– World powers meeting in New York to address Syrian war and ISIS
– More firepower at Russian base as bombers pound Syria, warships bolster air campaigns
– United States sends supplies to Syrian fighters
– Syria to require Turks to obtain entry visas
– Number of people forced to flee war, violence to hit record in 2015
– German secret service in talks with Syrian spies
– Israel and Turkey agree to restore diplomatic ties

World powers meeting in New York to address Syrian war and ISIS

World powers are meeting in New York to try to move forward a tentative plan to bring about a ceasefire in Syria. Countries on both sides of the conflict are seeking to narrow considerable gaps which stand in the way of progress. These include the fate of Syria’s president, which groups could join talks with the regime, and which should be classed as terrorists. The UN Security Council is expected to later vote on a text backing the broad plan for a truce and negotiations. It follows a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) which met in Vienna in November and agreed on the parameters of a political plan for the country. Regarding the talks, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the focus on regime change was a barrier to peace. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that gaps are closing between Russian and US views regarding Syria and that he is not opposed to Assad stepping down as part of the peace plan. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Thursday that his country has seen “no lists we can agree upon” of Syrian opposition groups that should be included in peace negotiations set to begin by January 1, or of Syrian groups that should be considered terrorist organizations instead. [BBC, NYT, Reuters, 12/18/2015]

More firepower at Russian base as bombers pound Syria, warships bolster air campaigns
Russia’s military said Wednesday its jets had carried out 59 sorties and destroyed some 212 targets in the past 24 hours, adding to the roughly 9,000 training camps, munition depots, command posts, and oil refineries they claim to have taken out overall.  “They are now permanently working on alert to provide full cover to our aviation flying over the whole of Syria and some of the Mediterranean,” a Russian military commander said. During the press tour, the Russian officials were desperate to show off the weaponry and insist it is only hitting the targets intended. “There have not been any mistakes in our strikes,” spokesman Konashenkov said. The Moskva, flagship of Russia’s Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet, has been sent to support its bombing campaign. It patrols some ten nautical miles offshore in the eastern Mediterranean. The ship used to provide protection for ships delivering supplies for the Russian base on land, but after a Turkish F-16 fighter blasted a Russian jet out of the sky along the Syrian border it was ordered closer to shore to help ward off any future attacks on Russian planes bombing across Syria. Russian air strikes have resulted in the death 32 civilians over recent days in northern Syria according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

United States sends supplies to Syrian fighters
The United States has delivered a fresh supply of ammunition to Syrian Arab fighters ahead of an expected stiff battle with ISIS as they push toward the Syrian town of Shaddadi, a key logistics hub for the group, U.S. officials tell Reuters. The munitions were shipped into Syria over land in recent days to Syrian Arab forces fighting in the northeast part of the country, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the operation. The U.S. officials said the fighters were preparing eventually to move toward Shaddadi, which is located in Hassakeh province, on a strategic network of highways. Capturing it would help isolate Raqqa, Daesh’s de facto capital. U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition against Daesh, said the militants used Shaddadi to stage weapons, equipment and personnel for distribution throughout the battlefield. [Reuters, 12/18/2015]

Syria to require Turks to obtain entry visas
Syria said Thursday it would begin requiring visas from Turks entering the country, reversing a six-year agreement with Ankara that allowed visa-free entry to citizens of both countries. “The Syrian government, in virtue of the principles of reciprocity and national sovereignty, decided to refuse entry to Syria for Turkish citizens without visas,” a ministry statement said. “The Turkish government is responsible for the consequences [of this decision] on the ties between the Syrian and Turkish peoples,” added the statement, published by state news agency SANA. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

Number of people forced to flee war, violence to hit record in 2015
The number of people who have been forced to flee war, violence and persecution looks set to soar in 2015 past last year’s record of nearly 60 million, the United Nations said on Friday. “With almost a million people having crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants so far this year, and conflicts in Syria and elsewhere continuing to generate staggering levels of human suffering, 2015 is likely to exceed all previous records for global forced displacement,” UNHCR said. Last year, the number of displaced soared to a record 59.5 million worldwide. Friday’s report indicated that this year the figure “has far surpassed 60 million.” That means that one in every 122 people on the planet today is someone who has been forced to flee their home, the agency said. The main contributor is the ruthless conflict in Syria, which by June this year had created 4.2 million refugees, UNHCR said. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

German secret service in talks with Syrian spies
Germany’s foreign intelligence service BND has resumed cooperation with the Syrian secret service in the fight against Islamist extremists, according to a newspaper report Friday. The BND declined to comment on the report by Bild daily which comes as Berlin and other Western governments shun official cooperation with Syrian President Bashar Assad over his regime’s abuses. The newspaper, citing unnamed “informed sources,” said BND agents had been traveling regularly to Damascus for talks with their Syrian counterparts and that the service wanted to reopen an office there. Bild said the aim of the contact was to exchange information on Islamist extremists and to open a channel of communication in the event of any potential crisis, such as a German Tornado pilot being shot down over territory held by jihadists. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

Israel and Turkey agree to restore diplomatic ties
Israel and Turkey have reached a preliminary agreement to begin restoring full diplomatic relations after years of deep freeze, Israeli officials said on Thursday. A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Israel would create a compensation fund for the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, a ship that was part of a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza when Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the ship’s deck and killed nine activists after being met with violent resistance. Turkey, in turn, would drop criminal charges it has filed against Israeli officers and agree to prevent a leader of Hamas from entering Turkey. Israel has accused the Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri of orchestrating attacks against Israelis in the West Bank from a base in Turkey. The two countries would also return ambassadors to each other’s capitals and would discuss building a pipeline to bring natural gas from Israel to Turkey, the Israeli official said. The reconciliation agreement still requires final signatures, the senior Israeli official said. [NYT, 12/18/2015]