Around 40 FSA rebel groups on Monday rejected Russia’s planned Sochi conference on Syria, saying Moscow was seeking to bypass a U.N.-based Geneva peace process and blaming Russia for committing war crimes in the war-torn country. Russia received backing from Turkey and Iran for holding a Syrian national dialogue congress in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.
In a statement by around 40 rebel groups who include some of the military factions who participated in earlier rounds of Geneva peace talks, they said Moscow had not put pressure on the Syrian government to reach a political settlement. “Russia has not contributed one step to easing the suffering of Syrians and has not pressured the regime that it claims it is a guarantor by move in any real path towards a solution,” the rebel statement said. “Russia is an aggressor country that has committed war crimes against Syrians… It stood with the regime militarily and defended its politically and over seven years preventing U.N. condemnation of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s regime,” the statement said.
Moscow says it targets militants but rebels and residents say the Russian air strikes conducted since a major aerial campaign over two years ago has caused hundreds of civilian casualties in indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas away from the frontline.
Some rebels said they had not yet made up their mind and U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said that Russia’s plan to convene the congress should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the U.N.-led Geneva talks on ending the war in Syria.
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.
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.
Syria’s warring parties taking part in the Geneva talks exchanged documents on Tuesday outlining each side’s basic positions, the U.N. special envoy said.
The documents can be used to find if there is common ground between the Syrian government’s side and that of the opposition before the current round of talks adjourn later this week, said Steffan de Mistura. Each side “has to at least show” that it is “serious about wanting to find a political process or political transition,” the envoy told reporters in Geneva.
This round of proximity negotiations in Switzerland, in which the U.N. envoy has been shuttling since last week between the two sides, has offered more promise than previous attempts at negotiations amid a cease-fire that came into effect in late February and that has mostly held across Syria.
The talks are expected to adjourn on Thursday and resume later in April.
De Mistura said Tuesday’s horrific terror attacks in Brussels, which killed at least 31 and wounded scores, underlined the imperative to find a resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has now entered its sixth year and which has killed more than 250,000 people, according to U.N. estimates.
“We need to extinguish the fire of war in Syria,” de Mistura said. “We need to find a political solution. We need a political transition in Syria in order to make sure we can all concentrate and the Syrians can all together concentrate on what is the real danger of everyone in Europe, in the world, in Syria and elsewhere.”
The Islamic State group, which controls large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, claimed responsibility for the Brussels attacks.
Meanwhile, a 27-truck convoy on Tuesday delivered food and other aid to the besieged area of Al-Houla near the central Syrian city of Homs, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a U.N. humanitarian affairs office said.
Syrian government forces have restricted access to the area since May 2012, according to the monitoring group Siege Watch. A Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says the siege intensified into a near-total blockade in May 2015.
But even as aid reached Al-Houla, Syrian opposition parties accused President Bashar Assad’s government of laying siege to new areas of the country.
Opposition leader Assad al-Zoubi said areas such as the Damascus suburb of Barza — which had previously been accessible to aid — has been cut off over the last five days, as well as areas of the northern rural Homs province, the provinces of Aleppo and Latakia in the west.
Speaking in Geneva, al-Zoubi said such incursions violate international resolutions, and that there are a total of 25 areas now besieged in Syria.
As for the Geneva talks, he accused Assad’s government of “diversionary tactics” and said the documents the Damascus side handed to de Mistura referred to “peripheral issues.”
Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss something far outside their comfort zone: the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. And they are doing their best to avoid it.
U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura describes Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” and, emboldened by the Russian and U.S. muscle that brought the participants to the negotiating table, he refuses to drop the subject.
After a week of talks in Geneva, he praised the opposition for the depth of their ideas, but criticized the veteran diplomats on the government side for getting bogged down.
“The government is currently focusing very much on principles, which are necessary in any type of common ground on the transition,” he said. “But I hope next week, and I have been saying so to them, that we will get their opinion, their details on how they see the political transition taking place.”
Arguments over Assad’s fate were a major cause of the failure of previous U.N. peace efforts in 2012 and 2014 to end a civil war that has now lasted five years, killed more than 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis.
The main opposition, along with the United States and other Western nations, has long insisted any peace deal must include his departure from power, while the Syrian government and Russia have said there is no such clause in the international agreements that underwrite the peace process.
The Syrian president looked more secure than ever at the start of the latest round of talks, riding high after a Russian-backed military campaign.
But Russia’s surprise withdrawal of most of its forces during the week signaled that Moscow expected its Syrian allies to take the Geneva talks seriously. And de Mistura appointed a Russian expert to sit in the negotiations with him and to advise on political issues.
Unlike previous rounds, the talks have run for a week without any hint of collapse, forcing the government delegation led by Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari to acknowledge de Mistura’s demands.
Ja’afari began by giving de Mistura a document entitled “Basic elements for a political solution”.
“Approving these principles will open a serious dialogue under Syrian leadership without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” Ja’afari said on Friday, in a brief statement after the longest session of the talks so far.
But officials and diplomats involved in the talks variously described the document as “very thin”, “bland” and “off the point”.
It listed familiar goals such as maintaining a secular state and Syria’s territorial integrity and the importance of fighting terrorism, according to sources who have read it. But it said nothing about a political transition.
In sessions with de Mistura, Ja’afari has approached the negotiations as slowly as possible, reopening U.N. resolutions and going through them “by the letter”, said a source with knowledge of the process.
“Mr Ja’afari is still in a kind of delusion of trying to filibuster his way out of town, or to filibuster the opposition out of town,” said a western diplomat.
“He will spend every minute questioning the nature of the opposition, quibbling about the font in the agenda.”
By Friday, de Mistura said Ja’afari’s team needed to go faster and couldn’t avoid the substantive question forever.
“The fact that the government delegation would like to set different rules or play with the terms of this agreement is I think a non-starter,” said opposition delegate Basma Kodmani.
A diplomat involved in the peace process said Assad was not used to having to compromise, and that made Ja’afari’s negotiating position rigid.
“He has to have control. If he gives up 1 percent, he loses 100 percent. He’s designed like that,” the diplomat said.
In three meetings with each side during the week, de Mistura quizzed the negotiators about their ideas, and they were also able to put questions to their rivals through him, one participant said.
The U.N. mediation team spends the sessions “stripping the papers apart and delving deep into the subject and forcing them to do more homework and forcing them to give answers”, said a source with knowledge of the process.
The negotiators do not meet each other, but face de Mistura in a functional, windowless room with desks arranged in a square. There is space for eight or nine people around each side, but the conditions are slightly cramped, and afford no luxury beyond a plastic bottle of mineral water on each desk.
“De Mistura is dragging the regime in with his queries on their position paper, rather than allowing them to talk about what they want,” said the diplomat involved in the peace process.
“The regime had in the past a bit of space to play and to maneuver,” he said. “The regime knows it has to come and stay but is not prepared for the idea that it has to engage the opposition.”