– Pro-regime fighters killed battling ISIS near Palmyra
– Syria peace talks grind toward pivotal Assad question

– Death toll climbs from air strikes on ISIS-held Raqqa
– Russia says might use force against ceasefire violators in Syria
– Suicide bomber kills four, wounds 36 in Istanbul shopping district
– EU-Turkey deal to return refugees from Greece comes into force

Pro-regime fighters killed battling ISIS near Palmyra
Over 25 regime-allied fighters were killed on Monday fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) as Damascus stepped up a bid to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). “[ISIS] thwarted an offensive by Syrian regime loyalists as they pressed an advance some four kilometers (two and a half miles) from Palmyra, and at least 26 fighters were killed. … Warplanes believed to be Russian meanwhile struck parts of Palmyra city and its surroundings in the east of Homs province, as well as al-Qaryatain in the southeast,” SOHR said. Syrian troops and allied militia launched an offensive to retake the city earlier this month. SOHR Director Rami Abdel Rahman said that progress had been been slow, despite some 800 air strikes by Russia and the regime. [AFP, 3/21/2016]

Syria peace talks grind toward pivotal Assad question
Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss something far outside their comfort zone—the fate of Assad—and are doing their best to avoid it. The Syrian opposition said on Sunday that it rejected any delay in the next round of peace talks in Geneva based on a government effort to postpone them due to parliamentary elections set for April 13. Spokesman of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) Salim al-Muslat told reporters in Geneva, “We won’t accept a postponement to hold illegitimate elections. We didn’t receive anything from Mr. Staffan de Mistura calling for a delay.” [ReutersAFP, 3/20/2016]

Death toll climbs from air strikes on ISIS-held Raqqa 
The death toll from purported Russian air strikes on the ISIS-held city of Raqqa in the past 24 hours has climbed to at least 55, mostly civilians, Syrian opposition activists, and ISIS said Sunday. The anti-ISIS activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, specified the air strikes were by Russian warplanes and put the number of deaths at 60, whereas the ISIS-affiliated news agency Aamaq said 43 were killed and 60 wounded. Aamaq released a video that purports to show the “massacre committed by Russian aircraft in one of Raqqa’s most congested streets.” The video shows what appears to be dead babies, bombed-out buildings, burning cars, and wreckage. [APReutersAsharq al-AwsatGuardian, 3/20/2016]

Russia says might use force against ceasefire violators in Syria
Russia warned the United States that it will start responding to ceasefire violations in Syria unilaterally starting Tuesday if the United States refuses to coordinate rules of engagement against the violators. Russia’s general staff of the armed forces proposed to hold an urgent meeting with US representatives to agree on the mechanism of controlling the ceasefire. A US official contended the issues were being discussed “in a constructive manner.” The Russian military have accused the United States of dragging its feet on responding to Moscow’s proposals on joint monitoring of the ceasefire. A top Russian general said this weekend that further delays are leading to civilian casualties, including 67 civilians reportedly killed in Aleppo by militant fire since the truce started. [AP, 3/12/2016]

Suicide bomber kills four, wounds 36 in Istanbul shopping district
A suicide bomber struck at the heart of Istanbul’s most popular avenue on Saturday, killing at least five people, including two Americans, and wounding 36, officials said. It was the latest in a string of urban terrorist attacks that have underscored Turkey’s vulnerability as the country faces a revitalized Kurdish insurgency and a deeper involvement in Syria’s war and refugee crisis. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack, but through forensic evidence Turkish officials identified the bomber as a Turkish member of ISIS. Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said on Sunday the attacker was Mehmet Ozturk, a Turkish citizen born in 1992 in the southern city of Gaziantep. All of the victims of the attack were foreign nationals. Another four people injured in the blast remain in intensive care. The attack in Istanbul came six days after a suicide car bomb attack in the heart of the capital city of Ankara, which killed 37 people. [ReutersNYTAl Jazeera, HurriyetDaily SabahAnadolu Agency, 3/21/2016]

EU-Turkey deal to return refugees from Greece comes into force
Greece and the European Union scrambled on Sunday to put in place the people and the facilities needed to carry out a new deal intended to address the migrant crisis that is roiling Europe, as hundreds of migrants in rubber dinghies continued to land on the Greek islands from Turkey. The accord, struck between the union and Turkey on Friday, set a 12:01 a.m. Sunday deadline for Turkey to stem the flow of people making clandestine journeys across the Aegean Sea to Greece in an attempt to enter Europe, and required Greece to begin sending back migrants who are not eligible for asylum. Yet processing centers on the Greek island of Lesbos and on several other Greek islands were not adequately staffed to comply immediately with the new measures, and officials said they were waiting for the European Union to follow through on a pledge to send at least 2,300 European police and asylum experts to help. Monitors from Turkey have arrived on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios to help supervise an agreement aimed limiting the number of refugees flowing into the European Union via smugglers’ boats. Greece’s prime minister warned Monday that an international agreement to limit the number of refugees traveling to Europe could not be properly implemented unless smugglers on the Turkish coast are stopped. [NYTAPGuardian, 3/21/2016]