– Syrian army seizes hills overlooking ISIS-held Palmyra
– Kerry off to Russia for Syria talks after Brussels attacks
– Syrian refugees denied critical health care in Jordan
– Syria greenlights aid for most besieged towns, UN says

Syrian army seizes hills overlooking ISIS-held Palmyra

On Wednesday Syrian government forces seized highlands around Palmyra, positioning themselves to recapture the ancient town held by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). “The regime forces are now two kilometers away on the south side and five kilometers away on the west side,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Director Rami Abdel Rahman said. Syrian opposition activists also reported that the army was now approaching the outskirts of Palmyra, which has been under the firm control of ISIS since the extremists captured it last May. The army advanced from the west and south of Palmyra and was also closing in on Qaryatain in central Syria, Homs governor Talal Barazi said. “There is continuous progress by the army from all directions,” he said, adding that he expected “positive results” over the next few days. Government forces have been backed by intense Russian air strikes in their advances. [AP, AFP, BBC, NOW, 3/23/2016]

Kerry off to Russia for Syria talks after Brussels attacks
Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Moscow for talks on Ukraine and Syria as the attacks against Brussels underscored the urgency of fighting ISIS. Kerry departed Washington late Tuesday after accompanying President Barack Obama to Cuba. While in Havana, Kerry spoke by phone with the Belgian foreign minister to offer condolences for the victims of the attacks and any assistance Brussels might need. The attacks were claimed by ISIS and have highlighted the threat the group poses outside of its territory in Iraq and Syria. [AP, AFP, 3/23/2016]

Syrian refugees denied critical health care in Jordan
Syrian refugees in Jordan are finding it very difficult to get medical care because of Jordanian fees and bureaucracy, and shrinking humanitarian financial support, rights group Amnesty International said Wednesday. Many refugees cannot afford the fees for medical care imposed by the Jordanian government in 2014, and some, injured in the Syrian conflict, have died after being turned away at the border, Amnesty said in a report. There are 630,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the vast majority of them living in poverty outside the refugee camps. [Reuters, 3/23/2016]

Syria greenlights aid for most besieged towns, UN says
The Syrian government gave verbal assurances that aid convoys can go into three or four of the areas that its forces are besieging, UN humanitarian advisor Jan Egeland said Wednesday. The United Nations received the green light for eight or nine of the eleven areas it had asked to deliver aid, including three or four besieged areas, but not the towns of Daraya or Douma. The World Food Programme (WFP) has said some people in the two towns, both close to Damascus, have been eating grass to survive. Egeland said a local agreement to end the siege of al-Waer of Homs city had broken down in a reversal for humanitarian aid and that the United Nations would need to mediate. [Reuters, 3/23/2016]

Turkey launches air strikes against PKK in Iraq, Turkey
Turkey’s military carried out air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq and killed 26 militants in southeast Turkey, where violence has flared since a ceasefire broke down last July, the armed forces said on Wednesday. Tuesday’s air strikes hit shelters, caves, and ammunition depots used by the PKK in northern Iraq and rural areas near the southeastern Turkish town of Semdinli, at the mountainous border with Iraq and Iran, the military statement said. The military says more than a thousand militants have been killed in the largely Kurdish southeast since the ceasefire collapsed this summer, prompting the heaviest clashes in the region since the 1990s. President Tayyip Erdogan has said more than 300 members of the security forces have died, while the pro-Kurdish opposition says hundreds of civilians have also been killed. [Hurriyet, Reuters, Anadolu Agency, 3/23/2016]