Allies claim Washington’s backing for political solution in Syria

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sits with top diplomats in Bonn as they hold a meeting on Syria. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool Photo via AP)
Updated 18 February 2017
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Allies claim Washington’s backing for political solution in Syria

BONN: US allies said they had won assurances Friday from new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Washington backed a political solution to the Syria conflict, ahead of UN peace talks. 
On the sidelines of a G20 gathering in Germany, Tillerson joined a group of countries who support the Syrian opposition for talks on a way to end the nearly six-year war.
“All the participants want a political solution because a military solution alone won’t lead to peace in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters in Bonn, adding that “Tillerson became very involved in the debates.”
The meeting of the so-called “like-minded” nations — made up of around a dozen Western and Arab countries as well as Turkey — was the first since President Donald Trump took office.
Diplomats had said before the talks that they were hoping for clarity on whether there had been a change in US policy on Syria, particularly on the future of President Bashar Assad.
The meeting came ahead of a new round of United Nations-led talks in Geneva on February 23 involving Syrian regime and rebel representatives.
Under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, Washington insisted Assad had to go, putting it at odds with Moscow which backs the Syrian leader.
But Trump has called for closer cooperation with Moscow in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group in Syria, downplaying what happens to Assad as secondary to US interests. 
With Russia’s sway in the conflict growing, Moscow has seized the initiative by hosting separate peace talks in Kazakhstan along with Turkey, to broker a fragile six-week truce between Syria’s warring parties.
Gabriel said the “like-minded” countries had agreed to step up pressure on Russia to back a political solution, reaffirming that there could be no alternative to the UN-led Geneva talks.
“Any political solution must be obtained in the framework of the Geneva negotiations and there should not be any parallel negotiations,” he said.


Tillerson, on his first diplomatic trip abroad, has used the two-day G20 event as a chance to sit down with a string of foreign counterparts unsure about what Trump’s “America First” policy means for them.
The former Exxonmobil boss on Friday held his first talks with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, the highest level Sino-US encounter yet after the two powers got off to a rocky start under Trump.
Trump angered Beijing by questioning the “One China” policy agreed in the 1970s as the basis for what has become one of the most important global relationships.
Wang only agreed to go to Bonn after a conciliatory phone call between Trump and President Xi Jinping in which the US president backtracked on his earlier comments.
Tillerson has also moved to reassure nervous allies with a cautious approach to Russia, signalling there would be no radical shift despite Trump’s pledges to seek a softer line.
Speaking after his first sitdown with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, the Texan said the US sought cooperation with Moscow only when doing so “will benefit the American people.”
After the G20 ends on Friday, the politics moves to the high-profile Munich Security Conference where US Vice President Mike Pence will make his international debut.
“He’s going to reassure our allies of our commitment to our European partners and the reassurance for the transatlantic alliance,” a senior White House adviser said.
In a speech on Saturday, Pence is expected to reassert Washington’s commitment to NATO while pressing member states to follow through on pledges to share more of the defense spending burden.


Erdogan faces biggest challenge in tight Turkey polls

Updated 1 min 55 sec ago
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Erdogan faces biggest challenge in tight Turkey polls

ANKARA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday faces the biggest ballot box challenge of his 15-year grip on Turkey, seeking to overcome a revitalized opposition against the background of an increasingly troubled economy.
A self-styled heavyweight champion of campaigning, Erdogan has won successive elections since his Islamic-rooted ruling party came to power in 2002, transforming Turkey with growth-orientated economic policies, religious conservatism and an assertive stance abroad.
But he appears to have met some kind of match in his main presidential rival Muharrem Ince, a fiery orator from the left of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who has been unafraid to challenge Erdogan on his own terms.
The intrigue is deepened by the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day under controversial constitutional changes spearheaded by Erdogan which will hand the new Turkish president enhanced powers and scrap the office of prime minister.
The vote takes place almost two years after the failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan from power, a watershed in its modern history which prompted Turkey to launch the biggest purge of recent times under a state of emergency that remains in place.
Some 55,000 people have been arrested in a crackdown whose magnitude has sparked major tensions with Ankara’s Western allies.
Only a knockout first round victory for Erdogan and a strong parliamentary majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be seen as an unequivocal victory for the Turkish leader.
And many analysts believe Ince can force a second round on July 8, while AKP risks losing its parliamentary majority in the face of an unprecedented alliance between four opposition parties.
“This is not the classical opposition that he has been facing for 15 years and which he more or less succeeded in managing and marginalizing,” said Elize Massicard of the French National Center for Scientific Research.
“It’s a new political dynamic that has grown in magnitude,” she said.
The opposition was already boosted by the relatively narrow victory of the “Yes” campaign in the April 2017 referendum on the constitutional changes.
Most opinion polls — to be treated with caution in Turkey — suggest Erdogan will fall short of 50 percent in the first round.
Erdogan remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician and inspires sometimes near-fanatical support in the Anatolian interior, where he is credited with transforming lives through greater economic prosperity.
“A great Turkey needs a strong leader,” says the slogan on election posters of Erdogan plastered across Turkey.
But the elections come at a time when Turkey is undergoing one of its rockiest recent economic patches despite high growth, with inflation surging to 12.15 percent and the lira losing 20 percent against the dollar this year.
Erdogan brought the elections forward from November 2019 in what many analysts saw as a bid to have them over with before the economy nosedived.
The opposition has sought to play on signs of Erdogan fatigue and also echoed Western concerns that freedom of expression has declined drastically under his rule.
For the first time, Erdogan has been forced to react in the election campaign as the opposition set the pace.
He had to deny quickly when Ince accused him of meeting the alleged architect of the 2016 failed coup, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan promised to lift Turkey’s two-year state of emergency only after the CHP had vowed the same.
“The opposition is able to frame the debate in the election and this is a new thing for Turkish politics,” Asli Aydintasbas, fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said.
“A party that has been in power for so long is, in an economic downturn, going to experience a loss (in support) and lose its hegemony over politics,” she added.
While the CHP sees itself as the guardian of a secular and united Turkey, Ince has also sought to win the support of Turkey’s Kurdish minority who make up around a fifth of the electorate.
A rally held by Ince in the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir in the southeast attracted considerable attention. “A president for everyone,” reads his election slogan, over a picture of the affably smiling former physics teacher.
The opposition, which argues that Erdogan has been given a wildly disproportionate amount of media airtime in the campaign, has sometimes resorted to creative and even humorous campaign methods.
The Iyi (Good) Party of Meral Aksener, once seen as a major player but lately eclipsed by Ince, put out humorous messages on Google ads and even devised a computer game where light bulbs — the AKP symbol — get destroyed.
Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), has campaigned from his prison cell following his jailing in November 2016. He made an election speech on speaker phone through his wife’s mobile but was allowed give a brief election broadcast on state TV, albeit from prison.