The Latest: Report: 5,600 have returned from IS-held lands
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments in Syria (all times local):
A security consultancy says at least 5,600 people from 33 countries have returned home after spending time in territory controlled by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
The Soufan Group said in a report released Tuesday that the potential return of unknown numbers of foreign fighters represents a huge challenge for law enforcement agencies.
The New York-based group, which closely follows militant factions, said the extent to which displaced fighters will “wish to regroup, resurge, recruit and recreate what they have lost, is as yet unknown.”
It said more than 40,000 foreigners flocked to join IS from more than 110 countries both before and after the extremists declared a caliphate in June 2014. It said they included 5,718 from western Europe, more than 8,700 from the former Soviet Union and 439 from North America.
Thousands of IS fighters have been killed on the battlefield as Syrian and Iraqi forces have retaken nearly all the territory once held by the group, and many of those returning could be disenchanted with extremism. But the Soufan group says it is inevitable that some will want to continue waging violent jihad.
It said IS fighters have already joined militant groups in the Philippines, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan and Libya.
Syrian opposition activists say malnutrition and shortages in medicine are increasing the suffering in besieged, rebel-held eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus, adding that two children have died as a result in the past two months.
The activists blame a four-year government siege and greed by local businessmen who hide food and medical products in orders to raise the prices, for the malnutrition mostly among children.
The crisis in the suburbs, also known as eastern Ghouta have worsened since May after government forces seized the Qaboun and Barzeh neighborhoods in northeast Damascus. The two neighborhoods were hubs for smuggling supplies into the Ghouta region through tunnels.
International aid organizations have been sending food to Ghouta, home to tens of thousands, but the last convoy entered more than a month ago.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the main reason behind the suffering is the government siege. adding that there are businessmen who are taking advantage of the food shortage.
Ahmad Khansour, a Ghouta-based opposition activist, said via text messages that high prices are far beyond people’s reach, saying that a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar is selling for up to $12 while a kilogram of rice sells for nearly 5$. He said the family’s monthly income is about $100.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says an operation to implement a “de-escalation” zone in Syria’s northern Idlib province is “to a great extent complete.”
Addressing legislators from his ruling party in parliament on Tuesday, Erdogan suggested that Turkish troops could now target Syria’s border region of Afrin, which is controlled by Syrian Kurdish groups. Turkey considers the Syrian militia to be terrorists because of their links to Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey.
“We have the issue of Afrin ahead of us,” Erdogan said. “We cannot make any concessions. As we have said before, we may arrive suddenly one night; we may hit (them) suddenly one night.”
Turkey sent troops into Syria earlier this month to set up “observation posts” in the border province that is dominated by al-Qaida linked militants as part of a deal reached with Russia and Iran.
Syria’s state TV says warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group have bombed a government-controlled neighborhood in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour killing 14 civilians.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon denied the report in a tweet saying that the coalition has not bombed the city, of which IS currently controls a small part, since September.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a Monday night airstrike killed 22, adding that the identity of the warplanes was not immediately clear.
Syrian troops have been marching against IS in eastern Syria under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
Last year, the U.S.-led coalition bombed Syrian army positions near the city of Deir el-Zour killing at least 62 Syrian soldiers and leaving more than a 100 wounded.
Russia’s defense minister says less than five percent of Syria remains under control of the Islamic State group.
At the height of the rise of the IS the militants controlled about half of the territory of Syria before their downfall began.
Speaking at a conference in the Philippines, Sergei Shoigu said on Monday that “terrorists” controlled more than 70 percent of the country before Russia launched its air operation at the end of 2015 to support President Bashar Assad’s offensive against IS militants and opposition forces.
Russian airstrikes destroyed more than 900 training camps and a multitude of heavy weaponry.
In recent weeks Russia focused efforts on the east of the country where a race is underway between U.S.-backed Syrian forces and government troops in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province.