Syria’s Kurds have announced a groundbreaking deal with Damascus on a Syrian troop deployment near the border with Turkey, as Ankara presses a deadly cross-border offensive that has sparked an international outcry.
The announcement on Sunday came as the United States ordered the withdrawal of almost its entire ground force in Syria.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the move to withdraw 1,000 US troops came after Washington learned that Turkey was pressing further into Syria than expected.
Turkey’s relentless assault, which has seen airstrikes, shelling and a ground incursion manned mainly by Syrian proxy fighters, has killed scores of civilians and fighters since its launch on Wednesday.
The Kurds feel they have been betrayed by the United States, their once formidable ally in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group, and left to fend for themselves in the battle against Turkish forces.
The massively outgunned Kurds described their deal with the Syrian government as a necessary step to stop the assault.
“In order to prevent and confront this aggression, an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government… so that the Syrian army can deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” the Kurdish administration said in a statement.
It came after Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army was sending troops to the north to “confront the Turkish aggression”.
In an editorial published in Foreign Policy magazine, SDF chief Mazlum Abdi wrote: “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
Kurdish authorities and foreign powers have warned of a major humanitarian crisis, which has already forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.
They have also warned repeatedly that the hostilities could undermine the fight against IS and allow jihadists to break out of captivity.
– More civilian casualties –
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the aim of Operation Peace Spring was to establish a “security zone” that would extend 30 to 35 kilometres (20 to 25 miles) into Syria and run between Kobane to Hasakeh, a stretch of 440 kilometres.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said at least 26 civilians were killed on Sunday.
Among them was Kurdish news agency ANHA’s correspondent, Saad Ahmad. He died in a Turkish airstrike on a convoy of vehicles transporting civilians and journalists.
At least 60 civilians have now died on the Syrian side of the border, with Turkish reports putting the number of civilians dead from Kurdish shelling inside Turkey at 18.
Aid groups have warned of another humanitarian disaster in Syria’s eight-year-old war if the offensive is not halted.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said the exodus sparked by the fighting had grown to 130,000 people and it was preparing for that figure to more than triple.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the Turkish offensive — over which France has suspended arms exports to Ankara — risked creating an “unbearable humanitarian situation”.
Macron told reporters that he and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had spoken separately with Trump and Erdogan to deliver a single, clear message: “Our common wish is that the offensive must cease”.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, one of Ankara’s main arms suppliers, said he would press for an EU ban on arms sales to Turkey.
– Camp ‘without guards’ –
On the ground, the Kurdish administration in northern Syria said that the Turkish bombardment near a camp for the displaced led to nearly 800 relatives of IS members fleeing.
Some 12,000 IS fighters — Syrians, Iraqis as well as foreigners from 54 countries — are detained in Kurdish prisons, according to official Kurdish statistics.
Trump tweeted on Sunday that “the U.S. has the worst of the ISIS prisoners,” using an acronym for IS, but added: “Turkey and the Kurds must not let them escape.”
Displacement camps host some 12,000 foreigners — 8,000 children and 4,000 women.
“The brutal military assault led by Turkey and its mercenaries is now taking place near a camp in Ain Issa, where there are thousands (of people) from families of IS,” a Kurdish administration statement said.
“Some were able to escape after bombardments that targeted” the camp, it said, adding that guards were attacked and the gates of the camp flung open.
Ain Issa camp is “now without guards” and 785 relatives of IS jihadists have fled, it said.
According to the Observatory, at least 104 SDF fighters have been killed since the start of the Turkish offensive.
Turkish forces and their proxies captured Tal Abyad on Friday afternoon, which left Ras al-Ain, further east, as the last major target in the offensive.
The United Arab Emirates to resume diplomatic service in Damascus embassy on Thursday, an official said, seven years after it severed ties with Syria over the violent repression that triggered the war.
An official at the information ministry invited journalists “to cover the reopening of the Emirati embassy in Damascus today”.
The move is seen as another step in efforts to bring the regime of President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab fold after years of diplomatic isolation.
A visit to Damascus by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir earlier this month had been interpreted by some observers as a sign of that trend.
Rumors of the Emirati embassy reopening have circulated in recent days as renovation work was spotted getting underway at the building.
The UAE broke ties with Syria in February 2012, as the repression of nationwide protests demanding regime change was escalating into a war which has now killed more than 360,000 people.
Two Israeli missiles struck targets near Damascus airport early Tuesday, Syrian state media said, while a monitoring group said they hit arms depots for Hezbollah.
In a report in the early hours of Tuesday, Syria’s state news agency Sana said “two Israeli missiles came down near Damascus international airport”.
The head of monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, also told AFP that “the Israeli missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah near the airport”.
He said the air strike took place at 1:00 am local time “without causing huge explosions” even though they hit the weapons stores.
The observatory added that the Syrian air defence “failed to intercept the missiles”.
When contacted by AFP, a spokesman for the Israeli army said: “We do not comment on foreign reports.”
Israel has warned of a growing Iranian military presence in neighbouring Syria, which it sees as a threat to its safety.
Its military has been carrying out strikes on Iranian and Iran-affiliated targets in Syria, with a US official saying it was Israeli forces that carried out a deadly strike against an Iraqi paramilitary base in eastern Syria on June 17.
Israeli seized a large swathe of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, in a move never recognised by the international community.
Regime air strikes killed 28 civilians in a rebel enclave near Damascus on Monday as Syria’s seven-year-old conflict raged on several fronts with non-combatants paying a heavy price.
The region of Eastern Ghouta is home to an estimated 400,000 people living under a crippling government siege that has made food and medicine almost impossible to acquire.
The area has been designated as one of four de-escalation zones in Syria, but residents there have been facing escalating bombardment in recent weeks. “Dozens of air strikes hit several areas in Eastern Ghouta,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
The deadliest raids on Monday hit a market in the town of Beit Sawa, killing 10 civilians including two children.
Another nine civilians, two of them children and one a local rescue worker, were killed in Arbin.
Nine more civilians died in strikes across the rest of the besieged region, and dozens more people were wounded, the Observatory said.
The barrage of bombardment came as the United Nations children’s agency warned of the dire risks to children in the Middle East’s war zones.
At least 83 children were killed in conflicts across the region in January — including 59 in Syria alone.
And four Syrian children were among at least 16 refugees who froze to death in a snowstorm as they tried to flee to neighbouring Lebanon.
In Arbin on Monday, an AFP correspondent saw the lifeless bodies of young children laid out on the floor in the local hospital.
One of the dead was a member of a volunteer rescue force in the town, and a group of his colleagues could be seen crying over him.
Outside, a man sat sobbing silently atop a pile of rubble after having lost two of his family members in the raids.
AFP correspondents reported that air strikes began at around 10:00 am (0800 GMT) on Monday, and airplanes could still be heard circling above in the afternoon.
In apparent retaliation, rockets and mortars rained down on government-controlled districts of Damascus, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.
One woman was killed and four people were wounded in mortar fire on the Bab Touma neighbourhood and the capital’s Mariamite Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox church, a police source told the agency.
Another person was killed and nine people wounded in rocket fire on the regime-held part of Harasta district.
Syria’s war has killed more than 340,000 people and displaced millions since it began in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Eastern Ghouta is supposed to be one of four de-escalation zones agreed last year by rebel ally Turkey and government supporters Iran and Russia.
But violence has ramped up there in recent weeks, with at least 11 civilians killed in raids on the district on Friday.
This month alone, chlorine is suspected of having been used on two occasions in munitions launched by the regime on Eastern Ghouta, causing respiratory problems among civilians.
Accusations of toxic gas use have also come from Idlib, an opposition-controlled province in the country’s northwest that also falls in a de-escalation zone. Syrian troops have pressed a fierce offensive on Idlib for more than a month with air cover from Russian warplanes.
Nearly a dozen people were treated for breathing difficulties on Sunday after Syrian government raids on the town of Saraqeb, the Observatory said. Mohammad Ghaleb Tannari, a doctor in a nearby town, said his hospital had treated 11 people.
“All the cases we received had symptoms consistent with inhaling the toxic gas chlorine, including exhaustion, difficulty breathing, and coughing,” he told AFP.
The United Nations has found that Syria’s government carried out chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and also used sarin against a town in Idlib last year.
Syria’s government has vehemently denied ever using chemical weapons.
Another 16 civilians were killed across southern parts of Idlib on Sunday, the Observatory said in an updated toll.
The Swiss government said Thursday it had opened a “humanitarian office” in Damascus aimed at improving aid distribution and at monitoring and coordinating assistance programmes on the ground.
Switzerland is thus the fist western country, excluding the European Union, to open such an office since the Syria’s devastating conflict began nearly seven years ago.
“We finally have eyes and ears in Damascus,” Manuel Bessler, the Swiss government official in charge of humanitarian aid, said in an interview on the SRF radio station.
The new office, which opened a few weeks ago and currently has a single staff member, does not constitute a political or diplomatic presence for Switzerland.
Instead, it aims to “monitor more closely the dialogue to secure humanitarian access to the affected population,” a government statement said.
The office will also make it possible to “intensify efforts to improve relief services and to better monitor projects on the ground” in Syria, which currently is the focus of Switzerland’s biggest humanitarian operation, it said.
“The humanitarian situation in Syria remains alarming and support is needed from the international community, including Switzerland, now more than ever,” the statement said.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions have been driven from their homes since Syria’s conflict erupted with anti-government protests in 2011.
Since Switzerland shut its embassy in the spring of 2012, it has mainly carried out its humanitarian efforts through its representations in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and the government said those would continue to play a central role in its work.
Syrian air defences intercepted at least two Israeli missiles fired at a government “military position” in Damascus province early Saturday but the attack still caused damage, state media reported.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said the missiles, presumably Israeli, targeted “positions of the Syrian regime and its allies” southwest of Damascus.
An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment.
“At half past midnight (2230 GMT Friday), the Israeli enemy fired several surface-to-surface missiles at a military position in Damascus province,” the state SANA news agency reported.
“The air defences of the Syrian army were able to deal with the attack… destroying two of the missiles,” it said, adding that the attack nonetheless caused “material damage”.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the missile strike targeted a military base near Kesweh, south of Damascus.
“An arms depot was destroyed,” he said, adding that it was not immediately clear whether the warehouse was operated by the Syrian army, or its allies Iran or Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Israel has acknowledged carrying out repeated air and missile strikes in Syria since the outbreak of the bloody civil war six years ago to stop arms deliveries to Hezbollah, with which it fought a devastating 2006 conflict.
It has also systematically targeted government positions in response to all fire into territory under its control, whoever launched it and regardless of whether it was intentional or not.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
Syrian regime air strikes and artillery fire killed 23 civilians on Sunday across the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region outside the capital Damascus, a monitor said.
The deaths come despite the area falling within a so-called “de-escalation zone” put in place under a deal between government allies Russia and Iran and rebel backer Turkey.
Eastern Ghouta is already in the grip of a humanitarian crisis caused by a crushing regime siege of the area since 2013 that has caused severe food and medical shortages.
Sunday’s air strikes on the towns of Mesraba and Madira killed 21 civilians, while artillery fire on the town of Douma killed two others, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Several people were also wounded in the air strikes, and an AFP reporter who visited a hospital in Mesraba saw doctors and nurses treating those injured.
Among them was a baby whose head was wrapped in a blood-stained bandage, as well as men and children who sat on the floor as they received first aid.
A small girl cried as a doctor bandaged her head while nearby a man sat against a wall, sobbing silently with his face pressed against his folded arms, the reporter said.
In a room of the hospital a morgue staff is placing identity tags on bodies wrapped in white sheets, victims of the air strikes, the reporter added.
“The toll could rise further because of the number of wounded people in a serious condition,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Among the dead were four children, the Observatory said.
Regime bombardment of Eastern Ghouta in the last two weeks has killed more than 100 people, according to the Observatory.
Rebels have also fired from the region into Damascus, killing several people.
Humanitarian access to Eastern Ghouta has remained limited despite the implementation of the truce zone, and a United Nations official referred to the region as the “epicentre of suffering” in Syria.
More than 340,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
Syrians in Damascus collapsed into tears of disappointment Tuesday as their war-torn country’s hopes of qualifying for its first ever football World Cup were dashed during extra time against Australia.
But in opposition-held territory, where some Syrians feel the national team has become a symbol of a government they despise, there were those who cheered Australia’s 2-1 win.
The prospect of the Syrian team qualifying for football’s biggest contest brought thousands of cheering fans into public squares and cafes across government-held parts of the country, including the capital Damascus.
Excitement had been building for days, and students lobbied to have lectures rescheduled so they could watch the game, which kicked off in Sydney at noon Syrian time.
Vendors hiked prices for Syria kit as demand soared for the red, black and white strip of the national team, nicknamed the Qasioun Eagles.
Dana Abu Shaar, 18, skipped university classes to watch the match at a cafe in the capital.
She was still clutching a national flag in her hand as she glumly contemplated defeat after Australia scored a crucial second goal in the second half of extra time.
“I was very excited and I expected the Syrian team to win, but now there’s sadness and a lot of disappointment because we had reached a point where there was hardly anything between us and the championships,” she said, her voice cracking.
“It’s not just about football,” she added. “The Syrian people needed this kind of joy, even if it came through sports. The Qasioun Eagles were hope to us. This is a people that has lived seven years of war and was waiting for joy, even if it came through a goal.”
In the wake of the loss, Damascus streets emptied and shops closed early.
President Bashar al-Assad’s office issued a statement praising the team as “heroes” despite their defeat.
“You painted joy on the faces of all Syrians,” the presidency said.
Accountant Ramez Talawi, 29, dressed in the team’s red shirt emblazoned with the national flag, had taken a day off work so he could watch the match.
“The team managed to do something that politics and men of religion could not, which is to unify the Syrian people,” he said.
“It’s the national team and it united Syrians of all political opinions, loyalists and opposition.”
Cheering… for Australia
But many in opposition territory felt far from inclined to support the national team after some of its players dedicated their last win to Assad.
In Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold outside the capital, there was no sign of public support for the team, nor did fans gather in cafes to watch the match.
Khair Ali al-Daoud, 24, in the northwestern city of Idlib, got together with 10 of his friends to watch the match — and cheer on Australia.
“I was watching the Syrian team’s matches because I wanted them to lose and I was supporting all the teams that played against them,” he told AFP.
Daoud was among thousands of Syrians who evacuated the opposition-held part of Aleppo city last year under a deal that saw the government take full control after years of fighting.
“I’m happy they’re out of the tournament… and God willing there will be a free Syrian team that represents all Syrians in all international matches,” he said.
Qasim Khatib, 26, watched the game on his phone with two friends, but said he could never support the “team of barrels”, referring to the barrel bombs that Syria’s government is accused of using against opposition areas.
“Of course I was supporting Australia. I don’t support the team of barrels, as we call it, because if they won, they would have dedicated their win to Assad, like last time.”
“This is the team of a killer of children, and it doesn’t represent Syria,” said Khatib in the town of Jabal Zawiya in Idlib province.
“I’m very happy that they lost, and don’t wish that they ever, ever win.”
But in Douma, an opposition-held town near Damascus, residents were divided.
“I was happy and sad at the same time,” said Youssef Shedid, 21.
“If our team had won, Syria’s name would have been talked about around the world. But we were sad also because the regime politicised the issue and presented the team as its own.”
Ali Ibrahim, 30, said he was saddened by the defeat.
“First of all, this team does not represent the regime, it represents Syria,” he said.
“If it represented the regime, we would have never supported it, because the regime is murderous and criminal. I was sad about the match because the team wanted to raise the name of Syria.”