– Experts identify new cases of Syria chemical attacks
– UN says major powers feeding ‘military escalation’ in Syria
– UK, Turkey, Assad, and opposition skeptical over ceasefire
– Assad sets April 13 for parliamentary elections
– Russia, with Turkey in mind, announces big weapons deal with Armenia

Experts identify new cases of Syria chemical attacks

The international body charged with establishing who is responsible for chemical attacks in Syria said Monday it has identified seven potential sites for investigation, which it hopes to begin next month. Virginia Gamba, who heads the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said an initial report to the Security Council had identified five cases where chemical weapons might have been used. Further analysis led to two other suspected cases, both in the Idlib governorate: in Binnish on March 23, 2015 and in al-Tamana on April 29-30 and May 25-26 in 2014. Asked whether there was any evidence that chemical weapons are still being used by the warring parties in Syria, Ms. Gamba said, “Clearly they are still being used by the warring parties in Syria. This has been a constant for the last two years.” The number of dead in Syria’s five-year-long war is estimated at more than 370,000, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said Tuesday, raising its toll for documented deaths to more than 270,000. [AP, UN News, Daily Star, 2/22/2016]

UN says major powers feeding ‘military escalation’ in Syria
War crimes are “rampant” in Syria, and the conflict has become “a multisided proxy war steered from abroad by an intricate network of alliances,” UN investigators said in a new report Monday. In a swipe at the United States, Russia, and their allies, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said the international powers and regional countries ostensibly pushing for a peaceful solution are the same nations that “continue to feed the military escalation.” The UN investigators warned that “the fractured Syrian state is on the brink of collapse” and said there is a growing risk of “internationalization of the conflict.” Crimes against humanity continue to be committed by government forces and the Islamic State extremist group, their report said. The Commission’s eleventh report to the UN Security Council draws on 415 interviews with victims and eyewitnesses in and outside the country, collected between July 2015 and January 2016. [AP, Reuters, UN News, 2/23/2016]

UK, Turkey, Assad, and opposition skeptical over ceasefire
Syria’s regime agreed Tuesday to a ceasefire deal announced by the United States and Russia, but there were widespread doubts it could take effect by Saturday as planned. The State Department made the five-page plan public after Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone Monday. The agreement, announced Monday, does not apply to jihadists like the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and the Nusra Front, adding complexity to how it can be implemented on Syria’s battlefield. A Syrian foreign ministry statement said the government would continue to fight both those groups as well as other “terrorists” while agreeing to stop other military operations. “For us, al-Nusra is a problematic point . . . civilians or the Free Syrian Army could be targeted under the pretext of targeting al-Nusra,” said senior opposition figure Khaled Khoja. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Monday that the ceasefire will only work if there is a “major change of behavior” by the Syrian regime and Russia. Turkey also welcomed plans to halt hostilities in Syria, but is not optimistic about a positive outcome to talks on a political transition, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Tuesday. He also warned that Turkey could carry on shelling targets of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia inside Syria. [AP, AFP, Reuters, Daily Star, 2/23/2016]

Assad sets April 13 for parliamentary elections
Syrian President Bashar Assad announced Monday that parliamentary elections are to be held on April 13, state news agency SANA reported, shortly after Washington and Moscow announced a ceasefire plan. Assad issued a decree which included seat allocations for each of the provinces in Syria, which last held parliamentary elections in May 2012. At the time, Assad appointed then-agriculture minister Riad Hijab to be Syria’s new prime minister. Hijab has since defected and now leads the main opposition to Assad’s regime from the Saudi capital Riyadh. [AFP, 2/22/2016]

Russia, with Turkey in mind, announces big weapons deal with Armenia
Russia has announced the details of a new shipment of arms to Armenia, a relatively rare move likely connected with Russia’s ongoing tension with Turkey. Last week, the Russian government announced that it would be providing Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy equipment including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, handheld antiaircraft missiles and upgrades to tanks. Last week’s announcement of the Russian-Armenian arms deal, with the agreement posted on an official Russian government website, was out of character for Russia (which tends to respect Armenia’s wishes for relative privacy). Analysis say this is a part of Russia’s other military cooperation programs with Armenia, which now are being rebranded as explicitly anti-Turkish efforts. The move comes after last week’s addition of several fighter jets to the Russian air base in Armenia as part of ongoing efforts to create a joint Russian-Armenian (and -Belarusian and -Kazakh) air defense system. [Eurasianet, Washington Times, Today’s Zaman, 2/22/2016]