Western, Arab states sidestep Assad fate in Syria proposals

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura looks on before the start of talks on Syria in Vienna on Jan. 25, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 26 January 2018
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Western, Arab states sidestep Assad fate in Syria proposals

BEIRUT: Five Western and Arab states that have backed the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad make no reference to his future in a document proposing changes to UN-led talks, an apparent recognition of his strong position in the conflict.
The document drawn up by the United States, Jordan, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia made recommendations to the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura for what they called a “practical approach” to what would be a “slow” political process.
It leaked on Friday as the latest round of UN-led talks was underway in Vienna, and its authenticity was confirmed to Reuters by three diplomatic sources.
The Syrian government’s negotiator at the Vienna talks dismissed the proposals as “totally unacceptable.” A Syrian opposition official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said it was “not good,” declining to explain why.
Assad appears unassailable in the conflict thanks to direct military intervention by Iran and Russia, which is now seen as the pivotal foreign power in the war and is due to host a Syrian peace congress in Sochi next week.
The five states’ proposals recommend that de Misutra focus the parties on reforming the constitution, on holding UN-supervised elections for Syrians inside and outside the country, and creating a “safe and neutral environment” for the vote.
“All external supporters of the political process should encourage the opposition and government delegations to engage genuinely in the talks, focus squarely on these topics and, at least initially, set aside other issues,” it said.
While not addressing Assad’s fate, the proposals call for a new constitution that would dilute presidential powers in favor of a stronger parliament.
It also calls for the departure of all foreign militias — an apparent reference to the Iran-backed Shiite groups that have provided critical support to Assad — before elections.
A European diplomat confirmed the paper had been presented to de Mistura.
The United Nations has sponsored eight rounds of fruitless peace talks in Geneva since the war began in 2011, a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and driven millions from their homes while dragging in world and regional powers.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a Jan. 17 speech called for “patience” on Assad’s departure, another acknowledgement that Russian and Iranian backing for Assad means he is unlikely to leave power soon.


Russia ‘trying to help Syrian refugees to return home’

Russian soldiers distribute aid in the central Syrian province of Homs. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 August 2018
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Russia ‘trying to help Syrian refugees to return home’

  • A buffer zone separates Syria to the east, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the west
  • The Russian military police have set up four observation points along the demarcation line on the Syrian side of the buffer zone

MOSCOW: The Russian Defense Ministry said it was coordinating efforts to help Syrian refugees return home and rebuild the country’s infrastructure destroyed by the civil war.
Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev said in a conference call that included Russian and Syrian officials that work is underway to rebuild dozens of Syria’s power stations, schools and other vital institutions.
In Damascus, Syrian Public Administration Minister Hussein Makhlouf pledged the regime would protect refugee property rights and grant returning refugees a year’s deferral from military conscription.
“The Syrian government is working to simplify procedures for refugees who return, repair housing and try to create new jobs,” Makhlouf said, adding that the authorities were also working to streamline legislation to facilitate refugee returns.
He dismissed as hostile “propaganda” claims that some refugees were facing arrests on their return.
Makhlouf called on Western nations to drop their sanctions against Damascus, introduced early in the seven-year conflict, in order to help post-war restoration and encourage the return of the refugees.
Mizintsev said that over 1.2 million of internally displaced Syrians and about 300,000 refugees have returned in the past two and a half years.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin might take part in a summit with the leaders of Turkey and Iran at the beginning of September.
The three leaders met in April at a summit in Ankara where they discussed developments in Syria.
With help from its Russian ally, President Bashar Assad’s regime has expelled fighters from large parts of Syria’s south since June.
Israel has repeatedly pledged to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence along its border. A series of airstrikes that killed Iranians inside Syria have been attributed to Israel.
A buffer zone separates Syria to the east, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the west.
The Russian army’s Lt.-Gen. Sergei Kuralenko told reporters on an organized press tour this week how “stability” had returned to the buffer zone.
Apart from “a few problems with Daesh” in its southern tip, the demilitarized zone was “entirely under control of Syrian military police,” Kuralenko said.
“Everything is ready” for the return of UN troops, he said, after the peacekeepers were forced to withdraw in 2014.
After retaking most of the two southern provinces adjacent to the buffer zone, regime forces last month raised their flag inside, above the key border crossing of Quneitra.
The Russian military police have set up four observation points along the demarcation line on the Syrian side of the buffer zone, Kuralenko said, and plan to set up four more in the near future.
They are “willing to hand them over to the UN if it says it is ready to ensure the monitoring of the Golan alone,” he said.