Kremlin: Putin has no plans so far to attend Syria peace congress

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov visit the Gorbunov Aviation factory in Kazan, Russia, on Thursday. (Reuters)
Updated 27 January 2018
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Kremlin: Putin has no plans so far to attend Syria peace congress

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin currently has no plans to attend a Syria peace congress in the Russian city of Sochi, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday.
Peskov said the congress, which Russia will host on Monday and Tuesday, will be important but will not find a definitive political solution to the Syria crisis.
Putin also discussed the situation in Syria’s Afrin with the national security council on Friday, Interfax news agency cited Peskov as saying.
Peskov said Putin spoke about Afrin in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday.
The Syrian opposition was expected to decide on Friday whether to attend the congress, a spokesman said in Vienna as the UN held separate talks on finding a way out of conflict.
The UN-brokered talks — of which this is the ninth round — have made little progress so far.
Having regained the upper hand on the battlefield after nearly seven years of conflict, President Bashar Assad appears unwilling to negotiate with his enemies at all, let alone step down as part of any peaceful solution as opposition groups have demanded.
Arriving at the UN offices in Vienna on Friday, the talks’ host, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, told reporters he expected “a long meeting.”
With a breakthrough unlikely, a question at the center of Friday’s discussions was whether the opposition will attend a Syria peace conference next week in the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi, which Moscow announced after the last round of UN talks in December.
Western powers and some Arab states believe Sochi is an attempt to create a parallel political track that would undermine the UN and lay groundwork for a solution more suitable to the Damascus regime and its allies.
The warring sides have not spoken face to face — a Syrian regime delegation was due to meet De Mistura in the afternoon. De Mistura was expected to make a statement at the end of the talks.
Previous rounds have taken place sporadically in Geneva, with a mandate to discuss new elections, reformed governance, a new constitution and the fight against terrorism.
At the last round in December, the Syrian regime delegation objected to the opposition’s tough line on the future of Assad, and those talks achieved nothing.
Syrian regime forces are pursuing offensives against two remaining opposition pockets, Idlib in the northwest and Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
Speaking in Abu Dhabi, US House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Thursday that he did not envision a “strategic alliance” with Russia in Syria as Washington looks to end Daesh and curb Iran.
“I don’t see strategic alliance — perhaps tactical symmetry for a convenient moment, but not a strategic alliance,” the high-ranking Republican said during a public debate on a visit to Abu Dhabi.
“What matters most to us in Syria is defeating ISIS (Daesh) and preventing Iran from having a land bridge and Hezbollah a foothold,” he said. “Question remains is that something Russia would embrace?”

Military base
Danny Danon, Israel’s UN ambassador, accused Iran of attempting to turn Syria into “the largest military base in the world” to destabilize the region, threaten Israel and “terrorize the entire free world.”
Danon told the UN Security Council that classified information he was releasing showed that 82,000 fighters are currently under Iranian authority in Syria.
He said the fighters include 60,000 Syrians, 9,000 members of Hezbollah, 3,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard members and “10,000 members of violent militias recruited from across the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Danon said the Iranians “speak about 100,000 troops under their control in Syria.”
In addition, he said, Iran is investing “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Syria including on land and factories.


Iraq’s Al-Sadr, promising reform, is constrained by Iran

Updated 20 May 2018
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Iraq’s Al-Sadr, promising reform, is constrained by Iran

  • Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept
  • It is unlikely Al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric whose political coalition beat out Iran’s favored candidates to come in first in national elections, says he wants to form a government that puts Iraqis first.
The electoral commission announced early Saturday that the militant-turned-populist preacher, who has long spoken out against both Iranian and US influence in Iraq, had defeated his establishment rivals.
Al-Sadr — who is remembered for leading an insurgency against US forces after the 2003 invasion — did not run for a seat himself and is unlikely to become prime minister, but will command a significant number of seats and has already begun informal talks about government formation.
Salah Al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Al-Sadr’s Sa’eroun political bloc, told The Associated Press that Iraq’s sovereignty was going to be the new government’s “guiding principle.”
“We warn any other country that wants to involve itself in Iraqi politics not to cross the Iraqi people,” he said.
However, even as Al-Sadr is in position to nominate a prime minister and set the political agenda for the next four years, he will find his choices limited by Iran.
The Middle East’s pre-eminent Shiite power has a direct line with some of Iraq’s most powerful politicians, and it is trying to rally them as a bloc to undercut Al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr’s rise threatens Iran’s claim to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a precedent that could fuel independent Shiite movements elsewhere. Also at stake are top ministerial posts — political appointments that are a source of patronage and police and military power.
Al-Sadr himself has kept a relatively low public profile. But in a public relations move that appeared to be directed at Iran, he appeared on Thursday with rival cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, who has drifted away from Iran’s orbit in recent years, to say the two men share similar visions for the next government.
Tehran has dispatched its top regional military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to pull together a coalition to counterbalance Al-Sadr, according to an Iraqi Shiite militia commander who is familiar with the meetings.
“Iran won’t accept the creation of a Shiite bloc that is a threat to its interests. It’s a red line,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Al-Sadr’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one. Though he has maintained close ties with Iran’s political and religious leadership, in recent years he has denounced the flow of Iranian munitions to Shiite militias in Iraq, all the while maintaining his own so-called Peace Brigades in the holy city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Al-Sadr’s former Mehdi Army militia, which spearheaded an insurgency against the US, clashed violently with the Iran-backed Badr Organization last decade.
The militias plugged the gaps left by Iraq’s army as soldiers deserted their posts in the face of the Daesh group’s lightning campaign in the summer of 2014. With direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, they turned the tide against the initial advance. In the years that followed, the militias — coordinating with US-backed Iraqi ground forces — slowly pushed IS fighters back. Iraq declared victory over the group last year.
Al-Sadr has said he wants the militias absorbed into the national security forces, a move Iran would find difficult to accept.
Iran is also rankled by Al-Sadr’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are locked in proxy wars with Tehran in Syria and Yemen. Al-Sadr met with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in August, leading Iran’s hard-line Keyhan newspaper to accuse Al-Sadr of “selling himself” to the house of Saud.
It is unlikely Al-Sadr can pull together a governing coalition without Iran-aligned political groups, which have the votes to form their own alliance that could challenge Al-Sadr’s right to name a prime minister.
An electoral alliance of the militias called Fatah, headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Organization, won just seven seats fewer than Al-Sadr’s bloc. Sa’eroun won 54 seats in Iraq’s 329-seat national assembly, a far cry from the 165 required to claim a majority.
The militias control the powerful Interior Ministry in the outgoing government and will expect a similar position of influence in the new one.
Al-Sadr seems inclined to woo incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who is seen as a centrist when it comes to Iranian and US interests, and who appears to be wavering between Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri.
But Tehran still holds considerable sway with Al-Abadi’s Al-Nasr bloc, which includes several Iran-aligned figures, including one newly minted deputy who has come under US sanctions for allegedly financing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Iran’s political allies in Iraq will try to pressure those figures into deserting Al-Abadi and collapsing an Al-Sadr alliance if the formulation is not to Tehran’s liking, said a Western diplomat who has been speaking to the sides involved. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of media regulations.
That gives Iran — and Al-Abadi — leverage over Al-Sadr to moderate his positions on the militias and Iran.
Hanging above the talks is the implied threat by all sides to mobilize their followers — and militias — if they feel they are being shortchanged. The collective effect could be to push Al-Sadr’s bloc toward a broader governing coalition that would dilute his reform agenda.
His top showing at the ballot box means the next prime minister will have to introduce a civil service law that Al-Sadr has championed as an antidote to Iraq’s endemic corruption, said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political and security newsletter. But that doesn’t mean the Cabinet or parliament will sign off on it.
“There’s not going to be a functioning majority,” said Sowell. “It’ll be a hodge-podge, coalition government, and it’s not going to be any more stable than the last one.”