack on the village of Dudyan and then taking it, IS went on to capture Fairuziya, Talil Al-Husn, Yahmoul, Jarez and Tal Hussein. The situation does not look good for Mar’a or Azaz.

The Opposition in Azaz are now squeezed between IS in the east and the SDF in the south and west. 100,000 people are now trapped in the Azaz/Marea pocket.

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The Battle for Azaz and Marea 27.04.16

The IS advance has also put more pressure of the Kurdish Canton of Afrin, which has taken in a new flood of refugees because of the fighting, HERE:

However, the Opposition still found time to shell the Afrin Canton village of Basufan yesterday, casualties unknown.

Over in captured Mabrouka in Hasakah province, the YPG/YPJ have now made it safe for civilians and 80 families have returned, (English sub-titles) here:

Interesting interview with Sheruan Hassan, the European representative of the YPG at its new office in the Czech Republic capital of Prague, HERE:

In Raqqah, the target of all anti-IS forces, IS have strung the streets with canvas sheets to prevent the targeting of their fighters by US drones, though drones of course use infra-red and heat-seeking technology to detect their targets.

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Canvas Coverings Strung Over Streets in Raqqah

The whole of Aleppo province is alight it would seem, with repeated airstrikes by the Russians and the Assad regime taking place on Opposition-held areas as well. Footage of yesterday, Tuesday’s, strikes in Aleppo (10 killed, 20 injured), with the city’s “white helmets” civil defense teams in action HERE:

The “white helmets” were the target themselves of a heinous attack on Monday at midnight at their headquarters in Atarib 20 kilometres west of Aleppo city when it was struck by 2 airstrikes and a missile.

5 civil defense workers resting at the centre and garage were killed in the attack which was believed to be a deliberate offensive by the Assad regime or their Russian allies. 2 other members of the “white helmets” were seriously injured and ambulances and cars belonging to doctors destroyed.

Radi a-Saad, an official of the civil defense organisation, said, “This action will not deter us, but rather we will keep going. We’ll meet their crimes with our humanity.”

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Civil Defense Centre Attacked by Assad Regime

19 civilians were killed and 120 were injured in Aleppo in government-held parts of the city after shelling by Opposition groups on Monday.

At least 60 people had earlier been killed in tit-for-tat shelling and rocket exchanges by both sides in Aleppo between Friday and Sunday.

All the signs are that the Assad regime, aided by Russia, is gearing up for an Aleppo offensive to recapture the eastern part of the city. Russia, which removed some of its fixed wing aircraft in a “partial withdrawal”, seems to have increased the number of attack helicopters in Syria. You can read more, HERE:

The increase in such attacks has led to the latest breakdown in the UN-led “peace talks” in Geneva, with the Assad negotiators saying the latest meeting had been a “useful and constructive round” but the Opposition High Negotiating Committee saying it will not attend again until the situation on the ground improves. There has been speculation that the next round of talks will begin on the 10th or 15th May but no confirmation from the UN.

There has been another leak of Islamic State files, this time detailing the backgrounds and abilities of 300 foreign fighters. More detail, HERE:

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Emergency Responders Killed in Monday Night’s Assad Airstrike – Respect – RIP

According to US military sources though, the recruitment rate of foreign Jihadists to IS in Syria and Iraq has dropped from 1,500 – 2,000 a month to just 200 after the success of Coalition airstrikes.

The Islamic State is also thought to be struggling more and more financially, especially after targeted attacks on its oil facilities and stores of cash. The US estimates that it has destroyed the equivalent of between $500 and $800 dollars in recent air raids, destroying $150 million in one raid on a single room in Mosul in Iraq.

25,000 fighters are still believed to be fighting for IS, down from 31,500 in 2015. You can read more from the BBC.

The US special forces raid in Deir Ez Zour province in May 2015 which resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf, the head of the Islamic State’s oil operation, has led to the biggest haul of intelligence from any US raid in history according to American sources. You can read more, HERE:

Fighting continues in other parts of Syria, IS making another attack today, Wednesday, on the Deir Ez Zour military airbase and the Opposition shelling Assad positions in Latakia with tank fire, HERE:

Over in Iraq, an interesting article on the Barzani family, who as leaders of the Kurdistan regional government are supposed to be weeding out corruption – so how can they afford a $10 million house in Washington? You can read more (and thanks to MH for bringing it to me attention), HERE:

Lastly, a touching scene from the Germany Chancellor’s recent visit to a refugee camp in Turkey, where a young boy kisses “Mama Merkel’s” hand, HERE:

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Sterling Work By the “White Helmets” to Help Those in Desperate Need

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ROJAVA UPDATE 211: AFTER TRUCE IN QAMISHLI KURDS GAIN GROUND, WHILE USA SENDING 250 MORE SPECIAL FORCES TO FIGHT ISLAMIC STATE:

TIMELINE 25th APRIL 2017 14.15 GMT:

After 3 days of fighting in Qamishli between Assad’s National Defence Force (NDF) and the Kurdish Asayish security police (scroll down – see below), a truce was called last Friday afternoon and so far has held.

Assad regime officials flew in from Damascus and a meeting between the 2 sides was held at the airport, lasting more than 6 hours. Under the terms of the deal hammered out between them each side will retain the territory they currently hold.

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Kurdish Asayish Police Security Come Out on Top in Qamishli Clashes

This means presumably that the Kurds will not return Allaya Prison and other territory they gained during the clashes, so a clear advantage to the Kurdish side.

During the fighting the Assad regime was cut-off from a direct route to the airport from the city centre and according to reports now only controls around one square kilometre in Qamishli.

The agreement also stated that the Syrian state, which still pays local officials to administer the city, must not be threaten, deprive of their salaries or recruit local Kurds into joining regime militias such as the NDF.

There will also be a reassessment of who guards the city from the regime side, the pro-Assad NDF militia neither liked nor trusted.

According to Kurdish sources 17 civilians died in the fighting, 7 members of the Asayish and 3 members of the Kurdish YPG. Regime casualties are put at 22 dead and 80 taken prisoner. Both sides have now agreed to exchange prisoners.

Compensation will also be paid to civilians who lost members of their families or who suffered material damage from regime shelling.

There are reports emanating from the Asayish, that say that some members of Hezbollah and Iranian military were also involved in fighting on the regime side, but this has not been confirmed.

There were also rumours that the Assad regime was dispatching members of its elite Republican Guard to both Qamishli and Hasakah city where a similar split administration exists.

Video footage of destroyed property in Qamishli, English sub-titles, here:

And more video footage of life in Qamishli returning to normal after the ceasefire, English sub-titles, here:

Some people in Qamishli remain sceptical that the truce will hold, especially after Government planes and helicopters dropped up to 30 barrel bombs on Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish district of Aleppo city, on Saturday around 5.00pm in what is widely seen as retaliation for the regime losses in Qamishli.

The bombing in Sheikh Maqsoud killed 3 children, 1 woman and 2 men, as well as destroying houses. This little girl in Sheikh Maqsoud eloquently voices the pain, terror and unfairness of war, English sub-titles, HERE:

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Kurds Training New (APF) Defence Force in Rojava

The Kurds back in Rojava appear to be training an Autonomous Protection Forces (APF) to take over and defend territory captured by the YPG/YPJ and the SDF. All male citizens, whatever their ethnicity, between 18 -30 are required to take a 9 month training course in basic military techniques and procedures.

Ahmed, one recruit, said, “We were trained on military life and on how to deal with civilians so we don’t become like the Syrian (government) army”.

EDITOR: That’s the good side. But not so good is that there are more reports on the non-acceptance of political pluralism in Rojava. According to one report, the Asayish have closed down the offices of both the Kurdish Yekiti Party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria in Tal Nimir.

If they are going to have any hope of an effective democracy in Rojava the PYD, the political arm of the YPG, will have to learn to live with different or opposing political views, otherwise its rule is little better than the dictatorship it replaces.

The administration in Rojava will however be pleased to hear this morning’s news, Monday, from Germany where President Obama has announced that he is sending another 250 troops, thought to be special forces, to Syria.

This will bring the total of US specially trained tactical troops in Syria to 300.

If you keep your eyes peeled, you will see some of the British, American and French special forces in the background of this long but very interesting video documentary by France24 on the SDF operations in Rojava, (after the ad) HERE:

The US-led Coalition carried out 10 strikes in Syria on Friday and 4 on Saturday, with the range of usual targets hit and destroyed near Manbij, Mar’a, Abu Kamal, Al-Hawl, Raqqah, Deir Ez Zour and Washiyah.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Assad regime bombed a market on Saturday in the Opposition-held suburb of Douma in Damascus causing at least a dozen deaths and another 26 were killed in Aleppo city at the weekend, where stepped up regime and Russian bombing has killed more than 100 since Thursday.

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Car Bomb Explodes Outside Shiite Shrine in Damascus

A car bomb exploding this morning at a checkpoint, Monday, in the shrine area of Government-held Sayyeda Zeinab in Damascus has also killed 5 and wounded 20.

All of which leaves the much-heralded “cessation of hostilities” agreement negotiated in Geneva in tatters.

In the southern Druze province of Suweida, the protests and demonstrations reported earlier have continued with calls for Assad’s local security chief and Governor to resign, HERE:

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ROJAVA UPDATE 210: FIGHTING ESCALATES IN QAMISHLI BETWEEN KURDS AND PRO-ASSAD FIGHTERS FOLLOWING BREAK DOWN OF POWER-SHARING:

TIMELINE – 22nd APRIL 2016 10.48 GMT:

Clashes between Assad’s National Defence Force (NDF) and Kurdish security in Qamishli, where uneasy power-sharing has been in place for years, escalated on Wednesday evening and throughout yesterday, Thursday.

The incidents started on Tuesday when the NDF attacked a Kurdish patrol of traffic police, in turn forcing the Asayish (Kurdish security police) to intervene.

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Building in Kurdish Qamishli Destroyed by Assad Regime Shell Fire on Thursday

In the ensuing fighting since then 8 NDF personnel were killed and another 12 arrested after they took up positions in a bakery. 2 members of the Asayish are reported killed and 3 injured. Some Kurdish sources say 25-30 members of the regime have been killed in the last 2 days, but this is unconfirmed.

The Asayish have cordoned off the security zone in the centre of the city occupied by the Assad regime and set-up checkpoints to protect the southern approaches to the city.

Pro-Assad fighters, which now includes the regular Army, have fired mortars into the northern Kurdish suburbs of Qamishli, killing 4 civilians in the Zaytouniya district, including a 10 year old boy, and wounding 24 others.

The Asayish and YPG went on to surround Allaya prison, where a number of pro-Assad fighters surrendered and useful amounts of weapons and ammunition were also taken. The prisoners were bussed to another secure Kurdish location. Some reports say as many as 67 pro-Assad fighters have been arrested.

The old National Hospital in Qamishli has been evacuated this morning, Friday, because of incoming shells from the Assad regime and there are reports of as many as 4,000 Kurdish residents fleeing the city.

Latest reports from Hasakah province this morning say that the fighting between the 2 sides has spread to the south of the province into the western districts of Hasakah city, where a similar power-sharing arrangement has been in place.

Clashes have continued throughout Thursday night in Qamishli and the Asayish have brought in the H.A.T. special operations police force . Fighting has also spread to villages around the airport and Khirbat Amo to the south of Qamishli.

There is additionally a significant Christian population in the city and at the moment they appear to be siding with the Assad regime. A cargo plane is reported to have brought in reinforcements for the regime, but there are also Arab soldiers fighting with the Kurds.

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Clearing Out Assad From Qamishli

Regime helicopters have also been seen above the city, while the YPG is bringing in reinforcements by road and also garnering support from the Syrian Democratic Force.

Recent reports from Qamishli this afternoon, Friday, say that fighting continues at the Wehdê Intersection, Kesb Street and Security Junction. Assad’s paramilitary is said to have transferred 2 YPG members arrested on Tuesday to Damascus, while H.A.T. are reported to closing in on the Assad security zone in the centre of the city.

This map, courtesy of @vvanwilgenburg and @deSyracuse, gives an idea of the situation, here:

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Map of Qamishli Showing Latest Conflict Between Kurds and Assad Regime

EDITOR: Taking a break for a couple of days – More updates on this evolving situation on Monday ……

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