75 US-trained rebels enter Syria from Turkey



BEIRUT // A group of 75 rebels newly trained by US and coalition forces in Turkey to fight extremists have entered northern Syria, a monitoring group said on Sunday.

It comes as Syrian pro-government forces and rebels began a ceasefire on Sunday in three battleground districts.

The truce covers the two remaining villages in Idlib province – Fuaa and Kafraya – still in government hands and the rebels’ last stronghold near the Lebanese border town of Zabadani.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the coalition-trained rebels crossed through the Bab Al Salama border point, the main gateway for fighters and supplies heading into Aleppo province.

“Seventy-five new fighters trained in a camp near the Turkish capital entered Aleppo province between Friday night and Saturday morning,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Observatory.

He said the group had entered in a convoy of a dozen cars with light weapons and ammunition, under air cover from the US-led coalition that has been carrying out strikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

That supply route has been increasingly targeted by ISIL extremists seeking to cut off support to rival rebels.

Mr Abdel Rahman said the newly-trained fighters have deployed to support two US-backed units, with most assigned to Division 30 – the main unit for US-trained fighters – and others to a group called Suqur Al Jabal (Falcons of the Mountain).

Before the new group of coalition fighters entered Syria, the US-led train-and-equip programme had only managed to vet and train some 60 rebels to fight ISIL militants on the ground.

The US$500 million (Dh1,836m) programme run out of Turkey has been fraught with problems, with at least a dozen of those already deployed with Division 30 either killed or kidnapped by Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Al Nusra Front.

The programme, which had originally aimed to train around 5,400 vetted fighters a year for three years, has come under fire from US lawmakers.

The Observatory said there was no immediate word on the duration of the ceasefire in Fuaa, Kafraya and Zabadani, but the rival sides would continue negotiations for a broader truce.

“Fighters stopped military operations early this morning, but the official ceasefire will begin at noon [1pm UAE time],” Mr Abdel Rahman said.

Pro-government forces launched an offensive to try to recapture Zabadani in July, prompting a rebel alliance – including Al Nusra – to besiege the Shiite villages of Fuaa and Kafraya in the Idlib province.

The ceasefire comes after the rebels launched one of their fiercest attacks on Fuaa and Kafraya so far on Friday.

At least 66 rebels, 40 pro-government militiamen and seven civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to the Observatory.

Sunday’s planned ceasefire marks the third attempt to agree a truce for the three areas. Two rounds of negotiations last month failed to produce agreement.

Stumbling blocks have included the withdrawal of all rebel fighters from Zabadani, safe passage for civilians seeking to leave Fuaa and Kafraya, and food and medical aid for those wishing to stay.

* Agence France-Presse

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The major Hashd factions linked to Iran:

Badr Organisation: Seen as the most militarily capable faction in the Hashd. Iraqi Shiite exiles opposed to Saddam Hussein set up the group in Tehran in the early 1980s as the Badr Corps under the supervision of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The militia exalts Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but intermittently cooperated with the US military.

Saraya Al Salam (Peace Brigade): Comprised of former members of the officially defunct Mahdi Army, a militia that was commanded by Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and fought US and Iraqi government and other forces between 2004 and 2008. As part of a political overhaul aimed as casting Mr Al Sadr as a more nationalist and less sectarian figure, the cleric formed Saraya Al Salam in 2014. The group’s relations with Iran has been volatile.

Kataeb Hezbollah: The group, which is fighting on behalf of the Bashar Al Assad government in Syria, traces its origins to attacks on US forces in Iraq in 2004 and adopts a tough stance against Washington, calling the United States “the enemy of humanity”.

Asaeb Ahl Al Haq: An offshoot of the Mahdi Army active in Syria. Asaeb Ahl Al Haq’s leader Qais al Khazali was a student of Mr Al Moqtada’s late father Mohammed Sadeq Al Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric who was killed during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba: Formed in 2013 to fight alongside Mr Al Assad’s loyalists in Syria before joining the Hashd. The group is seen as among the most ideological and sectarian-driven Hashd militias in Syria and is the major recruiter of foreign fighters to Syria.

Saraya Al Khorasani:  The ICRG formed Saraya Al Khorasani in the mid-1990s and the group is seen as the most ideologically attached to Iran among Tehran’s satellites in Iraq.

(Source: The Wilson Centre, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation)

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