Head of Assad delegation objects after political discussions: “The Turkish role prompts many question marks over it”
The Assad regime has denounced Turkey and Syria’s rebels amid efforts to restart political talks to end the six-year conflict.
The head of the regime delegation, UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari, said Ankara and the opposition-rebel bloc have a “clear will to disrupt the Astana meetings”, after Thursday’s discussions in the Kazakhstan capital:
The delegation came with a low representation that does not rise up to what Turkey claims as a guarantor…and so the Turkish role prompts many question marks over it….No final communique was issued because of Turkish opposition to a draft statement.
Ja’afari also reacted to a Turkish-rebel offensive that has taken part of northern Syria from the Islamic State, insisting that Ankara must pull its troops out of Syria and close its border to rebels.
Yesterday’s talks, brokered by Russia and Turkey and including Iran, considered arrangements for next week’s indirect negotiations between the regime and the opposition-rebel bloc in Geneva.
Initial talks in January in Astana made little progress, with Ja’afari labelling the opposition-rebel bloc “terrorists” and President Assad declaring from Damascus that he would never accept a transitional process in which he left power.
The opposition-rebel group is seeking a substantive ceasefire, release of detainees, and end to sieges before the transitional arrangements are established.
The bloc has compromised with Russia this week by including politicians favored by Moscow in the 21-person delegation going to Geneva.
Regime Praise for Russia and Iran
Ja’afari contrasted his comments on Turkey with those about Russia and Iran, saying the discussions with the latter two countries — essential backers of the regime since the uprising began in March 2011 — were “fruitful”.
He pointedly excluded Ankara as he spoke of Russia and Iran as the “guarantor countries” and Kazakhstan as the host country who “have succeeded in undermining the attempts aimed at bringing efforts at Astana back to square one”.
“Turkey cannot ignite the fire and at the same time act as a firefighter,” he declared.
The opposition-rebel group responded by trying to distance Russia from Iran and the Assad regime.
“We know that the Russians have a problem with those for whom they are guarantors,” rebel negotiator Yahya al-Aridi told reporters.
Opposition-Rebel Demand for Ceasefire
A “senior French diplomat” and an official “from a country not directly participating” said Thursday’s discussions slowed over Russian attempts to expand talks beyond the opposition-rebel emphasis on a meaningful ceasefire.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey have declared a nominal truce since the end of December, but the Assad regime and allies such as Hezbollah have continued bombing and ground assaults, notably in the opposition’s capitulation of the Wadi Barada area, northwest of Damascus, after a five-week offensive.
Moscow has offered the Syrians a draft of a new constitution, Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev said on Thursday, but one source said Iran wants to press attacks to seize more opposition territory.
“The level of mutual distrust is rather high and there were many mutual accusations, but I think we must keep moving forward every time, step by step,” Lavrientiev said.
Video: Assad’s Interview with French Media
President Assad’s interview, conducted Tuesday and broadcast Thursday, with Europe 1 TV and TF1 Radio:
Video: “Carry Me, Daddy” — The Boy Who Lost His Legs in Pro-Assad Strike
Graphic video has been posted of an injured boy, legs amputated at the knees, crying out to his father after a pro-Assad airstrike in Idlib Province on Thursday.
Abdulbasit Taan Al-Satouf’s mother and sister were killed in the attack. He is now recovering.
— Riam Dalati (@Dalatrm) February 16, 2017
UN Appeals to US-Russia to End Sieges
The UN has appealed to the US and Russia to cooperate to end sieges in Syria.
Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian advisor on Syria, said he hoped the two powers would join Turkey and Iran in pushing for breaking the “horrific gridlock” of aid convoys.
“‘Lift the sieges’ is our appeal. Sieges belong in the Middle Ages, they do not belong in 2017,” Egeland told reporters.
The UN official did not explain how renewed cooperation would overcome the obstacle of the Assad regime, responsible for the vast majority of the sieges that have affected hundreds of thousands of Syrians. The regime rejected almost all UN attempts to deliver aid to besieged opposition areas, including districts in Syria’s largest city Aleppo, in 2016.
Russia was instrumental in imposing and enforcing some of the regime sieges, notably of eastern Aleppo city until it was re-occupied by pro-Assad forces in December 2016.
Instead, Egeland said, “We were great when there was co-leadership of the United States and Russia last year. We have not seen that of late,” Egeland said.
He explained that an aid convoy is ready to go to al-Wa’er, the last opposition-held district of Homs, which has been surround since 2013.
New UN Body to Prepare War Crimes Prosecutions
A new body is being set up at the UN in Geneva to prepare prosecutions of war crimes committed in Syria, according to UN officials.
The General Assembly voted in December to establish the mechanism. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to name a judge or prosecutor as its head this month.
“We expect to start very, very shortly with just a handful of people,” a UN human rights official said.
The office will prepare files that States or the International Criminal Court in The Hague could use for future prosecutions.
Since 2011, a UN Commission of Inquiry has issued 20 reports accusing the Assad regime of mass killings, rapes, and disappearances in a state policy amounting to “extermination”. A confidential list of suspects has been compiled.
Reports have also cited abuses and abductions by the Islamic State and some rebel factions.
Three reports in the last two weeks have documented regime attacks and possible war crimes: Amnesty International’s estimate of 5,000 to 13,000 detainees killed in the Sednaya Prison from September 2011 to December 2015 and conclusion that the executions continue elsewhere; the Atlantic Council’s documentation of “Breaking Aleppo” through bombing, siege, and ground assault; and Human Rights Watch’s summary of some of the latest chlorine attacks.
A UN report in January set the start-up budget for the new team at $4-6 million. So far $1.8 million has been donated, the UN official said.
The UN aims to recruit 40 to 60 experts in investigations, prosecutions, the military, and forensics.
Islamist Faction Kills Up to 200 Rebel POWs and Fighters in Northwest Syria
Up to 200 rebels have been killed by an Islamist faction amid fighting in northwest Syria, according to a rebel officials.
Liwa al-Aqsa, an offshoot of the Jund al-Aqsa faction, killed from 150 to 200 fighters in Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib Province, the local sources said. The POWs had been held captive for at least six days after clashes in southern Idlib and northern Hama Provinces.
Abdul Hakim al-Rahmon, head of the political wing of the Free Syrian Army’s Jaish al-Nasr, confirmed that 70 fighters from the group were executed eight days ago, vowing to attack in response.
He said more than 160 Free Syrian fighters were killed in total, plus another 43 from the coalition Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — which includes a former ally of Liwa al-Aqsa, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — after an HTS court was stormed.
Jund al-Aqsa has been fighting rebel factions in recent weeks, with rebels saying that the Liwa al-Aqsa group is now close to the Islamic State.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) withdrew its support for Jund al-Aqsa as the clashes escalated.
TOP PHOTO: Regime’s UN Ambassador Bashar al-Ja’afari (center) speaks after Thursday’s talks in Astana