PHOTO: The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura
Pursuing an international proposal for a resolution to Syria's crisis, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura met President Assad's officials in Damascus on Saturday.
De Mistura saw Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem about "preparations for the [international] meeting scheduled on January 25th". Syrian State media said al-Moallem demanded that opposition and rebel factions be labelled as "terrorist", precluding their involvement in negotiations.
Three sets of international talks, spurred by Russia's military intervention on behalf of the regime, have been held since mid-November. The final round in New York on December 18 presented a proposal for ceasefires, opposition-regime negotiations, a new Constitution, and elections in an 18-month transition. It made no statement about the future of President Assad and his leading officials.
Earlier in the week, the UN envoy met representatives of the opposition-rebel negotiating team named last month. A statement from the head of the team, former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, emphasized preconditions for any talks with the regime. These include release of detainees from regime prisons, ceasefires with a halt to bombardment by Russian and Syrian air forces, and access to humanitarian aid.
A declaration by 21 rebel factions reiterated those preconditions on Friday.
De Mistura has also held talks in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both backers of the opposition and rebels. After the Damascus meetings, he will travel to Assad's ally Iran.
Mass Casualties from Russian Airstrike in Idlib Province
Mass casualties are being reported from a Russian airstrike on the town of Maarat al-Nu'man in Idlib Province on Saturday.
Activists say more than 40 people have been killed, with scores wounded. Accounts vary on the exact target.
Maarat al-Numan, 33 km (22 miles) south of Idlib city, has been hit on several occasions since the Russian airstrikes began on September 30. In mid-December, scores were killed in a strike on an oil market.
Opposition Criticizes UN Statement Over Starving Madaya
The opposition Syrian National Coalition has criticized Thursday's UN announcement that aid will be delivered to Madaya, the town near Damascus where thousands are facing starvation amid a six-month siege by the Syrian military.
The Coalition sent a letter to the UN Security Council expressing regret at the welcome given to the Assad regime's permission to enter Madaya:
We profoundly regret the decision to welcome the Assad regime’s announcement to grant UN agencies access to Madaya. It wrongly implies that the provision of humanitarian access is optional, rather than being a legal obligation.
The letter emphasized, "The use of starvation as a tool of war is a war crime, for which the Assad regime must be held accountable.”
Madaya has received only one aid delivery, in October, during the siege that began when Hezbollah and regime forces tried to overrun nearby Zabadani. Assistance was supposed to be delivered in late December, as rebels, their families, and wounded were evacuated from the area, but it never reached the town.
At least 31 people among the estimated 40,000 population have died from starvation last month. Doctors have said that two to three people are now perishing each day.
The Coalition said, “More should be done to apply pressure on the regime, including through renewed look at the feasibility of drone-delivered air drops by those states currently conducting air operations against ISIS [the Isalmic State[ in Syria.”
It warned that more residents will die before aid is permitted into Madaya on Monday.
The weekly protest in Kafranbel in northwest Syria also criticizes the UN and the Assad regime over the crisis:Meanwhile, Iran has shown concern over the growing attention to the crisis and the effect on the Assad regime. Fars News, the outlet of the Revolutionary Guards, publishes a lengthy article blaming Saudi media for the story:
Not even a single person informed of news and developments can accept that Saudi Arabia is concerned about people's lives in Madaya, while attacking and slaughtering innocent civilians in Sana'a and Sa'da in Yemen with different missiles, cluster bombs and US and UK-made ammunition.
400 Syrians Forced to Return from Lebanon
Four hundred Syrians, trying to fly to Turkey, have been forced to return to Damascus from Beirut airport in Lebanon.
The passengers were turned back because of new Turkish regulations that require Syrians to have a visa to enter the country by air or sea. The rules came into effect on Friday.
More than 160 of the passengers were taken off planes that were about to depart.
Border crossings between Syria and Lebanon had been crowded in recent days with people intending to travel to Turkey, ahead of the deadline.
Amnesty International, which criticized the return of the passengers, said that they were scheduled to fly to Turkey on Thursday, but their flights were canceled.