Isil claims responsibility for deadly blast near Syria shrine that killed at least 70
Suicide bombers kill 70 in Damascus as peace talks convene with no invitation to terrorist groups or plan to defeat them
Isil suicide bombers on Sunday killed 70 people near a Shia shrine in southern Damascus, underlining how current peace talks even if successful will not solve the conflict in Syria on their own.
Two attackers blew themselves up near the Sayidda Zeinab shrine on the southern edge of the city, which has been heavily contested in fighting including by Iranian-backed Shia militias.
The shrine contains the tomb of the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, who is particularly revered by Shia. At least 25 foreign militia members were said to be among the dead, along with 29 civilians including children.
"Two soldiers of the caliphate carried out martyrdom operations in a den of the infidels in the Sayyida Zeinab area, killing nearly 50 and injuring around 120," Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) said in a statement.
The bombing coincided with opening statements by the non-Isil Syrian rebel opposition on the arrival of a delegation to planned peace talks in Geneva. The regime delegation arrived on Friday.
Staffan de Mistura, United Nations envoy on Syria, who is hosting the talks, said he was hoping to start them on Monday, albeit with the two delegations sitting in separate rooms.
But it was not clear what they would discuss. The opposition is refusing to hold direct talks on a ceasefire until the regime has fulfilled demands made under a UN resolution last month, including an end to bombing of civilian areas and the lifting of sieges.
The opposition is demanding the release of political prisoners, especially women and children, as a goodwill gesture.
In his first briefing to journalists since arriving on Friday, Bashar al-Jaafari, the regime's chief negotiator, said Damascus was willing to “discuss” humanitarian issues. But he said the first aim of the talks was to stop Turkey and Jordan allowing foreign fighters into Syria, calling them “genetically modified”.
"There are foreign powers endorsing foreign agendas, aiming at making political pressure on the Syrian government by using terrorism as a political weapon,” he said.
However, the two groups internationally designated as terrorists and most responsible for suicide bombings of the sort that hit the Sayidda Zeinab mosque on Sunday, Isil and al-Qaeda’s local branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, have both not been invited to the talks.
Also missing is Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group backed by Turkey and Qatar that has been fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, and which the regime says it cannot accept as a negotiating partner.
The non-jihadist opposition, including political exiles, fear that the decision by Russia to join the war on the regime side means that Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president, is less likely to negotiate seriously, thinking he can win the war militarily.
In an ominous note, Burhan Ghalioun, a leader of the political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, last week warned that even if apparently defeated the rebels could turn Syria into “Afghanistan or Vietnam”.
One Western official also said that although it seemed that the regime and the Russians were winning, it was a myth that the opposition wanted a ceasefire because they were losing.
“They are confident they still have ways to conduct operations against the regime,” the official said.
Even Mr de Mistura is not predicting quick success. He says he expects the talks to last six months, while a position paper he wrote for the UN security council which was leaked at the weekend said even if there was a ceasefire it might be too dangerous for UN peace-keeping troops to monitor it.
Islamic State (Isil)
What is Isil?
An Islamic extremist group controlling territory in Syria and Iraq
What is it called?
In the West, the group is usually known as Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). In June, the militants said they wanted to simply be called Islamic State in recognition of the self-declared caliphate
What about 'Daesh'?
Daesh is an abbreviation Dawlat al-Islamiyah f'al-Iraq wa al-Sham, and is the derogatory name used by many Muslims for Isil. Following the Paris attacks, the French government is now using this term
What are its aims?
A worldwide Islamic caliphate - a religious government - without borders
What terror attacks has it carried out?
Isil has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015, the explosion of a plane travelling from Egypt to Russia, and the individual killings of Western hostages, including James Foley and Alan Henning
How is the group funded?
Looting, extortion and the possession of oilfields providing an estimated £1.8m in revenue per day
How much territory does Isil control?
An area of the Middle East that is roughly the size of Belgium
Where is it based?
Isil's HQ is understood to be in the city of Raqqa, Syria