U.S. priority on Syria no longer focused on ‘getting Assad out’: Ambassador Haley

The United States’ diplomatic policy on Syria for now is no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Thursday, in a departure from the Obama administration’s initial and public stance on Assad’s fate.

The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators. “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters. “Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.” “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did,” said Haley, a former governor of South Carolina. “Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.” On Wednesday, Haley accused Russia, Iran and the “Assad regime” of committing war crimes. She has also said the United States supports the U.N.-led Syria peace talks, that Syria could no longer be a “safe haven for terrorists” and that it was important “we get Iran and their proxies out.”

In Ankara on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters that Haley’s remarks reflected “a measure of just realism, accepting the facts on the ground. … Assad is never going to have sufficient force to reassert control over the whole country. … Our focus is on defeating ISIS and al Qaeda and preventing Syria from being used as a terrorist safe haven.” But Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in separate, strongly worded statements, denounced the shift in the U.S. stance. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tillerson’s statement “overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered” by Assad’s military, Russia’s air force and Iranian-backed militias. “I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path,” McCain said, adding that U.S. allies could fear a bargain with Assad and Russia “sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.”

Graham, who like McCain is a foreign policy hawk and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it would be a “grave mistake” to drop the removal of Assad as an objective, and would be crushing news to the Syrian opposition and U.S. allies in the region. In addition, leaving Assad in power is “a great reward for Russia and Iran,” Graham said.

Contradictory messages

Syrian opposition member Farah al-Attasi said the State Department and the White House were sending contradictory messages on Syria and should start leading and not focus exclusively on fighting Islamic State.

Britain and France reinforced their stance on Assad earlier on Thursday. French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters: “Assad is not and cannot be the future of his country.”

Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as U.S. ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements, said the U.S. government’s policy since late 2014 had been to focus more specifically on the fight against Islamic State as well as al Qaeda, “even if it never acknowledged that its focus on Syria had shifted.” “Ambassador Haley’s remarks just confirm that the Trump administration is following the same path,” said Ford, who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute and senior fellow at Yale.


Syrian rebels hold secret talks with Russia in Ankara to end Aleppo fighting: FT

Syrian rebel leaders are in secret talks with Russia to end the fighting in Aleppo, according to opposition figures, the Financial Times is reporting on Thursday.

Four opposition members from rebel-held northern Syria told the Financial Times that Turkey has been brokering talks in Ankara with Moscow, whose military intervention last year on the side of President Bashar al-Assad helped turn the five-year civil war in Syrian government’s favor. The talks, they say, have focused on negotiating a deal to end the conflict in Aleppo, the country’s besieged second city.

For Washington, any such negotiations have ramifications far beyond Syria. “The American approach to this conflict guaranteed the US less and less relevance not just in the Syrian conflict but also the broader regional dynamics. There has been a loss of face and a loss of leverage,” said Emile Hokayem, fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The politics of the region are being transformed and this happened under [President Barack] Obama, whether by design or by failure.” Mr Hokayem has criticized what he views as Mr Obama’s half-in, half-out strategy in the Syrian conflict, saying it eroded US regional influence, citing several cases of regional leaders turning toward Russia. Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who holds an eastern portion of the war-torn country, recently went to Moscow seeking military support. Turkey, having resolved its dispute with Moscow over the downing of a Russian jet, is believed to have reached an understanding with Russia that allows Ankara to deploy its forces in parts of northern Syria. Egypt and several Gulf countries have also increased communications with Russia, Mr Hokayem said.

Situation map of East Aleppo dated November 30, following massive advances by SAA and its allies [map by @A7_Mirza]
Situation map of East Aleppo dated November 30, following massive advances by SAA and its allies [map by @A7_Mirza]

Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the first meeting between Russia, Turkey and the rebels took place on Monday in Ankara and another meeting was likely on Saturday. “Russia is hedging its bets. It would prefer to make a deal with the opposition,” he said. “If Aleppo were to fall, the Syrian regime would need so many troops to hold the city that its forces would be left thin elsewhere in the country — or dependent on Iranian help, which Moscow would prefer to avoid.” However, he said it would be difficult for the opposition to meet Russian demands about removing their heavy weapons from the city, or disentangling themselves on the front lines from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a group linked to al-Qaeda with whom they often fight alongside against Assad.

Talks appear to have made little progress, but the fact they are taking place — without US involvement — underlines the shifting political dynamics in the Middle East. Regional actors now seem more willing to bypass Washington to seek out pacts with Russia, which is keen to develop the image of a rising power that can help broker such deals. Ali Sheikh Omar, an Aleppo council leader, said politicians in rebel-held eastern districts have agreed a team they want to join negotiations with Russia over ending the fierce aerial assault that has flattened the city. Regime forces have made a significant breakthrough in the past week, captured more than a third of the rebel’s territory in the city. “Negotiations are being done directly with the Russians because we all know at this point that Bashar al-Assad is nothing more than a provincial governor carrying out the orders of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said.

One rebel leaders denied such negotiations, while others declined to comment saying the issue was too sensitive. A western regional diplomat said he had no confirmation but had been seeking information about potential talks. He also had reports of a Russian military flight from the Syrian port city of Latakia, the site of one of Moscow’s military bases, to Ankara on November 24. None of those who spoke about the negotiations would clarify if the rebels met the Russians face-to-face or indirectly, with Turkish officials mediating.

Asked about the talks, Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said: “Washington isolated itself. We’ve been negotiating with the [Syrian] opposition in Turkey for years — it’s not news.” A Turkish official did not respond to a request for comment.

Tensions also remain high between Ankara and Moscow, especially after Turkey accused regime officials of striking their forces in Syria. Rebels say Ankara believes Assad forces received a green light from Moscow, which shows how fragile relations still are, the Financial Times reports.

Sources: Financial Times/Syria & Iraq News

Kerry, Lavrov closer to Syria agreement, ‘a few narrow issues remain’

The United States and Russia came closer to an agreement on a breakthrough deal on military cooperation and a nationwide cessation of hostilities in Syria on Friday, but said they still have issues to resolve before an agreement could be announced.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing a joint news conference after more than nine hours of off-and-on talks in Geneva, said teams from both sides would try to finalize details in coming days in the Swiss city. Kerry said the talks with Lavrov had “achieved clarity on the path forward” but together they offered few details on how they planned to renew a February cessation of hostilities and improve humanitarian assistance. “We don’t want to have a deal for the sake of the deal,” Kerry said. “We want to have something done that is effective and that works for the people of Syria, that makes the region more stable and secure, and that brings us to the table here in Geneva to find a political solution.”

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the marathon talks with US State Secretary Kerry in Geneva helped to reduce mutual levels of misunderstanding. Both countries will boost their cooperation on Syria, including on the military level, he said. “We have agreed on concrete ways in which we will work with the sides: Russia – with the government and the opposition, that is working with us, the United States – with the opposition, which is cooperating with them,” Lavrov said. In addition to that, the cooperation between Russia’s Khmeimim air base and representatives of the American armed forces in the US base in Jordan is going to be ramped up.

“We have agreed to intensify the bilateral contacts that have somewhat stalled in the last several weeks,” Lavrov said, adding that his is confident that “a regular dialog without any pauses is a key to the realization of all our objectives. It is an achievement that we have been able to reduce areas of misunderstanding and to reduce the level of mutual mistrust between the two countries,” Lavrov said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) before a bilateral meeting focused on the Syrian crisis in Geneva, Switzerland August 26, 2016. [Martial Trezzini/Reuters/Pool]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) before a bilateral meeting focused on the Syrian crisis in Geneva, Switzerland August 26, 2016. [Martial Trezzini/Reuters/Pool]

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham allegiances a key issue

Russia and the US have agreed on a number of issues as to how boost the peace process on Syria. According to the diplomats, experts from both states will meet in Geneva in the coming days to clarify the details of what has been agreed today. The Russian foreign minister stressed that separation of “moderate forces from the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham militants” is key to reducing the violence in Syria. Lavrov said that Russia briefed the US on a number of rebel groups that it considers terrorist. “In fact, today our American partners for the first time gave us a list of rebel organizations who joined the cessation of hostilities after the US mediation,” Lavrov added. “I don’t see any possibility of assuring a really durable, full-fledged ceasefire without the separation of healthy opposition forces from terrorists,” the minister said. “The understanding of this task between us and our American partners gets increasingly clearer.”

Kerry outlined the steps that can be undertaken to separate the terrorists from the armed opposition, reiterating that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham should be treated like a terrorist group despite the recent rebranding. Drawing a line between the moderate rebels and Al-Nusra remains a “complex question” because the terrorists often share the same territory with rebels, he noted, adding that other nations in the region that support some of the groups should also engage in the process. “We believe there are actions that can be taken to deal with the current construct, some of those involve other nations that are supportive of other opposition groups. Neighbors within the region who have influence over those groups and who have an ability to help separate [JFS and opposition],” he said. Russia and US have been thrashing out the details on how to separate the militant groups from each other for the last several weeks, he added.

“We do not support an independent Kurd initiative”

Both diplomats agreed that the Syrian Kurds should remain in Syria. “We are for a united Syria. We do not support an independent Kurd initiative,” Kerry said, pointing out that the American forces have been engaging in cooperation with “a component” of the Kurdish forces on a “very limited basis.” On his part, Lavrov said, “Kurds must remain a part of the Syrian state, part of resolving the problem, and not a factor that will be used to split Syria apart.” The contacts with the Kurdish minority in Syria were made in a “close cooperation” with Turkey, Kerry said. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG militia, which is part of the US-backed SDF rebels, one of the targets of its ongoing incursion in Syria. “We understand the sensitivities of our friends in Turkey with respect to this,” Kerry added.

Weighing in on the Turkish “Euphrates Shield” operation in Syria, Lavrov reminded that all countries that had sent military forces to Syria, save for Russia and Iran, are doing so in violation of Syrian sovereignty. “Many countries are represented by their military and army elements on the ground in Syria, but only the Russian and Iranian contingents are staying there upon consent from Damascus,” Lavrov said. “Such is the reality.”

The Russian FM and his US counterpart, John Kerry, met in Geneva to discuss a peaceful solution to resolve the Syrian crisis. They were in talks behind closed doors for over 12 hours on Friday. The meeting of the two top diplomats’ took place at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. The two were joined by the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura. It was not clear during the day whether the UN Syria envoy would join the negotiators to share his views on how to put an end to the five-year war.

The main point of the negotiations is to involve “the prospects of arranging a close coordination of Russia’s and US efforts in fight against terrorist groups in Syria,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said earlier. Meanwhile, the UN has pushed for a weekly 48-hour truce in the fighting that would allow it to provide humanitarian relief, which has been endorsed by Russia. According to the plan, food and supplies would be delivered simultaneously by internationally monitored vehicles to rebel and government-controlled areas.

Assad’s future not part of the current talks

The talks have been complicated since initial meetings in July by new government attacks on opposition groups, and a significant offensive in the southern part of the divided city of Aleppo led by opposition fighters intermingled with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. In the days ahead the technical teams, which include U.S. and Russian military and intelligence experts, will try to figure out ways to separate the opposition groups, backed by the United States and Gulf Arab countries, from the jihadis.

It was unclear after Friday’s meetings whether outstanding issues could all be resolved between Moscow and Washington, which back opposing parties in the Syrian conflict. The United States has insisted that the Syrian air force, which has dropped barrel bombs and chlorine on residential areas, be grounded but Lavrov said on Friday that was not the goal. Assad’s future is not part of the current talks. Instead, discussions are focused on finding an effective and lasting solution to end the violence, which would open negotiations on a political transition in Syria.

Sources: Russia Today/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News


Residents and rebels start evacuating Darayya

Aid convoys arranged by the medical charity Red Crescent have entered the besieged Syrian town of Darayya as hundreds of rebel fighters prepared to lay down their arms after ceding control of the area to government forces. A convoy of Red Crescent ambulances reached Darayya early on Friday, a town located just a few kilometres from President Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus palace and the government-held Mazzeh airbase.

On Thursday, Syrian state news agency SANA announced a deal had been struck for the evacuation of civilians and fighters in the town. According to sources around 8,000 civilians and 800 rebels would be evacuated from the Damascus suburb, which before the war was home to a quarter of a million people, to Sahnaya – a town in Damascus governorate – under regime control.

The rebels, meanwhile, will then be taken to northern Idlib,  held by Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition of armed anti-government groups, our correspondent said

The rebels who controlled Darayya belonged to two rebel groups: Ajnad al-Sham and Liwa’ Shuhada al-Islam, groups allied with Jaish al-Fatah. However, activists told Al Jazeera that they were extremely concerned over the safety of civilians, many of whom are relatives of the rebels, as the government offered little to no guarantees. Some opposition groups also criticised the deal, calling it a major setback as Sunnis would be forced from their homes, further fracturing the country along sectarian lines.

Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]
Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]

“Forced to leave”

Darayya has a strategic position – given its proximity to Daraa Road, it is not far from the capital and from the Mazzeh military airport, too. The armed opposition had used the town as a connection hub between western and eastern Ghouta, Damascus. The suburb saw some of the first protests against the Syrian government, an uprising that transformed into a full-blown civil conflict.

The withdrawal of the rebels only a few miles from Damascus is a boost for President Bashar al-Assad, analysts say. “We are being forced to leave, but our condition has deteriorated to the point of being unbearable,” Hussam Ayash, an activist in the town, told the Associated Press news agency. “We withstood for four years but we couldn’t any longer.”

Sources: Al Jazeera News/SANA/BBC News/AP/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

Dozens of families leave encircled Eastern Aleppo under Russia-Damascus plan

More than 150 civilians, mostly women and children, left besieged eastern parts of Aleppo through a safety zone that Moscow and its Syrian ally say they have set up to evacuate people trapped in opposition-held areas.

Syrian state television on Saturday showed scores of mostly women gathered in a government-controlled area of the city, saying how conditions in rebel-held areas were difficult and chanting praise for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Eastern Aleppo citizens cross over to government-held area of Aleppo [30/7/2016]
Eastern Aleppo citizens cross over to government-held area of Aleppo [30/7/2016]

Russia’s defense ministry said that 169 civilians had left since Thursday through three safety crossings. The ministry also said in a statement that 69 rebels had handed themselves in to the army. Syrian state news agency SANA said 169 civilians, mostly women over the age of forty, had arrived at the Salahuddin checkpoint. Videos circulating on social media showed mostly women crossing over at Salahuddin checkpoint.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its Russian allies declared a joint humanitarian operation for the besieged area on Thursday, bombarding it with leaflets telling fighters to surrender and civilians to leave. But the United Nations has raised misgivings about the plan and U.S. officials have suggested it may be an attempt to depopulate the city – the most important opposition stronghold in the country – so that the army can seize it.

The Syrian opposition has called it a euphemism for forced displacement of the inhabitants, which it said would be a war crime. With rebel-held areas running out of food and medicine after the only supply route into the city was cut by the army after months of heavy Russian and Syrian aerial bombing, many vulnerable civilians are desperate to leave, while being suspicious of the plan.

The Russian defense ministry said Syrian authorities had prepared six humanitarian aid centres capable of accommodating more than 3,000 people.

Residents in these areas who were contacted said many were hesitant to enter into government-held areas for fear of arrest by government forces with no presence of any U.N. body or NGO’s to oversee the evacuation.

They also said the journey to the frontline where the crossings were located was fraught with danger with snipers from both sides at times shooting at civilians.

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News


CIA’s Brennan says the United States aim at a political transition in Syria

Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan said on Friday he was not optimistic about the future of Syria.

“I don’t know whether or not Syria can be put back together again. Whether it’s going to be some type pf confederate structure where the various confessional groups will have the lead in governing their portions of the country,” Brennan told the annual Aspen Security Forum. He added that the U.S. don’t want implosion of the Syrian government institutions but a clear political path for Bashar al-Assad’s departure from power. “Until that happens, Syrians will continue to die”, Brennan said.

Source: The Aspen Institute

Syrians vote for parliament while opposition calls elections ‘theater’

Syrians voted in a parliamentary election in government-held areas of the country on Wednesday in what voters called a show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is holding the poll in defiance of opponents seeking to oust him.

The election is going ahead independently of a U.N.-led peace process aimed at finding a political solution to the five-year-long war. The government says it is being held on time in line with the constitution. The opposition says the vote is illegitimate, while Britain and France dismissed it as “flimsy facade” and a “sham”. “We are voting for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of Assad. Assad is already strong but these elections show that the people support him and bolster him,” said Hadi Jumaa, a 19-year-old student, as he cast his ballot at his university halls of residence in Damascus.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad casts his vote next to his wife Asma in Damascus. April 13, 2016
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad casts his vote next to his wife Asma in Damascus on April 13, 2016 [photo handout by SANA]

Dozens queued to vote at one polling station where a portrait of Assad hung on the wall. Outside, some danced. With his wife Asma at his side as he went to vote in Damascus, a smiling Assad told state TV that terrorism had been able to destroy much of Syria’s infrastructure but not Syria’s “social structure, the national identity”. It was the first time he had voted in a parliamentary election.

The conflict has killed more than 250,000 and created millions of refugees, splintering Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by the government, an array of rebels, a powerful Kurdish militia, and the Islamic State group. The government views all the groups fighting it as terrorists. The government controls around one third of Syria, including the main cities of western Syria, home to most of the people who have not fled the country. The United Nations puts the number of refugees at 4.8 million. With parliament elected every four years, it is the second parliamentary election held by the government in wartime. Assad was reelected head of state in a presidential election in 2014. Voters are to elect 250 MPs to parliament, which has no real power in Syria’s presidential system. The state is rallying them around the slogan “Your vote strengthens your steadfastness”.

Opposition sees vote as “theater”

The election coincides with the start of a second round of U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva. The opposition delegation is due to meet U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura on Wednesday. The government has said it will be ready to participate from Friday. The diplomacy is struggling to make progress with no sign of compromise over the main issue dividing the sides: Assad’s future. The government had ruled out any discussion of the presidency ahead of the first round of talks last month. “These elections do not mean anything,” said Asaad al-Zoubi, chief negotiator for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Council. “They are illegitimate – theater for the sake of procrastination, theater through which the regime is trying to give itself a little legitimacy.”

Foreign states opposed to Assad have said the vote is out of line with a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for elections at the end of an 18-month transition. His allies, notably Russia, say it is in line with the constitution. “The decision of the regime to hold elections is a measure of how divorced it is from reality. They cannot buy back legitimacy by putting up a flimsy facade of democracy,” said a spokesperson for the British government. France said the elections were a “sham” organized by “an oppressive regime”. Russia, one of Assad’s main foreign allies, said however that the election was necessary to avoid a power vacuum. “There is understanding already, that a new constitution should emerge as a result of this political process, on the basis of which new, early elections are to be held,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news briefing. “But before this happens, one should avoid any legal vacuum or any vacuum in the sphere of executive power.”

Syrians living in opposition-held areas dismissed the vote. “We used to be forced to cast our vote in sham elections. Now, we are no longer obliged to. After all this killing they want to make a play called elections,” said Yousef Doumani, speaking from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus. But Shereen Sirmani, who fled to Damascus from the Islamic State-besieged city of Deir al-Zor four months ago, said the election was good for Syria. “We hope they bring people together,” she said. “We support Assad and these elections are a boost for him.”

Source: Reuters