Assad regime finally allows movements after months of refusal
The Assad regime has finally permitted some medical evacuations from opposition-held, besieged East Ghouta near Syria’s capital Damascus.
The Red Cross said on Wednesday that, after months of appeals, the regime is allowing movement of around 500 patients, including children with cancer.
The pro-opposition Syrian American Medical Society said four patients were taken to hospitals in Damascus on Wednesday, with the remainder of 29 critical cases evacuated over coming days.
— ICRC Syria (@ICRC_sy) December 26, 2017
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday that Turkey was working with Russia to arrange the evacuation.
The regime has tightened its four-year siege and maintained bombardment of East Ghouta, despite a de-escalation zone agreed between Russia and rebels. Almost 400,000 residents are trapped, with tunnels closed by regime forces in March and the last crossing for supplies dismantled in July.
The UN has warned of “complete catastrophe” and repeatedly asked for transfer of the seriously ill, including to a hospital only 30 minutes away. It has said that more than 15 people have died from treatable medical conditions in recent weeks. Last week the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Jan Egeland, summarized:
[The] number is going down, not because we are evacuating people but because they are dying. We have tried now every single week for many months to get medical evacuations out, and food and other supplies in.
The UN has also said that many people in East Ghouta face malnutrition, with up to 1,500 children at imminent risk.
Erdoğan: No Political Resolution with “Terrorist” Assad in Power
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said no political resolution is possible with “terrorist” Bashar al-Assad remaining in power.
Erdoğan had toned down his long-standing call for Assad’s departure since Turkey began cooperating with Russia in summer 2016.
However, with the Assad regime walking out of the Geneva talks two weeks ago, Erdoğan returned to his tougher position, a televised news conference with his Tunisian counterpart in Tunis:
Assad is definitely a terrorist who has carried out state terrorism. It is impossible to continue with Assad. How can we embrace the future with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens?
The Turkish President questioned if the regime will ever comply with de-escalation zones — formally endorsed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran — across Syria:
We can’t say [Assad] will handle this. It is impossible for Turkey to accept this [refusal]….There is no peace in Syria and this peace won’t come with Assad.
Kurdish Groups Insist on Attending Russia’s “National Congress” as Federal Entity
Syrian Kurdish groups have insisted that they should attend Russia’s proposed “national congress”, to be held in the southern Russian city of Sochi, as a federal entity.
A statement, which included the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), said the Kurds must attend under the federal umbrella and not as individual groups, “as we represent the political will of the entities and social forces in the region”.
Moscow has repeatedly delayed the congress, now scheduled for the end of January, in part because of Turkish objections to the presence of the PYD. Ankara considers the group to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
The Assad regime has rejected any recognition of Kurdish autonomy in a federal Syria.
Video: Latest Pro-Assad Attacks on Idlib Province
Pro-Assad forces are continuing their attacks on opposition-held southern Idlib and northern Hama Provinces. Despite proclaiming a de-escalation zone, Russia is supporting the assault, using the pretext that it is carrying out operations against the “terrorists” of the hardline Islamist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
On Christmas Day, several people were reportedly killed in a displaced persons’ camp and other sites east of Idlib city.
Zeina Khodr of Al Jazeera English reports:
In northern Hama Province, rebels downed a regime L-39 warplane on Tuesday, hitting it with a MANPADS (man-portable air defense system). The pilot was killed.
In Moscow, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov, maintained the pretext for the assault despite the supposed de-escalation zone. He told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda that next year’s developments in Syria will include “the completion of eliminating militants from Jabhat al-Nusra and its affiliates”:
Some members of this terrorist organization operate in de-escalation zone. Jabhat al-Nusra fiercely opposes [the ceasefire]. Therefore, they must be eliminated.
Gerasimov did not specify if this goal would entail Russian support for a pro-Assad offensive to regain control of Idlib Province, almost all of which has been held by the opposition since spring 2015.
The Assad regime has held out against any political resolution of the Syrian conflict until Idlib and other opposition areas are overrun.
Gerasimov also continued Moscow’s propaganda that the US has created training camps for former Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in eastern Syria: “According to satellite and other surveillance data, terrorist squads are stationed there. They are effectively training there.”
The Kremlin and Russian military have been pushing the unsupported claim in an effort to force a US withdrawal and end of support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which hold much of northern and eastern Syria. This would clear the way for pressure, including the prospect of a pro-Assad offensive, to force the SDF out of position which include oil and gas fields.