US “very encouraged” by state of ceasefire in southwest Syria
The US has endorsed Russian monitors on the ground for a ceasefire in southwest Syria.
Brett McGurk, the US special envoy for the campaign against the Islamic State, said on Thursday, “The Russians have made clear they’re very serious about this and willing to put some of their people on the ground to help monitor from the regime side. They do not want the regime violating the ceasefire.”
McGurk’s remark is yet another shift in Washington’s position since the first US-Russian agreement for “de-escalation” was announced last Friday and went into effect on Sunday. On Wednesday, the State Department tried to pull back Russia’s proclamations of a joint monitoring center with the US and Jordan, based in the Jordanian capital Amman: “In terms of who is doing what, when, where, how, some of those details are still being worked out.”
Both Buzzfeed and Foreign Policy reported, citing officials, that “the US military has received no guidance on how to enforce the ceasefire” after Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the de-escalation agreement at the G20 summit in Germany last week.
McGurk said yesterday that he was “very encouraged” by progress since the ceasefire took effect.
The agreement has reduced violence in provinces along the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, including in Daraa city, where the Syrian uprising began in 2011. However, pro-Assad forces have continued shelling in the de-escalation zone and have redeployed forces for offensives in southeast Syria and the Damascus suburbs. Fierce fighting was reported in Jobar in northeast Damascus on Thursday, with video showing rebels forcing a regime unit to withdraw after taking casualties.
Speaking in Paris on Thursday, Trump said talks were underway to negotiate a ceasefire in a second region of Syria.
McGurk was cautious about Trump’s assertion, “I think the president is referring to a very constructive discussion that he had with the Russians in building from this southwest agreement,” but he added that the US had “very constructive…military-to-military discussions with the Russians about deconfliction arrangements” and is keen to explore the possibility of ceasefires in other areas.
Rebels: 2 Regime “Toxic Gas” Attacks Near Damascus in 24 Hours
Rebels claim that they have been targeted, in fighting near Damascus, by “toxic gas” twice in 24 hours.
Pro-rebel outlets said six fighters were having breathing difficulties.
Medics, activists, and rebels have reported regular use of gas, probably by chlorine, as pro-Assad forces try to advance in Jobar in northeast Damascus and in nearby Ein Tarma.
The Assad regime has resorted to chlorine, which is not banned under international conventions, since it had to hand over chemical stocks following its August 2013 sarin attacks near Damascus.
A victim of the latest attack on Ein Tarma:
The White Helmets with images of destruction and casualties in Ein Tarma:
— SCD Rif-Dimashq (@SCDrifdimashq) July 14, 2017
UN: “Traumatized” Civilians Fleeing ISIS-Held Raqqa
Scores of civilians are fleeing the Islamic State’s center of Raqqa in northern Syria, as a US-supported, Kurdish-led force tries to capture remaining districts, the UN says.
Sajjad Malik, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Syria, said the numbers leaving had risen sharply in recent weeks: “They’re coming out really weak, thirsty, and frightened.
Malik, who visited camps for the displaced on Thursday, estimated that more than 240,000 people have left homes in and near Raqqa since the offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces began in late 2016:
They’re traumatized (by) what they’ve seen. Dead bodies all over the place. In some more destroyed neighborhoods, bodies still in that heat rotting on the street and in debris….
Some places do not even have enough drinking water anymore.
An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people remain in Raqqa. Malik said, “Those who are coming out now are paying enormous amounts of money, basically their lifelong savings, to smugglers to get them out. They’ve left family members behind.”
UN Envoy: Direct Regime-Opposition Talks Could Happen Soon
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday that the first face-to-face talks between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition could be held soon.
De Mistura was asked, on the penultimate day of the seventh round of Geneva talks, if the negotiations could occur before the next round in late August. He replied:
Perhaps even earlier. I’m not pushing for it. Because I want, when it happens, that there should not be a row but should be real talks. We are actually pushing for areas where they do have common points.
De Mistura’s remarks contrast with the public position of the Syrian opposition and rebels, who have stood back from both the Geneva talks and those in Kazakh capital Astana because of the Assad regime’s refusal to halt attacks and sieges and to release political detainees.
The talks since January have also been hindered by Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to contemplate a transition in which he leaves power.
But De Mistura has held a series of discussions with the head of the regime delegation, UN Ambassador Bashar al-Ja’afari, this week. On Thursday, he promised the talks would “go into much more substance on the political side”.
Ja’afari has declared the discussions are focusing on “counter-terrorism” — often used by the Assad regime to refer to any armed opposition — while technical talks are held on a new Constitution.