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Syria Direct: News Update 3-20-2014

* The Syrian army continued its efforts to eliminate pockets […]

20 March 2014

* The Syrian army continued its efforts to eliminate pockets of rebel fighters in the Qalamoun region northwest of Damascus Thursday, clashing with Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups and Jabhat a-Nusra in the towns between Yabroud and the Lebanese border. On Wednesday, Syrian forces “stepped up their military operations” in Rankus, Ras el-Ein and Ras al-Ma’ara, shelling and barrel bombing the towns. Meanwhile, pro-government newspaper al-Watan reported Wednesday that the Syrian army had continued military operations in Qalamoun, “making great progress in in Ras al-Ein,” southwest of Yabroud. On Sunday, the Syrian government, supported by Hezbollah troops, seized the town of Yabroud after thirty-three days of heavy fighting, consolidating their control of a key stretch of the M-5 highway connecting the Syrian capital with the central city of Homs.

* United Nations aid workers were forced to abandon an attempt to deliver aid to the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus Wednesday due to the sheer volume and disorder of the crowd waiting to receive supplies. “Our staff encountered a massive throng of desperate civilians expecting to receive sustenance,” said United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Spokesman Chris Gunness in a public statement Wednesday. “With no apparent attempt by the entities inside Yarmouk to organize the crowds, chaotic scenes rendered safe distribution impossible.” Syrian state media blamed “terrorists” for the disruption, stating that “sniper shooting and random bullets fired against the food aid distribution unit [created] an atmosphere of chaos and panic.” The aborted effort came one day after UNRWA workers distributed 465 food parcels to Yarmouk citizens, marking the first time aid had reached the camp since fresh violence broke out at the start of this month.

* The Islamic Front’s Jaish al-Islam shelled a number of government positions in Latakia province’s al-Jableh with Grad rockets Wednesday, targeting the Air Defense Administration building and National Defense Force militia headquarters in the town. Pro-opposition al-Jableh News reported a “tense situation” as government troops were put on alert at regime checkpoints. “There has been no confirmation yet of the martyrdom of any civilians wounded during rocket shelling on the city,” government media reported, adding that the sound of explosions could be heard throughout the city. Through three years of conflict, al-Jableh, the hometown of a number of members of President Bashar al-Assad’s administration, has thus far been spared intense violence.

Jaish al-IslamJaish al-Islam announced they had shelled  regime-controlled al-Jableh Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Jaish al-Islam.

* The Syrian government decried Wednesday the “arbitrary measures” taken by the United States in expelling Syrian diplomats from Washington D.C. and suspending Syrian embassy operations. The Syrian Foreign Ministry declared the measures a “clear violation of conventions” of international diplomacy, in a statement published on the official government news agency SANA. Meanwhile, the Russian government declared the measures “worrying and disappointing. Secretary of State John Kerry took to Twitter Tuesday to defend the decision and denounce Damascus, stating that the administration “felt Syria’s embassy in Washington sitting here with representation was an insult. So we closed it.”

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