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.


Saudi Arabia's KSRelief says blast kills 5 foreign demining experts in Yemen

Updated 22 min ago
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Saudi Arabia's KSRelief says blast kills 5 foreign demining experts in Yemen

SANAA: A Saudi demining group says five of its international experts have been killed by an accidental explosion in Yemen while transporting mines and explosives to be destroyed.
The MASAM Demining Project said Monday that two South Africans, a Croatian, a Bosnian and a Kosovar were killed a day earlier while transporting the material in the central Marib province to a remote location where it could be safely detonated. It says a British national was wounded.
The project, part of the Saudi King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief), began last year and seeks to remove unexploded ordnance from Yemen.
MASAM says the experts “lost their lives while attempting to bring safety and security to the Yemeni people, and their service to mankind will not be forgotten.”


This comes as Yemeni security officials say UN envoy Martin Griffiths has arrived in the capital, Sanaa, on an unannounced visit to discuss the “complex situation” in and around the coastal city of Hodeidah, where Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a cease-fire last month and agreed on a prisoner exchange that has yet to take place.
Also under discussion from Monday will be disagreements between the Houthi militia, who hold Hodeidah, and Retired Dutch Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, who is heading a UN mission charged with monitoring the cease-fire.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Iranian-backed terrorist group. An Arab coalition allied with the internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
The officials spoke anonymously as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists.
Meanwhile, the coordination cell at the Advanced Operations Center in Hodeidah identified 688 violations committed by the Houthi militia since the cease-fire took effect on Dec. 18.
A cell report published by the Yemeni News Agency said that these violations committed by the Houthis led to the killing of 48 citizens and 362 others wounded, some with serious injuries.
A military source in the committee pointed out that the Houthi violations continue with various types of weapons, which target civilian houses, public places and army positions.
The source stressed that the militia continues to strengthen its defensive positions by planting mines and digging trenches and land passages at the entrances to the city and the main sites.
The source pointed out that the Iran-backed militia aims to provoke the forces of the Yemeni National Army and the Arab coalition through these increasing violations, in a clear intent to thwart the Stockholm cease-fire agreement.
The source called on the office of the UN envoy to take the necessary and serious measures to pressure the Houthi militia to immediately stop these violations and abide by the UN-led agreement on Hodeidah.