– Rights watchdog says Russian bombing of Syria may be a war crime
– Heavy clashes southwest of Damascus; Syrian activists accuse regime of chemical attack
– UN renews attempt to get aid into Syria
– Iraqi forces continue push into Ramadi; wave of attacks across Iraq kill 15 civilians
– Russia hosts pro-Kurdish leader in Moscow; Lavrov to meet with Qatari FM
– One person killed in blast at an Istanbul airport

Rights watchdog says Russian bombing of Syria may be a war crime

Russia’s bombing of Syria may amount to a war crime because of the number of civilians its strikes have killed, Amnesty International said on Wednesday, presenting what it said was evidence that the air raids had violated humanitarian law. “Russian air strikes in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians and caused massive destruction in residential areas, striking homes, a mosque and a busy market, as well as medical facilities, in … attacks that show evidence of violations of international humanitarian law,” Amnesty said in a new report. The report focused on six attacks in Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo, and was based on interviews with witnesses, survivors, video evidence, and images showing the aftermath of attacks. “[The Russian strikes] appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities,” Director of the Middle East and North Africa program Philip Luther said. Amnesty said Russian air strikes had killed at least 200 civilians and around a dozen fighters from September to November of this year. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports air strikes have killed over 700 civilians. [APReutersBBC,GuardianAFP, 12/23/2015]

Heavy clashes southwest of Damascus; Syrian activists accuse regime of chemical attack
Syrian opposition activists say government helicopters are dropping barrel bombs and firing rockets on Moadamiya, southwest of Damascus, in attacks that killed five people. A media activist based in the town says the five people all died of suffocation, accusing the government of firing four rockets loaded with “poison gas” in the attack Tuesday night. The activist who identifies himself by his first name, Ahmad, said the barrel bomb attacks have continued through Wednesday amid clashes in the town. The claim of a poison gas attack could not be independently verified, though it was also reported by the Local Coordination Committees group and the Syrian National Coalition. Moadamiya was the site of a 2013 chemical attack on rebel-held areas outside Damascus that killed hundreds of people. [APAFP, 12/23/2015]

UN renews attempt to get aid into Syria
The UN Security Council Tuesday renewed a resolution facilitating the cross-border delivery of aid to millions of Syrians, while complaining previous such measures were not seen through on the ground. The text was adopted unanimously by the 15 member states, which include Syrian ally Russia. The resolution extends authorization for UN humanitarian convoys to cross into Syria without the consent of the Damascus regime, in line with a previous text adopted in July 2014 and due to expire in January. The document said the Security Council was “gravely concerned at the lack of effective implementation of its resolutions” calling for greater facilitation of aid deliveries. It also expressed “further grave concern at the continuing and growing impediments to the delivery of humanitarian assistance across conflict lines, including through a decline in convoy approvals by the Syrian authorities.” Between 2013 and 2015, the percentage of convoys approved by Syrian authorities declined from 65 percent to 29 percent. [AFP, 12/23/2015]

Iraqi forces continue push into Ramadi; wave of attacks across Iraq kill 15 civilians
Iraqi forces are attempting to move further into the center of Ramadi on the second day of an assault to drive Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants from the city. Security officials say troops and Sunni tribal fighters have taken control of several districts and are advancing towards the main government complex. Spokesman for the US military in Baghdad Col. Steve Warren said there are 250 to 350 ISIS fighters in Ramadi and several hundred outside the city on the northern and western perimeter. Warren explained, “I think the fall of Ramadi is inevitable. … But that said, it’s going to be a tough fight.” Jaber al-Jaberi, a Member of Parliament from Anbar province, said while the progress of Iraqi forces has been slow, it has been “well organized” between the counterterrorism forces comprising Iraqi army soldiers, tribal fighters, and local police. “We hope in three or four days, maybe, Ramadi will be liberated from [ISIS].” Also on Wednesday, a wave of attacks across Iraq has killed at least 15 civilians. Though no one immediately claimed responsibility for these attacks in Baghdad and Khalis north of the capital, they bore the hallmarks of ISIS. [BBCAFPDaily StarWSJ, 12/23/2015]

Russia hosts pro-Kurdish leader in Moscow; Lavrov to meet with Qatari FM
Russian politicians Wednesday held talks in Moscow with the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition party Selahattin Demirtas who used his visit to criticize Ankara for shooting down a Russian warplane last month. Russia imposed economic sanctions on Turkey after the November 24 incident and has sharply criticized the political leadership of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. The visit by Demirtas, leader of Turkey’s People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is likely to further damage ties between Moscow and Ankara since his party is a staunch political foe of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Erdogan founded. Demirtas held closed-door talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, though it was not immediately clear which other Russian politicians he was meeting. Also on Wednesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced Lavrov will meet with Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyad on December 25 to discuss the Syrian conflict. [Reuters, 12/23/2015]

One person killed in blast at an Istanbul airport
A female cleaner was killed and another wounded early Wednesday in an explosion of unknown origin beside a plane at Istanbul’s second international airport. Turkey is on high alert for possible attacks, though the airport has resumed normal operations. The explosion took place just outside the terminal building where planes park for their passengers to embark and disembark, but no passengers were nearby. Sabiha Gokcen airport is the second international airport in Istanbul after much larger Ataturk Airport, hosting flights both to domestic and international destinations. “We are working very closely with the Turkish government and our counterparts to facilitate the investigation and we await their official report on it,” Executive Director of Sabiha Gokcen Dato’ Azmi Murad said in a statement. [AFPWSJ, 12/23/2015]