New round of talks on Syria’s constitution begins in Geneva

New round of talks on Syria’s constitution begins in Geneva
In this Aug. 21, 2020 file photo, Geir O. Pedersen, UN Special Envoy for Syria, speaks during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP, File)
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Updated 25 January 2021

New round of talks on Syria’s constitution begins in Geneva

New round of talks on Syria’s constitution begins in Geneva

GENEVA: Delegations from Syria’s government, opposition and civil society began a new round of meetings in Geneva on Monday aimed at revising the constitution of the war-torn country.
The fifth round of the so-called Constitutional Committee came days after UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told the UN Security Council that many subjects have been discussed for more than a year and it’s now time for the committee to ensure that “the meetings are better organized and more focused.”
Syria’s nearly 10-year conflict has killed more than half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war 23 million population, including more than 5 million refugees mostly in neighboring countries.
“I believe that we need to ensure that the committee begins to move from `preparing’ a constitutional reform to `drafting’ one, as it is mandated to do,” Pedersen said last week.
The United States and several Western allies have accused Syria’s President Bashar Assad of deliberately delaying the drafting of a new constitution to waste time until presidential elections are held this year and avoid UN-supervised voting as called for by the UN Security Council.
According to Syria’s elections law, presidential elections are scheduled to take place between April 16 and May 16, at least 90 days before Assad’s seven-year term expires. Assad has been in power since 2000.
At a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution, which took until September 2019. A 45-member committee known as the “Small Body” started its meetings in Geneva on Monday.
Monday’s meeting involved 15 people from each delegation and was taking place amid measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.


Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara

Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara
Updated 23 min 54 sec ago

Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara

Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara
  • Greek PM: ‘The best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident’

ANKARA: While Turkey and Greece came together to resume talks over their maritime disputes, the decades-long tension between the countries has resurfaced again. 

Ankara claimed four Greek F-16 jets harassed a Turkish research vessel in the Aegean Sea on Tuesday by dropping a flare two miles away from the ship near the Greek island of Lemnos — an accusation that was quickly denied by Athens. 

Greece’s Air Force was conducting an exercise in the Aegean Sea at the time, but allegedly far away from the Turkish vessel. 

In a press briefing, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country responded with the “necessary retaliation in line with the rules. While we are carrying out scientific work, harassment is not correct. It doesn't fit in our good neighborly ties.”

The Greek Defense Ministry insisted their jets never harassed the Turkish vessel.

Turkey’s new research vessel, the TCG Cesme, conducted annual hydrographic survey work last week in international waters between the two countries, stirring Athens' anger. 

The Greek Foreign Ministry criticized the presence of the Turkish vessel in the area, describing it as “an unnecessary move that doesn't help positive sentiment.”

In retaliation, Ankara accused Greece of conducting similar military exercises in the Aegean Sea near islands that are supposed to be non-militarized by international and bilateral agreements.

The incident triggered, once again, the unresolved bilateral dispute over maritime zones as both countries continue to pursue energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

The second round of exploratory talks was expected to be held in Athens in early March. It was scheduled ahead of the EU Summit on March 25-26, during which Brussels will decide on possible sanctions on Ankara over its energy exploration missions in the eastern Mediterranean. 

“It is important that the resumption of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey does not elicit hopes for a breakthrough,” George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the International Center of European Formation, told Arab News.  

“The two countries interpret dialogue in different terms and employ relevant political communication strategies. New tensions concerning the research ship Cesme are nothing new in the modern history of bilateral relations, but they further deteriorate an already toxic climate.”

Turkish-Greek relations have already been tested with the Cyprus conflict as Ankara ruled out discussing a federal system to reunify the divided island. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Feb. 10 that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “will get to know the crazy Turks as well.”

The harsh rhetoric illustrates Turkey’s anger about the bizonal and bicommunal federation offer from Greece, and it did not stop there. 

“Exploratory talks were supposed to be held in Athens but Mitsotakis challenged me,” Erdogan said in the Parliament. “How can we sit down with you now? Know your place first.”

According to Tzogopoulos, without a positive agenda, long-term solutions are unlikely.  

“For now the best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident, while experienced Greek and Turkish diplomats continue their work,” he said. 

Tzogopoulos said that from a European perspective, a model of selective engagement with Turkey is being studied in Brussels. 

“This will continue despite new tensions,” he said. “From a NATO perspective, deconfliction remains a priority and this goal has been met until now.”


Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN

Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN
Updated 29 min 41 sec ago

Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN

Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN

LONDON: There are new delays in deploying an expert mission to assess the condition of the Safer tanker and conduct initial repairs due to a new list of requests from the Houthis related to “logistics and security arrangements,” the United Nations said on Wednesday. 

The tanker has been moored near Ras Issa oil terminal for more than five years. The UN previously warned that it could leak four times as much oil as was spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council have repeatedly called on the Houthi militia in Yemen to grant access to the tanker for a technical assessment and emergency repairs.
More to follow


Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain
Updated 24 February 2021

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain
  • The family support project, named “Thamarat” (Fruits), is initially being rolled out in four of Sudan’s 18 states
  • Inflation has risen to more than 300%, and there have been frequent shortages of bread, fuel, power and medicine

KHARTOUM: Sudan launched a scheme on Wednesday to alleviate the impact of a severe economic crisis by paying out monthly cash allowances of $5 that are eventually meant to reach 80% of the population.
The first $400 million phase of the program is financed by the World Bank and other donors, but disbursement of funds had been delayed ahead of a steep currency devaluation announced early on Sunday.
The family support project, named “Thamarat” (Fruits), is initially being rolled out in four of Sudan’s 18 states.
Sudan has been roiled by an economic crisis that triggered protests against former ruler Omar Al-Bashir and continued after his overthrow in April 2019.
An uneasy, transitional military-civilian alliance now governs the country of 45 million. Inflation has risen to more than 300%, and there have been frequent shortages of bread, fuel, power and medicine.
“The Thamarat program is here to help people through this hard time,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said as he launched the program in Al-Kalakla, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of the capital, Khartoum.
Hamdok acknowledged that the scheme had been slow to start but appealed to people to be patient. Logistical challenges registering families have contributed to delays, officials say.
“We aspire to have it cover all of Sudan’s states soon,” Hamdok said.
The government had taken measures try to limit price increases after devaluation, but that the allowances were designed to cushion the impact of any further inflation, said Finance Minister Jibril Ibrahim.
“We will try to make sure they (prices rises) don’t happen, but if they do people will have extra income to face these increases,” he said.
“We want this to be a productive program. We want people to pool their money and start small productive projects.”


Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel
Updated 24 February 2021

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

JERUSALEM: Israel on Wednesday described Iran’s move to restrict some site inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog as a “threat” that required a response.
Iran this week began limiting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to sites and other information in response to the US refusal so far to lift sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump.
“Israel sees this step as a threat and it must not go by without response,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement.
“We will never allow Iran to control the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon,” he added.
Israel’s government, led by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was vehemently opposed to the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated between Tehran and world powers.
Netanyahu applauded when Trump scrapped the deal almost three years ago.
The Israeli leader has repeatedly urged US President Joe Biden not to restore the deal.
But Biden, European powers and Iran are still trying to keep the nuclear accord alive.
Tehran demands Washington take the first step by scrapping painful sanctions Trump had imposed since 2018, while Washington insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments, some of which it has backed away from.
Iran’s parliament had set Sunday as the deadline to limit to some IAEA inspections, a move that took effect on Tuesday.
The IAEA and Iran agreed a temporary technical deal allowing the watchdog to “retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” according to IAEA chief Rafael Grossi.
With inspections now restricted, Ashkenazi said that “Iran is destroying what remains of the IAEA’s oversight.”
Iran says its nuclear program is civilian in nature.
Netanyahu alleges the Islamic republic is pursuing a nuclear weapon and insists this marks one of the gravest threats to the Jewish people since the Nazi Holocaust.


HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force

HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force
Updated 24 February 2021

HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force

HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force
  • 4 men under investigation for killing of civilians during anti-govt protests
  • Attacks by Popular Mobilization Forces against civilians continue

LONDON: Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday welcomed the arrest in Iraq of four alleged members of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

The four men are under investigation for the killing of at least four civilians during anti-government demonstrations in the city of Basra in January 2020. One of the men holds a senior Iraqi police position.

“These arrests in Basra may represent a real change in the government’s willingness to hold its own forces accountable for perpetrating serious crimes, and will help deter such abuses in the future,” said Belkis Wille, a senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW.

“The government should also ensure that the trials of the men are fair and devoid of any political influence.”

Anti-government protests in Iraq were sparked in October 2019 and quickly turned violent, with excessive force from the police and other Iraqi forces leading to 487 civilian deaths.

Various armed groups were found to be carrying out forced disappearances, illegal detentions and excessive force against protestors.

The Basra PMF unit is alleged to have ties with the Iran-backed PMF Hezbollah Brigades. Investigations continue regarding possible ties with other PMF units.

The four civilians in question are Jinan Madi, a paramedic who was treating injured protestors when she was killed; journalist Ahmed Abdessamad and camera operator Safaa Ghali, who were reporting from the demonstrations; and protestor Mojtaba Ahmed Al-Skini, 14. 

HRW said a source close to the Iraqi government had said the authorities had identified 16 men implicated in the killings, but most had already fled the country.

Despite recent arrests and the government’s commitment to holding people accountable for the killing of protestors, PMF attacks on civilians have continued, and justice has yet to be given to the families of many of those killed during the demonstrations in 2019.