Syria’s opposition says “political transition” could be on agenda
For the first time, a small advance is being claimed in indirect talks between the Assad regime and Syria’s opposition and rebels.
Both sides said on Wednesday that they saw a move towards an agenda for detailed negotiations.
The opposition-rebel bloc said Russia had pressed the regime delegation to address the issue of a political transition, while a “source close to” the Assad group said there was agreement on combatting “terrorism”.
President Assad has held out for almost five years after any discussion of a transitional governing authority, as this could involve his departure from power. Just before the Geneva talks, it appeared that the UN had dropped the notion of a “transitional process”, only for its envoy Staffan de Mistura to assure that the idea — a centerpiece of international proposals since June 2012 — was still in play.
“We notice now that the political transition subject has become the main subject on the table,” opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri told reporters yesterday.
The Assad regime uses “terrorism” to describe all armed opposition. It was unclear on Wednesday if this had been revised to ensure opposition-rebel consideration of the item on the agenda.
Yahya Kodmani, a member of the opposition delegation, said he and colleagues had made strong and clear points to Russia’s Gennady Gatilov on Wednesday, and that Moscow would need time to respond.
“We want them to be neutral and not enemies to Syria,” Kodmani said. “We want them to pressure and sponsor the political transition process. We want them to work with us on stopping terrorism in Syria.”
The UN’s De Mistura visited the opposition’s hotel late in the evening after the meeting with Gatilov, but declined to comment.
Both sides said they held “deep” discussions with de Mistura in separate meetings earlier on Wednesday.
Nasr al-Hariri, the chief negotiator of the opposition-rebel High Negotiations Committee, speaks to journalists on Wednesday (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
Regime Claims Recapture of Palmyra from ISIS
The regime military claims it has recaptured the historic city of Palmyra in central Syria from the Islamic State.
Palmyra, a prominent travellers’ stop in the Roman era, has changed hands four times in less than two years. ISIS first took it in May 2015. Pro-Assad forces reoccupied it in March 2016, but the Islamic State — taking advantage of the preoccupation of the regime with the capture of all of Aleppo city — returned in December.
The Syrian Army’s Command announced victory on Thursday after ground operations supported by Russian and regime air forces.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also announced the Syrian regime’s control of the city.
Footage from Russian State outlet RT:
US: Russia-Regime Bombing of US-Backed, Kurdish-Led Force
Russian and regime warplanes bombed positions held by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces on Wednesday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said, but Russia denied any incident.
The bombing reportedly occurred amid clashes and tension between three forces near the city of al-Bab in Aleppo Province — the Turkish-rebel offensive that took the city last week, pro-Assad forces to the south, and the SDF to the east.
“Yesterday, we had some Russian aircraft and (Syrian) regime aircraft bomb some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS [the Islamic State], yet they were actually – on the ground – were some of our Syrian Arab coalition forces,” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told a news briefing.
The Russian Defense Ministry issued a denial. It said that the US military provided Russia with exact coordinates and Moscow took that information into account: “Not one strike was launched by Russian or Syrian aviation on the areas given by the American side.”
US forces in the area, 4 to 5 km (2 1/2 to 3 miles) away, observed the strikes and the American military called Russian counterparts through an emergency line, after which the bombing stopped, Townsend said.
SDF: Turkish-Rebel Attack on Our Villages Near Manbij
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the Turkish-rebel attacked SDF-held villages, east of al-Bab and near the city of Manbij, on Wednesday.
“There is a very big attack by the Euphrates Shield and Turkish army on the villages and areas of the Manbij Military Council,” spokesman Sharfan Darwish said, naming eight villages about 27 km (17 miles) west of Manbij. “There are fierce clashes … and heavy artillery bombardment.”
There was no comment from Turkey.
Manbij has emerged as a possible point of conflict between the Turkish-rebel offensive, which has advanced southwards in Aleppo Province against the Islamic State since last August, and the SDF.
The US-supported SDF captured Manbij last June, in an advance that defied a Turkish “red line” of the Euphrates River. Ankara considered the Kurdish YPG militia, the leading faction in the SDF, as part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
Turkey has tried to get US pressure on the SDF to withdraw, but with no apparent success. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said earlier this week that Manbij is the next target of the Euphrates Shield offensive.
SDF fighters, including one wearing a badge of Turkish Kurdish PKK leader Abdollah Ocalan, battling Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army units, west of Manbij: