At least 33 people were killed in an air-strike on a school sheltering displaced residents outside the ISIS-held city of Raqqa, in northern Syria, according to monitoring activists on the ground. The behind-lines anti-ISIS monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which has heroiically reported on realities under Islamic State rule in the city, said the school at the village of al-Mansoura was sheltering some 50 families when it was levelled by air-strikes earlier this week. The raid is believed to have been carried out by US warplanes. "The massacres committed by [the] US-led coalition in Raqqa is unacceptable," the group said in a statement. "The international community must intervene to stop this." (The Independent)
The Kurdish YPG militia announced March 20 that it has agreed to the establishment of a Russian military base in Afrin canton in northwestern Syria. The YPG said Moscow will help train its fighters at the base. The Russian Defense Ministry denied plans for new military bases in Syria, but acknowledged that it has established a "reconciliation center" near the town of Afrin, in Aleppo governorate, officially tasked with negotiating pacts between anti-ISIS forces. However, YPG representative Redur Xelil said Russian troops are already arriving, with personnel carriers and armored vehicles. (EA Worldview, Haaretz)
The US military is denying reports that it bombed a mosque in northwestern Syria during evening prayers March 16, killing at least 50. There is even controversy over whether the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque in al-Jinah (Jeena) village, Aleppo governorate, is still standing. The Pentagon admits to a an air-strike that supposedly killed several al-Qaeda militants in the village, which is held by Islamist factions including Ahrar al-Sham. The Pentagon released a statement saying the strike was "across the street from a mosque," with footage (supposedly taken minutes after the strike) showing that a mosque next to a destroyed building remained standing. (Al Jazeera, BBC News, Reuters) But Bilal Abdul Kareem, a US national who operates On the Ground News from northern Syria, recorded his own video from the purported bombing site. Kareem shows what he calls part of the "mosque compound" in ruins, and claims the mosque was operated by Jamaat Tablighi, a proselytization group that has hosted prayers there every Thursday for the past four years. (LWJ)
The Pentagon is dispatching some 2,500 ground combat troops to a staging base in Kuwait, from where they are expected to be mobilized to back up forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The deployment includes elements of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Bragg, NC. About 1,700 troops from the same unit are already overseas, spread between Iraq and Kuwait. (Army Times, March 9) The US currently has only some 500 troops authorized to operate in Syria, predominantly Special Forces, and it is unclear if this new deployment breaches that threshold. However, the US Special Forces in Syria are increasingly tasked with keeping peace between Kurdish and Turkish forces rather than actually fighting ISIS. Special Forces are currently deployed at Manbij in what the Pentagon calls a mission to "reassure and deter"—interpreted as providing a buffer between Kurdish-led and Turkish-led forces, to prevent open conflict between them. (Military Times, March 6)
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are accused of handing over territory in northern Syria to the Assad regime, in a deal brokered by Russia. The handover of five villages west of Manbij, Aleppo governorate, is the first transfer in what is said to be a developing alliance, made amid a Turkish-rebel offensive in Syria's north. "The handover has taken place," Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, the SDF's local command, said in a statement reported by Reuters. The development follows the taking of the strategic town of al-Bab by Turkish-led forces. Pro-Assad forces meanwhile advanced south and east of al-Bab, linking with Kurdish-controlled territory for the first time.
Free Syrian Army militia backed by Turkish forces took the Syrian city of al-Bab from ISIS militants Feb. 23, although fighting continues in some districts. The ISIS fighters withdrew via a route left open for them by the commanders of Operation Euphrates Shield, the joint Turkish-FSA campaign. (Rudaw, Feb. 23) As US-led Iraqi and Kurdish forces close the circle on ISIS in Mosul, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance on Raqqa. The US commander in Iraq predicts the imminent taking of both Mosul and Raqqa. "Within the next six months, I think we'll see both conclude," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend outside Baghdad Feb. 8. The enemy is "overwhelmed anywhere that they are," added Col. John Dorrian, spokesperson for the US-led Combined Joint Taskforce. (Rudaw, Feb. 8)
A suicide attack on a Sufi shrine Feb. 16 killed at least 75 worshippers and wounded dozens more—the deadliest in a string of blasts in Pakistan this week. At least 250 others were wounded, with the only hospital in the area overwhelmed. The blast went off outside the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan, Sindh province. The blast took place during Dhamal, a weekly dance ritual, with hundreds of devotees present inside the shrine and lined up to enter. The Islamic State's Khorasan Province claimed responsibility for the attack. (Hindustan Times, Indian Express, BBC News, Al Jazeera)
Late last year, when the evacuation of Aleppo began as the city fell to Assad regime forces backed by Russian air-strikes, we noted that residents were being sent to Idlib governorate, which is both under control of jihadist factions and also targeted for air-strikes and eventual conquest by the regime and its Russian patrons. So secularists fleeing Aleppo were likely to find no refuge from either regime or opposition forces in Idlib. Now comes the news that Radio Fresh, voice of the embattled secularist civil resistance in the Idlib town of Kafranbel, is being censored by the jihadists—and finding a creative way to resist. The FM station's manager Raed Fares told BBC News that they've been broadcasting hours of barnyard sounds each day to protest and mock censorious orders from local militants of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front). "They tried to force us to stop playing music on air," said Fares. "So we started to play animals in the background as a kind of sarcastic gesture against them."