– In Aleppo, five civilians killed in regime raids
– Syrian army aims for eastward advance with Palmyra attack
– Syrian opposition groups to attend Geneva peace talks
– UN-monitored elections in Syria to start 18 months from March 14
– NATO to boost surveillance on Turkey-Syria border

In Aleppo, five civilians killed in regime raids

On Friday, at least five civilians were killed by Syrian regime air strikes in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said. “Friday’s toll is the highest in Aleppo city since the ceasefire came into force and it is the most serious violation in the city since the truce came into effect,” director of SOHR Rami Abdel Rahman said. The raids follow a lull in fighting brought by an unprecedented ceasefire that has largely held since coming into force on February 27. [AFP, 3/11/2016]

Syrian army aims for eastward advance with Palmyra attack
The Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, aims to capture the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) to open a road to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in an offensive that got under way this week, a source close to the Syrian government said. The Russian air force has hit Palmyra with dozens of airstrikes since Wednesday, according to SOHR. Syrian government forces clashed with ISIS fighters about 4 miles from the ancient site that fell to the extremists last May. SOHR Director Rami Abdul-Rahman described it as a large-scale assault, calling it a “real operation to retake control.” The source close to Damascus said the aim was to “seize the road from Tadmur (Palmyra) to Deir Ezzor.” [Reuters, 3/11/2016]

Syrian opposition groups to attend Geneva peace talks
Syria’s Western-backed opposition groups said Friday that they will attend the UN-sponsored indirect peace talks with the Damascus government in Geneva, starting in two days time. The opposition groups, assembled under an umbrella known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said in a statement that their participation in the Geneva talks starting Monday comes in response to “sincere” international efforts to end Syria’s war. HNC chief negotiator Riad Hijab played down expectations ahead of the Geneva talks. “We are not going to test the intentions of the [Syrian] regime,” he said. “We know what crimes they are committing.” The upcoming talks are to focus on new governance, a constitution and elections, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said. The decision to go came after violence dropped following a truce brokered by Russia and the United States. [AP, Reuters, WSJ, NYT, 3/11/2016]

UN-monitored elections in Syria to start 18 months from March 14
Elections in Syria should be held in 18 months, the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said ahead of a new round of peace talks set to begin Monday. “The elections, both presidential and parliamentary, will be under UN observation,” he said. De Mistura said the first item on the agenda included an inclusive new government, followed by a new constitution and elections. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the de Mistura to include Kurds in upcoming talks. Russia’s top diplomat argued that holding talks on forming a new ruling structure in Syria to prepare constitutional reform and elections without Kurds would be “a most serious infringement of the rights of a large and significant group living in Syria.” Kurds are allies both of the US coalition and Russia and control at least 15 percent of Syrian territory, Lavrov added. He lashed out at Turkey, saying, “Only the Turks are blocking the invitation of Kurds from the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).” [AFP, Reuters, 3/11/2016]

NATO to boost surveillance on Turkey-Syria border
NATO is set to boost border surveillance to protect Turkey from possible threats from Syria. “We agreed with Turkey on February 11 to intensify, to increase surveillance of the border between Turkey and Syria; we are in the process of establishing this with Turkey in the best possible way,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a joint news conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on March 10. Adding that Turkey was the NATO ally most affected by the crisis in Syria, Stoltenberg said NATO already had assurance measures in Turkey, including planes, naval presence and patriot batteries, which allowed the alliance to monitor the situation on the Turkish-Syrian border. His comments came days after Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 7 that his country was seeking increased NATO support on the border with Syria. [Hurriyet, 3/11/2016]