Syria regime, opposition set for first face-to-face at Astana

Syrian Kurdish women attend a rally in the northeastern city of Qamishli on January 16, 2017, denouncing that Kursdish representatives were not invited to take part in the upcoming Astana peace talks. (AFP file photo)
Updated 23 January 2017

Syria regime, opposition set for first face-to-face at Astana

ASTANA, Kazakhstan: Syria’s government and opposition fighters will on Monday sit down at the negotiating table for the first time in nearly six years of war, the latest diplomatic push to end hostilities.
Hosted in the Kazakh capital Astana, the talks will see an opposition delegation composed exclusively of opposition groups negotiating with the regime of Bashar Assad in an initiative sponsored by opposition backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran.
Though the talks have been welcomed by all parties in the conflict, delegates from both sides are heading to Kazakhstan with apparently opposing ideas about the goals, with Assad insisting Thursday that opposition fighters lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
Although Assad said the talks would prioritize reaching a cease-fire, Damascus has insisted it will seek a “comprehensive” political solution to the conflict that has killed more than 300,000 and displaced over half of the country’s population.
The opposition meanwhile say they will focus solely on reinforcing a frail nationwide truce brokered by Moscow and Ankara last month.
Moscow said this week that the objective was to “consolidate” the cease-fire and to involve opposition field commanders in the “political process” to end the bloodshed, creating a basis for a new round of UN-hosted negotiations in Geneva next month.
The delegations
Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari, an experienced negotiator involved in past failed talks in Geneva, will head the regime delegation in Astana.
The United Nations’ peace envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will also attend, alongside representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Mohammad Alloush of the Jaish Al-Islam (Army of Islam) opposition group — whose opposition commander cousin Zahran Alloush was killed in an air strike claimed by the regime in December 2015 — will lead a “military delegation” of around eight people.
They will be backed by nine legal and political advisers from the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) umbrella group.
But key opposition group Ahrar Al-Sham said it would snub the Astana talks over cease-fire violations and ongoing Russian air strikes on the country.
Ahrar Al-Sham nonetheless said it would support decisions taken by other opposition groups represented at the talks if they were “in the interest of the nation.”
The talks, which could last days, come a month after the Syrian regime, bolstered by its allies, took full control of second city Aleppo from opposition fighter in its biggest victory in more than four years of fighting.
With stakes high and outcomes unclear, the Syrian opposition is wary that the regime could use the opposition groups’ inexperience in political talks to its advantage in Astana, a European diplomatic source told AFP.
“There is genuine worry in the opposition that the representatives of opposition groups, which are not at all used to these types of international negotiations, will be dragged into a political solution that will play into the hand of the regime,” the source said.
Trump invited
A negotiator in previous cease-fire agreements, Washington was last month sidelined from sponsoring the nationwide truce brokered by Russia and Turkey after months of disengagement from the conflict.
US President Donald Trump’s team has been invited to Astana but has not yet officially responded.
Washington’s absence has seen Moscow and Ankara join efforts on the Syrian crisis despite lingering disagreements over Assad’s future and other aspects of the conflict.
After overcoming a rift in relations following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane in Syria in November 2015, the two countries this week conducted their first joint strikes against Daesh group targets in an operation Moscow hailed as “highly effective.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview aired Saturday on Russian state television that deals that could help end the conflict in Syria were “unlikely” to be struck in Astana because “too many parties are involved in the process.”
Iran, the talks’ third sponsor, will be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaber Ansari, the country’s Isna news agency reported.
Analysts say Iran, a longtime ally of Assad, views the Astana talks as an opportunity to increase its influence in the region after playing a crucial role in the symbolic recapture of Aleppo.
France and Britain will be represented at the ambassador level, the European diplomatic source said.
A representative of EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Friday that “we will be there” without giving details about the delegation.
Divergent agendas and the absence of some key players and high-level officials cast uncertainty on how the Astana talks could serve as a building block for next month’s Geneva negotiations.
“The success or failure of Astana is not predetermined,” Russian Middle East expert Boris Dolgov told AFP.
“If something can be achieved in Astana, I think that a portion of the armed opposition will participate in the Geneva talks.”

Is a spate of terror incidents in Egypt a ‘last dance’ for militants or a failure in security operations

Updated 56 min 18 sec ago

Is a spate of terror incidents in Egypt a ‘last dance’ for militants or a failure in security operations

  • Some have speculated that the sudden spate of incidents is the militants lashing out to spoil the image that Egypt is returning to stability

CAIRO: Three terrorist attacks in the space of as many days have raised questions over whether the Egyptian security forces have brought extremist militancy in the country under control.

The attacks between Friday and Monday came after a period of relative calm. The Egyptian military has been involved in an extensive operation against terrorist groups in their stronghold in the Sinai Peninsula for more than a year. Police forces have also been carrying out operations against cells in a large number of governorates.

The first of the three incidents was a failed attempt to plant a bomb near security forces in Cairo on Friday. On Saturday, however, a massive blast killed 14 members of the military on a security mission near El-Arish in Sinai.
The third bombing on Monday could have been just as deadly. A suicide bomber blew himself up after he was chased by police in the densely populated Al-Hussein district of Cairo near Al-Azhar Mosque. In the end three officers were killed.
The attacks came after months of relative calm in an insurgency that began after the Muslim Brotherhood president Muhammad Mursi was removed from power in 2012.
Since then, militants have targeted the Egyptian security forces, churches, coptic Christians, tourists and ordinary Egyptians, killing hundreds.
In November 2017, gunmen carried out the deadliest terror attack in Egyptian history — killing more than 300 people at a Sufi mosque in northern Sinai.

In response, the military launched a vast operation in February last year to “eliminate terrorism in Egypt.” The operation is ongoing.

Some have speculated that the sudden spate of incidents is the militants lashing out to spoil the image that Egypt is returning to stability.

“[Terrorists] want to give Egypt a bad image to foreigners living abroad, on order to make a point. They want to abort the democratic reform process that Egypt’s been implementing in the past period,” MP Mohamed Maher Hamed told Arab News.

Author and political analyst Walid Qutb said Egypt is keen to host more important regional and international events and forums, including the African Nations football tournament, and a drop in terror-related incidents is key to this.

He said the return of terrorist operations at this time is an attempt to send a clear message that Egypt is not a safe country. What the extremists have done recently is a final dance and lost, Qutb said.
But political analyst Nabil Omar told Arab News that the elimination of terrorism requires more than just maintaining security forces.
There needs to be improved education and the spreading of correct information to improve the mentality of Egyptians, he said.
“I don’t think that the return of terrorist operations happening currently is linked to changes in politics in Egypt,” Omar said. “It has nothing to do with how well security is either. “Terrorist attacks are happening because the terrorists in question have decided to do so.”
The recent incidents in Cairo are both strange, Omar said. They targeted police forces in locations packed with civilians.
This could mean that terrorists want their attacks to be even bigger and deadlier, even if that comes at the cost of the innocent or unarmed.
“The positive thing here is that these recent terrorist attacks came after a long period of silence. During that period of time, the Egyptian military had the upper hand in relation to the terrorists – who used to be more in control before,” Omar said.
The attacks came after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi described to the Munich Security Summit this week the Egyptian experience in regards to terrorism.