Syrian President Bashar al-Assad thanked Russia, Iran, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah militias on Sunday for helping his army make gains against rebel groups and the Islamic State, saying their "direct support — politically, economically, and militarily — has made possible bigger advances on the battlefield and reduced the losses and burdens of war."
Assad made his remarks during a televised address to the country, which is still in the midst of a six-and-a-half-year-old civil war. He said there had been several plans by the West to remove him from the presidency, yet none had come to fruition, and revealed that the army will launch an offensive in Syrian deserts, in conjunction with Russian planes and Iranian-funded militias, to root out ISIS militants.
Assad also said Syria has "an interest in the success of" ceasefire deals brokered by Russia, adding that "the idea of these de-escalation zones is to stop the bloodletting ... and the eviction of the armed groups handing over their weapons and the return of normalcy." Several rebel groups have accused Assad of violating truces, including in the suburbs of Damascus, where witnesses say the army bombs residential areas that are held by the rebels, Reuters reports. Catherine Garcia
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard fired "a number of mid-range surface-to-surface missiles" at Islamic State targets inside Syria on Sunday.
In a statement to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' office of public affairs said the missiles were launched from the western border provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdistan, and delivered "fatal and crushing blows" in the Deir Ezzor area. ISIS claimed responsibility for the June 7 attacks in Tehran that left at least 17 people dead, and the missile launch was in retaliation, the IRGC said.
Iran accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of supporting the Tehran attacks, Bloomberg reports, and earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf nations severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, due to the country's relationship with Iran. Catherine Garcia
On Sunday, a Syrian government fighter jet was shot down by a U.S. aircraft hours after Syrian forces bombed U.S.-backed fighters in a village southwest of Raqqa, the Pentagon said.
This was the first time a U.S. jet downed a manned hostile aircraft in more than 10 years, The Washington Post reports, and the fourth time in a month that the U.S. military attacked Syrian loyalist forces. In a statement, the Syrian military said the jet was carrying out a mission against the Islamic State, and its pilot was killed. A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Col. John Thomas, scoffed at the claim that the aircraft was bombing ISIS, because the village of Ja'Din is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition mostly comprised of Arab and Kurdish fighters, and ISIS hasn't recently been in the area. Thomas said the jet was warned to stand down, and U.S. forces in the area were not threatened directly. Catherine Garcia
United Nations war crimes investigators report American-led air strikes are causing 'staggering' civilian deaths in Syria
War crimes investigators for the United Nations said Wednesday that the U.S.-backed air strikes on Raqqa, Syria, are causing a "staggering loss of civilian life," Reuters reports.
The offensive aims to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State's hold, although the chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Paolo Pinherio, said the effort cannot be "undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where [ISIS] is present." So far, an estimated 160,000 civilians have fled the city due to the turmoil, while between 50,000 and 100,000 people remain trapped there, the BBC reports.
Update 12:55 p.m.: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now reports that over 100 civilians were killed Thursday in a pair of airstrikes in eastern Syria, up from earlier reports of 35 dead in a single airstrike. "There were two rounds of strikes: one Thursday night and the second after midnight, targeting buildings housing families of [Islamic State] fighters," said the Syrian Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman. Our original post appears below.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East killed at least 35 civilians in airstrikes in eastern Syria on Thursday, the same day the U.S. Central Command admitted to accidentally killing at least 105 Iraqi civilians in Mosul in a March targeting of two snipers.
The eastern Syrian town targeted Thursday is held by ISIS. "Among the dead are at least 26 relatives of [ISIS] fighters, many of them women and children, including Syrians and Moroccans," the head of the Syrian Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, told France 24. "The other nine are Syrian civilians and include five children."
Monitors aren't sure how many civilians have been killed by the U.S.-led coalition, but Airwars, a London-based group of researchers and journalists, puts the number at 366 in Iraq and Syria in April alone. The group "said it had seen civilian fatalities surge since U.S. President Donald Trump came to power and gave greater leeway to battlefield commanders," France 24 writes.
The Syrian Observatory, also based in Britain, estimates 225 civilians were killed in coalition strikes between April 23 and May 23. Before the Thursday report, the United States military had claimed 352 civilians had been "unintentionally" killed since 2014.
"Our condolences go out to all those that were affected," Major General Joe Martin said in a statement following Thursday's report on the Mosul bombing. "The coalition takes every feasible measure to protect civilians from harm." Jeva Lange
As President Trump was in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, being treated like royalty, his United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, was touring the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, home to about 80,000 Syrian refugees, half of them children. "We're the No. 1 donor here through this crisis. That's not going to stop. We're not going to stop funding this," Haley said. "The fact that I'm here shows we want to see what else needs to be done." The U.S. is "not pulling back" in the region, she told reporters, but "engaging more," citing Trump's airstrike on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's air base.
Trump has proposed steep cuts to foreign aid, including the United Nations and agencies such as the ones helping refugees from Syria's civil war, and has twice tried to stop all refugees from entering the U.S.; both attempts were blocked by courts, though the second one is being appealed. Haley didn't directly address Trump's budget proposal, saying she knows the funding is "going through the budget process within Congress," and said she supports strengthening the refugee vetting process and noted that all the refugees she spoke with wanted to go back home to Syria, not to the U.S.
Haley has been an unusually outspoken U.N. ambassador serving alongside an unusually taciturn secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. More than 5 million Syrians have fled the country's multifaceted conflict between Assad, the Islamic State, anti-Assad rebels, and various outside partners. "This is all in the name of our Syrian brothers and sisters," Haley told aid workers after inspecting a food convoy. "We want you to feel like the U.S. is behind you." Peter Weber
Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed on May 4 to organize four "de-escalation zones" in Syria, documents released by the Russian foreign ministry on Saturday revealed, maintaining the areas for at least six months.
The zones are mostly in opposition-held territory and are intended to offer some respite from the brutal violence of Syria's six-year civil war. The largest zone is expected to include Idlib province, the site of last month's chemical weapons attack, though maps will be finalized in the coming month.
If successful, the zones will facilitate humanitarian aid and a degree of normalcy for civilians. The Bashar al-Assad regime, which is allied with Russia and Iran, said it would respect the agreement but also promised to continue fighting the opposition's "terrorism" wherever possible. The Turkish-allied rebels criticized the zones for not including all of Syria and said the deal was reached without adequate opposition input. Bonnie Kristian
Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Friday asserted Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime still has chemical weapons, though he did not present evidence for his claim.
"There can be no doubt in the international community's mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that it had removed them all," Mattis said at a joint press conference with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. "The amount of it I don't want to get into it right now," he added. "We don't reveal some of that detail because we don't want to reveal how we're finding out."
Assad denies holding chemical weapons, and he has claimed the chemical attack in Syria earlier this month was faked. More than 80 people were killed by what is believed to be sarin gas, and President Trump authorized a 59-missile strike on Assad regime targets in response.