PHOTO: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday
International talks on Syria’s crisis will resume on Friday in New York, following a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Russia.
Kerry had a three-hour meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, followed by three more hours in discussion with President Vladimir Putin.
Afterwards, the Russians indicated that they had dropped their objections to New York as the site for the next round of international discussions, following two rounds in October and November in Vienna.
Kerry’s trip to Moscow came amid days of Russian airstrikes inside Syria that have killed and wounded hundreds of civilians. On Tuesday, scores died in bombing of an oil and fuel market in Idlib Province and a consumer market in Aleppo city.
However, the two sides indicated that they had narrowed differences over the participation of opposition and rebel factions in negotiations, saying that they had narrowed a gap on a list of “terrorist” groups.
Kerry backed away from US rhetoric that President Assad must step aside in a political transition, saying only that it was “unlikely” that he could preside over a settlement: “The United States and our partners are not seeking regime change in Syria.” He emphasized that the opposition and rebels should not set a pre-condition of Assad’s immediate departure.
Lavrov said Russia would accept an opposition delegation in New York, if they were under the auspices of a UN moderator:
There’s no question that when the United States and Russia work together our two countries benefit, and I think everybody else does, too. Despite our differences we demonstrated that when our countries pull together, progress can be made.
The Foreign Minister also said that Russian and the US agreed on “some further steps” in the fight against the Islamic State.
Kerry hailed US-Russian cooperation, saying they were “honest with differences”:
We see Syria fundamentally very similarly. We want the same outcomes, we see the same dangers, we understand the same challenges….
When the United States and Russia pull together in the same direction, progress can be made.
Video: Cameraman is Killed While Filming Rescue in Douma
While filming the rescue of victims of regime attacks on the Damascus suburb of Douma, cameraman Mohammed Elias is killed by another strike:
Hundreds of civilians have died in regime bombardment of Douma since the summer, with at least 45 killed last Sunday.
Jaish al-Islam Threatens Withdrawal from Opposition-Rebel Bloc
The leading faction Jaish al-Islam has threatened to withdraw from the opposition-rebel bloc established in discussions in Saudi Arabia last week.
JAI considers withdrawal from Riyadh talks. Final statement ignores agreed basics like state identity and dismantling of security apparatus
— Army of Islam (@Islamarmy_eng2) December 16, 2015
Withdrawal would further dent the effort for a bloc to negotiate with the Assad regime. Ahrar al-Sham, the largest faction in the rebellion, declined to sign the final Riyadh statement because of issues with the composition of the leadership and negotiating committees and the failure of the conference to commit itself to an Islamic state.
Russian Military Repeats “We Are Working With Syrian Rebels”
The Russian military has repeated that it is working with Syrian rebels — even as it is bombing opposition-held territory across the country — against the Islamic State.
Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy said on Tuesday that Russian forces have “permanent contacts” with “more than 5,000 people” of the Syrian opposition, claiming that they provided information for more Russian airstrikes on ISIS yesterday.
Moscow has put out confusing and contradictory statements since President Vladimir Putin said last week that the Russian military was supporting rebel groups across four provinces in northern Syria.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said hours later that Russia was only providing arms to Assad regime forces. However, that statement was overturned on Monday by the chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, who said more than 5,000 members of the Free Syrian Army were backed by 30-40 Russian airstrikes each day.
Observers have suggested that the Russian contacts may be with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish militia YPG.
Claims: Rebel Counter-Attack on Airbase Near Damascus
Activists are claiming a rebel counter-attack on the helicopter base near Marj al-Sultan, east of Damascus, after it was captured by the Syrian military on Monday.
Some pro-opposition sites said the base was successfully reclaimed with the killing of more than 20 regime troops. However, Jaish al-Islam, the leading rebel group which had controlled the base, said fighting is ongoing.
Heavy clashes with the regime forces at Marj front in Eastern Ghouta pic.twitter.com/9ojyI08vwH
— Army of Islam (@Islamarmy_eng2) December 16, 2015
Rebels announced an operations room with five factions for the counter-offensive.
After weeks of intensive aerial attacks, including by Russian warplanes, the Syrian military took the helicopter base, a reserve base, and Marj al-Sultan village. Activists said another 2000 families were displaced by the fighting and 3000 acres of farmland was lost.