Posts Tagged ‘chemical weapons’

Israel Strikes “Scientific Military Facility” of Assad Regime in Syria, Foreign Media Reports

December 5, 2017

Syrian forces fire anti-aircraft missiles toward Israeli jets, according to pro-Assad media reports

By Jack Khoury
Haaretz
December 5, 2017

Image result for Jamraya Research and Information Center, photos

Israeli forces reportedly struck an Assad regime military target near Damascus, foreign media reported. Syrian forces allegedly fired anti-aircraft missiles toward Israeli jets, pro-Assad media reported. This is the second reported Israeli strike in Syria in the past week.

Image result for Jamraya Research and Information Center, photos

FILE photo

According to the pro-Assad Al-Mayadeen website, the Israeli strikes targeted the Jamraya Research and Information Center, a security facility in a Damascus suburb. Local residents reported hearing loud blasts. The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar reported that Syrian forces intercepted three of the six missiles fired by Israel.

Image result for Jamraya Research and Information Center, photos

The “scientific military facility” in Jamarya, a suburb northwest of Damascus, is known to Western intelligence agencies as a Syrian military complex where the Assad regime has developed missiles, rockets and apparently also non-conventional weapons.

 

Satellite images depicting the damage wreaked on the bombed Iranian military base in Syria surfaced on Monday, two days following the attack, which foreign media attributed to Israel.

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Media outlets affiliated with the Syrian regime said Israel Air Force jets fired missiles at the base overnight Friday, which was under construction and situated near Damascus, in the city of Al-Kiswa.
Details to follow

Jack Khoury
read more: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.826824

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Russia attacks, intimidation campaign ‘biased’ chemical arms watchdog over Syria

November 28, 2017

AFP

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© AFP/File | The April 4 attack on the rebel-held Syrian village of Khan Sheikhun killed more than 80 people and triggered global outrage
THE HAGUE (AFP) – Russia launched a scathing attack Tuesday on the global chemical weapons watchdog, accusing it of bias in its probe into the Khan Sheikhun gas attack in Syria earlier this year.In a speech to the annual gathering of the members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Moscow’s representative lashed what he called “unprofessional and politically-biased working methods” by the body’s inspectors.

This “probably came down from an order on high where some of the Western countries wanted their own version of the bombing in Khan Sheikhun with chemical weapons,” said Georgy Kalamanov, Russia’s deputy minister of trade and industry.

The April 4 attack on the opposition-held Syrian village triggered global outrage as images of dying children were shown worldwide. More than 80 people died, and the United States just days later launched missile strikes on a Syrian air base.

A joint OPCW and UN body, known as the joint mechanism or JIM, has found that it was the Syrian air force that dropped sarin gas on Khan Sheikhun.

But that finding has been fiercely contested by Damascus.

Russia has also rejected the investigation as flawed because the experts did not travel to Khan Sheikhun and said inspectors relied on witnesses that it says were linked to the opposition of President Bashar al-Assad.

It has called for the investigation to be put aside and for a new one to be carried out. Moscow has also twice used its power of veto at the UN Security Council to block the renewal of the JIM.

– ‘Double standard’ –

Syria was being hit by “unfounded accusations” of chemical weapons use even though for years it “has been combatting terrorism and extremism that has been sponsored from outside,” said Kalamanov, adding that was a “double standard” which is only “undermining the credibility of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW.”

The issue of Syria has dominated the annual talks in The Hague of the 192 countries which have ratified the arms treaty, which commits all member states to rid the world of chemical weapons.

Many delegates have bemoaned the lack of condemnation of Syria, which joined the convention in 2013 under Russia and US pressure, at the OPCW.

“Chemical weapons use by the Syrian Arab Republic remains the most serious violation of the CWC in the convention?s 20-year history and the greatest modern challenge to the global norm against chemical weapons use,” said top US official Andrea Hall.

France insists “we cannot accept that a member state to the OPCW has violated our convention by using chemical weapons and does not accept its responsibilities,” said French ambassador Philippe Lalliot.

The JIM, set up two years ago, has also concluded that Syrian regime forces were behind two chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015, while the so-called Islamic State jihadist group used mustard gas in 2015.

The debate at the OPCW headquarters comes as UN-backed talks on ending the six-year civil war in Syria resumed in Geneva.

© 2017 AFP

Syria Can’t Hide From Its Use of Chemical Weapons: World’s chemical weapons watchdog says — Assad regime admits to nothing

November 27, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | The April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhun triggered global outrage as images of suffering children, such as these receiveing treatment, were shown worldwide

THE HAGUE (AFP) – Syria came under pressure Monday to fill in gaps in its declaration to the world’s chemical weapons watchdog amid reports of toxic arms use during its six-year civil war, triggering angry Syrian denials.A fact-finding mission from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has issued three reports showing the use of chemicals weapons in the country in recent years, OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu said.

Image result for Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, photos

“It’s very disturbing that yet again we are confronted with the use of chemical weapons,” Uzumcu told the annual conference of countries belonging to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

It was “vital… that the long-held international norm against chemical weapons remains strong and the perpetrators are held accountable,” Uzumcu said.

The 1993 arms treaty binds all member states to help rid the world of chemical weapons.

Syria under President Bashar al-Assad finally joined in 2013, admitting under US-Russian pressure to having a toxic arms stockpile, and thus staving off threatened US air strikes.

Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad hit back at what he said were “false accusations” of the regime’s alleged involvement in attacks, saying the “politicised findings” of the OPCW fact-finding mission aimed to “smear the image of Syria” and destabilise his country.

– ‘No impunity’ –

He insisted that 100 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile had been destroyed by the OPCW.

Countries had “sent their mercenaries from all over the world and encouraged them to use chemical weapons and toxic chemical against civilians and the Syrian army,” he claimed.

He insisted the fact-finding team should carry out a new investigation.

The debate in The Hague came on the eve of fresh talks in Geneva with the United Nations aiming to revitalise flagging efforts to end the six-year conflict in which more than 340,000 people have been killed.

A joint UN-OPCW body, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), in its latest report blamed the Syrian air force for a sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun in April that left scores dead.

Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Estonia’s representative for non-proliferation, Jacek Bylica, said EU countries were “appalled by the recurring systematic use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Syrian government and by (the jihadist group) ISIL.”

“There can be no impunity and those responsible for such acts must be held accountable,” he said, calling on Damascus to work with the OPCW to complete an accurate picture of its chemical weapons stockpile.

The OPCW has declared that 100 percent of the Syrian regime’s stocks have been destroyed, but has increasingly voiced concerns that not everything was declared.

Little prospect of Syria peace progress in Geneva talks

November 27, 2017

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Syria — A man stands on the rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the rebel-held town of Mesraba in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, November 26, 2017. Reuters photo

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A breakthrough in U.N.-backed Syria peace talks in Geneva this week seems no more likely than in seven earlier rounds as President Bashar al-Assad pushes for total military victory and his opponents stick by their demand he leave power.

A Syrian newspaper reported on Monday that the government delegation would delay its planned Tuesday arrival in Geneva because of the opposition’s insistence that Assad step down.

The stance is seen by Damascus and its allies as divorced from reality after their steady march of victories since Russia entered the war in 2015. The rebels have been forced from all Syria’s big cities and their hopes of toppling Assad by military means look finished.

The opposition has also accused the government of refusing to seriously engage.

“The Assad regime must not be allowed to play for time while people are being besieged and bombed,” said Yahya al-Aridi, head of the opposition’s negotiating committee, on Sunday.

Last week a senior Assad adviser said talks could only succeed if rebels laid down their arms. Over the weekend, air strikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta district near Damascus intensified, killing 23 on Sunday, according to a war monitor.

“You cannot expect very much,” said Nikolaos Van Dam, a former Dutch diplomat in Damascus and author of two books about Syria.

“The regime doesn’t want to really negotiate. They want to reconquer every inch of Syrian territory and then negotiate. But then the opposition would have no bargaining chips,” he said.

Russia has pushed its own parallel track of diplomacy since early this year, bringing together Assad’s other main ally Iran, as well as Turkey, which has been one of the rebels’ biggest supporters.

Russia has elections next year and President Vladimir Putin wants to show progress towards a political deal after two years of fighting far from Russian soil. Moscow has already said it will bring many troops home from Syria by the end of the year.

But Putin may also seek to tout diplomatic progress as he angles for Western countries to take up some of the expensive burden of post-war reconstruction in Syria, now most likely to fall on Russia, Iran and China.

Western foreign ministers said in September their support hinges on a “credible political process leading to a genuine political transition”, a process they have said requires the involvement of the opposition.

“Russia wants the end of the war but it wants its ally intact. So what would be the compromise that is acceptable to the opposition or to the other countries? It’s not clear to me,” said Van Dam.

RUSSIAN PUSH

Moscow now plans a “Syrian Congress”, bringing together the government and some opposition groups to write a new constitution leading to elections.

The main opposition has already rejected the idea, saying all talks must come under the United Nations.

But the government has said it backs the congress, as has Turkey, which has some sway over rebel groups in the northwest.

“There is an acceleration in the political solution on the basis of a unified Syria headed by Bashar al-Assad, with amendments to the constitution and in the election law,” a senior, pro-Assad official in the region said.

The Syrian government declared on Sunday that it would support the formation of a committee that will discuss the current constitution and is expected to be set up at the congress. It also said would support U.N. participation in legislative elections to be held after that discussion.

This week’s Geneva talks will focus on the issues of elections and a constitution, Ramzi Ramzi, the deputy United Nations special envoy for Syria said in Damascus on Saturday.

KURDISH GROUPS

The war has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, made millions refugees, ruined big cities and left troops from Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States, as well as Shi’ite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan on Syrian soil.

After a campaign across central and eastern Syria against Islamic State this year, the government controls more territory than any other force in the country.

But rebels still hold a swathe of northwest Syria, next to Turkey, and an enclave in the southwest near Israel and Jordan. They have other pockets near Damascus and Homs.

Kurdish groups and allied Arab militia backed by the United States also hold the northeast and are holding elections there this week for local councils in an effort to cement autonomy.

They have not been invited to Geneva talks and are regarded by Syria’s neighbor Turkey as being an extension of the PKK, which has waged an insurgency against Ankara for three decades.

Assad has sworn to recover all of his state and visiting Iranian officials have indicated that new military campaigns may soon start against both the rebels and the Kurds.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry in Beirut, Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

With new chief negotiator, Syria opposition poised for Geneva peace talks

November 26, 2017

AFP

© Xu Jinquan/Pool/AFP | High Negotiations Committee (HNC) leader Nasr al-Hariri arrives for a new round of negotiations with Special Envoy of The UN Secretary-General for Syria during the Intra Syria talks in Geneva on July 14, 2017.

Text by FRANCE 24 

Latest update : 2017-11-26

Syria’s main opposition group selected a new chief negotiator on Friday ahead of a new round of United Nations-backed peace negotiations with the Damascus government set to kick off next week.

Nasr Hariri said the opposition was going to Geneva on Tuesday to hold direct talks and was ready to discuss “everything on the negotiating table”.

The UN will be trying to revitalise its flagging Syria peace process, buoyed by the prospect of hosting a unified opposition delegation in Geneva for the first time.

The UN-brokered talks to end the war that has killed more than 340,000 people since 2011 have achieved little through seven previous rounds, leaving them overshadowed by separate diplomatic pushes led by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura, who describes himself as a “chronic optimist” and highlights incremental progress where others see stalemate, has voiced hope that this eighth round will mark the first “real negotiation”.

For that to happen rival sides will need to overcome the hurdle that has derailed past discussions: the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

De Mistura, typically a cautious diplomat, has bluntly told the main opposition High Negotiations Committee that its demand for Assad’s ouster may no longer be tenable.

In September, he said the HNC needed to be “realistic” and realise “they didn’t win the war”. Those comments infuriated the opposition.

But the UN envoy’s position is supported by facts on the ground.

Backed by Russian military support, Assad’s government has regained control of more than half the country, while the rest remains carved up between rebel factions, jihadists and Kurdish forces.

Assad role hurdle

The announcement of Hariri’s selection as chief negotiator came at a summit in Riyadh where, a day before, the opposition stuck by its demand that Assad play no role in an interim period, despite speculation that it could soften its stance because of the Syrian president’s battlefield strength.

The opposition groups met to seek a unified position ahead of Geneva.

Hariri replaces hardliner Riyad Hijab, who led the HNC at previous negotiations but abruptly quit this week, hinting that the committee under him had faced pressures to make concessions that favoured Assad.

Preparing for the next round of Geneva talks, De Mistura met on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Moscow was working with Riyadh to unify the Syrian opposition.

For many years, Western and Arab countries backed the opposition demand that Assad leave office. But since Russia joined the war on behalf of Assad’s government it has become increasingly clear that Assad’s opponents have no path to victory on the battlefield.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for a congress of the Syrian government and opposition to draw up a framework for the future structure of the Syrian state, adopt a new constitution and hold elections under UN supervision.

But he has also said that any political settlement in Syria would be finalised within the Geneva peace talks process overseen by the United Nations.

Parallel diplomacy

The opposition has long been suspicious of the parallel diplomatic track pushed by Russia, which before the proposed Sochi congress included talks in Kazakhstan, and has insisted that political dialogue should only take place in Geneva.

Hariri said Sochi did not serve the political process and called on the international community, including Russia, “to concentrate all our efforts to serve the political process according to international resolutions in Geneva under UN auspices”.

Alaa Arafat, who represents the “Moscow Platform” political grouping, though, said he would attend Sochi and urged others to go too, reflecting lingering tensions within the diverse opposition.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir, who opened the summit on Wednesday pledging his country’s support for unifying the opposition, praised the creation of “one negotiating team that represents everyone”.

Asked if there was any change in position towards Assad’s future, he told reporters that Riyadh continued to support a settlement based on the UN-backed process at Geneva.

“We support the positions of the Syrian opposition. We have from the beginning and we will continue to do so,” he said.

Syria’s six-year-old civil war has forced millions to flee in the worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

Israel Vows To Destroy Iranian Positions Within 40 KM of Syrian Border

November 26, 2017
BY SHOSHANA KRANISH
 NOVEMBER 26, 2017 09:39

Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly offered Netanyahu a comprehensive deal that would include a demilitarized zone stretching 40 kilometers from the border.

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks overlooking the border between Israel and Syria

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks overlooking the border between Israel and Syria. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida revealed on Sunday that an Israeli source disclosed a promise from Jerusalem to destroy all Iranian facilities within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Israel’s Golan Heights.

The source, who remains unnamed, said that during Syrian President Bashar Assad’s surprise visit to Russia last week, Assad gave Russian Premier Vladimir Putin a message for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Damascus will agree to a demilitarized zone of up to 40 kilometers from the border in the Golan Heights as part of a comprehensive agreement between the two countries, but only if Israel does not work to remove Assad’s regime from power.

The report also claims that Putin then called Netanyahu to relay the message, and that the Israeli prime minister said he would be willing to accept the deal, but that Israel’s goal of eradicating Iran and Hezbollah from the country would remain.

According to the source, Jerusalem sees Assad as the last president of the Alawite community, indicating that a change of regime in Syria – at least towards a government less-linked to Iran – would be favorable for Israel. The Alawites are a minority Shi’ite community in Syria, and have long been supported by Iran, which seeks to extend its influence from the Gulf across the region to the Mediterranean.

The source also commented that after the defeat of the Islamic State, the conflict in Syria would become ”more difficult,” likely pointing towards a vacuum that would be left without the group. Russian, Syrian and Iranian-backed forces have been fighting against ISIS, while also seeking to knock out rebel groups that oppose the current regime. Russia’s stated interests have been in line with Iran’s in wanting to keep Assad in power.

Israel has participated mostly on the periphery of the war in Syria, responding to fire on the northern border and occasionally bombing positions, including a weapons depot and scientific research center that allegedly produces chemical weapons. Damascus and Jerusalem have exchanged heated remarks as well, with Netanyahu threatening to bomb Assad’s palace, and Syrian officials warning of ‘‘dangerous repercussions” to Israeli strikes on Syrian targets.

Over the course of the war, Israel has operated several field hospitals near the Syrian border, where those injured from the war are treated and subsequently returned to Syria. Some of those who have been treated have been rebels fighting against the Assad regime, leading some to say that Israel is assisting the rebels to unseat Assad.

Yasser Okbi contributed to this report. 

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Russian blockade of Syrian chemical attacks probe prevents chemical weapons watchdog of UN from bringing international criminals to account

November 25, 2017
“Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable…”

 

Syrians flee following a reported government airstrike in Hamouria, in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP/file)

THE HAGUE: The head of the international chemical weapons watchdog said Friday that Russia’s veto of UN Security Council resolutions to extend the mandate of an investigation team that lays blame for chemical attacks in Syria “creates a gap which needs to be addressed by the international community.”

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The mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, set up by the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) expired earlier this month after the Syrian government’s staunch ally Russia blocked efforts to extend its mandate.
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© AFP/File / by Maria PANINA | This Syrian child was among the victims of a suspected sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun on April 4, which a UN report has blamed on the regime of Bashar al-Assad

Russia has been highly critical of the JIM’s findings that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and used the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun last April 4 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others.

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The JIM also accused Daesh of using mustard gas in 2015 and again in September 2016 in Um Hosh in Aleppo.
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OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu lamented the end of the JIM.
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“It is unfortunate that the mandate of this mechanism is not extended and clearly that creates a gap which needs to be addressed by the international community,” he told The Associated Press.
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Members of the OPCW’s Executive Council were scheduled to meet later Friday to debate their response to the report.
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A draft decision put forward by the US, Colombia, Estonia and Saudi Arabia is expected to be discussed.
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It calls for the council to demand that the Syrian government immediately stop using chemical weapons and to express “its strong conviction that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable,” according to a copy of the draft text seen by The Associated Press.
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Executive Council decisions are generally adopted by consensus, but with the US and its allies at loggerheads with Russia and its supporters, it is likely to be put to a vote.
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Russia and Iran also filed a draft decision for the council earlier this month calling for a “full scale, professional, and high quality investigation” in Khan Sheikhoun, including a site visit.
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“There are serious differences of view on the issues that are being discussed because it’s somehow the extension of the conflict which is still underway in Syria,” Uzumcu said.
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The OPCW has a fact-finding mission, which works to confirm allegations of chemical attacks in Syria, but does not apportion blame.
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Uzumcu said that there are allegations of more than 80 different uses of chemicals as weapons over the last two years.
“The list is long,” he said.
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Uzumcu said that mission will continue, including a visit to Damascus soon to look into Syrian government claims of attacks by fighters.
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Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia, on November 22, 2017

Bashar al-Assad needs to leave before there’s peace, Syrian opposition says

November 25, 2017

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to leave before any peace deal in Syria, opposition leaders say.

Story highlights

  • Syrian opposition says it can’t achieve fair negotiations “without the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his regime members”
  • The UN-backed peace talks are set to begin on November 28 in Geneva, Switzerland
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(CNN)Key Syrian opposition groups insist that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should play no role in any transitional period under any peace deal supervised by the United Nations.

Saudi Arabia hosted a two-day “expanded” conference for the Syrian opposition forces in Riyadh on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the UN-backed peace talks set for Geneva, Switzerland, to find a solution for the war-torn country.
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In its draft resolution of the Riyadh meeting, Syrian opposition groups said they can’t achieve fair negotiations “without the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his regime members at the beginning of the transitional period.”
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The Syrian opposition factions also called on the United Nations through its representative “to take immediate necessary measures to activate the political process and to correct the Geneva negotiations by holding direct and unconditional negotiations between representatives from the Syrian opposition members and Syrian regime members,” the draft said.
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Opposition leaders, the United States and their allies hold the Assad regime responsible for the mass slaughter of civilians and rebel fighters seeking an end to his family’s decadeslong rule. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also repeatedly said there is no place for Assad in Syria’s future.
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UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Wednesday that Syrian opposition groups meeting in Saudi Arabia should do all they can to unify ahead of a fresh round of the UN-facilitated talks scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
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The UN special envoy called for the opposition groups to take a “common line” on their country’s future.
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The UN-sponsored peace talks are part of a “road map” for peace detailed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which the council adopted in December 2015.
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Among the provisions, the resolution called for a political transition aimed at establishing “a credible, inclusive and nonsectarian governance” in Syria. It also foresees that negotiations will result in a new constitution and transparent elections.
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Opposition groups have demanded an end of nearly 45 years of Assad family rule but Assad hasn’t offered any indication he would step aside. Ahead of earlier negotiations last year in Switzerland aimed at ending the civil war, Assad’s chief envoy said Aasad’s political future was nonnegotiable.
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Chief diplomats from the United States, Britain and other Security Council nations have previously said Assad must leave office as part of any peace deal, arguing that Assad has lost his credibility to lead his country. But while the UN resolution calls for a political transitional governing body with full executive powers, it doesn’t mention or explicitly exclude Assad.
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Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to hold a “congress” in Russia that would bring together Syria’s warring factions for the peace talks. Putin’s comments came after a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
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Putin and his government have been among the chief supporters of the Assad regime, both militarily and in helping to negotiate ceasefires in the country’s long-running civil war.
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Since the war began in 2011, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations. Assad has ruled Syria as President since July 2000. The ongoing violence against civilians has been condemned by the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and other countries. As of March 2017, more than 5 million Syrians have fled the country and 6.3 million people are displaced internally.

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http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/23/middleeast/syrian-opposition-no-bashar-al-assad/index.html

Syria opposition meets in Riyadh under pressure to compromise

November 22, 2017

AFP

© AFP / by Anuj Chopra with Layal Abou Rahal in Beirut | Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (R) sits next to the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura (C), during Syrian opposition meeting in Riyadh

RIYADH (AFP) – Syrian opposition figures met in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in a bid to form an overhauled delegation to peace talks that analysts say may be more willing to compromise on key demands.The meeting came as Iran, Russia and Turkey held a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, pressing their diplomatic dash to resolve Syria’s six-year conflict with a new round of UN-brokered peace talks set to open in Geneva next Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani had agreed to a “congress” of Syrian regime and opposition forces in Sochi, aimed at boosting the Geneva process.

The Riyadh meeting was co-chaired by the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who said the aim was to reach a “fair solution” to the conflict.

De Mistura said the goal was to give momentum to next week’s talks in Geneva by forging a unified opposition delegation, as long demanded by the Syrian government.

He said he would travel to Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian officials.

“I’m always optimistic… especially in this moment,” he said.

The 140 or so delegates from a wide range of opposition platforms are under heavy pressure to row back on some of their more radical demands after a series of recent battlefield victories that have given President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the upper hand.

Absent are several former leading figures who were seen as unwilling to compromise.

Among them is Riad Hijab, who stepped down as leader of the Saudi-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) ahead of the meeting complaining that there were “attempts to lower the ceiling of the revolution and prolong the regime”.

Multiple rounds of talks hosted by the UN have failed to bring an end to the war in Syria, which has killed more than 330,000 people since 2011 and forced millions from their homes.

Factions opposed to Assad have been plagued by divisions throughout the maelstrom.

Participants in the Riyadh meeting include members of the Istanbul-based National Coalition as well as of rival Cairo- and Moscow-based groups seen as more favourable to the regime, and independent figures.

Qadri Jamil, who heads the Moscow-based group, on Wednesday announced he would not be attending the talks, citing what he said was the Syrian opposition’s inability to agree on “the bases and principles” of their stance at the Saudi summit.

The National Coalition meanwhile said Jamil had pulled out after “disagreement over an article on Bashar al-Assad stepping down and the start of a transitional phase” in Syria.

– Forming ‘the right opposition’ –

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he expected that the withdrawal of Hijab and other hardliners in recent days would “help the Syria-based and foreign-based opposition unite on a constructive basis”.

Observers said it could clear the way for a new negotiating team that would water down some of the opposition’s longstanding demands, notably Assad’s immediate ouster.

His fate has been one of the chief obstacles to progress in peace talks, with the opposition demanding he step down at the start of any transition.

“The Saudi pitch to the Syrian opposition has been that denial will only make the situation worse, and that they have to rethink their strategy,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.

“The problem… is that the political opposition does not see it that way, and most activists are still struck in the 2012 thinking, that Assad has to be toppled.”

Ahead of the meeting, dozens of prominent civilian and armed opposition figures appealed to participants not to compromise on the “ouster of Bashar al-Assad and his gang”.

“No one should back down or quietly circumvent” it, they said in an online statement.

HNC member Yehya al-Aridi acknowledged some participants, notably the Moscow platform, were more flexible on the president’s future.

But they “do not represent the choices of the revolution or the Syrian people,” Aridi told AFP.

And Hisham Marwah, another National Coalition member, said his group’s “positions toward Assad have not changed”.

“Whoever is betting on the Riyadh conference to legitimise the presence of Assad is delusional,” Marwah told AFP.

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by Anuj Chopra with Layal Abou Rahal in Beirut

Putin Hosts Turkish, Iranian Presidents in Bid to Shape Syria — Sochi conference signals Moscow’s determination to mold Syria’s future in favor of Bashar al-Assad

November 22, 2017

Sochi conference signals Moscow’s determination to mold Syria’s future in favor of Bashar al-Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin pressed his efforts to shape a postwar political settlement in Syria at a summit Wednesday with the leaders of Turkey and Iran in Sochi.

Russian state television showed Mr. Putin greeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a palatial Soviet-era sanatorium in the Black Sea resort city on Wednesday afternoon.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/putin-hosts-turkish-iranian-presidents-in-bid-to-shape-syria-1511364822