Syria Direct: News Update 3-4-2014


March 4, 2014

* A pro-opposition citizen journalist in Yabroud denied reports that the Syrian army had gained complete control of the village of a-Sahel outside Yabroud in an interview with Syria Direct Tuesday, contrary to pro-regime media reports. On Monday, Hezbollah channel al-Manar announced the Syrian army had recaptured complete control of A-Sahel, after rebels recaptured it last week, as well as an advance on the farms of a-Rima. The regime has advanced in a part of a-Sahel, but not seized entire control of it, the Yabroud-based citizen journalist said. “A-Sahel does not have great strategic importance compared to the hills surrounding it, and those remain under rebel control,” he added. Yabroud is the largest remaining rebel-held town in the Qalamoun mountain range, which stretches for some 80 km along Syria’s western border with Lebanon and overlooks the M-5 highway, which connects regime-controlled Damascus with the central city of Homs. The battle, which began last November, pits regime forces supported by Hezbollah troops against Free Syrian Army battalions, the Islamic Front, Jabhat a-Nusra and other rebel brigades.

* On Tuesday, multiple Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) Twitter accounts announced that ISIS fighters have established a presence in Yarmouk Camp, using an Arabic hashtag called “ISIS liberates Yarmouk camp.” On Sunday, Jabhat a-Nusra re-entered the camp, citing the regime’s failure to abide by the terms of the truce, which include the entry of humanitarian aid. This comes as Syrian troops resume shelling of the camp, home to tens of thousands of Syrians and Palestinians, in response to Jabhat a-Nusra breaking a 19-day ceasefire. In 19 days of ceasefire, the Syrian Red Cross and Red Crescent and UNRWA had been able to deliver a limited amount of food and medical aid to Syrian and Palestinian residents of the camp, dozens of whom are reported to have starved to death in late January and early February as a result of a government-imposed blockade.

* Sheikh Moaz al-Khateeb rejected Tuesday a proposal that had circulated online suggesting he run for president of Syria against Bashar al-Assad in the upcoming June 2014. “I announce my rejection of participation in any fraudulent election, as participating in fraudulence is the greatest aid to the regime, falsity and corruption,” al-Khateeb wrote on his personal Facebook page. On Saturday, a group of anonymous activists launched a Facebook page titled, “The Popular Campaign to Nominate Moaz al-Khateeb as President of Syria Against Assad.” Though 70,000 Facebook users “liked” the page overnight, the campaign also launched a debate within opposition circles over whether running against al-Assad in so-called elections would only serve to further legitimize the Syrian president.

* U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stressed Monday the urgency of relaunching the Syrian peace process, urging the regime in particular to return to Geneva with a more “constructive position.” The Geneva II talks broke down in January with regime representatives insisting on prioritizing the issue of “terrorism,” denoting opposition groups, which in turn maintain that putting in place a transitional government without President Bashar al-Assad is non-negotiable.  

* The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) destroyed a Sufi shrine in the north central province of a-Raqqa Monday. ISIS justified its destruction of the shrine, dedicated to Abu al-Aeish, a respected sheikh in the north of the province, by declaring that nothing should “be worshipped other than God.” This came days after ISIS imposed restrictive rules on Christian citizens in a-Raqqa, promising the Christian minority protection provided that they accede to certain conditions. The statement demands that Christians pay the Islamic “jizya” tax, that they “not reveal their worship rituals outside the church,” not disparage Islam, and “submit to Islamic sharia in the state.”

ISIS_shrine.jpgMembers of ISIS destroyed a Sufi shrine in a-Raqqa province Monday.

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