Syria sees impasse broken as EU urges engagement in peace talks

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of Syria’s delegation in Geneva said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had urged his government to engage positively in peace talks on Wednesday, and he believed the round of talks had broken the diplomatic impasse.

Mogherini arrived unexpectedly in Geneva on Wednesday, possibly highlighting concerns that talks on Syria risk getting deadlocked unless headway on the matter of political transition is made soon.

“She passed on a letter of support for the Syrian-Syrian dialogue,” Bashar Ja’afari told reporters. “She came to support us to engage positively in the talks that would lead to an end to the Syrian crisis,” he said after the rare meeting with a senior Western official.

Mogherini earlier held talks with the chief coordinator for the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Riad Hijab.

Ja’afari told her he wanted the European Union to reopen its embassies and lift sanctions on Damascus, but said that while his team would return for a second round of talks in Geneva, he had told U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura they could not come back before Syrian elections on April 13.

Activists and diplomats said de Mistura was finalizing a document for delegates at peace talks that will synthesize common points of convergence, but is likely to stay clear of the divisive issue of political transition.

With a fragile truce in place in Syria, warring sides are more than a week into talks on ending the conflict, but government officials have rejected any discussion on a political transition or the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, who opposition leaders say must go as part of any such plan.

Speaking before the negotiations adjourn on Thursday, Ja’afari said he had received a document from envoy Staffan de Mistura.

“We will respond to it at the beginning of the next round,” he said, declining to take any questions.

The five-year-old conflict between the government and insurgents has killed more than 250,000 people, allowed Islamic State to take control of some eastern areas and caused the world’s worst refugee crisis.

The U.N. envoy said on Tuesday that he aimed to establish if there were any points held in common by the different parties. If successful, he would announce these on Thursday.

Randa Kassis, who heads up a Moscow-backed opposition group, said de Mistura would distribute a document of common points gathered from the various delegates.

Points included creating a future unified Syrian army to fight terrorism or ensuring a democratic and non-sectarian based Syria.

“I don’t think much has happened in this round,” Kassis told Reuters. “We’re waiting for a U.S.-Russian accord to solve the (key) issue once and for all. Until they resolve it this process will drag on.”

Jihad Makdissi, head of the Cairo opposition group, confirmed he was also expecting de Mistura to issue a paper on a potential “common vision” for Syria that he believed was on the right path.

“It covers many points important to the Riyadh platform, the Cairo platform, and the Moscow platforms,” he said, referring to the different opposition groups.

A Western diplomat said he believed de Mistura’s new document was an attempt to synthesize views he had heard from his various interlocutors during the round of talks.

The cessation of hostilities deal, engineered by Washington and Moscow three weeks ago, but not signed by any of the warring parties, remains fragile.

Asaad al-Zoubi, head of the HNC’s delegation, said on Tuesday it was “obvious” there were no points of convergence with the Syrian government and accused it of renewing sieges and barrel bombing campaigns against civilians.

Mogherini’s visit coincides with high-level meetings in Moscow between Russian and U.S. officials.

They aim to give fresh impetus to the talks and assess how Russia envisages a political transition in Syria, in particular the fate of Assad.

(Additional reporting By John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky/Ruth Pitchford)

Syrian government refuses to discuss Assad’s future

GENEVA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The fate of President Bashar al-Assad will play no part in talks to end the Syrian war, the head of the government’s delegation said, leading the U.N. peace envoy to warn that lack of progress on the issue could threaten a fragile cessation of hostilities.

Damascus delegate Bashar Ja’afari said Assad’s future had “nothing to do” with the negotiations, which entered their second week on Monday, insisting that counter-terrorism efforts remained the priority for the government.

“The (terms of) reference of our talks do not give any indication whatsoever with regard to the issue of the President of the Syrian Arab Republic,” he said when asked about the willingness of the government delegation to engage in serious talks on political transition.

“This is something already excluded.”

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura – who describes Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” – responded by saying the government delegation’s refusal to discuss it could lead to a deterioration of the situation on the ground.

“Everyone more or less agrees, the cessation of hostilities is still holding,” he said. “The same … more or less for the movement on humanitarian aid. But neither of them can be sustained if we don’t get progress on the political transition.”

The fragility of the three-week-old cessation, which was backed by the United States and Russia, was highlighted on Monday when Moscow said it had recorded six violations in the last 24 hours.

The Syrian opposition accused the government delegation of wasting time by refusing to discuss the future of Assad. “It is not possible to wait like this, while the regime delegation wastes time without achieving anything,” said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee.


Arguments over Assad’s fate were a major cause of the failure of previous U.N. peace efforts in 2012 and 2014 to end a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis.

The five-year-old conflict between the government and insurgents has also allowed Islamic State to take advantage of the chaos and take control of areas in the east of the country.

Fighters from the jihadist group – which is excluded from the ceasefire deal – killed 26 Syrian soldiers on Monday west of Palmyra, a monitoring group said, after days of advances by government forces backed by Syrian and Russian air cover.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the Syrian army would soon recapture Palmyra from Islamic State, which has held the desert city for nearly a year.

Palmyra has both symbolic and military value as the site of ancient Roman-era ruins – mostly destroyed by Islamic State – and because of its location on a highway linking mainly government-held western Syria to Islamic State’s eastern stronghold.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting took place about 4 km (2 miles) west of Palmyra.

It was not possible to independently verify the death toll. Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army and allied forces, backed by the Syrian air force, carried out “concentrated operations” against Islamic State around Palmyra and the Islamic State-held town of al-Qaryatayn, about 100 km further west.

After more than five months of air strikes in support of Assad, which turned the course of the civil war in the government’s favour, Putin announced the withdrawal last week of most Russian forces. But Russian planes have continued to support army operations near Palmyra, according to the Observatory and regional media.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Stephanie Nebehay and Ali Abdelatti; Writing by Pravin Char; editing by John Stonestreet)

Syria peace talks grind toward pivotal Assad question

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss something far outside their comfort zone: the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. And they are doing their best to avoid it.

U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura describes Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” and, emboldened by the Russian and U.S. muscle that brought the participants to the negotiating table, he refuses to drop the subject.

After a week of talks in Geneva, he praised the opposition for the depth of their ideas, but criticized the veteran diplomats on the government side for getting bogged down.

“The government is currently focusing very much on principles, which are necessary in any type of common ground on the transition,” he said. “But I hope next week, and I have been saying so to them, that we will get their opinion, their details on how they see the political transition taking place.”

Arguments over Assad’s fate were a major cause of the failure of previous U.N. peace efforts in 2012 and 2014 to end a civil war that has now lasted five years, killed more than 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis.

The main opposition, along with the United States and other Western nations, has long insisted any peace deal must include his departure from power, while the Syrian government and Russia have said there is no such clause in the international agreements that underwrite the peace process.

The Syrian president looked more secure than ever at the start of the latest round of talks, riding high after a Russian-backed military campaign.

But Russia’s surprise withdrawal of most of its forces during the week signaled that Moscow expected its Syrian allies to take the Geneva talks seriously. And de Mistura appointed a Russian expert to sit in the negotiations with him and to advise on political issues.

Unlike previous rounds, the talks have run for a week without any hint of collapse, forcing the government delegation led by Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari to acknowledge de Mistura’s demands.

Ja’afari began by giving de Mistura a document entitled “Basic elements for a political solution”.

“Approving these principles will open a serious dialogue under Syrian leadership without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” Ja’afari said on Friday, in a brief statement after the longest session of the talks so far.

But officials and diplomats involved in the talks variously described the document as “very thin”, “bland” and “off the point”.

It listed familiar goals such as maintaining a secular state and Syria’s territorial integrity and the importance of fighting terrorism, according to sources who have read it. But it said nothing about a political transition.


In sessions with de Mistura, Ja’afari has approached the negotiations as slowly as possible, reopening U.N. resolutions and going through them “by the letter”, said a source with knowledge of the process.

“Mr Ja’afari is still in a kind of delusion of trying to filibuster his way out of town, or to filibuster the opposition out of town,” said a western diplomat.

“He will spend every minute questioning the nature of the opposition, quibbling about the font in the agenda.”

By Friday, de Mistura said Ja’afari’s team needed to go faster and couldn’t avoid the substantive question forever.

“The fact that the government delegation would like to set different rules or play with the terms of this agreement is I think a non-starter,” said opposition delegate Basma Kodmani.

A diplomat involved in the peace process said Assad was not used to having to compromise, and that made Ja’afari’s negotiating position rigid.

“He has to have control. If he gives up 1 percent, he loses 100 percent. He’s designed like that,” the diplomat said.

In three meetings with each side during the week, de Mistura quizzed the negotiators about their ideas, and they were also able to put questions to their rivals through him, one participant said.

The U.N. mediation team spends the sessions “stripping the papers apart and delving deep into the subject and forcing them to do more homework and forcing them to give answers”, said a source with knowledge of the process.

The negotiators do not meet each other, but face de Mistura in a functional, windowless room with desks arranged in a square. There is space for eight or nine people around each side, but the conditions are slightly cramped, and afford no luxury beyond a plastic bottle of mineral water on each desk.

“De Mistura is dragging the regime in with his queries on their position paper, rather than allowing them to talk about what they want,” said the diplomat involved in the peace process.

“The regime had in the past a bit of space to play and to maneuver,” he said. “The regime knows it has to come and stay but is not prepared for the idea that it has to engage the opposition.”

(Writing by Tom Miles; Editing by Pravin Char)

U.N. tells Syrian government to go faster, get specific in Geneva talks

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syria’s government must do more to present its ideas about a political transition and not merely talk about principles of peacemaking, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said on Friday after a fifth day of peace talks.

The end of a week of talks in Geneva came as Syria neared the three-week mark in its “cessation of hostilities”, a temporary truce in the five-year-old civil war that has largely held but was marred by “some incidents” on Friday, he said.

“We are in a hurry,” he told reporters after what he called an “intense” day and meetings with Syria’s government delegation and the main opposition, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

De Mistura said he had given both sides weekend homework so the negotiations could speed up on Monday, and during the second week of discussions he would go deeper into the issue of a political transition.

He had told the government delegation that they could talk about procedures if they wished, but it was impossible to avoid dealing with the substance, he said.

“In the end, people in Syria don’t need procedure, they need reality and they expect that from us.” Syria’s war has killed more than 250,000 people and caused the world’s worst refugee crisis with more than half the pre-war population displaced.

Next week he aims to build “a minimum common platform” to better understand how to approach a post-war transition, which is the core issue to be tackled at the next round of talks in April, he said. “We are already aiming very clearly for that.”

De Mistura said he had been impressed by the depth of the engagement in the process by the HNC, including substantive points on its vision of a peaceful transition.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has rejected opposition demands he give up power as a precondition for lasting peace.

De Mistura said the talks saw “no walkouts, no excessive rhetoric, no breakdowns… despite the fact that I am obviously still detecting large distances” between the two sides.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay and Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syria’s Kurds rebuked for seeking autonomous region

RMEILAN, Syria (Reuters) – Syria’s Kurdish-controlled northern regions voted to seek autonomy on Thursday, drawing rebukes from the Damascus government, neighboring power Turkey and Washington over a move that could complicate U.N.-backed peace talks.

The vote to unite three Kurdish-controlled provinces in a federal system appears aimed at creating a self-run entity within Syria, a status that Kurds have enjoyed in neighboring Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The proclamation is an open challenge to many of the sides in Syria’s five-year-old civil war, as well as their international sponsors, who have mainly been battling for control of what they say must remain a unified state.

The Kurds, who enjoy U.S. military support, have beaten back Islamic State fighters to control swathes of northern Syria, but the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, has so far been excluded from peace talks that began this week in Geneva.

The three Kurdish-controlled regions agreed at a conference in Rmeilan in northeast Syria to establish the self-administered “federal democratic system of Rojava – Northern Syria”, officials announced. Rojava is the Kurdish name for north Syria.

Officials said at a news conference they intended to begin preparations for a federal system, including electing a joint leadership and a 31-member organizing committee which would prepare a “legal and political vision” for the system within six months.

A document seen by Reuters, issued at the meeting, said the aim was to “establish democratic self-administered regions which run and organize themselves … in the fields of economy, society, security, healthcare, education, defense and culture.”


Both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey, a regional heavyweight that is one of Assad’s strongest enemies, were swift to denounce the declaration.

“Any such announcement has no legal value and will not have any legal, political, social or economic impact as long as it does not reflect the will of the entire Syrian people,” state news agency SANA cited a foreign ministry source as saying.

An official in Turkey said: “Syria must remain as one without being weakened and the Syrian people must decide on its future in agreement and with a constitution. Every unilateral initiative will harm Syria’s unity.”

Even Washington, which has backed Kurdish fighters with air strikes on Islamic State targets, was displeased.

“We don’t support self-ruled, semi-autonomous zones inside Syria. We just don’t,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

“What we want to see is a unified, whole Syria that has in place a government that is not led by Bashar al-Assad, that is responsive to the Syrian people. Whole, unified, nonsectarian Syria, that’s the goal.”

Turkey fears growing Kurdish sway in Syria is fuelling separatism among its own minority Kurds, and considers the main Syrian Kurdish militia to be an ally of the PKK, which has fought an insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey.

The PYD has consistently said it wants a model of decentralized government for Syria, not partition. The document agreed on Thursday stressed that the federal system would “guarantee the unity of Syrian territory”.

Nawaf Khalil, a former PYD official, played down parallels between Kurdish aspirations in Syria and Iraq, saying Thursday’s announcement was a joint move taken together with the region’s other ethnic communities.

“The experience resulted from discussions with Arabs and Assyrians, Chechens, Armenians, Turkmen. There is a special case in Rojava, it is not like the path taken in Iraq,” he said.


Syrian Kurds effectively control an uninterrupted stretch of 250 miles along the Syrian-Turkish border from the Euphrates river to the frontier with Iraq. They also hold a separate section of the northwestern border in the Afrin area.

The areas are separated by roughly 60 miles of territory, much of it still held by Islamic State.

A U.S.-backed force which includes Kurdish YPG fighters has been battling Islamic State and other militants, making some gains in Raqqa, Hasaka and Aleppo provinces. Kurdish official Idris Nassan said those “liberated” areas were included in Thursday’s agreement.

On Saturday, Syria’s government in Damascus ruled out the idea of a federal system for the country, just days after a Russian official said that could be a possible model. Russia’s five-month military intervention in Syria helped turn the tide of Syria’s war back in Assad’s favor.

President Vladimir Putin, who has announced the withdrawal of most Russian forces, said on Thursday Moscow’s intervention had created the conditions for Syria’s peace process.

The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is convening the peace talks in Geneva, suggested last week that a federal model for Syria could be discussed during negotiations.

“All Syrians have rejected division (of Syria) and federalism can be discussed at the negotiations,” he told Al Jazeera television.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington and John Davison in Beirut, Orhan Coskun in Ankara and David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Russia can make powerful Syria military comeback in hours, Putin says

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia could scale up its military presence in Syria again within hours and would still bomb terrorist groups there despite a partial draw-down of forces ordered after military successes.

Speaking in one of the Kremlin’s grandest halls three days after he ordered Russian forces to partially withdraw from Syria, the Russian leader said the smaller strike force he had left behind was big enough to help forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad keep advancing.

“I’m sure that we will see new and serious successes in the near future,” Putin told an audience of more than 700 members of the military at an awards ceremony. In particular, he said he hoped that the ancient city of Palmyra, which is held by Islamic State, would soon fall to Assad’s forces.

“I hope that this pearl of world civilization, or at least what’s left of it after bandits have held sway there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the entire world,” Putin said, referring to the World Heritage Site.

In his first public remarks since ordering the withdrawal, Putin for the first time put an approximate price tag on the Russian operation, saying that the bulk of the expenses – $481.89 million – had been taken from the defense ministry’s war games budget.

There would be other costs, he said, in order to replace ammunition and weapons as well as to make repairs.

Russian air strikes against Islamic State, Al Nusra and other terrorist groups would press on, he said, as would a wide range of measures to aid Syrian government forces including helping them plan their offensives.

Putin said he did not want to have to escalate Russia’s involvement in the conflict again after the draw-down and was hoping peace talks would be successful. But he made clear Russia could easily scale up its forces again.

“If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal,” he said.


In a thinly disguised warning to Turkey and others, he said Russia was leaving behind its most advanced S-400 air defense system and would not hesitate to shoot down “any target” which violated Syrian air space.

Unexpectedly, he also paid tribute to a Russian soldier whose death in the five-month operation had previously been unacknowledged. By doing so, Putin tacitly raised the death toll for Russian servicemen to five and confirmed that special forces had been deployed.

Dampening speculation of a rift between Moscow and Damascus over the draw-down, he said the pullout was agreed with Assad beforehand and that the Syrian leader had backed the decision.

Praising Assad for “his restraint, sincere desire for peace and for his readiness for compromise and dialogue”, Putin said the Russian demarche had sent a positive signal for all sides taking part in peace talks in Geneva.

“You, soldiers of Russia, opened up this pathway to peace,” he told the audience.

Russia took the world by surprise by first launching air strikes on Sept.30 last year. The sudden announcement of a partial withdrawal of forces was also unexpected.

U.S. officials have spoken of Russia having “a few thousand troops” in Syria. A Russian military source has told the Interfax news agency that around 1,000 troops would stay, of whom more than half would be military advisers.

Moscow will finish pulling out most of its strike force “any day now” and no later than by the end of this week, Viktor Bondarev, the head of the Russian air force, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda paper in an interview published on Thursday.

That tallies with an updated Reuters calculation based on state TV and other footage, which shows that as of Thursday 18 or half of Russia’s estimated 36 fixed-wing warplanes had flown out of Syria in the past three days.

Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said the swift withdrawal was meant to show the world how fleet-footed the Russian air force had become in recent years.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov, Katya Golubkova and Jack Stubbs; Editing by Peter Millership)

Kurdish moves on federalism cloud Syria peace drive

RMEILAN, Syria/GENEVA (Reuters) – Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria are expected to declare a federal system on Thursday, a move likely to further complicate peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending more than five years of war.

Russia pulled more warplanes out of Syria, a new delivery of humanitarian aid reached northern Aleppo province and U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura named a Russian academic to his team of advisers in a nod to Moscow’s importance in brokering an end to the fighting.

But despite a more than two-week-old “cessation of hostilities” and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull out some of his country’s forces that have tipped the balance of the war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, any hopes of a breakthrough at the peace talks in Geneva remain slim.

Russia’s Defence Ministry on Wednesday reported 10 new ceasefire violations and the Kurds, after being excluded from the talks in Geneva, appeared to be taking matters into their own hands by drawing up plans to combine three Kurdish-led areas of northern Syrian into a federal arrangement.

The three areas already have de facto autonomy and while it was unclear what the new system would entail, there was no indication it would involve a separation from Syria.

The new arrangement, which a conference in the Kurdish-controlled town of Rmeilan agreed would be announced on Thursday, would alarm neighboring Turkey, which fears growing Kurdish sway in Syria is fuelling separatism among its own minority Kurds.

“Syria’s national unity and territorial integrity is fundamental for us. Outside of this, unilateral decisions cannot have validity,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.

The United States said on Wednesday it opposed Syrian Kurds forming an autonomous region in northern Syria, but could accept such an arrangement if the Syrians collectively agreed on it.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia have been an important ally in the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria, and this has been a point of friction between the United States and its NATO ally Turkey.

However, Bashar Ja’afari, head of the Syrian delegation in Geneva, rejected any talk of a federal model for Syria and ruled out direct talks with the main opposition delegation. The main opposition group’s chief negotiator, Mohamad Alloush, said it had not yet decided whether it would hold direct negotiations with “the regime delegation”.

Ja’afari also said Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal of his armed forces on Monday had come as no surprise to the Syrian government, describing it as “common decision, taken both by President Putin and President Assad”.


Some Western officials and commentators speculated Putin intended the partial withdrawal to force Damascus to soften its position at the talks to improve chances of progress, but Ja’afari signaled no change in its stance.

Yet Putin’s announcement surprised the West. He cited Russian military success in Syria as the reason for the drawdown, but his belief that the intervention delivered him a seat at the top table of world affairs may have tipped his hand.

De Mistura’s appointment of Vitaly Naumkin plays into this narrative. A former Soviet army officer, Naumkin is an expert on Islam and the Arab world and served as a moderator at earlier peace talks on Syria that were held in Moscow.

But talking about the latest round of talks last week, Naumkin told Russia’s RIA news agency: “There are no expectations. It is a difficult, complicated negotiation process.”

The Geneva talks are part of a diplomatic push launched with U.S. and Russian support to end a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

U.S.-Russian cooperation has already brought about a lull in the war via the “cessation of hostilities agreement”, though many violations have been reported.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that in the preceding 24 hours there had been four violations in Aleppo province, three in Latakia and one each in Idlib, Homs and Hama.

Opening the indirect talks on Monday, de Mistura said Syria faced a “moment of truth”, and he has described Putin’s decision to withdraw some Russian forces as a “significant development”.

Regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are deeply at odds over Syria, welcomed Putin’s move and the Arab League said it would help the U.N.-mediated talks to end the conflict.

Just under half of Russia’s fixed-wing strike force based in Syria has flown out in the past two days, according to Reuters calculations based on state television footage.

The precise number of planes that Russia kept at its Hmeymim base in Syria’s Latakia province is secret. But analysis of satellite imagery, air strikes and Defence Ministry statements suggested it had about 36 fixed-wing military warplanes there.

In the past two days, at least 15 of those planes – including Su-24, Su-25, Su-30 and Su-34 jets – have been seen on television flying out though Reuters could not independently verify the movements of the aircraft.


Despite the partial withdrawal, Russian warplanes have been carrying out new sorties against positions belonging to Islamic State, which is not covered by the cessation of hostilities.

RIA said Russia had also started supplying weapons to Iraqi Kurds, including five Zu-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons and 20,000 shells for the cannons.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said his country was not sure Putin’s drawdown announcement was genuine.

“We’ve seen before, in Ukraine, Russia talking about a withdrawal, and then it turned out to be merely a rotation of forces,” he said during a visit to Baghdad, adding he could not foresee “enduring peace” with Assad in power.

Moscow has rejected calls for Assad to be forced to step aside. He also still enjoys military backing from Iran, which has sent forces to Syria along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The United States has also been carrying out air strikes in Syria. An Islamic State-linked website said the jihadist group had shot down a military plane near Kirkuk in Iraq, but U.S. officials said they knew nothing of such reports.

Under the cessation of hostilities, fresh humanitarian aid has reached areas hit by recent fighting. A new convoy of 26 trucks brought aid to about 13,000 families in northern Aleppo province, the Red Cross said.

The delivery by the Syrian Red Crescent to towns including Azaz, Afrin and Tal Rifaat was the largest in the area for weeks, Red Cross spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said. Clinics had been resupplied in the meantime, he said.

On the second day of talks in Geneva on Tuesday, opposition negotiators demanded that the government detail its thoughts on a political transition in Syria and said there had been no progress on freeing detainees.

The moves in Rmeilan, which was discussing a “Democratic Federal System for Rojava – Northern Syria”, further complicated hopes of progress in Geneva. Rojava is the Kurdish name for northern Syria.

Syrian Kurds effectively control an uninterrupted stretch of 250 miles along the Syrian-Turkish border from the Euphrates River to the frontier with Iraq, where Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed autonomy since the early 1990s. They also hold a separate section of the northwestern border in the Afrin area.

(Additional reporting by John Davison and Dominic Evans, Tom Perry, Rodi Said in Rmeilan, Syria, Tom Miles in Geneva, Angus MacDowall in Riyadh, Mostafa Hashem in Cairo, Tulay Karadeniz in Istanbul, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Dubai, Andrew Osborn in Moscow, and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Pravin Char, Don Durfee and G Crosse)

Russian warplanes leave Syria, raising U.N. hopes for peace talks

MOSCOW/BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Russian warplanes flew home from Syria on Tuesday as Moscow started to withdraw forces that have tipped the war President Bashar al-Assad’s way, and the U.N. envoy said he hoped the move would help peace talks in Geneva.

As the first aircraft touched down in Russia, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura called President Vladimir Putin’s surprise move a “significant development” toward resolving a conflict which this week passes its fifth anniversary.

Assad’s opponents hope Putin’s announcement on Monday that most Russian forces would be withdrawn signaled a shift in his support. However, its full significance is not yet clear: Russia is keeping an air base and undeclared number of forces in Syria.

Russian jets were in action against Islamic State on Tuesday. Assad also still enjoys military backing from Iran, which has sent forces to Syria along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Russia said last month Assad was out of step with its diplomacy, prompting speculation Putin is pushing him to be more flexible at the Geneva talks, where his government has ruled out discussion of the presidency or a negotiated transfer of power.

Damascus has dismissed any talk of differences with its ally and says the planned withdrawal was coordinated and the result of army gains on the ground.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, whose government supports the opposition, indicated the gaps in Western understanding of Putin, saying he had “no insight at all into Russia’s strategy” after a decision that came out of the blue.

The West had been equally surprised by Putin’s decision to intervene. “Unfortunately none of us knows what the intent of Mr Putin is when he carries out any action, which is why he is a very difficult partner in any situation like this,” Hammond said.

Analysts in Moscow said Putin’s acquisition of a seat at the diplomatic top table may have motivated his move to scale back his costly Syria campaign.


Russia appeared to be following through on its pledge, the U.S. White House said, but spokesman Josh Earnest said it was too early to assess the broader implications, adding Moscow did not give the United States direct notice of its withdrawal plan.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Putin’s announcement and said he planned to visit Moscow next week for what he called the best opportunity in years to end the war.

The Geneva talks are part of a diplomatic push launched with U.S.-Russian support to end a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of Islamic State. Opening the indirect talks, de Mistura said Syria faced a “moment of truth”.

U.S.-Russian cooperation has already brought about a lull in the war via a “cessation of hostilities agreement”, though many violations have been reported.

Opposition negotiators demanded on Tuesday that the government spell out its thoughts about a political transition in Syria, saying there had been no progress on freeing detainees, who were being executed at a rate of 50 a day.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) used their first meeting in the round of peace talks to give de Mistura a set of general principles to guide the transition.

A peace process for Syria endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in December calls for a Syrian-led process that establishes “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”, a new constitution, and free, fair elections within 18 months.

The HNC wants Assad out of power by the start of a transition. While some rebels have expressed guarded optimism at Putin’s announcement, others doubt he is about to put serious pressure on Assad.

“We do not trust them,” said Fadi Ahmad of the First Coastal Division, who says his rebel group has been fighting a Russian-backed government offensive near the Turkish border throughout the cessation agreement that came into effect on Feb. 27.

The Syrian government, which had been losing territory to rebels before Russia intervened, had indicated it was in no mood to give ground to the opposition on the eve of the talks that started on Monday, calling the presidency a “red line”.


Russian television showed the first group of Su-34 jets landing from Syria at a base in the south of the country.

The pilots were greeted by 200-300 servicemen, journalists, and their wives and daughters, waving Russian flags, balloons in red white and blue, and flowers. They were mobbed and thrown in the air by the crowd. A brass band played Soviet military songs and the national anthem. Two priests paraded a religious icon.

Russia flew more than 9,000 sorties during the Syrian operation, according to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Military officials say they destroyed arms dumps, weapons and fuel supplies being used by what they called terrorists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using sources on the ground, says Russian air strikes have killed more than 1,700 civilians. Moscow denies that.

Showing Russian warplanes were still active in Syria, heavy air support was reported helping the Syrian army make major gains against Islamic State near the ancient city of Palmyra. IS is not included in the cessation of hostilities.

At least 26 people were killed east of the Islamic State-held city on Tuesday, the British-based Observatory reported.


Putin said Russia had largely fulfilled its objectives in a campaign which has so far cost Russia $700-$800 million according to a Reuters estimate, an additional financial burden at a time of low oil prices.

Russia, which has haunting memories of the long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, said it would be keeping its most advanced air defense system, the S-400, in Syria.

A Western diplomat said Putin would “now move to focus on the peace talks and this will put pressure on the Syrian government to negotiate”. The diplomat added: “We don’t know if he is giving up on Assad but we know that the Russians are delivering a message to Assad that they are keen on negotiations over transition to proceed.”

Moscow has said it is up to the Syrian people, not outside powers, to decide Assad’s future. Even Assad’s enemies in the West have moved away from demanding he leave power immediately.

In Geneva, U.N. war crimes investigators on Syria said lower-level perpetrators should be prosecuted by foreign authorities until senior military and political figures can be brought before international justice.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which has documented atrocities by all sides, has compiled a confidential list of suspects and maintains a database with 5,000 interviews.

“The adoption of measures that lay the ground for accountability need not and should not wait for a final peace agreement to be reached,” Paulo Pinheiro, chief of the inquiry panel, told the U.N. Human Rights Council.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Lisa Barrington, Stephanie Nebehay, Suleiman al-Khalidi, Samia Nakhoul, Tom Miles, William James, Jason Bush and Jack Stubbs; Writing by Tom Perry and Philippa Fletcher, editing by Peter Millership and David Stamp)

U.N. talks aim for Syria roadmap, no ‘Plan B’ but war

GENEVA (Reuters) – A U.N. mediator said on Monday there was no “Plan B” other than a resumption of conflict in the Syrian war if the first of three rounds of talks which aim to agree a “clear roadmap” for Syria fail to make progress.

Syria faces a moment of truth, Staffan de Mistura said when he opened talks to end a five-year war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis.

The talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month’s “cessation of hostilities”, sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by President Bashar al-Assad’s government and many of his foes.

But the limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. Both sides have accused each other of multiple violations, and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas.

The Syrian opposition says the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition. Damascus says Assad’s opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table.

The head of the government delegation, Bashar Ja’afari, described his first meeting with de Mistura on Monday as positive and constructive, adding he submitted a document entitled “Basic Elements for a Political Solution”.

De Mistura said some ideas had been floated in a meeting he described as a preparatory session, ahead of a further meeting on Wednesday which would focus on core issues. Asked about the gulf between the two teams, he said it was the nature of negotiations that both sides start off with tough positions.

In a sign of how wide that gulf is, de Mistura is meeting the two sides separately – at least initially.

The talks must focus on political transition, which is the “mother of all issues”, the U.N. envoy said before his talks with Ja’afari. Separate groups would keep tackling humanitarian issues and the cessation of hostilities.

“As far as I know, the only Plan B available is return to war, and to even worse war than we had so far,” he said.


Several ceasefires and peace talks have been attempted since the conflict, which has killed 250,000 people, broke out five years ago this week.

Hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers deployed to Syria in 2012, but pulled out after fighting resumed. Peace talks in Geneva two years ago collapsed after making no progress.

De Mistura said that if he saw no willingness to negotiate in this latest search for a political agreement, he would hand the issue “back to those who have influence, and that is the Russian Federation, the USA … and to the Security Council”.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September helped turn the tide of war in Assad’s favor after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.

The reduction in fighting has allowed aid to be brought to besieged areas, though the opposition says the deliveries to rebel-held territory fall well short of needs.

Clashes have taken place on many fronts. Government forces and allies on Monday fought insurgents including Islamist groups in western Syria, such as Latakia and Homs provinces, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said there had been a general rise in the daily death toll after an initial drop that occurred at the start of the truce.

In the northern province of Aleppo, Kurdish forces fought with fighters from Islamist factions while rebel forces battled Islamic State militants, the Observatory said.

The emergence of Islamic State in eastern Syria and across the border in Iraq led Washington and its Western and Arab allies to launch an air campaign against the ultra-hardline Islamist group in 2014.


The opposition are holding out little hope that Geneva will bring them nearer to their goal of toppling Assad, accusing the government of preparing for more war. They also fear that the international focus on confronting Islamic State has led Washington to soften its opposition to the Syrian president.

Rebels say they are ready to fight on despite their recent defeats. They hope foreign backers – notably Saudi Arabia – will send them more powerful weapons including anti-aircraft missiles if the political process collapses.

The first round of talks are scheduled to run until around March 24, followed by a break of 7-10 days, then a second round of at least two weeks before another recess and a third round.

“By then we believe we should have at least a clear roadmap,” de Mistura said. “I’m not saying agreement, but a clear roadmap because that’s what Syria is expecting from all of us.”

He did not mention whether Kurdish leaders would be involved for the first time, but said that the “proximity” format of indirect talks gave him flexibility to hear as many voices as possible, and all Syrians should be given a chance.

The main Kurdish YPG militia, which controls a swathe of northern Syria and is backed by the United States in combat with Islamic State fighters, has so far been excluded from talks in line with the views of Turkey, which considers it a terrorist group.

“The rule of the game will be inclusiveness,” de Mistura said. “In fact, the list of those whom we are going to consult or meet, or will be part of — eventually, I hope — not only of proximity negotiations but in fact direct negotiations is going to be constantly updated.”

(Writing by Dominic Evans, editing by Peter Millership)

Syria opposition to attend Geneva peace talks, but says Assad escalating war

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s main opposition group said it would attend peace talks on Monday but accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of preparing to escalate the war to strengthen its negotiating position.

The U.N.-brokered talks, which coincide with the fifth anniversary of the conflict, will take place in Geneva two weeks after the start of a ceasefire agreement.

The truce deal has reduced violence although not halted the fighting, with further hostilities reported in western Syria on Friday.

The High Negotiations Committee said it would attend the peace talks as part of its “commitment to international efforts to stop the spilling of Syrian blood and find a political solution”.

But in its statement on Friday it played down any chance of reaching agreement with the Syrian government to end the war that has killed more than 250,000 people and led to a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.

Russia said it expected its ally Syria to attend, although Damascus has yet to publicly confirm it will do so. The Syrian foreign minister is expected to announce his government’s position on the talks on Saturday.

Peace talks convened two years ago collapsed because the sides were unable to agree an agenda: Damascus wanted a focus on fighting terrorism, the term it uses for the rebellion, while the opposition wanted to discuss a transitional government.

The latest talks are intended to focus on future political arrangements in Syria, a new constitution and elections, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said.

The opposition HNC said it wanted the talks to concentrate on the establishment of an interim governing body with full executive powers.

HNC coordinator Riad Hijab said the group was “concerned with representing the just cause of the Syrian people … and investing in all available chances to alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering”.

“We know that they (the government) are committing crimes, and that they are preparing an air and ground escalation in the coming period,” he said, without elaborating.

HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat said they expected a government escalation with the aim of strengthening Damascus’s position at the negotiating table.

“I believe this is a strategy,” he said.


A prominent Syrian dissident who is not part of the Saudi-backed HNC, Haytham Manna, said he would stay away from the talks, which he regarded as a “failing project”.

Manna, co-leader of the Syrian Democratic Council that includes Kurdish members, boycotted the last round of talks because the Kurds were not included.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said however that de Mistura should this time include representatives of Kurdish groups, which have been fighting in Syria.

Kurdish groups such as the PYD party and its affiliated YPG militia have not been invited so far. Regional power Turkey does not want them in Geneva and views the YPG as a terrorist group. Russia says the Kurds are a legitimate part of a future Syria, and should be at the table.

There has been speculation that they will be included in the coming round. De Mistura says he has not expanded the list of invitees, but the talks’ format gives him flexibility to consult whomever he wants.

PYD co-chair Saleh Muslim said Kurds should be included for any political settlement to work.

“We believe that if we are not present, the process will not be completed in the right way,” he said.

The cessation of hostilities agreement which came into force on Feb. 27 does not include the two main jihadist groups, Islamic State and the Nusra Front.

A source close to the government said the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, is aiming to capture the historic city of Palmyra from Islamic State and open a road to the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, where the jihadists are also established.

The Russian air force has hit Palmyra with dozens of air strikes since Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Syrian government forces were on Friday battling Islamic State 7 km (4 miles) from the ancient site that fell to the jihadists last May.

Islamic State has blown up ancient temples and tombs since capturing Palmyra in what the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime.

The capture of Palmyra and further eastward advances into Deir al-Zor would mark the most significant Syrian government gain against Islamic State since the start of the Russian intervention last September.

Warplanes also hit areas of western Syria on Friday, the Observatory said. An air raid by the government side killed at least five people in a rebel-held area of Aleppo.

It also reported clashes between insurgents and government forces in the northern Latakia countryside.

In northern Aleppo province clashes continued between Kurdish fighters and insurgents, in a fight that has pitted the YPG and its allies against rebels supported through Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Tom Miles, Denis Dyomkin and Alexander Winning; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Pravin Char)