UN envoy De Mistura claims “incremental progress” but no sign of shift from opposition or Assad regime
Four days of indirect political talks in Geneva between Syria’s opposition and the Assad regime have ended with no advance.
The talks ended on Friday after further discussions between UN envoy Staffan de Mistura (pictured) with each of the two sides.
De Mistura asserted that there had been “incremental progress”, announcing plans to reconvene negotiations in June: “Any momentum provides some type of hope that we are not just waiting for the golden day but we are actually working for it.”
However, the leader of the opposition delegation, Nasr al-Hariri, repeated that a political solution is not possible while Iranian forces and Iranian-led militias remain in Syria, or while President Assad remains in power.
The head of the regime team, UN ambassaor Bashar al-Ja’afari, said there had been no discussion of de Mistura’s four areas: governance, elections, a new constitution, and the fight against terrorism.
He blamed the US for undermining his negotiating position with a press conference claiming the construction of a crematorium at Sednaya Prison near Damascus, where many thousands of detainees have been killed or died from poor conditions.
He said the American presentation of claimed images of the crematorium was “a big lie” and “a Hollywood show” and said the timing was “no coincidence”.
TOP PHOTO: Pierre Albouy/Reuters
US Rebuffs Turkey: Envoy McGurk Stays
The US has rebuffed a Turkish demand for the removal of Brett McGurk, the American envoy for the campaign against the Islamic State.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Friday that McGurk “has the full support and backing” of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and that the envoy had done “excellent work” to organize the anti-ISIS coalition.
On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that McGurk should be removed from his post as he “supports terrorist groups”.
The demand followed circulation of a photo of McGurk next to Sahin Cilo, a commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG and the adopted son of Abdollah Ocalan, the leader of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. McGurk had travelled with Syrian Kurdish commanders to northern Iraq and then back to Kobani, a Kurdish center in northern Syria.
“Brett McGurk, the U.S.’s special envoy in the fight against Daesh, is definitely and clearly giving support to the PKK and YPG. It would be beneficial if this person was changed,” Çavuşoğlu said.
Nauert said the US respects Turkey’s concerns and will continue regular consultations: “It is critical that we are closely linked with partners on the ground to coordinate both military and civilian efforts to sustain momentum and focus against ISIS.”
McGurk said in an interview with a Turkish broadcaster on Friday that Ankara is a close ally in the anti-ISIS fight and that the US-led coalition cannot succeed without the Turks.
US: Our Airstrikes Were on “Iranian-Directed” Forces
US Defense Secretary James Mattis has told reporters that the first US airstrikes supporting rebels inside Syria were against “Iranian-directed” forces.
Thursday’s US attacks hit a pro-Assad convoy moving near the Free Syrian Army base at Tanf in eastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border. The FSA has been supported by US special forces as it took more than 2,500 square km from the Islamic State.
Local sources and rebels said a tank and engineering trucks were destroyed, and Iranian troops, Hezbollah fighters, and Iraqi militiamen were among the casualties.
Mattis told reporters on Friday that the US strikes were defensive: “It was necessitated…by offensive movement with offensive capability of what we believe were Iranian-directed — I don’t know there were Iranians on the ground — but by Iranian-directed forces.”
The Defense Secretary said he thought the force tried to advance in eastern Syria against the advice of Moscow, “It looks like the Russians tried to dissuade them.”
Pro-Assad units had been assembling near the Damascus-Baghdad highway, looking to move towards Deir ez-Zor Province where regime forces have been surrounded by the Islamic State since 2014.
Fars News, the outlet of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, had boasted before the US strikes that “Thousands of Hezbollah Forces Deployed in Al-Tanf to Foil US Plot in Syria”.
Pro-Assad Shelling Burns Farmland in Northern Hama
Pro-Assad shelling is trying to burn farmland in northern Hama Province, defying Russia’s declaration of “de-escalation zones”.
Footage on Friday showed attacks on areas such as Latamneh, with men driving tractors across the struck agricultural land to try and put out fires.
The Assad regime has used the destruction of farmland and vegetable plots to try and starve opposition areas into submission, such as the Damascus suburb of Darayya and the al-Wa’er district of Homs city.
Video from Latamneh:
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) May 19, 2017
Smoke rising from shelling on Kafrzita: