PHOTO: Mohammad Alloush, the lead rebel negotiator at political talks in Kazakhstan next week
Syria’s rebels say that they are attending political talks in Kazakhstan next week to test the commitment of Russia and the Assad regime to a genuine ceasefire and to aid to besieged areas.
However, sources close to rebel factions have told EA that they do not expect any regime acceptance and that they do not trust the Russians to seek a resolution. They say the challenge will then be to establish before international opinion that President Assad and his allies are only intent on further destruction, including the ongoing killing and displacement of civilians.
The statements echo the comments by a Free Syrian Army official to Reuters, “The factions will go and the first thing they will discuss will be the matter of the ceasefire and the violations by the regime. This will be a test for the Russians as the guarantor.”
On Monday, some leading rebel factions said they will attend the talks, brokered by Russia and Turkey and scheduled for January 23 in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. Mohammad Alloush, a senior official in Jaish al-Islam, was named as lead negotiator.
Other factions, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are staying away from the discussions.
The Assad regime has confirmed it will be in Astana, with UN Ambassador Bashar al-Ja’afari heading the delegation. However, President Assad has already said that he will not step aside in any transition, an essential condition of the Syrian oppositon and rebels, and that attacks will continue — breaking a ceasefire, brokered by Russia and Turkey, on December 29 — on areas such as Wadi Barada, northwest of Damascus.
The rebel sources note not only the four-week offensive trying to overrun Wadi Barada but also pro-Assad offensives northeast of Damascus and aerial and ground assaults elsewhere in Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which documents attacks and deaths in the conflict, has said that 98% of ceasefire violations have been by the regime and its allies.
The sources anticipate that the Astana talks will quickly stall, with the regime delegation insisting that any discussion of Assad’s future is “totally unjustified” and that “terrorism” must be the lead item. A fruitless discussion of the agenda will then ensue.
The sources expressed their concern that “media across the planet” will then “relay Russian and regime propaganda blaming rebels for the end of this incredible peace initiative”.
Rebels Hand Power in Idlib to Elected Local Council
The rebel bloc Jaish al-Fateh, which has governed Idlib city since it was captured in March 2015 from the regime, has handed over power to an elected local council.
The head of the election commission, Muhammad Salim Khoder, said the handover was completed “after efforts by the people of the city to persuade Jaish al-Fateh to deliver the city’s administration for the people to elect a local council manages its affairs”.
Residents over the age of 25 selected 25 candidates from a list of 85.
One of the candidates, surgeon Hossam Eddin Dubies, said, “We came to participate in this big wedding, to accompany our people’s unbridled desire in the formation of a local council of civilian representatives to manage the institutions”.
Meanwhile, pro-Assad air attacks continued in the area:
— FSA News (@FSAPlatform) January 18, 2017
Reports: US Strike Kills Ahrar al-Sham Leader
Pro-opposition outlets are reporting that a US drone strike has killed a leader of the rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham.
Abo Ibrahim al-Tunisi was slain and his companion gravely injured near the village of Eqerbat in Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
The US-led coalition is attacking the jihadists of the “terrorist” Jabhat al-Nusra as well as the Islamic State, killing scores of members in recent weeks, but Washington formally does not consider Ahrar al-Sham a target.
Iran Splits From Russia and Turkey Over US at Political Talks
Iran has made clear its split from Russia and Turkey over the issue of the US attending next week’s political talks in Kazakhstan.
Iran’s Secretary of the National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said on Wednesday, “Due to Iran’s objection to the US participation in the Astana gathering, Washington has been sent no joint invitation by the three countries, at whose initiative the meeting is to take place.”
And the Supreme Leader’s top aide, Ali Akbar Velayati — in a statement also carried by Russian State media — said at a meeting with the Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, in Tehran:
Those, who patronized terrorists, equipped them and were defeated at the battleground, now want to be present in the political field for advancing their interests. The US initially insisted on overthrowing the legitimate authorities of Syria and bringing in a puppet regime instead of them.
The Islamic Republic of Iran strongly opposes the US participation in the intra-Syrian talks in Astana. If this happens, then tomorrow Saudi Arabia and Qatar will seek to take part in these talks – the countries that played a major role in equipping and sending terrorists to Syria.
Tehran first broke with Russia and Turkey on Tuesday when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Tasnim News Agency that he saw no reason for the uS to attend. President Rouhani repeated the message on Tuesday night that “terrorist supporters” such as the US and Saudi Arabia must be excluded.
Russia indirectly hit back on Wednesday, featuring the comments of Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad, with the pro-regime Lebanese outlet al-Mayadeen, that any country which “honestly seeks to facilitate the peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict, is eligible to take part in the Astana meeting”.
Miqdad set the conditions of the regime — and/or the Russians — that Washington “will have to prove its sincerity about settling the Syrian crisis” through measures such as “exert[ing] pressure on Turkey to make it close its border with Syria” and influencing “partners” such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to prevent them “from financing militant groups and supplying weapons to them”.
Video: Burning Regime Tank Amid Ongoing Offensive in Wadi Barada
A regime tank burns as pro-Assad forces continue their attempt to overrun the Wadi Barada area, northwest of Damascus:
The four-week offensive has continued with bombing, shelling, and ground assaults in defiance of a December 29 ceasefire. Hezbollah and regime forces have taken one village, Bassima, but nine others remain with between 50,000 and 100,000 people.
Heavy clashes continue between rebels & Hezbollah/regime in Ein Fijeh, Wadi Barada this morning, shelling & rocket attacks haven't stopped
— Sami (@Paradoxy13) January 18, 2017
1st US Strikes in Support of Turkish-Rebel Offensive v. ISIS in Al-Bab
The US says it has carried out its first airstrikes in support of a Turkish-rebel offensive against al-Bab, the key position of the Islamic State in Aleppo Province.
US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, a Baghdad-based spokesman, said there were four strikes in recent days against ISIS targets, including an armored personnel carrier and tactical units.
Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have bitterly criticized Washington for not backing the offensive which began in early December. Ankara even warned that the issue could affect US access to the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.
The Turkish-rebel offensive has taken much of the the Islamic State’s territory in northern Syria, including a 55-km (34-mile) corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border. However, it has struggled against tough ISIS resistance in al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo city.
The US spokesman Dorrian told reporters, “This is something we expect to continue doing. We strike [Islamic State] targets anywhere in Syria or Iraq that they can be found.”
He said the targets were “mutually developed” by the US and Turkey.