* The details of a prisoner exchange involving 13 nuns kidnapped in December by Jabhat a-Nusra remained unclear Tuesday, with Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi stating that the government had released “25 prisoners who do not have Syrian blood on their hands” in exchange for the nuns, a fraction of the 153 prisoners that the regime had reportedly agreed to release. Al-Zoubi also insisted that the prisoner exchange had been carried out “with absolutely no direct or indirect communications” between the Syrian government and Qatar, seeking to combat loyalists’ outrage at reports that Qatar—one of the Syrian opposition’s staunchest supporters—had been a key player in negotiations. Regime supporters have also lashed out at the nuns for telling the media that they were treated well during their period of imprisonment by Jabhat a-Nusra. 

JaN carries nun 2A combatant purportedly a member of Jabhat a-Nusra carries a nun as she is released in a prisoner exchange.

* Pro-government Syrian newspaper al-Watan reported Tuesday that Syrian army units had advanced to within two kilometers of Aleppo Central Prison and killed a number of “foreign terrorists” in northeastern Aleppo as the “army aims to break the siege around the prison.” Rebel groups, meanwhile, said they had pushed back against Syrian government troops in the neighborhood of Sheikh Najjar six kilometers from the prison on Monday. The Islamic Front, Jaish al-Mujahideen and Jabhat a-Nusra are coordinating in the “Ahl a-Sham Operations room” as they attempt to gain control of the regime-held prison, encircled since April 2013, before the government can advance close enough to the prison to reinforce its troops.

* Regime forces continued to bombard the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Wa’er in Homs on Tuesday, according to Hassan Abu a-Zein, spokesman for the Homs Revolutionary Coalition. A-Zein told Syria Direct Tuesday morning that regime forces had intermittently shelled the neighborhood with mortar shells, adding that, despite the regime’s reported interest in a ceasefire in al-Wa’er, it has shown no discernible signs of goodwill toward rebel-held areas. Meanwhile, pro-regime Syrian newspaper al-Watan reported Tuesday that 19 militants in Homs’ rebel-held Old City had surrendered themselves and their weapons to regime forces in exchange for an agreement to resettle those civilians who do not have “Syrian blood on their hands.” Such a settlement would resemble earlier agreements whereby civilians inside encircled Old Homs have been relocated to al-Wa’er, which currently hosts hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians.

* The Syrian parliament discussed a draft electoral law Monday that would place new restrictions on possible candidates for the country’s June 2014 presidential elections, reported official government news agency SANA. Pro-Assad Syrian daily al-Watan noted that the legislation would require any presidential candidate to have “lived continuously in Syria for a period not less than 10 years,” and to receive support from at least 35 of 250 Syrian MPs. These conditions will exclude a large segment of the Syrian opposition leadership, who are based in Turkey or elsewhere outside of Syria.  President Bashar al-Assad has said that he will run for a third seven-year term in June, having allegedly received over 97 percent of the votes in the 2000 and 2007 elections.

* Nineteen moderate Islamist rebel groups that previously united under the name of the “Civilian Protection Commission” announced they would fight under a new banner, the “Legion of the Sham.” The battalion will “work for the defense of the people and their religion, retaking the land fully from the criminal regime,” they pledged in a YouTube video posted from Aleppo province. The battalions include Hama province’s Suqour al-Islam, Aleppo province’s Hamza Brigades and Idlib province’s al-Hutein Brigade, as well as groups active in the Homs suburbs. In late 2013 and early 2014, a number of previously independent, localized battalions announced they would coordinate and unify to form the Islamic Front, which has emerged as a leading rebel coalition of locally dominant factions across Syria, and coordinates in northern Syria with Jabhat a-Nusra and the two-month-old Islamist coalition Jaish al-Mujahideen.

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