Posts Tagged ‘de Mistura’

Russia To Target U.S. and Coalition Aircraft Over Syria

June 19, 2017

Russia steps up rhetoric after U.S. fighter shoots down Syrian government jet


June 19, 2017 10:33 a.m. ET

MOSCOW—Russia escalated tensions with the United States Monday, promising to actively track U.S. and coalition aircraft over Syria with air defense systems and warplanes, the country’s defense ministry said.

In a statement released Monday, the Russian military said it would treat U.S. and coalition operating west of the Euphrates Rivers as “aerial targets,” but stopped short of threatening a shootdown.

“In regions where the…



Russia warns US-led coalition over downing of Syrian jet


Defence ministry says planes flying west of Euphrates will be treated as targets and that it has suspended safety agreement with US

A US navy F/A-18 Super Hornet
The Pentagon confirmed that a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet had shot down a Syrian warplane on Sunday. Photograph: US DoD handout/EPA

Russia’s defence ministry has said it will treat any plane from the US-led coalition flying west of the Euphrates river in Syria as a potential target, after the US military shot down a Syrian air force jet on Sunday.

The ministry also said it was suspending a safety agreement with Washington designed to prevent collisions and dangerous incidents in Syrian airspace.

According to the Pentagon the Syrian jet in question had dropped bombs near US partner forces involved in the fight to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State (Isis) control. It was the first such US attack on a Syrian air force plane since the start of the country’s civil war six years ago.

In an apparent attempt at deescalation, Viktor Ozerov, the chairman of the defence and security committee at the upper chamber of Russian parliament, described the defence ministry’s statement as a warning. “I’m sure that because of this neither the US nor anyone else will take any actions to threaten our aircraft,” he told the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. “That’s why there’s no threat of direct confrontation between Russia and American aircraft.”

Ozerov said Russia will be tracking the coalition’s jets, not shooting them down, but he added that “a threat for those jets may appear only if they take action that pose a threat to Russian aircraft”.

The deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said the US strike “has to be seen as a continuation of America’s line to disregard the norms of international law.

“What is this if not an act of aggression? It is, if you like, help to those terrorists that the US is fighting against, declaring they are carrying out an anti-terrorism policy.”

The Russian response increases the risk of an inadvertent air fight breaking out between US and Russian warplanes in the skies above Syria.

The US military confirmed that a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet had shot down a Syrian SU-22 on Sunday. The US said the Syrian jet had dropped bombs near Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters who are aligned with US forces in the fight against Isis. Damascus said its plane had been on anti-Isis mission.

Col John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command, said there were no US forces in the immediate vicinity of the Syrian attack but that the SDF was under threat for more than two hours.

The growing risk of a direct confrontation between the US and Russia follows a decision by Donald Trump to grant his military chiefs untrammelled control of US military strategy in Syria.

Tensions have also been bubbling between Washington and Moscow over efforts to dislodge Isis from its Raqqa stronghold.

Russia, a staunch supporter of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has been pressing the US to make the removal of Isis a joint land and air operation, but discussions over Syria’s long-term political future appear to have ground to a halt, leaving the US military to operate in a political vacuum.

The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters working alongside western special forces, said it would take action to defend itself from Syrian warplanes if attacks continued.

The Trump administration has promised to improve arms supplies to the SDF after it concluded that it was the force most capable of freeing Raqqa from Isis.

In a sign of how complex the Syrian peace process has become, Russian-sponsored peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, are scheduled to resume on the same day – 10 July – as talks convened by the UN in Geneva.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced the date on Monday in the knowledge that it would coincide with the UN schedule. He also said that the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, would take part.

A spokesman for de Mistura said “the subject is currently being discussed”.


Kerry: US, Russia studying new ideas to stop Syria fighting

December 2, 2016

The Associated Press

US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, meets  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a Mediterranean Dialogues Summit in Rome, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

By BRADLEY KLAPPER, Associated Press

ROME (AP) — The United States and Russia are studying new ways to break a monthslong diplomatic deadlock over how to stop the fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday. He said the “ideas” will be tested in follow-up discussions between American and Russian diplomats next week.

While Kerry didn’t elaborate on the substance of the fresh approaches, he stressed that the U.S. and Russia both see the situation as urgent and aren’t waiting for Donald Trump’s presidency to begin on Jan. 20. But given the repeated failures of the former Cold War foes to halt Syria’s 5 ½-year civil war, it is unclear how much hope the new effort holds.

“We have exchanged a set of ideas, which there will be a meeting on early next week in Geneva, and we have to wait and see whether those ideas have any legs to them,” Kerry said after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Rome. “I will say that both sides understand the importance of trying to continue the diplomacy and trying to see if something can be done. Nobody is waiting for the next administration. We both feel there is urgency.”

Kerry said he will gauge progress with Lavrov when they meet again on the sidelines of a European security conference in Hamburg, Germany, on Wednesday.

While the talks were going on, Syria showed off its recent gains in Aleppo, once the country’s largest city and commercial center.

State media reported Friday from areas captured this week in a Russian-backed ground offensive, airing reports of roads being restored, debris removed and civilians resettled. The U.N. aid agency said an estimated 31,500 people have been displaced as a result of the recent fighting, which takes Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government closer to capturing the whole city and completing what would be perhaps a devastating blow to U.S.-backed rebel forces.

The war has killed as many as half a million people since 2011, contributed to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II and allowed the Islamic State group to emerge as a global terror threat.

Friday’s diplomatic discussions took place in a hotel several stories above an Italian-hosted conference on the Mediterranean region, and Russia’s Lavrov emphasized that his country won’t allow Syria to follow the example of lawless Libya after NATO’s 2011 intervention that helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi. That country now is experiencing perhaps its worst violence in two years as rival militias and extremist groups such as IS continue to vie for power.

While Washington has accused Moscow of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, Lavrov blamed both the U.S. and United Nations for the current situation.

He lamented that the U.S. has been unable to fulfill its commitment under several past cease-fire plans to separate the so-called “moderate” opposition groups from the al-Qaida-linked fighters that Russia says it is targeting. And he questioned why the U.N. isn’t restarting peace talks or rushing aid to areas of Syria in need, something the global body has been extremely reticent to do since a September convoy was hit by an airstrike. The U.S. has blamed Russia for that attack, a charge Moscow denies.

“The time is ripe for compromise,” Lavrov said.

Both diplomats met Friday with the U.N.’s envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

As de Mistura began his meeting with Kerry, reporters could hear the peace mediator telling the U.S. secretary of state, “Anything but stalemate.”

Russia denies its strikes hit Syrian boy in photo — Shocked and bloodied Syrian child serves as a wake up call of anger at leaders unable to stop Syria’s war

August 19, 2016


Images of shell-shocked four-year-old Omran, pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, have captured the world’s attention (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Rslan)

MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia on Friday denied that one of its air raids hit a dazed and bloodied Syrian boy whose heart-wrenching photograph has drawn worldwide attention.

The defence ministry issued an official denial that it carried out a strike on eastern Aleppo on Wednesday evening when the images of four-year-old Omran were taken.

“The Russian planes operating in Syria never work on targets that are inside settled areas,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

The photographer who shot the video for Aleppo Media Centre, a network of activists, told AFP he took the images after an air strike on Wednesday night hit the Qaterji neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo.

Konashenkov said Qaterji was particularly out of bounds for Russian strikes because it adjoins two of the humanitarian corridors Moscow has opened for residents to flee.

He branded Western media reports on Omran as a “cynical exploitation” of the tragic situation in eastern Aleppo and “cliched anti-Russian propaganda”.

He suggested the attack could have been carried out by rebels in Aleppo using homemade rockets to target roads close to the humanitarian corridors to undermine Russia’s efforts.

He also suggested however that the area where Omran was may not have been bombed at all, citing footage of unbroken windows.

“If a strike really did take place,” he said, it was not an aerial strike but either a gas cylinder “used in large quantities there by terrorists” or a mortar shell.

Russia said Thursday that its strikes by warplanes based in Iran hit areas held by the Islamic State jihadist group in Deir Ezzor province, the third day of raids from the Hamedan base.


Beirut (AFP) – Photographer Mahmoud Rslan has taken many pictures of children killed in Syria’s war but none as haunting as the one showing Omran, four years old, dazed and covered in blood.

Shot after an air strike that hit a rebel-held district the battlefield northern city of Aleppo, the picture of Omran shows the brutality of Syria’s five-year conflict and the suffering of people trapped by fighting.

“I’ve taken a lot of pictures of children killed or wounded in the strikes that rain down daily,” Rslan told AFP on Thursday, the day after he captured the image that has gone viral on social networks.

“Usually they are either unconscious or crying. But Omran was there, speechless, staring blankly, as if he did not quite understand what had happened to him,” he said by telephone.

A video filmed by the Aleppo Media Centre, a network of activists in the divided northern city, shows Omran sitting still in an ambulance, his face, arms and legs caked with blood and dust.

He stares into space, raises his arms to touch his bloodied forehead, looks at his hand then wipes it on the ambulance seat.

Omran has a head full of hair that fall into his eyes.

He is wearing a T-shirt and shorts but his feet are bare, having apparently lost his shoes when he was pulled out alive but in shock from the family apartment destroyed in an air raid.

Wednesday night’s air strike hit the Qaterji neighbourhood in rebel-held east Aleppo, Syria’s former economic hub which is divided between insurgent and regime control.

Rslan was nearby when he heard the raids at 7:15 pm (1615 GMT).

“It was dark already but I saw a building that had totally collapsed and another half destroyed,” he said.

He and rescuers rushed to the buildings to search for survivors.

When they reached the first building, they had to step over three bodies before they could go inside and once there they could not go any further because the staircase had collapsed.

Rslan and the rescuers went next door and found Omran and his family, wounded but alive.

– ‘Symbol of innocence’ –

They were plucked out of the building one by one, brought down through balconies.

Omran was the first to be carried to an ambulance, followed by his 5-year-old brother, his sisters, 8 and 11, and finally the rescuers took out the parents.

“When we placed Omran in the ambulance there was some light, so I was able to take pictures,” Rslan said.

“Omran was in a state of shock, a wall had collapsed on him and his family,” he said.

“This child like all children in Syria is a symbol of innocence. They have nothing to do with wars.”

Syrian and Russian aircraft have been carrying out intense air strikes this week on opposition strongholds across northern Syria to prevent rebels sending reinforcements to Aleppo, a monitoring group has said.

Aleppo has been the scene of fierce fighting since July 31, when the “Army of Conquest” alliance of rebels and jihadists launched a major offensive to break a regime siege of opposition-controlled districts

The haunting image of Omran reverberated around the globe, much like the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi whose drowned trying to reach Europe with his family last September.

Aylan’s body washed ashore on a Turkish beach.

Thousands of Syrian asylum seekers have continued to attempt the deadly crossing to Europe in rickety boats, joining thousands others from Africa and other Arab countries hoping for a better life.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 290,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations.


Battle for Aleppo: Photo of shocked and bloodied Syrian five-year-old sparks outrage
BBC News, 18 August 2016

A photograph of a dazed and bloodied Syrian boy rescued from a destroyed building in Aleppo after an air strike has caused outrage around the world.

Images of the boy sitting in an ambulance were released by activists and have since been shared widely on social media.

He was identified as five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, who was treated for head wounds on Wednesday, doctors said.

His parents and three siblings are believed to have survived the attack.

The pro-opposition Aleppo Media Centre said the pictures of Omran had been taken in the rebel-held Qaterji district late on Wednesday, reportedly following Russian air strikes that killed at least three people and injured 12 others.

The video shows the boy being carried out of a damaged building by a medic and then placed on a seat in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust and with a blood-covered face.

Omran is then left sitting quietly, appearing stunned by the ordeal. He runs his hand over his face and looks at the blood before wiping it on the seat.

Omran’s picture has already led to comparisons with another disturbing image, that of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach after his family attempted to cross to Greece.

Tweet by @khalidalbaih on 18 August 2016 saying


Fighting between government and rebel forces has escalated in recent weeks in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial and industrial hub, leaving hundreds dead.

Russia said it was ready to stop military operations in the city for a 48-hour period as early as next week after UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura pleaded for a “gesture of humanity” to allow aid deliveries to hundreds of thousands of people trapped there.

No aid has been delivered to besieged areas since the beginning of the month.

‘The horror of Aleppo’

Omran was pulled from the remains of a destroyed block of flats along with his parents and three siblings, aged one, six and 11, Al Jazeera Mubashir journalist Mahmoud Raslan told AP news agency.

“We were passing them from one balcony to the other,” Mr Raslan – who took the photo – said, adding that he had been handed three lifeless bodies before receiving the injured boy.

Doctors said Omran was treated for head injuries and later discharged and none of his family sustained major injuries.

Doctored image showing injured Syrian boy sitting at empty seat of Syria at Arab League meeting (17 August 2016)

Image copyright TWITTER / @ABOYOSHA3HOMS.Image caption Omran’s photo has been superimposed onto Syria’s empty seat at a meeting of the Arab League

Image copyright@RAFSANCHEZ

The shell-shocked boy’s image has prompted an outpouring of anger at the continuing fighting.

“The stunned, bloodied face of a child survivor sums up the horror of Aleppo,”tweeted Adib Shishakly, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Turkish-based commentator Omar Madaniah wrote: “A boy has come out from underneath the rubble in Aleppo after Russian airplanes targeted him. This is the terrorist that all states are uniting against.”

Saudi media figure Jamal Khashoggi tweeted: “It is as if he is sitting at the Arab summit or the Security Council chiding those who are silent with his own silence and looks.”

More than 250,000 people have died in almost five years of war in Syria, with a further 11 million people displaced by the conflict, according to the UN.

Diplomacy sidelined – Imogen Foulkes, BBC News, Geneva

Staffan de Mistura is, even in the face of the enormous diplomatic challenge of bringing peace to Syria, normally a genial man. Not on Thursday.

He was visibly angry as he described how he had suspended the humanitarian task force after just eight minutes. There was no sense in meeting, he said, when no aid had been delivered to any besieged areas since the beginning of August. This is despite weeks of pleas from senior aid officials.

The move by Mr de Mistura may be seen as measure of last resort. Since no negotiations are taking place, the UN may be hoping to shame the warring parties – and their backers like the United States and Russia – into, at the very least, a pause in fighting to allow aid in. But as the battle for Aleppo rages, the UN’s diplomacy in Syria looks increasingly sidelined.
 (August 12, 2016)

Syria opposition rejects UN proposal for Assad to stay

April 16, 2016


© SANA/AFP/File | The UN envoy brokering peace talks in Geneva had made a proposal that would have kept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (pictured) as president during a transitional period

GENEVA (AFP) – Syria’s opposition has rejected a proposal from the UN envoy brokering peace talks in Geneva that would have kept Bashar al-Assad as president with three deputies of his opponents’ choosing, an opposition source told AFP Saturday.

Staffan de Mistura made the proposal for Assad to remain in office during a transitional period to the High Negotiations Committee — the main Syrian opposition body — during a meeting late Friday, the HNC source said.

“He proposed that President Bashar al-Assad would appoint three vice presidents that we choose, and that he would transfer his military and political prerogatives to them,” the source said.

“Effectively, Assad would stay in a ceremonial position… But we categorically rejected the proposal.”

The HNC and the government delegation are in Geneva for a fresh round of talks aimed at resolving Syria’s five-year war.

The UN-backed effort has called for a political transition, a new constitution, and parliamentary and presidential elections by September 2017.

Assad’s ouster has been the key demand of Syria’s opposition since the uprising broke out in March 2011, but Damascus says his departure is not on the table.

While the opposition insists on forming a “transitional governing body” without Assad, the regime says it wants to form a broader “unity government.”

The HNC source said de Mistura had presented the idea as a way to end that “vicious cycle” of debate.

“This way, the president could transfer his prerogatives based on the current constitution, which does not include the formation of a transitional governing body,” the source said.

According to him, de Mistura told the HNC committee that the proposal “was not his personal view… but that he hoped to hear our thoughts”.

On Friday, HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told AFP that Syria’s opposition would be willing to cooperate with regime “diplomats and technocrats” in a transition period.

He insisted that there would be no role for Assad or anyone who had played a central role in the civil war, which has killed 270,000 people and displaced millions.

Surge of clashes in Syria on eve of Geneva peace talks — Could cause the truce to break down

April 13, 2016

Fresh offensive by Assad forces may threaten a truce that has largely held since February.

13 Apr 2016 05:28 GMT

Al Jazeera

Syria’s landmark ceasefire was threatening to fall apart after a surge of fresh fighting, especially in northern Aleppo province, just as peace talks were set to resume in Geneva on Wednesday.

The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who has said the negotiations will be “crucially important,” was in Iran for talks with a key backer of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

This week’s round of talks will be the second since the Assad government and rebel forces agreed to a partial truce brokered by Moscow and Washington, which has largely held since February 27.

It has raised hopes that steps may finally be taken towards ending a five-year-old conflict that has left more than 270,000 dead and forced nearly half of the country’s population from their homes.

WATCH: Has the world betrayed Syria?

De Mistura, who will host the talks, said the negotiations would focus on aspects of a peace roadmap that calls for a transitional government, a new constitution and, eventually, elections.

But the fate of Assad is still a major stumbling block.

“We will be focusing in particular on the political transition, on governance and constitutional principles,” he told reporters in Damascus on Monday.

But concern has been mounting that a spike in violence focused mainly in Aleppo province, which borders Turkey, is putting intense strain on the ceasefire.

Pro-government forces were on Tuesday pressing an advance against the town of Al-Eis, held by fighters from al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, and allied rebels, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

War keeps children out of school

Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) were excluded from the ceasefire but, complicating matters, in some areas the al-Qaeda fighters are allied with rebels covered by the truce.

Government planes carried out “unprecedented” air strikes in recent days on the rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo city, according to the Observatory, which relies on a broad network of sources inside Syria.

Government forces, backed by Russian air power, pressed a similar offensive around Aleppo city during a previous failed round of talks at the end of January. Western powers blamed that escalation for the breakdown of those talks.

Al-Nusra and allied rebel groups were also pushing their own offensive on the town of Khan Touman near Aleppo city, the Observatory said.

Washington has expressed worries that an assault against Al-Nusra in Aleppo may spread to moderate rebel factions, which could cause the truce to collapse and derail peace efforts.

Wave of strikes

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also warned that continued indiscriminate attacks on civilians could cause the truce to break down.

It said recent attacks by rebel groups on Kurdish-majority neighbourhoods in Aleppo city and by government forces east of Damascus “threaten to derail the ‘cessation of hostilities’”.

“A decrease in casualty numbers brought a much-needed respite for Syrians, but many civilians are still dying in unlawful attacks,” Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, said in a statement.

The ceasefire brought relative calm to parts of northern and central Syria, allowing increased humanitarian aid deliveries and a significant drop in daily deaths.

Despite the talks, the government will go ahead on Wednesday with parliamentary elections in the areas it controls.

The UN does not recognise the vote and it has been dismissed by Assad’s foreign and Syrian opponents as illegitimate.

De Mistura travelled from Syria to Iran on Tuesday to meet with senior officials in Tehran, which along with Moscow is one of Assad’s key international backers.

As well as providing economic aid, Iran has sent military advisers from its elite Revolutionary Guards to Syria, dozens of whom have been killed.

Moscow launched a wave of air strikes in support of the government last September, though last month Moscow ordered the bulk of Russian forces to withdraw.

Russia’s defence ministry said two Russian military pilots were killed in a helicopter crash near the central Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday.

De Mistura travelled from Syria to Iran on Tuesday to meet with senior officials in Tehran, which along with Moscow is one of Assad’s key international backers [Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press]


Syria’s Partial Cease-Fire Shows Signs of Crumbling

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A fragile and partial cease-fire in Syria is coming under new strains, with ground clashes and airstrikes intensifying as the government promises a new offensive and prepares to hold controversial parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

France, one of the most outspoken international opponents of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and Iran, his closest ally, both issued warnings that the partial cease-fire, which has lasted far longer than any other and has reduced the daily death toll significantly since Feb. 27, faced the threat of collapse.

A day before the next round of peace talks is set to start, France, along with opposition negotiators, blamed new government attacks in the northern province of Aleppo and the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, for endangering the agreement, while Iran blamed “armed groups” fighting the government. Officials in the United States, too, said they were very concerned about the rise in violence.

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Putin Still Out Maneuvering Obama; Assad Stays in Power in Syria; Putin Ducks Out of Nuclear Security Summit

March 31, 2016

By Joseph Klein

Russia moves to save its brutal ally — and is encountering little resistance.

In what has become a monthly ritual, the United Nations Security Council received a briefing on March 30th regarding the very dire humanitarian conditions in war-torn Syria. Stephen O’Brien, the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, delivered the latest assessment. He noted as positive developments a respite in violence in some parts of the country since the cessation of hostilities came into effect one month ago, and some limited progress on access for the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged and hard-to-reach areas. However, he said that many of the 4.6 million people in need “still remain outside our reach due to insecurity and obstructions by the parties.”

Syrian authorities are still throwing bureaucratic hurdles in the way of getting timely approvals for delivery of critical medical supplies, food, and other aid.  The “daily misery” in the affected areas “shames us all,” O’Brien said.

The so-called peace talks conducted by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, which are intended to find a political solution that brings an end to the conflict, got off to a belated start this February. And once they began, they have proceeded in a stop-and-go fashion. They are now in adjournment until the second week of April.

Mr. de Mistura tried to put the best face on the peace process to date. At least, he said, there were “no breakdowns, no walkouts and no de-legitimization.” Perhaps that is so for right now. But there has been no substantive progress either. This lack of progress is reflected in a paper produced by the Special Envoy, acting as a facilitator, which purported to show a number of potential areas of common ground between the government and the opposition. It sidestepped what he called “the mother of all issues, the transition, the political transition, the political process.”

The “elephant in the room,” namely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future role, was ignored as well.

The Syrian government and opposition representatives have not been meeting face-to-face. Rather, they have engaged in what are euphemistically called “proximity talks,” with Mr. de Mistura playing the go-between. Nevertheless, Secretary of State John Kerry, the pollyannaish architect of the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, said earlier in March, “We may face the best opportunity that we’ve had in years to end (the war).”

To the extent that the talks in Geneva are continuing at all, Russia, not the United States, has created the conditions on the ground that gave both sides the incentive to at least go through the motions. Russia’s military intervention in Syria bolstered Bashar al-Assad’s bargaining position, as his regime’s forces were able to take back some territory lost to the Syrian rebels. Following its military successes, Russia withdrew a significant amount of its forces from Syria, although they can be easily returned if needed. The opposition’s losses on the ground have caused some key opposition members to confront the stark reality of their deteriorating situation. The only realistic chance they have of obtaining any sharing of political power in Syria is to participate in the talks being conducted by Mr. de Mistura, with the backing of Russia and the United States. One key stumbling block for the opposition, however, is deciding who is entitled to represent them in Geneva.

Here again, Russia is influencing the outcome. The UN Special Envoy met not only with the so-called “official” opposition delegation approved by Saudi Arabia, which wants to see President Assad step down. Mr. de Mistura also met with an opposition group supported by Russia. Known as the Moscow Group, it is demanding equal negotiating status with the members of the “official” opposition High Negotiations Committee. The latter has claimed the exclusive right to represent the opposition in the negotiations and wants Assad out of power as soon as possible. However, the Moscow Group, with Russia’s backing, is not insisting on Assad’s departure when it comes time to create a transitional government. This is a recipe for a divided opposition, which the Syrian regime can exploit to its advantage.

The co-president of the Moscow Group is Syria’s former deputy premier. Although he was removed from his government position by Assad in 2013, the Syrian government would rather negotiate with his group than the more intractable High Negotiations Committee. Just as Russia managed to turn things around for Assad on the battlefield by giving him air cover, Russia is now giving Assad diplomatic cover by pushing for recognition of the Moscow Group as part of the official opposition delegation.

Vladimir Putin continues to outsmart President Obama at every turn.

We saw it happen when Putin got Obama to back off his “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. We saw it happen during the nuclear negotiations with Iran and its aftermath. Russia is exploiting loopholes in the deal agreed to by the Obama administration in order to now protect Iran from the imposition of Security Council sanctions for its testing of ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons. And now we are seeing Putin use the military gains he helped Assad win on the battlefield and a strategy to divide the opposition as the means to influence the direction of the peace talks to his ally’s advantage.

Syria opposition: Damascus stops peace talks before they start — “Bashar al-Assad is a red line for us”

March 13, 2016

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The main Syrian opposition council accused Damascus of halting peace talks before they had started after Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem rejected the idea of a transition of power and called President Bashar al-Assad a “red line”.

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“I believe he is putting the nails in the coffin of Geneva, this is clear,” Monzer Makhous, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told Al Arabiya Al Hadath TV in response to Moualem’s remarks.

“Moualem is stopping Geneva before it starts.”

(Reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)


Syria rivals clash ahead of peace talks — Rebels say Bashar al-Assad is a red line

March 13, 2016


© AFP/File / by Layal Abou Rahal with Dave Clark in Paris | Key obstacles remain in the push for a solution to Syria’s five-year civil war, including the fate of President Bashar al-Assad

GENEVA (AFP) – Syria’s warring sides prepared Sunday for a new round of peace talks after locking horns over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, with the regime insisting his ouster was a “red line” while the opposition vowed to see him go — dead or alive.

The UN-brokered indirect negotiations are due to begin in Geneva on Monday, the latest international push to find a solution to Syria’s five-year civil war, which has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

Government negotiators are expected in Geneva on Sunday, where delegates from the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) are already preparing.

Analysts say much has changed since the last round collapsed last month as fighting raged across the country, but that the huge government-opposition divide will complicate a settlement.

A fragile February 27 truce brokered by the United States and Russia has largely held despite each side accusing the other of violations, a development US Secretary of State John Kerry said was “very significant”.

But key obstacles remain, including the fate of Assad, parliamentary presidential elections and the shape of any new government.

“We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency… Bashar al-Assad is a red line,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told a Damascus news conference on Saturday.

“If they continue with this approach, there’s no reason for them to come to Geneva.”

The HNC has repeatedly called for Assad’s departure as a prerequisite for any deal.

“We believe that the transitional period should start with the fall, or death, of Bashar al-Assad,” chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush told AFP in a joint interview in Geneva.

“It cannot start with the presence of the regime, or the head of this regime still in power.”

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem speaks during a news conference in Damascus, Syria March 12, 2016. REUTERS by Omar Sanadiki

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has said the Geneva meetings, opening on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict in March 2011, would not last more than 10 days.

– ‘Assad stronger than ever’ –

The negotiations are set to cover the formation of a new government, a fresh constitution and UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.

Assad’s fate has long been a major stumbling block, with key Damascus ally Russia rejecting any suggestion he should go, while the United States wants him to step down.

“Assad is stronger than ever and is going nowhere,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, describing the agenda for the talks as “not realistic”.

Muallem said the UN envoy had no right to “discuss presidential elections,” saying the talks aimed to form a unity government to appoint a committee to either write a new constitution or amend the existing one.

“Then we will have a referendum for the Syrian people to decide on it,” he said.

The HNC has called for the creation of a transitional body with full executive powers, and Alloush said Muallem’s comments “show that the regime is not serious about the political process”.

There have also been questions about how any deal would be felt on Syria’s battlefields, where myriad groups have been competing for territory.

Russia — which launched its own air strikes in support of the Assad regime in September — had called on de Mistura to include Syrian Kurds in peace talks.

The envoy told Swiss newspaper Le Temps that while they would not take part, they should be given a chance to express their views.

– ‘Critical moment’ –

Fighting has eased across Syria since the landmark ceasefire between the regime and rebels — but not jihadist groups such as Islamic State — took effect.

Kerry, who was in Paris on Sunday for talks with European partners on the conflict, said the truce had reduced violence by 80-90 percent, which he described as “very, very significant”.

“We believe that the start of talks this next week in Geneva presents a critical moment for bringing the political solution to the table that we’ve all been waiting for,” he said after meeting top officials in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.

Both sides have accused the other of breaking the truce, and Alloush said there have been 350 violations, which showed the regime was “not serious” about the ceasefire.

In the latest violence, regime air raids killed seven civilians in rebel-held areas of the main northern city of Aleppo on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitor said an Islamist rebel group claimed to have shot down a regime warplane Saturday in central Hama province, but a pro-government Facebook page blamed “technical difficulties”.

by Layal Abou Rahal with Dave Clark in Paris

Syria opposition reluctant to join new peace talks

March 5, 2016


© AFP / by Rouba El Husseini | A Syrian man stands in the courtyard of his farm as smoke billows in the background following reported air strikes near the rebel-held village of al-Chifouniya, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 4, 2016

BEIRUT (AFP) – Syria peace talks are to resume on March 10, the UN envoy said on Saturday, despite opposition reluctance and its backers Saudi Arabia saying President Bashar al-Assad must step down.

The new round of indirect negotiations between the Damascus regime and the opposition will be the first since a truce between government forces and rebels began more than a week ago.

A spokesman for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, told AFP it has still not decided whether to attend.

“The HNC has not taken a decision yet,” Monzer Makhos said.

“We are waiting for progress on the humanitarian issue and respect for the ceasefire. What has happened so far is not enough for us to participate.”

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that the peace talks would start on Thursday.

“I think that we will begin on March 10. That is when the process will start,” he said according to an Arabic translation of his remarks published by the newspaper.

While some delegates are expected to arrive in Geneva on March 9, others are not expected until March 11 or even 14 because of “problems with hotel reservations”, De Mistura said.

He said preparatory meetings will be held ahead of “in-depth discussions separately” which each faction.

– Fate of Assad –

Since the failure of a first round of peace talks in 2014, the main sticking point in the negotiations has been the fate of Assad.

The Syrian president has refused to step down since peaceful protests in early 2011 developed into a multi-faceted war that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions of people.

Al-Hayat reported De Mistura as saying a transition process would include “first, talks on a new government, second a new constitution and third parliamentary and presidential polls within the next 18 months”.

The envoy said on Friday that the Syrian people, not foreigners, should decide Assad’s fate.

But key opposition backer Riyadh on Saturday called for Assad — whose clan has ruled Syria for more than half a century — to step down at the start of any transition.

“Assad has to leave at the beginning of the process,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Paris.

On the sequence of events, Jubeir said: “There is a transitional body, power shifts from Assad to the transitional body, and then he goes.”

After that “the transitional body drafts a constitution, prepares for elections. Some are arguing that no, Bashar leaves at the elections in 18 months, that’s not how we think.”

Peace talks in early February were cut short amid intensifying Russian air strikes in Syria in support of Assad’s forces.

A regime advance supported by Russian warplanes inflicted serious setbacks on the rebels and weakened the opposition’s position in negotiations.

However, a fragile ceasefire drawn up by Russia and the United States with UN Security Council backing is now in its second week, despite accusations of violations.

– Opposition demands –

Jubeir said Syria’s opposition “can’t go into talks empty-handed”.

HNC leader Riad Hijab said Friday conditions were not yet right for talks to resume, stressing shortfalls in humanitarian aid and breaches of the ceasefire implemented a week ago.

The opposition has demanded the release of prisoners and the delivery of humanitarian aid according to UN Security Council resolution 2254.

De Mistura on Friday said aid had reached 115,000 people in besieged areas.

“Despite the drop in military operations in the field, there has been a pickup in hostilities from the Syrian regime and its allies, including Russia,” Makhos said.

Russia’s defence ministry reported nine violations of the truce on Saturday, compared with 27 the previous day.

The ceasefire has given some respite to ordinary Syrians, exhausted after five years of war, destruction and shortages.

On Saturday, the day after water returned to pumping stations in Aleppo after a three-month shortage, electricity also slowly returned to Syria’s former economic powerhouse.

But attacks continued, including on territory held by the Islamic State group and Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, both of which are not included in the ceasefire.

On the political front, the Istanbul-based opposition Syrian National Coalition meanwhile elected Anas al-Abde as its new leader to succeed Khaled Khoja.

by Rouba El Husseini

Russia, Germany, Britain, France Reps to Discuss Syria Cease-Fire Friday — Syria’s electricity network fails on Thursday

March 3, 2016

MARCH 3, 2016, 10:07 A.M. E.S.T.

BEIRUT — The Latest on Syria’s conflict as a partial cease-fire enters its sixth day (all times local):

5:05 p.m.

The leaders of Russia, Germany, Britain and France are planning to speak Friday about ways to shore up the Syria cease-fire.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s office says the Western leaders would stress to Russian President Vladimir Putin the importance of maintaining the truce so that peace talks can make progress in Geneva next week.

Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, says it’s an “opportunity for the leaders of the U.K., France and Germany to come together — in the way that they have before, when using the EU to put sanctions on Russia for its actions in eastern Ukraine — and make very clear to President Putin that we need this ceasefire to hold, to be a lasting one and to open the way for a real political transition in Syria.”

Cameron told lawmakers on Wednesday that the cease fire was “imperfect,” but said it was progress that it existed at all.


3:40 p.m.

Europe’s top governments will meet on Friday to examine the Syrian cease-fire and the country’s humanitarian situation, almost one full week after the U.S.-Russia-brokered truce went into effect.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is convening the meeting in Paris with his German and British counterparts within hours of a visit to France by the Saudi foreign minister.

The cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia is partial and — though it has largely held across Syria — it excludes the Islamic State group as well as Syria’s al-Qaida branch, known as the Nusra Front, and other militant factions that the United Nations considers terrorist organizations.


3:10 p.m.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria says the cease-fire is largely holding in the country and has “greatly reduced” violence, despite sporadic clashes in some cities.

Staffan de Mistura spoke on Thursday to reporters in Geneva before holding the third meeting of the so-called “cessation of hostilities” task force led by the United States and Russia. The group includes world and regional powers monitoring a truce that began on Saturday.

Mistura says he has set a “penciled date” of next Wednesday for Syrian peace talks to resume in the Swiss city, noting that “logistical” troubles like the Geneva Auto Show could reduce the number of available hotel rooms.

Also, de Mistura’s humanitarian task force chief Jan Egeland says progress had been made in getting aid to “besieged” areas of Syria.


2:20 p.m.

Syrian state TV is reporting an electricity blackout across the country for unknown reasons.

Syria TV reported Thursday that the electricity network was suddenly down across the entire country. It says maintenance crews were working on fixing the problem in the next few hours.

Electricity blackouts have been frequent in the course of Syria’s five-year conflict but it is rare for the whole country to be affected. Previous blackouts were blamed on rebel attacks targeting the electricity network but no reason was giving for Thursday’s blackout


Syrian government forces near a power plant on the outskirts of Aleppo (21 February 2016)

Government forces recently retook a power plant in Aleppo province from Islamic State militants. AFP

1:30 p.m.

Russian and Syrian government forces have been targeting hospitals as a strategy of war in Syria’s conflict, according to a report released by a rights group Thursday.

Amnesty International said it has “compelling evidence” of at least six deliberate attacks on medical facilities in the Aleppo governorate over the past twelve weeks, which killed at least three civilians, including a medical worker, and injured 44 more. It said the attacks amounted to war crimes.

Aleppo witnessed some of the country’s fiercest fighting in the buildup to the partial cease-fire that came into effect Friday as government forces backed by Russian airstrikes cut off a rebel supply route from Turkey.

Amnesty said the attacks on medical facilities aimed to pave the way for pro-government ground forces to advance on northern Aleppo.


BBC News

Syria’s electricity network is down across the whole of the country for unknown reasons, state media report.

Officials were cited as saying power had been cut in all provinces and teams were trying to determine the cause.

In most parts of war-torn Syria, electricity is already available only two to four hours a day, if at all. However, nationwide blackouts are rare.

Meanwhile, the UN’s special envoy said a partial truce that began on Saturday was holding but remained fragile.

Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva that violence had been “greatly reduced”, despite incidents in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Latakia and Damascus. “Success is not guaranteed but progress is visible,” he added.

Both the opposition and the government have accused each other of violating the cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the US and Russia, which does not include the jihadist groups Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra Front.

A boy rides a bicycle in Kafr Hamra, northern Aleppo province (27 February 2016)
The nationwide cessation of hostilities has largely held since coming into force on Saturday. Reuters photo

Mr de Mistura also said that while he planned to reconvene talks aimed at ending the five-year conflict in Syria next Wednesday, their format was flexible and some parties might turn up days later.

UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said progress had been made in getting aid to besieged areas of Syria, and that there would be further attempts at air-drops of aid over the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, where 200,000 people are surrounded by IS militants, within days or weeks.

Internet services ‘halted’

The official Sana news agency cited a source at the ministry of electricity as confirming that “there is a power cut in all provinces of Syria”.

“Engineers and technicians are working on finding out why this sudden power cut happened in order to fix it promptly and restore electricity in the next few hours,” the source added.

Map showing control of Syria

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of sources, also reported power cuts in the “vast majority” of provinces, while Damascus residents told the AFP news agency that there had been a cut in the capital since 13:00 (11:00 GMT).

Sana also quoted the state-owned Syrian Telecommunication Establishment as saying internet services were partially halted “as a result of sudden damage to one of the network hubs and repair teams have been sent to fix it”.

The government has blamed previous blackouts on rebel attacks, while the UN has also noted that access to electricity has been restricted as a weapon of war.

Hospital attacks

Earlier on Thursday, Amnesty International said Russian and Syrian government forces appeared to have been deliberately and systematically targeting health facilities in the northern province of Aleppo in the past 12 weeks.

MSF-supported hospital in northern Syrian town of Maarat al-Numan destroyed in a missile strike on 15 February 2016
An MSF-supported hospital in Idlib province was destroyed in a missile strike in February. EPA

The human rights group reported that it had gathered “compelling evidence” of at least six deliberate attacks on hospitals, medical centres and clinics.

They killed three civilians, including one medical worker, and injured 44 others.

Amnesty said the attacks, which it said were flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, appeared to be aimed at paving the way for government ground forces to advance in the weeks before the cessation of hostilities took effect.

“Hospitals, water and electricity are always the first to be attacked. Once that happens, people no longer have services to survive,” one doctor in the town of Anadan was quoted as saying.