Syria: The Week in Review (February 16-23)

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Reported bodies of Syrian pro-government forces wrapped in plastic bags lie on the ground as emergency personnel inspect them on February 23, 2015 in the rebel-held side of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. These members of the pro-government forces were reportedly killed during an army offensive to encircle the rebel-held east of Aleppo and were found in the northern village of Ratyan. AFP/Zein al-Rifai

Published Monday, February 23, 2015

The frontlines of the Syrian conflict changed in the past week, as the focus shifted away from the battle in southern Syria as a major regional snowstorm slowed down the fighting. The country’s second city Aleppo was the focal point as heavy clashes raged almost throughout the entire week. However, the fighting also wound down as the weekend approached with a storm.

Aleppo: Syrian army advances east, north of the city

Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, was at the heart of clashes pitting the army and allied fighters against a range of insurgents which included al-Qaeda's Syria wing the al-Nusra Front, Islamist brigades and Western-backed rebels.

The Syrian army had long been expected to encircle Aleppo completely, aiming to drive insurgents from the city and block their main supply road. It advanced around the east of the city last year, but the frontlines had been relatively static in recent weeks.

In the surrounding countryside the situation is largely reversed, with rebels controlling much of the area west of the city and the army most of the eastern countryside.

__title__Rebel fighters are covered with mud as they hold a position on the front line in the village of Ratyan in the countryside north of the Syrian city of Aleppo on February 19, 2015. AFP/Zein al-Rifai

On Monday February 16, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported that nine people, including three children, had been killed by rebel fire on the government-held neighborhood of Hay al-Seryan in western Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based pro-opposition monitor, also reported nine deaths, but said that 4 children had been killed, and that another 20 people were wounded.

On Tuesday February 17, the Syrian army backed by allied fighters captured several villages north of Aleppo from insurgents and blocked a main supply route leading into the northern city amid heavy fighting.

According to Lebanon-based news channel Al-Mayadeen, the army took control of the villages of Ratyan, Bashkoy, and Hardetneed in the province, a strategic advance seen by the Syrian government as essential to lifting a rebel siege off the towns of al-Zahraa and Nubl.

Both towns have been under a long siege by anti-government militants. The army has used helicopters to drop supplies to the villagers, who have been trapped in the region. The Nusra Front had also launched an offensive in November aimed at seizing Nubl and Zahraa.

In a report to the Security Council on Thursday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that armed opposition groups in Nubl and Zahraa were preventing 26,500 people from gaining access to food and other supplies, while the Syrian army was besieging 185,500 people in Eastern Ghouta, Darayya and Yarmouk.

Syrian state television said on Tuesday that five people had been killed and 18 wounded in Aleppo by insurgent rocket fire. The Observatory reported battles opposing the army and allied fighters to Nusra Front and Islamic battalions in at least six neighborhoods, including Old Aleppo and Jamiat al-Zahra.

Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar news channel said the Syrian army had taken control of areas north of Aleppo in battles which had killed "tens of militants."

On Thursday February 19, sources told Al-Mayadeen that a number of trucks coming from Turkey and loaded with ammunition and weapons entered Aazaz in Aleppo northern countryside.

On the same day, the Observatory said that Islamic battalions had captured 32 Syrian soldiers and pro-government fighters, including fighters from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, in the village of Ratyan.

Islamic battalions captured 32 Syrian soldiers and pro-government fighters on February 19, 2015 in Allepo's Ratyan village, Syria. Anadolu/Mustafa SultanIslamic battalions captured 32 Syrian soldiers and pro-government fighters on February 19, 2015 in Allepo's Ratyan village, Syria. Anadolu/Mustafa Sultan

On Saturday, February 21, the Syrian Revolution General Commission claimed that the Syrian army had killed 48 civilians in Ratyan.

The Observatory confirmed that 48 people had been killed in the village that week, including 10 children and 13 rebel fighters. It said pro-government forces had executed six families of rebel fighters, and that villagers had discovered the bodies of those killed when they returned to their homes after the army pulled back on Wednesday.

Activist Mamun Abu Omar told AFP that some of the bodies of the dead had been mutilated, while another activist, Mustafa Sultan, told Anadolu news agency that regime forces backed by Hezbollah had killed the civilians before their withdrawal.

Syrian government agrees to Aleppo ceasefire plan

On Tuesday, the Syrian government reportedlyagreed to a local ceasefire plan presented by the United Nations special envoy to Syria.

Staffan de Mistura, an Italian-Swedish diplomat, recently went to Syria and met President Bashar al-Assad. He said he'd asked the government to facilitate a UN mission to identify a district in Aleppo to serve as a trial area for a ceasefire.

De Mistura announced during private meetings with the Security Council that the Syrian army had said it was willing to suspend its aerial bombardment of Aleppo for six weeks to allow for a localized humanitarian ceasefire.

United Nations (UN) special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura speaks to the media after briefing the Security Council in closed session at the UN headquarters in New York, USA on February 17, 2015. Anadolu/Cem OzdelUnited Nations (UN) special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura speaks to the media after briefing the Security Council in closed session at the UN headquarters in New York, USA on February 17, 2015. Anadolu/Cem Ozdel

Rebel fighters who hold parts of Aleppo but have no air power would also be sought out and asked to suspend rocket and mortar fire as part of the plan.

"We'll see if the freeze holds and can be replicated," he said. "The purpose is to spare as many civilians as possible while we try to find a political solution."

The UN envoy told the council he would travel to Syria to discuss the issue further and gave no indication of when the suspension of aerial bombardments might start, according to diplomats who attended the closed door meeting and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Khaled Khoja, leader of the main Western-backed Syrian coalition, said on Thursday February 19 that he supported the UN’s "action plan" in Syria.

"We welcome any effort aimed at stopping the bloodshed in Syria and this has been the position of the Syrian coalition since it was established," Khoja said in an interview published on the website of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

"De Mistura informed me about the ideas in his initiative during a telephone conversation two days ago and I told him that this requires a careful and detailed study and that stopping aerial bombardment must include all Syrian cities and that there must also be an end to killing on the ground," Khoja said.

"For a solution to be comprehensive, de Mistura’s proposal must ensure stopping other means of killing and fighting terrorism, including state terrorism practiced by the Assad regime."

But on Monday February 16, a Syrian insurgent group slammed de Mistura as "biased" in favor of the Syrian regime and said it would not meet with him.

The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) statement followed comments by de Mistura in which the UN mediator called Assad "part of the solution for the reduction of the violence" in Syria and said he would continue discussions with him, after talks in Damascus in early February.

In a phone interview with Reuters, de Mistura said that he had not been referring to a final solution to the conflict in his statement. But the RCC’s reaction highlighted the fragile trust in international mediators by many actors in the Syrian conflict.

Suicide bomber hits Assad’s hometown for first time

On Sunday February 22, a suicide bomber driving an ambulance killed four people at a hospital, in an unprecedented attack that took Syria's war to the ruling Assad clan's hometown for the first time.

"A man drove an ambulance packed with explosives into the parking of the Qardaha hospital. Another man was in the vehicle with him, but it was unclear whether he was an accomplice or a hostage. Four people were killed in the attack," Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

Earlier, state television had reported the blast but did not specify the nature of the attack.

The attack, the first explosion to hit the heart of the western town since the outbreak of the war, killed a nurse, a hospital employee and two soldiers, Abdel-Rahman said.

Kurds battle ISIS in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor

As the Syrian army concentrated its efforts on encircling Aleppo, cutting off rebel supply routes through Turkey, it also made significant advances in the northeast provinces of Hasaka and Deir Ezzor.

Meanwhile, also in Hasaka, Kurdish forces advanced against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), recapturing several villages from the jihadist group.

Hasaka province in the northeast is one of three areas where Syrian Kurds have set up their own government since Syria descended into war in 2011.

Several ISIS fighters were reportedly killed in the battle on Sunday. The pro-opposition Observatory said 12 ISIS fighters had been killed, while a Kurdish official put the number at 20. Al-Akhbar English couldn’t independently verify the death tolls.

ISIS: Kurdish forces

Since driving ISIS from Kobane, Kurdish forces backed by other Syrian armed groups have pushed back ISIS fighters into their provincial stronghold.

__title__A man is seen near the wreckage left by fighting in the center of the Syrian town of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) on February 18, 2015 after it has been freed from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces. While civilians in the eastern parts of the city are refusing entrance to the area on suspicion of a trap, houses in other areas are being presented ready for use by their owners. Anadolu/Eşber Ayaydın

On Friday February 20, Syrian Kurdish and rebel forces advanced into the Raqqa province, where ISIS has the de facto capital of its ‘caliphate’ in Syria.

"The YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units) and rebel forces captured 19 villages in Raqqa province," the Observatory said.

The monitor said on Monday February 23 that US-led airstrikes against ISIS had killed more than 1,600 people in Syria, including 1,465 ISIS members.

It also documented the deaths of 62 civilians in the airstrikes that began in Syria on September 23.

US Central Command chief General Lloyd Austin claimed that the airstrikes had killed 8,500 ISIS fighters in both Iraq and Syria, without giving specific details for each country.

Turkey enters Syria to retrieve tomb, signs rebels deal with US

On Sunday, Turkish tanks backed by drones and reconnaissance planes entered Syria overnight to evacuate several dozen Turkish soldiers guarding a tomb considered sovereign territory by Ankara and surrounded by ISIS insurgents.

The Turkish troops, reportedly numbering around 40, were guarding the mausoleum complex of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the Ottoman empire's founder Osman I, which under a 1920s treaty is considered sovereign Turkish territory.

Turkish soldiers prepare the area Turkish flag is raised on February 22, 2015 in the Esme region of Aleppo where the Tomb of Suleyman Shah will be placed. Anadolu/Fırat YurdakulTurkish soldiers prepare the area Turkish flag is raised on February 22, 2015 in the Esme region of Aleppo where the Tomb of Suleyman Shah will be placed. Anadolu/Fırat Yurdakul

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that 572 Turkish soldiers using 39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles and 100 other military vehicles were involved in the operation called Shah Firat (Shah Euphrates).

The military said there had been no clashes during the “initial stage” of the operation, the first such ground incursion by Turkish troops into Syria, but that one soldier had been killed in an accident.

Prominent Turkish opposition groups criticized Ankara over the Suleiman Shah tomb’s operation.

The Nationalist Movement Party's deputy chairman, Cemal Adan, also slammed the government for "making Turkey seem weak in the region."

The Syrian government also condemned Turkey’s “flagrant aggression,” vowing it would hold Ankara responsible for its repercussions.

In a statement made public by SANA, the foreign ministry said its consulate in Istanbul had been informed by Ankara on Saturday evening of its plans to mount the operation deep inside Syria to evacuate soldiers guarding the tomb of Suleiman Shah.

"But as usual (Turkey) did not wait for Syria's consent," the statement read.

The news came a few days after Turkey signed a deal with the United States on Thursday February 19 to train and equip thousands of Syrian rebel forces after a couple months of difficult negotiations between the NATO allies.

"Turkey and the United States signed a document a short time ago on the train-and-equip (program)," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

A US embassy spokesman confirmed that the deal was inked in Ankara by Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and US ambassador to Turkey John Bass.

The US government hopes the program can begin by late March, so the first trained rebel forces can be operational by year's end, according to the Pentagon. Their goal is to train more than 5,000 Syrian rebels in the first year of the program and a total of 15,000 over a three-year period. The training will reportedly take place in the Turkish town of Kirsehir in central Anatolia.

Calls to release political prisoners

On Monday February 16, human rights groups launched a new campaign to free Syrian activists held by the regime and rebel groups as they marked the third anniversary of the arrest of prominent lawyer Mazen Darwish.

campaign is intended to draw attention to the plight of thousands of Syrians, particularly journalists, medics and lawyers, who have disappeared in the conflict. Among them is Darwish, who was arrested on February 16, 2012 along with Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir, his colleagues at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).

The campaign urges supporters to tweet messages calling for the release of Darwish and other prisoners with the hashtag #freeSYvoices.

Poster circulated by the "Hearts in our Hands" campaign.Poster circulated by the "Hearts in our Hands" campaign.

The groups involved in the campaign, which include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Syrian NGOs like the Violations Documentation Center, will also be researching and documenting forced disappearances of activists and civilians.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein on Thursday February 19 urged the Syrian authorities to release all activists, lawyers and other detainees they have been holding without due process, including some jailed for years.

Hussein claimed that between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people have been held at some point in government jails since the first anti-regime protests erupted in Syria nearly four years ago.

"I urge the Syrian government to immediately release all those who have been jailed for peaceful expression of their views and to ensure that all those detained are accorded their full due process rights," Hussein said in a statement.

Late night on Saturday February 21, a Swedish freelance journalist who went missing close to areas controlled by ISIS militants told Swedish media he had been freed after a week being held by Syrian government forces.

Joakim Medin, a 30-year-old freelance reporter, told Expressen newspaper that he was seized at a roadblock along with his Kurdish interpreter Sabri Omar while working in the Kurdish town of Qamishli on the border with Turkey. He said he was held in isolation but had not been treated violently.

"I was taken by the regime," he said. "I feel OK. I'm worn out both in mind and body but I'm OK."

"I was there to report on the situation and hadn't entered the country the official way via the Syrian government," he said, adding that Syrian soldiers questioned him about his links to the Kurds, Turkey and Israel.

Swedish journalist Joakim Medin, who was arrested by Syrian regime for one week, flashes the victory sign a day after his release in the city of Qamishli on February 22, 2015. AFP/Massoud MohammedSwedish journalist Joakim Medin, who was arrested by Syrian regime for one week, flashes the victory sign a day after his release in the city of Qamishli on February 22, 2015. AFP/Massoud Mohammed

UN investigators to publish list naming Syria’s war criminals

UN investigators said Friday they were prepared to publish secret lists of alleged war criminals in Syria to help stem an "exponential rise" in rights violations in the war-ravaged country.

The Commission of Inquiry said publishing the list it has been drawing up throughout Syria's near four-year civil war would put "alleged perpetrators on notice," in what it hoped would "serve to maximize the potential deterrent effect" and "help to protect people at risk of abuse."

The four-member commission, led by Brazilian Paolo Pinheiro, has drawn up four lists of people and groups it believes are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but has until now kept them secret out of concern for due process.

But the investigators said they were ready to shift their approach after four years of efforts to shed light on atrocities.

"Not to publish the names at this juncture of the investigation would be to reinforce the impunity that the commission was mandated to combat," the report said.

According to a diplomatic source, the investigators might publish the names during next month's session of the UN Human Rights Council, which created the commission in September 2011.

Publishing the names might help halt what the report described as "an exponential rise in the perpetration of war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations."

In its ninth report, the commission detailed a horrifying array of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Syrian regime, ISIS jihadists and other armed opposition groups.

The commission expressed deep frustration at the inadequate international response to the atrocities taking place on a daily basis in Syria.

"It is unconscionable that Syrians should continue to suffer as they have for the last four years and have to live in a world where only limited attempts have been made to return Syria to peace, and to seek justice for the victims," Pinheiro said in a statement.

The team of investigators has repeatedly urged the UN Security Council to refer the crimes to the International Criminal Court, to no avail.

In Friday's report, they once again called for the situation to go before the ICC, but also suggested the cases could be referred to an ad hoc international tribunal — something that would not necessarily require Security Council blessing.

Syria’s permanent envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari said that the Syrian government always had reservations regarding the work of the commission in Syria.

Jaafari claimed the commission's report was propagandist, with the sole aim of defaming the image of the Syrian government.

“This commission is biased and was founded for political purposes and a hidden agenda which serves those who support terrorism in Syria, the state and people,” Jaafari added at a press statement following an informal meeting held by Security Council with members of the commission.

Jaafari said the Commission never went to Syria, and that it depended on testimonies of people who live outside Syria, particularly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Jaafari added that his government prepared a 500-pages book which documents the events of only one month of the conflict, mainly October 2013, and it contains information about foreign fighters who were killed in that time period.

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters, AFP, Anadolu)

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