– Deadly blasts kill 20 in Syrian city ahead of peace talks
– Syria opposition meets in Riyadh, casts doubt on talks
– Russian air strikes have transformed situation in Syria
– Kurds accuse Syria pro-regime militia of bombings
– Russia, Turkey dispute over PYD inclusion at peace talks
– Search for US workers kidnapped in Baghdad focuses on Sadr City
– United States to send 101st Airborne Division to Iraq

Deadly blasts kill 20 in Syrian city ahead of peace talks
Multiple bombings targeted a government-run security checkpoint in the central Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday, killing at least 22 people. State television said another 100 people were wounded in the blasts in the Zara neighborhood of the city, with residents being mostly Alawites. This area had been targeted in multiple bomb attacks by ISIS, most recently in late December. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) chief Rami Abdel-Rahman said the second suicide bomber had been wearing military clothes. The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) claimed the attack in an online statement describing the blast as the work of a single suicide bomber. The attack came as government forces retook a strategic town from opposition fighters and militants in the south of the country. Homs Governor Talal Barazi told the SANA news agency that the checkpoint was hit “first by a car bomb, which was then followed by a suicide bombing.” [AP, Reuters, 1/26/2016]

Syria opposition meets in Riyadh, casts doubt on talks
The Syrian opposition cast doubt on whether it would go to peace talks planned for Friday saying there was no hope or optimism on upcoming talks. This throws UN diplomatic efforts into question as it accused the United States of adopting unacceptable Iranian and Russian ideas for solving the conflict. The Saudi-backed opposition was meeting on Tuesday to decide whether to attend the talks which UN envoy Staffan de Mistura aims to open in Geneva on Friday. De Mistura said talks will focus on a ceasefire, stopping ISIS, and the distribution of human aid. [Reuters, 1/26/2016]

Russian air strikes have transformed situation in Syria
Air strikes by the Russian military in support of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have helped turn the tide in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday. “The actions of the Russian air force, in response to the request of the Syrian leadership, have really helped to turn around the situation in the country, helped towards reducing the territory controlled by terrorists,” Lavrov said at his annual press conference. No one has ever supplied proof that Russian air strikes in Syria caused civilian deaths or struck the wrong militant groups, Lavrov said. He said the Russian military went to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Syria. Lavrov also said Moscow did not ask Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, nor did it offer him political asylum. [AFP, 1/26/2016]

Kurds accuse Syria pro-regime militia of bombings
Syria’s Kurds on Monday accused a pro-regime militia of being behind two deadly bomb blasts that killed nearly 20 people in the city of Qamishli in recent weeks. A month of clashes erupted between Syrian Kurdish forces and pro-government fighters in the city in northeast Syria, where control is shared between the Kurds and the regime. Abdullah Saadun, spokesperson for the Kurdish Asayish security forces, said members of the National Defense Forces (NDF) were behind blasts on December 31 and January 25, even though ISIS claimed both attacks. “Based on our sources and evidence, and our investigations, we have confirmed that a faction within the NDF was behind the recent bombings,” Saadun said. Saadun declined to elaborate on what evidence pointed to NDF involvement, but said the explosions were intended to “undermine security and create sedition.” [AFP, 1/26/2016]

Russia, Turkey dispute over PYD inclusion at peace talks
Russia on Tuesday argued strongly against Turkey’s demand to keep the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) out of Syria’s peace talks, and said it expects the UN envoy to resist “blackmail” by Turkey and others. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that the PYD plays an important role in fighting ISIS and is an essential part of a political settlement in Syria. However, Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu said there is no difference for Turkey between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its representative groups in Syria, and that their previous cooperation with the regime does not make them a representative force for the Kurds. Lavrov said, however, that Russia would not “veto” the talks if the Kurds were not invited and that it was up to the UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura to decide which opposition groups would be asked to attend. [AP, Hurriyet, Daily Sabah, 1/26/2016]  

Search for US workers kidnapped in Baghdad focuses on Sadr City
The search for three US contractors kidnapped in Baghdad earlier this month is focusing on Sadr City, a sprawling neighborhood in the north of the capital, Iraqi officials have said. According to two intelligence officials, the men had gone to their translator’s house in a residential complex known as the Saha apartments in the southern suburb of Dora. The men’s sudden disappearance and subsequent difficulty in tracing them fits a pattern of hostage taking in Baghdad and southern Iraq over the past nine years. The most recent was the kidnapping of 16 Turkish construction workers last September. [The Guardian, 1/24/2016]

United States to send 101st Airborne Division to Iraq
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the United States would send the 101st Airborne Division to Iraq in order to join the Iraqi forces in its war against ISIS. In addition to his speech on January 13 at Fort Campbell, Carter also wrote, “Our campaign to deliver ISIS a lasting defeat, at its source and wherever it rears its head, is far from over; but the outcome is clear. We will continue to adapt and build on our success, as ISIS’s territory decreases, its resources dwindle, and local, capable forces gain the capacity both to win the field of battle and to lay the foundation for lasting security in the region.” The 101st Airborne Division is also known as ‘the Screaming Eagles’ and it is armed with 300 helicopters, including three battalions of Apache attack helicopters. [Iraqi News, 1/25/2016]