UN brings Syria talks under one roof, not yet into one room

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UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (1st L) speaks at a meeting with the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) delegation, during the UN-led Intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 30, 2017. (REUTERS/Xu Jinquan/Pool)
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Head of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) Nasr Hariri, center, and other members of the delegation in Geneva on Thursday. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2017

UN brings Syria talks under one roof, not yet into one room

GENEVA: Representatives of Syria’s warring sides sat just meters apart in separate rooms at UN peace talks on Thursday, but mediator Staffan de Mistura stopped short of bringing them together in what diplomats had hoped might be a minor breakthrough.
Previous rounds of talks have gone almost nowhere, with de Mistura shuttling between hotels and meeting multiple delegations separately. A newly unified opposition had raised the possibility of face-to-face talks to speed up the talks.
Although the two delegations were in the UN building concurrently, de Mistura kept them apart, dashing between their respective meeting rooms on either side of a corridor.
“We are having what we would call close proximity parallel meetings,” he told the opposition team, after making similar comments to the government delegation, promising to leave them in the hands of his deputy while he went to meet their enemies.
After several hours of talks, chief regime negotiator Bashar Al-Jaafari and his opposition counterpart Nasr Hariri left separately, without commenting to the media.
Hariri told Reuters on Wednesday that he was ready for direct talks and was prepared to negotiate with no preconditions to end the six-year war.
He said his first words to Al-Jaafari would be: “Despite all of the crimes which have been done in Syria, I hope that the regime can come ready to put the people of Syria first.”
If the two sides do meet, it will not be their first time in the same room. In February, de Mistura infuriated Jaafari by inviting both sides to a ceremony to inaugurate the talks.
On that occasion, as de Mistura warmly embraced the opposition delegates, whom the regime of President Bashar Assad regards as terrorists, Jaafari and his team walked out of the room without turning back.
One Western diplomat predicted fireworks if the two sides sat down to talk at last, almost seven years into Syria’s war, but he said the “sponsor” countries backing the talks — including Russia and the US — would then force them back to the table, and the pressure would gradually be released.
A European diplomat expected the opposition to be “pragmatic and flexible” but there was little chance of a big breakthrough.
“I think we need baby steps, and we’ve made such little progress in the years gone by, largely because of the regime’s reluctance to engage in this, so to make some small steps now and develop some momentum would be very helpful indeed.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria’s civil war and more than 11 million have been driven from their homes. Previous rounds of talks have faltered over the opposition’s demand that Assad leave power and his refusal to go.
Over the past two years, since Russia joined the war on the regime side, Assad and his allies have recaptured all major towns and cities from the opposition.
There has been some speculation ahead of this week’s round of talks that the opposition could soften its demands in light of the regime’s success on the battlefield. However, at a meeting before the talks began, opposition delegates stuck by their demand that Assad be excluded from any transitional government under a future peace deal.
In a separate development, over 400 US Marines involved in battling Daesh in Syria are being withdrawn as part of a cut in forces after the capture of Raqqa, the US-led coalition said Thursday.
The Marines had deployed to Syria in March and used 155mm howitzers to support local forces as they fought to retake Raqqa.
“With the city liberated and ISIS (Daesh) on the run, the unit has been ordered home. Its replacements have been called off,” the coalition said in a statement.
The coalition’s director of operations, Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, called the move “a real sign of progress” as the terrorists have seen the vast swathes of ground they seized across Syria and Iraq in 2014 reduced to just a few remaining pockets.
“We’re drawing down combat forces where it makes sense, but still continuing our efforts to help Syrian and Iraqi partners maintain security,” Braga said in the statement.
A recent report from the Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center said that as of Sept. 30, the US military had 1,720 troops in Syria and 8,892 in Iraq.
Those numbers were far above the officially released figure of 503 in Syria and 5,262 in Iraq, and even after the announcement of the Marine withdrawal, that supposed 503 figure had not budged.
An alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), retook Raqqa from the terrorists in October after a brutal onslaught supported by artillery and air power from the US-led coalition.


Israel parliament moves for third election as talks falter

Updated 48 sec ago

Israel parliament moves for third election as talks falter

  • On Wednesday morning the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 a preliminary reading of a bill immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2
  • New elections would add to the political challenges facing Benjamin Netanyahu
JERUSALEM: Israel’s parliament began rushing through a bill on Wednesday to call a third general election within a year as talks between embattled premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist rival broke down ahead of a midnight deadline.
A deal to avert a new election must be reached before 11:59 p.m. (2159 GMT), following a deadlocked vote in September.
But Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, both of whom have repeatedly failed to build a governing majority in the Knesset, or parliament, have spent days trading blame for failing coalition talks.
On Wednesday morning the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 a preliminary reading of a bill immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2.
It must face three more plenary readings and votes during the day before being passed.
New elections would add to the political challenges facing Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving premier, now governing in a caretaker capacity — at a time when, weakened by corruption charges, he must fend off internal challengers in his right-wing Likud party.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, had been discussing a potential unity government, but disagreed on who should lead it.
Last month, when Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges, Gantz called on him to step down.
On Tuesday night Netanyahu called on Gantz to stop “spinning.”
“After 80 days, it’s time that for one day, for the citizens of Israel, we sit and have a serious discussion about forming a broad unity government. It’s not too late,” he said on social media.
Gantz said his party was making “efforts to find a way to form a government without us giving up the fundamental principles that brought us into politics.”
If confirmed, it would be the first time Israel’s weary electorate has been asked to go to the polls for a third time within 12 months.
The parties of Netanyahu and Gantz were nearly deadlocked in September’s election, following a similarly inconclusive poll in April.
Israel’s proportional system is reliant on coalition building, and both parties fell well short of the 61 seats needed to command a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Both were then given 28-day periods to try and forge a workable coalition but failed, forcing President Reuven Rivlin to turn to parliament with his deadline for Wednesday.
New elections are deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, which has expressed mounting anger and frustration with the entire political class.
Both parties had been trying to convince Avigdor Lieberman, a crucial kingmaker, to join their blocs.
But the former nightclub bouncer, whose secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party holds the balance of power, has refused.
Kann Radio reported Tuesday that Netanyahu had abandoned hopes of earning Lieberman’s endorsement.
Lieberman pointed out that Likud and Blue and White wouldn’t need his support if they could agree to work together.
“If during the next 24 hours a government is not formed it will be solely because the leaders of the two big parties — Likud and Blue and White — were not willing to set aside their egos,” he said on Facebook Tuesday.
“All the rest is lies and excuses.”
Netanyahu was indicted last month for bribery, breach of trust and fraud relating to three separate corruption cases.
He strongly denies the allegations and accuses the media, police and prosecution of a witch-hunt.
No date has yet been set for the beginning of the proceedings and, under Israeli law, Netanyahu can remain in office despite an indictment.
He also faces a potential challenge from within his own Likud party.
To boost his support, Netanyahu has pushed his plan to annex a strategic part of the occupied West Bank, as well as signing a defense treaty with the United States.
He is a close ally of US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of controversial steps in support of Netanyahu’s agenda.
Blue and White, meanwhile, pledged Monday to run with only one leader in the next election — Gantz.
Previously Yair Lapid, second in command in the coalition, was meant to alternate the premiership, but on Monday Lapid said: “We’ll all get behind Benny Gantz, our candidate for prime minister.”
Despite Netanyahu’s indictment, polls suggest that a third round of elections could still be neck and neck — prompting some Israelis to speculate about yet another electoral stalemate.
A commentary writer for the Israel Hayom newspaper suggested that “a fourth election is even now visible on the horizon sometime in early September 2020.”