US and allies signal effort to put UN, rather than Russia, at center of Syrian political process
The US has told allies that the Trump Administration is not moving towards cooperation with Russia in Syria’s six-year conflict.
At a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 conference in Germany, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said military ties with Russia rested on its position towards rebels fighting the Assad regime, according to officials and diplomats.
“In the discussion, he made it clear that there would not be military cooperation until the Russians accepted that not all the opposition are terrorists,” one diplomat said.
He also declared that the US backs UN efforts to broker a political solution to the war, officials and diplomats said. The approach should be based on Security Council Resolution 2254 — which called in December 2015 for a ceasefire and the start of a political transition — under the UN’s envoy, Staffan de Mistura.
Russia — along with Iran, the key backer of the Assad regime — and Turkey have taken the initiative from the US since summer 2016 by leading efforts for a nominal ceasefire and indirect talks between the regime and an opposition-rebel bloc. Discussions are scheduled for next week in Geneva.
Moscow has also been pressing for an alternative “opposition”, with politicians preferred by Russia, to represent the opposition at the talks. The effect has succeed in getting some of the alternative politicians on the 21-person opposition-rebel delegation named for Geneva.
However, preliminary talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana on Thursday stumbled because of Turkey’s alignment with the opposition-rebel bloc that a meaningful ceasefire must be established before Russia can press for wider discussions, including on its proposed constitution for Syria.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said after Friday’s meeting, “We ask the Russian backer of the regime to put pressure on it so it stops considering that all the opposition are terrorists. Otherwise, there will be no discussion in Geneva.”
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel tried to put the UN, rather than Moscow, at the center of the political process, “This political solution must be achieved in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations and that there cannot be any parallel negotiations.”
“The Russians are trying to pilot a separate process,” said one diplomat. “Geneva is an extremely fragile process and we want to avoid it being chaotic.”
UN Drops Term “Political Transition”
However, in a significant concession to President Assad, the UN has dropped the concept of a “political transition”.
Assad has rejected any transition, as it could involve his departure from power. He restated the position during the renewal of indirect talks between the regime and the opposition-rebel bloc in late January.
Yara Sharif, spokeswoman for UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, initially told a briefing in Geneva on Friday that the talks starting on February 23 would address transition.
However, she later sent an e-mail:
This morning at the briefing I was asked about the intra-Syrian negotiations and whether the issue of political transition would be discussed.
For clarification purposes, please note that the negotiations will be entirely guided by Security Council Resolution 2254, which talks specifically about governance, a new constitution and elections in Syria.
Resolution 2254 calls for a “political transition process on an urgent basis… with a view to a lasting political settlement of the crisis”, although its detail focuses on a new constitution, free and fair elections administered under UN supervision, and transparent and accountable governance.
Iran Rejects US Ground Troops in Syria
Iran has rejected any intervention by US ground troops in northern Syria.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Friday, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, “We cannot commit to solutions that are part of the problem. I believe that the presence of foreign troops in Arab territory is a recipe for those extremists to rally behind and gain new fighters from disenfranchised youth.”
Reports in the US media, citing unnamed officials, said this week that the Pentagon is considering the first deployment of US conventional forces in the Syrian forces, working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State.
Zarif met Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Munich on Saturday. No details of the conversation were given by Iranian State media.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters)