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Russia will continue to bomb Syria despite peace talks

Lavrov (L) said Russian airstrikes would continue until all "terrorists" are defeated in Syria [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 3 February, 2016

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Russia has said it will continue to bomb Syria until victory against 'terrorists', a term Moscow applies to both rebels and extremist groups, as peace talks between warring factions falter.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested Moscow's relentless air campaign in Syria would continue until all "terrorists" are defeated.

This is despite ongoing preparations for peace talks between the Syrian regime and members of the opposition, which the United Nations hope will bring a solution to the five year civil war.

Russia, the Syrian regime, Iran and their allies use the term "terrorist" liberally to describe all insurgents fighting the Damascus from moderate rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army to elements such as the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front.

"Russian airstrikes will not cease until we truly defeat the terrorist organisations [IS] and [Nusra]. And I don't see why these airstrikes should stop," Lavrov told reporters on a visit to Oman on Wednesday.

This has reinforced suspicions among the opposition that the Syrian regime and its backers are not interested in a political settlement to the crisis, but a rebel capitulation.

Salem al-Muslet, spokesperson for the opposition's High Negotiations Committee told The New Arab that Lavrov's remarks were "outrageous", and part of Russia's ongoing attempt to thwart the peace process.

Russia is using the political process [in Geneva] to cover its military solution on the ground meant to shore up the Syrian regime.
—Salem al-Muslet, HNC spokesperson

Russia has so far focused most of its air raids on non-jihadi rebel groups, in attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held territories. 

Lavrov's comments came as Riyad Hijab, head of Syrian opposition's negotiation's committee, was set to arrive in Switzerland to rescue peace talks set back by regime's continued bombardment and sieges of rebel areas.

Representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government have complained that one of the reasons peace talks have not started yet is the "disarray" in the opposition's multi-factional negotiating team.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Monday that indirect negotiations had begun as foreseen in a November roadmap agreed by major powers directly or indirectly involved in the war.

However, the regime's chief negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari appeared to disagree saying talks were "still in the preparatory stage" and the opposition cancelled one set of talks on Tuesday.

The HNC expressed outrage at a regime offensive near Aleppo backed by what it called "unprecedented" air raids by Russian jets, with activists reporting some 320 raids since Monday morning.

Not optimistic

Mohammed Alloush, a member of a leading rebel group Jaish al-Islam - and, controversially, the opposition's chief negotiator - told journalists that those pressing to form a unity government with regime members were "delusional".

Whoever wants us to go into a unity government with these thugs who kill children is delusional.
—Mohammed Alloush, HNC chief negotiator

He said he was "not optimistic" about reaching a settlement with Damascus but the opposition negotiations' team went ahead with internal talks in Geneva on Wednesday morning.

Russia and the Syrian regime describe Jaish al-Islam as "terrorists", which could provide a stumbling block for peace talks.

Alloush has also proved a divisive character. A stocky man in his 40s, also said Kurdish forces fighting extremists in northeast Syria were "a branch of the regime".

He told reporters the HNC would be taking a decision "in two days" but did not specify what that decision was.

Meanwhile, an aid convoy carrying food and medicine is on its way to a besieged town southwest of the Syrian capital, the second humanitarian aid delivery to rebel-held areas near Damascus in as many days, according to spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Pawel Krzysiek told The Associated Press on Wednesday that 12 trucks carrying food, medicine and medical equipment were expected to arrive at Moadamiyeh later that day.

The humanitarian situation in the town, which is located about 10 kilometres southwest of Damascus, worsened toward the end of last year after the government choked off the suburb's last access point. Opposition activists and residents say there are dozens of cases of severe malnutrition in the town.

UN Intelligence-gathering cell" 

Meanwhile, a confidential paper obtained by Foreign Policy has stated that the UN are considering setting up an intelligence-gathering cell to help implement any ceasefire agreements that may emerge from the Syrian peace process.

FP said the idea is particularly delicate in Syria, where the regime has previously blocked international monitors from entering the country with even the most basic communications equipment.

The paper, titled “Draft Ceasefire Modalities Concept Paper,” invokes the need to gather sensitive intelligence on Islamic State and the military conduct of government and opposition forces

The proposal also calls for the recruitment of "information, political and security analysts" to assess information from a number of sources, including foreign governments and social media. It would also require counterterrorism and explosives experts.

The UN has already made it clear that it lacks the capacity to enforce a ceasefire in Syria on its own, according to an earlier report by FP this week.

Instead, the job would fall to the combatants and their foreign backers, the international body has said.

The UN envoy reportedly urged the International Syria Support Group - a 17-nation grouping that includes the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia - to start negotiations on a cease-fire at a high-level meeting in Munich on 11 February. 

In the event that an agreement is reached, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura's mediation office could expand into a special political mission in Syria that would provide training and equipment to help monitor local ceasefires.

The office's main purpose would be to help the Syrian government and opposition fighters broker local ceasefires and support humanitarian relief efforts.

The mission's activities would largely be restricted to Damascus.

However, any deal to emerge from the Geneva talks would be complicated by the fact that the key powers will continue to wage war on IS and Nusra.

This would require "political and operational mitigation measures to address the threat of asymmetric attacks", according to the paper quoted by FP.

In December 2011, Arab League monitors were authorised by Syria to monitor the withdrawal of armed forces from cities, but were subject to a major disinformation campaign by government-backed media.

They were also denied the right to deploy their own medical evacuation teams and had their communications equipment confiscated.

Another supervision team set up by the UN in 2012 ended its operations inside Syria after just four months stating the mission was too dangerous to continue.

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