PHOTO: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin, December 2015


US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday, with American officials saying that Washington will push for a political transition in Syria without Bashar al-Assad.

A State Department official told the press:

The Secretary would like to now really hear where President Putin is in his thinking …on a political transition.

Obviously what we are looking for, and what we have been looking for, is how we are going to transition Syria away from Assad’s leadership.

Kerry’s trip to noscow was scheduled after Putin’s surprise announcement on March 14 that Russia will withdraw “most” of its military forces from Syria.

Regime Positive After Meeting with EU Leader

The head of the Assad regime’s delegation issued an optimistic statement after seeing the European Union’s foreign policy chief in Geneva on Wednesday.

“For the first time, I can tell you that we were able to break the impasse, maybe in the form and a little bit in substance,” Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s UN Ambassador, said after the session with Federica Mogherini.

No details were given of the discussion. Mogherini, who also met the opposition-rebel High Negotiations Committee, said that the EU had not changed its position on the need to start a political transition.

Jaafari has been under pressure for several days over his supposed reluctance to enter significant negotiations and a “bland” regime paper presented to UN envoy Staffan de Mistura last week.

The regime delegation said de Mistura had handed them a document which they would study on their return to Damascus, following an adjournment of the talks on Thursday.

State TV: Pro-Regime Forces Enter Islamic State-Held Palmyra

Syrian State TV is claiming that pro-regime forces have entered the Roman-era city of Palmyra in central Syria, held by the Islamic State since May 2015.

A State TV reporter, embedded with the regime military, spoke live from the entrance of Palmyra. He said that as of midday, fighting was concentrated near the archaeological site on the southwestern edge of the town.

As the reporter spoke, cracks of gunfire and explosions were heard. Footage showed soldiers walking and SUVs driving near a building that appeared to be the Semiramis Hotel.

A Syrian soldier put out a message to the Islamic State: “You will be crushed under the feet of the Syrian Arab Army.”

Images of the regime offensive:

The Syrian military — enabled by Russian airstrikes and joined by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and foreign militia — has advanced on Palmyra for weeks.

The city was captured by the Islamic State last spring after a rapid advance through eastern Homs Province.

British Parliamentary Committee: Assad and Rebels Should Fight Islamic State Together

The British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has said that the Assad regime and the opposition should fight together against the Islamic State.

The committee said the two sides should cooperate to “reclaim Syrian territory jointly from ISIL [the Islamic State]”:

The fight against ISIL cannot wait for a comprehensive peace settlement. In the short term it is imperative that the cessation of hostilities be maintained, and that all parties arrive at a preliminary political accord so they can then focus their attention on the fight against ISIL.

If the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Army and the Free Syria Army on ceasefire are able to agree on an early mutual purpose to reclaim Syrian territory joint from ISIL, they can begin a positive founding narrative of a new Syria and built trust, which should ultimately allow for the resolution of the hard issues.

Up to now, British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Foreign Office have blamed Assad’s hold on power as part of the reason for the Islamic State’s position in Syria.

However, in his response to the last committee briefing on Syria, issued in early November, Cameron said he would “work through the political negotiations towards a ceasefire between the Syrian armed forces and moderate opposition, which would create the conditions to allow both sides to focus their military efforts on ISIL”.

The committee challenged the Foreign Office, saying the diplomats’ public statements “have not always been constructive”. It urged “greater engagement with these actors, as well as Iran”.

The committee did not explain how a joint Assad-opposition initiative will be possible, given the opposition-rebel bloc’s precondition of the removal of Assad from power as part of a political transition.

Aid Reaches Besieged Houla But “It’s Not Enough”

A local aid worker has confirmed that the first of two scheduled humanitarian convoys has reached more than 70,000 blockaded residents in Houla in northern Homs Province, but he said the assistance is “only enough for a very short period of time”.

In the first delivery in almost eight months, 27 trucks brought 9,000 aid parcels on Tuesday to the opposition-held town. Another 18 trucks carrying 4,000 additional parcels are scheduled to arrive on Thursday.

The aid worker, Ahmad al-Homsi, cautioned, “This isn’t enough for everyone.”

Houla local council member Abu Ahmad told Syria Direct that the situation is a “catastrophe”: “There are more than 70,000 people here, in addition to thousands of displaced people from the south Hama countryside.”

The three villages that make up Houla are part of a pocket of territories — controlled by Free Syrian Army brigades, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaish al-Islam — in northern Homs and neighboring southern Hama Province. They have been blockaded by regime forces and allied militias since early 2012.

A regime offensive in January cut off smuggling routes from Hama Province, while also pushing thousands of southern Hama residents into northern Homs.