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.

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

Updated 23 min 11 sec ago

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

  • The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year

TEHRAN: Iran’s low voter turnout reflects a wider malaise in a country long buckling under sanctions and more recently also hit hard by the coronavirus, spelling “a threat for everyone,” Tehran’s mayor Pirouz Hanachi told AFP.

“The turnout at the ballot box is a sign of people’s satisfaction level,” said Hanachi, mayor of Iran’s political and business center and largest city, with more than 8 million people.

“When there is dissatisfaction with the government or the state, it then reaches everyone and that includes the municipality too,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Iran has suffered the double blow of a sharp economic downturn caused by US economic sanctions over its contested nuclear program, and the region’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

Reformists allied with moderate President Hassan Rouhani lost their parliamentary majority in a landslide conservative victory in February, in a major setback ahead of presidential elections next year.

Voter turnout hit a historic low of less than 43 percent in the February polls after thousands of reformist candidates were barred from running by the Islamic republic’s powerful Guardian Council.

Such voter fatigue “can be a threat for everyone, not just reformists or conservatives,” warned the mayor, a veteran public servant with a background in urban development who is tied to the reformist camp.

The conservative resurgence reflects dissatisfaction with the Rouhani camp that had sought reengagement with the West and the reward of economic benefits — hopes that were dashed when US President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year.

“We’re doing our best, but our situation is not a normal one,” Hanachi said. “We are under sanctions and in a tough economic situation.”

As he spoke in his town hall office, the shouts of angry garbage truck drivers echoed from the street outside, complaining they had not received pay or pensions for months.

The mayor downplayed the small rally as the kind of event that could happen in “a municipality in any other country,” adding that the men were employed not by the city itself but by contractors.

Iran’s fragile economy, increasingly cut off from international trade and deprived of crucial oil revenues, took another major blow when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in late February.

Since then the outbreak has killed more than 12,000 people and infected over 248,000, with daily fatalities reaching a record of 200 early this week, according to official figures.

A temporary shutdown of the economy in recent months and closed borders sharply reduced non-oil exports, Iran’s increasingly important lifeline.

This accelerated the plunge of the Iranian rial against the US dollar, threatening to further stoke an already high inflation rate.

In just one impact, said Hanachi, the Teheran municipality lost 2 trillion rial ($9 million) because of sharply reduced demand for public transport in recent months.

As many Tehran residents got back into their cars to avoid tightly packed subways and buses, this has done nothing to help solve Tehran’s long-standing air pollution issue.

Tehran has had only 15 “clean” air quality days since the March 20 Persian New Year, according to the municipality.

One of Hanachi’s tasks is to fight both the virus and air pollution — a tough juggling act as car travel is safer for individuals but also worsens the smog that often cloaks the capital.

The mayor said he worried that, after restrictions on car travel were reimposed in May to reduce air pollution, subways are once again packed during peak hours, as is the bustling city center.

Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, which is now crowded with shoppers, warned Hanachi, “can become a focal point for the epidemic.”