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The leader of a powerful al-Qaida-linked group in Syria gave a rival breakaway group a five-day ultimatum to accept arbitration by leading clerics to end infighting or be expelled from the region.
The ultimatum was issued by Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani in an audio message in which he warned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that it would be driven both from Syria and "even from Iraq" if it rejected the results of arbitration.
The audio message was produced by Nusra Front's media arm al-Manara al-Baydha and was posted on militant websites Tuesday, two days after the killing of Abu Khaled al-Suri who acts as al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri's representative in Syria. He was believed to be assassinated by two suicide bombers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Heavy clashes between the group and other and other rebel factions in opposition-held northern and eastern Syria have killed hundreds of people since the beginning of the year and undermined the fight to topple President Bashar Assad.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has angered other factions with its brutal tactics and campaign to Islamize areas under its control in the northeast.
"We are waiting for your official answer within five days of issuing this statement," al-Golani warned the group, adding that Syrians have been putting up with its aggression for a full year.
"By God, if you reject God's judgment again, and do not stop your arrogant overlording over the Muslim nation, then (we) will be forced to launch an assault against this aggressive, ignorant ideology and will expel it, even from Iraq," he said.
Al-Golani suggested the arbitration be conducted by three senior al-Qaida ideologists, including one serving a prison sentence and another standing trial on terrorism charges in Jordan.
Air raids on rebel-held towns in central Syria killed 18 people on Monday, activists said, two days after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding an end to indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks.
Syria's almost three-year-old conflict has raged on despite peace talks that began in Geneva last month and the passage of the U.N. resolution, a rare moment of unity between the West and Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's strongest backer.
Two women and two children were among the dead in government air raids on the town of al-Neshabieh, in the eastern outskirts of Damascus, near a railway marking the frontline between Islamist fighters and Assad's forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, and in the province of Homs to the north.
"Two simultaneous raids hit Neshabieh first. People were pulling the bodies of a women and her two children from one house when the planes came back and hit the crowed, killing another nine," activist Abu Sakr told Reuters from the area.
He said artillery fire from a battalion based at Damascus airport and the nearby town of Mleiha then hit the town. Fifty people were wounded in the combined bombardment, he said.
Photos taken by activists, purportedly at a field hospital in the area, showed a girl's body covered in a white shroud, and the decapitated bodies of several men. Reuters could not independently verify the pictures.
"We barely managed to take the bodies before the artillery hit," said a rescue worker at the field hospital who goes by the name Abu Abdo.
A well-known Syrian rebel commander who was close to Al Qaeda’s leadership was killed Sunday in a suicide bombing linked by some to an Al Qaeda breakaway group, opposition activists said.
The attack in the northern city of Aleppo was the latest apparent incident of infighting among rebel factions ostensibly united in their commitment to ousting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Intra-rebel battles have raged in recent weeks in northern Syria.
Killed in the strike was a militant leader known by the pseudonym Abu Khaled al-Suri, co-founder of the Islamist Syrian rebel group Ahrar al Sham, according to various opposition accounts. Also killed in the attack were at least five other fighters from Ahrar al Sham, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based pro-opposition monitoring group.
The slain leader, acclaimed in Islamic militant circles, was said to have fought against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and reportedly was an acquaintance of top Al Qaeda leadership, including the late Osama bin Laden and his successor, Ayman Zawahiri.
Late last year, Zawahiri was reported to have named Suri to mediate a dispute between rival Al Qaeda factions in Syria.
This could be a hinge-point in the tortured three years of a Syria crisis bereft of hope. This overdue resolution, if fully implemented, will ensure humanitarian aid reaches people in Syria whose very lives depend on it. This is all about saving innocent lives and relieving the burden on Syria's neighboring countries.
After three years of slaughter and savagery, people rightfully will question whether progress is possible, but this resolution holds the promise of something real. The proof is on paper. By naming the areas in Syria where sieges must be lifted, demanding that hospitals, schools and other places where civilians gather must be demilitarized, insisting that aid must be allowed to cross borders and follow the most direct routes to the suffering, and by underscoring that attacks against civilians, including barrel bombing, must end, the international community hasn't minced words. This is a resolution of concrete steps to answer the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.
But these steps are only first steps. Just as shipments of humanitarian aid mean little without access to beleaguered areas, resolutions demanding access mean little without full implementation. The test is whether the words of the Security Council are matched with the life-saving actions the Syrian people so desperately and urgently need.
“I welcome the unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council of resolution 2139. This is a vital step towards ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches millions of Syrians in desperate need of help, including those who have been denied their basic human right to food and medical aid.
“The adoption of this resolution, on the initiative of the UK and our close partners, sends a clear message that the Assad regime cannot be allowed to starve hundreds of thousands of its own people into submission.
“Our priority now is the full and immediate implementation of the resolution.
“I call on the Assad regime to cease the indiscriminate use of aerial bombardment across Syria, including the barbaric use of barrel bombs, and immediately adhere to the obligations set by the Security Council and allow free and unfettered access for all humanitarian agencies.
“We will not hesitate to return to the Security Council if the Assad regime fails to meet the demands in this resolution.
“In parallel, the UK will remain at the forefront of the international humanitarian effort. We will intensify our support, with our allies, for the Geneva II process, to bring about a political settlement of the conflict in Syria. The international community should show the same sense of unity we have seen at the Security Council today, to support the Geneva II negotiations.”
I very much welcome the adoption of this resolution.
We are all keenly aware of the profound and prolonged desperation of the Syrian people.
If this resolution is implemented quickly and in good faith, at least some of the suffering can be eased.
It builds on the presidential statement adopted last year, and strengthens the Council’s engagement in protecting civilians and ensuring the delivery of relief.
The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. Half the country’s people need urgent assistance. Host countries need support in caring for more than 2.5 million refugees.
Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. They are the daily victims of brutal violence and indiscriminate attacks, including the use of heavy weapons, aerial bombings, mortars and car bombs in population areas.
There are continued reports of massacres and atrocities throughout the country.
Women and girls have been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence.
Syrian Government and allied militias have been responsible for countless killings, disappearances, the horrendous use of barrel bombs and torture on a massive scale.
Opposition groups have carried out summary executions, the recruitment of children for combat and the use of terror tactics in civilian areas.
Attacks against civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, continue unabated.
These heinous acts are unacceptable and must stop immediately. All combatting parties in Syria must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law.
I commend UN humanitarian personnel, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and our other partners for their bravery and commitment.
Despite the dangerous circumstances, UN humanitarian agencies and our partners are reaching millions of people. But too many millions are beyond our reach. And funding continues to fall short; I urge the international community to step up its contributions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This resolution should not have been necessary. Humanitarian assistance is not something to be negotiated; it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law.
Profoundly shocking to me is that both sides are besieging civilians as a tactic of war.
Some 200,000 people are under siege in government-controlled areas – and 45,000 in opposition-controlled areas.
More broadly, this resolution highlights again the urgent need to end the conflict.
While the political process continues, we will continue to do all we can to provide relief and protection to people in need on the ground.
Syria has submitted a new 100-day plan for the removal of its chemical weapons after failing to meet a February 5 deadline, but the international mission overseeing the operation believes it can be done in a shorter time frame, diplomats said on Friday.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons executive committee met on Friday in The Hague to discuss the joint OPCW and U.N. mission amid growing international frustration at Syria falling behind on its commitments.
Syria failed to meet an OPCW deadline of February 5 to move all of its declared chemical substances and precursors out of the country. The final deadline under the OPCW plan is for all of Syria's declared chemical materials to be destroyed by June 30.
"The Syrian 100 day plan for removal of the chemicals, on which we have been briefed, is not adequate," Philip Hall, head of the British Foreign Office Counter Proliferation Department, told the OPCW, according to a copy of statement.
"We now urge the Syrian authorities to accept the proposals submitted by the Operational Planning Group that provide for removal in a much shorter time frame, without compromising on security," he said.
A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the international mission believes the operation can be carried out before the end of March, adding that Syria's proposed end-May deadline would not leave enough time for the chemicals to be destroyed before the end of June.
The OPCW declined to comment on Syria's proposal.
As Syria's war nears the start of its fourth year, Iranhas stepped up support on the ground for President Bashar al-Assad, providing elite teams to gather intelligence and train troops, sources with knowledge of military movements say.
This further backing from Tehran, along with deliveries of munitions and equipment from Moscow, is helping to keep Assad in power at a time when neither his own forces nor opposition fighters have a decisive edge on the battlefield.
Assad's forces have failed to capitalize fully on advances they made last summer with the help of Iran, his major backer in the region, and the Hezbollah fighters that Tehran backs and which have provided important battlefield support for Assad.
But the Syrian leader has drawn comfort from the withdrawal of the threat of U.S. bombing raids following a deal under which he has agreed to give up his chemical weapons.
Shi'te Iran has already spent billions of dollars propping up Assad in what has turned into a sectarian proxy war with Sunni Arab states. And while the presence of Iranian military personnel in Syria is not new, military experts believe Tehran has in recent months sent in more specialists to enable Assad to outlast his enemies at home and abroad.
Analysts believe this renewed support means Assad felt no need to make concessions at currently deadlocked peace talks in Geneva.
For the United States, Syria's civil war is threatening to start hitting closer to home.
Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition are faltering. President Bashar Assad's military is on the offensive and the rebels are in disarray. Most distressing to the Obama administration, U.S. officials say al-Qaida-linked militants are squeezing moderates out of the insurgency and carving out havens for potential terrorist plots against the United States.
The accelerating U.S. national security threat is leading the administration to take a fresh look at previously shelved ideas, including more robust assistance to Western-backed rebels.
They are also are looking at newer, more far-reaching options, including drone strikes on extremists and more forceful action against Assad, whom President Barack Obama told to leave power 30 months ago.
Obama's top aides plan to meet at the White House before week's end to examine options, according to administration officials. They weren't authorized to talk publicly on the matter and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
"We have to examine what the alternatives some might be proposing are and whether they're in our national security interest," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. He expressed concern about stepped-up intervention leading to "unintended consequences."
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled rebel-held parts of the city of Aleppo in recent weeks under heavy aerial bombardment by the Syrian government, emptying whole neighborhoods and creating what aid workers say is one of the largest refugee flows of the entire civil war.
The displaced, as many as 500,000 to date, the United Nations says, have flooded the countryside, swelling populations in war-battered communities that are already short on space and food and pushing a new wave of refugees into Turkey, where in interviews many have described a harrowing journey that left them in desperate condition, broke, hungry and, in many cases, sick or wounded.
Much of the human tide flowing out of northern Syria has crashed on this once-quiet border town, where Syrians now nearly outnumber the original 90,000 Turkish inhabitants.Attacks on Aleppo have accelerated in recent weeks, as international talks aimed at ending the war have stalled and as the Obama administration has begun reviewing its Syria policy to find new ways to pressure the government of President Bashar al-Assad.