ROJAVA UPDATE 180: TOP US ENVOY VISITS KOBANE AS KURDISH DELEGATION TURNED AWAY FROM PARTICIPATION IN GENEVA PEACE TALKS

By Peter Clifford          ©         (www.petercliffordonline.com/syria-and-iraq-news/)

http://www.petercliffordonline.com/syria-news-3

SYRIA AND IRAQ NEWS

On Saturday morning, Islamic State (IS) units attempted to send in a suicide vehicle bomb against YPG fighters protecting the Tishreen Dam in the south-west of Kobane Canton.

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View of the Tishreen Dam

Spotting the vehicle, a YPG team was dispatched to intercept it, destroying the vehicle and killing 3 x IS fighters and wounding a fourth.

Also on Saturday, IS once again attacked in the Ain Iss area in the southern part of the Canton near the village of Abdul-Razaq. The YPG led a search operation and found a small weapons cache of rifles, machine guns and mines as well killing 3 x IS Jihadists and capturing 2 more.

The YPG General Command has also issued a statement warning the Turkish Armed Forces to stay out of Rojava after they crossed the border on Thursday and Friday last week near the village of Sermisax, 13 kilometers to the west of the city Derik.

The Turks fired at local Kurds who gathered near the border to protest the incursion, but fortunately there were no casualties.

The Coalition is reported to have bombed the IS-held town of Shaddadi on Sunday, north of Raqqah, hitting several IS checkpoints and a weapons storage centre. 14 x IS Jihadists guarding the checkpoints were reported killed according to local sources.

US Central Command (Centcom) reports 5 airstrikes in Syria on Saturday, 2 near Hasakah hitting IS tactical units, destroying an IS structure and 2 x IS fighting positions and other strikes near Raqqah, Ayn Issa and Mar’a, destroying a crane and hitting 2 tactical units. The same day, 18 strikes were made in Iraq.

In Aleppo city, both the Al Nusra Front (ANF) and the Islamist Opposition group Ahrar Al-Sham (AAS) attacked the Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud on Saturday with mortars. In an immediate response, the YPG attacked a position on the Jandol Road, from where the attack originated, and destroyed 3 vehicles and a communications centre.

6 fighters from ANF and AAS were killed in the operation and another 8 wounded and taken prisoner.

Also in Aleppo, in retaliation for a barrel-bomb attack by the Assad regime on Sheikh Maqsoud (scroll down – see Rojava Update 179 below), the YPG attacked an Assad security checkpoint with mortars. 4 pro-Assad fighters were killed and 7 injured.

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Obama’s US Envoy on IS Meets Kobane Administration

Meanwhile, while the Kurds appear to have, for moment at least, been excluded from the Syria “Peace Talks” in Geneva, a high-level delegation from the US-led International Coalition made a 2 day visit to northern Syria at the weekend.

The delegation, which included British and French representatives plus most interestingly, President Obama’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, met with Kobane Canton Adminstration officials in Kobane City on Saturday and then with senior officers of the Syrian Democratic Force to discuss the campaign against the Islamic State.

McGurk’s visit, the first by a top US diplomat to Rojava, appears to be a deliberate attempt to assuage Kurdish anger over their exclusion from the talks in Geneva.

Despite not having a formal invitation, a Kurdish team, led by PYD co-chairman Saleh Muslim, travelled to Switzerland last week and based themselves in Lausanne, ready to step forward to Geneva if called.

According to US sources, the Kurds were discreetly asked to leave Switzerland on Saturday after Turkey said it would not participate in the talks if the Kurds remained. US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken apparently called Saleh Muslim to discuss “Washington’s view on the Kurdish issue and the peace talks” and assurances have been made that the Kurds will be involved “at a later date”.

Returning to Syria, Saleh Muslim said the Kurds would not recognise an agreements made under Geneva 3 unless their had been Kurdish participation in making those agreements. You can read more, HERE:

Over in Iraq, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed concern about the preservation of the sites of mass graves on and around Mount Sinjar, where 25 locations have been identified, 19 of them confirmed.

Already, many of the graves have been disturbed before experts can evaluate them and catalogue the remains of victims executed by the Islamic State as they rampaged across northern Iraq. You can read more at HRW.

40 kilometres east of Mosul, IS launched a mortar attack on a Peshmerga security centre in the Khazir district on Sunday evening, killing 8 Kurdish fighters and wounding another 6.

In Mosul city itself, IS are reported to executed on Sunday 4 Kurdish civilians from the Shabak clan for “spying for the Peshmerga” and on Friday another 20 of its own Jihadists for “abandoning their posts in western Mosul without permission”. The Jihadists were beheaded, according to local reports.

DEVASTATING ISLAMIC STATE ATTACK NEAR SHIA SHRINE IN DAMASCUS, WHILE ANOTHER 16 DIE OF STARVATION IN MADAYA:

As well as rejecting the Kurds, the “Peace Talks” got off to a shaky start on Friday, with only the Syrian Government delegation, led by Syria’s UN envoy, Bashar Jaafari, having arrived.

Jaafari started off well in typical “conciliatory” style by branding all Opposition representatives as “terrorists”, and the Opposition team, known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) did not even make a decision to attend at all until late Friday night.

Arriving in Geneva over the weekend, the HNC insisted that they would not negotiate with Assad’s representatives until women and children were released from government jails, air strikes on civilians ended and aid was allowed into besieged towns.

Meeting with the UN mediator Staffan de Mistura on Sunday, the Opposition were given some hope that the Assad regime will go some way to meeting those demands. Talks are expected to last for 6 months but not “face-to-face”.

Initially, “proximity talks” will take place with delegations in separate rooms and UN mediators moving between the parties to try and negotiate some steps forward. The BBC has a rather grim assessment of the likelihood of a “positive” outcome.

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Aftermath of Triple Explosion Near Sayyida Zeinab Shrine, Damascus

In a statement of some kind the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a huge bomb attack in southern Damascus early on Sunday morning near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.

Sayyida Zeinab was the grand-daughter of Prophet Mohammed and the shrine is of major importance to Shia Islam with regular visitors from all over the Moslem world.

Hezbollah has gone out of its way to protect the shrine and even now in the height of the war, many pilgrims travel there from Iran.

Altogether, there were 3 explosions near the shrine, one from a car bomb and 2 from suicide belts. The car bomb was exploded at the bus station in the Koua Soudan area and after people came to help the injured, two suicide bombers blew themselves up nearby.

Many death toll figures have been widely quoted, though the latest from Syria’s Ministry of Interior is 50 dead and 110 injured.

According to sources inside Syria, President Assad has replaced the commander in charge of the Republican Guard, the country’s elite unit charged with protecting the leadership.

Out goes Badiaa Ali and in comes one of Assad’s cousins from his mother’s side, Brigadier General Talal Mahklouf. Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified Mahklouf as one of the officers responsible for the brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in Syria in 2011. The officer commanding the surrounded garrison in Deir Ez Zour has also got the sack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of 4,680 people in Syria in January 2016 – 1,345 of them civilians, including 295 children and 190 women. The other 3,335 deaths were roughly split between the pro and anti-Assad combatants on the two sides, including IS.

Interestingly, Free Syrian Army (FSA) founder, Colonel Riad Al-Asaad, has said in an interview that the FSA is holding prisoner a “large number” of Iranian, Hezbollah and pro-Assad Shia militia fighters, including officers and an Iranian Captain. Asaad assured the interviewer that these prisoners were being looked after well.

Meanwhile, fighting goes across Syria. In Latakia the Opposition, having lost territory, have moved to a more “hit and run” campaign, destroying a Syrian Army ammunition truck with a TOW missile, HERE:

In their usual “compassionate” manner, Assad’s or Russian planes bombed a tented refugee camp in northern Latakia on Saturday in an attempt to drive the pro-Opposition residents out of the province and into Turkey.

In Hama province, Opposition fighters have gained ground, taking over all of Al-Buwaydah and destroying 2 of Assad’s tanks and a BMP armoured vehicle.

In Idlib province an exchange of prisoners between the regime and Islamist Opposition groups at the 2 Alawite villages of Kafraya and Al-Fuah has taken place, the second stage of an agreement reached in January, along with humanitarian access to Madaya near Damascus. The regime released 27 prisoners, the Islamists 18.

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Syrian Red Crescent Aid Convoy Approaches Madaya on January 14th, 2016

However, Medicin Sans Frontieres (MSF) is reporting that another 16 people have died from malnutrition in Madaya since humanitarian aid agencies gained access in January after a worldwide outcry, bring the total that have starved to death there to 46.

According to their estimates there are 320 outstanding cases of malnutrition and 33 so severe that they require urgent medical treatment. The Syrian Red Crescent said that they were allowed access on Saturday but only to make assessments, not to deliver aid.

This moving report from Marianne Gasser of the International Red Cross on her visit to Madaya says it all:

“A cold rain was falling as the men carried the small bundle towards me. They were insisting I should take it. A crowd had gathered. The only light came from the phones we carried; there had not been electricity for months.

The men stopped and slowly, carefully unwrapped the blanket. At first, I could not make out what was inside. Then it suddenly dawned on me that it was an old man”.

You can read more (recommended reading) via the BBC.

In Deir Ez Zour heavy fighting is reported today, Monday, in the northern outskirts of the city, around Assad Base Brigade 137 and to the south-west, despite an estimated 200 airstrikes by Russian jets. Heavy casualties reported on both sides.

Also today, the Assad regime launched a new attempt to gain ground north of Aleppo city around Duwayra Al-Zeytoun and Bashkuy but latest reports suggest it is not going to plan, with Opposition fighters destroying Assad’s tanks, an armoured vehicle and a technical (pick-up with mounted heavy machine gun) and retaking villages they had lost earlier to both the regime and the Islamic State.

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