Friday 11 Dec 2015
A powerful Islamist insurgent group said it pulled out of a Syrian opposition meeting in Riyadh on Thursday because rebel proposals had been ignored, in a move which highlighted the enduring divisions among President Bashar al-Assad's enemies.
The talks in Saudi Arabia were intended to bring together fractured opposition activists and rebels ahead of proposed peace talks with Assad's government which world powers proposed at a meeting in Vienna last month.
A statement at the end of the two-day conference called for an all-inclusive, democratic civic state. It said Assad should leave power at the start of a transitional period. It also committed to preserving state institutions.
But the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group said it had pulled out of the talks, objecting to what it said was a prominent role given to the internal political opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB). It said the NCB was considered to be a pro-Assad organisation, not opposition.
It also said the Saudi conference had not given "real weight to the revolutionary factions" either in terms of their representation at the talks or in the outcome.
The war pits the Syrian army and allied militias including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Iran and Russia, against an array of competing rebel and jihadi fighters, who include Arabs and Kurds. Islamic State and the al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front were not on the Riyadh guest list.
Rifts among Assad's opponents have hindered four years of Western efforts to mobilise a stronger political and military challenge to the president throughout a conflict which has killed 250,000 people and driven millions of refugees abroad.
The meeting came amid escalating conflict in Syria and accelerated diplomacy to find a political solution to the war.
Delegates from Islamist insurgent groups, exiled political opposition figures and Damascus-based activists had gathered to bridge differences which have plagued previous attempts to unite Assad's opponents around a common strategy.
The conference agreed that Assad and his lieutenants should play no part in a transition to democracy.
Monzer Akbik, a member of the National Coalition opposition group, said the meeting agreed on Thursday to set up a 25-strong leadership group, including six coalition members, six from rebel factions, five from the NCB and eight independent figures.
"These are representatives of all the opposition factions, political and military, and they are going to be the decision makers in terms of the political settlement," said Akbik.
He was speaking from the United Arab Emirates after being briefed on Thursday morning's talks. A separate negotiating team of 15 members would also be appointed, he told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Paris, said the Riyadh talks had made progress "but we have some tough issues to get over." A possible Dec. 18 meeting to advance the Syrian peace talks in New York is "not locked in yet", he added.
International efforts to resolve the conflict have been lent added urgency by a wave of deadly attacks across the world claimed by the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State and by the escalating refugee flow which has caused a crisis in Europe.
Major powers agreed in Vienna last month to revive diplomatic efforts to end the war, calling for peace talks to start by January and elections within two years.
No part for Assad
The demands that Assad and his lieutenants should play no part in the transition to democracy marked a tougher stance than several Western countries which back Assad's opponents.
The United States, France and Britain all called for Assad to step down shortly after protests broke out against his rule in March 2011.
Although they all say Assad ultimately must go, they have been less specific about the timing of any departures, indicating that they could accept he stay in an interim period.
Assad's fate was one of several questions left unresolved at the Vienna meeting last month which was attended by Russia, the United States, European and Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposing sides in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is a main backer of the rebels along with Turkey and Western countries. Iran and Russia support Assad.
Iran has openly criticised the decision by Saudi Arabia to hold the talks, saying they were designed to harm the Vienna process. On Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said some groups linked to the Islamic State militant group were involved in the talks in Riyadh.
Russia launched air strikes in Syria 10 weeks ago, helping the Syrian army - backed by Iranian troops, Hezbollah fighters and allied militia - to contain rebel advances.
Russia says it is bombing Islamic State militants, who control large areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq, but Western and Arab states which have been carrying out air strikes against Islamic State for more than a year say the Russia jets have mainly hit other rebel forces in the west of Syria.
Moscow's intervention has not swung the war decisively Assad's way and several Western-backed rebel groups, some of whom were represented in Riyadh, have been emboldened by the increased flow of foreign-supplied anti-tank missiles which have helped stem parts of the army's counter-offensive.
Wednesday 9 Dec 2015
Scores of people left the last area held by insurgents in the Syrian city of Homs on Wednesday under a local truce between the government and rebels, a monitoring group said, a rare agreement in Syria's nearly five-year conflict.
Three buses carrying people had left the previously besieged district of Waer, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
About 750 people were expected to leave during the day for rebel-held areas in the Hama and Idlib provinces. Priority will be given to women, children and the severely wounded, the Observatory's head, Rami Abdulrahman said, citing sources on the ground.
But the evacuation will also include scores of fighters and their weapons who reject the truce, he said, among them a small group from al Qaeda's Syria wing Nusra Front.
Homs was a centre of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011.
After a two-year government siege, a previous truce allowed insurgents to withdraw from the Old City.
Waer and other areas remained in the hands of insurgents.
Some observers had criticised that previous agreement as an enforced surrender.
The Observatory said the Waer deal was better for the rebels this time because some fighters will stay in the district and the deal will be implemented in stages.
The United Nations is presiding over implementation of the deal, which was agreed directly between the Syrian sides.
Some diplomats say local ceasefires between Syrians may be the most effective way of gradually bringing peace to a country where more than 250,000 people have been killed.
Syria peace talks involving world powers in Vienna in October called for a nationwide ceasefire and a renewal of UN-brokered talks between the rival Syrian sides. Saudi Arabia is convening an opposition conference this week as part of that process.
Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi told Reuters this week he felt "positive, good and promising steps" were being made towards implementing the accord, which started with a ceasefire. Humanitarian aid reached the Waer district last week under the terms of the agreement.
The Syrian army and allied militia launched a major ground offensive north of Homs city after Russia, the main ally of Assad, began carrying out air strikes in support of the Syrian military more than two months ago.
US President Barack Obama said last month that there may start to be pockets of ceasefires in parts of Syria, freeing opposition groups from Russian bombings.
The Homs deal follows the stalling of a separate plan aimed at halting fighting between rebels and government forces near Damascus.
In late September, Iran and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, also helped bring about local ceasefires in the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border and in two villages in the northwestern province of Idlib.
A diplomat tracking Syria said the Waer agreement was an improvement on previous local ceasefires because it was directly negotiated by Syrians, rather than involving outside states.
"Some people are talking about 40-50 local ceasefires waiting on the shelf to be discussed," the diplomat said.
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez, Larry King)
Tuesday 8 Dec 2015
Syria's government said a U.S.-led military coalition carried out a deadly air strike on a Syrian army camp, but coalition officials said the report was false.
Syria said four coalition jets killed three of its soldiers and wounded 13 in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor on Sunday evening, calling it an act of aggression, the first time Damascus has made such an accusation.
Any such strike by U.S.-led coalition planes, which have focused their fire on Islamic State targets, would further complicate the increasingly regional conflict.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group earlier reported that jets likely to be from the coalition hit part of the Saeqa military camp near the town of Ayyash in Deir al-Zor province, killing four Syrian army personnel.
But a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is certain that Russia was responsible for the deadly strike on the Syrian army camp.
The official flatly dismissed claims that U.S.-led coalition jets were responsible.
Russia, a key ally of Syria, is waging its own air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad, and has also been striking in Deir al-Zor.
A second U.S. military official said indications pointed to a strike carried out by a Russian TU-22 bomber.
Brett McGurk, U.S. President Barack Obama's envoy to the coalition, also denied claims of coalition responsibility, saying on Twitter: "Reports of coalition involvement are false."
Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said the alliance had conducted four strikes in the Deir al-Zor province on Sunday, all against oil well heads.
"Our strikes were approximately 55 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Ayyash. We did not strike any vehicles or personnel targets. We have no indication any Syrian soldiers were near our strikes," he said.
A U.S. defense official, who declined to be named, dismissed the idea that the coalition would target the Syrian military.
"We are not at war with the Assad regime and have no reason to target the Syrian Army," the official said. "We are aware that Russia conducted long-range bomber strikes into Syria (on Sunday)."
Another U.S. defense official said Deir al-Zor was among the locations Russia had targeted on Sunday. Russian officials were not immediately available for comment.
The U.S.-led coalition first launched air strikes against Islamic State in Syria in September 2014, after beginning aerial operations against the group in neighboring Iraq the previous month.
Its strikes have regularly targeted Deir al-Zor province in eastern Syria, most of which is held by Islamic State, including oilfields that are a source of income for the militant group.
The province links Islamic State's de facto capital in Raqqa with territory controlled by the group in Iraq.
Britain joined the United States and its allies last week in the bombing campaign against Islamic State in Syria, ahead of proposed international peace talks later this month. Syria's fragmented opposition is set to meet in Riyadh this week in an effort to unify ahead of the talks.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said jets fired nine missiles at the camp, state TV reported.
The ministry sent letters to the U.N. Secretary General and the head of the U.N. Security Council condemning the "flagrant aggression," state news agency SANA said.
It urged the United Nations to take "immediate action and take the necessary measures to prevent a repeat" of the incident, it said.
The ministry said three armored vehicles, four military cars, a weapons cache and ammunition had also been destroyed.
The strikes "confirm once again that the American coalition lacks the seriousness and trust (needed) to fight terrorism in an effective way," it said.
The Syrian government has only a limited presence in Deir al-Zor province, which is mainly controlled by Islamic State.
Russia's air strikes have hit some Islamic State targets, but the United States and its allies say most of them have hit other foreign-backed rebel groups.
In Deir al-Zor city, another air strike overnight killed a woman and two of her children, the Observatory said.
Friday 27 Nov 2015
Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday it was time to join air strikes against Islamic State in Syria because Britain cannot "subcontract its security to other countries".
Many Britons are wary of entering into another war in the Middle East after Western intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya failed to bring stability to the region and some believe led to the rise of militants groups such as Islamic State.
But after Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing 130 people in Paris, some members of parliament who were reluctant to launch further military action in the Middle East now feel it is needed to protect Britain from such attacks.
Cameron lost a vote on air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in 2013 and must persuade some wary members of his own Conservative Party and in the opposition Labour Party to back him if he is to win parliament's support for military action.
After setting out his case, Cameron appeared to have persuaded at least two of 30 party "rebels" who voted against him in 2013, and his foreign minister, Philip Hammond, later said the government was now "building a consensus now for military action".
"We do not have the luxury of being able to wait until the Syrian conflict is resolved before tackling ISIL (Islamic State)," Cameron wrote in a response to parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, which had said a policy to extend air strikes was "incoherent" without a strategy to defeat the militants.
"It is wrong for the United Kingdom to subcontract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain," he added.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran anti-war campaigner, wrote to his lawmakers later on Thursday to say Cameron had not made a convincing case.
"I do not believe the Prime Minister’s current proposal for air strikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it," he said in the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
Corbyn said his team of senior lawmakers had debated the issue extensively during a meeting on Thursday and would meet again on Monday to "attempt to reach a common view".
Cameron said in his 24-page response that the campaign against Islamic State was entering a new phase, focusing on command and control, supply lines and financial support - something that suited Britain's capabilities.
Fearful of losing standing on the world stage, Cameron said Britain should respond to requests from allies, including the United States, but said he would not put a vote to parliament unless there was a majority backing action.
He said he did not want to hand Islamic State a "propaganda coup" by losing a vote.
The government has not set a timetable for any vote but Cameron said earlier this week parliament would be able to consider his case over the weekend, prompting many to expect he could push for a vote as early as next week.
Cameron told some lawmakers, who fear joining the air strikes over Syria would make Britain more of a target, that with the threat to the country already as high as it could be, the only way of reducing it would be to "degrade" Islamic State.
British politicians are keenly aware of public opinion over whether to launch air strikes on Syria. A poll by YouGov this week said 59 percent of people would approve of such strikes, compared with 58 percent a week earlier.
After Cameron's statement, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt, said he now believed parliament should support the prime minister's judgment "that the United Kingdom should play a full role in the coalition".
Another Conservative lawmaker, Sarah Wollaston, said she had changed her mind and was now in favor of air strikes.
But others, in Labour and the Scottish National Party, were less convinced, saying the prime minister had yet to present a clear peace plan for Syria after the military campaign. Others feared that air strikes would pave the way for sending in ground troops, which Cameron denied.
Cameron is hoping to find some support among Labour lawmakers, who are deeply split over Corbyn's anti-war stance.
Breaking with a British political tradition of using a "party whip" to maintain parliamentary discipline, Corbyn's finance spokesman said Labour was considering allowing its lawmakers to vote as they wish.
"In these sort of issues of conscience it is better to allow MPs to make their own minds up," John McDonnell told BBC television ahead of Cameron's statement.
Russia threatened economic retaliation against Turkey on Thursday and said it was still awaiting a reasonable explanation for the shooting down of its warplane, but Turkey dismissed the threats as 'emotional' and 'unfitting'.
In an escalating war of words, President Tayyip Erdogan responded to Russian accusations that Turkey has been buying oil and gas from Islamic State in Syria by accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, which include Moscow, of being the real source of the group's financial and military power.
The shooting down of the jet by the Turkish air force on Tuesday was one of the most serious clashes between a NATO member and Russia, and further complicated international efforts to battle Islamic State militants.
World leaders have urged both sides to avoid escalation.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered his government to draw up measures that would include freezing some joint investment projects and restricting food imports from Turkey.
Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said Moscow could put limits on flights to and from Turkey, halt preparations for a joint free trade zone, and restrict high-profile projects including the TurkStream gas pipeline and a $20 billion nuclear power plant Russia is building in Turkey.
Russia's defense ministry meanwhile said it had suspended all cooperation with the Turkish military, including a hotline set up to share information on Russian air strikes in Syria, the TASS news agency reported.
"We are strategic partners ... 'Joint projects may be halted, ties could be cut'? Are such approaches fitting for politicians?," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
"First the politicians and our militaries should sit down and talk about where errors were made and then focus on overcoming those errors on both sides. But instead, if we make emotional statements like this, that wouldn't be right."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was still awaiting a reasonable answer from Ankara on why it downed the fighter jet. Moscow insists it never left Syrian air space, but Ankara says it crossed the border despite repeated warnings.
The Turkish foreign ministry said diplomatic missions and Turkish business interests in Russia had come under attack and said Russia's ambassador in Ankara had been summoned in protest.
Erdogan said the Russian jet was shot down as an "automatic reaction" to the violation of Turkish air space, in line with standing orders given to the military.
Those instructions were a separate issue to disagreements with Russia over Syria policy, he said, adding Ankara would continue to support moderate rebels in Syria and Turkmen fighters battling President Assad's forces.
Erdogan told CNN that Russia, not Turkey, should be the one to apologize for the incident. And in an interview with France 24, he said he had called Putin after the jet was shot down but that the Russian leader had not yet called him back.
'Prove your claims'
Medvedev on Wednesday alleged that Turkish officials were benefiting from Islamic State oil sales, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was no secret that "terrorists" use Turkish territory.
"Shame on you. It's clear where Turkey buys its oil and gas ... Those who claim we are buying oil from Daesh like this must prove their claims. Nobody can slander this country," Erdogan said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
"If you are seeking the source of weaponry and financial power of Daesh, the first place to look is the Assad regime and countries that act with it," he said.
Moscow says its military involvement in Syria is aimed at battling terrorist groups including Islamic State, casting the campaign to a supportive Russian public as a moral crusade that must be completed despite obstruction from elsewhere.
Turkey and its allies say Russia's real aim is to prop up its ally Assad and that it has been bombing moderate opposition groups in areas of Syria like Latakia, where the jet was downed, and where there is little or no Islamic State presence.
Russian forces have shown no sign of backing down, launching a heavy bombardment against insurgent-held areas in Latakia on Wednesday, near where the jet crashed.
A Reuters correspondent on the Turkish side of the border saw rockets and tank shells being fired from government-controlled western Latakia eastwards into rebel-held territory, sending plumes of smoke rising from the wooded hillsides.
Tourists, food and wheat
Turkey's action infuriated Russia, but Moscow's response has been carefully calibrated. There is little sign it wants a military escalation, or to jeopardize its main objective in the region: to rally international support for its view on how the conflict in Syria should be resolved.
But it clearly wants to punish Turkey economically.
The head of Russia's tourism agency, Rostourism, said cooperation with Turkey would "obviously" be halted. At least two large Russian tour operators had already said they would stop selling packages to Turkey after Russian officials advised holidaymakers against traveling to its resorts.
Russians are second only to Germans in terms of the numbers visiting Turkey, bringing in an estimated $4 billion a year in tourism revenues, which Turkey needs to help fund its gaping current account deficit.
Medvedev meanwhile said Russia may impose restrictions on food imports within days, having already increased checks of Turkish agriculture products, its first public move to curb trade.
Moscow banned most Western food imports in 2014 when Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis, leading to supply disruptions as retailers had to find new suppliers and galloping inflation.
The row has also put a brake on new wheat deals between Russia, one of the world's largest wheat exporters, and Turkey, the largest buyer of Russian wheat.
Sunday 22 Nov 2015
Russia has bombed the Islamic State group in the heaviest strikes in eastern Syria since the war began.
Moscow's military manoeuvres in the Mediterranean even forced Lebanon to reroute flights.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Russian and Syrian warplanes carried out more than 70 strikes in eastern Deir Ezzor province on Friday killing at least 36 people including 10 children.