Russia urges caution on US plan for safe zones in Syria

Internally displaced refugees from al-Bab town gather to receive food aid in Ekhtreen town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, on January 21, 2017. Russia and Turkey on Thursday expressed caution over the Trump administration’s interest in setting up safe zones for civilians in Syria. (REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi)
Updated 27 January 2017

Russia urges caution on US plan for safe zones in Syria

BEIRUT: The Trump administration’s expressed interest in setting up safe zones for civilians in Syria was greeted Thursday with caution by Russia and Turkey, who have taken the lead in the latest peace efforts to end the Mideast country’s devastating six-year war.
Turkey said it had always supported the idea, but both Ankara and Moscow said such plans would require careful consideration while a senior European Union official said the bloc would consider such plans “when they come.”
The idea of safe zones, proposed by both Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton during the US election campaign, was ruled out by the Obama administration for fear it would bring the United States into direct conflict with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia, which has been waging an air campaign to aid Assad’s forces since September 2015.
In October, the Russian military specifically warned the US against striking Syrian government forces, saying its air defense weapons in Syria would fend off any attack.
The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, a key backer of Syrian rebels which now has thousands of troops in northern Syria, in theory makes the creation of safe zones more achievable. So does Trump’s pledge to mend ties with Moscow.
But enforcing them could risk pulling in the US deeper into Syria’s conflict and heightens the risk of an inadvertent clash in Syria’s crowded skies involving warplanes from various countries bombing targets in Syria.
There was no indication on how a safe-zone would look or how it would be enforced.
Asked to comment on a draft executive order that President Trump is expected to sign this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said it was important to “weigh all possible consequences” of the measure.
Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that the US hasn’t consulted with Russia on the subject and noted that “it’s important not to exacerbate the situation with refugees.”
While suspending visas for Syrians and others, the order directs the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area within 90 days. It includes no details.
A Turkish official said his country has always supported the idea of safe zones in Syria but would need to review any US plans before commenting. Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu told reporters that Turkey has “seen the reports on a request for a study on the safe zone,” adding that “what is important is to see the result of these studies.”
He pointed to the Syrian city of Jarablus, near the Turkish border, where thousands of Syrians have returned after Turkish-backed opposition forces drove out the Daesh group, as a good example of what can be achieved.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking at a press conference in Beirut on Thursday, said it was too early to comment.
“I will not comment on things ... that are for the moment reports of the beginnings of a process of reflection,” she said. “We will consider plans when they come.”
She said the EU was mainly concerned with pushing a political solution to Syria’s six-year-old war so that a political transition can start so that “every single Syrian inside or outside Syria” can return.
“We need to turn this from a proxy war to a proxy peace and our role is to facilitate,” she said.
Russia has welcomed Trump’s pledge to mend ties with Moscow and potentially partner with it against the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
But Trump has provided few details about how he plans to approach Syria’s complex conflict, and the Kremlin, which was bitterly at odds with the Obama administration, has said that rebuilding trust will take time.
Peskov said no agreement has been reached on a Trump-Putin phone call and that there have been no contacts between their administrations yet beyond routine diplomatic exchanges.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

Ports deal is chance for Yemen peace talks, says UN envoy

Updated 22 min 8 sec ago

Ports deal is chance for Yemen peace talks, says UN envoy

  • Forces will initially be withdrawn from the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa
  • The second phase a withdrawal of 18 to 30 kilometers, depending on the location and fighters

NEW YORK: The expected pullout of forces from three key ports in Yemen provides an opportunity to move to the major goal of ending the four-year conflict that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the UN envoy for the war-battered country said on Tuesday.

Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council that Yemen’s government and Houthi militias demonstrated that they are able to deliver on commitments they made in December in Stockholm by agreeing on the first phase of redeployment from the ports.

He said forces will initially be withdrawn from the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa, beginning “possibly” on Tuesday or Wednesday. This will be followed by a pullout from the major port of Hodeidah and critical parts of the city that will allow access to the Red Sea Mills, a major UN storage facility holding enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month, he said.

Griffiths called on the parties to fully implement the first phase and to agree on details of the second phase of the redeployment of forces, “which we hope will lead to the demilitarization” of Hodeidah, whose port handles about 70 percent of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian imports.

A UN official said the first phase involves pulling back several kilometers, and the second phase a withdrawal of 18 to 30 kilometers, depending on the location and fighters. In some places in Hodeidah city, the opposing forces are facing each other about 100 meters apart, the official said.

The UN is appealing for more than $4 billion to assist 15 million Yemenis this year and UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock implored donors to pledge generously at a conference next week in Geneva.