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.


Lebanese election campaign fever turns into clash between Druze parties

Updated 25 April 2018
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Lebanese election campaign fever turns into clash between Druze parties

  • Lebanon's independent Sabaa party talks about exploitation of positions and money.
  • Several young men from the Sabaa party demonstrated on Tuesday outside the Ministry of Interior.

BEIRUT: Sectarian and partisan polarization resulting from fierce competition for parliamentary seats in Lebanon has led to the first armed clash between two rival Druze parties.
Machine guns were used in the clash between the Progressive Socialist Party, led by MP Walid Jumblatt, and the Lebanese Democratic Party, led by Talal Arslan, which took place on Sunday evening in the city of Choueifat, about 5 km south of Beirut.
The two parties’ leaders acted quickly to calm their supporters.
“When politicians plant seeds of hatred and grudges among people, they commit a crime against citizens who have been breaking bread together for centuries,” Jumblatt said in a tweet.
In a joint statement, the two parties stressed “the need to avoid any steps that could provoke anger among supporters or disturb citizens who look forward to freely exercising their right to vote in an atmosphere of democratic competition.”
The two parties, alongside other parties with supporters in Choueifat, such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Amal Movement, have agreed on “disowning anyone who breaches security, requesting that the security forces intensify their presence in Choueifat, identifying fixed locations until the elections are over, and restraining from carrying out provocative processions.”
Campaigning lasts 24 hours before polling and has seen various kinds of violations of the electoral law.
Several young men from the Sabaa party — a group of independent activists — demonstrated on Tuesday outside the Ministry of Interior, carrying banners questioning the ministry’s role in election-related issues.
“Serious violations are taking place because the country is out of control; many are exploiting their positions and pouring (in) their money, and conflicts are happening at grassroots level — people are tearing down photos of candidates and individuals are fighting with one another,” said Gilbert Hobeish on behalf of the demonstrators.
He added: “This is unacceptable, and the minister of interior must take responsibility.”
Hobeish criticized the Electoral Supervisory Commission, saying “it only oversees the civil society or change candidates.”
“We reject this in toto,” he said.
Ali Al-Amin, a candidate on the Shbaana Haki electoral list (who was assaulted last Sunday by Hezbollah supporters in the town of Shaqra because he hung his photo outside his house), held a press conference in the town of Nabatiyah Al-Fawqa and renewed his protest against “the tyranny that silences voices, oppresses liberties and acts on its own will and temperaments, making us feel as if we were in the law of the jungle era.”
He said that “resistance isn’t anyone’s property nor is it one party’s ownership.”
He also called on “the free people of the south to decide which life they wanted and to which homeland and identity they belonged.”
Campaign fever is rising in Lebanon 48 hours before the elections are held for the first time for Lebanese communities in several Arab countries. These elections are to be held 11 days before parliamentary elections take place inside Lebanon.