UN, EU call for return to Syria peace talks

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (L) and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speak to the media following a meeting as part of an international conference on the future of Syria and the region in Brussels. (AFP)
Updated 24 April 2018
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UN, EU call for return to Syria peace talks

BRUSSELS: The European Union and the United Nations on Tuesday called for swift political talks to end the long war in Syria, saying the latest territorial gains by Damascus and its allies had not brought peace any closer.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, spoke at an international donor conference hosted by the European Union in Brussels, which will seek more than $6 billion in aid for the country.
“We’re seeing in last few weeks, days ... that military gains, territorial gains and military escalation do not bring a political solution, has not brought any change. On the contrary,” he told a joint news conference with the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini.
Mogherini also spoke of the need to “return to the political process under the UN auspices ... to start real, meaningful political negotiations that are clearly the only way forward for the country.”
The EU and UN on Tuesday began a two-day push to drum up fresh aid pledges for war-torn Syria and reinvigorate the faltering Geneva peace process as the conflict enters its eighth year.
Donor countries, aid organizations and UN agencies are gathering in Brussels for the seventh annual conference on Syria’s future as international inspectors probe a suspected gas attack in the town of Douma, highlighting the brutal nature of the war.
The meeting comes in the wake of strikes by the United States, France and Britain on Syrian military installations, carried out in response to the alleged chemical weapons incident in Douma which has been widely blamed on Damascus.
EU officials hope to beat the $6 billion (5.6 billion euros) pledged at last year’s gathering, as forces loyal to President Bashar Assad launched a new offensive against Daesh militants entrenched in a southern district of Damascus.
The UN has warned that its own appeal for money for humanitarian work in Syria this year is less than a quarter funded, receiving less than $800 million of the $3.5 billion needed.
“Within the resources we can plausibly expect to mobilize this year we cannot meet even all the urgent needs,” Mark Lowcock, the head of UN humanitarian agency OCHA said at the start of the conference.

Lowcock said $8 billion needs to be raised at a donor conference in Brussels to help Syrians, adding resources for work inside Syria and with refugees in neighbouring countries were "desperately short."
“Our focus is now to ensure the 5.6 m people we assess as being in acute need inside Syria are made the focus.”
Some 6.1 people are now internally displaced, more than five million have fled Syria and 13 million including six million children are in need of aid, according to the EU.
Lowcock said the “intensity of the humanitarian crisis has escalated again in 2018,” with more than 700,000 people displaced since the start of the year.
UN and EU officials are holding talks with aid groups working in Syria and neighboring countries on Tuesday to get their views before government ministers arrive on Wednesday.
Save the Children International chief executive Helle Thorning-Schmidt urged donors to focus on education, saying a third of Syrian youngsters are out of school and a third of Syrian schools are unusable because of the war.
“We have let Syrian children down. This is the seventh year and they’re still being let down,” Thorning-Schmidt told AFP.
“2018 has been a very bloody year for Syrian children, and one of the things they are missing out on enormously is education.”
UN children’s agency UNICEF said some 2.8 million Syrian children had missed out on education, warning that in parts of the country simply going to school “has at times become a matter of life and death.”
According to EU figures, the total given by the international community after last year’s conference was $7.5 billion — 25 percent more than pledged — with Germany, the United States and EU institutions leading the way.
Eight rounds of talks under UN auspices in Geneva have made little headway, while Russia, Iran and Turkey launched a rival process in the Kazakh capital Astana last year.
Russia and Iran are Assad’s key allies and their military intervention in Syria is widely seen as tipping the balance in the civil war.
But the EU still insists the Geneva process is the best way to bring an end to the war.
“The only way to avoid that the Syrian crisis spirals into wider conflict is to put pressure on all parties including the Syrian regime to come to Geneva for meaningful discussions,” Mogherini said last week.
EU foreign ministers said the conference should be used to “reinvigorate” the Geneva process, but it is not clear how effectively the gathering will be able to do this.
As with previous editions of the conference, neither the Syrian government nor opposition groups will be represented. It also remains unclear who, if anyone, will come for Russia, Turkey and Iran.


One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

Updated 18 October 2018
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One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

  • While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins
  • ‘The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future’

RAQQA, Syria: A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Daesh group from the northern city of Raqqa, traumatized civilians still live in fear of near-daily bombings.
“Every day we wake up to the sound of an explosion,” said resident Khaled Al-Darwish.
“We’re scared to send our children to school ... there’s no security,” he added.
The militants’ brutal rule in Raqqa was brought to an end in October 2017 after a months-long ground offensive by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces supported by air strikes from a US-led coalition.
But despite manning roadblocks at every street corner, the SDF and the city’s newly created Internal Security Forces are struggling to stem infiltration by Daesh sleeper cells.
At Raqqa’s entrance, soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes.
Inside the city, there are regular foot patrols and armored vehicles sit at strategic points.
Women wearing the niqab are asked to show their faces to female security members before entering public buildings.
“If there wasn’t fear about a return of Daesh, there wouldn’t be this increased military presence,” said Darwish, a father of two, speaking near the infamous Paradise Square.
It was here that Daesh carried out decapitations and other brutal punishments, earning the intersection a new name — “the roundabout of hell.”
While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins and there are near daily attacks on checkpoints and military vehicles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Although a series of stinging defeats have cut Daesh’s so-called caliphate down to desert hideouts, the militants still manage to hit beyond the patches of ground they overtly control.
Some Raqqa residents say the city’s new security forces lack the expertise to cope.
“We are exhausted. Every day we don’t know if we will die in a bomb explosion or if we will go home safe and sound,” said Abu Younes, sitting in his supermarket near a roundabout not far from Paradise Square.
“There is no security — (the new security forces) on the roadblocks are not qualified and there is a lot of negligence,” he complained.
“There are faults that enable Daesh to infiltrate the city easily and carry out attacks.”
But despite the continued attacks, a semblance of normal life has returned to the city.
Shops have reopened and traffic has returned to major roads — albeit choked by the impromptu checkpoints.
In a public garden, children climb up a multi-colored slide and onto dilapidated swings as their mothers sit on nearby benches carefully keeping watch.
They are set amidst an apocalyptic backdrop of twisted metal and splayed balconies — the remnants of buildings torn apart by US-led coalition air raids.
Nearby, Ahmed Al-Mohammed pauses as he listens to music on his phone. Like others, he does not hide his disquiet.
“We’re scared because of the presence of Daesh members in the city,” the 28-year-old said.
“The security forces need to tighten their grip.”
Ahmed Khalaf, who commands Raqqa’s Internal Security Forces, defended the work of his men and claimed successes against the militants.
He said patrols are highly organized and that a “joint operation cell” had recently been established with coalition forces to monitor the city’s security.
“Recently we arrested four (militants) — it was a cell that took part in attacks that terrorized the city,” said Khalaf, sporting plain green fatigues.
“We are continuing our investigation to uncover the other cells,” he added.
“Daesh’s goal is to destroy the country and to not let anyone live in safety,” he said.
Security and stability are what Najla Al-Ahmed wants most for her children.
“The nightmare of Daesh follows us everywhere — whenever we try to rest, explosions start up again,” said the 36-year-old, as she shopped with her young ones.
“The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future,” she said.