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.


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
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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.