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
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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.”
 


British-Iranian aid worker moved back to jail from hospital ward — husband

In this undated photo provided by the Free Nazanin Campaign, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe hugs her daughter Gabriella, in Iran. (AP)
Updated 23 July 2019
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British-Iranian aid worker moved back to jail from hospital ward — husband

  • British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament the fact she had been moved back to prison was “a positive sign”

LONDON: British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been transferred back to an Iranian prison from a hospital psychiatric ward, her husband said on Monday.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was moved to the psychiatric ward of Imam Khomeini hospital in the capital on July 15, the “Free Nazanin” campaign group run by her husband said last week.
“Nazanin has been returned from psychiatric hospital, and is now back in Evin prison,” her husband, Richard, said in a statement. She was discharged at her request and the request of the hospital doctor, the campaign group said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was told she had been admitted to hospital for a 10-day period of assessment. She received psychotherapy sessions, had physical checks and was prescribed some medicines, the campaign group seeking her release said.
In its release, the group quoted Zaghari-Ratcliffe saying that she was kept in a private room measuring 2 meters by 3 meters (6.5 feet by 9.8 feet) and was handcuffed and chained to the bed day and night.
The Iranian embassy in London declined immediate comment on the case.
“They did all they could to me – handcuffs, ankle cuffs, in a private room 2x3m, with thick curtains, and the door closed all the time,” she was quoted as saying. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the room, as I was chained to the bed.”
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament the fact she had been moved back to prison was “a positive sign.”
“The way that she was detained for a week without being able to have any access to her family was totally unacceptable and I am afraid all too predictable from the Iranian regime,” he said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April 2016 at a Tehran airport as she headed back to Britain with her daughter after a family visit, and was sentenced to five years in jail after being convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran’s clerical establishment.
Her family and the Foundation, a charity organization that operates independently of Thomson Reuters and Reuters News, deny the charge.