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.


Lebanese parliament re-elects Berri as speaker

Updated 4 min 48 sec ago
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Lebanese parliament re-elects Berri as speaker

  • After his re-election as speaker, Berri called for a new government to be formed as soon as possible
  • Berri, 80, heads the Amal Movement and has been allied with Hezbollah since the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war

BEIRUT: Shi'ite politician Nabih Berri, a close ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, was re-elected as speaker of Lebanon's parliament for the sixth time since 1992 on Wednesday, securing the backing of 98 out of 128 lawmakers.
The new parliament was sitting for the first time since the May 6 general election, Lebanon's first since 2009. After his re-election as speaker, Berri called for a new government to be formed as soon as possible.
Berri, 80, heads the Amal Movement and has been allied with Hezbollah since the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
He was unopposed for the post, reserved for a Shi'ite under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system. Outgoing Sunni prime minister Saad al-Hariri, an opponent of Hezbollah, had declared support for his re-election.
Berri's office issued a statement urging supporters to avoid celebratory gunfire.
Another Hezbollah ally, Elie Ferzli, is a leading candidate to be elected as deputy speaker, reflecting a shift in the political landscape in favour of Hezbollah since the 2009 vote.
Ferzli, like Berri and Hezbollah, has close ties to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Parties and individuals who back Hezbollah's possession of arms won at least 70 of parliament's 128 seats. The last time Lebanon held an election, an anti-Hezbollah alliance led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won a majority.
The deputy speaker position, reserved for a Greek Orthodox Christian, has been held by a Hezbollah opponent since 2005, the year Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, Saad's father.