Syrian Rebel Group that Received U.S. Weapons Disbands
The first Syrian rebel group given U.S. weapons dissolved Sunday after a major defeat in which it lost its headquarters to Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, the Washington Post reports.
Hazm spokesman Ahmad al-Ataribi said on Sunday that the movement was forced to disband a day after dozens of its fighters were killed in clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front).
Harakat Hazm had received what it describes as small amounts of military aid from foreign states opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles. In recent months it has lost ground to better-financed and better-armed jihadist groups.
The group was routed from its new main headquarters in Aleppo province this week after months of clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra in which it had been pushed out of its main headquarters in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib.
The Syrian Revolutionaries Front, another one of the Western-backed groups, was also driven from Idlib province by Jabhat al-Nusra last fall.
“Since then, rebels said the Nusra Front has largely turned its attention away from fighting the Assad regime and toward fighting what it considers corrupt elements among the opposition,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
The Syrian military began to make advances on several front lines in recent days, as a result of the opposition’s infighting, Hazm spokesman Ahmad al-Ataribi said on Sunday.
As long as Hazm remained, it would be a target for the Nusra Front and a continuing distraction for the opposition, Mr. al-Ataribi said.
“So we removed this issue so we can fight the regime and stop its advance,” he added.
The collapse comes as the Pentagon launches an initiative to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. The program will train more than 5,000 fighters a year, and a total of 15,000 over a three-year period, after they undergo vetting for the program using both U.S. government databases and intelligence from regional partners.
“Hazm’s defeat will muddle the wider effort to combat extremism by leaving large swathes of northern Syria that had once been controlled by moderates in the hands of Nusra, which is not the main focus of the U.S. effort but is formally aligned with al-Qaida and is also designated as a terrorist group by the United States,” the Washington Post writes.
19 Christians Seized by the Islamic State Have Been Released
The Islamic State released 19 Assyrian Christians on Sunday who were among at least 220 people the militant group abducted in the northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh last week, the New York Times reports.
The Assyrians were kidnapped by ISIS last week in the Tal Tamr area of Hassakeh, where the militant group has seized 10 Christian villages, prompting almost 5,000 people to flee to Kurdish and government-controlled areas.
The kidnappings “coincided with a push by Syrian Kurds in northeastern Syria near the Iraqi border since Sunday that had compounded losses for the militant group in Syria,” Reuters reported last week.
Bashir Saedi, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organization, said the 16 men and three women arrived safely in the city of Hassakeh, according to the AP.
The fate of the more than 200 other Christian Assyrians still held by the militant group remains unclear, though Sunni Arab local leaders have been mediating between Assyrian Christian leaders and Islamic State militants to negotiate the release of the rest.
It was not immediately clear why the Islamic State group freed the 19 Assyrian captives. However, the kidnappings have magnified fears of more atrocities targeting Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
On Sunday, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura paid a surprise visit to a Greek Catholic church in Jaramana, southeast of Syria’s capital of Damascus, in a show of solidarity with the country’s Christian minority targeted by the jihadist group. De Mistura held talks over the weekend in Damascus to try to finalize a deal to freeze fighting in Aleppo.
Meanwhile, U.S.-backed coalition strikes against the Islamic State targeted areas near Hassakeh for the third day in a row, according to Central Command.
Syrian Rebel Forces in Aleppo Reject U.N. Freeze Proposal
“We refuse to meet with Mr. Staffan de Mistura if it is not on the basis of a comprehensive solution to Syria’s drama through the exit of (President) Bashar al-Assad and his chief of staff, and the prosecution of war criminals,” a newly formed Aleppo revolutionary commission said.
“The political and military grouping was set up on Saturday at a meeting in the Turkish border town of Kilis attended by exiled coalition chief Khaled Khoja, other opposition figures and Aleppo civil society representatives,” AFP reports.
De Mistura’s proposal “falls short of an initiative to resolve the humanitarian crisis of our people targeted by the regime’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs prohibited by the international community,” it said in a statement.
De Mistura has met government officials and opposition chiefs in recent weeks to try to finalize a a proposal for a local cease-fire – or “incremental freeze zones” – across Syria, starting with the city of Aleppo, in an attempt to halt the fighting and provide humanitarian aid to civilians.
Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, is at the heart of clashes between government forces and insurgents that include Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamist brigades and Western-backed rebels. Large swathes of Aleppo have been razed to the ground and many civilians have been killed since fighting began in the city in mid-2012.
The envoy angered opposition members last month when he described Assad as “part of the solution” to end the conflict.
Mistura said Damascus would announce the start date of the local cease-fire. His office said on Sunday that it had agreed to send a delegation from its Damascus office to Aleppo on a fact-finding mission.
“The mission will aim to assess the situation on the ground and to ensure that, once the freeze is announced, humanitarian aid can significantly increase, and to prepare arrangements to follow up on violations of the freeze,” the U.N. said.
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