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Syria's War

Breaking news coverage of developments in Syria's War and the broader regional conflict, including allegations of the deadly use of chemical weapons and the international community's response

  • Syrian helicopters have dropped "barrel bombs" on rebel towns, killing 20, Reuters reported Sunday. 

    From Reuters: 

    Syrian army helicopters bombarded the northern rebel-held town of Al-Bab for a second day on Sunday, killing 20 people including four women when they dropped improvised barrel bombs on a market district, a monitoring group said.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll could rise because many people were severely wounded in the raid, which came a day after 26 people were killed in a similar attack on the same town by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

    The British-based Observatory said three rebels from the Tawhid Brigade were killed in Saturday's raid, which appeared to target their headquarters in Al-Bab.

    Sunday's attack may have been aimed at another rebel group, it said. However, barrel bombs - explosive-filled cylinders or oil barrels - are usually rolled out of the back of helicopters and are rarely delivered with any accuracy.

  • Clashes between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his opponents have killed nine people and wounded some 70 in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli over the weekend, the state news agency said Sunday.

    Sectarian clashes linked to the war in neighboring Syria often flare between two impoverished rival neighborhoods in the rundown coastal city. The Bab Tabbaneh district is largely Sunni Muslim, as are most of the Syrian rebels fighting Assad's rule. Residents of Jabal Mohsen are mostly of Assad's Alawite sect.

    Tripoli is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim but the fighting rarely spreads beyond the two neighborhoods.

    Fighting began Saturday after Sunni gunmen shot a man whose brother controls an Alawite militia, sparking gun battles that trapped children in schools and forced traders to flee their shops.

    [Associated Press]
  • Three people have been killed in Lebanon in violence stemming from tensions over Syria's civil war, Reuters reported early Sunday morning. 

    From Reuters: 

    Three people were killed overnight in fighting in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, security sources said on Sunday, raising to nine the death toll in 24 hours of violence fuelled by sectarian tensions over Syria's civil war.

    The clashes between Tripoli's Alawite minority, which supports Syria's Alawite President Bashar al-Assad, and majority Sunni Muslims who back the Syrian rebels, is the latest round of violence which has killed more than 100 people in the Mediterranean city this year.

    Gun battles have broken out five times since March, killing dozens of people, and twin car bombs at Sunni Muslim mosques in Tripoli killed 42 people in August. The latest clashes were preceded by repeated attacks on Alawite targets over the last week in which several people were wounded.

    Tripoli residents said the sounds of heavy gunfire and rocket explosions echoed across Lebanon's second city from midnight to 6 am.

  • Syrian activists say a new government helicopter strike on a rebel-held town near the northern city of Aleppo has killed 11 people.

    Sunday's attack is the second reported air attack in as many days on al-Bab, located east of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. On Saturday army helicopters targeted a rebel compound in al-Bab, but missed their target and hit a market, killing 26 people.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that in both strikes the military dropped makeshift bombs, known as barrel bombs. The bombs are made of hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives stuffed into barrels.

    [Associated Press]
  • The Associated Press is reporting Syrian rebels have entered a Christian village near Damascus.

    From the AP: 

    Syrian rebels including members of al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra entered a predominantly Christian village near Damascus on Saturday and are fighting government forces in the old part of the town, activists and state media said.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels broke in to Maaloula in the early hours after starting the offensive the previous night, leaving casualties on both sides. The group says Jabhat al-Nusra members are among those fighting in the area.

    Syria's state news agency SANA said government forces "wiped out a number of terrorists" while targeting their hideouts near Maaloula, using its preferred term for rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. It gave no further details.

  • The Syrian prime minister said during a visit to Iran the government was winning the country's civil war, Reuters reported Saturday. 

    From Reuters: 

    Prime Minister Wael Halki said on Saturday Syrian government forces were winning the war with rebels and would not rest while a single enemy fighter remained at large.

    Maintaining Syria's unyielding response to Western calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, Halki said the era of "threats and intimidation has gone, never to return, while the era of victory and pride is being created now on Syrian soil".

    He was speaking during a visit to Iran, which has provided military support and billions of dollars in economic aid to Assad during a 2-1/2-year-old civil war which has killed 100,000 people and shows little sign of being halted by diplomacy.

  • US offers to take some of Syria's chemical weapons

    The United States has offered to destroy Syria's chemical weapons on an American ship, and is looking for a suitable Mediterranean port where the operation can be carried out, the world's chemical weapons watchdog has said.

    The Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Saturday that the weapons would be destroyed on a U.S. vessel at sea using hydrolysis, and that a ship was already undergoing modifications to carry out the operation.

    OPCW spokesman, Michael Luhan, declined to name the vessel to be used.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Syria rebels say peace talks destined for failure

    The Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s Western-backed political opposition, committed this week to peace talks aimed at pursuing the lofty goal of a mutually agreeable transitional government that can end the two-and-a-half-year war.

    "At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday as he announced the long-delayed summit for Jan. 22 in Geneva. Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby promptly affirmed his support for the planned conference and said his only regret was the long delay in scheduling the talks.

    But comments from world leaders wrangling for a solution to the war belie a bleak reality: almost no one believes the long-anticipated talks will succeed – not even the Coalition itself.

    “I really don’t think the prospects of a successful meeting are there – the gaps between the two sides are huge,” Najib Ghadbian, the Coalition's special representative to the United States, told Al Jazeera. The Coalition will go to Geneva, Ghadbian said, to push for delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged cities and for the release of some of Syria's tens of thousands of political prisoners. "From our point of view," he said, "we have nothing really to lose."

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • According to the OPCW, The United States has offered to destroy Syria's chemicals at sea, Reuters reported early Saturday

    From Reuters: 

    The United States has offered to destroy Syrian chemicals on a U.S. ship, the global chemical weapons watchdog said on Saturday, and is looking for a suitable Mediterranean port where processing can be carried out.

    The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been under pressure to find an alternative plan for the destruction of Syria's poison gas arsenal after Albania backed out of hosting the work.

    The OPCW said 35 firms had expressed an interest in bidding for commercial contracts by Friday's deadline for the treatment of about 800 tonnes of bulk industrial chemicals that are safe to destroy in commercial incinerators.

    But another 500 tonnes of chemicals, including nerve agents, are seen as too dangerous to import into a country or process commercially, and will be treated offshore on the U.S. ship.

    The OPCW said the operation would be carried out on a U.S. vessel at sea using hydrolysis, adding a naval vessel was undergoing modifications to support the operations.

    "The United States has offered to contribute a destruction technology, full operational support and financing to neutralize Syria's priority chemicals," an OPCW statement said.

  • More than two dozen companies have expressed their interest in destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, sources at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told Reuters on Friday.

    The global chemical weapons watchdog asked companies a week ago to express interest in destroying nearly 800 tonnes of chemicals and 7.7 million liters of effluent, or liquid waste. Friday is the deadline for the expressions of interest.

    The sources did not reveal which companies had expressed an interest, but Timo Piekkari, chief executive at Finland's state-owned Ekokem, said his firm had done so.

    "We have expressed our interest to bid on some of the chemicals in the list ... that are pretty similar to what we regularly handle," Piekkari told Reuters.

  • Syrian forces have re-taken a town in the Qalamoun region, Reuters is reporting.

    From Reuters: 

    Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have recaptured a Christian town on the main highway north of the capital, the army said, putting them back on the offensive in the strategic region near the Lebanese border.

    Assad's forces have made advances in recent months and are trying to secure the highway linking Damascus to the coastal heartland of his Alawite minority sect, but faced a setback last week when they lost the town of Deir Attiya to al Qaeda-linked fighters.

    The town is in the mountainous Qalamoun area overlooking the highway near the Lebanese border, a region that has emerged as the main battleground as Assad and his opponents try to secure a strategic advantage ahead of a peace conference in January.

    "Units from the army managed to defeat terrorist groups which had infiltrated Deir Attiya... The operation eliminated many terrorists from different nationalities," a Syrian army statement said. The government refers to opposition fighters as terrorists.

  • The OPCW has released statements the director-general made to the executive council at its thirty-fifth meeting on Nov. 26. Below are some of the most pertinent statements made by the director-general: 

    A significant part of Syria's declaration of its chemical weapons includes chemicals 
    that fall in the category of common industrial chemicals, or otherwise chemicals that 
    can safely be rendered harmless or destroyed.

    A critical related aspect of carrying out the destruction of these chemicals is the 
    associated costs. In line with the request of the Executive Council, I have established 
    a special trust fund. The projected costs for the treatment and disposal of the 
    chemicals declared by the Syrian Arab Republic and of the effluent generated during 
    the destruction of mustard and binary chemical weapons components are in the range 
    of EUR 35 to 45 million. This figure does not include the costs of transporting the 
    chemicals to be destroyed, which are expected to be covered through in-kind 
    contributions. I wish to thank Denmark, Italy, and Norway, who have come forward 
    with generous offers for maritime transportation. 

    A Maritime Planning Group is expected to meet in Cyprus to discuss and arrive at 
    arrangements between States Parties offering to assist in transportation and to support 
    the OPCW-UN Joint Mission. The Executive Council has requested me to submit, by 
    17 December, a plan for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons outside its 
    territory. The Council has furthermore asked that the plan include provisions for 
    ensuring clear responsibility at each stage for all chemicals, including responsibility 
    for the requirements of safety and security. It is my hope that the Maritime Planning 
    Group will contribute to identifying the responsibilities of the States assisting in the 
    maritime transport in accordance with existing legal regimes. 

    Meanwhile, a large part of the materials and items necessary for the safe and secure 
    packaging of chemicals has begun to arrive in Lebanon and arrangements are ongoing 
    for their onward transportation to Damascus, from where they will be distributed to 
    the various sites. 

    Click here for the rest of the director-general's statements.
  • Wonder where Syria's exiled children are going? More than 290,000 have come to Jordan #FutureOfSyria #maps
  • Syrian war is making casualties of 'a generation of innocents,' warns UN

    School-age refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war to neighboring countries are cut off from education and increasingly becoming primary providers for families who lack resources for basic survival, the United Nations said Friday.

    A report published by the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says children represent 52 percent of the total Syrian refugee population, which now exceeds 2.2 million, and 75 percent of them – 1.1 million – are under the age of 12.

    “If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in launching the report.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • The Associated Press also has a write up of the shocking UNHCR report on Syrian refugee children. 

    From the AP: 

    A growing number of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan are fast becoming primary providers for families who lack resources for basic survival, the United Nations refugee agency said in a report Friday.

    With the Syrian conflict in its third year, the 61-page report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees highlights the plight of the children, who are growing up in fractured families, missing out on education and increasingly going out to work to help support extended families in exile.

    More than two million Syrians fled their homes because of the country's raging conflict, seeking shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. At least half of the refugees — 1.1 million — are children. Of those, some 75 percent are under the age of 12, the UNHCR report said.

    Children as young as seven work long hours of manual labor in fields, farms and shops for little pay, sometimes under dangerous or exploitative conditions, the report added.

    Read more at the AP and find the full UNHCR report here
  • According to Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague, Ahmad Jarba — the leader of the Syrian National Coalition — is now on Twitter.

    Hague tweeted Friday morning 'Welcome to Twitter leader of Syrian National Coalition @PresidentJarba'

    Jarba's account has yet to be verified by Twitter but the fact that it was formally recognized by Hague lends it credibility.
  • The UN Refugee Agency has released its report on the refugee crisis among Syria's children, entitled "The Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis." 

    The report, which is extremely comprehensive and includes four months of research conducted in Lebanon and Jordan, paints a stark picture of Syrian refugee children's lives.

    From the report: 

    Perhaps the statistic we should pay the most attention to is: 29 per cent of children interviewed said that they leave their home once a week or less. Home is often a crammed apartment, a makeshift shelter or a tent.

    It should be no surprise that the needs of these children are vast. Too many have been wounded physically, psychologically or both. Some children have been drawn into the war—their innocence ruthlessly exploited.

    A grave consequence of the conflict is that a generation is growing up without a formal education. More than half of all school-aged Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon are not in school. In Lebanon, it is estimated that some 200,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children could remain out of school at the end of the year.

    Another disturbing symptom of the crisis is the vast number of babies born in exile who do not have birth certificates. A recent UNHCR survey on birth registration in Lebanon revealed that 77 per cent of 781 refugee infants sampled did not have an official birth certificate. Between January and mid-October 2013, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Za’atari camp, Jordan.

    Over 1.1 million Syrian children are refugees. This shameful milestone of conflict must deliver more than headlines.

    The report also found that many children must act as breadwinners for their family, often performing menial labor on farms or in shops. 
  • The UN Refugee Agency announced on Twitter on Nov. 27 that it has a new project in the works in regards to Syria's refugee children.

    The new project will be announced Friday at 6 CET.
  • Gulf Arab foreign ministers are pushing for the National Coalition to be the only Syrian opposition group that attends the upcoming Geneva 2 conference, according to a Reuters article published early Thursday morning. 

    From Reuters: 

    Syrian peace talks planned for January must put in place a timeframe for a transitional government and should not involve any opposition group other than the National Coalition, Gulf Arab foreign ministers said.

    In a statement issued on Wednesday after they met in Kuwait, foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members also said they hoped Iran's preliminary deal with world powers would lead to a comprehensive solution to its nuclear crisis.

    "The ministers affirmed the importance of strengthening international support for the Syrian opposition represented by the National Coalition, for participation in the Geneva 2 conference," said the statement.

    It added that the conference should lead to "an agreement to put in place a limited timeframe to form a Syrian transitional government with full executive powers, in accordance with the statement of Geneva 1 on January 30 2012".

    The statement also reiterated the Gulf states' position that the National Coalition was the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people and that the Geneva talks should not go ahead with any other opposition groups.

  • The editors at Bloomberg point out that if Iran wants to be treated as a regional power instead of a pariah, then it needs to start acting constructively - and this starts with helping to put an end to the bloodshed at the Geneva 2 talks. But, they say, "for Iran to be tested in this way, it has to be invited to the table" first:

    Iran can show its good faith by convincing Assad that this has to stop, and yesterday’s call -- made jointly with Turkey -- for a pre-January cease-fire was an encouraging start that should be followed up aggressively. Assad should also be pressured to order his forces to protect aid workers and medical staff, no matter who they are helping: 32 clearly identified volunteers working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been killed during the conflict so far. Saudi Arabia, in turn, would need to work with Qatar and Turkey to persuade their rebel clients to do the same.

    Most important for a lasting settlement, though, is that Iran and Assad should accept that the Geneva II talks will be based on the accord reached at the first round last year. That Syria agreement, hammered out primarily by the U.S. and Russia, stipulates the creation of a transitional authority with full executive powers, including over the armed forces -- a requirement that Assad and Iran have so far rejected. Whether Assad can be part of that transition is a subject for negotiation, but if Iran truly wants, as it has told Brahimi, to be part of the solution, it should start by accepting the only framework available to produce one.

    Read more at Bloomberg

  • Tehran has said it would attend Geneva 2 if invited and called on Wednesday for a ceasefire before the talks scheduled for Jan. 22.

    Western diplomats say Iran provides billions of dollars of aid and an undisclosed number of military advisers to Syria.

    Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group openly acknowledges its guerrillas are fighting for Assad, but Tehran denies its troops have been engaged directly in combat in Syria.

  • The Syrian National Coalition opposition group will attend the "Geneva 2" talks in January aimed at ending the civil war, the group's president, Ahmad Jarba, said on Wednesday.

    In an interview with Reuters and the Associated Press, he also said regional power Iran should only be allowed to attend if it stopped taking part in the bloodshed in Syria and withdrew its forces and proxies.

    The Coalition had previously said it was ready to attend if humanitarian aid corridors were set up and political prisoners released. It insists that President Bashar al-Assad can play no future role in Syria.

    "We are now ready to go to Geneva," said Jarba on a visit to Cairo, adding that the opposition views the Geneva talks as a step to a leadership transition and a "genuine democratic transformation in Syria".

    "There is no way that the individual responsible for the destruction of the country can be responsible for building the country," said Jarba, referring to Assad.

    Syria said on Wednesday that Western countries which also demand that Assad step down should either stop "dreaming" or forget attending the peace talks.

    Jarba rejected the idea of Iran attending "under the current reality".

    "Iran is responsible for and takes part in the killing in Syria in a very clear way. It killed thousands of Syrians with its Revolutionary Guards and mercenaries from Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group," he said.

    "If Iran is serious about resolving the Syrian crisis, it must first withdraw its Revolutionary Guards and (Lebanese) Hezbollah mercenaries."

    Iran is the main backer, along with Russia, of Assad during a conflict that has lasted more than two years, killed more than 100,000 people and uprooted millions more. Tehran has said it would attend Geneva 2 if invited and on Wednesday called for a ceasefire ahead of the talks scheduled for Jan. 22.

  • U.S. officials say the Obama administration is offering to destroy some of Syria's deadliest chemical weapons in international waters aboard a nearly 700-foot, U.S. government-owned ship.

    The plan, still subject to final approval, would involve destroying the chemical components, likely in the Mediterranean Sea, with Navy warships patrolling nearby.
    This approach would avoid the diplomatic, environmental and security problems posed by disposing the weapons on any nation's soil.

    The officials who discussed the plan spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday because they were not authorized to talk about it publicly.

    The ship to be used is the MV Cape Ray, a Virginia-based ship owned by the Transportation Department.
    It would destroy Syria's chemical weapons using a process developed by the Pentagon but never used in an actual operation.

    [Associated Press]
  • With my dear friend @JZarif we discussed in depth Turkey-Iran bilateral relations and regional issues like Syria.
  • SNC leader Ahmed Jarba: Iran should attend Geneva 2 talks only if it stops killing Syrians, withdraws forces-@Reuters
  • Syrian National Coalition opposition group to attend Geneva 2 talks-@Reuters
  • #Syrian Prez Bashar #Assad called #Iran Prez #Rohani & told him Iranˈs success in #nuclear issue is result of Iranian ppl resistance.
  • The OPCW- UN Joint Mission in Syria has released an update on the mission to Syria's chemical weapons: 

    Following the issuance of the second monthly progress report regarding the OPCW- UN Joint Mission in Syria, a meeting of the Executive Council of the OPCW was held on 26 November 2013.

    In his opening statement Director-General Üzümcü stated that “the resolve to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons in the safest and soonest manner possible reflects a collective commitment,” and added that “States Parties, especially those with the capacity to safely dispose of such chemicals, can and must play their part.”

    A significant part of Syria’s stockpile falls in the category of common industrial chemicals - or chemicals that otherwise can safely be rendered harmless or destroyed by commercial chemical disposal companies.  The Director-General urged Member States to encourage qualified firms based in their countries to participate in this process.

    A large portion of the materials necessary for the safe and secure packaging of Syria’s declared chemicals has arrived in Lebanon. Arrangements are currently underway for their onward transportation to Damascus from where they will be distributed to the various relevant sites.

    At the same time, the verification of destruction activities being conducted by Syria continues. The number of OPCW inspectors there will soon be increased in keeping with the need to run verification activities in parallel at different locations. This includes witnessing the decanting and packing of chemicals, collecting samples for further analysis, as well as monitoring the loading and embarkation of chemicals for transportation outside Syrian territory.

    The programme to remove chemical weapons from Syria to locations elsewhere continues to pose challenges due to the security situation on the ground.

  • BuzzFeed's Mike Giglio is reporting from inside Syria.

    From BuzzFeed:

    The jihadis scrawled their graffiti all over town. Black spray paint extends across wall after wall, spelling out religious exultations and verses from the Quran, written out in exacting calligraphy. It runs along the gates of shuttered storefronts; it’s stenciled onto telephone poles. It covers the former state security building, burned out and bullet-ridden, that was converted into an Islamic court.

    Until recently, armed jihadi groups ran the dusty Syrian town of Yarubiya, pressed into the northeastern corner of the country, the gateway to a crossing into Iraq. The groups are gone now — driven out by Kurdish fighters in late October — but their graffiti remains, still visible beneath fresh layers of paint. The names of the fighting groups, like the Quranic verses, are also written everywhere, and they serve as a reminder: Al-Qaeda was here.

    Rebels descended on Yarubiya and pried it from the Syrian regime in March. Most residents fled. Those who stayed recall a foggy transition among the town’s new overlords: Fighters who seemed moderate at first were replaced with — or superseded by, or became themselves — fighters who were ardently Islamist. Most belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra, the powerful force blacklisted by the U.S. as a branch of al-Qaeda; others to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, now the most feared group in the rebellion.

  • In response to a question about how the State Department envisions the opposition's role at Geneva 2, Psaki said the department has long encouraged the opposition to send a delegation that is representative of the Syrian people.

    When asked if she expects the opposition to speak with one voice, Psaki said she wasn't sure what that means but she expects the opposition to be one delegation.

    'Negotiations in Geneva may result in a ceasefire' Psaki said, adding that there is 'no expectation' that fighting will cease during the peace conference.
  • During her daily briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the goal of Geneva 2 has nothing to do with 'foreign demands.'

    The conference is about Syrians talking to Syrian, she added.

    Psaki's remarks follow comments Syrian Pres. Assad made earlier Wednesday that the 'colonial era is over,' in response to foreign calls that he not be involved in a transitional government. 

    However, Psaki did go on to say it is hard to see how Assad could have a future role in Syria, given past reports about the use of chemical weapons. 

  • "All our efforts should be carried out to finish conflict &reach a
    ceasefire even b4 Geneva 2," Iran FM during presser w/ Turkish FM #Syria
  • Syrian government to attend Geneva peace talks

    The Syrian government says it will participate in U.N.-sponsored peace talks aimed at ending the country's civil war, but insists that it is not going to the conference to hand over power.

    "The colonial era is over," state news agency SANA on Wednesday quoted a foreign ministry source as saying in response to French and British demands that President Bashar al-Assad should have no role in a transitional government. "The official Syrian delegation is not going to Geneva to surrender power."

    The source said the Syrian delegation to the Geneva talks would convey "the wishes of the Syrian people, foremost among the elimination of terrorism" — a reference to the battle against rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • The foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran called on Wednesday for a ceasefire in Syria before proposed peace talks in Geneva scheduled for January 22.

    "All our efforts are to end the conflict and for a ceasefire if possible, even before the Geneva 2 conference takes place," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a news conference in Tehran with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.

  • According to the Mehr News Agency, Turkey and Iran have issued a joint call for a ceasefire in Syria before the Geneva 2 peace conference on Jan. 22, Reuters reported Wednesday.
  • The Syrian government said Wednesday it will participate in U.N.-sponsored peace talks aimed at ending the country's civil war, but insisted that it is not going to the conference to hand over power.

    The United Nations on Monday announced that the long-delayed peace talks will begin Jan. 22 in Geneva. The meeting, which would be the first face-to-face talks between the President Bashar Assad's government and its opponents since the Syrian war began, has raised hopes that a resolution to a conflict that activists say has killed more than 120,000 people could be within reach.

    But huge hurdles remain, including a decision on the full list of participants. The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group has said it is ready to attend, but wants the government to establish humanitarian corridors and release political prisoners as a confidence-building measure before it makes a final decision.

    In a statement Wednesday, Syria's Foreign Ministry confirmed the government will attend, saying Assad will send an official delegation to the Geneva conference. The ministry stressed that the representatives "will be going to Geneva not to hand over power to anyone" but to meet with those "who support a political solution for Syria's future."

    The Syrian opposition and its Western supporters insist that Assad cannot be part of a transitional government.

    In a jab at Britain and France, the Foreign Ministry said that if Paris and London "insist on holding fast to these illusions" that there is no place for Assad in a transitional period, then "there is no need for them to attend Geneva 2."

    "Our people will not allow anyone to steal their right to decide their future and leadership and the main goal of the Geneva conference is to fulfill the interests of the Syrian people alone, and not those who shed their blood," the statement said.

    [Associated Press]
  • According to the Syrian state TV, the country's government has said it will attend the Geneva 2 conference in January, announcing that its priority is to 'eliminate terrorism,' Reuters reported at 4:40 a.m. ET.

    However, in responding to countries that have said President Bashar al-Assad has no place in the country's transition, Syria says the 'colonial era is over,' according to Reuters.

  • European Union Foreign Affairs leader Catherine Ashton issued a statement welcoming the upcoming Geneva 2 conference on Syria, set to convene January 22, 2014:

    I welcome the news that United Nations Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon has set the date of 22 January 2014 for the long awaited conference on Syria, the so-called Geneva 2 meeting. On many occasions I have expressed my firm support for a political solution to the conflict in Syria. The EU has been a strong supporter of Joint Special Representative Brahimi's efforts. The EU has also been working to create conditions conducive to holding the conference among all important stakeholders.
    I strongly support the call of the UNSG that the eight weeks ahead of us should be used to build up confidence among the parties through the cessation of violence, humanitarian access, release of detainees and return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people to their homes. I also hope that both sides will soon designate representatives to the talks who in a spirit of openness and responsibility for their country will work towards finding a way out of this tragic conflict, and open a new chapter in Syria's history in line with the legitimate aspirations of all Syrians to live in a country where peace, security and stability have been restored.

  • Syrian women increasingly targeted by violence

    Syrian women are increasingly targeted with violence and sexual assault by armed groups in the civil war between rebel groups and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to a new report.

    The Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network, a network of more than 80 human rights organizations in more than 30 countries in Europe and the Mediterranean, released a report on Monday (PDF) detailing the violence experienced by Syrian women in 2012 and 2013, based on firsthand testimonies or accounts from their families or aid workers.

    An estimated 6,000 Syrian women have been raped in 2013, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), of which the report’s co-author, Sema Nasar, is a member. Rape and sexual violence continue to be underreported due to the stigma associated with it in Syrian society, so the cases that are recorded tend to be from women who have sought medical or psychological care as a result, the authors wrote, as “women and girls stay in constant fear of sexual violence and arrests which prolongs their agony and pain.”

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • UN aid convoys can't reach about 250,000 people in Syria because of combatants, Reuters is exclusively reporting

    From Reuters: 

    The U.N. document entitled "Humanitarian Situation and Response in Syria" painted a grim picture, saying there had been 900 armed clashes in Syria in October compared with 500 in May.

    It describes a "dangerous and difficult environment for humanitarian workers" and says 12 U.N. staff and 32 volunteers or staff of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Another 21 U.N. staff members remain in detention, it said, without giving details.

    The war has driven 6.5 million people from their homes in Syria and has prompted another 2.2 million to flee abroad. The United Nations has not updated its estimated death toll since July when it said the conflict had killed 100,000.

    Some 9.3 million Syrians inside the country need assistance, half of them children, the document said. An estimated 575,000 people are wounded or need life-saving care.

    It said the government has denied permission in the past month for U.N. convoys or missions to areas besieged by Assad's forces - including 7,000 people living in Mouadamiya and 160,000 in Eastern Ghouta, both outside Damascus, and 4,000 in Homs Old City. Some 25,000 are trapped by both sides in Yarmouk and 9,000 in Daraya, two areas just outside the capital.

  • Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Monday and discussed the Middle East and problems faced by Christians across the world, but did not touch on the strained relationship between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church.

    The 35-minute meeting at the Vatican was the first between Pope Francis and Putin, who met the pontiff's two immediate predecessors, Benedict and John Paul II.

    "It was quite a cordial and constructive meeting," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters after the encounter. Putin had arrived around 45 minutes late because of transport problems.

    The two leaders discussed the civil war in Syria and the pope stressed the need to end violence and bring assistance to the civilian population.


  • Germany plans to make two million euros available for the Geneva peace process on Syria, according to a news release on the country's Foreign Office website. 

    Foreign Minister Westerwelle issued the following statement on Nov. 26 concerning Geneva 2:

    I welcome the fact that UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon has now set a concrete date for the Geneva peace conference on Syria. This is our only real opportunity to finally embark upon a political process.

    We call on all political stakeholders in Syria to participate in the Geneva conference.

    We will use the remaining time to work closely with our international partners in order to make the Geneva peace process a success.

    Germany is making available an additional 2 million euros to the United Nations to support the Geneva peace process and the work of the UN Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

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