– Islamist groups to participate in Syria talks on individual basis
– Syria regime forces advance in north Aleppo
– US envoy meets PYD in Syria
– Syria condemns Turkey cross-border shelling
– Syria approves aid deliveries to 3 besieged villages
– Italy drops objections to EU migration fund to Turkey

Islamist groups to participate in Syria talks on individual basis
Russia has agreed that two Syrian rebel Islamist groups will participate in Syria peace talks on an individual basis, but said it did not mean that they were legitimate and not terrorist groups, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday. “This does not mean that this is an acknowledgement of Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham as two legitimate partners in the negotiations,” he said. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the rival factions in Syria not to squander the opportunity to engage in UN-mediated talks that began on Friday in Geneva. “We have seen through years of savage fighting what the absence of serious negotiations yields,” Kerry said. UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura sought Tuesday to press President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to ease the suffering of ordinary Syrians to enable the fragile peace talks in Switzerland to gain momentum. Yet the Syrian government rejected Tuesday that indirect peace talks have properly begun, with the head of its delegation describing negotiations as still in a preparatory phase and calling the opposition “not serious.” [Reuters, 2/2/2016]

Syria regime forces advance in north Aleppo
The Syrian army and its allied militia, aided by Russian air support, made further advances on Tuesday in a major offensive that could cut insurgent supply lines from Turkey to Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said. Syrian state media also reported advances that appear aimed at breaking through rebel-held territory north of Aleppo to reach the Shia villages of Nubul and al-Zahraa, which are loyal to Damascus. On Tuesday, Syrian state news agency SANA said government troops backed by pro-regime militants had “restored security and stability to the village of Hardatneen.” [AFP, Reuters, AP, 2/2/2016]

US envoy meets PYD in Syria
A delegation, which included President Barack Obama’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk, met in Syria on Sunday with the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD). Accompanied by French and British officials, it was the first time a US official crossed into Syria since the country’s envoy was recalled. Also on Monday, President of the Syrian Democratic Council Haytham Manna, the political wing of the SDF, announced that it will not participate in Geneva after its delegates were excluded from negotiations. “We decided on Sunday night to suspend our participation in negotiations so long as the five Kurdish and one Turkman delegates from our list do not receive invitations from UN mediator Staffan de Mistura,” Manna said. [Reuters, Daily Sabah, 2/2/2016]

Syria condemns Turkey cross-border shelling
On Monday, Syria’s government condemned alleged cross-border shelling by Turkish forces as a “blatant breach of international law.” Late Monday, state news agency SANA quoted a source in the Syrian foreign ministry as condemning the reported artillery fire into northern Latakia province. The source said Damascus considered the shelling “a crime against Syrian civilians.” The report added that the government “reserves the right to respond to this heinous crime with all available means.” SOHR also reported cross-border fire in the area, but said it was unclear if the source was Turkish forces or rebels firing from inside Turkey. [AFP, 2/2/2016]

Syria approves aid deliveries to 3 besieged villages
Syria’s government agreed to allow aid into several besieged areas on Monday including Madaya in an apparent goodwill gesture ahead of peace talks. “The government has in principle approved convoys … to Madaya and simultaneously to Kafraya and Fuaa,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN’s humanitarian agency. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Friday that 16 people have died in Madaya since the relief convoys began arriving on January 12. MSF also reported 320 cases of malnutrition and said 33 of those people “are in danger of dying if they do not receive prompt and effective treatment.” Civilians in the three villages have reportedly starved to death because aid deliveries were blocked until about three weeks ago. Madaya is besieged by pro-government forces, while Fuaa and Kafraya in northwest Syria are surrounded by rebel groups. [AP, AFP, 2/1/16]

Italy drops objections to EU migration fund to Turkey
Italy will contribute to a 3 billion euro European Union fund to help Turkey tackle the European migration crisis, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Monday, dropping objections blocking implementation of the plan. Under a deal from last November, Ankara is to stem the flood of refugees and migrants leaving for Europe in exchange for the aid. Brussels hopes it will limit the influx of people fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa after more than a million reached Europe last year. Italy, which has locked horns on a number of issues with Brussels recently, has been blocking payouts to Turkey in the hope of winning more leeway from the bloc on its 2016 budget. The EU’s executive said earlier on Monday that it had offered in December to exempt any contributions to the Turkey fund from member state’s budget deficit calculations under the bloc’s accounting rules. Renzi welcomed the proposal as “finally something positive” and EU envoys will consider it on Wednesday in Brussels. [Today’s Zaman, 2/2/2016]