Foreign powers back Syria truce deal, war erupts among fighters

UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, right, speaks with chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush, left, of the Jaish Al-Islam opposition group as Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov stands beside prior to the first session of Syria peace talks at Astana’s Rixos President Hotel on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 25 January 2017
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Foreign powers back Syria truce deal, war erupts among fighters

ASTANA: Russia and regional powers Turkey and Iran backed a shaky truce between Syria’s warring parties on Tuesday and agreed to monitor its compliance, but on the ground fighters faced continued fighting on two fronts which could undermine the deal.
After two days of deliberations in Astana, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said the powers had agreed in a final communique to establish a system “to observe and ensure full compliance with the cease-fire, prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the cease-fire.”
While welcoming the text, the Syrian government’s chief negotiator Bashar Ja’afari said an offensive against fighters west of Damascus would carry on. The opposition says it is a major violation of the cease-fire agreed on Dec. 30.
Opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush in turn said he had reservations about the text which he said legitimized Iran’s “bloodletting” in Syria and did not address the role of Shiite militias fighting opposition.
In northwest Syria, heavy fighting erupted between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham and Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions who were represented at the Astana talks.
FSA groups are still reeling after being driven from Aleppo city last month by government forces and their allies. Any further loss of territory in their main northern stronghold — this time at the hand of jihadist insurgents — could leave them too weak to achieve any meaningful gains from peace negotiation.
In Astana, opposition and government delegates held indirect talks for the first time in nine months at a time when Turkey, which backs the opposition, and Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, each want to disentangle themselves from the fighting.
That has led them into an ad-hoc alliance that also appears to enshrine Iran in a process that could lead to some form of political settlement — leaving the UN role unclear especially with the US distracted by domestic issues.
The talks represent a coup for Moscow, which has evolved into the main powerbroker since its military intervention in September 2015 to shore up Assad. “We have managed ... to give birth to the Astana process,” the head of the Russian delegation, Alexander Lavrentyev told reporters.
The final text did not go into any details beyond reaffirming the Turkish-Russian Dec. 30 cease-fire.
Fighting for water
Since the cease-fire announcement government-backed forces have launched an offensive northwest of Damascus in the Wadi Barada area, where fighting intensified on Tuesday.
The government and its allies including Lebanese group Hezbollah were trying to push forward in Ain Al-Fija, where springs and a pumping station that supply most of the capital’s water are located.
The opposition delegates had come to the meeting hoping that Moscow would put pressure on the Iranians to curb military offensives.
“The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor. They are finding a lot of obstacles from (Lebanon’s Shiite) Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime,” Alloush told reporters after the talks.
He said he expected Russia to respond within a week on an opposition cease-fire proposal and that the opposition would never allow Iran, to have a say in Syria’s future.
Government envoy Ja’afari said it was “pitiful” that some “armed terrorist groups in Astana” were criticizing Iran, one of the three guarantors.
Western diplomats attending the talks informally said despite a lack of detail about the cease-fire, it was positive that the final communique mentioned reviving the UN political talks in Geneva under UN resolution 2254 and that the three powers agreed to jointly fight Daesh and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham — which changed its name from Nusra Front last year, and to separate them from armed opposition groups.
However, Assad’s foreign backers and opponents have rarely agreed on exactly which fighters represent moderate rebel forces and which ones are militants.
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who was attending the Astana talks, said he now hoped to reconvene peace talks in Geneva next month.
“We (the UN) are the main player in regards to the political process,” de Mistura said. “The political process should continue in Geneva... We cannot allow another cease-fire to be, in a way, wasted, because of a lack of a political process.”


In Jerusalem’s Old City, conflict means buyer and seller beware

Updated 30 min 25 sec ago
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In Jerusalem’s Old City, conflict means buyer and seller beware

  • ‘Can we be held accountable for something that was sold over two years ago?’
  • The land conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is also a battle over Jerusalem and its Old City

JERUSALEM: In an alley in Jerusalem’s Old City, a three-story building has become a symbol of Palestinian fears they are losing precious ground in the historic area.
Adeeb Joudeh Al-Husseini says he did nothing wrong, but even his status as a member of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent Palestinian families did not shield him from the blowback.
The 55-year-old was accused of being behind the sale of the Mamluk-style building in the Old City’s Muslim quarter to Israeli settlers — something most Palestinians consider treason.
“Can we be held accountable for something that was sold over two years ago?” he asks as he sits at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.
Joudeh, as his family is known, is one of the keepers of the keys of the church and has faced calls to relinquish that role over the sale.
He proudly brandishes the long, arrow-shaped key — which the Muslim family says it has handed down from father to son since the 13th century — as proof of his innocence.
Joudeh says he sold the property to another Palestinian in 2016 for $2.5 million and cannot be held responsible if it was passed on to settlers, who moved there in late 2018.
But the building he once owned is not the only one triggering Palestinian concerns.
The land conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is also a battle over Jerusalem and its Old City, home to sites holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Israel took over mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
It now considers the entire city its capital, citing the Jewish historical and biblical connection there.
The Palestinians see east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, as the capital of their future state.
They consider each property sale to Israeli settlers there as another blow to their cause.
Some 320,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem, while the Israeli settler population there has now grown to 210,000.
Israel bars the Palestinian Authority from operating in Jerusalem, but it seeks to maintain influence, however limited.
Such sales can in theory carry the death penalty under PA law.
In one high-profile case in recent weeks, an American-Palestinian man, Issam Akel, was sentenced to life in prison by a PA court in the occupied West Bank over a property sale in the Old City.
Akel’s lawyer, Oday Nawfel, said he was simply trying to help another Palestinian family sort out inheritance issues with the building, down the street from the one Joudeh sold.
Akel’s case has drawn criticism from David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, who has been a supporter of settlements and has called for Akel’s release.
It also led to calls in Israel for authorities there to act.
Following Akel’s arrest, Israel detained the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem a number of times over suspicions of involvement in the affair.
Another 32 Palestinians were arrested by Israeli forces on similar grounds that they were supporting the PA in the matter, but eventually all were released.
Akel was reported to have been released this past week on condition he leaves for the US, though neither his lawyer nor the US embassy confirmed the deal.
In a separate case in November, the highest Muslim authority in Jerusalem, Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, refused to allow a Palestinian killed in a car accident to be buried in a Muslim cemetery over suspicions he had once sold property to Jews.
Israeli settler groups push to make deals happen as part of their efforts to increase the Jewish population in east Jerusalem, sometimes offering exorbitant sums to pressure owners to sell.
The groups use a variety of means such as middlemen or shell companies, anti-settlement activists say.
“These are not open, transparent transactions,” said Yudith Oppenheimer, who heads Ir Amim, an Israeli anti-settlement NGO focused on Jerusalem.
Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim, which works to increase the Jewish population of east Jerusalem, defended its actions.
“Everyone should be able to buy and sell” in areas under Israeli sovereignty, said Luria.
Joudeh displays documents that he says show the PA validated the sale of his home to another Palestinian.
He says the buyer “betrayed me, betrayed the Palestinian Authority and Palestine.”
The Palestinian who in 2016 bought the house, Khaled Al-Atari, refused to speak with AFP citing an ongoing investigation on the Palestinian side.
Regardless of who was responsible, neighbors fear more such sales are ahead.