PHOTO: Residents in Madaya in Damascus Province await aid, January 11, 2016



Deir ez-Zor’s Civilians Besieged by Both Islamic State and Regime

The UN’s senior official for humanitarian operations, responding to a question from the British Government, has indicated that airdrops to besieged civilians may be considered.

Stephen O’Brien said:

All options need to be on the table. We must be guided by the humanitarian imperative, and acknowledge the failure of negotiations over four years to secure the necessary access to these besieged areas.

Britain’s International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, wrote for O’Brien’s views on “possible use of airdrops in the Syria context”.

O’Brien indicated that the airdrops could be pursued without the permission of the Assad regime, which has long blocked aid operations. He cited operations “undertaken by various military actors, including the US in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, without the participation of the UN or humanitarian actors” and said “relevant UN guidelines” — which include agreement of the home Government — “would not apply”.

US to Oppose Any Airdrops?

A US Congressman said that the proposal is not viable.

“Airdropping doesn’t seem to be a smart way to provide food or humanitarian relief in this particular situation,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

We want to do all we can to help the Syrian people suffering at the hands of ISIS and the Assad regime. But the logistical roadblocks would make this sort of assistance rather perilous.

Cohen cited “the danger Assad’s forces would pose to American military assets, the potential damage airdropped materials could inflict onto those most in need of help, and the possibility of aid getting into the hands of terrorists”.

Benjamin Edwards, a spokesman for the US Agency for International Development, said:

Airdrops are generally the last resort for humanitarian aid delivery, and should only be considered when other safer, more efficient and effective means are unavailable.

Airdrops require staff on the ground to create large, visible drop zones, receive the supplies and organize the distribution, so that relief items are distributed according to need. Without proper controls, airdrops can lead to further insecurity, and vulnerable groups may not have access to the aid they need.

A UN resolution repeated last month that aid to besieged areas should be permitted by all sides, but the Syrian military continues to cut off areas across Syria. In one of the towns, Madaya in Damascus Province, an estimated 60 people starved to death before the regime relented and allowed three aid convoys since January 11.

The UN says about 400,000 people are besieged in Syria: 200,000 by the Islamic State’s offensives in Deir Ez Province in eastern Syria, 181,000 by the Syrian military’s blockades, and 12,500 in two regime enclaves surrounded by rebels in northwest Syria.

Activists say the UN has underestimated the number of people cut off by the Syrian military, notably in Damascus suburbs and in Homs, saying there are at least one million.

Another Resident Dies of Starvation in Madaya

The Syrian-American Medical Society reports another death from starvation in besieged Madaya, northwest of #Damascus:

An estimated 60 people have died from malnutrition in Madaya since December 1 amid a six-month siege by the Syrian military. The Assad regime finally relented to allow three aid convoys into the town in the past eight days.

Video: 8 People, Including 4 Children, Killed by Russian Airstrike

Opposition activists report that eight people, including four children, were killed on Wednesday by a Russian airstrike on Hazano village in Idlib Province in northwest Syria.

More than 20 people, most of them children, were injured.

State Media: Civilians Return to South Damascus After ISIS Departure

State media have hailed the return of civilians to Qaddam in southern Damascus, after the withdrawal of Islamic State fighters.

ISIS left the area, which it occupied last summer after clashes with rebels, under an UN-brokered agreement.

State TV showed civilians waving from green buses adorned with photographs of President Assad.

Rebels and the Assad regime had signed a truce over al-Qaddam in August 2014, in which civilians in the opposition-controlled eastern section could enter the regime-held western section via checkpoints. While water and electricity are available in the regime-held section, there is no electricity in the opposition-held districts and water only reaches some areas.

Before the truce, more than 90% of about 150,000 residents had fled to other areas in or around Damascus.

The residents returning home on Wednesday had registered with the local council and were cleared by the Assad regime.

US Takes Control of Airfield to Support Kurdish-Led Offensive Against Islamic State

US troops have taken over an airfield in northeastern Syria to support a Kurdish-led coalition against the Islamic State.

A spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces said the airfield near the town of Rmeilan, close to the Turkish and Iraqi borders, will become the first US-controlled airbase in Syria. It was previously held by the Kurdish militia YPG, the leading faction in the SDF.

“Under a deal with the YPG, the US was given control of the airport. The purpose of this deal is to back up the SDF, by providing weapons and an airbase for US warplanes,” Taj Kordsh, an SPG media activist said on Tuesday.

A media officer with US Central Command did not confirm or deny the reports.

The US Government has been switching its support from Syria’s rebels to the SDF, founded in October 2015. The Americans have provided weapons, ammunition, and special forces as the force has moved across northern Syria.

After Meeting Kerry, Russia’s Lavrov Insists Rebels Are “Terrorists”

Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov has maintained Russia’s line that some rebel factions are “terrorists” and must be excluded from negotiations.

After a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Lavrov said, “We stay firm that Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham are terrorist groups. We filed our evidence with all our partners.”

See Russia Hints at Delay in Next Week’s Talks

The State Department merely said that Kerry and Lavro “discussed plans for the UN-led negotiations between the Syrian parties on January 25 and the importance of maintaining progress toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria”.

It also said Kerry pressed Russia to “use its influence with the Assad regime to ensure immediate, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all Syrians in need, especially those in besieged areas such as Madaya”.


Kurdish Militia YPG Tries 4 Fighters for Damaging Arab Property

The Kurdish YPG militia has put four of its fighters on trial for damaging property of Arab civilians in northeastern Syria.

The YPG said in a statement on Tuesday that the fighters were arrested over incidents in the village of Al-Hawl and several surrounding villages.

“Following interrogations and an investigation, they have been stripped of YPG membership and sent to court to be tried in accordance with the law,” the statement declared.

Residents of al-Hawl, captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces on November 13, protested last weekend with the slogan “the people want Al-Hawl itself”.

Rebels Counter-Attack in Northern Latakia Province

Rebels are counter-attacking in northern Latakia Province, hoping to regain territory for a counter-offensive on the town of Salma.

Opposition outlets claim that rebels have regained ‘Ateiri, al-Hour and other villages, killing, wounding, or capturing dozens of regime troops. Pro-regime sites dispute the claims.

Rebel factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Turkmen units are fighting under a unified command in an attempt to retake the mountain town of Salma, considered the gateway into Hama Province. The jihadist faction Jabhat al-Nusra is also playing a limited role in the operations.

Last week regime forces took Salma, which had been held by rebels since 2012, after a three-month offensive supported by intense Russian airstrikes.

Raqqa Civilians Facing Russian Bombing, Stricter Islamic State Rule

Hani a-Rawi, a member of the pro-opposition group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, tells Syria Direct of a worsening situation for civilians in Raqqa in northern Syria amid Russian bombing and stricter rule by the Islamic State.

[It is] extremely bad because of IS’s tyranny against everyone, young and old, the rising prices of basic goods and foodstuffs and because of the bombardment of the city. On Saturday a Russian warplane struck several civilian locations in the middle of the city, killing 42 people and injuring 35 others, some of whom are in critical condition.

Now the people of A-Raqqa are facing difficulties such as house arrest and persistent violations against civilians. The pressure on civilians has increased recently. Travel is banned and there have been increases in taxes, arrests, executions and stoning.

People who are sick are not being allowed [to leave to seek treatment] now because IS is implementing even stricter measures. Departures have become increasingly rare and the number of checkpoints on back roads has increased. No one is permitted to leave without the approval of the Hisbah [religious police].

Profiles: The Civilian Victims of Russia’s Airstrikes

Borzou Daragahi profiles some of the civilian victims of Russia’s airstrikes on opposition-held territory:

Abdel Rahman was standing outside his family home in the tiny Syrian village of Marayan on a November afternoon when the Russian rocket hit, knocking him to the ground. He felt fine when he came to moments later, he said, and tried to get up. That’s when he realized both his legs had been blown off. “I looked up and my brother was screaming, but I lost consciousness,” he recalled.

About a month later, Thaer was gathering firewood when another Russian missile hit. He struggled to get up, but couldn’t. His father, Abdel Jalil al-Zein, first took his son to a local doctor, who stuck needles in his toe. There was no response. He loaded him into his car and drove him to the field hospital along the Turkish border, and when medical personnel there couldn’t help his son either, he obtained the permissions to cross into Turkey.

Doctors eventually found a piece of shrapnel lodged in his spine. It has paralyzed him from the waist down, probably for life.

The two teenagers still hang out, but now they are permanently disfigured. They lie in the sitting room of a rented apartment in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, where they now live. Al-Zein lies on the bed with a catheter running from him, and Rahmoun lies on a mat a few feet away — one a double amputee, the other a paraplegic.

“I know that God will eventually give us our rights,” said al-Zein.

Daragahi also speaks with rebels about the military effect of the Russian attacks, with an Ahrar al-Sham spokesman in northwest Syria summarizing:

We’ve had harder conditions before. The revolution is weakened because of this, but it’s not going to be ended by the Russian raids or others. On the ground, the revolutionaries advance.

But the weapon that we can’t respond to is air power. We cannot address air power with our rockets.

An Ahrar al-Sham video countering Russia’s claims of a focus on the Islamic State:

Russia Hints at Delay in Next Week’s Talks

Russia has hinted that next Monday’s international talks, which hoped to begin opposition-regime negotiations, will be delayed.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that the possibility of a postponement will become clear after a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday in Switzerland.

Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, had insisted on Monday, following a Security Council meeting, that the discussions would proceed, “They are due to be held, after all the work we have done.”

However, Moscow has put up an obstacle to the talks with its objection to the 33-member opposition-rebel negotiating team established in December. Russia is circulating an alternative list of 15 names, consisting mainly of domestic Syrian figures and including none of the names on the opposition-rebel team.

See Syria Daily, Jan 19: Will Next Week’s Opposition-Regime Talks Take Place?

The talks were already jeopardized by fundamental divisions. President Assad has said that there can be no political transition until “terrorists” are defeated, while the opposition and rebels will not accept a process in which Assad and his inner circle retain power.

The opposition-rebel bloc has also set preconditions for talks, including ceasefires with an end to regime and Russian bombing, release of detainees from regime prisons, and access to humantarian aid.