Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid a Christmas visit Sunday to Christian orphans as his forces backed by Russia and Iran prepared new assaults in Aleppo.
Photos posted on official Syrian social media showed Assad and his fashionable wife, Asma, meeting with orphan children dressed in Santa suits and caps at a convent in Damascus.
The photo-op came as Syria entered its sixth year of civil war and Assad's forces readied new offensives in and around Aleppo, which he declared "liberated" last week following a months-long siege in which the U.S. and humanitarian groups charged that Russian and Syrian warplanes bombed hospitals, schools and aid convoys.
Assad's army backed by Iranian and Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters were continuing clearing operations in Aleppo and preparing assaults on the remnants of rebel forces in Aleppo's western suburbs, Iran's Tasnim news agency reported.
In his Christmas message from the Vatican, Pope Francis called for a negotiated settlement and peace in Syria, saying "far too much blood has been spilled" in the conflict.
According to the United Nations and independent monitors, Syria's civil war has killed more than 450,000, displaced nearly half of the country's pre-war population of 23 million and triggered a refugee crisis that has destabilized governments in Europe.
Last week, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and U.S. NATO-ally Turkey met in Moscow to coordinate plans for Syria and a possible "cessation of hostilities." The U.S. was not invited to the meeting.
On Sunday, Turkey moved tanks and artillery to the Syrian border and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his forces were prepared to help the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in taking Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Erdogan said Turkish assistance was conditional on President-elect Donald Trump barring the Syrian Kurdish YPG, or Popular Mobilization Units, from taking part in the liberation of Raqqa. The YPG has proven to be the most effective of the U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria, but Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group looking to carve out a Kurdish state in northeastern Syria.
"We will not allow the formation of a new state in northern Syria," Erdogan said. Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, on Monday criticized the U.S. for withholding air support from Turkey's military which pushed into northeastern Syria earlier this year to move against ISIS strongholds, Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported.
"We would like to express once more that the international coalition should make a special commitment particularly to provide air support," Kalin told reporters. "We are coordinating with the international coalition. It is unacceptable that air support is not provided without a legitimate reason."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.