Kerry, Lavrov closer to Syria agreement, ‘a few narrow issues remain’

The United States and Russia came closer to an agreement on a breakthrough deal on military cooperation and a nationwide cessation of hostilities in Syria on Friday, but said they still have issues to resolve before an agreement could be announced.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing a joint news conference after more than nine hours of off-and-on talks in Geneva, said teams from both sides would try to finalize details in coming days in the Swiss city. Kerry said the talks with Lavrov had “achieved clarity on the path forward” but together they offered few details on how they planned to renew a February cessation of hostilities and improve humanitarian assistance. “We don’t want to have a deal for the sake of the deal,” Kerry said. “We want to have something done that is effective and that works for the people of Syria, that makes the region more stable and secure, and that brings us to the table here in Geneva to find a political solution.”

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the marathon talks with US State Secretary Kerry in Geneva helped to reduce mutual levels of misunderstanding. Both countries will boost their cooperation on Syria, including on the military level, he said. “We have agreed on concrete ways in which we will work with the sides: Russia – with the government and the opposition, that is working with us, the United States – with the opposition, which is cooperating with them,” Lavrov said. In addition to that, the cooperation between Russia’s Khmeimim air base and representatives of the American armed forces in the US base in Jordan is going to be ramped up.

“We have agreed to intensify the bilateral contacts that have somewhat stalled in the last several weeks,” Lavrov said, adding that his is confident that “a regular dialog without any pauses is a key to the realization of all our objectives. It is an achievement that we have been able to reduce areas of misunderstanding and to reduce the level of mutual mistrust between the two countries,” Lavrov said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) before a bilateral meeting focused on the Syrian crisis in Geneva, Switzerland August 26, 2016. [Martial Trezzini/Reuters/Pool]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) before a bilateral meeting focused on the Syrian crisis in Geneva, Switzerland August 26, 2016. [Martial Trezzini/Reuters/Pool]

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham allegiances a key issue

Russia and the US have agreed on a number of issues as to how boost the peace process on Syria. According to the diplomats, experts from both states will meet in Geneva in the coming days to clarify the details of what has been agreed today. The Russian foreign minister stressed that separation of “moderate forces from the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham militants” is key to reducing the violence in Syria. Lavrov said that Russia briefed the US on a number of rebel groups that it considers terrorist. “In fact, today our American partners for the first time gave us a list of rebel organizations who joined the cessation of hostilities after the US mediation,” Lavrov added. “I don’t see any possibility of assuring a really durable, full-fledged ceasefire without the separation of healthy opposition forces from terrorists,” the minister said. “The understanding of this task between us and our American partners gets increasingly clearer.”

Kerry outlined the steps that can be undertaken to separate the terrorists from the armed opposition, reiterating that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham should be treated like a terrorist group despite the recent rebranding. Drawing a line between the moderate rebels and Al-Nusra remains a “complex question” because the terrorists often share the same territory with rebels, he noted, adding that other nations in the region that support some of the groups should also engage in the process. “We believe there are actions that can be taken to deal with the current construct, some of those involve other nations that are supportive of other opposition groups. Neighbors within the region who have influence over those groups and who have an ability to help separate [JFS and opposition],” he said. Russia and US have been thrashing out the details on how to separate the militant groups from each other for the last several weeks, he added.

“We do not support an independent Kurd initiative”

Both diplomats agreed that the Syrian Kurds should remain in Syria. “We are for a united Syria. We do not support an independent Kurd initiative,” Kerry said, pointing out that the American forces have been engaging in cooperation with “a component” of the Kurdish forces on a “very limited basis.” On his part, Lavrov said, “Kurds must remain a part of the Syrian state, part of resolving the problem, and not a factor that will be used to split Syria apart.” The contacts with the Kurdish minority in Syria were made in a “close cooperation” with Turkey, Kerry said. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG militia, which is part of the US-backed SDF rebels, one of the targets of its ongoing incursion in Syria. “We understand the sensitivities of our friends in Turkey with respect to this,” Kerry added.

Weighing in on the Turkish “Euphrates Shield” operation in Syria, Lavrov reminded that all countries that had sent military forces to Syria, save for Russia and Iran, are doing so in violation of Syrian sovereignty. “Many countries are represented by their military and army elements on the ground in Syria, but only the Russian and Iranian contingents are staying there upon consent from Damascus,” Lavrov said. “Such is the reality.”

The Russian FM and his US counterpart, John Kerry, met in Geneva to discuss a peaceful solution to resolve the Syrian crisis. They were in talks behind closed doors for over 12 hours on Friday. The meeting of the two top diplomats’ took place at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. The two were joined by the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura. It was not clear during the day whether the UN Syria envoy would join the negotiators to share his views on how to put an end to the five-year war.

The main point of the negotiations is to involve “the prospects of arranging a close coordination of Russia’s and US efforts in fight against terrorist groups in Syria,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said earlier. Meanwhile, the UN has pushed for a weekly 48-hour truce in the fighting that would allow it to provide humanitarian relief, which has been endorsed by Russia. According to the plan, food and supplies would be delivered simultaneously by internationally monitored vehicles to rebel and government-controlled areas.

Assad’s future not part of the current talks

The talks have been complicated since initial meetings in July by new government attacks on opposition groups, and a significant offensive in the southern part of the divided city of Aleppo led by opposition fighters intermingled with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. In the days ahead the technical teams, which include U.S. and Russian military and intelligence experts, will try to figure out ways to separate the opposition groups, backed by the United States and Gulf Arab countries, from the jihadis.

It was unclear after Friday’s meetings whether outstanding issues could all be resolved between Moscow and Washington, which back opposing parties in the Syrian conflict. The United States has insisted that the Syrian air force, which has dropped barrel bombs and chlorine on residential areas, be grounded but Lavrov said on Friday that was not the goal. Assad’s future is not part of the current talks. Instead, discussions are focused on finding an effective and lasting solution to end the violence, which would open negotiations on a political transition in Syria.

Sources: Russia Today/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

 

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Residents and rebels start evacuating Darayya

Aid convoys arranged by the medical charity Red Crescent have entered the besieged Syrian town of Darayya as hundreds of rebel fighters prepared to lay down their arms after ceding control of the area to government forces. A convoy of Red Crescent ambulances reached Darayya early on Friday, a town located just a few kilometres from President Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus palace and the government-held Mazzeh airbase.

On Thursday, Syrian state news agency SANA announced a deal had been struck for the evacuation of civilians and fighters in the town. According to sources around 8,000 civilians and 800 rebels would be evacuated from the Damascus suburb, which before the war was home to a quarter of a million people, to Sahnaya – a town in Damascus governorate – under regime control.

The rebels, meanwhile, will then be taken to northern Idlib,  held by Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition of armed anti-government groups, our correspondent said

The rebels who controlled Darayya belonged to two rebel groups: Ajnad al-Sham and Liwa’ Shuhada al-Islam, groups allied with Jaish al-Fatah. However, activists told Al Jazeera that they were extremely concerned over the safety of civilians, many of whom are relatives of the rebels, as the government offered little to no guarantees. Some opposition groups also criticised the deal, calling it a major setback as Sunnis would be forced from their homes, further fracturing the country along sectarian lines.

Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]
Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]

“Forced to leave”

Darayya has a strategic position – given its proximity to Daraa Road, it is not far from the capital and from the Mazzeh military airport, too. The armed opposition had used the town as a connection hub between western and eastern Ghouta, Damascus. The suburb saw some of the first protests against the Syrian government, an uprising that transformed into a full-blown civil conflict.

The withdrawal of the rebels only a few miles from Damascus is a boost for President Bashar al-Assad, analysts say. “We are being forced to leave, but our condition has deteriorated to the point of being unbearable,” Hussam Ayash, an activist in the town, told the Associated Press news agency. “We withstood for four years but we couldn’t any longer.”

Sources: Al Jazeera News/SANA/BBC News/AP/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

Erdoğan and Barzani discuss fight against PKK, Gülen

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday discussed strategy in fighting Islamic State and Kurdish PKK militants with visiting Iraqi Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, sources at Erdoğan’s office said.

They said Erdoğan and Barzani also addressed necessary steps to shut down schools and institutions in Iraqi Kurdistan that are affiliated with Fethullah Gülen.

The meeting in the Turkish capital comes as NATO member Turkey faces multiple threats from Islamic State at home and across the border with neighboring Syria as well as from the outlawed PKK militants whose bases are in Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.

It also coincides with Iraqi and Kurdish forces gradually closing in on Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital, whose fall would mark the effective defeat of the Sunni hardline group in Iraq, according to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The United States is leading a coalition providing air and ground support to the Iraqi army in the war on Islamic State, whose forces swept through northern and western provinces inhabited mostly by Iraq’s Sunni minority two years ago.

Sources said Barzani expressed his support for Turkey’s elected leadership following a July 15 abortive putsch, in which rogue soldiers commandeered fighter jets, helicopters and tanks to overthrow Erdoğan and the government. “Taking necessary steps to terminate the operations of schools and institutions affiliated with the Gülenist terror organization was among the topics discussed by Erdoğan and Barzani,” a Turkish presidential source said.

Turkish president Erdogan and Kurdistan Region president Barzani meet in Ankara [photo by Anadolu Agency, 23/8/2016]
Turkish president Erdoğan and Kurdistan Region president Barzani meet in Ankara [photo by Anadolu Agency, 23/8/2016]

Source: Reuters/Anadolu/Syria & Iraq News

 

Truce agreed in Hasakah

A truce agreement was reached in Hasakah between the official governmental sides and the Asayish, the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party.

As SANA reports from Hasakah the agreement involves applying a truce system as of 5pm on Sunday and evacuating the wounded and transporting them to hospitals in Qamishli, in addition to restoring the situation in Hasakah to how it was before and beginning new dialogue on Monday to resolve the remaining unresolved issues.

Situation map of Hasakah, as of August 20, 2016 [map by @deSyracuse]
Situation map of Hasakah, as of August 20, 2016 [map by @deSyracuse]

Source: SANA/Syria & Iraq News

Syria & Iraq developments, August 16 2016

Syria & Iraq developments, August 16 2016

  • Russian Tu-22M3 bombers attack Daesh targets in al-Bab using Hamedan airbase in Iran
  • Peshmerga forces continue operation in southeast Mosul, free 12 villages
  • SAA and allies advance at Aleppo’s 1070 housing project
  • Levant Front rebels try to liberate al-Rai from Daesh
  • Operation Inherent Resolve full briefing

Syria & Iraq developments, August 15 2016

Syria & Iraq developments, August 15 2016

Peshmerga forces advance in southeast Mosul — SDF establish ‘Al-Bab Military Council’ with aim to capture al-Bab — Update from Aleppo front — Syrian refugees in Jordan struggle — Manbij residents celebrate liberation from Daesh — Iraqi parliament approves appointment of 5 new Ministers

Manbij completely liberated from Daesh

Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) and Manbij Military Council (MMC) forces have seized full control of Manbij after the last remaining Daesh fighters, who had been using civilians as human shields, left, a spokesman for the group said Friday.

SDF were now sweeping the city after the departure of a last remaining group of jihadists who had been holed up in the city. They had freed over 2,000 civilian hostages who had been held by the jihadists, Sharfan Darwish of the SDF allied Manbij Military Council told Reuters. “The city is now fully under our control but we are undertaking sweeping operations,” Darwish said, adding militant sleeper cells in the city were still a threat.

The SDF, with heavy air support from a U.S.-led coalition, said last week they had taken almost complete control of Manbij, where a small number of Daesh fighters had been holed up. The SDF’s offensive, which began at the end of May, aims to remove Deash from areas it controls along the Turkish border.

Earlier the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters grouped in the SDF said Friday’s operation was “the last operation and the last assault.” Darwish said earlier roughly 100 Daesh fighters were left in the city center using civilians as human shields, some of whom were killed trying to flee. Reuters pictures showed residents being released from an Daesh-held neighborhood on Friday and being welcomed by SDF forces.

A Syria Democratic Forces fighter rushes to help civilians who were evacuated by the SDF from an Daesh-controlled neighbourhood of Manbij. [Rodi Said/Reuters]
A Syria Democratic Forces fighter rushes to help civilians who were evacuated by the SDF from an Daesh-controlled neighbourhood of Manbij. [Rodi Said/Reuters]

Kurdish sources and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s five-year-old conflict, later said around 500 cars had left Manbij carrying Daesh members and civilians. They were heading northeast towards Jarablus, a town under Daesh control on the Turkish border, the Observatory said. The convoy carried the final Daesh members leaving the city, under an agreement between the fighting parties that would not be announced officially, Kurdish sources and the monitor said, marking the end of the operation.

The SDF’s campaign quickly captured the countryside surrounding Manbij, but slowed once fighting entered the city. The SDF said it had been avoiding a large-scale assault inside Manbij out of concern for civilians. Dozens of civilians, including children and women from Manbij who had fled the city at the height of the aerial strikes, were killed in suspected U.S. coalition air strikes last month, residents and monitors said.

Manbij’s loss to Daesh is a big blow as it is of strategic importance, serving as a conduit for transit of foreign jihadists and provisions coming from the Turkish border, while SDF emerges as credible army able to take over territory from Daesh without creating major divisions between Syria’s Arabs, Kurds and other minorities.

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News