* The Syrian government and opposition delegations reconvened in Switzerland Monday to commence the second round of the Geneva II peace talks. The opposition Syrian National Coalition insisted Monday that a political solution can only come with “the establishment of a fully viable transitional governing body,” and demanded that the United Nations Security Council pass a resolution calling for the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas “in the aftermath of new regime violations,” referring to the attacks on humanitarian workers in Homs. Meanwhile, Syrian state media quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Miqdad as saying that the regime delegation would “discuss the Geneva I Communiqué clause by clause and in the order that they were published,” and repeating the oft-stated government position that a return to normalcy in Syria requires discussion focused on putting an end to “terrorism” and violence.
* The Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham reportedly withdrew from the eastern oil-rich province of Deir e-Zor on Monday following fighting with rebel groups, with ISIS supporters saying on social media that the move was to avoid further bloodshed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham and affiliated groups have driven ISIS from its territory in Deir e-Zor. Meanwhile, ISIS issued a statement condemning Jabhat a-Nusra, and challenging its loyalty to the establishment of an Islamic state. “Look at whom you support and whom you stand with,” reads the statement. “Do you support those who are hostile to Islam [and] fight ISIS… or do you support those who reject hypocrisy and equivocation, openly proclaiming that they will erect an Islamic State?"
* A United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy reentered the besieged Old City of Homs on Sunday, despite unknown parties targeting it with mortar and sniper fire on Saturday. The convoy—the first of its type to enter Old Homs’ 13 neighborhoods since November 2012—was again fired upon on Sunday, resulting in a total of 14 residents killed over two days. Syrian state media blamed "terrorists," while opposition activists inside Homs said the mortars and sniper fire came from the National Defense Forces and the shabiha, a pro-regime militia. Nonetheless, aid workers managed to evacuate 611 civilians out of some 3,000 who remain trapped in the blockaded area. The 72-hour ceasefire, which began on Friday, has been extended another three days to allow further evacuations according to activists. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 130 of those evacuated were young men, who surrendered themselves to the Syrian authorities "Under UN supervision" with the expectation that they would be "released later on."
UN and Syrian Red Crescent workers entering Old Homs faced mortar shelling and sniper fire on both Saturday and Sunday. Photo courtesy of Twitter user Vijay Prashad.
* Pro- and anti-Assad Palestinian militias inside Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp reached an agreement Sunday to make the camp a neutral zone in the Syrian conflict, reported a-Sabeel, a news site affiliated with the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian government has blockaded the camp for over 200 days, citing the presence of rebel fighters, during which time more than 105 Palestinian refugees (of a total population of roughly 2,000) have died due to lack of food and medical supplies. The agreement specifies that Jabhat a-Nusra forces will depart Yarmouk and Palestinian fighters will abandon their bases inside the camp, after which a minesweeping team will enter Yarmouk in preparation for reopening the camp’s perimeter.
* The 12 Greek Orthodox nuns who were taken from the ancient Christian town of Maaloula in early December resurfaced Sunday in a video broadcast by al-Jazeera, in which they affirm that they are in good health and have not been mistreated, but asked for assistance in securing their release. The kidnappers are reportedly demanding the release of female prisoners from regime prisons in exchange for returning the nuns, who are believed to have been taken by hardline Islamist rebel groups from Maaloula to the rebel-held town of Yabroud some 20km to the northwest.