Syria opposition vows to keep fighting if Astana talks fail

Participants of Syria peace talks attend a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan January 23, 2017. (REUTERS)
Updated 24 January 2017
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Syria opposition vows to keep fighting if Astana talks fail

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN: Syrian opposition vowed Monday to keep fighting if the peace talks fail with the war-torn country’s government in Kazakhstan, as the two sides opened indirect negotiations.
The talks had been billed as the first time armed opposition groups would negotiate directly with President Bashar Assad’s regime since the conflict erupted in 2011.
“If the negotiations succeed, then we are with the negotiations,” opposition spokesman Osama Abu Zeid told AFP. “If they don’t succeed, unfortunately we’ll have no choice but to continue fighting.”
The opposition announcement came as Russia’s defense ministry said its warplanes had bombed the Daesh group in the area around Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, where regime forces have been fighting the jihadists.
Opposition spokesman Yehya Al-Aridi told AFP the opposition backed out of the first round of direct talks in Astana because of the regime’s continued bombardment and attacks on a flashpoint area near Damascus.
A session of indirect negotiations began after 1200 GMT following a short break in the talks.
A Turkish official told journalists that “it is necessary to focus on reinforcing the cease-fire” agreed last month, hoping that “confidence building steps that could be obtained from Astana talks will contribute to the political process in Geneva.”
Negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana coincide with a rapprochement between regime ally Russia and opposition backer Turkey, who together brokered the current truce in December after months of US disengagement in the conflict.
Several rounds of failed talks in Geneva saw political opposition figures take the lead in negotiating with the regime.
But in Astana, the 14-member opposition delegation is composed solely of those leading the armed uprising, with members of the political opposition serving as advisers.
The initiative has been widely welcomed, but the two sides arrived in Astana with apparently divergent ideas on their aim.
Chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush said in his opening statement that the opposition was focused on bolstering the nationwide truce, while Assad has insisted the opposition lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
“We came here to reinforce the cease-fire as the first phase of this process,” Alloush said in comments broadcast online. “We will not proceed to the next phases until this actually happens on the ground.”
Damascus has also called for a “comprehensive” political solution to a conflict that has killed more than 310,000 and displaced more than half of Syria’s population.
The head of the regime delegation, Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari, said in his opening comments carried by the country’s SANA state news agency that he hoped the talks “will reinforce the cessation of hostilities.”
He added the government was keen to separate the opposition from the Daesh group and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh Al-Sham Front.
Delegation spokesman Abu Zeid said the opposition were concerned with “more than just a cease-fire.”
“The issue is putting monitoring, investigation and accountability mechanisms in place,” he told AFP. “We want these mechanisms so that this doesn’t play out over and over.”
Previous pushes for a long-term cease-fire have faltered, with both sides trading accusations over violations.
Syrian state media said the regime had met the Iranian delegation as well as UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura ahead of Monday’s talks, to discuss their positions.
In his opening statement published by the UN, de Mistura said it encouraged the talks’ organizers “to create a mechanism to implement the consolidation and de-confliction cease-fire measures, and to see what else can be done to build confidence.”
“This is not a replacement for the Geneva process,” opposition negotiator Fares Buyush told AFP, referring to the UN-hosted political negotiations set to resume in the Swiss city next month.
Although Russia and Turkey back opposing sides, they have worked hand-in-hand in recent weeks to try to secure an end to the brutal war and forged a partnership likely to be tested in Astana.
US President Donald Trump’s administration was invited to participate in the talks but did not send a delegation.
Washington is instead represented by its ambassador to Kazakhstan, the State Department said, while a European diplomatic source said France and Britain are represented at the ambassador level.
Experts say a breakthrough could see some of the armed opposition join next month’s Geneva talks.
“Nearly six years of war demonstrates there is no shortcut to ending it,” a Western diplomat told AFP.


After years of silence, music fills streets of Iraq’s Mosul

Renowned Iraqi maestro and cello player Karim Wasfi performs in Mosul’s war-ravaged Old City on November 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 21 November 2018
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After years of silence, music fills streets of Iraq’s Mosul

  • The city even has its own special genre of Arabic ballads, recognized across Iraq and beyond
  • Tahsin Haddad, who heads the local artists’ syndicate, said he is keen to support public arts across the province

MOSUL: For centuries, it was a magnet for artists across the region and churned out Iraq’s best musicians — but recent years saw Mosul suffer a devastating musical purge.
For three years until last summer, the sprawling northern city was under the brutal rule of the Daesh group.
In imposing a city-wide ban on playing or even listening to music, the jihadists smashed and torched instruments.
“It was impossible to bring my instrument with me whenever I left the house,” said city resident Fadel Al-Badri, who hid his precious violin from the rampaging fighters.
Foreshadowing IS’ repression, the 2000s saw Al-Qaeda and other groups impose an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam in several districts of the city.
But with Mosul freed from the grip of IS in July 2017, Iraq’s second city is embarking on a musical comeback.
“After the liberation, songs are back where they truly belong in Mosul,” said Badri, welcoming the return of evening celebrations and festivals.
The 45-year old violinist now has the pleasure of playing in public once more to an audience that claps hands and sings along to traditional local tunes.

Mosul has a rich musical history.
It is the home city of Ziryab, a musician who introduced the oud — the oriental lute popular across the Arab world — to Europe in the 9th century.
One of its more recent musical prodigies is Kazem Al-Saher, the Iraqi crooner-turned-talent judge known around the region.
The city even has its own special genre of Arabic ballads, recognized across Iraq and beyond.
From folkloric shows and philharmonic concerts to weddings and other national holidays, song and dance have traditionally filled the streets and surrounding air.
But that meant nothing to IS, which ravaged Mosul’s heritage — musical and otherwise — when it took the city as part of a lightning offensive across Iraq in 2014.
The jihadists began by destroying the statue of celebrated ballad virtuoso Mulla Uthman Al-Mosuli, and then turned their attention to destroying instruments across the city.
IS also forced musicians in Mosul to sign a pledge that they would never play or sing again, which was then posted in public places like mosques.
Singer Ahmed Al-Saher, 33, said it was humiliating.
“I couldn’t leave Mosul after they made me sign because of my sick mother. I had to stay here under all that pressure and fear of the unknown,” he recalled.
Ordinary residents, as well as musicians, are keen to celebrate the return of artistic freedom.
“Terrorism failed in killing Mosulites’ love for art in all forms. It’s been born again, despite the destruction,” said Amneh Al-Hayyali.
The 38-year-old brought her husband, son, and daughter to watch a late-night concert in a cultural center in east Mosul.
“Today, after the dark era of beheadings, lashings, beards and veils being imposed on us... we sing,” she said.

But bringing Mosul’s artistic scene back to its former heyday will not be easy.
Tahsin Haddad, who heads the local artists’ syndicate, said he is keen to support public arts across the province.
“But we are in huge need of support from the central government in Baghdad, especially because Mosul currently has no stages, movie theaters, or art spaces,” he told AFP.
Without these venues, artists play in local cafes and public squares.
Celebrated Iraqi musician Karim Wasfi recently performed in a Mosul park where IS once infamously trained its child soldiers.
Earlier this month, Iraqi artists from around the country swarmed to the city for a cultural festival at Mosul University.
Performers stomped the dabkeh — a traditional Arabic line dance — and painters brought their works to display on the campus.
Glamorous Iraqi artist Adiba traveled from Baghdad with an entourage of peers.
“I am so happy to be in Mosul, singing here after it was freed from the grip” of IS, she said, moments before stepping on stage.
“Artists — Iraqi, Arab, foreign — should all come play festivals here.”