PHOTO: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov
Russia has pressed again for prominent rebel factions in Syria to be labeled as “terrorists”, in a dispute which is likely to block the start of opposition-regime negotiations.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Wednesday that further consultations with the members of the International Syria Support Group are needed for the appropriate lists of terrorists to be concluded:
We deem it necessary to exchange views with our partners on resumption of negotiations among the Syrian delegations. We are determined to have a constructive exchange of views with our partners in a bid to search for solutions, which could give a kick-start to the intra-Syrian talks.
The list of terrorist organizations needs to be finalized and approved by the International Syria Support Group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also pushed the line in a telephone conversation with US counterpart Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Moscow and Iran, the main allies of President Assad, have insisted that rebel factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam must be called “terrorist” and thus excluded from any discussions for a political resolution.
Jaish al-Islam, the largest rebel group near Damascus, has a representative on the opposition-rebel negotiating team established last month. Its leader, Zahran Alloush, was assassinated in a Russian-regime airstrike on December 25.
Moscow tried at the third set of international talks in mid-December to obtain its preferred list of “terrorists”. However, the effort collapsed when the Jordanian Foreign Minister, commissioned to produce the document for discussion, also included groups allied with the Assad regime including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Qods Force.
The International Syria Support Group is seeking the launch of opposition-regime negotiations on January 25.
“An Appropriate Opposition”
Gatilov also indicated that Russia is trying to define an appropriate “opposition” for the discussions, rejecting the bloc established last month in a conference hosted by Saudi Arabia.
He said he had spoken with a number of opposition representatives in Geneva:
If, as they told us, they are excluded from the negotiating process they will not be able to support decisions taken without their say. They all said they were ready to take part in the negotiating process, so they demonstrated political will for participation.
Russia has promoted domestically-based groups such as Building the Syrian State and the Movement of the Pluralistic Society. Russian officials had talks with MPS founder Randa Kassis earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Gatilov met both Salih Muslim, the head of the Syrian Kurdish party PYD, and Haitham Manaa, the co-President of the Syrian Democratic Council.
Assad Regime Gave “Free, Unlimited” Use of Airbase to Russia
The Russian Government has published the agreement with the Assad regime for the use of the airbase from which Moscow is conducting its bombing campaign.
The agreement was signed on August 26, more than a month before Russia launched its airstrikes.
It stipulates that, with “the necessity of consolidating forces to oppose the terrorist threat”, Russia can have unlimited use of the Hmeimem base in Latakia Province in western Syria.
No fees will be levied by Damascus and the Russian military has “full immunity from civil and administrative jurisdiction of the Syrian Arab Republic”.
2nd Aid Convoy Reaches Madaya
A second aid convoy has reached besieged Madaya, northwest of Damascus, on Thursday.
Six white trucks of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered the town, where an estimated 60 people have died of starvation since December 1. They carried flour and other foodstuffs, medicine, and a range of basic supplies.
More trucks were on the edge of Madaya after arriving from Damascus.
— ICRC Syria (@ICRC_sy) January 14, 2016
Madaya has been cut off by the Syrian military since last July, with only one convoy of aid reaching the town in mid-October.
On Monday, a four-truck convoy reached Madaya after the Assad regime relented in the face international attention to the town’s plight. Assistance was delivered at the same time to the regime enclaves of al-Fu’ah and Kafraya in northwest Syria.
Video: Rebels — We Repelled Latest Regime Offensive South of Aleppo
Rebels claim that they have repelled the latest regime offensive — covered by Russian airstrikes and including Iranian troops, Hezbollah fighters, and foreign militias — south of Aleppo city.
The offensive was launched earlier this from Khan Tuman (see map) towards al-Rashidin. Rebels claim that they inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers.
Video with a captured Hezbollah flag and graphic images of slain fighters:
A similar video from Jabhat al-Nusra has a shot of one of its elite units (at 1:50):
Turkey Confirms Attacks in Support of Rebels v. Islamic State
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has confirmed Turkish attacks inside Syria, supporting rebels in their fight against the Islamic State.
Addressing Turkey’s ambassadors, Davutoğlu said on Thursday that Turkey had killed 200 ISIS members along the borders with Syria and Iraq.
The Prime Minister framed the attacks as retaliation for Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Istanbul which killed 10 people and wounded 15. However, Syria’s rebels have been in a long-running battle with the Islamic State in northern Aleppo Province.
“From now on, any threat directed against Turkey’s guests [tourists] will be retaliated in kind,” Davutoğlu said.
Schools Closed in Opposition-Held Idlib Because of Russian Bombing
The Education Ministry in opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria has closed schools for a week, saying they are being targeted by Russian airstrikes.
About 70,000 students will be affected.
Earlier this week authorities in Aleppo Province said classes would be held underground following Russian attacks on schools, including one last weekend that killed eight children and a teacher in the town of Anjara. Exams have been postponed.
Elections in Opposition-Held Damascus Suburb of Erbin
The opposition site Zaman al-Wasl reports on elections for a local council in Erbin, northeast of Damascus.
The site describes the establishment of an electoral law, registration, and distribution of election cards. The successful candidate will meet on Saturday to elect the President of the Council and members of the Executive Office.
Ahrar al-Sham: Salma Was Lost Because Of “Lack of Available Fighters”
The leading rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham has said that the village of Salma in northeast Latakia Province was suddenly lost this week because of a “lack of available fighters”, amid internal disputes over the priority of different fronts.
Ali al-Halfawi, Ahrar al-Sham’s spokesman for Latakia, said, “We requested many times that the other brigades send reinforcements to the Latakia coast front… [but other rebel groups] are giving priority to the Aleppo front because of the importance of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing [with Turkey].”
Salma, held since July 2012 by the opposition, was the most significant rebel position in Latakia. The village was the entry into the rebel-held Jabal al-Akrad mountain range.
Abdullah al-Moheisini, a prominent cleric with the Jaish al-Fateh rebel bloc, said rebels in the north are not “spineless” but “made an error in ordering their priorities” over Salma.
Rebel spokesmen said the village could still have been held if it had not been for more than 200 Russian airstrikes in support of the Syrian military’s offensive, which attacked Salma from four sides.
“The regime used a scorched-earth policy to clear the area,” citizen journalist Ammar Ibrahim said.