Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

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Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

U.S. says willing to join Russia in Syria peace talks

As a new round of Syria peace talks got underway in Geneva Monday, the United States said it was open to a Russian proposal that American and Russian diplomats join the UN and Syrian parties in a joint meeting.

“We have always supported full implementation of the Geneva  communique, and if additional meetings under UN auspices will help the negotiations move forward, we are very ready to consider these,” a U.S. official in Geneva, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in an emailed statement Monday.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, speaking to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, proposed “that Russian, American and U.N. officials meet the Syrian government and opposition delegations at peace talks in Geneva,” Reuters reported.

“Russia diplomats are approaching the organization of the negotiating process as creatively as possible,” Bogdanov said.

US officials said the focus of this week’s meetings should be on “having the Syrian delegations start the detailed discussions” on establishing a transition governing body with full executive authority.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to hold a three-way meeting with UN/Arab League joint Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov in Geneva on Friday, the State Department confirmed.

“Moving forward, we will continue to do what we can to help JSR Brahimi’s efforts succeed, including through our regular engagement in Geneva with the UN, Russia, the London 11, and the opposition delegation,” the US official said, regarding the Russian proposal.

The proposal for bringing the major powers into the meeting with the Syrian parties came as the United Nations and Syrian Red Crescent evacuated over 1000 people from the besieged old city of Homs over the weekend and managed to deliver emergency food and medical supplies in harrowing conditions, including sporadic shelling, mortar and rifle fire. At least eleven Syrians waiting to be rescued were killed in Homs over the weekend, a UN spokesman said Monday, and a Syrian Red Crescent driver was wounded when the group’s convoy came under attack trying to bring food aid into Homs on Saturday, the group said.

The Syrian Red Crescent and two affiliated Red Cross organizations expressed alarm about the targeting of the relief convoys to Homs and pleaded for a halt to the violence against humanitarian aid workers in Syria.

The groups “join in calling for immediate steps to be taken to protect healthcare and humanitarian personnel,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “Without respect for the emblems and protection of those bearing them, crossing front lines to save lives is all but impossible.”

The Syrian regime agreed to the Homs aid operation after weeks of negotiations under heavy pressure from Russia and Iran, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher reported from Homs Sunday.

But despite Russian efforts to facilitate the humanitarian operation in Homs, Russia has said it would likely oppose a UN Security Council resolution on Syria humanitarian aid access being circulated in New York by Jordan, Australia and Luxembourg, saying it is not the right time and the draft proposal is too far reaching. China and Russia did not show up for a UN Security Council meeting on Monday to discuss the measure, the New York Times reported. Itar-Tass cited Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin: “This text would not have any practical, positive impact on the situation.”

The UK and France have said they will try to push for such a measure this week.

“The Security Council should require full and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to those areas being besieged by the regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in an oped Tuesday. “It should demand an immediate end to the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and to impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. And it should call for the regime to stop using barrel bombs and other kinds of weaponry against innocent civilians.”

(Photo: Syrian families being evacuated from the besieged old city of Homs by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society and UN on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  Photo by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Homs Media Committee.)

Kofi Annan calls for Syria national unity government; UN plans for 200,000 refugees

UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan is calling for a national unity government in Syria as a way out of the escalating conflict that has seen Syria’s refugee population more than double since March to almost 100,000 people.

Annan’s proposal, contained in a diplomatic ‘non-paper,’ comes as he convenes a meeting of the newly-formed Action Group on Syria–the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Turkey and the Arab League–in Geneva on Saturday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent Washington at the gathering.

“The conflict in Syria will only end when all sides are assured that there is a peaceful way towards a common future for all in Syria,” Annan’s diplomatic memo– entitled ‘Non-paper, guidelines and principles for a Syria-led transition,’ and posted by the UN-Report blog, states:

It is therefore essential that any settlement provides for clear and irreversible steps in transition according to a fixed time frame. The key steps in any transition include: – The establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place

The national unity government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups,” the non-paper says, “but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation”–namely, Bashar al-Assad.

Annan, announcing the Action Group Wednesday, defined its objectives as to forge international consensus on “concrete actions” to lead to a cessation of violence, that has claimed almost 15,000 lives. Clinton and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia Friday, ahead of attending the Geneva forum.  Iran and Saudi Arabia were both denied invitations to the Action Group meeting, as a compromise based on the U.S.’ insistence Iran be excluded.

The meeting comes as the Independent Commission of Inquiry for Syria this week delivered an interim report that found that militarization of the Syria conflict is intensifying, as arms flow to anti-regime groups.”The main thing we identified is an intensification of military conflict as anti-government armed groups have acquired more weapons, more people and they are able to do their own kind of damage against the Syrian army, and acquire some territory–at least temporarily,” Karen AbuZayd, a member of the Commission, told Al-Monitor in an interview Wednesday from Geneva.

“This is an armed insurrection, not just a little guerrilla warfare … and it is much worse for the people,” AbuZayd said. Meantime, Assad regime forces continue their full fledged assault on Syrian population centers, based on patterns they have employed over the past year: prolonged shelling of the town, entering the city and targeting populations with unlawful killings, torture, etc., “moving from one place to the other,” AbuZayd said. Continue reading