PHOTO: Head of Syrian opposition-rebel delegation, Mohammad Alloush, with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday
UPDATE 1130 GMT: The regime’s air force has bombed Harasta, northeast of Damascus, this morning.
White Helmets volunteers rescue injured civilians:
— SCD RifDimashq (@SCDrifdimashq) January 25, 2017
UPDATE 0815 GMT: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet Syrian opposition representatives in Moscow on Friday, according to the Russian State news agency RIA, citing the Russian Foreign Ministry.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: After two days of talks in Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have pledged to establish a full ceasefire in Syria.
However, the Assad regime has already said that it will not recognize the truce, continuing an offensive northwest of Damascus, and opposition-rebel negotiators have expressed reservations over Iran’s role as a monitor and said that Iranian-led militias must leave Syria.
After a bitter opening session and indirect discussions between the regime and opposition-rebel groups, Russia, Turkey, and Iran announced on Tuesday afternoon the creation of a “trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire”.
The head of the Assad regime’s delegation, UN Ambassador Bashar al-Ja’afari, immediate said that Damascus will not observe the ceasefire.
Ja’afari said the Hezbollah-regime offensive, which began on December 22 and continued despite a ceasefire announced a week later, will be sustained to drive “terrorists” from Wadi Barada, which provides more than 60% of Damascus’s water.
“This is about freeing the main source of water,” said Jaafari. “As long as there are terrorists depriving 7 million people in the capital of water we will continue the operation.”
Pro-Assad attacks were reported on Tuesday near the al-Fija springs.
Russia, Turkey, and Iran said that opposition-rebel groups would take part in a new round of UN-led peace talks next month in Geneva, but Osama Abu Zaid, the legal advisor to the Free Syrian Army, said participation at Geneva depended on whether demands were met.
“We presented a scheme for mechanisms to monitor and implement the ceasefire,” Abu Zeid said. “The Russians have promised to review [the demands] in a week and said they will make a decision with the Turkish side during their meeting in Astana after seven days.”
“This is a joint statement by three countries. We are not party to this agreement. It is an agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey – they can sign any agreements they want to. But from our side, we said we had many reservations,” said Abu Zeid.
Opposition-rebel representatives also said the success of the talks depended on the “removal of all foreign [Iran-backed] militias” from Syria and the ability of Russia and Turkey to ensure that Iran abides by the agreement.
The trilateral statement said the Assad regime and opposition agreed to “jointly fight against ISIL [the Islamic State] and al-Nusra Front [the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham], and to separate them from armed groups”.
However, opposition officials claimed they had not discussed which groups were to be excluded from the ceasefire.
The opposition-rebel bloc went to Astana in the hope that they could begin to separate Russia from Iran and the Assad regime, anticipating that Damascus would not make any move towards a ceasefire or an end to sieges, let alone a political resolution.
Mohammad Alloush, the head of the opposition-rebel delegation, built on that expectation on Tuesday: “The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor. They are finding a lot of obstacles from Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime.”
Abu Zeid said, “We are not opposed to Russia because it is Russia but we had a problem when its jets were participating with the regime in killing our people. If this role ends then we’ll have no problem.”
While the three-power statement gave no indication of a political shift, Russia’s line towards the Syrian opposition and rebels has eased this week. Russian State media have discarded past references to the bloc as illegitimate or linked to “extremists”, and treated it neutrally as a party in the conflict.
A statement by Russia’s chief negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev focused on the rebels:
The negotiations with the armed Syrian opposition recognized as a whole the importance of the launch of a political process and the need to start work on elaborating a new Constitution of Syria, the need for its eventual adoption, either through a referendum or in another acceptable form upon the expression of the will of the Syrian people and the subsequent Parliamentary and Presidential elections.
We’ll hope that the armed Syrian opposition will be more active in this direction. We’ll be trying to help it in that.
ISIS Destroys Last Hospital in Regime-Held Deir ez-Zor
The Islamic State has damaged the regime’s only civilian hospital in Deir ez-Zor city in eastern Syria.
ISIS launched an offensive more than a week ago against regime forces in and near the regime section of Deir ez-Zor, which has been divided since 2015.
The Islamic State fighters seized Assad Hospital for several hours and “destroyed everything inside” before withdrawing, according to journalist Raed al-Farati.
A fully-equipped military hospital with a complete medical staff is still operating, but it is reserved for regime troops and military officials.
Al-Farati told Syria Direct:
With five doctors, the hospital didn’t have the resources to address all of the residents’ medical needs. But people used it as the main place to seek medical care since it was the only hospital they had access to. Assad Hospital served around 20,000 residents….
Right now, residents are relying completely on Syrian Arab Red Crescent clinics for treatment. Those who need surgery and intensive care are dying. These clinics don’t have tools to run tests, X-rays or even conduct surgeries.
People have grown exhausted from the siege, hunger, poverty and spread of disease.
Turkey: We Will Not Hand Liberated Towns to Assad Regime
Pointing to a de facto partition of Syria, Turkey has said that it will not hand over towns, taken from the Islamic State, to the Assad regime.
Deputy Prime Minister Kurtulmuş spoke specifically about a seven-week Turkish-rebel offensive on al-Bab, ISIS’s main position in Aleppo Province, “Al-Bab belongs to the people of Al-Bab.”
He declared that Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria alongside rebels from late August “is not an operation that aims to clear the area and then hand it over to the regime”:
It is an operation to protect the borders of Turkey and to immediately eliminate the threats to Turkey south of the border….
The main purpose of this operation is to clear the cities there and to hand over those cities to the local people.
Turkey and the Syrian rebels have struggled to move into al-Bab, amid fierce ISIS resistance. Meanwhile, the Assad regime has raised the prospect that its forces and allies could pursue the capture of the town, taking several villages last week from ISIS to the south of al-Bab.