More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

Friend or foe? Assad quietly aids Syrian Kurds against Turkey

Kurdish female fighters of the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) hold their weapons as they sit in the Sheikh Maksoud neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 7, 2018. Picture taken February 7, 2018.

By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s U.S.-backed Kurds are getting indirect help from an unlikely source in their war against Turkey in the northwestern region of Afrin: President Bashar al-Assad.

Pro-government forces and Kurdish-led forces have fought each other elsewhere in Syria and Damascus opposes the Kurds’ demands for autonomy. But in Afrin they have a common enemy and a mutual interest in blocking Turkish advances.

Turkey, which regards the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin as a threat on its southern border, launched an assault on the region last month. Seeking to shield Afrin, the Kurds asked Damascus to send forces into action to defend the border.

The government shows no sign of doing so, but it is providing indirect help by allowing Kurdish fighters, civilians and politicians to reach Afrin through territory it holds, representatives of both sides told Reuters.

Assad stands to gain while doing little.

The arrival of reinforcements is likely to sustain Kurdish resistance, bog down the Turkish forces and prolong a conflict that is sapping the resources of military powers that rival him for control of Syrian territory.

For the United States, it is yet another complication in Syria’s seven-year-old war, and a reminder of how its Syrian Kurdish ally must at times make deals with Assad even as it builds military ties with the United States.

Lacking international protection, the Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria say they have reached agreements with Damascus to allow reinforcements to be sent to Afrin from other Kurdish-dominated areas — Kobani and the Jazeera region.

“There are different ways to get reinforcements to Afrin but the fundamental route is via regime forces. There are understandings between the two forces … for the sake of delivering reinforcements to Afrin,” Kino Gabriel, spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said.

While the Kurds depend on Assad to reach Afrin, Kurdish sources say they also enjoy leverage over Damascus because it needs their cooperation to source grain and oil from areas of the northeast under Kurdish control.

A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad said “the Kurds have no option but coordination with the regime” to defend Afrin.

“The Syrian regime is helping the Kurds with humanitarian support and some logistics, like turning a blind eye and allowing Kurdish support to reach some fronts,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

TURKISH CAMPAIGN MOVES SLOWLY

The Turkish military is making slow gains nearly three weeks into the operation it calls “Olive Branch”.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey and is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

The United States has relied on the YPG as a vital ground component of its war against Islamic State, and has backed the group in other Kurdish-run regions in northern Syria along the border with Turkey.

But U.S. forces are not in Afrin, so have been unable to shield Afrin from the attack by Turkey, its NATO ally.

The Kurds meanwhile accuse Russia of giving a green light for the Turkish attack by withdrawing observers it deployed in Afrin last year.

The Afrin war marks another twist in the complicated story of relations between Assad and the Syrian Kurdish groups, spearheaded by the YPG, that have carved out autonomous regions in northern Syria since the war began in 2011.

The YPG controls nearly all of Syria’s frontier with Turkey. But Afrin is separated from the bigger Kurdish-controlled region further east by a 100 km-wide zone controlled by the Turkish military and its Syrian militia allies.

For much of the war, Damascus and the YPG have avoided confrontation, at times fighting common enemies, including the rebel groups that are now helping Turkey attack Afrin.

But tensions have mounted in recent months, with Damascus threatening to march into parts of eastern and northern Syria captured by the SDF with support from the U.S.-led coalition.

Underlining that, pro-Syrian government forces attacked the SDF in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, drawing coalition air strikes overnight that killed more than 100 of the attackers, the coalition said.

“The regime has allowed the YPG to bring people into Afrin, while attacking it east of the Euphrates (River). I think that is indicative of the state of relations right now,” said Noah Bonsey, International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Syria.

He added: “There is still a significant gap between the YPG and regime positions on the future of northeastern Syria.”

FIGHTING FOR AFRIN

The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they enjoy autonomy in a form of federalism that is at odds with Assad’s determination to recover all Syria.

Each side has allowed the other to maintain footholds in its territory. In Kurdish-held Qamishli, the government still controls the airport. In the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, a government city, Kurdish security forces patrol the streets.

Scores of Kurds from Sheikh Maqsoud have gone to Afrin to support the fight, Kurdish officials there said. The short journey requires movement through areas held by the government or its Iran-backed Shi’ite militia allies.

“Of course people went from Sheikh Maqsoud – in the hundreds – to bear arms and defend Afrin,” said Badran Himo, a Kurdish official from Sheikh Maqsoud.

“Around 10 of them were martyred (killed),” he told Reuters as Kurdish security forces held a rally to commemorate one of the dead.

Earlier this week, witnesses say a civilian convoy of hundreds of cars drove to Afrin from other Kurdish-held areas in a show of solidarity.

The Syrian government has ignored appeals by the Kurdish authorities to guard the Syrian border at Afrin.

“We tried to convince them, via the Russians, to at least protect the borders, to take a position, but we did not reach a result,” Aldar Khalil, a top Kurdish politician, told Reuters.

“If they don’t protect the borders, then at least they don’t have the right to block the way for Syrian patriots who are protecting these borders, regardless of other domestic issues.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Years late, Syria’s children of war learn to read and write in school

Students sit in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018.

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – – Hussein al-Khalaf, aged 13, burst into tears as he sat in his classroom at the Ahmed Baheddine Rajab school near Damascus, recounting why he is learning to read and write for the first time in his life.

He was five years old when the Syrian conflict began in 2011, shattering his life and that of his family in the city of Albu Kamal, which soon became a bastion for Islamic State.

Khalaf is one of thousands of Syrian children in a UNICEF emergency education program for those born during the war and who haven’t been able to attend school. Their school runs two shifts a day to allow as many children as possible to catch up with other kids.

“My parents said I should be in grade 1 but I wanted to be in grade 5 so that other children here won’t ridicule me. They mock me because I’m in grade 1 but I don’t respond”, said Khalaf, who fled with his family to Sahnaya near Damascus last year.

“I haven’t been to school since I was born. Daesh wanted to take us to join them,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“My friends all left, we all got separated. I found a phone number for one of my friends and called him. He told me ‘your friend Majed died’,” said a tearful Khalaf.

“Majed used to play with us. We were all together and living happily before Daesh came in. I want nothing. I just want to see my friends again.”

 

VICTIMS

Besides the fear that Islamic State would indoctrinate their children or take them as fighters, many parents did not send their children away because they might still be exposed to heavy bombing by Syrian and Russian planes.

Most children at the Rajab school were from the war-torn areas of Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir al Zor, Idlib and Albu Kamal. They were all displaced during fierce fighting.

These children are among the principal victims of the war, now entering its eighth year. The trauma of what they have been through is visible on their faces, in their uneasy silences, sad eyes or tearful outbreaks.

They have paid a high price in a conflict beyond their understanding. Their lives have been broken with grief, their families displaced and dispersed, and they have been robbed of an education and a future.

In Syria, an estimated 7.5 million children are growing up knowing nothing but war, according to Save the Children, an international NGO.

 

WAR AND DESTRUCTION

“All that was there was war and destruction,” said Saleh al-Salehi, 12, who fled eastern Aleppo, a rebel bastion subjected to massive bombardment.

“My brother was killed. They dropped barrel bombs on us and fired rockets,” said Salehi, adding that it felt strange to be going to school for the first time in his life.

The school itself bears the scars of war. Classrooms are freezing cold and heating is a luxury, with fuel available only at sky-high prices.

The desks and benches are decrepit. Nothing of what is now common in modern schools, from laptops to digital activity centres, a library or cafeteria, was to be seen.

Even the headmaster was rushing out to a second job to make some more money to support his family. After 25 years, one teacher said her monthly salary was $80 and this had not increased in seven years.

Many kids look malnourished with black circles under their eyes, tattered clothes and torn shoes not warm enough to withstand the bitter cold.

 

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018.

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

EMBARRASSED

While most said they were happy to have the opportunity to catch up with other children, they felt embarrassed and uneasy about their age and new environment.

Ali Abdel-Jabbar Badawi, 12, said: “I was dreaming about school. I haven’t been to school at all. A rocket fell on the school in our neighborhood and destroyed it. I want to catch up with the other kids of my age.”

Aya Ahmed, 13, from eastern Ghouta, a fought-over suburb of Damascus, said she was terrified of coming to school because she knew nobody and had no friends.

“In Ghouta I had friends but we couldn’t play. I didn’t know how to read and write.”

“I feel embarrassed when people ask me what grade I am. They look at me and say, all this height and you’re in grade 1. I was very late to get into school but I want to study and become an important person. I want to be a lawyer.”

The headmaster, Thaer Nasr al-Ali, said: “The conflict has affected all the people but the children paid a big price. They were deprived of education and were psychologically hurt. The schools were shut, they were cut off from education.”

“We had severe cases of trauma among the children because of the war and the violence they witnessed. Many kids lost parents and relatives and saw horror and death in front of their eyes.”

As well as losing out on education, many kids had to work to help their families or were recruited by militias and fighters, Ali and U.N. officials said.

CATCHING UP

UNICEF set up an emergency plan for accelerated learning in coordination with the education ministry so that students can catch up with other children.

The plan compresses one year into two and runs two shifts a day. There are 64 teachers for each shift and each class has 40-50 students. The school has 1,750 students, double the number before the war.

Syria had 20,000 schools before the war but only 11,000 are functioning; the rest are destroyed, semi–destroyed or being used by the armed forces or militia groups, UNICEF said.

In seven years of civil war, marked by sieges and starvation and the death of 400,000 people, half the 23 million population has been displaced or forced into exile. One third of the country has been internally displaced.

According to UNICEF there are 2.5 million Syrian refugee children living outside the country and 2.6 million internally displaced. The long term-impact on these children is huge.

“The drama of the Syrians is not finished. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the impact will be felt for generations,” said one relief official in Damascus, who declined to be named.

(Writing by Samia Nakhoul; editing by Giles Elgood)

Rescuers in rebel-held Syrian area accuse government of gas attack

A man is seen at a medical center in Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 22, 2018.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Rescue workers in a Syrian rebel-held enclave east of Damascus accused government forces of using chlorine gas during bombardment of the area on Monday, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 13 people had suffered suffocation.

The Syrian army and government have consistently denied using chlorine or other chemical weapons during Syria’s conflict, now in its seventh year.

The White Helmets civil defense rescue force, which operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, said 13 civilians including women and children had been “injured after (the) Assad regime used Chlorine gas in Douma city in EasternGhouta”.

Douma is in the eastern Ghouta, a suburb east of Damascus where almost 400,000 people have been under siege by the Syrian government and allied militia since 2013. Eastern Ghouta is the last major rebel position close to the capital.

The health directorate for opposition-held areas in the Damascus region said patient symptoms “suggest they have been exposed to chlorine gas inhalation”.

It said patients said the smell around the attack site resembled chlorine.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, quoting local medical and other sources, said “gasses” released during a dawn rocket attack on Douma city caused “cases of suffocation”.

The Observatory said a gas was also used during a rocket attack last week on the enclave.

A witness in the area said people had fled the area of the attack and were receiving treatment for breathing problems at medical centers.

In the past two years, a joint U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry has found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon.

It has also said Islamic State has used sulfur mustard.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Suspected Russian jets bomb residential area near Damascus; kill 30

A boy walks on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 30 civilians were killed early on Thursday when jets dropped bombs on a residential area in a besieged rebel enclave east of Syria’s capital, a war monitor said, identifying the planes as Russian.

At least four bombs flattened two buildings in the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, in an attack that killed around 20 and wounded more than 40 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and civil defense sources said.

Elsewhere in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel enclave near Damascus, at least ten people were killed in aerial strikes in other nearby towns, the Observatory, rescuers and residents said.

The Observatory, a war monitor based in Britain, said 11 women and a child were among the dead in the strikes in Misraba, which it said were carried out by Russian planes.

Backed by Russian strikes, government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months, seeking to tighten a siege that residents and aid workers say is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

Russia rejects Syrian opposition and rights groups’ accusations that its jets have been responsible for deaths of thousands of civilians since its major intervention two years ago that turned the tide in the country’s nearly seven-year-old war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow says it only attacks hardline Islamists.

Video footage posted on Thursday by activists on social media in Eastern Ghouta showed rescue workers pulling women and children from rubble. The footage could not be independently confirmed.

Jets also pounded Harasta, on the western edge of the enclave, where rebels this week besieged and overran a major military base which residents say the army uses to pound residential areas.

The rebel assault aimed partly to relieve the pressure of the tightening siege.

The United Nations says about 400,000 civilians besieged in the area face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the government are blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Scores of hospitals and civil defense centers in Ghouta and across Syria have been bombed during the conflict in what the opposition said is a “scorched earth policy” to paralyze life in rebel-held areas.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Thursday rebel shelling of the government-held capital Damascus killed one and injured 22 in the Amara district of the city.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

IDLIB PUSH

Supported by Iran-backed militias and intensive Russian bombing, the Syrian army has since last month waged a new campaign to push into the heart of another rebel-held part of Syria, Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

Idlib is a heavily populated area where over two million people live.

Rescue workers said there had been a spike in civilian casualties there in the last twenty days from stepped-up aerial strikes on residential areas, documenting 50 dead at least in that period.

“There have been at least six major massacres perpetrated by Russia in indiscriminate bombing of cities and towns with thousands fleeing their homes in the last two weeks,” said Mustafa al Haj Yousef, the head of Idlib’s Civil Defence, rescuers who work in opposition-held areas.

On Wednesday air strikes hit a maternity hospital in Idlib’s Ma’arat al-Nu’man city, killing five people, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) charity, which supports the hospital, said.

The hospital, which SAMS said delivers around 30 babies a day, had been struck three times in four days and the last strikes temporarily put the hospital out of service.

Overnight, a family of seven was buried under rubble in Tel Dukan village, rescuers said.

The army has been gaining ground in Idlib and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside, with scores of villages seized from rebels mainly belonging to Tahrir al Sham, a coalition of jihadist groups with mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions also engaged in the battles.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)

Syrian walkout from talks ‘an embarrassment to Russia’: opposition

Syrian government negotiator quits Geneva talks, says may not return

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Syrian government’s decision to quit peace talks last week was an embarrassment to its main supporter Russia, which wants both sides to reach a deal quickly, opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said on Monday.

The delegation left the U.N.-backed talks in Geneva on Friday, blaming the opposition’s demands that President Bashar al-Assad should play no role in any interim post-war government.

“I don’t think that those who support the regime are happy with such a position being taken by the regime. This is an embarrassment to Russia,” Aridi said at the hotel where the opposition delegation is staying in Geneva.

“We understand the Russian position now. They are… in a hurry to find a solution.”

There was no immediate comment from Russian officials at the talks on the withdrawal of the government delegation.

Russia helped to turn the Syrian war in Assad’s favor and has become the key force in the push for a diplomatic solution. Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin said a political settlement should be finalised within the U.N. Geneva process.

The opposition, long wary of Russia’s role, now accepts it. Western diplomats say Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev was present at the Riyadh meeting last month where the opposition drew up its statement rejecting any future role for Assad.

Asked if the opposition was willing to compromise on Assad’s role in any post-war government, Aridi said his delegation’s demands were based on the wishes of the Syrian people.

“I believe that our mere presence in Geneva is in itself a compromise. We are sitting with a regime that has been carrying out all these atrocities for the past seven years. What other compromise could we make?”

A source close to government delegation told Reuters on Monday that Damascus was still studying the feasibility of participation in the talks and when a decision was reached it would be sent through ordinary diplomatic channels.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

 

Rebel area near Damascus hit by heavy shelling despite two-day truce

Rebel area near Damascus hit by heavy shelling despite two-day truce

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of mortar bombs landed on the last major rebel stronghold near the Syrian capital Damascus on Wednesday, a war monitor and a witness said on Wednesday, despite a 48 hour truce proposed by Russia to coincide with the start of peace talks in Geneva.

After a relatively calm morning, shelling picked up later in the day, accompanied by ground attempts to storm the besieged enclave, a witness in the Eastern Ghouta area told Reuters.

The Syrian army stepped up bombardment two weeks ago in an effort to recapture Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held pocket of densely populated agricultural land on the outskirts of the capital under siege since 2012.

Scores of people have been killed in air strikes during the offensive, and residents say they are on the verge of starvation after the siege was tightened.

Russia had proposed a ceasefire on Monday in the besieged area for Nov. 28-29. U.N. Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura later said Russia had told him that the Syrian government had accepted the idea, but “we have to see if it happens”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least one person was killed when dozens of mortars crashed into Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of several “de-escalation” zones across western Syria where Russia has brokered ceasefire deals between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But fighting has continued there.

On Tuesday, shelling killed three people and injured 15, but was less intense than in previous days, the observatory said. It had reported intense bombardment that killed 41 people over two days from Sunday to Monday.

“A two-day truce is not nearly enough for civilians facing grave violations of international law – including bombardment and besiegement – but it is a window of opportunity to save the lives of the most desperately in need of treatment,” said Thomas Garofalo, International Rescue Committee’s Middle East Public Affairs Director, in a statement on Wednesday.

The Syrian delegation arrived in Geneva to participate in the eighth round of United Nation-sponsored peace talks. It delayed its departure for one day after the opposition repeated its demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.

Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition delegation, told a Geneva news conference on Monday night that he is aiming for Assad’s removal as a result of negotiations.

The government delegation will be headed by Syria’s U.N. ambassador and chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, state-run news agency SANA said.

A breakthrough in the talks is seen as unlikely as Assad and his allies push for total military victory in Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year, and his opponents stick by their demand he leaves power.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Angus McDowall, Jeremy Gaunt and Peter Graff)

Truce near Damascus mostly being observed before Syria talks begin

Truce near Damascus mostly being observed before Syria talks begin

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Russian-proposed ceasefire in the Eastern Ghouta area of Syria has been widely observed, a war monitor and a witness said on Wednesday, as a delegation from Damascus arrived in Geneva to join peace talks there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the ceasefire in the besieged rebel-held enclave near Damascus is being “observed in general”.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday that the Syrian government had accepted the Russian proposal to stop fighting in the area on Nov. 28-29.

The observatory, which monitors the war, reported that the ceasefire had seen insignificant breaches on Wednesday morning in the village of Ain Terma, where Syrian forces fired five shells.

On Tuesday, shelling killed three people and injured 15, but was less intense than in previous days, it added.

“We are in peace today,” a witness from the Eastern Ghouta village of Douma told Reuters on a messaging site.

The Syrian delegation arrived in Geneva to participate in the eighth round of United Nation-sponsored peace talks. It delayed its departure for one day after the opposition repeated its demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.

Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition delegation, told a Geneva news conference on Monday night that he is aiming for Assad’s removal as a result of negotiations.

The government delegation will be headed by Syria’s U.N. ambassador and chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, state-run news agency SANA said.

A breakthrough in the talks is seen as unlikely as Assad and his allies push for total military victory in Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year, and his opponents stick by their demand he leaves power.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Angus McDowall/Jeremy Gaunt)

Syrian opposition rejects Russia-sponsored peace initiative

Mohammad Alloush (C), the head of the Syrian opposition delegation, attends Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan

BEIRUT/AMMAN/ANKARA (Reuters) – The Syrian opposition has rejected a new, Russian-sponsored initiative to reach a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, and Turkey protested against the invitation of the Syrian Kurdish side as Moscow’s peacemaking bid hit early complications on Wednesday.

Having intervened decisively in the Syrian war in 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia now hopes to build on the collapse of Islamic State to launch a new political process towards ending the six-year-long conflict.

Damascus has said it is ready to attend the Nov. 18 Sochi congress which is set to focus on a new constitution, saying the time is right thanks to Syrian army gains and the “terrorists’ obliteration”.

But officials in the anti-Assad opposition rejected the meeting and insisted any peace talks be held under U.N. sponsorship in Geneva, where peace talks have failed to make any progress towards ending the conflict since it erupted in 2011.

The congress amounted to a meeting “between the regime and the regime”, said Mohammad Alloush, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee and a senior official with the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

The HNC was surprised it had been mentioned in a list of groups invited to the congress and would “issue a statement with other parties setting out the general position rejecting this conference”, Alloush told Reuters.

The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC) political opposition group said the congress was an attempt to circumvent “the international desire for political transition” in Syria.

“The Coalition will not participate in any negotiations with the regime outside Geneva or without U.N. sponsorship,” SNC spokesman Ahmad Ramadan told Reuters.

A Russian negotiator said on Tuesday that Syrian groups who choose to boycott the congress risked being sidelined as the political process moves ahead.

Russia has invited 33 Syrian groups and political parties to what it calls a “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin first mentioned the idea of the congress last month, saying that he believed Moscow and the Syrian government would soon finally defeat militants in Syria.

Helped by Russia’s air force and an array of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, Assad has defeated many of the Syrian rebels who were fighting to topple him, leaving him militarily unassailable and the rebels confined to enclaves of the west.

Damascus and its allies have also recovered swathes of central and eastern Syria from Islamic State in recent months, while a separate campaign by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has driven IS from other areas of the country.

The separate campaigns are now converging on Islamic State’s last strongholds in Deir al-Zor province at the Iraqi border.

Russia’s decision to invite the Kurdish groups which dominate the SDF to Sochi triggered Turkish irritation on Wednesday. Ankara, which views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as a national security threat, said it was unacceptable that the Kurdish YPG militia had been invited.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkish and Russian officials had discussed the issue and that he had held meetings of his own to “solve the problem on the spot.”

Turkey views the YPG and its political affiliate, the PYD, as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.

 

(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Lisa Barrington in Beirut, and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Larry King and Raissa Kasolowsky)

 

Convoy rolls into Damascus suburbs with aid for 40,000

Smoke rises at a damaged site in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, September 14, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – A convoy from the United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered towns in the besieged Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta on Monday, bringing aid to 40,000 people for the first time since June 2016, the United Nations said.

A tightening siege by government forces has pushed people to the verge of famine in the eastern suburbs, residents and aid workers said last week, bringing desperation to the only major rebel enclave near the Syrian capital.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Twitter they had entered the towns of Kafra Batna and Saqba.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said in a separate tweet that the inter-agency convoy had 49 trucks.

They carried food, nutrition and health items for 40,000 people in need, OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said. “The last time we reached these two locations were in June 2016,” he said.

A health worker in Saqba who was present when the convoy started to offload said that nine trucks of foodstuffs, including milk and peanut butter, and four trucks of medicines had arrived so far.

Technical specialists were on board to assess needs in the towns in order to plan a further humanitarian response, he said.

“More aid to complement today’s delivery is planned in the coming days,” Laerke added.

At least 1,200 children in eastern Ghouta suffer from malnutrition, with 1,500 others at risk, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said last week.

Bettina Luescher, spokeswoman of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), said the convoy carried nutrition supplies for 16,000 children.

Food, fuel and medicine once travelled across frontlines into the suburbs through a network of underground tunnels. But early this year, an army offensive nearby cut smuggling routes that provided a lifeline for around 300,000 people in the enclave east of the capital.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Graff)