Thursday, 8 September 2016

A Glimmer of Hope Opens for Syrian Rebels As Peace Talks Intensify

Members of Free Syrian Army are seen in Cobanbey (Al-Rai) town of Al-Bab District near Jarabulus, Syria, on Sept. 6, 2016. The anti-ISIS operation called Euphrates Shield, which was launched on Aug. 24, aims at improving security, supporting coalition forces, supporting Syria's territorial integrity and eliminating the terror threat along Turkeys border through FSA fighters backed by Turkish armor, artillery and jets.

 'When Turkish tanks and warplanes crossed into Syria to help rebels retake the town of Jarabulus from ISIS on August 24, Syrian refugees at a camp just north of the border celebrated. A man named Abdel Wahab Shobak even shaved his beard, mirroring celebrations by other Syrian men freed from restrictive jihadi rule. Stranded in Turkey, Shobak hadn’t been living under ISIS, but he was still elated. “I was so happy at the liberation of these areas, and in hope of going back home soon,” he says. “The operation actually gave us some hope.”

 The two-week-old Turkish military incursion unsettled the already chaotic battlefield in Syria, strengthening the hand of the Syrian opposition and angering the regime of President Bashar Assad and his key backer, Russia. The operation expelled Islamic State forces from the last stretch they controlled on the Syrian-Turkish border, depriving the jihadists of an important smuggling route to Turkey’s major cities and to Europe, potentially cutting off the path for new jihadis.

 The operation also provides a glimmer of hope to some of the nearly three million Syrian refugees who remain stranded in Turkey, among a total population of 4.8 million people scattered across the region and beyond. A few are already aspiring to return to their homes in what Turkish officials are calling a “de facto safe zone” in northern Syria. Even those whose homes are not directly affected expressed relief at seeing ISIS eliminated from the border area. The operation also emboldened some of the embattled forces of the Syrian opposition, who stand to take control of the newly-liberated areas.

 “The situation is very good. The Syrian opposition is advancing backed by Turkish forces,” says Zaki Amin, a local council official from the newly-freed town of Ghandoura, speaking by phone from Syria. “They’re advancing every minute, thank God, and hopefully in the coming days we’ll liberate al-Bab.”

 The opposition-affiliated local councils are in the early stages of setting up governance and aid distribution in the newly-freed areas. Mohamed Haji Ibrahim, a lawyer and head of the Ghandoura local council, said he is preparing to return to the town after years in which his town suffocated under ISIS rule. “Ghandoura has been neglected for more than three years. The people of the world don’t know where Ghandoura is and what a strategic town it is,” he said in an interview in the city of Gaziantep in Turkey.

 A Russian and American-backed ceasefire declared in February collapsed within a few months as Russian-backed regime forces advanced. Those advances included imposing a siege on the key rebel stronghold in the city of Aleppo in June. Briefly interrupted by an Islamist-led counterattack in August, the siege of eastern Aleppo is now back in place, trapping an estimated 300,000 civilians in the rebel enclave.

 Back in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, another refugee named Ahmed Dallal, 45, sits in his living room where he lives with his family of seven. He had lived in Aleppo before fleeing intense shelling by the regime in 2012. He returned with his family to his hometown of Jarabulus, on the Turkish border. They lived there happily until 2013, when ISIS began infiltrating the town, preparing the way for a takeover that would come later that year. In February of 2013, he denounced ISIS during a relative’s funeral and had to flee after a jihadi official threatened him. Following the Turkish incursion, Jarabulus now falls in the so-called “safe zone.” He says, “I support this action. It should have come sooner.” He has no plans to return for now, but that may change. “I will go back to Jarabulus if I feel it is safe.” '

 "FSA advances today against Daesh in northern Aleppo province with TAF support."[]

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