Refugees in Greece demand transfer to Germany, start hunger strike

A girl holds a placard reading, "where is my Mother, where is my Father", as refugees protest, some announcing a hunger strike, as they seek reunification with family members in Germany, near the parliament building in Athens, Greece, November 1, 2017.

By Karolina Tagaris and Deborah Kyvrikosaios

ATHENS (Reuters) – A group of mainly Syrian women and children who have been stranded in Greece pitched tents opposite parliament in Athens on Wednesday in a protest against delays in reuniting with relatives in Germany.

Some of the refugees, who say they have been in Greece for over a year, said they had begun a hunger strike.

“Our family ties our stronger than your illegal agreements,” read a banner held up by one woman, referring to deals on refugees between European Union nations.

Refugees, some announcing a hunger strike, hold placards during a protest as they seek reunification with family members in Germany, near the parliament building in Athens, Greece, November 1, 2017.

Refugees, some announcing a hunger strike, hold placards during a protest as they seek reunification with family members in Germany, near the parliament building in Athens, Greece, November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Greek media have reported that Greece and Germany informally agreed in May to slow down refugee reunification, stranding families in Greece for months after they fled Syria’s civil war. Greece denies this.

“What we’ve managed to do on family reunification is to have an increase of about 27 percent this year compared with last year, even though we’re accused of cutting back family reunification and doing deals to cut back family reunification,” Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told reporters.

Mouzalas said Greece had assurances from Germany that refugees whose applications have been accepted will eventually go to Germany even if there are delays. He denied that refugees had to pay for their flights.

Applications for asylum, reunification and relocation to other European countries can take months to be processed.

“I have not seen my husband, my child, for more than one year and nine months,” said 32-year-old Syrian Dalal Rashou, who has five children, one of whom is in Germany with her husband.

“I miss him and every day I am here in Greece I cry. I don’t want to stay here, I want to go to my husband” she said.

About 60,000 refugees and migrants, mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, have become stranded in Greece after border closures in the Balkans halted the onward journey many planned to take to central and western Europe.

Nearly 148,084 refugees and migrants have crossed to Greece from Turkey this year – a fraction of the nearly 1 million arrivals in 2015 – but arrivals have picked up in recent months.

An average of 214 people arrived each day in September, up from 156 in August, 87 in July and 56 in March, Mouzalas said.

The rise has stretched Greek island camps, which are struggling to cope with numbers two to three times their capacity. Most new arrivals are women and children, according to United Nations data.

Mouzalas said the government was in talks with local authorities to move refugees and migrants to local accommodation, including hotels, and it also planned to increase the capacity of some facilities.


(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Deborah Kyvrikossaios)


Syrian government says agenda agreed, seeks united opposition at next Geneva talks

Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al Ja'afari, Head of the Syrian government delegation addresses the media after a meeting of Intra-Syria peace talks with United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 25, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

By Yara Abi Nader and Issam Abdallah

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syria’s chief negotiator said on Saturday that the “only thing” achieved at 10-day talks in Geneva was an agreed agenda and that the government wanted a unified opposition delegation as its negotiating partner.

In his first remarks since talks ended on Friday, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al-Ja’afari said the agenda agreed through U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura gave equal weight to four subjects, including the government’s own priority of fighting terrorism.

“Nothing has been adopted so far, there is nothing final at all except for the agreement on an agenda. This is the only final thing that we achieved in this round,” Ja’afari told reporters in Geneva.

Damascus sought a unified Syrian opposition, “not a Saudi partner nor a Qatari, Turkish or French partner”. “What is asked is to have a partner,” he said.

The main Syrian opposition at the talks is the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) but there are also two smaller dissident groups which have no military muscle but enjoy Moscow’s blessing as opposition voices.

Ja’afari said a “first condition” was to have a Syrian national opposition that did not seek help from Israel nor Turkey, and “does not work according to Qatari, Saudi, Jordanian, Israeli intelligence agendas”.

The second condition was to have a unified opposition that agreed on a common agenda, he said.

Ja’afari said the government was studying whether to return for the next round of Geneva talks later in March. De Mistura says he plans to continue separate talks with the two sides on substantive issues after reporting to the U.N. Security Council next week.

Syria’s first U.N.-led peace talks in almost a year ended on Friday without breakthrough but de Mistura said the warring parties now had a clear agenda to pursue a political solution to the country’s six-year-long conflict.

“The train is ready, is in the station, is warming up its engine, everything is ready and it just needs an accelerator,” de Mistura told reporters on Friday night. “And the accelerator is in the hands of those who were attending this round.”

(Reporting by Yara Abi Nader; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by John Irish and Catherine Evans)

Exclusive: Assad linked to Syrian chemical attacks for first time

women affected by chemical weapon attack in Syria

By Anthony Deutsch

(Reuters) – International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters.

A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.

Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 – including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry.

The Assads could not be reached for comment but a Syrian government official said accusations that government forces had used chemical weapons had “no basis in truth”. The government has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the civil war, which is almost six years old, saying all the attacks highlighted by the inquiry were the work of rebels or the Islamic State militant group.

The list, which has been seen by Reuters but has not been made public, was based on a combination of evidence compiled by the U.N.-OPCW team in Syria and information from Western and regional intelligence agencies, according to the source, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Reuters was unable to independently review the evidence or to verify it.

The U.N.-OPCW inquiry – known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) – is led by a panel of three independent experts, supported by a team of technical and administrative staff. It is mandated by the U.N. Security Council to identify individuals and organizations responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.

Virginia Gamba, the head of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, denied any list of individual suspects had yet been compiled by the inquiry.

“There are no … identification of individuals being considered at this time,” she told Reuters by email.

The use of chemical weapons is banned under international law and could constitute a war crime. (For graphic on chemical attacks in Syria, click

While the inquiry has no judicial powers, any naming of suspects could lead to their prosecution. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but alleged war crimes could be referred to the court by the Security Council – although splits among global powers over the war make this a distant prospect at present.

“The ICC is concerned about any country where crimes are reported to be committed,” a spokesman for the court said when asked for comment. “Unless Syria accepts the ICC jurisdiction, the only way that (the) ICC would have jurisdiction over the situation would be through a referral by the Security Council.”

The list seen by Reuters could form the basis for the inquiry team’s investigations this year, according to the source. It is unclear whether the United Nations or OPCW will publish the list separately.


The list identifies 15 people “to be scrutinized in relation to use of CW (chemical weapons) by Syrian Arab Republic Armed Forces in 2014 and 2015”. It does not specify what role they are suspected of playing, but lists their titles.

It is split into three sections. The first, titled “Inner Circle President” lists six people including Assad, his brother who commands the elite 4th Armoured Division, the defense minister and the head of military intelligence.

The second section names the air force chief as well as four commanders of air force divisions. They include the heads of the 22nd Air Force Division and the 63rd Helicopter Brigade, units that the inquiry has previously said dropped chlorine bombs.

The third part of the list – “Other relevant Senior Mil Personnel” – names two colonels and two major-generals.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an independent specialist in biological and chemical weapons who monitors Syria, told Reuters the list reflected the military chain of command.

“The decisions would be made at the highest levels initially and then delegated down. Hence the first use would need to be authorized by Assad,” said de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British and NATO chemical and biological defense divisions who frequently visits Syria for professional consultancy work.

The Syrian defense ministry and air force could not be reached for comment.


Syria joined the international Chemical Weapons Convention under a U.S.-Russian deal that followed the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013.

It was the deadliest use of chemicals in global warfare since the 1988 Halabja massacre at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, which killed at least 5,000 people in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Syrian government, which denied its forces were behind the Ghouta attack, also agreed to hand over its declared stockpile of 1,300 tonnes of toxic weaponry and dismantle its chemical weapons program under international supervision.

The United Nations and OPCW have been investigating whether Damascus is adhering to its commitments under the agreement, which averted the threat of U.S.-led military intervention.

The bodies appointed the panel of experts to conduct the inquiry, and its mandate runs until November. The panel published a report in October last year which said Syrian government forces used chemical weapons at least three times in 2014-2015 and that Islamic State used mustard gas in 2015.

The October report identified Syria’s 22nd Air Force Division and 63rd Helicopter Brigade as having dropped chlorine bombs and said people “with effective control in the military units … must be held accountable”.

The source familiar with the inquiry said the October report had clearly established the institutions responsible and that the next step was to go after the individuals.

Washington on Thursday blacklisted 18 senior Syrian officials based on the U.N.-OPCW inquiry’s October report – some of whom also appear on the list seen by Reuters – but not Assad or his brother.

The issue of chemical weapons use in Syria has become a deeply political one, and the U.N.-OPCW inquiry’s allegations of chlorine bomb attacks by government forces have split the U.N. Security Council’s veto-wielding members.

The United States, Britain and France have called for sanctions against Syria, while Assad’s ally Russia has said the evidence presented is insufficient to justify such measures.

A Security Council resolution would be required to bring Assad and other senior Syrian officials before the International Criminal Court for any possible war crimes prosecution – something Russia would likely block.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Pravin Char)

Syrian Kurdish groups say not invited to peace talks

Kurdish fighter in Syria

PARIS (Reuters) – The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and its political arm the PYD will not be invited to planned peace talks in Kazakhstan, a PYD official said on Tuesday, an outcome that would leave a key player in the conflict off the negotiating table.

Syria’s government and rebel forces started a ceasefire on Dec. 31 as a first step toward face-to face negotiations backed by Turkey and Russia, but the date and its participants remain unclear.

The truce is also under growing strain as rebels have vowed to respond to government violations and President Bashar al-Assad said on Monday the army would retake an important rebel-held area near Damascus.

“We are not invited. That’s for sure,” Khaled Eissa, a PYD member told Reuters in France. “It seems there were some vetoes. Neither the PYD or our military formation will be present,” he said.

Assad’s ally Russia had previously sought the PYD’s presence at other negotiations in Switzerland.

But Turkey, which opposes Assad, regards both the YPG and PYD as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists in its own territory and has said two groups should not be represented in Astana.

The Syrian Kurds aim to cement the autonomy of areas of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have already carved out self-governing regions since the start of the war in 2011, though Kurdish leaders say an independent state is not the goal.

“What we have been told is that there will only be a limited number of armed groups and not political groups,” Eissa said, adding that for a comprehensive peace deal in Syria the Kurds would at one point have to be invited to the negotiating table.

The main Syrian political opposition umbrella group that includes about half a dozen armed groups, the Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee, is meeting in the Saudi capital later this week to discuss the Astana talks, although it is also unclear whether Moscow intends to invite them, diplomats and opposition officials said.

Ankara intervened in Syria last year in support of rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner sought to drive Islamic State from positions it had used to shell Turkish towns, and also to stop YPG expansion.

The YPG and its allies backed by a U.S.-led coalition is fighting against IS militants around the group’s Syrian bastion Raqqa, while Turkish-backed rebels are fighting the jihadist group further northwest near areas under Kurdish control.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Rebels seek ceasefire with Syrian army closer to retaking Aleppo

Civilians, who evacuated the eastern districts of Aleppo, carry their belongings as they arrive in a government held area of Aleppo, Syria,

By Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels in besieged eastern Aleppo called on Wednesday for an immediate five-day ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians and wounded, but gave no indication they were ready to withdraw as demanded by Damascus and Moscow.

The Syrian army and allied forces have made rapid gains against insurgents in the past two weeks and look closer than ever to restoring full control over Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war, and achieving their most important victory of the conflict now in its sixth year.

In a statement calling for the truce, the rebels made no mention of evacuating the several thousand fighters who are defending an ever shrinking area of eastern Aleppo.

Syria and Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have said they want rebels to leave Aleppo and will not consider a ceasefire unless that happens.

“It’s been a tragedy here for a long time, but I’ve never seen this kind of pressure on the city – you can’t rest for even five minutes, the bombardment is constant,” a resident said.

“Any movement in the streets and there is bombardment (on that area) immediately,” said the east Aleppo resident contacted by Reuters, who declined to be identified. Fear gripped the remaining residents as food and water supplies were cut off.

Retaking Aleppo would also be a success for President Vladimir Putin who intervened to save Moscow’s ally in September 2015 with air strikes, and for Shi’ite Iran, whose elite Islamic Republic Guard Corps has suffered casualties fighting for Assad.

The Syrian government now appears closer to victory than at any point in the five years since protests against Assad evolved into an armed rebellion. The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than half of Syrians homeless and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.

Outside of Aleppo, the government and its allies are also putting severe pressure on remaining rebel redoubts.

People, who evacuated the eastern districts of Aleppo, carry their belongings as they arrive in a government held area of Aleppo, Syria,

People, who evacuated the eastern districts of Aleppo, carry their belongings as they arrive in a government held area of Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on December 7, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

“The decision to liberate all of Syria is taken and Aleppo is part of it,” Assad said in a newspaper interview, according to pro-Damascus television station al-Mayadeen. He described the city as the “last hope” of rebels and their backers.


The Syrian army now controls all of the Old City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site including the Umayyad Mosque, which had been held by rebels, the Observatory said.

Explosions and artillery fire could be heard on Syrian state television in districts around the citadel which overlooks the Old City as the army pressed its offensive. More neighborhoods were expected to fall but rebels were fighting ferociously.

Syrian state news agency SANA said rebel shelling killed 12 people in government-held districts of Aleppo.

Rebels have lost control of about 75 percent of their territory in eastern Aleppo in under 10 days, Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, said.

The “humanitarian initiative” published by rebels called for the evacuation of around 500 critical medical cases.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that a potential U.S.-Russia deal to allow Syrian rebels to leave Aleppo safely was still on the agenda.

Damascus and Moscow have been calling on rebels to withdraw from the city, disarm and accept safe passage out, a procedure that has been carried out in other areas where rebels abandoned besieged territory in recent months.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Hamburg on Wednesday.

A statement from State Department spokesman John Kirby said the two had “discussed ongoing multilateral efforts to achieve a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, as well as the delivery of humanitarian aid” to civilians there.

Kerry told reporters after the meeting that he and Lavrov would “connect” on Thursday morning.

There was no further detail on the discussions, but State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a news briefing on Wednesday that Kerry and Lavrov were discussing proposals to halt fighting in Aleppo, which could include either safe passage out of Aleppo for opposition forces, or a pause in fighting so that humanitarian aid could be delivered.

An injured woman walks at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-held al-Ansari neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria

An injured woman walks at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-held al-Ansari neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria December 7, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail


Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Monday calling for a week-long ceasefire. Moscow said rebels used such pauses in the past to reinforce.

The Syrian army’s advance is a “strategic victory” that will prevent foreign intervention and alter the political process, Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told reporters in Damascus.

“Those who believed in the Syrian triumph, know that (the rebels’) morale is at its lowest and that these collapses that have begun are like domino tiles,” he said.

An official with an Aleppo rebel group, who declined to be named, told Reuters the United States appeared to have no position on the Syrian army assault on Aleppo, just weeks before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

“The Russians want the fighters out and they (the Americans) are ready to coordinate over that”, said the Turkey-based official, citing indirect contacts with U.S. officials.

While rebels say they could fend off the offensive for some time to come, the fighting is complicated by tens of thousands of fearful civilians trapped in the rebel-held area, many of them related to the fighters, the official said.

“The civilian burden is very heavy, in a small area.”


As winter sets in, siege conditions are increasingly desperate, exacerbated by increasing numbers of displaced residents and food and water shortages.

A U.N. official said on Wednesday about 31,500 people from east Aleppo have been displaced around the entire city over the past week, with hundreds more seen on the move on Wednesday.

With hospitals, clinics, water and food cut off, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said the situation was “heart-breaking.”

Very few rebels had quit Aleppo so far, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who described those who were left there as “terrorists” who were uniting around fighters from the group formerly known as the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

People, who evacuated the eastern districts of Aleppo, carry their belongings as they gather in a government held area of Aleppo, Syria,

People, who evacuated the eastern districts of Aleppo, carry their belongings as they gather in a government held area of Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on December 7, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

But eastern Aleppo is widely seen by analysts of the Syria conflict as a bastion of the moderate opposition to Assad, which has maintained that jihadists have little presence in the city.

Civilians wanting to leave east Aleppo should be evacuated to the northern Aleppo countryside, rather than Idlib province, the rebel document said. Idlib is dominated by Islamist groups including Fateh al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, and is facing intense bombardment by Russian warplanes.

“Russia wants to move them to Idlib. The fighters have a choice: survive for an extra couple of weeks by going to Idlib or fight to the very end and die in Aleppo,” one senior European diplomat, who declined to be named, said. “For the Russians it’s simple. Place them all in Idlib and then they have all their rotten eggs in one basket.”

On Russian-U.S. talks, the diplomat said: “The assumption is that the U.S. has influence on the ground. I don’t think that’s the case.”

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, John Davison, Andrew Osborn, Tom Miles, John Irish and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and James Dalgleish)

Food production in Syria hits all time low

Farmers harvest wheat in a field at night, fearing shelling in daylight, in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria early morning

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Food production has dropped to an all-time low in Syria where millions of hungry civilians are struggling through their sixth winter in a war zone, U.N. agencies said on Tuesday.

Many farmers have had to abandon their land, unable to afford the soaring cost of seeds, fertilisers and tractor fuel, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme said.

Wheat output – vital for making flat loaves of bread which are a staple of the Syrian diet – dropped from an average 3.4 million metric tonnes harvested before the war began in 2011 to 1.5 million this year, they said in a joint report.

“There is an estimated shortfall of about 838,000 tonnes in the country’s national wheat requirement of 3.854 million tonnes taking into account commercial imports,” it said.

The area planted for cereals in the 2015-16 cropping season is the “smallest ever”, they added. Field visits and surveys showed higher than average production of barley, which some farmers switched to as the rain-fed crop is more resistant than wheat, and “large patches of cropland affected by drought”.

“Food production in Syria has hit a record low due to fighting and insecurity but also bad weather conditions,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told a news briefing.

Food shortages are particularly worrying in east Aleppo, the rebel-held part of the city besieged by government forces where the U.N. says 250,000-275,000 civilians still live.

“The last food rations provided by the U.N. have been given out (in east Aleppo). It is very hard to say how people will be coping there. Of course it is a very different situation than in the capital where food is readily available at the markets,” Luescher said.

Reuters reported last month that Syria’s state grain buying agency Hoboob struck a deal to purchase one million tonnes of wheat from political ally Russia, covering the needs of government-controlled areas for a year.

Before the war, Syria was an exporter of livestock. “Now herds and flocks have shrunk significantly, there are 30 percent fewer cattle, 40 percent fewer sheep and goats and a staggering 60 percent less poultry which of course is the most affordable source of animal protein,” Luescher said.

More than 7 million people in Syria are classified as “food insecure”, meaning they are not always sure where their next meal is coming from, she said, adding: “Eighty percent of the households across Syria struggle with a lack of food or lack of money to buy food.”

The World Food Programme is distributing rations to more than 4 million people in Syria each month.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Richard Balmforth)

Gloom at Syria talks as Russia backs government advance

MUNICH (Reuters) – Major powers began a new round of Syria talks on Thursday focusing on calls for a ceasefire and access for aid, but the mood was dour with Moscow showing no sign of calling off its bombing in support of a massive new government advance.

With the Syrian opposition saying it cannot accept a truce because it does not trust the Russians, diplomats saw little chance of progress.

The first peace talks in two years collapsed last week before they began in the face of the government offensive, one of the biggest and most consequential of the five-year war.

Thursday’s meeting in the German city of Munich was meant to allow powers to coordinate support for ongoing negotiations, but instead has turned into a desperate bid to ressurrect them.

A Western diplomat told Reuters that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wanted an immediate ceasefire in Syria – “All or nothing”. Moscow, however, had proposed a truce that would begin only from the start of next month, giving its Damascus allies 18 more days to recapture Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city.

Western powers were hopeful wording could be agreed that at the very least would allow more access for aid to besieged areas.

“Here we need something of a breakthrough,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “Today, we will try what has not been achieved so far especially, to get better supplies to people locked in Syria and link this to first steps in a significant reduction of violence.”

But a senior Western diplomat summed up the pessimistic outlook: “This meeting risks being endless and I fear the results will be extremely small.”

Russia’s intervention on the battlefield on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad since last October has swung the momentum. The latest advance over the past two weeks has seen government forces and allies rout rebels and come close to encircling Aleppo, a divided city half held by rebels for years.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met Kerry ahead of the talks, said Moscow had submitted proposals for a ceasefire and was awaiting a response from other powers. But Western officials do not expect Moscow to accept the immediate halt to bombing Washington seeks.

Kerry said he expected a “serious conversation”.

“Obviously, at some point in time, we want to make progress on the issues of humanitarian access and ceasefire,” Kerry said.

Russia is widely viewed as unlikely to halt support for the government advance until Damascus achieves its two main objectives: recapturing Aleppo and sealing the Turkish border, for years the lifeline for rebel-held areas.

That would amount to the most decisive victory of the war so far, and probably put an end to rebel hopes of removing Assad by force, their goal throughout five years of fighting that has killed 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes.

“The goal is to totally liberate Aleppo and then to seal the northern border with Turkey,” said Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow, explaining the Russian government thinking. “The offensive should not be stopped – that would be tantamount to defeat.”


Washington is leading its own air campaign against Islamic State militants in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, but has resisted calls to intervene in the main battlefields of Syria’s civil war in the west of the country, where the government is mostly fighting against other insurgent groups.

That has left the field to the Russians, who support Assad against an array of rebel groups backed by Turkey, Arab states and the West.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter drew a distinction between the two main zones of the conflict, saying Islamic State would have to be defeated “whatever happens with the Syrian civil war”.

In further evidence of the complexity of a multi-sided civil war that has drawn in regional and global powers, Russia provided air support for Kurdish fighters who overran a military air base that had been in the hands of Syrian rebels since 2013.

The Syrian Kurds have worked with the United States against Islamic State, but are opposed by Turkey, Washington’s NATO ally. The Kurds now appear to be taking advantage of the government advance to expand territory by capturing the Menagh base near the Turkish border.

One rebel commander, Zekeriya Karsli from the Levant Front, said: “The fall of Menagh airport has made the situation on the ground pretty grim.”

Saudi Arabia, which backs some of the rebels that Moscow is helping to defeat, has floated the idea of sending ground troops to help the U.S. effort against Islamic State. This was criticised by Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who said it could make the war permanent.

“All sides must be compelled to sit at the negotiating table instead of unleashing a new world war,” he told Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper.


Syria’s national reconciliation minister, Ali Haidar, suggested Moscow was playing a bigger role on the ground than just offering air strikes and military aid: Russian mediators were helping the government broker local deals with rebels willing to lay down weapons or relocate.

“The truth is that since the presence of the Russians on Syrian land, they can play the role of mediator in some areas,” Haidar told Reuters at his offices in Damascus.

The Russian-backed government assault has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing towards the Turkish border. The United Nations has said it fears for 300,000 people still trapped in Aleppo.

In a speech, President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey’s patience may run out and Ankara may have to take action, but gave no details of what he meant. Erdogan called on the United Nations to prevent “ethnic cleansing”, saying as many as 600,000 more refugees could arrive.

The refugee crisis has had far-reaching impact across Europe, where Syrian refugees were the bulk of the biggest wave of migrants since World War Two to reach the European Union.

The NATO alliance announced a new sea mission to help Turkey and Greece crack down on criminal networks smuggling refugees from Turkey into Europe, after thousands drowned and hundreds of thousands made the journey last year.

Turkey has already taken in 2.6 million Syrians, the largest refugee population on earth, and has agreed to help keep them from travelling into Europe in return for aid. Erdogan warned that Turkey could “open the gates” for refugees into Europe if it did not receive enough help.

The United Nations and the European Union, which has agreed a 3-billion-euro fund to improve conditions for refugees in Turkey, have both urged Ankara to admit those fleeing the latest fighting.

“They struck Aleppo so we fled. First we escaped to another village. We’ve gone to every village. But they’re bombing everywhere so we came here,” said Musa Ibrahim Isa, one of the tens of thousands of people at Bab al-Salama, on the Syrian side of the border.

“Our only wish from God is that these gates be opened.”

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Denis Dyomkin; Writing by Giles Elgood and Peter Graff; Editing by Peter Millership and Andrew Heavens)

Syria peace talks derailed as opposition stays away

AMMAN/BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – The Syrian opposition said it will not attend peace talks due to begin in Geneva on Friday, derailing the first attempt in two years to hold negotiations aimed at ending the five-year-long war.

An opposition council convening in Riyadh said its delegation would “certainly” not be in Geneva on Friday, saying it had not received convincing answers to its demands for goodwill steps including an end to air strikes and blockades.

The failure to get talks off the ground on time reflects the challenges facing peace-making as the conflict rages unabated on the ground.

The Syrian government is clawing back territory from rebels with military help from Iran and Russia. It has said it is ready to attend the negotiations, which U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura plans to hold in an indirect format.

Another opposition representative said the delegation might turn up if their demands were met in a day or two, but the chances of that appeared vanishingly slim.

The turn of events is a bitter blow to De Mistura, whose office had issued a video message that he had sent to the Syrian people, in which he said the talks were expected to happen “in the next few days”.

A spokeswoman for his office, speaking before the opposition statement, said the talks would begin on Friday as scheduled.

George Sabra, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said: “For certain we will not head to Geneva and there will not be a delegation from the High Negotiations Committee tomorrow in Geneva.”


Before agreeing to talks, the HNC had been seeking U.N. guarantees of steps including a halt to attacks on civilian areas, a release of detainees, and a lifting of blockades. The measures were mentioned in a Security Council resolution approved last month that endorsed the peace process for Syria.

Sabra said a response from de Mistura was “unfortunately still ink on paper”. “We are not certain that the opportunity is historic,” he told Arabic news channel Arabiya al-Hadath.

Another HNC official said the opposition could attend if their demands were met “within two, three or four days.”

“Tomorrow will probably the start will be with those who attend but it has no value,” Monzer Makhous told Al-Hadath.

The talks were meant to start in Geneva on Monday but the United Nations has pushed them back to Friday to allow more time to resolve problems including a dispute over which groups should be invited to negotiate with the government.

The exclusion of a powerful Kurdish faction that controls wide areas of northern Syria has triggered a boycott by some of the invitees. Turkey had opposed the PYD’s participation on the ground it views it as a terrorist group.

The United States, whose Secretary of State John Kerry is among those pushing for negotiations to start on Friday, urged the opposition to seize the “historic opportunity” and enter talks without preconditions to end the war, which has also displaced more than 11 million people.

Diplomacy has so far had little impact on the conflict, which has spawned a refugee crisis in neighbouring states and Europe. De Mistura is the third international envoy for Syria. His two predecessors – Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi – both quit.


Enormous challenge include tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are vying for influence across the region, and the underlying dispute over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

With backing from Iranian fighters and Lebanon’s Hezbollah on the ground, and Russian air raids, the government has recaptured areas in the west, northwest and south of Syria since Moscow intervened last September, reversing rebel gains.

The HNC groups political and armed groups fighting Assad. It includes some of the main armed groups fighting in western Syria, including the Islamist Jaysh al-Islam, which is deemed a terrorist group by Russia, and Free Syrian Army factions that have received military support from states including the Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Earlier this week the Syrian army took a strategic town in the southern province of Deraa, securing its supply routes from the capital to the south, days after retaking more territory in Latakia province.

Damascus, Tehran and Moscow have objected to the inclusion of groups they consider terrorists in any peace talks.

Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Thursday his country strongly opposed moves by Saudi Arabia to allow “terrorists in a new mask” to sit down for talks.

Syria’s opposition has said it has come under pressure from Kerry to attend the talks in order to negotiate over the very steps which it says must be implemented beforehand.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Ali Abdelatti in Cairo,; Tom Miles in Geneva and Alexander Winning in Moscow; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Philippa Fletcher)