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)
A new Qaeda affiliate in Syria has claimed responsibility for a March 11 double bomb attack targeting Shi'ite pilgrims in Damascus that killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more. Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two buses with their windows blown out, the surroundings splattered with blood and littered with lost shoes and clothing. The attack took place near Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named for one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus. The pilgrims had arrived to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine outside Damascus, where the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization) said the attack was "a message to Iran" over its support for the Bashar Assad regime. The group is identified as a breakaway faction of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front) that has maintained ties with al-Qaeda. (BBC News, Reuters)
Syria's embattled dictator Bashar Assad was quoted by his own official news agency SANA Feb. 7 saying he found President Trump's stance on the war in his country to be "promising." This word was headlined by Reuters, but it is worth noting the full quote. Assad told a group of Belgian reporters: "What we heard as statements by Trump during the campaign and after the campaign is promising regarding the priority of fighting terrorists, and mainly ISIS, that’s what we’ve been asking for during the last six years. So, I think this is promising, we have to wait, it's still early to expect anything practical. It could be about the cooperation between the US and Russia, that we think is going to be positive for the rest of the world, including Syria. So, as I said, it's still early to judge it."
The top US military commander in Afghanistan told lawmakers Feb. 9 that he needs several thousand additional troops to break "a stalemate" in the 15-year-old war against the Taliban and other insurgents. Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that more troops could come from the US or other NATO members, and would be tasked with training Afghanistan's security forces to provide better offensive capabilities. Under questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the general said did not need 50,000 troops in the country, but did not rule out the potential for up to 30,000. There are currently some 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan, with 38 other NATO members providing about 6,300 troops.
President Trump said Jan. 25 that he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for those displaced by violence, and a leaked draft of his impending executive order apparently directs the State Department and Pentagon to present a plan to him within 90 days. But this was presented in explicitly xenophobic terms—not humanitarian. In making the announcement, he dissed Europe's leaders for taking in Syrian refugees. Trump said that Germany and other European countries made a "tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people... I don't want that to happen here." (LAT, Reuters)
Iran's government and companies close to the elite Revolutionary Guards have signed major economic contracts with Syria, gaining control of large areas of the country in what appear to be lucrative rewards for helping President Bashar Assad regain control of territory from rebels. Five memorandums of understanding were signed during a visit by Syrian Prime Minister Emad Khamis to Tehran on Jan. 17, including a licence for Iran to become a mobile phone service operator in Syria, and phosphate mining contracts. "We greatly appreciate Iran's major role in combating terrorism and standing by the Syrian people in every way, politically and economically," Khamis said. Syria will give Iran 5,000 hectares of land for farming, and 1,000 hectares for setting up oil and gas terminals. A deal was also signed on providing lands for animal husbandry.
Remember the reports of a Russian "withdrawl" from Syria over the summer? They were immediately followed, of course, by a massive escalation of Russia's military intervention, with the destruction of Aleppo by Moscow's warplanes. Let's hope we are not in for a replay. With the departure of most of Russian's war fleet from Syria's coast—most prominently, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov—CNN last week reported: "Russia 'starts to withdraw' forces from Syria." The Interpreter, a neo-Kremlinologist website, flatly contradicts this. It finds that most Russian combat operations have been flown out of ground bases in Syria, not the carrier. At Hmeymim air base (also rendered Khmeimim and Hemeimeem) in Latakia governorate, Russia has now deployed Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Syria and even beyond its borders. Far from withdrawing, The Interpreter says that Russia is "just getting started" with a military build-up in Syria.