Posts Tagged ‘Staffan de Mistura’

Iran hosts Russia, Turkey for ‘crunch’ Syria summit

September 7, 2018

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey meet Friday in Tehran for a summit set to decide the future of Idlib province amid fears of a humanitarian disaster in Syria’s last major rebel bastion.

Hundreds of civilians fled the northwestern province Thursday as government forces and their allies readied for what could be the last — and bloodiest — major battle of Syria‘s devastating seven-year civil war.

Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the final major chunk of Syrian territory still under opposition control, which is home to some three million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the UN.

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Neighbouring Turkey, which has long backed Syrian rebels, fears the assault could prompt an influx of desperate Syrians attempting to find safety on its territory.

But regime backers Russia and Iran have sworn to wipe out “terrorists” and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has declared his determination to retake control of the entire country.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are also guarantors of the Astana process, a track of negotiations that has eclipsed the UN-led Geneva process and helped Assad re-assert his authority over the country.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani hosts his Russian and Turkish counterparts Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Friday’s summit.

© Tolga Bozoglu, AFP archive | Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and at a tripartite summit in Ankara, Turkey in April 2018.

While Turkey has backed rebels opposed to the Syrian regime, Moscow has been Assad’s most militarily powerful ally since the start of the uprising.

Friday’s meeting in Tehran is a “crunch summit,” said Nick Holdsworth, reporting from Moscow for FRANCE 24.

“Russia has a very sophisticated foreign policy on Syria. They won’t make war if they don’t have to make war, they will if they need to. They don’t want to see a massive humanitarian crisis, they don’t want to see a massive refugee situation,” explained Holdsworth. “They’ve got very complex relations with Turkey, they don’t want to see tens, hundreds of thousands of people flooding into Turkey. They want to see stability in Syria. They also want to have a big foreign policy win. They would like to see this war resolved, they would like to see Assad fully in-charge of his country again and they’d like to see that done without massive bloodshed and a massive refugee crisis. So it all hinges on today’s summit in Tehran and what comes out of that.”

UN Security Council meeting on Syria

The UN Security Council is also meeting Friday, at Washington’s request, to discuss the situation in Idlib.

Both the US and Russia say they are fighting jihadist groups in Syria and there was periodic cooperation between the two countries against the same jihadist groups operating in Idlib until mid-2017.

Idlib is dominated by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by the former al Qaeda branch in Syria.

Neighbouring Turkey has limited sway over the jihadists who control an estimated 60 percent of the province but it backs rebel groups there and has 12 military “observation points” across the province.

On Thursday, the new US envoy for Syria said there was “lots of evidence” that the Syrian government was preparing to use chemical weapons in Idlib.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Jim Jeffrey, who was named Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s special adviser on Syria  cautioned that, “any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation”.

While US President Donald Trump had signaled that he wanted US forces out of Syria, in April he agreed to keep troops there a little longer.

Trump will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Iran during an annual gathering of world leaders in New York later this month, which is expected to focus on Tehran’s nuclear programme and its involvement in the Syrian war.

France has invited the US, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Britain for talks on the sidelines of the UN meeting to discuss Syria.

Healthcare workers in Idlib prepare to cope

Idlib’s population has swelled as the regime chalked up a series of victories in other parts of the country, reaching evacuation deals that saw tens of thousands of people bussed to the northwestern province.

Russia has conducted a massive naval build-up in the Mediterranean near Syria as Assad’s regime forces are amassing around the northeastern province for a likely ground assault.

The timing and scope of any attack remain unclear, but healthcare and aid workers are preparing to cope for the worst.

The UN has warned of a “bloodbath” in the province, fearing that an offensive will cause a humanitarian catastrophe unprecedented since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, which has left more than 350,000 people dead since 2011.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned Thursday of the risk of humanitarian disaster in Idlib, describing the province as a “ticking time bomb, both in humanitarian and security terms”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)


UN urges Putin, Erdogan to talk to avert Idlib ‘bloodbath’

September 4, 2018

The UN’s Syria peace envoy called Tuesday on the Russian and Turkish presidents to urgently speak to each other to help avert a “bloodbath” in rebel-held Idlib, as a military offensive appears imminent.

Staffan de Mistura appealed to “President Putin and to President Erdogan, … to make a telephone call,” even before they are set to meet with their Iranian counterpart in Tehran on Friday.

“Let’s try to avoid that the last probably major battle of the Syrian territorial conflict … ends in a bloodbath,” he told reporters in Geneva, insisting Russia and Turkey held “the key for the soft solution to the Idlib issue”.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Metzel via Reuters

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Metzel via Reuters

His comments came with Syrian forces poised to launch an attack on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major region in Syria still controlled by rebels and jihadists.

After retaking a succession of rebel bastions this year, Damascus has set its sights on Idlib, which is held by a complex array of rebels and jihadists.

The province bordering Turkey is home to nearly three million people, up to half of whom are rebels and civilians transferred en masse after pro-government forces retook formerly rebel-held areas.

A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a particular humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria to where people could be evacuated.

Turkish and Russian officials have held several rounds of talks hoping to avert an assault, but de Mistura warned Tuesday that the “meetings so far between the Turkish side and the Russian side have not been conclusive”.

He stressed the urgency of the situation, pointing to press reports indicating that Syria has set a September 10 deadline for finding a solution before it begins an all-out offensive on the province.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

“That’s why our appeal, if I may to president Putin and to President Erdogan to talk and go beyond perhaps technical discussions and (to) find the solution, which can be a soft solution to this crisis.”



U.N. fears chemical weapons in Syria’s Idlib “battle with 10,000 terrorists”

August 30, 2018

The United Nations called on Russia, Iran and Turkey on Thursday to forestall a battle in Syria’s Idlib province which would affect millions of civilians and could see both sides using chlorine as a chemical weapon.

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U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters that there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 terrorists, but it would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle which could turn prove to be a “perfect storm”.


Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Stephanie Nebehay

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Syrian children being treated for chemical weapons exposure. FILE photo

Quitting Syria too soon would be a ‘blunder’: Mattis

June 9, 2018

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis warned Friday it would be a “strategic blunder” to pull out of Syria before UN-led peace efforts had made progress.

A US-led coalition is conducting military operations against the Islamic State group in Syria and Mattis said they must not leave a “vacuum” that President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies could take advantage of.

© POOL/AFP | US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis warned that coalition forces leaving Syria could create a “vacuum”

Talks in Geneva led by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura have made little headway, but Mattis said they must be given the chance to succeed.

“In Syria, leaving the field before the special envoy Staffan de Mistura achieves success in advancing the Geneva political process we all signed for under the UN security council resolution would be a strategic blunder, undercutting our diplomats and giving the terrorists the opportunity to recover,” Mattis said at a meeting of coalition defence ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

IS seized parts of a town on the Syria-Iraq border on Friday in the latest in a string of attacks that comes as the continued presence of coalition forces in Syria is coming into question.

US President Donald Trump has vowed he would pull out his troops from Syria but Mattis has pleaded for a more patient approach.

“As the operations ultimately draw to a close, we must avoid leaving a vacuum in Syria that can be exploited by the Assad regime or its supporters,” Mattis said.


Bring Syria to peace talks, EU tells Russia, Iran

April 25, 2018

The European Union urges Russia and Iran to pressure Assad in Syria to engage in talks to end Syria’s bloody civil war

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — File Photo AP

BRUSSELS (AFP) – The EU on Wednesday urged Russia and Iran to pressure Damascus to engage in talks to end Syria’s bloody civil war, as international donors pledged billions of dollars to help civilians caught up in the conflict.

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said Moscow and Tehran, President Bashar al-Assad’s key supporters, had a duty to help wind down the war, now in its eighth year.

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More than 80 countries, aid groups and United Nations agencies are meeting in Brussels for the second day of a conference on the future of Syria, after the UN’s special envoy warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in the rebel-held region of Idlib.

Europe is also keen to use the conference to restart UN-led talks in Geneva which have made little progress in eight rounds. This was in part because Assad’s government has paid little interest in them, and Russia, Iran and Turkey launched a rival process in the Kazakh capital Astana last year.

“We need in particular Russia, Iran to exercise pressure on Damascus so that it accepts to sit at the table under UN auspices,” Mogherini said as she arrived for the gathering, the seventh of its kind.

“We believe that the only sustainable peace for Syria will be linked to a political process under UN auspices.”

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Moscow has repeatedly defended Syria at the UN, most recently over the suspected chemical attack in the town of Douma, blamed by Western powers on Assad’s forces.

Britain’s development minister Penny Mordaunt will urge delegates at the conference to step up the pressure on Moscow.

“In wielding its UN veto 12 times on Syria, (Russia) has given a green flag to Assad to perpetrate human rights atrocities against his own people,” Mordaunt will say, according to her office.

“We’re here to address the urgent humanitarian needs in Syria and the wider region, but all of us here know that the only solution to end the suffering in Syria is a political settlement that brings peace.”

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Iran’s foreign minister Zarif

– ‘Desperately short of resources’ –

The UN says a total of over $9 billion is needed this year for humanitarian work inside Syria and to support refugees in neighbouring countries.

Some of the money has been raised already but Mark Lowcock, the head of UN aid agency UNOCHA told AFP he hoped to see $8 billion pledged on Wednesday, warning that some programmes may need to be cut if funds are not forthcoming.

“We are quite desperately short of resources,” Lowcock said on Tuesday, adding that UNOCHA managed to raise only half of the funds it needed in 2017.

London and Berlin led the pledges on Wednesday, with Britain announcing 450 million pounds ($630 million, 515 million euros) for 2018 and another 300 million pounds for 2019, while Germany said it would donate more than a billion euros.

Some 6.1 million people are now internally displaced in Syria, more than five million have fled the country and 13 million including six million children are in need of aid, according to the UN.

More than 700,000 people have been displaced since the start of this year alone as Assad has stepped up his offensive against rebel forces, intensifying the humanitarian crisis.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday urged the international community not to allow a fresh humanitarian catastrophe to unfold in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, on the Turkish border, which has seen a massive influx of people fleeing the conflict.

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“We were and are concerned on the humanitarian side by Idlib. Because Idlib is the big new challenge, 2.5 million people,” Mistura said.

“We hope that this would be an occasion for making sure that Idlib does not become the new Aleppo, the new Eastern Ghouta, because the dimensions are completely different.”

A UN Security Council retreat in a secluded farmhouse in Sweden at the weekend, called in a bid to overcome its paralysis on Syria, had lowered the “temperature” but failed to find a political solution, Mistura said.

by Damon WAKE

De Mistura: Dividing Syria is catastrophic to the entire region — He agrees with Putin…

March 20, 2018


Syrian pro-government forces enter the main square of Kfar Batna, southeastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 19, 2018. (AFP)
DUBAI: United Nations’ special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said Syria was heading toward a catastrophic division and could see the return of Daesh if a peaceful settlement was not found, Saudi state-news channel Al-Ekhbariya reported.
Speaking to an audience at the Institute of Graduate Studies in Geneva, De Mistura said: “The fact is that Syria’s long-term division, which we are witnessing at the moment in different areas of control, will be catastrophic, not only for Syria, but for the region as a whole.”
He explained that without a political solution that does not exclude anyone, Daesh will return to the sphere.
“This is division, this is in fact a country with areas under the influence of other countries … this cannot continue,” said de Mistura, holding a map of Syria with different colors representing the areas of control of the land, adding that “I think that ultimately Syria must remain united.”
He said neither the European Union nor the World Bank would fund the $352 billion reconstruction of Syria unless a political process involving a new UN-sponsored constitution was found.
He added that without this, any military victory would come at an irreplaceable cost.
De Mistura said there was no country that wanted to divide Syria, and that Russia and the United States shared a common interest in defeating Daesh and were in constant communication.


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Air strikes hammer Syria’s Ghouta for fifth day, U.N. mulling ceasefire resolution

February 22, 2018


AMMAN (Reuters) – Warplanes pounded the last rebel enclave near Syria’s capital for a fifth day running on Thursday as the U.N. Security Council considered demanding a 30-day truce  across the country to allow emergency aid deliveries and medical evacuations.

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Civil defence help a man from a shelter in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, pleaded for a ceasefire to halt one of the fiercest air assaults of the seven-year civil war and prevent a “massacre” in the besieged eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus.

At least 403 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta district since Sunday night, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, with more than 2,116 wounded from the assault by Syria’s military and its allies.

Planes have struck residential areas in the enclave of 400,000 people and, said medical charities, hit more than a dozen hospitals, making it near impossible to treat the wounded.

Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said households in eastern Ghouta were without food, water or electricity in winter cold and 80 percent of the population of the town of Harasta was living underground.

“There is a need for avoiding a massacre, because we will be judged by history,” Mistura said, urging the 15-member Security Council to act. The Council was meeting on Thursday to discussion the situation at the request of Russia.

President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Russia, which wields a veto on the Security Council, said it could support a 30-day truce, but not one that included the Islamist militants it says the onslaught on eastern Ghouta is meant to target.


The Council was considering a resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that demands “a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria for all military operations except those directed at the Islamic State … Al Qaeda and Al-Nusra Front” for 30 days to allow aid deliveries and medical evacuations.

    Swedish U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog said he hoped the Council could vote on the resolution on Thursday. But Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said he would propose amendments to the text.

    A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, France or Britain to pass.

   “The idea with the Security Council resolution is first and foremost stop the bombing and let aid get in … The Russians can step up, will they?” a U.S. official told Reuters.

Residents of Douma, the biggest town in eastern Ghouta, described plumes of black smoke billowing from residential areas after planes dropped bombs from high altitude.

Searches were under way for bodies amid the rubble in the town of Saqba and elsewhere, said rescuers.

Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the situation in eastern Ghouta was deteriorating ”at an exponential rate“ with over 250 civilians dead in the last 48 hours. ”Witnesses that we are speaking to on the ground are saying that it’s ‘raining bombs’,” she told Reuters in Geneva.

Robert Mardini, Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the ICRC was poised to offer emergency medical care in the enclave and carry out evacuations of wounded as soon as conditions permitted.

“We need to get clearance and acceptance by all sides to carry out our work. We have a convoy ready to be sent to eastern Ghouta …as soon as there is reduction in the intensity of the fighting,” he told Reuters at a media briefing in Beirut.

In Syria’s north, where Turkey launched an offensive in the past month against a Kurdish militia, the Kurds said pro-government fighters were now deploying to front lines to help repel the Turkish advance, though assistance would be needed from the Syrian army itself.

A man inspects a damaged house in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Government forces also entered a part of Aleppo controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia, a witness and the Observatory said, although the YPG denied this.

The Kurdish YPG – backed by the United States in other parts of Syria – have sought help recently from the Russian-backed Damascus government to resist the Turkish thrust – an example of the strange bedfellows in a multi-sided conflict that has drawn in neighbors and world powers.


International attention is now focused on the humanitarian emergency in eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 people have been under siege for years and where government bombardments escalated sharply on Sunday, causing mass civilian casualties.

De Mistura said he hoped the Security Council would agree to a ceasefire resolution, but acknowledged it would be hard. “I hope it will. But it’s uphill. But I hope it will. It is very urgent,” he told Reuters at the United Nations in Geneva.

Moscow and Damascus say their assault on eastern Ghouta is necessary to defeat rebels who have been firing mortars on the capital – government territory throughout the war.

“Those who support the terrorists are responsible” for the situation in eastern Ghouta, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters. “Neither Russia, nor Syria nor Iran are in that category of states, as they are waging an absolute war against terrorists in Syria.”


A White House statement said Washington backed the U.N. call for a ceasefire to allow access for aid and medical evacuations.

“The United States also calls upon Russia and its partners to live up to their obligations with respect to de-escalation zones, particularly those in eastern Ghouta and to end further attacks against civilians in Syria.”

Aid workers and residents say Syrian army helicopters have been dropping “barrel bombs” – oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel – on marketplaces and medical centers.

Residents and insurgents in eastern Ghouta say Russian planes are also involved. Syrians say they can identify Russian aircraft because they fly at higher altitude than Syrian planes.

Damascus and Moscow deny using barrel bombs or hitting civilians. They say rebels hold civilians as human shields.

Video footage obtained by Reuters showed wreckage at the Al Shifa hospital in the town of Hammouriyeh. Staff said it had been hit by air strikes and artillery.

“The clinics department is out of service, the clinical care unit is out, the surgery unit is out, the incubator unit is out, the pediatric section is out, all of the departments of the hospital are completely out of service,” a man identified as a medical worker said.

“There were casualties among our staff, among patients, among the children we had,” he said, adding that doctors had performed an operation in the rubble because it was impossible to evacuate in time.


Opposition-held eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Syrian army and allied forces since 2013. After government gains since 2015, it is the final rebel bastion near the capital.

Along with Idlib province in the north, part of Aleppo province and a strip in Syria’s southwest, it is one of just a handful of areas left where large numbers of people remain in territory controlled by fighters seeking to overthrow Assad. The president has vowed to regain control of every inch of Syria.

Residents and opposition figures say the Syrian government and its allies are deliberately harming civilians with a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels to surrender.

“They want to break our will and turn Ghouta into another Aleppo but this is their dream,” Yusef Dughmi, a resident in the devastated eastern Ghouta town of Arbin, said overnight.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi with; additional reporting by Ellen Francis, Lisa Barrington and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Mark Heinrich

Strikes hit Syria’s Ghouta for fifth day as U.N. pleads for ceasefire — Russia accused of aiding the bombardment

February 22, 2018

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Russian bomber over Syria (FILE photo)


AMMAN (Reuters) – Warplanes pounded the last rebel enclave near the Syrian capital for a fifth straight day on Thursday, as the United Nations pleaded for a halt to one of the fiercest air assaults of the seven-year civil war.

More than 300 people have been killed in the rural eastern Ghouta district on the outskirts of Damascus since Sunday night, and many hundreds have been wounded, according to human rights monitors and aid agencies who say Russian and Syrian planes have struck hospitals and other civilian targets.

Residents of Douma, the biggest town in the district, described plumes of black smoke billowing from residential areas after planes dropped bombs from high altitude. Searches were underway for bodies amid the rubble in the town of Saqba and elsewhere, said rescuers.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said he hoped the Security Council would agree to a resolution calling for a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta, but warned it would not be easy.

President Bashar al-Assad’s veto-wielding ally Russia said on Wednesday a ceasefire would be a “long and complex process to achieve”.

Aid workers and residents say Syrian army helicopters have been dropping “barrel bombs” – oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel – on marketplaces and medical centers.

Residents and insurgents in eastern Ghouta say high-altitude jets of the kind involved in bombing on Thursday morning are Russian, as Moscow’s warplanes typically fly higher than those of the Syrian air force.

Damascus and Moscow deny targeting civilian areas and accuse rebels of holding civilians as human shields. Western powers have also accused Russia of aiding the bombardment.

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The opposition-held eastern Ghouta region, home to 400,000 people, has been under siege by government forces since 2013. After government gains in recent years it is the final rebel bastion near the capital.

Along with Idlib province and part of Aleppo province in the north and a strip in the southwest, it is one of just a handful of areas left where large numbers of people remain in territory controlled by fighters seeking to overthrow Assad. The president has vowed to regain control of every inch of Syria.

Residents and opposition figures say the Syrian government and its allies are deliberately destroying infrastructure and paralyzing life in what they describe as a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels to surrender.

The Syrian army accuse the rebels of causing deaths by firing mortars on the heavily defended capital.


Russian personnel assemble bombs at the country’s base in Latakia in 2016.


“They want to break our will and turn Ghouta into another Aleppo but this is their dream,” said Yusef Dughmi, a resident in the devastated eastern Ghouta town of Arbin overnight.

Many residents have been sheltering in basements.

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President Putin with Bashar al-Assad

“Why is the regime targeting us we are civilians and the regime and Russia are only targeting civilians?” Khaled Shadid, a resident of Douma told Reuters by telephone as sounds of explosions could be heard.

Basema Abdullah, a widow who was huddled in a basement with her four children in Douma said: “We are in desperate need for your prayers,” before the connection was cut off.

Rescue workers said at least 40 people were killed during Wednesday’s heavy bombing of Kafr Batna, Saqba, Zamalka and Arbin and other towns in the opposition enclave. In the town of Haza, the bombing targeted a field hospital and a bakery, rescuers said.

Syria peace talks to begin in Russia despite opposition boycott

January 29, 2018
The new diplomatic track is meant to examine the key questions on Syria's national agenda [File: Reuters]


SOCHI (RUSSIA) (AFP) – Delegates on Monday arrived in Russia for peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, but hopes of progress were dimmed after the main opposition group and the Kurds said they would boycott the event.

Regime-backer Moscow has invited 1,600 people to the talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as part of a broader push to consolidate its influence in the Middle East and start hammering out a path to a political solution to end the seven-year war.

The aim of the Tuesday congress is to bring Syria closer to creating a post-war constitution, after two days of separate UN-backed talks in Vienna last week closed with the warring sides not even meeting face-to-face to discuss the groundwork for the document.

The Kremlin has downplayed expectations of the event, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling journalists Monday that “breakthroughs in the task of political regulation in Syria are hardly possible.”

He added however that under-representation will not “disrupt this congress or undermine its importance,” calling the Sochi talks a “very important” step toward peace.

The Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), the country’s main opposition group, said following the talks in Vienna on Thursday and Friday that it would not attend the Sochi congress.

While the government will not be represented as such at the congress, President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling Baath Party and other allied movements are attending.

– Rebel boycott –

The SNC accused Assad and his Russian backers of continuing to rely on military might — and showing no willingness to enter into honest negotiations — as the war in which more than 340,000 people have already died approaches its seventh anniversary.

More than three dozen other Syrian rebel groups, including influential Islamists, had previously said they would not come to Sochi.

And authorities from Syria’s Kurdish autonomous region said Sunday they would not participate because of an ongoing Turkish offensive on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels vying for Assad’s ouster, is co-sponsoring the congress along with regime-backer Iran.

Despite the boycotts, the Kremlin’s special envoy on the Syria peace process Alexander Lavrentiev told Russian news agencies that 1,500 out of 1,600 guests invited to the congress would be there.

He added that this included some Kurds and representatives of the Syrian opposition on an “individual basis.”

A list of participants seen by AFP included around 350 regime-tolerated opposition representatives.

– Western suspicions –

Moscow, which has spearheaded several rounds of talks from the start of last year in Kazakhstan’s Astana, initially hoped to convene the congress in Sochi last November but those efforts collapsed following a lack of agreement among co-sponsors.

Western powers have viewed the Russian peace initiative with suspicion, worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine the UN-backed talks with a view to carving out a settlement that strengthens its ally Assad.

But a spokesman for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the weekend he would send his Syria peace negotiator to Sochi after receiving assurances the conference would not seek to sideline the UN’s talks.

Staffan de Mistura arrived in Sochi Monday, Russian agencies reported.

Russia has long sought UN participation in the Sochi congress to lend credibility to its diplomatic efforts, and is reportedly hoping to establish a committee to create a constitution with UN-backing.

Moscow’s decision to launch a bombing campaign to support Assad in September 2015 — Russia’s first major military operation abroad since Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 — is widely seen as a turning point in the multi-front conflict that helped shore up the Syrian president.

After two years of military support for the Syrian regime, President Vladimir Putin announced in December last year the partial withdrawal of forces from the country, saying their task had been largely completed.

The Syrian war, which has seen millions displaced, began in 2011 as the regime crushed anti-government protests.


by Theo Merz and Rouba El-Husseini
Al Jazeera

Syria talks: Could Sochi bring peace via new track?


Russian-sponsored diplomatic talks over the future of Syria have begun in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, but experts predict the summit will merely attempt to enforce a political solution that is in line with the Syrian government’s agenda.

The two-day conference that started on Monday has been given the name “Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue”. It will be the first round of negotiations to take place in Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s main ally.

The United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura will be attending the talks, along with representatives from the Syrian, Iranian and Turkish governments.

Meanwhile, the main opposition bloc – the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), also known as the Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), announced it will boycott the conference, claiming it is an attempt to undercut the United Nations’ (UN) effort to broker a deal.

But several individuals with the Moscow platform – a dissident faction of the opposition, will be in attendance.

The new track is meant to examine the key questions on Syria’s national agenda.

“First of all, that is the drawing-up of a framework for the future structure of the state, the adoption of a new constitution, and, on the basis of that, the holding of elections under United Nations supervision,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said alongside his Iranian and Turkish counterparts last November.

Like the two main negotiation tracks that are attempting to bring an end to Syria’s seven-year-old conflict – experts say the Sochi talks will likely be in vain.

History of negotiations 

From UN-sponsored talks in Geneva to Russian-Turkish-backed talks in Astana, government representatives and armed opposition groups have traded blame, stormed out of meetings, and disagreed on proposed resolutions.

The main aims of the two main tracks have been to achieve a political transition and a military ceasefire in Syria, but the main sticking point has been the fate of Assad.

While the Syrian government has consistently refused to agree to Assad stepping down, the armed opposition says Assad’s removal is a prerequisite to peace.

Talks for the past two years have utilised a two-year-old UNSC resolution endorsed by De Mistura as the basis for achieving a political transition plan – and so will the Sochi conference.

But experts like Omar Kouch, a Syrian political analyst based in Turkey, believe that the Sochi talks will “completely differ” from the Geneva one.

“In fact, there are efforts to make this [Sochi] track the alternative one, considering that it has stolen two of the so-called “baskets” from what De Mistura proposed during the Geneva talks,” he told Al Jazeera, referencing the constitution and the elections.

“So if the Russians are serious about supporting the Geneva track, then they would have endorsed these things in Geneva by urging the regime to engage in the negotiation process,” Kouch added.

An attempt to hijack a potential political path is under way in Sochi, Kouch believes, who says that a military confrontation on the ground has already been “taken advantage of” by the Syrian government, referencing a recently violated ceasefire agreement in Eastern Ghouta, the last remaining rebel stronghold near Damascus.

“It was an attempt to gain control over more territory… If anything, fighting has intensified over the past few days,” said Kouch.

Despite the ongoing battle, both the Assad government and Russia have ignored repeated calls by UN to allow for the free movement of the ill and injured.

With Moscow and Tehran’s military support, the government has gained more leverage in its negotiating position, further weakening the opposition in their plight to overthrow Assad.

According to Kouch, only 10 opposition representatives, aligned with the Assad government, have agreed to attend the latest talks.

There are various divisions within the opposition, consisting of at least seven factions. De Mistura had previously stressed the importance of the groups uniting in negotiations with the Syrian government.

The main divide within the opposition has been between the SNC and two dissident groups, the Moscow and Cairo platforms. These groups maintain close ties to Russia and are not perceived as a threat by the Assad government, differentiating them from the HNC, which has repeatedly called for the dismantling of the regime as a premise for peace.

‘Dangerous’ new narrative

Still, with a fragmented opposition, Kouch does not foresee a scenario in which the HNC is forced into accepting a solution that may come out of the two-day meeting.

“It [Sochi] is also a dangerous attempt at turning the Syrian question into a matter of internal conflict. It started as a people’s revolution calling for freedom and dignity, now turned into a proxy war… They want to make it seem as if it’s a matter of internal conflict,” said Kouch.

Discussions over elections in the government’s framework do not include a presidential one, which is inherently problematic according to Kouch.

“It [the regime] considers the presidential elections a red line that no one is allowed to cross,” he said, blaming the vagueness of UNSC 2254.

“Every side interprets it [the resolution] the way they see fit.”

Similarly, Aron Lund, a Syria expert and Century Foundation fellow, believes that Russia is trying push Syria toward a diplomatic framework more in tune with military realities – both in Astana and in Sochi.

“Because it makes more sense and because they obviously prefer a peace process structured around the fact that their ally is winning,” Lund told Al Jazeera.

“For Russia, it is a way to drag Turkey and various opposition groups into a process that isn’t unfavorable to their ally, Assad, which the Geneva talks are by design.”

Turkey‘s involvement in the Astana talks helped in rapidly weakening the opposition, said Lund, who expects the Sochi talks to play a similar role.

He also believes that the UN is responsible for not achieving a political solution.

“The Geneva peace talks aren’t really peace talks. They’re transition talks,” said Lund.

“Instead of the UN trying to reconcile warring sides and end the fighting in keeping with whatever balance of power existed in the country, you had a process shaped by the understanding of what had just happened in Tunisia and Egypt – regime removal,” he explained.

As in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Syria started with peaceful anti-government demonstrations in March 2011. It then escalated into a full-blown proxy war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives and driven about half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million from their homes.

“So by design, the Geneva process can’t end until the UN acknowledges that Syria’s pre-2011 regime is gone,” Lund said.

‘Stamp of approval’

The conference is unlikely to propose a concrete plan, and the lack of opposition representatives had many questioning the summit’s credibility.

“They may form a constitutional committee… And an electoral committee, which will be a large and loose entity of people who are close to the regime,” Kouch predicted.

However, Lund noted that “there’s not going to be a mutually agreed end to the war.”

“The Russians wanted a lot of opposition actors involved to give this a stamp of approval, and Turkey, which has much of the opposition on a leash, doesn’t seem to be playing along,” said Lund. 

“But I’m sure that if this round fails, they’ll just try again.”


Syria opposition to boycott Russian peace talks — Some charging the Russia, Iran and Turkey are seeking to undermine the UN-backed talks — Difficult to find a “beacon of freedom in the east.”

January 27, 2018


At separate conference in Vienna, UN envoy expresses ‘immense frustration’ at lack of progress on a political settlement

Yahya al-Aridi, representative for the Syrian Negotiations Commision (SNC), arrives at the United Nations Office in Vienna on January 26, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / ALEX HALADA)

Yahya al-Aridi, representative for the Syrian Negotiations Commision (SNC), arrives at the United Nations Office in Vienna on January 26, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / ALEX HALADA)

VIENNA, Austria — Syria’s main opposition group on Friday said it would boycott Russian peace talks next week in a major blow to Moscow’s diplomatic efforts towards resolving the brutal seven-year conflict.

“Russia has not succeeded in promoting its conference,” the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) said on its Twitter account.

“The SNC has decided not to participate at Sochi after marathon negotiations with the UN and representatives of countries involved in Syria.”

Dozens of rebel groups had already refused to join the talks in the Black Sea resort next Monday and Tuesday organized by the Syrian regime’s powerful ally Moscow, and the question of whether the main opposition would attend has overshadowed two days of separate UN-backed peace talks in Vienna.

Those talks stretched late into Friday night, with both regime officials and the SNC meeting separately with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura — who did not strike an especially optimistic tone after the gruelling negotiations.

As with eight previous rounds of failed UN-backed talks in Geneva, there was no sign that the warring sides had met face to face at discussions intended to lay the groundwork for a new post-war constitution.

De Mistura, speaking to reporters early Saturday, admitted there had been a disheartening lack of progress up until now in finding a solution for a war that has killed more than 340,000 people.

“I share the immense frustration of millions of Syrians inside and outside the country at the lack of a political settlement to date,” he said.

Russian ambitions

With some 1,600 people invited to Sochi, the UN itself has yet to decide whether it will attend, de Mistura said, adding that this decision is being left to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

De Mistura stressed the legitimacy of the UN-led talks over Russia’s parallel peace push, however, saying firmly that a political transition for Syria “is to be reached in the UN-led Geneva process.”

Bashar al-Jaafari, Syrian chief negotiator and Ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of Syria to the United Nations speaks to journalists after the talks on Syria in Vienna on January 26, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ALEX HALADA)

“I hope that the forthcoming Syrian national dialogue congress in Sochi will contribute to a revived and credible intra-Syrian process under the UN in Geneva,” he added.

Ahead of an SNC press conference on Saturday morning there was little detail about why the opposition had ultimately decided to boycott Sochi, though spokesman Yahya al-Aridi earlier described the talks in Vienna as “tough.”

Western powers have viewed the Russian peace initiative — which is also backed by Turkey and Iran — with suspicion, worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine the UN-backed talks with an ultimate view to carving out a settlement that strengthens its ally, President Bashar Assad.

‘Black comedy’

Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at Chatham House think-tank, said Russia’s long-term strategic interests were at play in Sochi.

“They want to present themselves as peace brokers, not only in Syria but in the Middle East in general, a role traditionally carried out by the Americans,” Haid told AFP.

“For the Russians to take this role, they have to do what the Americans were not able to do” — find a solution in Syria, he said.

The Vienna talks were also marked by anger from the regime over a leaked set of political proposals from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain and France that would involve strengthening the role of Syria’s prime minister — at the expense of Assad’s authority.

Top government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters it was “tantamount to a black comedy” that these countries were seeking to shape Syria’s political future, as Arabic and English versions of the document circulated online.

“All of them have participated in the bloodshed of the Syrian people,” he said of the five nations, blasting the US as the country “that created ISIS” and adding that Saudi Arabia was anything but