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.”

Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

Alister Shepherd, the director of a subsidiary of FireEye, during a presentation about the APT33 in Dubai Tuesday. (AP)
Updated 20 September 2018

Cybersecurity firm: More Iran hacks as US sanctions loom

  • The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.
  • Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

DUBAI: An Iranian government-aligned group of hackers launched a major campaign targeting Mideast energy firms and others ahead of US sanctions on Iran, a cybersecurity firm said Tuesday, warning further attacks remain possible as America reimposes others on Tehran.

While the firm FireEye says the so-called “spear-phishing” email campaign only involves hackers stealing information from infected computers, it involves a similar type of malware previously used to inject a program that destroyed tens of thousands of terminals in Saudi Arabia.

The firm warns that this raises the danger level ahead of America re-imposing crushing sanctions on Iran’s oil industry in early November.

“Whenever we see Iranian threat groups active in this region, particularly in line with geopolitical events, we have to be concerned they might either be engaged in or pre-positioning for a disruptive attack,” Alister Shepherd, a director for a FireEye subsidiary, told The Associated Press.

Iran’s mission to the UN rejected FireEye’s report, calling it “categorically false.”

“Iran’s cyber capabilities are purely defensive, and these claims made by private firms are a form of false advertising designed to attract clients,” the mission said in a statement. “They should not be taken at face value.”

FireEye, which often works with governments and large corporations, refers to the group of Iranian hackers as APT33, an acronym for “advanced persistent threat.” APT33 used phishing email attacks with fake job opportunities to gain access to the companies affected, faking domain names to make the messages look legitimate. Analysts described the emails as “spear-phishing” as they appear targeted in nature.

FireEye first discussed the group last year around the same time. This year, the company briefed journalists after offering presentations to potential government clients in Dubai at a luxury hotel and yacht club on the man-made, sea-horse-shaped Daria Island.

While acknowledging their sales pitch, FireEye warned of the danger such Iranian government-aligned hacking groups pose. Iran is believed to be behind the spread of Shamoon in 2012, which hit Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas. The virus deleted hard drives and then displayed a picture of a burning American flag on computer screens. Saudi Aramco ultimately shut down its network and destroyed over 30,000 computers.

A second version of Shamoon raced through Saudi government computers in late 2016, this time making the destroyed computers display a photograph of the body of 3-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, who drowned fleeing his country’s civil war.

But Iran first found itself as a victim of a cyberattack. Iran developed its cyber capabilities in 2011 after the Stuxnet computer virus destroyed thousands of centrifuges involved in Iran’s contested nuclear program. Stuxnet is widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation.

APT33’s emails haven’t been destructive. However, from July 2 through July 29, FireEye saw “a by-factors-of-10 increase” in the number of emails the group sent targeting their clients, Shepherd said.