Archive for February, 2016

Turkey: Syrian man behind deadly Ankara car bomb attack

February 18, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A Syrian national with links to Syrian Kurdish militia carried out the suicide bombing in Ankara that targeted military personnel and killed at least 28 people, Turkey’s prime minister said Thursday.

Turkey’s Kurdish rebels collaborated with the Syrian man to carry out Wednesday’s attack, Ahmet Davutoglu said during a news conference. “The attack was carried out by the PKK together with a person who sneaked into Turkey from Syria,” Davutoglu said, referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK.

Authorities have detained nine people in connection with the attack, he said. Turkey’s military, meanwhile, said its jets conducted cross-border raids against Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq, hours after the Ankara attack, striking at a group of about 60-70 rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

The car bomb went off late Wednesday in Turkey’s capital during evening rush hour. It exploded near buses carrying military personnel that had stopped at traffic lights, in an area close to parliament and armed forces headquarters and lodgings. The blast was the second deadly bombing in Ankara in four months.

Davutoglu confirmed earlier news reports that said the attacker was Syrian. Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the government, said the assailant who detonated the car bomb near the military buses in an apparent suicide attack had been registered as a refugee in Turkey and was identified from his fingerprints.

Pro-government Sabah newspaper said the man was linked to the PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy for Kurds in Turkey’s southeast region. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which killed military personnel and civilians, although suspicion had immediately fallen on the PKK or the Islamic State group. In October, suicide bombings blamed on IS targeted a peace rally outside the main train station in Ankara, killing 102 people in Turkey’s deadliest attack in years.

The attack drew international condemnation and Turkish leaders have vowed to find those responsible and to retaliate against them with force. The military said Thursday that Turkish jets attacked PKK positions in northern Iraq’s Haftanin region, hitting the group of rebels which it said included a number of senior PKK leaders. The claim couldn’t be verified.

Turkey’s air force has been striking PKK positions in northern Iraq since a fragile two-and-a-half year-old peace process with the group collapsed in July, reigniting a fierce three-decade old conflict.

“Our determination to retaliate to attacks that aim against our unity, togetherness and future grows stronger with every action,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. “It must be known that Turkey will not refrain from using its right to self-defense at all times.”

The attack came at a tense time when the Turkish government is facing an array of challenges. Hundreds of people have been killed in renewed fighting following the collapse of the peace process and tens of thousands have been displaced.

Turkey has also been helping efforts led by the U.S. to combat the Islamic State group in neighboring Syria, and has faced several deadly bombings in the last year that were blamed on IS. The Syrian war is raging along Turkey’s southern border. Recent airstrikes by Russian and Syrian forces have prompted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to flee to Turkey’s border.

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For Syrian migrant, German classes, visa usher in a new life

February 23, 2016

SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) — Der, die, das: Little words that are the ticket to a new life. Mohammed al-Haj, a Syrian migrant whose journey across Eastern Europe to Germany last summer was documented by The Associated Press, has finished his first German language course and is getting ready for his second one. The feat, together with his recently granted three-year German residency permit, sets the 27-year-old up for a new life in his adopted home.

A native of Aleppo, Syria’s one-time economic capital that now lies in ruins, al-Haj came to the western German state of Saarland in September to benefit from its swift processing of migrants. He has since shown a healthy zeal to adapt.

In November, he accepted an offer by local authorities to take voluntary German classes. He begins mandatory German language classes in April, seeking a proficiency that will allow him to study in Germany.

“Honestly, it was worth the risk,” he said of his perilous, two-week journey from Turkey to Greece and across the Balkans to Germany. “The conditions in Germany are very good, at least here in my state. It was worth the risk to build a future here.”

Al-Haj has lived in a private home with three other Syrian asylum-seekers since October. His rent is paid by the local government and he receives a monthly stipend of 330 euros ($368) for food and other expenses.

“I manage, but I cannot go to many places because transport is costly,” he said. Al-Haj says he can get his point across in halting German, but he hopes eventually to be good enough to enroll at a German university to study media and business administration.

“Without knowing the German language, they (migrants) have no chance in Germany,” said Franca Cipriano, director of the Tertia German language school in Saarlouis where al-Haj took his classes. “If they want to work, they have to know the language. If they want to get citizenship in Germany and have a German passport, they have to pass a test about civic education and a language test. So without knowing the language, it is impossible.”

Al-Haj was about to start a degree in Arabic literature at Aleppo when the war broke out in 2011, and he had to shelve his dream to work to support his family. His decision to join the over 1 million Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others making the often-perilous, smuggler-filled journey to western Europe last year came after his student visa application to study in Germany was turned down. At the time, he told The AP he had no choice. Returning to Syria was not an option — he was convinced the war would only get worse.

He still doesn’t see any hope of going back in the near future. “I don’t know what may become of Syria,” he said. “I don’t expect to visit home in the next three years.”

Saudi Arabia to supply Syrian opposition with SAMs

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Saudi Arabia announced on Friday that it is planning to supply the moderate Syrian opposition with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), AlKhaleej.com has reported. Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made the announcement during an interview with the Germany weekly Der Spiegel; his comments were then reported widely by other media outlets.

“We believe that introducing surface-to-air missiles in Syria is going to change the balance of power on the ground,” he told Der Spiegel. “It will allow the moderate opposition groups to neutralize the helicopters and aircraft that are dropping chemicals and have been carpet-bombing them.” He noted that something similar happened previously in Afghanistan.

Al-Jubeir repeated his calls for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “to step down in order to enable a political solution to the five-year-long war.” He suggested that Russian interference does not help the Assad regime in the long term.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24046-saudi-arabia-to-supply-syrian-opposition-with-sams.

Turkey pushes case for ground operations as Kurds advance

February 17, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey said Tuesday it is pressing for ground operations in Syria, hoping for the involvement of the U.S. and other allies as a force dominated by Kurdish fighters pushed through rebel lines and captured more territory near the Turkish border.

In Damascus, the U.N. envoy to Syria suggested that humanitarian aid would be allowed into several besieged areas Wednesday, calling it the “duty of the government of Syria.” “Tomorrow we test this,” Staffan de Mistura said after meeting with Syria’s foreign minister. The U.N. later announced the government of President Bashar Assad has approved access to seven such areas across the country and that convoys would head out in the coming days.

De Mistura has been trying to secure aid deliveries to improve the chances of restarting peace talks before the end of February. But those efforts have been clouded by the intense fighting north of Aleppo, where various forces backed by regional and international rivals are clashing over a crucial strip of land linking Syria’s largest city to the border with Turkey.

Syrian government troops and allied militias, backed by heavy Russian bombardment, are closing in on the area, hoping to seal off parts of Aleppo held by rebels since 2012 in what would be a major blow to the opposition. Syria’s state news agency SANA and opposition activists said government forces have seized two more villages.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, which had mainly battled the Islamic State group and remained largely neutral in the civil war, are advancing in the same region, fighting rebels and other insurgents opposed to Assad in a bid to expand a nearby enclave.

A Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul that his country is pushing for ground operations in Syria, hoping for the involvement of the U.S. and other allies against IS. “Without ground operations, it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria,” the official said, adding that Turkey has pressed the issue in recent discussions with the U.S. and other Western nations.

But he ruled out the possibility of Turkey undertaking unilateral action or the prospect of a joint Saudi-Turkish venture without broader consensus in the U.S.-led coalition against IS. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

In Lebanon, the leader of Hezbollah said Turkey and Saudi Arabia are using the fight against IS as a “pretext” to launch a ground operation in Syria. Both countries are ready to start a regional and international war because of defeats suffered by rebels they support, said Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, addressing supporters in Beirut via satellite link from his hideout elsewhere in the city. Hezbollah’s fighters are in Syria, supporting Assad’s forces.

The main Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, dominates the group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which also includes Arab fighters. The latest advances by the SDF have alarmed Ankara, which views Syria’s Kurds with suspicion. Turkey is also a leading backer of militants trying to overthrow Assad.

SDF official Ahmad Hiso said Turkish troops shelled northern Syria. Since the shelling began three days ago, six civilians have been killed, including a woman and a child, he added. The Kurdish forces have continued to advance, however, and the SDF captured the village of Sheikh Issa, cutting lines between the rebel stronghold of Marea and other parts of Aleppo province.

The SDF have also captured the major town of Tel Rifaat, formerly one of the largest militant strongholds in the province, as well as the village of Kfar Naseh to the south. SDF official Ahmad al-Omar said dignitaries from northern Syria are mediating a deal to open a corridor for militants to leave Marea for the northern town of Azaz near the border. The move would lead to SDF forces entering Marea without fighting in what would save the town from wide destruction by Russian warplanes.

Once in Marea, SDF forces would face off against IS. The SDF has been one of the most effective forces in fighting the extremists and has liberated large parts of northern Syria. Turkey, a NATO member and part of the U.S.-directed coalition conducting airstrikes against IS, views the Kurdish fighters as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and other Western nations.

Russia, meanwhile, denied accusations it carried out airstrikes on a Syrian hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that killed at least 11 people Monday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition activist groups had said Russian warplanes targeted the hospital in Idlib province.

In a conference call with journalists, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said those making the allegations should rely on the “primary source” — official announcements from the Syrian government.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador told reporters his government has “credible information” that the U.S.-led alliance struck the hospital. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said it was not a U.S. attack. The Syrian ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, also accused Doctors Without Borders of being a branch of French intelligence. The hospital was installed without prior consultation with the government, and the aid group must “assume the full consequences of their act because … they did not operate with the Syrian government permission,” he said.

The U.S., Russia and other world powers agreed Feb. 12 in Munich to bring about a pause in hostilities that would allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the revival of peace talks. The projected truce was to begin at the end of this week but is still very much in doubt.

Associated Press writer Lynn Berry in Moscow, Albert Aji in Damascus, Dominique Soguel in Istanbul, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Syria Kurds revive native language with new curriculum

2016-02-14

QAMISHLI (Syria) – Lined up in a chilly schoolyard in northeast Syria, primary school students say good morning to their teachers in the Kurdish language before rushing inside for class: “Roj bas, mamuste!”

The Kurdish language was once banned by the government in Damascus, but now the local semi-autonomous government has rolled out an entire curriculum for primary school students in Kurdish in parts of the territory under its control.

The curriculum is currently being taught alongside the government’s Arabic-language program at institutions like the Musa Bin Nasir School in the city of Qamishli.

“I’m learning and writing the Kurdish alphabet in my notebook,” said six-year-old Brefa Hussein proudly.

“Our teachers tell us stories and teach us the names of animals and flowers,” said Brefa, whose parents were forbidden from learning Kurdish.

The new curriculum has been developed by the autonomous Kurdish administration, which runs its own government institutions, security forces and now schools in parts of northern and northeast Syria.

The administration took over when government forces withdrew from Kurdish areas in 2012, a year after Syria’s popular uprising erupted.

There were around three million Kurds in Syria before the war, though not all identified primarily as Kurdish.

The minority was heavily discriminated against prior to Syria’s uprising, with their language banned in official contexts and hundreds of thousands denied passports and banned from public sector jobs.

But with the withdrawal of government forces from majority Kurdish areas, the minority has begun to assert itself, including reviving its language.

Bundled in coats and hats to stay warm, children sprint into different classrooms at the school.

While Arab students will follow the existing Arabic program developed by Syria’s government, Kurdish students now study a Kurdish curriculum that their own administration began implementing in the 2015-2016 academic year.

More than 86,000 students are being taught by about 3,830 instructors in schools run by the autonomous administration, says deputy head of education Samira Haj Ali.

The new curriculum has already been rolled out for primary school students, though older pupils are still studying the government’s curriculum until an alternative is developed.

Haj Ali says the autonomous administration eventually plans to also implement its own Arabic- and Syriac-language curricula next year.

It has set up teaching institutes to train instructors on the Kurdish curriculum and is planning to open similar centers once its Arabic and Syriac programs are ready.

The administration’s move has been controversial: Syria’s government has shuttered its schools in the affected areas and refused to pay teachers using the Kurdish curriculum.

And even some Kurdish parents have pulled their children out of the new independent schools.

Amina Berro, an English language teacher and a Kurd, transferred her children to a government-run school in protest at the new Kurdish program.

Her children were studying the Arabic curriculum, but she said she was uncomfortable having the new programs side-by-side.

“The Kurdish curricula is not recognized and the teachers are not capable enough,” she said.

Berro said she supports teaching the Kurdish language as a subject matter, but not an entire curriculum being taught in the language.

Some of the students in Qamishli’s schools are Arabs displaced from elsewhere in the country.

Nine-year-old Riham al-Ahmad and her family sought safety there after fleeing clashes in Syria’s second city Aleppo.

After trying the Kurdish curriculum, she moved to the Arabic section at Musa Bin Nasir.

“I’m really happy when I’m with my classmates. In the beginning, it was hard to get used to them. Qamishli is a foreign city for me and people speak a language I don’t understand,” she said.

“But now things are easier because I understand very well,” she added excitedly.

For Kurdish families, learning the native language represents the realization of a childhood dream.

Jana Musa, a 21-year-old Kurdish language teacher, said she hopes “that all students will learn their mother tongue”.

“We’re teaching them the alphabet and the subject of social issues,” Musa said, wearing a thick green coat as she corrected students’ assignments.

Jamil Murad, a 44-year old director, learned the Kurdish language in secret while growing up.

He is thrilled that his eight-year-old son, Raman, can now do the same in the open.

“Language is part of the survival of a people,” he said.

In a candle-lit room in northeast Syria, Murad was helping Raman complete his homework.

For Murad, teaching the Kurdish language is an investment in his people’s future.

“The biggest achievement by the autonomous administration… was in teaching tens of thousands of its children their mother tongue,” he said.

“They are our future, even if the scales are tipped against us.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=75244.

Support Builds for Syrian National Council

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 10 2011 (IPS) – What was once a glaring weakness in the seven-month Syrian revolution and uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad is now slowly transforming into one of its strengths with the coalescence of opposition groups into the Syrian National Council (SNC) earlier this month.

Yet many questions and concerns about strategies, both domestic and international, remain, especially in the wake of the latest failure in the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the violence in Syria.

On Oct. 2, the SNC convened in Istanbul to announce its official formation, outline its structure and goals, and publish a founding statement.

Members of the international community have welcomed its creation, even as the Syrian government threatened “tough measures” against countries that recognized the opposition council.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Monday that France intends to establish relations with the SNC, while the European Union hailed its formation, calling it a “positive step”.

Syrians began protesting in March 2011, calling for reforms and an end to government corruption, among other demands. The Syrian government initially responded with promises of reform that went unfulfilled. As protests grew, it turned to tanks and bullets in a brutal crackdown that has killed nearly 3,000 civilians, according to U.N. estimates.

Fledgling opposition

A core of the national council was announced in mid-September, followed by negotiations to include more political groups.

The SNC, with a general assembly membership of 230, and executive committee of 29 and presidential committee of seven, spans the political spectrum from leftists to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Four Kurdish and one Assyrian representative are among those included in the 29-member executive committee. Many Christians, Druz and Alawite are also members.

The council’s immediate concern is “having a well-founded and solid entity”, Monajed said. Until the leadership and structure is finalized, the council is not seeking meetings with world leaders.

The organisation’s vision is the “formation of a national body to represent the Syrian Revolution, embody its aspiration in toppling the regime, achieve democratic change, and build a modern civil state”, according to a council document.

It sees itself as a “political umbrella for the Syrian revolution in the international arenas” that aims to “deliver the message of the Syrian people in the field of international diplomacy”.

Saying that it was “inspired by previous initiatives and attempts at unifying opposition groups”, the council subtly acknowledged the difficulties, especially over the past six months, to consolidate Syrian opposition.

“It’s an agreement in terms of all the committees on the ground and it’s an agreement in terms of all the opposition,” an activist, who goes by the pseudonym of Alexander Page, told IPS.

Based in Damascus until early October, Page escaped Syria after he learned his identity had been compromised. He has been on CNN, Huffington Post and other outlets.

Page’s perspective was that a better opposition council could not be formed at this point. “After this, there’s not going to be any council that’s going to go through,” he said.

Politically, the council’s immediate concern is “having a well- founded and solid national council”, Ausama Monajed, a member of the council, told IPS. Until the leadership and structure is finalized, the council is not seeking meetings with world leaders.

In both its declaration and the words of Ghalioun, the Council has explicitly rejected foreign intervention “that undermines the sovereignty of the Syrian people”, as Ghalioun said.

Page, who was involved and remains in contact with various revolution groups on the ground in Syria, said that the SNC has garnered notable popular support domestically.

Intervention: a highly sensitive topic

A wide array of concerns accompanies discussion of international intervention, which remains a prominent issue that is highly sensitive both in Syria and for the international community because of the Syria regime’s domestic propaganda campaign and because of the looming shadow of NATO’s military intervention in Libya.

The Syrian government has claimed since March that armed gangs are launching attacks inside the country and that Syrian security forces have responded by quelling those attacks.

Aiming to discredit the international community, the Syrian government would use international intervention to support its claims that foreign governments are trying to undermine Syrian sovereignty. Giving the Syrian government the opportunity to legitimize those claims through foreign intervention could be detrimental.

Many, Syrians included, are wary of any intervention that could follow in the footsteps of NATO’s in Libya.

At most, the SNC would call for would a no-fly zone or possibly a buffer zone, Page said.

But Monajed emphasized that from the international community, the SNC would seek measures to ensure civilian protection, such as a Security Council resolution that called for U.N. observers that might help prevent some of the violence.

Similarly, the international community should “protect the civilians by all the legal means commensurate with the U.N. charter and international conventions”, Hozan Ibrahim, spokesperson for the coordinating network Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) of Syria and member of the SNC, told IPS.

Complications in the Security Council

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council has been criticized as it struggles to find a unified voice condemning the violence, civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests and torture.

Most recently, a rare double veto by China and Russia on Oct. 4 thwarted a Western-backed resolution that would have condemned Syrian authorities’ “continued grave and systematic human rights violations” and called for a “an inclusive Syrian-led political process” free from violence and intimidation.

In addition to the Russian and Chinese vetoes, Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa abstained – results that indicate underwhelming international solidarity regarding how to respond to the current situation in Syria.

Russia has strong business ties to Syria. Reuters reported in August 2011 that Russia’s top arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, would continue selling arms to Syria.

The European Union (EU) and the U.S. have already imposed sanctions on Syria, and Turkey announced last week that it would as well.

“Russia is waiting for the right price to sell, unfortunately,” Monajed told IPS. For Russia, Syria is a matter of money, regional interest and influence, he said.

He said the SNC was hoping the West would be able to pressure or reach a deal with Russia to allow a Security Council resolution to pass that would permit U.N. observers into the country to help prevent civilian deaths and hold the Syrian government accountable.

Martin Nesirky, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, had no specific comment on the SNC’s formation, but noted, “The Secretary-General has called consistently, repeatedly, for there to be a dialogue, inclusive dialogue,” in Syria and so the SNC could be understood “in that context”.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/10/support-builds-for-syrian-national-council/.

Germany revives calls for no-fly zone in northern Syria

February 17, 2016

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Germany revived calls Wednesday for a no-fly zone in northern Syria — an idea that once might have greatly helped the beleaguered rebels and protected civilians from bombardment but now is more complicated, dangerous and unlikely due to Russia’s air campaign supporting President Bashar Assad.

The proposal came amid international efforts to coax at least a temporary truce and as the government allowed humanitarian aid to head for besieged areas around the country, part of an effort described by a Russian official as a first step toward implementation of an agreement reached among world powers in Munich last week.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has been trying to secure aid deliveries and to improve the chances of restarting peace talks before the end of February. But those efforts have been clouded by a major government offensive north of Aleppo, where various forces backed by regional and international rivals are clashing over a crucial strip of land linking Syria’s largest city to the border with Turkey.

The violence in Aleppo, which has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing toward the border, led to the collapse of indirect talks between the Syrian government and its opponents earlier this month. It appears also to have revived a longstanding proposal to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria, which was floated repeatedly by Turkey and other Assad opponents throughout the 5-year-old war.

A no-fly zone would potentially create a safe haven for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians and help stem the flow of refugees to Europe. But Washington has long rejected the idea, fearing it would draw U.S. forces further into the civil war.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed support Tuesday for the idea and repeated it Wednesday in parliament. She said it could be done by an agreement with Assad, his backers and the coalition fighting the Islamic State group — a proposal that analysts say is now unrealistic and more an attempt to appease Turkey.

At a news conference, Merkel said such an agreement would be “a sign of good will,” suggesting she was referring to a more informal deal to halt aerial attacks, and that this could help lead to the overall cessation of hostilities agreed upon in Munich.

Enforcing a no-fly zone has become considerably more difficult since Moscow began its air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov shrugged off Merkel’s proposal, saying it would require Damascus’ consent and U.N. Security Council approval.

Asked by reporters about Merkel’s initiative, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov snapped: “It’s not Merkel’s initiative, it’s Turkey’s initiative.” Kristian Brakel, an expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Merkel’s idea could be directed at Turkey, which sees “all their stakes in the Syrian war are just floating away.”

Olaf Boehnke, a political scientist with the MERICS think tank in Berlin and former head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the idea could even be more for a domestic audience in Germany, where Merkel has been under increasing pressure to slow the flood of asylum seekers.

“My gut feeling is there’s not even a lot of conceptual thinking behind it,” he said. “Maybe it’s even wishful thinking, because if you look into the technical details of a no-fly zone like we’ve seen in Libya, it’s quite complicated.”

A U.S.-led bombing campaign helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but that came with a resolution from the U.N. Security Council and agreement among NATO’s 28 members. Such a scenario is almost impossible to imagine in Syria. Moscow has made it clear that it won’t sign off on any such mission and has exercised its veto to block all efforts at the Security Council to sanction Damascus, its closest ally in the Middle East.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the U.S. for not backing his country’s proposals, adding that a no-fly zone would have prevented Russia’s air campaign in the region and saved the lives of thousands of civilians.

“Oh America! You did not say ‘yes’ to ‘no-fly zone.’ Now the Russian planes are running wild over there, and thousands and tens of thousands of victims are dying,” Erdogan said. “Weren’t we coalition forces? Weren’t we to act together?”

His words reflected the resentment felt by Syrian rebels, who believe a no-fly zone would have robbed Assad of his biggest asset, the aerial bombardment. Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said not enforcing a no-fly zone is the “single biggest mistake” the West has made in Syria.

“Had the West intervened early on and denied Assad the ability to bomb his own citizens, the moderate opposition would have been ascendant and the radical opposition would not have gained as much traction,” he said. Five years later and with the Russian air campaign, it is “more difficult, more complicated, more expensive and less likely,” he said.

The U.S., Russia and other world powers agreed Feb. 12 on a deal calling for the ceasing of hostilities within a week, the delivery of urgently needed aid to besieged areas of Syria and a return to peace talks in Geneva.

Gatilov said “the implementation of the Munich agreements on (the) Syrian settlement has started.” A working group on humanitarian access to the besieged areas has met and is to again meet Thursday to take stock on the status of access to the areas under siege., according to de Mistura’s office.

Moscow expects that another working group to deal with specifics of the planned truce would start working this week, according to a Russian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the envoy was not authorized to talk to the media due to the sensitivity of the discussions. The diplomat said the Russian side is ready for that.

Hopes of a temporary cessation of hostilities — due to start Thursday, according to the Munich agreement — have all but faded. At least 25 people have been killed in an airstrike on a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders in northern Syria, the group said.

The U.N.-facilitated aid operation was going ahead, a development that U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York was “an incredibly important first step.” “We’ve had a lot of conferences, we’ve had a lot of speeches and commitments,” Dujarric said. “I think the Syrian people want to see hard evidence that these conferences serve a purpose.”

After a delay, more than 100 trucks headed to the besieged areas. Convoys of food, medicine and other assistance reached the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani, northwest of the capital, while a 35-truck convoy was to deliver aid to the rebel-held suburb of Moadamiyeh southwest of Damascus.

According to the agreement, aid would simultaneously be delivered to two communities in the northern province of Idlib that are under sieged by rebels. “Today, we reached five besieged towns in urgent need of humanitarian assistance,” said Yacoub el-Hillo, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Syria.

The aid was expected to reach over 100,000 people, said Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The convoys represent the third aid delivery to the blockaded communities after two other efforts last month. The U.N. estimates that 18 Syrian communities are under siege, affecting about half a million people.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.