TSI Syria Updates: February 16, 2017

Takeaway

After a 24-hour delay, the Syrian opposition and Turkish delegations finally arrived for the planned conference in Astana, Kazakhstan today. This week’s talks, led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, were intended to be a follow-up to an initial round of Astana talks in January. A diminished opposition delegation finally agreed to attend after asserting that they would only discuss enforcing the ceasefire and ending violence. Despite Russian claims of progress being made, the talks ended with no joint statement and conflicting reports of outcomes, as both sides launched accusations at the other. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is still planning to hold a round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva starting on the 23rd.

Military

  • 15 FEB: Russian reportedly bombed the cities of Daraa, Naemeh, and Saida on Wednesday, as opposition forces attempt to take control of the southern portion of Daraa city. Several medical facilities have reportedly been bombed with airstrikes during the violence this week, with unconfirmed reports that Russian aircraft are responsible for one or more of these attacks. (Al Jazeera-AR, Smart News-AR, @JulianRoepcke, current Daraa map, Handicap International Statement, Middle East Monitor)
  • 15 FEB: On Wednesday, an offshoot of the opposition group Jund al-Aqsa reportedly executed over 150 opposition fighters belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the recently formed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), in Khan Sheikhoun. The attack is a continuation of fighting between opposition groups in Idlib province. (Reuters, Syria Direct)
  • 16 FEB: Turkish military claimed that the battle for al-Bab was over and that they were conducting clean-up operations in the city. This is in contradiction to other reports which suggest that Islamic State (ISIS) fighters still control more than half of the city and fighting is ongoing. (Hurriyet Daily News, AFP, Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye)

Political

  • 15 FEB: An unnamed US Defense Department source told CNN on Wednesday that the Pentagon may propose sending conventional ground forces into Syria. (CNN(Analyst Note: to date, the US has only sent special operations and advisory forces into Syria to operate alongside local fighters)
  • 15 FEB: Kurdish representatives from Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria met in Moscow on  Wednesday to discuss common regional interests. Kurdish media dubbed the meeting the “Kurdish National Conference.” One of the attending groups is the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which was blocked from attending the upcoming Geneva talks by Turkey. (Ara News, Kom News)
  • 15 FEB: On Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işik on the sidelines of the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels. Mattis assured Işik of US support in the campaign countering the Islamic State (ISIS). US General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is slated to arrive in Turkey tomorrow. He is expected to discuss a joint offensive to capture the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. (DoD, AP)
  • 15 FEB: The US, France, Britain, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia will meet on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Bonn, Germany on Friday. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to clarify the new Trump administration’s policy towards Syria. This will be the first time countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will meet since US President Donald Trump took office. (Reuters)
  • 16 FEB: The Astana talks commenced on Thursday with the late arrival of delegations representing Turkey and the Syrian opposition. Representatives for Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Syrian government, and the Syrian opposition discussed implementation of ceasefire agreements and methods of monitoring violations. A member of the Russian delegation, Sergey Vershinin, said the talks produced a contact group composed of Russia, Iran, and Turkey to ensure the cessation of hostilities holds. Mohammad Alloush, member of the Syrian opposition delegation, said the opposition rejects any Iranian role in Syria. A member of the Russian military’s General Staff, Sergey Afanasyev, said the talks also produced a prisoner exchange system. Before the meeting, the Syrian opposition demanded an end to Russian and Syrian airstrikes before entering the meeting room. They agreed to enter the room after the Russian delegation guaranteed military operations would cease in areas such as Eastern Ghouta. Head of Syrian government’s delegation, Bashar al-Ja’afari, accused Turkey and Syrian opposition of disrupting the negotiations by not agreeing to on communique draft. A final communique was not released at the end of the Astana meetings. (AP, Daily Star, @Charles_Lister, Al Jazeera-AR, RT-AR) (Analyst Note: This is the second meeting of its kind in Astana, and little progress has been made in regards to securing a consistent ceasefire agreement that is followed by all participants.)
  • 16 FEB: Today UN humanitarian advisor for Syria Jan Egeland said that no UN aid convoys reached besieged areas in Syria in 2017, citing a lack of cooperation between the US and Russia in assisting forces on the ground to reach settlements that would create humanitarian access. Egeland singled out the al-Waer neighborhood in Homs as a besieged area that could be discussed as part of the upcoming Geneva meeting. (Reuters, UN Webtv)
  • 16 FEB: UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura attended three separate meetings in Moscow today, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov. The meetings included  discussions about the progress made during Astana negotiations earlier this morning, the agenda of the upcoming Geneva peace talks, and ways to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches besieged areas of Syria.  (AFP, UNOG, UNOG)
  • 16 FEB: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today before the G20 meeting, which was the first meeting between the two statesmen. The discussions reportedly addressed issues of cooperation between the two countries towards finding a political resolution to end the Syrian conflict. (RT)
  • 16 FEB: On Thursday, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that joint military collaboration with Russia on Syria related issues is not yet possible, but that US and Russian political leaders would try to find common ground to create an partnership. He also said Russia would have to prove itself worthy of such a partnership.The same day, US General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Russia’s top military officer General Valery Gerasimov in Azerbaijan. This was the first meeting between senior Pentagon officials and their Russian counterparts since 2014. (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal)
  • 16 FEB: A reported meeting between Turkish and American defense officials on February 13th and 14th to discuss a plan for joint cooperation to capture ar-Raqqa from the Islamic State failed to reach a consensus about US cooperation with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the Turkish Government considers to be a terrorist organization. The Turkish officials attempted to convince their American counterparts to stop their support for the YPG in favor of more direct cooperation with Turkish forces, but no official agreements were reached. (Al-Monitor)

Humanitarian

  • None

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 14 FEB: “‘You want freedom? This is your freedom’: Rape as a Tactic of the Assad Regime” – Marie Forestier (London School of Economics Middle East Centre)
  • 15 FEB: “The implications of the exchange of prisoners between the Syrian opposition and the regime” – Fadi Jaber Al-Gaziantep (Al Jazeera-AR)
  • 16 FEB – “Transcript of the stakeout by the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria after his meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov in Moscow” (UNOG)
  • 16 FEB: “Transcript of stakeout by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura after meeting with Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu” (UNOG)
  • 16 FEB: “Displaced people of Syria’s “beehive” villages dream of return” – Angus McDowall (Reuters)
  • 16 FEB: “Jan Egeland, Special Adviser to Special Envoy for Syria – Media Stakeout” (WebTV)