Assad adviser says rebels must lay down arms-Syrian state media

Bouthaina Shaaban, the adviser to Syria’s President Bashar Assad. (AFP)
Updated 23 November 2017
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Assad adviser says rebels must lay down arms-Syrian state media

BEIRUT: Russia’s planned peace talks among Syrian groups will only succeed if the opposition ends its fight against the government, a senior adviser to President Bashar Assad said on Thursday.
“The success of the congress depends on the various opposition groups realizing that the time has come to stop the violence, lay down their weapons and engage in a national dialogue,” said Bouthaina Shaaban in comments to a Russian news agency carried by Syrian state media.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Assad as well as the leaders of Iran and Turkey in the Black Sea resort of Sochi this week in a diplomatic push to prepare for a congress between Syria’s government and opposition.
For years, Western and Arab countries backed the opposition demand that Assad quit power, but since Russia’s 2015 entry into the war, his government has won back major cities and now looks militarily unassailable.
Large parts of northwest and southwest Syria remain in rebel hands as well as a pocket near Damascus, and Kurdish-led groups hold much of the northeast.
Opposition groups who met in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday will stick to their demand that Assad leave power as part of any political transition, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel reported.
But after the Syrian army and its allies recaptured Albu Kamal, Islamic State’s last Syrian town, Putin said the military campaign in Syria was winding down.
Russia has not said when the Syrian congress, also planned to take place in Sochi, will take place or who will be invited.
The congress will involve drawing up a framework for the future structure of the Syrian state, adopting a new constitution and holding elections under United Nations supervision, Putin said.
After their meeting on Wednesday, Putin, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the Syrian government and moderate opposition to “participate constructively.”
Shaaban said the government is ready for dialogue with those who believe in a political solution, adding that the opposition’s desire — or even ability — to engage in a real political operation has not yet been made clear.
Syria’s six-year-old civil war has killed hundreds of thousands, pushed millions to flee in the worst refugee crisis since World War Two and embroiled regional and world powers.


US, allies set to evacuate Syrian aid workers from southwest

Updated 8 min 51 sec ago
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US, allies set to evacuate Syrian aid workers from southwest

WASHINGTON: US officials say the United States is finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families from southwest Syria as Russian-backed government forces close in on the area.
Two officials familiar with the plans said Thursday that the US, Britain and Canada are spearheading the evacuation that would transport members of the White Helmets group to transit camps in neighboring countries. From there, they will be sent to third countries, including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Canada, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
The officials, and a member of the White Helmets who is due to be evacuated from Quneitra province, said the operation appears to be imminent as the Syrian army continues to gain ground in its latest offensive. The White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the US and other Western nations for years, are likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retake control of the southwest, according to the officials.
The officials said planning for the evacuation has been taking place for some time but accelerated after last week’s NATO summit in Brussels.
“These are hard hours and minutes,” the White Helmets volunteer in Quneitra said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for his life. “This is the worst day of my life. I hope they rescue us before it is too late.”
The evacuation is expected to take place from Quneitra, which straddles the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and where the civil defense team is trapped. It is the last sliver of land still outside government control in the region.
Since the government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier with the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, attracting hundreds of displaced people because is along the disengagement line with Israel demarcated in 1974 after a war. The Syrian government is unlikely to fire there or carry out airstrikes.
Negotiations are also ongoing to evacuate armed rebels and their families who don’t want to accept the return of the rule of Bashar Assad’s government to Quneitra, which the rebels have controlled for years. The fighters will be evacuated to the northern part of Syria, where the opposition still holds sway.
Except for that sliver of land, the southern tip of the southwestern region lies along the border with Jordan and the Golan Heights and is occupied by a Daesh-affiliated group. The area is expected to be the target of the next government advances and the civil defense teams don’t operate there.
The White Helmets are not without controversy. They only operate in opposition-held areas, where government services are almost non-existent and aerial bombings are recurrent. Syrian government supporters accuse them of being politically affiliated with the rebel groups. Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly accused them of staging chemical attacks in opposition areas, a charge that has never been proven.
They have continued to receive US support even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with his plans to withdraw all American forces from Syria as soon as Islamic State forces are routed.
In June, the State Department freed up a small portion — $6.6 million out of some $200 million — in frozen funding for Syria stabilization programs to keep the White Helmets operating through the end of this year.
In other parts of Syria, where government control has been restored, civil defense volunteers have almost always evacuated to other opposition-controlled areas. It is not clear why this time they will be evacuated out of the country.