– Putin says outside force should not decide who rules Syria
– Kurdish rebels killed in clashes in Turkey
– Iraqi Kurds say repelled ISIS offensive, four Turkish troops wounded 
– Qatari safari members, including royalty, are abducted in Iraq
– US Defense Secretary arrives in Iraq’s Erbil

Putin says outside force should not decide who rules Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he would never agree to any outside force deciding on who should rule Syria and added that there was no way to resolve the Syria crisis other than a political solution. Putin also said Moscow supported Washington’s initiative in general to prepare a resolution in the UN Security Council on Syria, stating the draft resolution was acceptable as a whole. Putin also indicated that it was not certain that Russia needs a permanent base in Syria, because Moscow possesses weapons powerful enough “to hit anyone” thousands of kilometers beyond Russia’s borders. Ahead of a new round of international talks on Syria in New York Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said disagreements on Assad’s future should not stand in the way of advancing prospects for peace. “It is unacceptable that the whole Syrian crisis and the solution to the crisis has to be dependent on the fate of one man,” Ban told a news conference. “That is unacceptable,” he repeated. [Reuters, 12/17/2015]

Kurdish rebels killed in clashes in Turkey
Turkey’s state-run news agency says operations launched by the security forces in southeast Turkey has killed twenty-three Kurdish rebels killed in two days. The government has imposed curfews in the mainly Kurdish towns of Cizre and Silopi to allow the security forces to battle militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who have moved their fight for Kurdish autonomy to some towns and city neighborhoods. The Anadolu Agency said Thursday twenty-two rebels were killed in Cizre and one other was killed in Silopi in the past two days. Media reports say thousands of police and soldiers were deployed to the two towns near Turkey’s border with Iraq. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Thursday that the struggle against militants of the outlawed PKK in Turkey’s southeast will continue. [AP, 12/17/2015]

Iraqi Kurds say repelled ISIS offensive, four Turkish troops wounded
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces say they repelled a multi-pronged offensive by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in the northern province of Nineveh on Wednesday, officials said. “A number of fronts, including Bashiqa and Nawaran and Khazr north and east of Mosul, were attacked by [ISIS] terrorists this evening,” said Jabbar Yawar, the secretary general of the ministry responsible for the Peshmerga forces. “[The jihadists] used car bombs and mortars and rockets and after that launched attacks on Peshmerga sites on all of these fronts,” Yawar said. Four Turkish soldiers were wounded on Wednesday when ISIS fired mortars on a training camp near the Iraqi city of Mosul. ISIS jihadists reportedly fired up to 60 mortar rounds over several hours. The Turkish forces stationed in the camp responded with artillery fire. Separately, the Arab League said Wednesday it will hold an extraordinary meeting of its foreign ministers next week to discuss Turkey’s deployment of troops in Iraq, which has been opposed by the Baghdad administration. [AFP, 12/17/2015]

Qatari safari members, including royalty, are abducted in Iraq
Militants in the southern Iraqi desert ambushed and abducted at least 26 hunters from a Qatari safari early Wednesday, officials of both countries reported. The kidnapping victims were said to include some members of senior Qatari royalty. Dozens of kidnappers, dressed in military uniforms and riding in at least 50 sport utility vehicles with machine-gun mounts, overwhelmed Iraqi sentries guarding the Qataris’ tent encampment in the Samawa desert near the border with Saudi Arabia, said Governor of Muthanna Province Falih Hasan. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it was working with Iraq’s government “at the highest security and political levels” to determine who had abducted the hunters and to secure their release. [NYT, 12/17/2015]

US Defense Secretary arrives in Iraq’s Erbil
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter arrived in Erbil on Thursday for talks with Iraqi Kurdish officials on the war against ISIS. Iraqi Kurdish forces are a key US partner in the war against ISIS, which overran large parts of Iraq last year. Carter’s visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, followed a trip to Baghdad the day before. Mr. Carter has expressed optimism about efforts by Kurdish forces in the area. Those forces, which include the Peshmerga, are considered to be highly motivated and have proven effective against ISIS. Mr. Carter and his staff were briefed on clashes that began late Wednesday after ISIS fighters mounted three separate attacks north and east of Mosul. [AFP, WSJ, 12/17/2015]