In Brief

US and Russia spar over vetoed Syria sanctions

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

After Paris, what next for the fight against Islamic State?

16 November

The massacre in Paris by Islamic State militants, which killed at least 129 people, has been described as a "turning point with global implications".

French President Francois Hollande has branded the attacks - which targeted bars, restaurants, a concert and a high-profile football match - an "act of war".

French fighter jets have since bombed a series of IS sites in Raqqa, Syria, the heart of the group's so-called "caliphate". A command centre, a recruitment centre, an ammunition storage base and a training camp were reportedly destroyed by 20 bombs, although the militants claim that nobody was killed.

Tina Fordham, managing director at Citi, has described the Paris attacks as a "turning point with global implications" and said Europe was being drawn into Islamic State's "theatre of war".

She suggested the attacks, launched in multiple places in the French capital, were different to the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, which prompted "widespread solidarity, yet little broader change in European or US strategy toward countering terrorism or addressing the conflict in the Middle East".

Fordham told CNBC: "Such a series of successful attacks on targets aligned with countries at war with IS in Syria suggests a new front in the conflict, with IS moving beyond fighting in Syria and Iraq to extending the theatre of war beyond its 'caliphate'."

Faisal Islam, political editor for Sky News, suggested the Paris attacks might also "foster a new and unexpected coalition". 

World leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, are meeting for the G20 summit in Antalya on the southern coast of Turkey. 

The US and Russia yesterday reached consensus on the need for a "Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition". However, the West has consistently disagreed with Putin over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Until Friday, the French government was still insisting on Assad's departure as a precondition for any political settlement in Syria," said Pierre Haski in The Guardian

However, Hollande's "singular path may have been derailed by the Paris killers", he said. "The Paris attacks could have the effect of forcing Hollande to decide who is public enemy number one, leaving number two to one side for the moment."

Russian 'peace plan' for Syria calls for early presidential elections

11 November

A "peace plan" for Syria, drawn up by Russia, has called for an 18-month constitutional reform process followed by presidential elections.

An eight-point proposal is reportedly circulating at the United Nations ahead of key talks in Vienna on Saturday, when 17 world powers will meet to discuss a ceasefire between the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and certain opposition groups.

One priority is to formulate a list of "legitimate" Syrian rebel groups to be included in future talks, says The Times.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has suggested that Islamist factions are likely to be included if they agree to take part in democratic elections. However, he has acknowledged that the task of defining which groups are terrorists is likely to set nations such as Turkey and Russia against each other.

Another hugely divisive issue, said to be omitted in the Russian document, is the future of Assad. According to the BBC, the Moscow proposal does not say whether Assad should remain in power during the reform process, but does not rule out Assad's participation in the elections – "something his enemies say is impossible if there is to be peace".

It does, however, say that the reform process should be chaired by a candidate agreed upon by all sides, rather than Assad.

The civil war, which has lasted nearly five years, has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced more than 11 million. Assad was elected to a seven-year term in presidential elections last summer, but the vote was dismissed by his opponents as a sham.

Hammond has said: "We do not believe that it is going to be possible to bring the opposition groups into the political process and have an effective ceasefire unless we have a clear point at which President Assad will depart."

A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman denied that any document was being prepared.

Syria peace talks begin: what are they likely to achieve?

30 October

Peace talks aimed at ending Syria's bloody civil war get underway in Vienna today with US Secretary of State John Kerry describing them as the best chance to "chart a course out of hell".

Representatives from 18 nations, including the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia will be taking part in the negotiations – but the Syrian government and opposition forces have not been invited.

"Holding a meeting without the main belligerents highlights the degree to which foreign actors are shaping the course of the war," Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Buzzfeed.

But a senior US official said: "They are not ready. They are not capable of sitting down at this table because they do not even agree with themselves."

Today marks the first time Iran has been asked to attend international talks on the conflict, with some analysts hailing it as a breakthrough in diplomatic efforts to end the four-year civil war.

Tehran is the main regional supporter of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. As well as sending weapons and money, it has deployed thousands of its own troops to fight alongside Assad's forces.

Iran's invitation to the talks has not been well received by its neighbours in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. "They are inviting the vultures to the banquet table," a senior Gulf diplomat told The Guardian. "And they expect them to wear napkins and be nice to the waiters."

The key sticking point in the negotiations remains the future of Assad, reports CNN. The US is seeking to establish a framework that would remove Assad from power, while Russia favours setting up a transitional government and Iran continues to support his leadership.

A succession of international peace conferences have all ended in failure and few are holding out hope that this one will be any different, but some argue that progress has already been made.

"Clearly the Assad question is the big issue," said one European diplomat. "But the fact everyone is able to sit at the same table is significant, and we need to test if we can find any common ground.

"If we start from the fact that we can't, we have to just admit defeat."

US considers putting boots on the ground in Syria

28 October

US President Barack Obama is considering putting boots on the ground in Syria following Russia's military intervention in the war-torn country, which commentators say has emphasised the weaknesses in Washington's approach to the conflict.

A decision to deploy Green Berets or other special forces inside the country, as recommended by Obama's senior national security advisers, would "represent a significant escalation of the American role in Iraq and Syria", says the Washington Post.

One option put forward by the Pentagon to bolster the fight against Islamic State (IS) was to deploy special forces teams of 30 to 50 men, embedded with Syrian rebel forces or Kurdish fighters.

"The White House has said repeatedly that there will be no combat role for US forces in the fight against [IS], but there is concern at the highest levels of the military that the campaign has stalled," says The Times. "Russia's intervention in the conflict has also contributed to alarm over the US's waning influence in Syria and Iraq."

Ash Carter, the US defence secretary, yesterday said that American forces would not hesitate in the future to support local allies in Iraq and Syria with "strikes from the air or direct action on the ground".

Referring to IS as Isil, Carter added: "We expect to intensify our air campaign, including with additional US and coalition aircraft, to target Isil with a higher and heavier rate of strikes. This will include more strikes against Isil high-value targets as our intelligence improves."

Jonathan Marcus, BBC defence correspondent, says that despite the inconsistencies of Russia's own policies, its intervention in Syria has "changed the military and diplomatic dynamic in the crisis and left Washington struggling to catch up".

The US has criticised Moscow for mounting attacks on moderate opposition fighters rather than IS fighters, but the intervention has nevertheless "highlighted the deficiencies in Washington's approach", says Marcus.

Syria's Assad ready for early elections once 'terrorists' defeated

26 October

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to hold early elections and discuss constitutional changes, according to Russian MPs who met him over the weekend.

However, Assad said that presidential and parliamentary elections would only be held after the defeat of "terrorists", a term usually used by his regime to mean any armed opposition group.

Many of these groups say they will only back a plan that includes Assad's exit from power and are unlikely to regard elections held by his government as legitimate, reports The Guardian.

Munzer Akbik, a member of the main opposition Syrian National Council, dismissed Assad's comments as "political equivocation" and said: "There is no sense in talking about elections now before a real transition of power."

Assad was re-elected last year in a landslide vote that was rejected as a sham by his opponents. His term does not expire until 2021, while parliament's term expires in May 2016.

One of the Russian parliamentarians who met Assad yesterday said that the president was ready to hold parliamentary elections that included "reasonable, patriotic opposition forces".

The Syrian leader welcomed the Russian delegation to his residence in Damascus, where he described Moscow's military intervention in Syria as the "writing of a new history" for the country.

It comes amid an increasingly complex situation in Syria, as Russia and the US-led coalition back and attack different fighting groups in separate and uncoordinated air campaigns.

Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been discussing new ideas to end the civil war, which has left 250,000 people dead and millions more displaced.

Moscow is pushing for fresh Syrian elections next year, using the momentum of its military campaign to move towards political stabilisation, reports the Financial Times.

Putin has even offered air support to the opposition Free Syrian Army to fight against Islamic State, says the FT, in a move that "sharply contrasts" with its own earlier denouncement of all armed opposition groups as "terrorists" and which is being greeted with great scepticism.

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