PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Germany on Thursday (Christian Charisius/EPA)



Audio Analysis: Aleppo Is Not the End of the Conflict

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UPDATE 1850 GMT: Opposition activists claim that rebels have inflicted heavy casualties on pro-Assad forces trying make further gains in eastern Aleppo city.

The activists say that more than 50 pro-Assad troops were killed in fighting and that two tanks and a BMP armored vehicle were destroyed.

According to the Eldorar site, 25 Afghan, Iranian, and regime militiamen were slain in battles in Sheikh Saeed on the southern edge of opposition territor, and eight were captured. Another 15 pro-Assad troops were killed on the Jeb Chalabi front.

UPDATE 1730 GMT: A reliable pro-opposition activist reports that a Turkish-rebel offensive is close to taking the ISIS-held Al-Bab, only hours after beginning the assault on the key town, northeast of Aleppo (see earlier entry).

The report says troops have entered the town, with fighting for the key positions of the hill overlooking al-Bab and the Old City district.


However, another report says the rebels had to pull back after two ISIS vehicle-borne suicide bombs.

UPDATE 1440 GMT: Amid continuing pro-Assad attacks in eastern Aleppo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has retreated from his announcement of a “suspension of military operations”.

Lavrov now says that the operations paused for “a certain period” to let civilians leave but “will go on until bandits leave eastern Aleppo”.

Meanwhile, Anne Barnard brings stories of those leaving eastern Aleppo:

“Rebels and Government forces helped 100s cross front lines with her,” Barnard reports.

UPDATE 1340 GMT: The White HelmetsSyrian Civil Defense reports the killing of more than 25 people, mostly women and children, by regime barrel-bombing of the Jaloom district of eastern Aleppo city.

UPDATE 1330 GMT: The UN has expressed concerned that hundreds of men have disappeared as they left eastern Aleppo city.

Spokesman Rupert Colville said families are reporting lost contact with men aged between 30 and 50. UN investigators cited reports that advancing pro-Assad forces have carried out abuses.

Two National Defense Force militia in the al-Halk neighborhood reportedly executed four men in front of their families on Sunday.

Other civilians were detained, including the wife of a slain leader of the Free Syrian Army, Colville said.

He expressed deep concern for about 150 activists remaining in east Aleppo: “Given the terrible record of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances by the Syrian government, we are of course deeply concerned about the fate of these individuals.”

The UN reports match testimony by residents to The New York Times. Several have described how family members were detained, arrested, or conscripted after crossing to regime-held areas.

Colville also said that there were reports of some rebel factions preventing civilian departures, and of two factions — Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra Front, and the Abu Amara Battalion — killing or kidnapping residents who had demanded that fighters leave their neighborhoods.

However, other residents said rebels had helped them cross the front lines, or warned them not to go at certain times because of danger before allowing them to leave.

UPDATE 1245 GMT: Hossein Mortada, a reporter with Iran’s Al-Alam, hoists a Hezbollah flag on the Aleppo Citadel:

UPDATE 1000 GMT: Journalist Rami Jarrah reports from local sources that, despite the Russian declaration of a de facto ceasefire, pro-Assad attacks continue in eastern Aleppo city.

Jarrah says airstrikes, including barrel bombs, and mortars are still targeting districts such as Kalaseh, Firdous, Maadi, Bustan al-Qasr, and Maghayir.

Another pro-opposition activist says pro-Assad forces are continuing to attack Sheikh Saeed on the southern edge of the remaining opposition territory.

Pro-regime militia fight in the Salaheddin district:

Sounds of bombardment:

The Local Coordination Committees verified the killing of 47 people in Aleppo Province on Thursday, most of them by pro-Assad bombing of eastern Aleppo city.

UPDATE 0900 GMT: Military sources have said that the Turkish-rebel offensive to take the key ISIS-held town of al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo city, has begun.

The Turkish military said Free Syrian Army fighters have largely seized control of the highway between al-Bab and Manbij, as well as the Zarzur residential area. Turkish warplanes destroyed threee buildings which had been turned into gun emplacements, four buildings used as a sanctuary and command center, and three checkpoints, according to the statement.

EA’s local sources have said for days that the assault was imminent, and it appeared to take on urgency with the imminent fall of the opposition in Aleppo city.

Rebels — supported by Turkey since August 24 — the Assad regime, and Kurdish forces are all close to al-Bab, and all have eyed the town amid ISIS’s retreat across northern Syria.

ORIGINAL ENTRY: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a de facto ceasefire in eastern Aleppo city on Thursday, apparently to allow time for a US-Russian agreement for the departure of rebels from the besieged and bombarded area.

Speaking in Germany on the sidelines of a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lavrov said:

Combat actions of the Syrian Army in eastern Aleppo are suspended today, as a yet another and the biggest one so far operation to evacuate the civilians willing to leave the place is underway there. There are some 8,000 people in the column. That’s a huge operation and the withdrawal route is five kilometers long.

Lavrov did not specify the duration of the ceasefire. The Assad regime made no announcement, although Syrian State media did report the Russian statement. A Reuters reporters in a regime-held district said bombardment could still be heard, while Washington said it had no confirmation that pro-Assad forces had ceased fire.

Nor was there any corroborating evidence of the “8,000 people”. Instead, that appeared to be a pretext to cover the resumption of US-Russian talks on Moscow’s demand for the withdrawal of all rebels from the area, where more than 200,000 civilians are believed to remain despite the loss of 75% to pro-Assad forces since November 26.

Lavrov said Russian and US military experts and diplomats will meet in Geneva on Saturday to discuss an American proposal which was put forward by US Secretary of State John Kerry last week. Russia had hoped for negotiations to reach agreement early this week, but Washington apparently stepped back after Moscow vetoed a UN resolution for a ceasefire in eastern Aleppo.

The Russian Foreign Minister made his statement after a meeting and follow-up phone call with Kerry on Thursday. He maintained pressure on the Americans, saying they were still protecting the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra).

Russia has used the pretext of JFS/Nusra dominance of the rebellion to support the Russian-regime siege of eastern Aleppo, followed by intense bombing and then the pro-Assad ground offensive.

In fact, there have been few JFS/Nusra fighters in the city since the jihadists withdrew in 2015 after an agreement with rebel factions.

Still Lavrov declared on Thursday:

The Americans tried to word agreements in such a way that would leave al-Nusra out and deliver it from reprisals. Naturally, we cannot accept that. Nusra Front is a terrorist organization recognized as such by the United Nations, the United States, Russia and other countries.

The Red Cross said about 150 civilians, most disabled or in need of urgent medical care, were moved early Thursday from a hospital in Aleppo’s Old City, in the first “major evacuation”.

Tawfik Chamaa, a representative of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM), said 1,500 people needed medical evacuation, but this needed international observers to prevent them being “executed or diverted on the way to hospital”.

The White House was cautious about Lavrov’s statement, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying:

[This is] an indication that something positive could happen, but we’re going to have to wait and see. Our approach to the situation has been to listen carefully to what the Russians say, but scrutinize their actions.

Taking the Initiative from the Opposition?

Lavrov’s statement may have also have sought to seize the initiative from the opposition, which proposed a five-day ceasefire on Wednesday so civilians could leave.

President Assad rejected the proposal in an interview with a regime outlet, insisting on total victory in Aleppo.

See Syria Daily, 8 December: Russia Announces Aleppo Ceasefire

The opposition’s Aleppo local council said that those leaving Aleppo city could not go to opposition-held Idlib Province, given Russian-regime bombing and an overflow of displaced people already in the area. Although the statement did not specify a destination, it may be looking for both civilians and rebels to move into parts of Aleppo Province.

The opposition has long held much of the province, and new areas have been taken since August by a Turkish-supported rebel offensive.

Russia is likely to prefer any evacuation to be into Idlib Province, given its concern that the Aleppo city rebels could bolster the Turkish-backed offensive.

That advance is hoping to take al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, from the Islamic State; however, the Assad regime is also hoping that it can move into the town.

Islamic State Takes Town, Village, and Oilfields Near Palmyra

[UPDATE 2000 GMT: The Islamic State says it has now surrounded the ancient city of Palmyra after attacking from three sides today, completing the capture of the Jazal oilfield, the village of the same name, the town of Huwaysis, and checkpoints.]

In a sudden offensive on Thursday, the Islamic State has defeated regime forces and moved within 4 km (2.5 miles) of the historic city of Palmyra in eastern Homs Province.

ISIS seized the town of Huwaysis near the Al-Sha’er Gas Fields, north of Palmyra, closing on the Mahr oilfields. It took the village of Jazal and nearby oilfields in the mountains, and it seized a series of checkpoints southwest of Palmyra.

The Islamic State’s outlet Amaq claimed more than 50 regime troops were killed.

The regime military held the Jazal oilfields for more than a year. In March, pro-Assad forces regained Palmyra, famed for its Roman ruins, from the Islamic State.

A pro-Assad website, which initially claimed the attack was repelled, has acknowledged the losses.

Claimed footage of the fighting, with regime fighters running across the battlefield:

Regime Bombing Destroys Civil Defense Center in Kafrnabel

The White Helmets civil defense organization report that regime warplanes have destroyed its center in Kafrnabel in Idlib Province.

No personnel were injured in the attack.


Obama Waiver for Arms to Groups — Especially Kurdish-Led Force — in Syria

President Obama has issued a waiver lifting restrictions on military support for foreign forces and other groups in Syria:

I hereby determine that the transaction, encompassing the provision of defense articles and services to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating ongoing US military operations to counter terrorism in Syria, is essential to the national security interests of the United States.

The practical significance of the waiver appears to be coverage of the ongoing US support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, created in October 2015.

With the help of US airstrikes, weapons, and special forces, the SDF took territory from the Islamic State across northeast Syria, culminating in the capture of the city of Manbij in June. Since then, the force has halted as it has faced a Turkish-supported rebel offensive, also taking ISIS areas, which has neared its frontlines.

The waiver, which allows “foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals” to obtain military aid, was issued under the Arms Export Control Act.

Obama also issued a waiver in September 2013, following the Assad regime’s chemical attacks near Damascus. The measure allowed for US training of vetted rebels; however, the initiative never developed and collapsed by autumn 2015.

American support for rebels has waned over the past 18 months, including a near cut-off to rebel forces that were advancing against the Assad regime in southern Syria.

Still the Kremlin was quick to protest Thursday’s announcement, saying the waiver would “definitely” endanger the Russian Air Force. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said:

The worst result of this decision would be those weapons, including MANPADs [anti-air missiles], ending up in the hands of terrorists, which of course poses a serious threat not only for the region but for the entire world.