The Latest: Russian FM meets with Syria opposition leader

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SYRIA The Associated Press
Map Syria shows the latest areas of control by Pro-Assad, Kurdish, Islamic State and Free Syrian Army forces.; 2c x 2 1/4 inches; 96.3 mm
The Latest on the developments in Syria and Turkey’s offensive on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin (all times local):

7:45 p.m.

Russia’s top diplomat has met with Syria’s opposition leader to pave way for peace talks to be hosted by Russia later this month.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Naser al-Hariri on Monday that Russia wants the Congress of National Dialogue, set to be held in Sochi on Jan. 29-30, to be as inclusive as possible.

Lavrov also took aim at Washington, accusing it of supporting al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria. He said the humanitarian challenges in rebel-held areas could have been avoided if foreign powers had forged a united front against al-Qaida.

Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and its 2015 military intervention in Syria turned the tide of the war in the government’s favor.

Hariri, who heads the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said Syria political forces need to reach an accord on fighting militants.


6:30 p.m.

Christians and Yazidis living in a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria say they fear persecution by advancing Turkish and allied forces, which they say include Islamic militants.

The Yazidi Association in Germany said in a statement Monday that people in Afrin are under threat from “jihadist groups” operating in the shadow of the Turkish offensive.

Irfan Ortac, the chairman of the Central Committee of Yazidis in Germany, told The Associated Press that villages where Yazidis live are being bombed from the air while others are under threat of a ground offensive. He said at least one Yazidi has been killed and many were displaced by the fighting.

The Yazidi community in Syria, a religious minority, lives mostly in Kurdish-controlled areas.

Ortac estimated that 15,000 Yazidis live in Afrin, among nearly 800,000 civilians, including many displaced from other parts of Syria. Ortac said the community fears “jihadists” who are participating in the offensive and who have been threatening religious minorities in the area.

Also on Monday, three churches in Afrin issued an appeal for “international protection” and a halt to the Turkish offensive. The statement, which said there are about 250 Christian families in Afrin, said they fear Islamic militant groups.

Syrian opposition fighters, many from Islamist groups, are taking part in the Turkey-backed offensive which began Saturday.

Activists say Turkey has prepared nearly 10,000 Syrian fighters to take part in the offensive.

— Frank Jordans


6:15 p.m.

The European Union’s top diplomat says she’s concerned about Turkey’s military offensive on a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria and is warning that it could undermine peace efforts.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Monday that “I’m extremely worried and I will discuss this, among other things, with our Turkish interlocutors” in coming days.

She said it’s important “to make sure that humanitarian access is guaranteed and that the civilian population, people are not suffering.” She said military efforts should focus on the Islamic State group.

She warned that the Turkish offensive “can undermine seriously the resumption of talks in Geneva, which is what we believe could really bring sustainable peace and security for Syria.”


5:45 p.m.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to get a closed-door briefing later Monday on the political and military situation in Syria, including Turkey’s military offensive against a Kurdish-held enclave.

France asked for a meeting and Sweden’s U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog told reporters his government supports a briefing “about the latest military escalations, including the Turkish attacks.”

Skoog said: “We’re worried about any military escalation,” and the Turkish attacks are a good opportunity for the council to “move away from discussing country-by-country and looking at more regional evolutions and developments.”

The council is expected to hear from Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman as well as U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, who visited Syria recently.

Skoog urged implementation of council resolutions demanding unhindered humanitarian access “so the U.N. is able to operate fully in the disastrous humanitarian situations across Syria.”


5:30 p.m.

Syrian state media says the death toll from rebel shelling of the capital has climbed to nine civilians, including a child.

State TV said Monday’s shelling hit residential areas and a bus station in Bab Touma, al-Shaghour and other neighborhoods. It blamed the shelling on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs. Earlier reports said five civilians were killed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked group that tracks the conflict, also said nine people were killed in the shelling.

Government forces have surrounded eastern Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold near the capital, and regularly target it with shelling and airstrikes. The UN says some 400,000 civilians are trapped in eastern Ghouta with little or no access to basic services or aid.


4:45 p.m.

The United States is accusing Russia of “costing innocent Syrian lives” amid new reports of a suspected chemical attack in Syria.

Activists and rescue teams say the Syrian government launched an attack with suspected poisonous gas that affected nearly 20 civilians in a rebel-held suburb near Damascus.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says Moscow’s “unwillingness or inability to restrain the Assad regime is costing innocent Syrian lives.” She says the United States has tried to hold responsible those using chemical weapons in attacks that “have killed far too many Syrians.”

Nauert is blaming Russia for thwarting efforts at the U.N. “to protect those civilian lives.” She’s calling on Russia to bring Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to the table for talks on a political resolution to the civil war.


4:30 p.m.

Syrian state TV says shelling from rebel-held areas has killed at least five civilians and wounded more than eight in the capital, Damascus.

State television, citing a police statement, says Monday’s shelling struck the Bab Touma and al-Shaghour neighborhoods. It blamed the shelling on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs.

Government forces have surrounded eastern Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold near the capital, and regularly target it with shelling and airstrikes. The UN says some 400,000 civilians are trapped in eastern Ghouta with little to no access to basic services or aid.


4:20 p.m.

The top U.N. official in Syria says the international body is ready to help people who might flee from the Afrin enclave, where Turkish troops are battling a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia.

Ali Al-Za’tari tells The Associated Press on Monday that it is not yet clear if people are fleeing the fighting in northwestern Syria. He says the U.N. is closely following the situation.

Turkey launched an offensive on Afrin Saturday, saying it aims to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “secure zone” along the border.

Turkey views the Kurdish militia that controls Afrin as a terror group because of its links to the Kurdish insurgency raging in Turkey’s southeast. The same Kurdish militia forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main U.S. ally against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Humanitarian access to Kurdish-controlled areas from Turkey has been difficult.


4:15 p.m.

A Kurdish news agency says Turkey’s military is targeting Kurdish forces in eastern Syria, hundreds of miles from its main offensive against the Afrin enclave.

The Kurdish Hawar news agency said Kurdish fighters returned cross-border fire in the northeastern Hassakeh province, a predominantly Kurdish area bordering Iraq.

A Turkish official in southeastern Turkey could not confirm the report. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the skirmishes and said there were also reports of an exchange of fire to the west.

Turkey is waging a major offensive against the Afrin enclave in northwestern Syria, which is controlled by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency in its southeast.

The private Turkish Ihlas News Agency says Kurdish militants fired on soldiers in Ceylanpinar, bordering eastern Syria. Turkish forces responded with artillery and an announcement to stay indoors was aired over municipality speakers.


4 p.m.

Turkey’s president has said his country will “not take a step back” from its military operation on an enclave in northern Syria controlled by U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.

Speaking in Ankara on Monday — the third day of the operation— President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey’s “fundamental goal” is ensuring national security, preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and protecting the Syrian people.

He said “we discussed this with our Russian friends and we have an agreement.” Erdogan slammed the United States for working with Syrian Kurdish forces instead of Turkey in combatting the Islamic State group.

The operation’s aim, according to Erdogan, is not to “occupy” any part of Syria but rather to conquer “hearts.” Once Afrin and Idlib to the west are secured, Erdogan said hundreds of thousands of Syrians could return to their homes.

Erdogan said: “The Afrin operation will end when it reaches its goals,”


1:45 p.m.

Syrian activists and rescue teams say the Syrian government has launched an attack with suspected poisonous gas that has affected nearly 20 civilians in a rebel-held suburb near the capital, Damascus.

The team of first responders known as White Helmets, or Syrian Civil Defense, says the attack hit a neighborhood in the Douma district early on Monday.

It says the rescuers evacuated more than 20 civilians, most of them women and children from the area, which they say was hit with suspected chlorine attack. The Ghouta Media Center, an activist-operated media, also claims the attack involved chlorine gas. Activists say a foul smell followed a series of bombings that hit the Douma neighborhood.

Such claims are not new but they are difficult to verify because of lack of chemical labs and independent testers. A U.N. inquiry panel had previously blamed the government for a number of chlorine and sarin attacks in Syria.

The Easter Ghouta suburb of Damascus has been under intensive attack, and the U.N. says government forces are holding 400,000 people under siege there.


12:30 p.m.

Russia is accusing the United States of fomenting separatism in the Kurdish enclave in Syria that has come under attack by Turkey over the weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that the fact that the United States has been “discouraging the Kurds from dialogue” with the Syrian government and “fomenting separatist sentiment” among them shows “lack of understanding of the situation or a deliberate provocation.”

Lavrov said Moscow views the Kurds as an important party of talks on the future of a post-war Syria and that their voice should be heard. He, however, called on all parties in the ongoing conflict to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Turkey on Saturday launched an offensive aimed at ousting the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia from the enclave of Afrin, heightening tensions in the Syrian conflict and threatening to further strain ties between NATO allies Turkey and the U.S.


10:30 a.m.

Syria’s Kurdish militia says it has repelled Turkish troops and their allies from villages they seized during the Turkey-backed offensive against the enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia has waged a ferocious counteroffensive, repelling Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters from two villages they briefly captured

The Observatory says Turkey-backed troops opened two new fronts on the third day of the offensive, attempting once again to enter Afrin in northwestern Syria.

The Kurdish militia, known as People’s Defense Units or YPG, says it’s clashing with the Turkish troops northwest of Afrin.

Turkey considers the YPG a terror organization because of its affiliation to its own Kurdish insurgency. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to expand the operation.