– Russian activists say have evidence of Russian cluster bombs in Syria
– ‘Dire situation’ in besieged villages in Syria
– Syrian army, rebel fire kills 26 around Damascus
– Russia reportedly deploying advisors near Palmyra
– President Obama says Turkey must withdraw ‘unauthorized’ forces in Iraq
– Iraqi Shia militias in mass anti-Saudi protest

Russian activists say have evidence of Russian cluster bombs in Syria

A group of Russian activists said on Thursday they had evidence that Russian aircraft deployed in Syria were armed with cluster bombs, challenging official denials. Last month, Russia’s Defense Ministry denied Human Rights Watch allegations that Russia had either dropped cluster bombs in Syria, provided a new batch to the Syrian air force, or both. But the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian investigative bloggers, on Thursday published photos and video footage taken from Russian media and the Defense Ministry that the group said showed the munitions at the Hymeymin airbase in Syria, which is used by the Russian air force. Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church justified the Kremlin’s bombing campaign in Syria, calling it a “defensive war” in an interview released Thursday as the country marked Orthodox Christmas. Patriarch Kirill said Moscow’s military strikes were necessary to protect Russia from “terrorism.” [Reuters, 1/7/2016]

‘Dire situation’ in besieged villages in Syria
The situation in three besieged villages in Syria is “extremely dire,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned. Activists say civilians have died because of a lack of food and medicine in rebel-controlled Madaya, near Damascus, or died trying to escape. People are also reported to be eating grass to survive in the government-held Fuaa and Kafraya, in the northwestern province of Idlib. The ICRC said it hoped to get aid to all three villages in the coming days. One activist said from Madaya, “Negotiations have no meaning all the time we are besieged, all the time we are hoping for a cup of milk for a child. What are we going to negotiate over? Our dead?” [BBC, Guardian, 1/6/2016]

Syrian army, rebel fire kills 26 around Damascus
Government and rebel bombardment killed up to 26 civilians and wounded dozens in the Syrian capital and a nearby opposition bastion on Wednesday, state media and an activist group said. Mortar rounds fired from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region onto residential areas of Damascus left eight civilians dead and 23 wounded, the official SANA news agency reported. The attack came after the army fired rockets onto the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma earlier in the day, killing six civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Ten other civilians, including a child, were later killed in government air strikes on the town of Hazzeh and one in Mesraba, east of the capital, SOHR said. [AFP, 1/6/2016]

Russia reportedly deploying advisors near Palmyra
Russia has dispatched military advisors west of Palmyra in a bid to shore-up regime military efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and protect key airbases on the edge of Syria’s desert, according to an activist media outlet. “Over the past few days Russia has sent small special units and military advisors with extensive experience in mountain and desert combat [to] the area west of the city of Palmyra that is still controlled by regime forces,” All4Syria reported Wednesday. A “regime force” source told the pro-rebel website that “these units will execute command-and-consultation missions, and provide assistance and military advice to regime forces in that area.” [NOW, 1/7/2016]

President Obama says Turkey must withdraw ‘unauthorized’ forces in Iraq
US President Barack Obama has told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that, Turkey should wıthdraw any military forces in Iraq that are “not authorized by the Iraqi government.” Relations between Turkey and Iraq have been tense since December 4, 2015, when Turkey deployed additional troops, hundreds of commandos and a small mechanized unit to the Bashiqa camp, which lies near Mosul held by ISIS The move infuriated Iraq to the extent that it brought the issue before the United Nations Security Council, asking it to use it powers to force Turkey to pull its troops from Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said on December 30, 2015 that Baghdad would continue to pursue peaceful means but that if “fighting is imposed on us, we will consider it to protect our sovereignty.” [Hurriyet, Reuters, 1/7/2016]

Iraqi Shia militias in mass anti-Saudi protest
Two thousand members and supporters of Iraq’s powerful Shia militias demonstrated Wednesday against Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric, which sparked a regional row. The protest took place in central Baghdad at the same time that government officials were attending military parades for Army Day, a national holiday in Iraq. The militiamen were also in their best uniform, carrying flags and banners bearing the portrait of executed cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Most of the big groups in the Popular Mobilization Units were represented. “The boot of a Hashed is worth more than Saudi Arabia,” chanted the crowd which gathered in Tahrir (liberation) square. A leader of the Waad Allah (Promise of God) militia Maytham al-Allaq said, “Our demands to the Iraqi government are clear.…They include the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador from Iraq and return of the Iraqi ambassador from Riyadh.” [AFP, 1/6/2016]