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)

Assad tasks minister with forming new government: Syria state media

Syrian's President Bashar al-Assad

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad tasked Electricity Minister Emad Khamis with forming a new government on Wednesday, state news agency SANA reported, without giving an immediate reason for the formation of a new cabinet.

SANA gave no details on why Khamis would replace Wael al-Halaki as prime minister, or whether Halaki would be included in the new administration or had left government. Halaki himself replaced a prime minister who defected to the opposition.

The Damascus-based government controls most of the war-torn country’s major population centers in the west, with the notable exceptions of Idlib, which is held by insurgents, and Aleppo, where it controls half of the city.

Kurdish forces are in control of vast areas along the Turkish border, and Islamic State holds Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in the east.

Parliamentary elections were held in government-controlled areas in April, which the opposition said were meaningless.

Syria’s conflict, which began as a peaceful uprising against Assad, is now in its sixth year and has drawn in military involvement from regional and world powers and allowed for the growth of Islamic State.

Damascus formed a new government more than a year into the war in 2012, but its prime minister at the time, Riad Hijab, fled Syria soon afterwards. Hijab is now a prominent member of the main Syrian opposition that attended failed peace talks this year.

Assad ally Russia said last week there were U.S. proposals to incorporate parts of the opposition into the current Syrian government. Washington denied any such proposals and insists Assad must leave power.

The war has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced more than 11 million, half Syria’s pre-war population.

It has damaged the economy, causing the Syrian pound to lose more than 90 percent of its value.

(Reporting by John Davison and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)

Islamic Extremists Take Over Syrian Christian Town

Islamic forces in Syria have killed a relative of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who had been commanding troops protecting a Christian city.

A coalition of Islamic extremist groups overran the defenses of the Christian town of Kassat, killing Christians they found in their path and chanting & praising Allah as they took control of the town.

A student from the town that is now living in the United Arab Emirates told the Wall Street Journal that most of the Christians have fled to a church in the nearby village of Latakia.

“They receive food from the Armenians that are living there,” the unnamed student told the WSJ.

Islamic extremists in Syria have been attempting to exterminate the Christian population in Syria during the civil war.  Christians had made up 8 percent of Syria’s population before the Civil War began.

Syrian Government Killed 11,000 Detainees In Two Years

A new report from three international war crimes prosecutors says the Syrian government committed the “systematic killing” of detainees under their control.

The report, which was leaked to the Guardian newspaper, shows that 11,000 detainees between March 2011 and August 2013 died at the hands of government jailers and military officials.

The source was a military police photographer who defected from the country in 2013.  Before leaving the country, he collected memory sticks that contained thousands of photos of detainees killed while in custody.

The defector who is identified only as “Caesar” told investigators that he photographed as many as 50 bodies a day.  He said the purpose of the photos was to allow a death certificate to be produced while denying their families access to the body.  The cause of death was usually listed as a heart attack or “breathing problems.”

The report was commissioned by a London law firm on behalf of the government of Qatar which has claimed Syrian President Bashir al-Assad has committed multiple war crimes during the country’s current civil war.

Syria’s Unfilled Munitions Destroyed

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced Friday that all of Syria’s unfilled canisters for use in chemical weapons has been destroyed.

The announcement marks a major step in the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons abilities.

The destruction of the canisters were near the city of Homs which had been inaccessible due to fighting from the country’s civil war.

The experts from the OPCW also verified that buildings used to construct chemical weapons have been partially destroyed. The buildings will be completely razed.

The joint OPCW-UN team said they plan to remove most of toxic materials from Syria by the end of the year to meet the mid-2014 deadline for destruction of all weapons.

Top Syrian Rebel Commander Killed

The rebels attempting to overthrow the government of Bashir al-Assad took a major hit over the weekend with the death of a major rebel commander.

Abdul Qadir al-Saleh, the leader of the Liwa al-Tawlid, died overnight from wounds sustained in an air strike on a rebel held air base in Aleppo province on Thursday. The group is one of the major rebel forces in Syria with around 10,000 fighters. The group was the leaders of the rebels who took the city of Aleppo from government troops.

The brigade’s intelligence and financial chief died in the same attack.

“As an individual, he was very, very important, certainly in the Aleppo area, but increasingly as an individual that many in Syria felt represented the revolution,” IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre Charles Lister told the AFP news agency. “He came from a humble background, was outwardly religious but was very open… and he maintained extremely good relations with almost all groups of all different natures.”

Observers say it’s likely the rebel group will rally after the death of their leader to launch a major counter-offensive against government forces.

Syrian Chemical Weapons Teams Stopped By Violence

Chemical weapons inspectors in Syria for the dismantling of that country’s supplies have found themselves blocked from parts of their mission due to the ongoing violence.

Over the weekend, mortar attacks took place near the hotel where inspectors are staying and several IEDs were detonated in vehicles during visits to inspection sites.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says this is the first time their inspectors have been unable to complete a scheduled visit.

The OPCW is being asked for the first time in their history to destroy a chemical weapons armory while an active war is taking place within a nation. According to the group’s reports to the UN, nearly half of the 20 sites have been inspected and equipment destroyed.

The UN resolution requires the destruction of all stockpiles by the end of June 2014.

Russia Plan For Syria Causing Problems At U.N.

Russia’s plan to have Syria surrender all chemical weapons is causing problems at the United Nations as multiple countries demand specific dates for the handoff.

The U.K., U.S. and France are demanding a timetable and consequences for that timetable not being met by Syria. American officials said they will “not fall for stalling tactics.” Continue reading