UN urges Russia, US to resume Syria peace talks

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on the third anniversary of Syria’s civil war, appealed to the US and Russia to get the Syrian parties back to the peace table.

“The Secretary-General appeals to the region and the international community and in particular to the Russian Federation and the United States, as the initiating States of the Geneva Conference on Syria, to take clear steps to re-energize the Geneva process,” a spokesman for Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement Wednesday.

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is due to brief the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday and the full UN General Assembly on the Syria diplomatic track on Friday, a UN spokesperson told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

As to officials saying Brahimi had recently threatened to the Russians to quit if they wouldn’t press the Assad regime to discuss political transition, there were few signs in Ban’s statement Wednesday that the veteran Algerian diplomat is planning an abrupt exit. “Working with Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, the Syrian sides and regional and international actors must act now to bring the tragedy in Syria to an end,” Ban’s statement said.

The situation, however, is still “unclear,” a western diplomat said Wednesday.

It’s “still a work in progress as to how we would get to round three, but efforts continue,” the western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. The “key is to get [the] regime to commit to discuss not only terrorism, but [the Transitional Governing Body] TGB as well.”

France on Wednesday circulated a draft UN Security Council press statement that would call for fully backing Brahimi’s efforts, including holding simultaneous discussions on both political transition and ending terrorism and violence. Continue reading

UN sending invites to Geneva II Syria peace talks; no decision yet on Iran


The United Nations on Monday announced that it was formally sending out invitations to a long-delayed Syria peace conference to be convened in Switzerland starting January 22.

To date, there has been no decision on whether Iran should be invited, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Monday, adding that the invite list had been determined at a meeting between US, Russian and UN officials December 20th.

“The Secretary-General is in favor of inviting Iran, but discussions between the initiating States have not produced final results yet,” Mr. Ban’s spokesperson said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet next week (January 13) to decide if Iran should be invited to attend, the State Department and UN said.

Kerry said Sunday, as the US has previously, that Iran could come to the Syria peace conference if it formally endorsed the Geneva 1 communique which calls for the formation of a transition body that has full executive authority. But short of that, Kerry suggested that he and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, are more focused on trying to negotiate a nuclear deal.

“Iran could participate very easily if they would simply accept publicly the Geneva I premise on which Geneva II is based,” Kerry told journalists at a press conference in Jerusalem Sunday (January 5).  “That has been the premise of organizing this. …We are going to implement Geneva I, which calls for a transition government by mutual consent with full executive authority; and if Iran doesn’t support that, it’s very difficult to see how they’re going to be ‘a ministerial partner’ in the process.”

“Everybody is happy to have Iran be helpful,” Kerry said. “But we have a huge piece of business on the table with Iran right now to complete the task of the implementation language and get moving with respect to the negotiations on their own nuclear program.”

“We are not begging to be invited,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview in September. ‘If they ask us to go, we will go, without any conditions, and we do not accept any conditions.”

International talks will convene in Montreux, Switzerland January 22, the UN statement said. Then talks for the Syrian participants, facilitated by UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, will move to the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva starting January 24th.

“The Secretary-General views the conference as a unique opportunity for ending the violence and ensuring that peace can be restored,” the UN statement said “At the core of this effort is the establishment of a transitional governing body based on mutual consent.”

(Photo: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and UN/Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. File photo: Reuters)

Kerry and new Iran FM Zarif to meet in NY

New York__ US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet face to face on Thursday, at a meeting of foreign ministers from six world powers and Iran.

The decision to include Zarif in the P5+1 ministerial meeting was announced by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, after she met for the first time with Zarif Monday in New York.

“What I saw today was the energy and determination” of Zarif and his team to move talks forward, Ashton told journalists after their meeting at the United Nations Monday.

Kerry welcomes Zarif’s “commitment to a substantive response and to his agreement to meeting in the short term with permanent UN Security Council members and Germany coordinated by EU High Representative Ashton to discuss the nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday.

Ashton and Zarif “talked about a number of issues,” with the discussion “focused on the nuclear issue,” she said. In addition to agreeing that Zarif would join the P5+1 ministerial meeting on Thursday, at 4pm, the two negotiators agreed that their two teams will meet again in Geneva in October, Ashton said.

Meantime, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Al-Monitor Monday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been invited to attend a luncheon that Ban is hosting for visiting heads of state Tuesday. UN spokesman Martin Nesky said he wasn’t yet sure if Rouhani plans to attend. Rouhani is due to arrive in New York later on Monday.

President Obama plans to attend the lunch, following a meeting with Ban on Tuesday, the White House said last week.

“We hope that the new Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation,” Psaki said. “We remain ready to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously.”

Obama is due to address the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning. Rouhani is scheduled to address the body Tuesday afternoon.

Who would broker an Obama-Rouhani encounter in NY?


If President Obama decides to try to pursue a handshake or encounter with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week, odds are it may occur when he meets with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, before attending a lunch hosted by Ban, a veteran of US-Iran dialogues suggested Friday.

“There is a range of potential interlocutors to coordinate such an encounter,” Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy studies at the Asia Society, told the Back Channel Friday. “Ban Ki-Moon is hosting a Tuesday lunch. That would be [ideal], given he’s an international civil servant.”

No meeting between Obama and Rouhani next week is currently planned, though Obama is open to engagement, the White House said again Friday. Obama is currently scheduled to have four one-on-one meetings with world leaders in New York, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told journalists in a call Friday previewing Obama’s schedule in New York.

Obama will meet on Monday with Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, and then on Tuesday, following his address to the UN General Assembly, Obama is due to meet with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. Obama is then due to meet privately with the UN’s Ban, then attend a lunch hosted by Ban, Rhodes said. Finally, Obama is due to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before attending a Clinton Global Initiative event promoting health care hosted by former President Bill Clinton.

Given that schedule, it seems most likely that, if an encounter between Obama and Rouhani were to occur, it would be brokered by Ban, DiMaggio mused. Her organization, the Asia Society, is due to host Rouhani at an event Thursday for think tank scholars, along with the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also been involved in extensive track 2 work on Iran.

There are rumors that Ban might also organize a meeting of foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, DiMaggio said.

“There’s some creative thinking going on,” she said.

There could be some US-Iran “interaction at different levels”, the NSC’s Rhodes said in the press call Friday. “I can’t predict every interaction that might take place.”

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Framework text: U.S., Russia reach deal to remove Syria chemical arms

The United States and Russia have reached a deal on a framework for removing all of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in Geneva Saturday.

Under the framework agreed after three days of negotiations in Geneva, Syria would declare all of its chemical weapons sites within seven days, allow inspectors on the ground and access to any site by November, and the removal of the weapons from Syria for destruction by mid-2014. (Full framework text, released by the State Department, below the jump).

“The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitment,” Kerry told a packed news conference in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva Saturday, the Associated Press reports. “There can be no games, no room for avoidance, or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime.”

“We have committed to a standard that says, verify and verify,” Kerry said.

The framework would mandate the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to report on Syrian compliance or noncompliance with the agreed measures to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, under Chapter 7 of the UN charter.

“In the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter,” the framework states.

Arms control advocates hailed the deal as a breakthrough, although one whose implementation will be challenging.

“While there are many further, challenging steps ahead, the agreement is an unprecedented breakthrough that would deny the Assad regime access to this dangerous arsenal and significantly reduce the risk that the government can use chemical weapons again, either inside Syria or against neighboring states in the region,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote Saturday.

The deal was reached ahead of the expected release on Monday of the UN chemical weapons inspectors’ report on the August 21 alleged chemical weapons attack on the Damascus outskirts that the U.S. said killed over 1,000 people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that the report would show “overwhelming” evidence that a major chemical weapons attack had taken place. He also said, in remarks he reportedly did not realize were being broadcast on the UN in-house television station, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has committed many crimes against humanity,” and should be brought to justice after the war.

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Kerry: World ‘watching to see if Syria can get away with it’

Syrian chemical weapons personnel under the chain of command of the Syrian Ministry of Defense prepared for three days before Syrian military units, instructed to don gas masks, fired rockets containing nerve gas into opposition-held villages in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st, killing over 1,400 people in the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century, the United States said Friday.

“The primary question is really no longer: What do we know?” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a powerful call to action from the State Department Friday, as the U.S. released a declassified, four-page intelligence assessment on the attack. “The question is: What are…we in the world going to do about it?”

“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry warned.

The release of the U.S. intelligence case (map) and Kerry’s call for resolve came after President Obama met again with his national security cabinet Friday morning on Syria, amid daily intensified preparations for almost certain U.S.-led military strikes in Syria in the coming days. But the Obama administration suffered a blow when the British parliament voted early Friday against UK participation in any international Syria action. France, however said Friday, it would participate, and was sending two frigates to the area where the U.S. has already sent five warships.

2013-08-30_map_accompanying_usg_assessment_on_syria

President Obama said Friday he was still deliberating and consulting with lawmakers over potential military options. But he expressed wary resolve to conduct “limited” action in Syria that would not, he reiterated, involve boots on the ground, to deter chemical weapons use.

“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” Obama said in remarks at the White House Friday, adding that “part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.”

Kerry made a far more impassioned case for the necessity of international action to deter not just the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, but regimes around the world which he said are closely “watching” how the United States and others react.

“They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say,” Kerry warned, in what seemed a pointed rebuke of the UK parliamentary vote, which was hailed by Russia Friday. “They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”

But Kerry, like Obama, also acknowledged American public weariness about another military intervention in the Middle East, and promised Syria intelligence and intervention would not be “a repeat” of Iraq.

“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience,” Kerry said, urging the public to read it for themselves. ‘We will not repeat that moment.”

The narrative Kerry and other administration and intelligence officials described in briefings Friday suggested that the Syrian regime was frustrated by a protracted fight with opposition-held and contested villages in the Damascus suburbs, and employed the chemical weapons so it could speed up the fight and surge military resources to Aleppo. The Syrian regime has increasingly employed chemical weapons since 2012 as a regular tool in its military arsenal, but never before on this scale, officials said.

“We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so,” Kerry said.

“Unfortunately,.. the regime considers the chemical weapons in its portfolio of military use,” a senior U.S. administration official said in the White House background call Friday. “It is not considered an extraordinary measure. It is not used only in particular cases. In this case, [they] chose to use it in a densely populated area, and it obviously had horrendous effects.”

In total, at least 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children, were killed in the nerve gas attack last week, Kerry said.

In the aftermath of the attack, among other intelligence collected from both secret and open sources, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of a senior regime official referencing the use of chemical weapons, and expressing concern about the UN weapons inspectors detecting it, Kerry and senior U.S. Administration Officials said in a subsequent White House background telephone briefing Friday.

“We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered,” Kerry said Friday, adding, in a reference US officials later acknowledged was US signals intelligence of the communication, “We know this.”

As the Obama administration ramped up its preparations for likely action, the UN chemical weapons inspectors completed their work in Syria on Friday, and were all due to be out of the country by Saturday morning, the UN said. The UN’s disarmament chief Angela Kane departed Damascus and was en route to New York and will brief Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and then the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council on Saturday, the UN said. The Security Council has remained deadlocked on Syria for over two and a half years due to Russian support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and veto of any prospective measures against his regime.

The UN is due to hold a rare press conference on Saturday, but UN officials said they didn’t expect the inspection team to release its report until all of its lab testing of samples collected in Syria was completed, in what could take several days.

Kerry said Friday the United States would not wait for the UN report because the inspectors’ mandate does not permit it to attribute culpability, the U.S. already has the information it needs, and because the Syrian regime did not grant the inspectors access for five days while they intensified their shelling of the villages in what the U.S. has said was a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence of the chemical attack.

(Photo: President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

Top Iran, EU diplomats agree to meet to plan new nuclear talks

Top European diplomat Catherine Ashton has agreed to meet soon with Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to advance preparations for resumed nuclear negotiations. The meeting plans come amid unconfirmed Iranian media speculation about Zarif possibly playing a key role in the negotiations–speculation that may be linked to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's expressed interest in having the nuclear negotiations conducted at higher level representation, Iran analysts suggested.

Ashton, in a congratulatory phone call to Zarif on Saturday August 17th, said six world powers “were ready to work with the new Iranian negotiating team as soon as they were appointed,” a press statement (.pdf) from the office of the European Union foreign policy chief said. Ashton and Zarif also agreed “to meet soon.”

Western officials said Sunday that Ashton's proposed meeting with Zarif did not indicate in any way whether Zarif was expected to be Iran’s chief interlocutor in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, succeeding Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said Sunday that no such decision has yet been made, Iranian media reports said.

American officials, speaking not for attribution Sunday, said they were awaiting the appointment of Iran's new nuclear team, and indicated they were aware of unconfirmed Iranian rumors and media reports that Rouhani was studying transferring Iran’s nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zarif, a former Iranian envoy to the United Nations who earned his PhD at the University of Denver, forged ties with many US national security experts when he served in New York, and his appointment as foreign minister has been seen in the West as an encouraging sign. So too has that of outgoing foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to become Iran's next chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

Zarif, for his part, demurred in an interview Saturday on whether the nuclear dossier was being moved to his purview, while noting that Iranian President Rouhani had the authority to make such a decision.

“I have not heard anything about this issue,” Zarif told Iran's IRDiplomacy August 17th. “This is a decision that is within the domain of the President’s authority. Nevertheless, considering my experiences in this case, I will make efforts to help in the advancement of this issue no matter what responsibility I might have. But decisions with regard to how we should pursue the nuclear dossier and the form and framework of negotiations are made at the higher levels of our political system.”

Zarif “is a smooth operator, a very clever and successful diplomat,” Gary Samore, former Obama White House WMD czar, told Al-Monitor in an interview earlier this month. “When I knew him, [after Iran indicated it was going to resume enriching uranium after a suspension in] 2005, I engaged in a number of discussions about the nuclear program; he was a very forceful advocate… but that’s fine. He’s more pleasant to deal with.”

“I have seen no indication of a change of substance” in Iran’s nuclear negotiating stance as yet, Samore, now with Harvard's Belfer Center, continued. “The next couple of months are all about process. Will there be some kind of bilateral [US-Iran] channel established, which I think everybody agrees is a necessary condition for achieving an agreement.” Continue reading

Obama administration calls for full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria


The Obama administration notified Congress Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has newly assessed that Syria probably used chemical weapons, but cautioned that further tests are necessary and said it is pressing for the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” the White House said in a letter to Congress Thursday.

The new assessment, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, was finalized in the past twenty four hours and received with evident reluctance by the Obama administration, which has expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of deeper entanglement in a new Middle Eastern conflict.

But the administration decided to publicly release the findings, which were contained in an assessment requested by some members of Congress, as several allied governments and foreign officials, including in Israel, the UK and Qatar, have made similar claims, to press for a comprehensive probe.

The US intelligence assessment “is based in part on physiological samples,” the White House letter said. But it cautioned that “the chain of custody” of the physiological samples it tested “is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Blood samples and soil samples are the type of physiological material that would be tested for chemicals, a western diplomat said Thursday.

“Precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria,” the White House letter said.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House letter said, obliquely referring to past flawed US intelligence assessments that Iraq had WMD. Only “credible and corroborated” facts will guide US decision-making, it continued.

It’s important that any evidence be “air-tight,” a senior US official later echoed in a press call.

The White House said it was consulting closely with allies, particularly the UK and France, in considering possible next steps. Vice President Joe Biden was also meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Hagel announced last week that the US was sending an additional 200 US troops there.

Earlier Thursday, a French official said the French government did not have conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but had strong concerns, and was also pressing for a broader UN probe.

“France does not have proof of the use of chemical weapons at this stage, but France is actively investigating with its partners,” the French official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists. Continue reading

Former top US diplomat Jeff Feltman meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader


Jeff Feltman, the UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs who until May served as a top US diplomat, on Wednesday became the most senior current or former American official known to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in decades.

Feltman, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iran’s Supreme Leader as part of the entourage accompanying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for meetings in Tehran. Ban traveled to Iran against the wishes of the US and Israel to attend the non-aligned movement summit.

American officials downplayed the rare meeting between even an ex-US official and Iran’s vehemently anti-American Supreme Leader, pointing out that Feltman doesn’t work for the US government anymore.

Feltman “is doin’ his new job,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Al-Monitor Wednesday when asked about the meeting.

Asked if Ban or Feltman conveyed any message from the United States to Iran’s leadership, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Al-Monitor: “Nope.”

“Not sure that it means much in reality,” former senior Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday.

Feltman “is a UN official and he works for Ban,” Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “The Iranians may be seeking to play up any imagery hoping it may support their desire to show how they are not isolated and make some of their neighbors wonder about what is going on.”

But former American diplomat Jim Dobbins told Al-Monitor that Feltman likely would have given the US government at least a courtesy ‘heads up’ about his trip, even if he would not take guidance from them. The meeting “is interesting,” Dobbins, now at the Rand Corporation, said.

And another former senior US official who asked not to be named acknowledged she was “shocked” to learn of the meeting, mostly because the Obama administration had publicly pressed Ban to forgo the trip. Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon during the 2006 war, is thought to be fairly hardline on Iran.

The tone of the UN chief’s meeting with Iranian leaders Wednesday was reportedly fairly testy and combative, reports said, though the Supreme Leader’s website acknowledged Ban requesting that Iran take “concrete” steps to cooperate with the IAEA and P5+1 negotiating over its nuclear program. Continue reading

UN’s Ban to attend Iran summit, over US, Israeli requests

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will attend a conference in Tehran next week, over the objections of Israel and the United States, his spokesman said Wednesday.

“In Tehran, Ban will raise Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told journalists at the UN Wednesday.

Ban will visit Iran for three days, August 29-31, to participate in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, Nesirky said. He will also hold discussions with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some 30 leaders are expected to attend the 16th NAM summit, including Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.The non-aligned movement is a Cold War legacy, comprised of some 120 countries that were ostensibly independent of the US or Soviet blocs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly lobbied Ban to reject the invitation, in an effort to signal Iran’s growing isolation over its nuclear program. The State Department more recently also encouraged Ban to skip the meeting, though its protests seemed a bit pro forma. (US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, now traveling in India, also had urged Ban not to go, InnerCityPress reported.)

Ban “was fully aware of the sensitivities, and fully aware of the responsibilities” in choosing to attend the meeting, Nesirky said Wednesday, the New York Times reported.

Whatever diplomatic victory Iran may claim from Ban’s RSVP, his discussions with Iranian leaders are likely to be tense.  P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have made little progress, and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency is due to issue a new report on Iran’s nuclear program at the end of the month.

A firm date has not yet been finalized for an anticipated phone call between chief international nuclear negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Saeed Jalili, to discuss how to proceed, a European Union spokesperson told Al Monitor Wednesday.

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