Opposition blames Russia and Iran for failure of Astana talks

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends the plenary session of peace talks brokered by Iran, Russia and Turkey in Astana on Thursday. (AFP)
Updated 29 November 2018
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Opposition blames Russia and Iran for failure of Astana talks

  • De Mistura was too lenient with the Syrian regime, its allies, spokesman tells Arab News
  • Tehran did not want the Assad regime to get into any political process “because it lives off tension.”

JEDDAH, ANKARA: The UN Special Envoy for Syria signed off from his posting on Thursday ruing “a missed opportunity” to help end the country’s conflict at talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.

Staffan de Mistura, who announced his resignation last month, capped his term as peace envoy with two days of talks in the Kazakh capital sponsored by power-brokers Russia and Iran — allies of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — and opposition-backer Turkey.

A statement from his office noted that he regretted “no tangible progress in overcoming the 10-month stalemate on the composition of the constitutional committee” was made at the talks.

Yahya Al-Aridi, spokesman for the Syrian opposition, blamed Russia and Iran for the talks’ failure. Russia had an upper hand and it could drag the regime in any direction, he told Arab News. 

He said that Tehran did not want the Assad regime to get into any political process “because it lives off tension.”

He added: “The UN agreed in Sochi to have a supervisory role in the committee, but Russia and its allies are withdrawing from that commitment now. The UN said that if the committee goes the Russian way, it wouldn’t have the UN blessings. We believe the UN would stick to that stand.”

Al-Aridi said De Mistura was too lenient with the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran. “De Mistura should’ve called a spade a spade from the very beginning as his predecessors did. He thought that with certain compromises and nice talk, he could get the brutal regime to agree to his proposals. I hope, in his briefings next month, De Mistura would dot the i’s and cross the t’s and tell the world who is blocking international efforts for peace.”

He said: “If the world continues tolerating tyrants like Assad, the world is going to have more of his kind.” 

The leaders of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany held talks on Syria on Nov. 27 in Istanbul and agreed that the constitutional committee should be established by the end of 2018. 

“So it still needs time. This summit was not expected to have the last word on the establishment of this much-waited committee,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at Ankara-based think-tank ORSAM, told Arab News. 

Under the UN plan, the regime would choose 50 of the committee members, while Turkey would propose 50 members from the Syrian opposition, and the UN is expected to nominate the remaining 50 members, composed of technical experts and civil society representatives. 

According to Orhan, the key country to overcome the obstacles toward setting up the 150-member constitutional committee is Russia, as Moscow is still negotiating with the Syrian Assad regime, which is rejecting the UN list. 

“Turkey puts its emphasis on the eradication of extremist movements in Syria. The ball is now on Russia’s side to increase its pressure on the Assad regime for convincing it on the committee’s composition,” he said. 

The constitutional committee is considered a key element in reaching a political settlement in the country. But while the opposition asks for a new constitution to be drafted, the Assad regime prefers discussing amendments to the current one. 

Experts, however, are optimistic about the recent steps that have been taken for building trust. 

“The recent swap of prisoners between the Syrian government and rebels is an important step toward supporting the political settlement process,” Orhan said. 

Ankara has re-emphasized the importance it attaches to the constitutional committee in Syria. In a meeting on Nov. 27, Turkey’s National Security Council called on parties to establish a constitutional committee under  UN observation as soon as possible to reach a permanent solution. 

Orhan said that Iran was putting its efforts into breaking the consensus over the Sochi deal that was reached between Russia and Turkey in September for a peaceful resolution on the issue of Syria’s Idlib province. 

“But loosing Turkey as a partner in Syria would be very costly for Russia,” he said. 

According to Orhan, if Russia and the Assad government ever conduct a joint operation to rebel-held Idlib based on the alleged chemical attack by Idlib-based insurgents to attack the government-held city of Aleppo  last Saturday, Ankara would react strongly and consider it as a declaration of war. 

“So far, Ankara has opted for a policy of appeasing the opposition forces that it supports in Syria. But, in such a case, it would support them for resisting against such an offensive,” he said. 

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, thinks that sooner or later the constitutional committee will be formed. 

“Damascus shows resistance, but finally it will acquiesce to the decision of Moscow. In fact, the majority of the members in the committee will be of a pro-regime tendency,” he told Arab News. 

However, although the slow progress in finalizing the constitutional committee left a mark over the success of the Astana summit, Balanche thinks that nothing concrete will come out of this committee apart from a law on local decentralization, which was planned a long time ago to give more power to the municipalities. 

“In any case, there will be no new constitution for Syria until 2021, which is the date of the re-election of Bashar Assad,” he said. 

The next phase of Syria negotiations in Astana are scheduled for early February, according to the joint communiqué.


Syria stuck with Assad for now, says UK minister Jeremy Hunt

Updated 37 min 35 sec ago
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Syria stuck with Assad for now, says UK minister Jeremy Hunt

  • Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said that Assad is likely to remain in his position “for the short-term and possibly longer”
  • Hunt added that the UK has “no plans” to reopen diplomatic relations with Syria

LONDON: Syria has no future under Bashar Assad but is stuck with the president due to Russian support, Britain’s top diplomat has said.
Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said that Assad is likely to remain in his position “for the short-term and possibly longer,” and called on Moscow to come forward with a solution.
“Assad … is a truly horrific man who has shown that he won’t hesitate to butcher his own people in order to prolong his hold on power. And what future would a country like Syria have with a leader like that?,” Hunt said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
“But the reality is because of Russian support, he is there and he is likely to stay for the short-term and possibly longer. It is for the Russians now to come forward with their solution because they have chosen to intervene in the way they have.”
Hunt said it was “impossible” for Syria to have a bright future with Assad still in power.
“This is a man who mercilessly gassed his own people in the most brutally possible way against all international norms, and the Russians chose to prop him up. So it is for Russia now to show they are going to create peace and stability in Syria,” he said.
Hunt added that the UK has “no plans” to reopen diplomatic relations with Syria.
The British official said the US withdrawal from eastern Syria should not take place in a way that harms “our allies like the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) in Syria who fought very bravely along Western troops for many years.”
Asked about Britain’s role following the US pullout from Syria, Hunt said: “There is no prospect of British troops going in to replace the American troops leaving, but of course we had discussions with the United States on an ongoing basis and when I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago about how we stabilize the situation in Syria.”
Hunt also spoke about the territorial defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq — but cautioned that was not the same as crushing the mindset behind the terror group.
“We have not yet eliminated the cause of the Daesh movement which is so evil and so destructive and there is a lot more work left to do,” he said.
“It is very important that the global coalition does not hang its hat up and say we are done now, because if we do that there is a very good chance that Daesh will be back.”
“There (is) some evidence now in parts of Iraq that (Daesh is) regrouping and regathering strength.”
On Yemen, Hunt underlined the need for a comprehensive solution that would prevent Iran from using the country as a base to destabilize neighboring states.
Asked about his recent participation in the Warsaw Conference on the Middle East, the British foreign secretary said that the meetings went beyond the Iranian role in the region to touch on reshaping alliances in the Middle East.
He added that he attended a “very productive meeting about Yemen,” in the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir and his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.
“We spent a long time talking about what is necessary to get peace over the line in Yemen,” he said.
In this regard, Hunt affirmed that a comprehensive settlement in Yemen could only be reached through “a government of national unity in which the Houthis have a stake in which the security of all communities in Yemen is assured, in which Iran is no longer using Yemen as a base to destabilize Yemen’s neighbors, and in which we can end the terrible humanitarian crisis which is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now.”
According to Hunt, the problem lies in how to achieve a final solution and to build trust, in particular the importance of implementing the Stockholm Agreement and withdrawal from the city of Hodeidah “so that we can open up the Red Sea Mills,” where 51,000 tones of UN wheat is stored.
He noted that he held a lengthy discussion with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif about this issue.
According to Hunt, he was told by Zarif that Iran wants to play its part in finding a solution. “We took those commitments at face value but we do now need to see that translated into the Houthis leaving the Port of Hodeideh.”
“All of us know that if that does not happen soon, we are going to see a return to hostilities and that would be an absolute tragedy to the people of Yemen,” Hunt said.
A version of this story was originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat