Russia sets date of January 29-30, but vague about Kurdish participation
Russia has issued another announcement of a “national congress” to discuss Syria’s conflict, but questions remain about the issues which have delayed the gathering for months.
The renewed declaration came on the second and final day of the latest set of Russia-Iran-Turkey talks in the Kazakh capital Astana. The Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry said the conference will be held in the Russian resort city of Sochi on January 29-30.
However, Russian representative Alexander Lavrentiev said the list of participants has not yet been agreed, and the issue of Kurdish particpation — which has repeatedly pushed back the date for the congress — immediately resurfaced.
Lavrentiev said there would be Kurdish groups at Sochi, but was vague about which ones, only saying there will be “quite a few” representatives.
In deference to Turkish objections, the Russian official said they will not include the leading Syrian Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Union Party (PYD), or its YPG militia.
Turkey considers the PYD and YPG to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, which has fought Ankara’s security forces for more than 30 years.
Lavrentiev also did not address recent statements by the Assad regime promising the destruction of the YPG, the leading element in the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.
On Monday, Bashar al-Assad promised the defeat of the SDF, which was created in autumn 2015 to push back the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria: “All those who work under the command of any foreign country in their own country and against their army and people are traitors, quite simply, regardless of their names, and that is our evaluation of the groups that work for the Americans in Syria.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad said later in the week, “There is another Da’esh [Islamic State] called the Syrian Democratic Forces and the U.S. is trying to support them against the will of the Syrian people….The Syrian Democratic Forces must give up and rejoin the Syrian Arab Republic, else they will share the same fate as Da’esh, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist groups.”
The Kremlin said on Friday that President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a phone call, had expressed their hope for the groundwork for the congress. The statement did not address the issue of Kurdish autonomy in Syria.
A Working Group for Detainees
In the day’s other major announcement, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said a working group on the release of detainees will be established.
Lavrentiev added there will be working groups on removal of mines and prisoner exchanges.
However, the Assad regime preferred to headline its demand for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops, with delegation head Bashar al-Ja’afari saying the presence of Turkish and American troops on Syrian territory is “an aggression”.
Hardline Islamist HTS Trying to Shut Local Councils in Idlib Province
Reports are circulating of attempts by the hardline jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to shut local councils in Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
Last week, the “Syrian Salvation Government”, affiliated with HTS, challenged the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government and ordered all local councils under the SIG to close.
The council in Ariha was dissolved, and the Saraqib council said it was ceasing activities after directorates were taken over by SSG personnel.
On Friday evening, HTS reportedly tried to move into the headquarters of the council in Harenboush, but was repelled by the rebel faction Faylaq al-Sham and armed residents.
HTS took military control of much of Idlib Province this summer, pushing out other factions such as Ahrar al-Sham; however, the opposition maintained governance and oversight of civil affairs across the area.
Researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov notes that the SSG/HTS takeover could further affect living conditions of the millions of Syrians, many of them displaced, in Idlib Province as foreign aid is cut off and pro-Assad forces, including Russian warplanes, use HTS as the pretext to attack:
Most residents of Idlib live in extreme poverty, relying on remittances from abroad, aid NGOs, selling whatever property they still have. They are too poor to afford the smuggling to Turkey & are basically trapped inside a densely populated area constantly being bombed.
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) December 22, 2017
Report: HTS Abducts 4 Activists
Reports are circulating that HTS has abducted four activists who had been removed from Madaya in Damascus Province, following the regime’s protracted siege on the town, to Idlib:
Today, Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (Nusra) kidnapped 4 activists forcibly displaced from Madaya now residing in Idlib city: Hassan Younis (w/ @SyriaCivilDef), his brother Baker Younis, Amjad al-Maleh & Hossam Mahmoud #الحرية_لناشطي_مضايا pic.twitter.com/MzCqAnRixF
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) December 23, 2017