US, Russia consult on stalled Syria aid

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Amid halting progress at Syrian peace talks in Geneva, the United States and Russia held several levels of consultations on Wednesday to try to advance stalled Syria humanitarian relief efforts.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to push for progress in a UN plan to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Syrian city of Homs, the State Department said. The UN plan, presented by Russia to the Assad government last week, has still not received approval from the Assad government, US officials said.

“We expect there will be many paths, many parallel processes, as we all work to pursue an end to this conflict,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press conference Wednesday (January 29). “And that means yes, the regime and the opposition talking… That means engagement through the UN.  That means Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov continuing to engage. “

In the call with Lavrov, “Secretary Kerry pressed for Russia’s help in providing humanitarian assistance and making progress on that,” Psaki said.  “There are 12 trucks waiting outside of Homs with over a hundred tons of food.  These trucks are a hundred yards away from people that are in desperate need of assistance, and they must be granted permission by the regime into the old city of Homs.”

“He also talked about the importance of continuing to press the regime to move forward with the necessary steps on the chemical weapons process,” Psaki said.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in Moscow to attend a meeting with G-8 political directors, met on Syria Wednesday with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported.

The Voice of Russia cited a source on the Russian-US consultations in Moscow: “We have discussed in detail the current situation at the inter-Syrian talks and agreed that we need, first, to strengthen cooperation between ourselves and step up pressure on the negotiating parties to interact more actively in searching for a compromise.”

The US Syria diplomatic team in Geneva, led by US Syria envoy Robert Ford and including National Security Council counselor Salman Ahmed, also met with Russian counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, as it has done several times during the Geneva talks, the official said.

Talks between the two Syrian parties are expected to continue until Friday and then resume after a week or so, UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahim said Wednesday.

“I do not expect that we will achieve anything substantial” by the end of week, Brahimi told a press conference in Geneva Wednesday. The “ice is breaking slowly, but it is breaking.”

US sources on Wednesday denied Arabic media reports that the US was meeting with Russian and Iranian officials about Syria.  Iranian media reports on Wednesday also cited Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian denying an Arabic media report alleging a secret meeting between Iran and the Syrian sides in Bern, Switzerland.

(Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA.)

Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

Iran and six world powers may hold the first round of negotiations to seek a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal in New York in mid-February, a U.S. official and Iranian media reports said Monday. However,an Iranian official said Monday that the parties are still working on both a place and the dates for the meeting.

“It is our understanding that the first round of comprehensive negotiations will be in New York in mid-February with dates still being confirmed on schedules,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokesperson, said by email Monday. 

“New York – agreed to by EU High Representative Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif – has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” Harf said.  “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The last three rounds of high-level P5+1/Iran nuclear talks that secured a six-month interim nuclear deal on November 24th took place in Geneva.

But Syrian peace talks that got underway in Geneva last week may continue to be regularly convened for months at the UN headquarters in Geneva, diplomats earlier suggested.

It was understood that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s team suggested to P5+1 counterparts last fall that the nuclear negotiations take place in UN cities, such as Geneva, Vienna and New York.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was reported to have met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in Davos last week to confer on the upcoming negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal.

An EU spokesperson said Monday, however, that he did not yet have confirmation of the venue or dates for the next meeting. An Iranian official too, speaking not for attribution, said the venue and dates of the meeting are still being worked on.

Zarif, who previously served as Iran’s envoy to the UN in New York, met with Ashton and P5+1 foreign ministers on the sidelines of the opening of the UN General Assembly last September. US and Iranian diplomats also met quietly in New York in the run up to UNGA in  September, including to discuss arranging the September 26th one on one side-bar meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, and the historic phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Al-Monitor previously reported.

‘A good beginning,’ Brahimi says of first day of Syria peace talks

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Geneva, Switzerland __ UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said representatives from Syria’s two warring sides met in the same room for about three hours on Saturday for the first time.

“They have talked to each other this afternoon,” Brahimi told journalists at a Geneva press conference at the conclusion of the first day of joint talks Saturday. Describing the set up in the room where the parties met in the UN’s Palais des Nations, he said, “One delegation was at a table on the left, the other on the right, facing each other. They talk through me, to one another. ”

“This is what happens in civilized discussions, ” Brahimi said. “i think it is a good beginning.”

“We have not achieved much, but we are continuing,” Brahimi said.

In the afternoon, the two sides discussed a UN proposal to send an aid convoy into the besieged Syrian city of Homs. But the Syrian government negotiator, Syrian UN envoy Bashar Jaafari, claimed to be unaware of it, in spite of the fact that Russia had previously presented the proposal to the Syrian regime, diplomats said. The proposal is currently under review by the Syrian government for possible approval Sunday, Brahimi said.

The two sides plan to discuss prisoner releases on Sunday, Brahimi said, with a push first for the release of women and children held by the regime, Syrian opposition delegates said.

The Syrian opposition praised what they called the preparatory talks on confidence building measures, and said talks would turn to the more politically sensitive issue of the formation of the transitional governing body beginning on Monday.

“The most important element discussed today was on humanitarian corridors for Homs, which has been besieged for the past 19 months without food,” Louay Safi, a spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition negotiating team, told journalists at a press conference Saturday evening.

“Now we are going through the preparatory phase of securing the release of detainees,” Safi said.

Safi, notably, took several questions from Syrian state media, and made a point of thanking the reporters for their questions and striking a calm, civil tone.

“Why do you not accept elections?” a reporter from a Syrian state radio outlet asked. “What balance do you have among your people inside Syria? Can you give guarantees to kidnapped civilians, ….why speak only of [a humanitarian corridor for the] small area of Homs.”

“Thank you very much,’ Safi said before answering her question. “These are very important questions.”

“We want humanitarian corridors in all areas, but Homs is like a test balloon,” Safi said. “We want to see if the regime is willing to provide food to people who are starving, not hungry, but starving.”

When a Syrian state news agency SANA reporter asked the opposition spokesman, aren’t all the people left in the old city of Homs terrorists, Safi remained calm as he disagreed. There are 500 civilian families in Homs, men, women, children, without running water for over 8 months, digging wells and eating animals on the street to survive, he said.

Another reporter asked what the opposition might offer in exchange for concessions by the Syrian regime.

“Actually we are offering to save Syria from destruction,” Safi said.

“Many people in Syria would like to know about where we stand,” Safi said, noting Syrian state media propaganda pursuing a campaign to portray the Syrian opposition as terrorists. “We think the people need to hear from us.”

Syria parties to meet in same room, ‘understand what is at stake’: Brahimi

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Geneva, Switzerland__ The United Nations’ Syria envoy announced that Syria’s two bitterly divided parties have agreed to sit down together in the same room Saturday for the first time, after refusing to do so today, and that he was cautiously encouraged by the discussions he had with the two sides separately over the past two days.

“Tomorrow, [the two sides] have agreed to meet in the same room,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who serves as the joint UN/Arab League envoy for Syria, told journalists at a press conference at the Palais des Nations Friday.

“We never expected it to be easy, but I think the two parties understand what is at stake,” Brahimi said. “Their country is in very bad shape.”

Brahimi said both the Syrian government and opposition delegations had agreed to endorse an effort to seek a UN Security Council resolution, that would call for the international community to support the implementation of the Geneva 1 communique. The consenses document, reached at a July 2012 meeting of world powers, called for the formation of a transitional governing body to be formed, by mutual consent between the Syrian parties, and which would have full executive authority.

Brahimi downplayed, however, the daunting task of clarifying ‘ambiguities’, as he put it, in the parties’ differing interpretations of provisions of the Geneva 1 document. But he made no pretense of what a long, tough road it will be to try to bring the parties to a political resolution of the conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“We knew it would be difficult, …. complicated,” he said. “In our business, certainty is a very rare commodity. ”

He said the negotiators will discuss humanitarian issues such as localized ceasefires and detainee releases, but in parallel, not in place of, the thornier issue of a political transition and formation of a transition governing body, Brahimi stressed.

Western diplomats later said the two sides are expected to discuss as early as Saturday a possible agreement that would allow for rapid humanitarian access to the besieged Syrian city of Homs. “We are going for a quick win, ” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution Friday, said. Talk about a transitional body could be on the agenda in as soon as two days time. Brahimi is mindful that he had to move on the transition, a diplomat said.

Brahimi, speaking to journalists Friday, said he envisioned that the parties might continue talking here in Geneva through the end of next week, before returning to the region for consultations, and hopefully later resuming negotiations in the weeks ahead.

The United States said it welcomed Brahimi’s announcement that the two sides will meet Saturday in the same room. “Such a meeting is a positive step forward in what we expect will be a long and complicated process, ” a senior US official said, adding “you should not perceive every obstacle or challenge that arises throughout the process as a deal-breaker or a collapse.”

Syria opposition announces negotiating team as peace talks get underway

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Geneva, Switzerland __ UN-mediated Syrian peace talks got underway here Friday, and are currently expected to continue into the weekend, western diplomats said.

UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met separately with the two Syrian regime and opposition delegations on Friday. A meeting with both sdes and Brahimi in the same room, originally expected by some to take place Friday, may now occur on Saturday, the westerm diplomats said.

“Brahimi delayed the trilateral meeting planned for this morning to allow for more preparation,” a senior U.S. administration official said Friday. “Our understanding is that …he still plans to meet with the regime and the opposition together.”

“This is the beginning of a negotiation process, and as today has shown, expect ups and downs as it proceeds,” the US diplomat said. “What is important is that the Geneva II process continues.”

This will be a “step by step” process, another western diplomat said late Thursday. “The aim” on the delicate first day of talks “is to avoid walking outs ” by either side.

In one seemingly positive sign, the Syrian opposition coalition, ahead of meeting with Brahimi Friday, formally announced the members of its official negotiating team.

Syrian National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba is the head of the Syrian Coalition negotiator delegation in Geneva 2, a spokesperson for the group said. Mr. Hadi Bahra will lead the negotiation.

Other members of the Syrian National Coalition negotiating delegation, as announced by the team’s spokesman Dr. Louay Safi, are below the jump.

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Egypt’s Foreign Minister: Terrorism by any side should be part of Syria discussion

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Montreux, Switzerland: Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told Al-Monitor that “the maximum” the plenary session of the Geneva II conference on Syria can achieve here January 22 is for the “international community and the parties to express their support for a political resolution to this conflict.”

Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999-2008, spoke to Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti and Laura Rozen on Tuesday night at his hotel in Montreaux on the eve of the international conference.

Fahmy expanded on his ideas for a political process that leads to a “new Syria which should be open, inclusive to all of its different affiliations in Syria, and that responds to the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

“Who stays how long, when, and who leaves, when, that is for the Syrians to decide,” Fahmy said.

Asked whether discussions of Syria should address the rise of terrorism in Syria and elsewhere in the region, Fahmy said that “the issue of terrorism–violence by any side, by the way, not only by one side–is obviously going to be in the mix. But, as part of the discussion on creating a new Syria, not in place of the discussion, on creating a new Syria.”

Fahmy, whose father also served as foreign minister of Egypt, from 1973-1977, supported confidence building measures such as localized cease fires, prisoner exchanges, and humanitarian corridors. But he warned the conference should not be solely focused on either such humanitarian, confidence -building steps, or counterterrorism, but on launching a process towards a political transition as well.

“We offered the Russians and the Americans starting a month ago, first the Russians and then the Americans, a list of confidence building measures (CBMs), including partial cease-fires, exchange of detainees, different kinds of detainees, because there are some purely civilian detainees, a lot of different things,” Fahmy said.

“I actually would recommend highly that, as they start the political process of building this new Syria, they should in parallel with that, always continue to try to deal with, how can we facilitate the situation on the ground, how can you reduce the suffering,” he added

That will create a different confidence level, but it shouldn’t become a confidence building conference, but if you ignore it, how can you simply negotiate for the next 6 months, and people are getting killed mindlessly, and you assume that you have all the time in the world.”

The interview follows, below the jump:

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Syrian internal group rejects Coalition offer to join opposition delegation to Geneva II

Antoun Issa reports:

Syria’s main internal political opposition has rejected a renewed offer by the Syrian National Coalition (SOC) to join its delegation at the Geneva II talks.

The Coalition is currently in the process of forming its delegation after it accepted participation for Geneva II as a result of the UN withdrawing its invitation to Iran.

The SOC reserved two places out of a 15 person delegation for the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), an internal umbrella organization comprised of various leftist and nationalist opposition parties.

But NCC senior official Haytham al-Manna has reiterated his organization’s refusal to participate in Geneva II. Continue reading

Bill Burns on nuclear diplomacy with Iran

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, in an interview (Jan. 14) with the Back Channel posted on the front page, spoke about leading the U.S. effort to open direct talks with Iran, expectations for the upcoming Geneva  II Syria peace talks, and a three decade career in US diplomacy:

With negotiations set to begin in February between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear accord, Burns said President Barack Obama’s estimate of 50-50 odds of reaching an agreement is not bad, considering the context.

“The truth is, against the backdrop of the tortuous history of the relationship between the United States and Iran, that’s actually not a bad opportunity to be tested,” Burns said. “And I think it’s very important for us to test it.”

Full report and interview here. Earlier reports on the US-Iran channel: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran (Nov. 24, 2013);  Three Days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks (January 8, 2014).

EU, Iran reach agreement on implementing nuclear deal


Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.

Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”

The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.  Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.

“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.

The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading

Kerry welcomes Higginbotom as Deputy, Shannon as Counselor

Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed the confirmation of Heather Higginbottom as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, and announced that he has tapped outgoing Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon to succeed her as his Counselor, as the Back Channel reported was in the works.

“Having served as my Counselor since shortly after I arrived at State, Heather is well known to all of you,” Kerry wrote in a note to the Department this week. “The President let me steal Heather back – which is only fair since he stole her from me in 2007.  I know she will excel in this new challenge.” Continue reading