In Brief

US and Russia spar over vetoed Syria sanctions

Anger as Moscow blocks UN sanctions over regime's use of chemical weapons

Islamic State and Syria 'colluding on the battleground'

3 May

Islamic State has been colluding with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to copies of handwritten orders sent from the terrorist group's headquarters.

The documents have been given to Sky News, in addition to the massive haul of 22,000 files stolen from the group by disillusioned fighter Abu Hamed and handed to the broadcaster in Turkey earlier this year.

Orders suggest that IS forces withdrew its heavy artillery and anti-aircraft machine guns from Palmyra in cooperation with the Syrian regime.

Defectors confirmed the historic city was "handed back to government forces by Islamic State as part of a series of cooperation agreements going back years", says Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay.

The letters also reveal a deal between IS and Syria to trade oil for fertiliser, as well as arrangements for the group to evacuate certain areas before the Syrian army attacked.

"I asked one of the defectors if Islamic State was coordinating movement of its fighters and leaving areas they previously controlled, in direct coordination with the Syrian army and even the Russian air force," says Ramsay. "His answer was simple: 'Of course.'"

One document requested safe passage for a driver through IS checkpoints "until he reaches the border with the Syrian regime to exchange oil for fertiliser". Defectors say the trade agreements have been going on "for years".

"All appear to be pre-agreed deals and suggest direct evidence of collusion between the Syrian regime and Islamic State chiefs," says Ramsay.

He adds that the documents' authenticity is "impossible to verify", but that all previous leaks of material funnelled through these sources have "proved to be genuine".

Syrian ceasefire in jeopardy, says UN envoy

28 April

The UN envoy for Syria has appealed to Russia and the US to breathe new life into peace talks after a spike in violence put the fragile truce in "great danger".

"In the last 48 hours, we have had an average of one Syrian killed every 25 minutes, one Syrian wounded every 13 minutes," said Staffan de Mistura.

Syria's main opposition group walked out of negotiations in Geneva last week, claiming government troops were continuing to break the ceasefire near Aleppo.

It "has threatened to boycott the next round of peace talks unless the government stops its bombing campaign and the situation on the ground improves", reports Al Jazeera.

The United Nations says talks will resume no earlier than 14 May, contradicting a statement by Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who earlier announced that talks would begin on 10 May.

De Mistura has called on the US and Russia to cooperate, warning that the legacies of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin were linked to the success of the peace process.

Meanwhile, governments across Europe are coming under pressure to increase aid to Syria.

"British, French, German and Dutch MPs – whose countries are taking part in air action against Islamic State – are urging their governments to carry out airdrops of food and medicines to relieve starving Syrian civilians trapped in areas that are besieged by President Bashar al-Assad's forces," The Guardian reports. 

Syrian war: Why the battle for Aleppo is so important

14 April

Fighting has broken out in the Syrian city of Aleppo amid reports that government forces are planning to recapture the city from rebel groups.

If confirmed, it would signal the end of a partial ceasefire that has been in place since February.

The recapture of the key northern city would also serve as a major blow to opposition forces and could threaten ongoing peace talks.

What is happening? 

Conflicting reports have been emerging from the city. Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said earlier this week that government forces were working alongside Russian troops and other militias to "liberate Aleppo and to block all illegal armed groups which have not joined or have broken the ceasefire deal", according to The Times.  

His comments were directly contradicted by Russia's head of general staff, Sergei Rudskoy, who said "no storming of the city of Aleppo is planned" and troops would only launch attacks against Islamic State and the Nusra Front, who are not party to the ceasefire. 

Local media reports that 1,000 Iranian troops have also been sent to join the offensive on Aleppo.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, told the Associated Press that government warplanes, helicopter gunships and artillery have been out carrying out aerial bombardments in the city today.

"Government forces and their allies have rebel-held parts of Aleppo almost surrounded from all sides, except for a corridor from the northwestern edge of the city," AP reports.

The rebels, however, remain defiant. "If you have been living in the liberated areas and seen the determination of people and their belief in this revolution, you would definitely realise that the regime cannot win," Mahmoud Talha, an activist from Aleppo, told The Times.

Why is Aleppo so important?

Syria's largest city is the last remaining rebel stronghold in the north of the country. "President Bashar al-Assad may never be able to stitch Syria back together, but he and his allies now believe they can add Aleppo to a core area they control that includes the capital, Damascus, and Homs," says the New York Times. "That would give the government control of the cities that were the main population, cultural and economic centres of Syria."

What does it mean for peace talks and the ceasefire?

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said yesterday that Washington was "very alarmed" at the escalation of violence and warned that fighting could derail the Geneva negotiations.

Opposition groups, meanwhile, accuse the international community of ignoring the regime's violations of the ceasefire. "By keeping silent over the regime's ramping up of its forces around Aleppo, [it] risks appearing as indifferent and not showing the slightest consideration to the political solution or to the 'cessation of hostilities' agreement," said the Syrian National Coalition.

Syrians vote in 'premature' parliamentary elections

13 April

Parliamentary elections will begin in parts of Syria today, despite a new outbreak of fighting in the country's civil war.

Damascus and other cities under government control have been plastered with campaign posters from candidates vying to join the country's 250-seat legislature.

The regime says the ballot fulfils a constitutional requirement to choose a new parliament every four years and has nothing to do with ongoing peace talks.

"Opposition leaders have said the election is an attempt to pre-empt mounting pressure to make meaningful concessions," says the Wall Street Journal.

The US State Department said the results would not be representative of the wishes of the Syrian people. "To hold elections now, given the current circumstances, we believe is at best premature," it said.

French President Francois Hollande described the polls as "totally unrealistic".

Sharif Shehadeh, a member of the current Syrian parliament who is running for re-election, told AFP the vote would not be perfect, but that the people deserved the chance to have their voices heard.

"I'm not saying elections in Syria are like elections in Switzerland, but it's a stage that we must assist in as Syrians to move forward toward the future," he said.

Peace talks and fighting

Balloting begins on the same day that United Nations-brokered peace talks are due to start again in Geneva and critics warn it could undermine negotiations.

UN envoy and chief mediator Staffan de Mistura has said that the next phase of the talks is "crucially important" as it will focus on political transition, governance and constitutional principles.

Meanwhile, fighting has broken out near the city of Aleppo, despite a fragile truce having been in place since February. Observers say government forces launched a major offensive to recapture the town of Telat al-Eis yesterday.

"A rebel fighting in the area said the assault launched at dawn was backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian militias," Reuters reports. "The Syrian military could not be reached for comment."

A source close to the Syrian government said the ceasefire had effectively collapsed. "On the ground the truce does not exist," said the official. "The level of tension in Syria will increase in the coming months."

President Assad says he is ready to hold early elections in Syria

01 April

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has raised the possibility of holding early presidential elections in Syria as the battle to find a solution to the five year civil war continues.

 

Speaking to Russian state media, the Syrian President said he would call a vote if it was what the nation wanted.

 

"Is there popular will to hold early presidential elections?" said Assad. "If there is, I don't have a problem with it."

 

The Syrian leader first swept to power after receiving 97 per cent of the vote in 2000. He was re-elected in 2014 when he claimed to have won 88 per cent in a ballot widely dismissed as a farce. 

 

His future remains a key sticking point in efforts to resolve a war that has claimed more than 270,000 lives and forced nearly five million people to flee the country since fighting began in 2011.

 

A fragile ceasefire is currently underway in parts of the country as another round of peace talks continues in Geneva. Discussions are focused on working towards the establishment of a transitional government as well as UN-monitored elections within 18 months. 

 

Fierce disagreement remains over Assad's involvement in both. The Syrian regime says his leadership is a red-line issue while opposition forces are adamant he should be removed.

 

Regional players are also bitterly divided, with Saudi Arabia and its western allies insisting he should be removed from power while Russia and Iran continue to back him.

 

Although Assad's latest comments suggest a retreat from the government's earlier stance, "simply opening the door to an early poll may do nothing to break the impasse", says the Daily Telegraph.

As well as peace talks in Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been hosting a high-level international conference, calling on governments for a major increase in resettlement places for Syrians.

The UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi has praised Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his humanitarian leadership in the global refugee crisis. Canada is expected to resettle around 45,000 refugees this year and has contributed $56m towards the UN's Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan in Syria, more than the European Union.

Other countries have offered much less, with several overshadowed by contributions from philanthropist organisations such as the Ikea Foundation.

 

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Infographic by www.statista.com for TheWeek.co.uk. 

Kurds declare self-rule in Syria amid US claims of IS genocide

18 March

Kurds in northern Syria have declared the establishment of an autonomous federation, in a move that some say could divide the war-torn country along ethnic and religious lines.

They already operate "autonomous administrations" in three enclaves bordering Turkey, effectively controlling 250 miles of territory along the border.

With Kurdish representatives excluded from the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its allies voted yesterday to form an autonomous federation.

Known as the Federation of Rojava, it will consist of the three enclaves, as well as Arab and Turkmen areas captured from Islamic State.

Many Kurds hope the announcement will set the stage for the kind of "semiautonomous Kurdish region that the Kurdish minority enjoys in neighbouring Iraq", says the Wall Street Journal.

However, the Syrian government dismissed the declaration, saying it was void of any legal, political, social or economic effect.

Turkey, which is struggling to contain a campaign of violence waged by militants from its own Kurdish population, also condemned the "unilateral move". The US said it would not recognise the federation and the EU, which is involved in delicate negotiations with Turkey about the Syrian migrant crisis, is likely to follow suit.

It comes as John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, accused Islamic State of committing acts of genocide against Christians and other minority groups throughout Iraq and Syria, calling them a deliberate attempt to wipe out sections of the community.

Kerry's statement yesterday, in which he used the Arabic name for IS, Daesh, brought the US stance into line with that of a number of other governments, the European Parliament and the Vatican.

"In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims," he said.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned he could redeploy his forces in Syria "in a few hours", despite announcing that Moscow's military involvement in the Syria civil war would be wound down.

What next for Syria after Russia begins withdrawal?

15 March

Five years to the day after the start of the Syrian civil war, and with peace talks under way in Geneva, Russia has announced it will begin withdrawing its military forces.

Russia joined the conflict last September, sending between 3,000 and 6,000 military personnel to the country, according to US estimates. Now President Vladimir Putin claims the goal for his armed forces has "in large part been fulfilled".

According to the Russian defence ministry, the first group of aircraft left Hmeimim air base in Syria this morning.

Western officials are hopeful the move will put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's regime to take peace negotiations seriously, but many remain sceptical about Putin's motives and intentions. Some say he is focused on the bigger game, his wider relationship with the West, while others are not convinced he will fully act on his words.

"We will have to wait and see what this represents," one diplomat told The Guardian. "He has announced similar concessions in the past and nothing materialised."

Russia's deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov told RIA news agency today that they would continue air strikes against "terrorists" in Syria. Other Russian officials have suggested that they will keep around 1,000 military personnel and their advanced air defence systems in the country.

Assad's future

In Geneva, negotiations began with an immediate deadlock over the future of Assad, with the Syrian government insisting his leadership is a red-line issue. "We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency," foreign minister Walid Muallem said on the eve of the talks.

The Syrian opposition also made its position clear. "We believe that the transitional period should start with the fall, or death, of Assad," said chief opposition negotiator Mohammed Alloush. "It cannot start with the presence of the regime, or the head of this regime still in power."

Transitional government

The United Nations hopes to set up a transitional government that will work towards laying out a timetable for elections to be held in 18 months.

"Obviously, the ideal solution would be a unity transitional government," Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera. "But the reality on the ground is that there is going to be no agreement in Geneva over that. Assad is not going to budge and the opposition are going to continue to demand that he be removed before they move forward."

Is federalism the answer?

With no group holding a majority of territory, federalism is being put forward as a potential solution to the conflict. "It's the only option on the table today," says Barnes-Dacey.

But Syrian academic Marwan Kabalan says most people in Syria would be wary of supporting the devolution of powers from Damascus, fearing it could lead to the formal partition of the country.

Any proposals to divide the country into sectarian cantons in a federal system are "doomed", write Charles Glass in The Guardian. "The French tried that in the 1920s, when they cut their Syrian Mandate territory into six separate statelets that its people rejected."

Will Syrian civil war become a frozen conflict like Ukraine?

10 March

A fresh round of peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict is due to begin while a delicate truce holds in some parts of the country, but few see any way forward in this brutal proxy war.

The current ceasefire

Though incomplete and extremely fragile, the truce introduced two weeks ago has been viewed as the most successful attempt to ease fighting since the conflict began in 2011.

The plan, negotiated by the US and Russia, calls for a cessation of hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid. It has slowed the pace of fighting dramatically, though pockets of open warfare continue in some parts of the country due to the exclusion of Islamic State and al-Nusra Front.

"Over the past week, some Syrians have returned to inspect their abandoned homes, others have simply enjoyed a rare night's sleep without the thud of artillery or the roar of warplanes," Roula Khalaf writes for the Financial Times.

"There are images playing on our television screens of Syrians back out protesting on the streets, a much needed reminder that the civil war started in 2011 as a peaceful revolt against tyranny."

Peace talks

Another round of UN-brokered negotiations look set to continue next week. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations' special envoy to Syria, has said he expects "substantive [and] deeper" negotiations on the formation of a transition government as well as future elections.

However, it remains unclear whether the opposition will take their seat at the negotiating table as they have been dissatisfied with the implementation of the deal, Reuters reports.

Disagreement over Assad

The fate of President Bashar al-Assad remains one of the key sticking points. Saudi Arabia, which provides major financial and military support to the rebels, is adamant he should be ousted at the beginning of the peace process instead of the end. The US and other western governments had also called for his early departure, but have since "quietly backed away from that demand", says Reuters. 

Russia and Iran, which are both spending billions propping up Assad's regime, argue he needs to be part of the political solution. Russia's military presence in Syria has deepened the conflict and hardened President Vladimir Putin's resolve to keep his long-time ally in power. "The survival of the regime is critical to maintaining Russian interests in the country," says the BBC

What next?

If the truce continues to hold, the Financial Times's Khalaf warns that Syria could be "heading towards a so-called 'frozen conflict' similar to eastern Ukraine, where Russia is calling the shots".

"This may not be the road to peace as much as to a de facto partition of the country into three entities: one regime-controlled, another rebel-held (but mostly IS-controlled) and a third under Kurdish rule," she says.

There are clear similarities between the situations in Syria and Ukraine, Cameron Hood writes for the Pacific Standard. "A major problem with Russia positioning itself as a key arbiter of the ceasefire, and as a crucial partner for the US in stabilising Syria, is that it is often in the Kremlin's interest to prolong conflicts rather than resolve them."

EU leaders confront Russia over Syria's civil war

4 March

Britain, France and Germany will today tell Russia it must act to end breaches of the ceasefire in Syria.

The conference call between the four countries' leaders – UK Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured above) - will be the first time they have spoken together since the fragile truce was implemented last week.

The talks come after concerns the system for ensuring the ceasefire holds remains "primitive" and "subject to differing interpretations by Russia and the US", says The Guardian. The United Nations is keen to begin substantive peace talks in Geneva next week in an effort to end the four-year conflict.

Downing Street said today's call would allow the EU leaders to "make very clear to President Putin that we need this ceasefire to hold, to be a lasting one and to open the way for a real political transition".

The truce came into effect at midnight last Friday, but large parts of the country remain active conflict zones as the deal allows bombing to continue against Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front.

The two groups have become "convenient scapegoats" for Russian attacks, says Al Jazeera. "Russia has reserved the right to militarily engage armed groups while demanding that they cease all hostilities," it says. "As such, Russia can have its cake and eat it, too."

Speaking in parliament this week, the Prime Minister described the cessation of hostilities as "an important step forward, imperfect as it is".

He said the truce had led to a significant reduction in hostilities, despite excluding some of the key players in the conflict.

"It has also enabled us, with others, to get aid to communities that desperately need it, including through air drops and convoys," he said. "I would not put too much optimism into the mix right now, but this is progress and we should work on it."

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