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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

  • #Iraq FM: proliferation of extremist groups in #Syria raises prospect of ungovernable "Islamic emirate'' that the world will have to deal w/
  • #UN chief to send invitations for the Geneva 2 peace conference on December 20 #Syria
  • Largest rebel force in #Syria , Islamic Front seized FSA arms depots near Bab Al Hawa crossing late Saturday; Front doesn't recognize FSA
  • An international watchdog said it has verified the destruction of all of Syria's unfilled munitions for delivering chemical agents, another milestone along the road to eradicating President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons program.

    The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement that its experts in Syria also have verified the destruction of parts of buildings at weapons production facilities.

    The latest destruction work was near the city of Homs -- sites that the OPCW said had been inaccessible due to security reasons. The Syrian army has been advancing against rebels and on Monday troops reopened the highway linking Damascus with the central city of Homs.

    The highway is a key road leading to Syria's coast and could open the way for transporting the country's chemical weapons to be sent to the port of Latakia before they are taken out of the country for destruction.

    [Associated Press]
  • A group of Syrian Greek Orthodox nuns reportedly seized by rebels from a convent near Damascus denied in a video broadcast Friday that they had been kidnapped and said they were being held in a safe place.

    It was the first appearance by the nuns, whose alleged Monday abduction has increased concerns about the treatment of Christians by hard-liners in the rebel ranks, particularly as the fighting has engulfed more Christian villages in recent months.

    In the video aired by Al Jazeera Friday, the Greek Orthodox nuns appeared healthy. They sat on sofas in a "villa" at an undisclosed location, and took turns speaking, saying they were escorted out of Maaloula to keep them safe from the shelling.

    "The brothers are treating us well and have brought us from the convent here and we are very happy," one of them says to the camera. The video appeared authentic, but it was impossible to independently verify it or to know if the nuns were speaking under duress.

    Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Gregorios III Laham, commenting on the video, thanked all who contributed to making the nuns comfortable, but said: "Real comfort would be in their homes.
    " His comments were published in Lebanon's official National News Agency.

    [Associated Press]

  • Andrew Harper, the Representative to Jordan for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, tweeted out pictures of his trip into the desert to help Syrian refugees seeking sanctuary over the Jordanian border.


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  • A Lebanese soldier was killed Thursday as pro- and anti-Syrian regime supporters clashed in Lebanon's second largest city Tripoli, breaking an army-imposed truce, a security official said.

    "A soldier was killed by a bullet to the head," the source said, not long after reporting at least six soldiers were among eight wounded during fighting in Bab al-Tebbaneh, a neighborhood that has been at the center of unrest for more than a year.

    The latest fighting comes after authorities decided on Monday to place Tripoli under army control for six months after a wave of sectarian killings linked to Syria's war left 11 dead in the main northern city.

    Thursday's shooting broke out after a group of young men accosted a Lebanese television team filming on Syria Street, which divides the two districts.

    "The army intervened, and gunfire erupted between them and the soldiers... which degenerated into shooting from both neighborhoods and the army responding in both directions," the security official said.

  • Once again, the State Department's daily briefing touched on Syria. However, spokeswoman Marie Harf kept her comments Thursday concise when talking about the war-torn nation. 

    When asked if the United States works with the Muslim Brotherhood, Harf said she won't outline every contact America has with each group.

    'We have said we engage with the moderate opposition,' Harf said, adding that the reality is America needs all of the opposition to buy into a political solution.

    Harf demurred somewhat when asked about Navi Pillay's statements that UN evidence on Syria war crimes implicates President Bashar al-Assad, saying 'we've said broadly speaking there needs to be accountability.'
  • The Associated Press also has a story on Yasser Faisal al-Jumaili, the freelance Iraqi journalist who was killed in Syria.  

    From the AP: 

     Syrian opposition fighters killed an Iraqi freelance journalist in the rebel-held north of the country, the latest of dozens of reporters who have died in the country over the past three years, an activist group and an international media watchdog said Thursday.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Yasser Faisal al-Jumaili was shot dead at a rebel checkpoint in the northwestern province of Idlib on Wednesday.

    Soazig Dollet of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders press advocacy group confirmed al-Jumaili was killed in Idlib, adding that his body was taken to Turkey in order to be sent home later. She said she doesn't know how al-Jumaili was killed.

    The Committee to Protect Journalists said that Syria was the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2012. According to the group, 28 reporters were killed in that year alone.

    At least five journalists, other than al-Jumaili, have died in Syria since the fighting began in March 2011, according to the AP. 
  • Brzezinski:Russia can dissuade Assad from 3rd term. 'Creates opening.' Might not get what Saudis want - Sunni domination - but power sharing
  • Hill: CW deal was straightforward, short term. Much more complicated to find broader Syria resolution that works for US, Russia
  • Hill:we don't know how we get to end game in Syria, don't even know what it looks like. Russia wants those answers; knows we don't have them
  • Brzezinski: if we have peace with Iranians, some movement on Syria, Palestine/Israel, will help US but won't give dominant role in region
  • Lukyanov: Russia was 'extremely embarrassed by what happened in #Libya .' Now in Syria standing against what happened in other uprisings
  • Panel starting now on US, #Russia and the Middle East at Johns Hopkins #DC . Lukyanov:'Greater Russian engagement now than even 1 year ago.'
  • The State Department has released its background briefing on the NATO-Russia meeting, which includes some notes about the discussion on Syria. 

    Here are some of the most important notes about Syria: 

    The Secretary started the day in the NATO-Russia Council Meeting today. This is all NATO allies plus Russia sitting in 29-country format. They covered the full agenda of issues on which NATO and Russia work together, but in particular, most speakers talked about the importance of the deal to – agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons and how that is progressing, and the need to finish with that on time

    They then did – there was then the bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, which ran for about 30 minutes. First subject was Syria, particularly the need – the preparations for Geneva II, all of the work that’s going on with the various neighbors and partners to prepare the ground for Geneva II, and then a very – another strong discussion with the Secretary urging Foreign Minister Lavrov to increase the pressure on the Assad regime to allow full humanitarian access for humanitarian aid and real concern about starvation being used as a weapon of war, and about the rise of extremism on both sides making it a much tougher environment in Syria.

    These notes are readouts of conversations various officials have with reporters after the meeting. That's why they can seem a bit jumbled. But they give a clearer understanding of what transpired during the meeting. 
  • A unit of Russia security forces is training to counter militants from Syria, according to a Chechen leader, Reuters reported Thursday

    From Reuters: 

    A unit of Russian security forces is training to fight Islamist militants battling in Syria on fears they may migrate from the Middle East conflict to join an insurgency in the North Caucasus, Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader said.

    The Kremlin is worried that Russian-born militants will return to join insurgents who want to carve out an Islamic state in Chechnya and other mostly Muslim provinces in the mountains on Russia's southern fringe.

    Officials have said 400 Russians are fighting with al Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, but experts estimate the numbers are much higher. Some Chechens, veterans of two post-Soviet wars against Russian rule, have emerged as leaders among Syrian rebels.

    "These bandits post videos daily claiming that after Syria they will migrate to the North Caucasus and engage in terrorist and subversive activities," Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov said in a statement posted on the regional government's website late on Wednesday.

  • #Iran : Geneva 2 should lay the groundwork for "absolutely free" elections and "expel terrorists from #Syria "
  • Reporters Without Borders has released a statement on the death of freelance cameraman Yasser Faysal al-Joumaili. The statement was originally written in French but can be translated on RWB's website. 

    "Yasser Al-Joumaili is the first foreign journalist killed by an armed group" opposition "in the said areas" liberated "northern Syria. This murder shows the importance of the mobilization of the international community, Syrian and international organizations defending freedom of the press and all the players information to fight against all those who intend to muzzle the media and silence their employees, "said Reporters Without Borders. The organization is a partner of the "Campaign for Free press Syria ", launched on December 2, to denounce the" deliberate strategy (ISIS) to stifle press freedom and impose a new widespread censorship of the Syrian people ".

    According to reports, Yasser Al-Faysal Joumaili was ten days in northern Syria, where he was reporting on behalf of a Spanish media. Several sources indicate that he was abducted Dec. 4, 2013 by the jihadist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham) in the Idlib region before being executed. The exact circumstances of this murder is still unknown. His body is now in Turkey.

  • Reporters Without Borders: Yasser Faysal al-Joumaili's execution was first of a foreign journalist in rebel areas #Syria #Iraq
  • Reporters Without Borders: ISIL kidnapped &executed Iraqi freelance cameraman working in northern #Syria
  • Iran's Hassan Rouhani met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and discussed Syria, according to Rouhani's Twitter account

    There is no official word yet on whether Iran will attend the upcoming Geneva 2 peace conference. 

  • The Christian Science Monitor takes a look at the important — and ever contentious — issue of who should actually attend the upcoming Geneva 2 peace talks

    Lakhdar Brahimi, the Syria envoy for both the UN and the Arab League, is urging that Iran and Saudi Arabia be invited to the conference, in realpolitik recognition of the key roles that both are playing in the conflict – Iran on the side of Mr. Assad, and Saudi Arabia in the opposition's corner.

    But even if Mr. Brahimi can persuade the United States to OK Iran's participation – the US has long said that Iran should be allowed to attend only if it supports the conference goal of a political transition in Syria to a new, democratic government – some crucial players in the conflict would still be outside the tent.

    Under no circumstances will the Islamist extremist groups gaining ground in Syria be part of the international negotiations. So the challenge they present to both Syria and to the region will remain, no matter what happens at the conference, regional experts note.

    [The Syrian government and the opposition] have agreed to attend – although kicking and screaming. The Syrian government says it will send a delegation but has no intention of accepting any outcome that includes Assad's departure from power. The main moderate opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, says it will attend, but it insists that a transitional government cannot include Assad, and it sees no place for Iran at the conference table.

    At the same time, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the principal opposition fighting force that is a member of the national coalition but doesn't always work in tandem with it – says it will not attend.

    Despite UN efforts to secure a cease-fire in the run-up to the conference, FSA troops will not stop fighting, lest government forces take advantage of a truce to advance military, says the group's leader, Gen. Salim Idriss.

    The peace talks are shaping up to be a rather combative affair. The Assad regime has bristled at claims he must give up power, reportedly saying the colonial era has ended. However, opposition groups have refused to attend peace talks that do not include a solution that strips Assad of his power. 

  • Agence France-Presse is reporting that Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi insists that discussing the departure of Bashar al-Assad from the presidency is not an option in the upcoming Geneva 2 peace talks.

    "If anyone thinks we are going to Geneva 2 to hand the keys to Damascus over (to the opposition), then he might as well not go," he told SANA news agency. "The decision rests with President Assad. He will lead the period of transition, if there is one. He is the leader of Syria... And he will remain the president of Syria."

  • Rebel fighters fortify a barricade with destroyed public buses in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo (Photo: Getty)

  • The UN News Service is reporting that preparations for removing Syrian chemical weapons from the country are underway, and called on the international community to continue its support for the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in completing its task:

    "The functional destruction of critical facilities and weaponry has taken place… We're in full swing to prepare for the removal of the most critical chemical agents out of the country," Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag told the UN News Service just prior to briefing the Security Council on the latest developments.

    "There are deadlines that are set that are quite ambitious. They're very stringent, but we are getting as ready as we possibly can so the Syrian Arab Republic – the Government – can fulfil its commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention."

    Ms. Kaag said preparations are under way for 'Phase III,' namely the removal of chemical agents out of the country. The plan is to transport the chemical agents to the Syrian port city of Latakia, where they will be shipped on commercial vessels provided by some Member States. They will then be loaded onto a United States ship and destroyed at sea using hydrolysis.

    Read more at the UN News Service

  • The New York Times has a good read about Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, a trip that is fraught with danger and could lead even to death navigating the seas, or marginalization abroad:

    The Syrian exodus has become one of the gravest global refugee crises of recent decades. More than two million people have fled Syria’s civil war, most resettling in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But since this summer, refugees have also started pouring into Europe in what became for many weeks a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Over five months, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued thousands of Syrians, even as hundreds of other migrants, including many Syrians, died in two major shipwrecks in October.

    Joe Burgess/The New York Times

    For many, reaching Europe was merely the beginning of another difficult journey. Having risked their lives in hopes of settling in prospering Northern Europe, many Syrians found themselves trapped in the south, living illegally in Italy, hiding from the police, as they tried to sneak past border guards and travel north to apply for asylum.

    Read more at the New York Times
  • The United States sees value in getting to know Islamist militias in Syria, in order to better understand their intentions in the civil war there and their possible links with Al-Qaeda,said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday.

    Dempsey did not say directly whether the United States is holding face-to-face talks with Islamist rebel groups. But he said Washington was still seeking to better understand the contours of the different Sunni Muslim rebel groups, some of whom purport to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

    "I think it's worth knowing whether these groups have any intent whatsoever to be moderate and inclusive, or whether they...from the start intend to be radical," Dempsey told reporters.

    "So I think that finding that out, however we do so, is worth the effort."

  • According to Emma Batha writing for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, honor killings and abandonment due to rape are on the rise in Syria:

    Healthcare has also become a 'weapon of war' for the government, which has targeted doctors and withheld vaccinations from children in opposition-held areas, said Rola Hallam, a volunteer with the medical charity Hand in Hand in Syria.

    She said women and girls who had been raped during the conflict then found they were being stigmatised by their relatives, adding to their misery.

    "If they are married they are (being) divorced. Their families do not want them. There are lots of honour killings going on," she told an international women's rights conference in London hosted by Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International New York Times.

    Women and minors in Syria are being raped by government and paramilitary forces, Hallam said.

    "My dad is a gynaecologist and he was referred an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old pregnant girl as a result of that," she said. Their fathers had threatened to kill them, and they had been abandoned by their families.

    oth Saudi Arabia and Israel are highly critical of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Read more at the Thomson Reuters Foundation
  • With still no word on the 12 Orthodox nuns kidnapped yesterday, Pope Francis on Wednesday appealed for prayers from the crowd at the end of his general audience in the Vatican, reports the Associated Press.

    "I invite everyone to pray for the sisters of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Santa Takla in Maaloula, Syria, who were taken by force by armed men two days ago," he said. "Let us continue to pray and to work together for peace."
  • During her daily briefing, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf addressed a wide range of issues regarding the situation in Syria. Her comments covered everything from the humanitarian situation on the ground to the splintering opposition and which opposition groups the US works with.

     "We remain very concerned about the humanitarian situation," in different areas in Syria, Harf said. Just to highlight the humanitarian crisis in the country, Harf cited statistics that there are 2.5 million Syrians who receive little to no assistance in difficult to reach areas. 

    She also said she had no update on the nuns who were kidnapped earlier this week. If they were taken for their safety, they should be released, Harf said. And if they were not taken for their safety, Harf condemned the kidnapping.

    Responding to a different set of questions about the various opposition groups in Syria, Harf said: "We do not engage with terrorists" or groups that have been designated as terrorists. She stressed that the United States and other involved parties need to find ways to get the various opposition groups to accept the need for a political solution in Syria. 

    "We need to get these groups to buy into the notion" that there needs to be a political solution, Harf said. 

    In response to reporters' questions, Harf also addressed comments Ambassador Crocker made to The New York Times

    From the Times: 

    “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.

    Harf  stressed that 'it is because of the regime's actions' that terrorists groups are even flourishing in Syria in the first place and said the US is not talking to Assad on terrorism, according to McClatchy Newspapers Hannah Allam. 

    The US is still tracking toward a Geneva 2 peace conference right where the regime will have a delegation, as will the US, the United Nations, the opposition, and others, Harf said during the briefing. 

    Finally, Harf demurred on rumors the upcoming Geneva 2 peace talks won't actually be held in Geneva, since hotels are full. She said she didn't have any comments on that story. 
  • State Dept: It's not our policy, it's not where we are on this. We're tracking for a Geneva2 conference, where regime will have delegation
  • State Dept: We consider a wide range of opinions and it's an interesting idea, but we are not talking w/Syrian regime on counterterrorism
  • State re: AMB Crocker's remarks about talking to Assad on terrorism: "No we're not." Let's remember terrorists are flourishing bec of regime
  • State Dept: No word on whether some of the groups will go to Geneva. Some of the grps mentioned in the WSJ story fall under the SMC. #Syria
  • State Dept on WSJ re: talks w/ Syrian Islamists: We don't work w/ designated grps, but there's 'a reality' that we need to talk w/the others
  • Rocket fire has killed at least 17 in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Reuters reported Wednesday.

    From Reuters: 

    Rockets fired into a government-controlled district of Aleppo killed at least 17 people in the northern Syrian city on Wednesday, state media and a monitoring group said.

    Photographs from the incident in Meridien and Furqan, two adjacent neighborhoods in western Aleppo, showed pools of blood on the pavements and a crater in the road where one of the rockets appeared to have landed.

    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the casualties included nine civilians and five members of President Bashar al-Assad's security forces.

    It put the death toll at 18, one more than was reported by state news agency SANA which called the rocket fire a "terrorist attack ...on residential districts" of the disputed city.

    Assad's forces have gained ground to the southwest of Aleppo and carried out air strikes, dropping improvised barrel bombs from helicopters on the town of al-Bab to the northeast.

  • Rocket fire against government-held areas of Aleppo killed at least 18 people among them 5 troops, a monitoring group said #Syria
  • Here is the full statement of support for the UN-OPCW mission in Syria from the NATO Russia Council: 

    1. Meeting in Brussels on 4 December 2013, we, the Foreign Ministers of the NATORussia Council affirm our support for the full implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118 (UNSCR 2118), the Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons between the Russian Federation and the United States of America and the decision adopted by the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on 27 September 2013, and for the significant work undertaken by the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons.

    2. We recall all elements of UN Security Council Resolution 2118 which inter alia condemns in the strongest terms any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic in particular the attack on 21 August 2013, in violation of international law.

    3. We welcome work done so far and note that important progress has been made in implementing the OPCW Executive Council decisions and UNSCR 2118. We urge all parties to fully cooperate with the OPCW-UN Joint Mission and underscore the importance of the complete and verifiable elimination of all chemical weapons, material and equipment, in the soonest and safest manner in accordance with the decisions of the Executive Council of the OPCW on 27 September 2013 and 15 November 2013 and the Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons between the Russian Federation and the United States of America of 14 September 2013.

    4. Noting that UNSC resolution 2118 recognises the primary responsibility of the Syrian Government to ensure safety and security for the OPCW-UN Joint Mission, we urge all Syrian parties to cooperate with the OPCW-UN Joint Mission staff in the fulfilment of its mandate, including by providing unfettered access and a secure environment for its activities.

    5. We recall UNSCR 2118 which stresses that the only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process based on the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 and we welcome the decision to convene the International Conference on Syria (Geneva II) on 22 January 2014.

    6. We welcome all support provided by the NRC member states to the OPCW-UN Joint Mission and stand ready to consider further assistance to the OPCW-UN Joint Mission if requested.

  • The NATO Russia Council on Wednesday adopted a statement urging all parties in Syria to cooperate with the joint UN-OPCW mission, according to a press release from NATO. 

    From the press release: 

    The NATO Russia Council (NRC) also exchanged views on global security issues including Afghanistan, Iran and Syria. The NRC adopted a statement supporting the work of the joint United Nations-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission which is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities. The Foreign Ministers urged “all Syrian parties to cooperate” with the joint UN-OPCW mission. Ministers urged all Syrian parties to ensure unfettered access and a secure environment for the joint mission. The statement added that NRC member states stand ready to consider further assistance to the mission, if requested. Ministers also made clear that the only solution to the Syrian crisis was an inclusive and Syrian-led political process and they welcomed the decision to convene the International Conference on Syria in Geneva in January 2014.

    Read more here.
  • Syrian Kurds celebrate war-torn country's first civil marriage

    Amid the chaos of a two-and-a-half year war, civil marriage has arrived in Syria, activists and officials in the northeastern town of Qamishli say. Syrian Kurds Hmaren Sharif and her groom, Rashou Suleiman, signed the country's first civil marriage contract over the weekend, under new laws administered by the ruling Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.

    The ceremony in Syria's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region was presided over by the co-mayors of Qamishli, a city of nearly 200,000 where Kurds are the majority but Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians have long co-existed.

    "From now on, the municipality of Qamishli will sign the contracts of all who (wish to) marry," said Sima Bakdash, one of the co-mayors who signed Sharif and Suleiman's marriage license, according to news outlet 3arabi Online.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America

  • According to the Wall Street Journal, the US and its allies have held direct talks with some of the main Islamist militias in Syria, while Saudi Arabia has taken it a step further by directly arming and funding one of the Islamist groups, the Army of Islam:

    The US and its allies have held direct talks with key Islamist militias in Syria, Western officials say, aiming to undercut al-Qaeda while acknowledging that religious fighters long shunned by Washington have gained on the battlefield.

    At the same time, Saudi Arabia is taking its own outreach further, moving to directly arm and fund one of the Islamist groups, the Army of Islam, despite US qualms.

    Both the Western and Saudi shifts aim to weaken al-Qaeda-linked groups, which Western officials now concede are as great a danger in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

    The Saudis and the West are pivoting toward a newly created coalition of religious militias called the Islamic Front, which excludes the main al-Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria — the Nusra Front and the Islamic Army of Iraq and the Levant.

    Over the past two months, the militias, which command the loyalty of tens of thousands of fighters driving the conflict in Syria, have begun to consolidate their ranks. In late November, they announced they were banding together and forming the Islamic Front.

    Read more at the Wall Street Journal [Subscription Required]
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