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.)

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.”

White House: UN needs immediate access to Syria site

The White House on Wednesday demanded that United Nations inspectors be given immediate access to a site near Damascus where Syrian opposition activists claimed hundreds were killed in an overnight nerve gas attack.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said.

The allegations of a new chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, came just two days after a UN chemical weapons inspection team arrived in Syria, after months of protracted negotiations. The White House on Wednesday joined the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia in demanding that the inspectors be allowed immesiate, unfettered access to the site.

The United Nations Security Council was also expected to hold an emergency session on the new Syrian chemical claims on Wednesday.

The latest grim allegations came as the top US military officer said Syria’s divided rebels are not ready for U.S. military intervention to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria today is not about choosing between sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter (.pdf) to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliot Engel.

“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor,” Dempsey continued in the letter, which is dated August 19th. “Today, they are not. … Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”

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Report: UN to blacklist Syria’s Al-Nusra Front

The United Nations Security Council is expected to formally designate the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group next week, Agence-France Press reported Friday, amid intensified efforts to rally international consensus on a plan to halt Syria”s civil war.

The designation, expected to be finalized by the Security Council al-Qaeda sanctions committee on Tuesday, would make the group subject to a global asset freeze, the AFP report said.

The move, supported by France and Britain, comes days after the United States and Russia agreed to try to convene a Syria peace conference. The conference, expected to take place in Geneva as early as the end of this month, aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and opposition together to try to negotiate the creation of a transition body.

The United States designated Al–Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in December.

Late last year, US intelligence officials encouraged moderate Syrian rebel forces at a meeting in Jordan to target Al-Nusra Front even at the cost of setbacks in their fight against Assad’s forces, Phil Sands reported in The National this week.

(Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo December 24, 2012. REUTERS.)

Kofi Annan faults West for breakdown in Syria mediation efforts


Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Thursday faulted western countries’ insistence on seeking a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution opposed by Russia and China in part for the breakdown of Syria mediation efforts he pursued as joint UN/Arab League Syria envoy earlier this year.

Annan, speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington Thursday, said he was able to broker agreement among the major powers on a six-step Syria transition plan, at a meeting in Geneva in June attended by both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

But immediately after the meeting, the US and European nations went to the UN Security Council to try to get a Chapter 7 resolution that Russia had made clear it opposed because such a resolution had been used to authorize NATO military intervention in Libya. Russia and China vetoed the measure, Annan quit a month later, and the Syria conflict has grown more militarized even as in recent weeks it has seemed to settle into a stalemate.

The Syrian conflict is “not winner take all,” Annan said. “Neither side [is going to] give up, unless presented with a [political] alternative.”

Military intervention is not the answer in every situation, Annan said, adding that in the case of Syria, he believes it would make things worse.

Syria will not implode, Annan said, it will explode, spreading instability and sectarian strife across the region, as increasingly witnessed. An estimated 30,000 Syrians have been killed in the 19 month conflict, that has sent large and potentially destabilizing refugee flows into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and beyond.

“Some governments made the calculation that the fastest way to end the Syria conflict is to arm one side or other,” Annan said, warning, “that is only going to get more people killed.”

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Hillary Clinton: Outraged at “credible” reports of new Syria massacre

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday she was outraged at “credible” reports of mass killings in the Syrian village of Tramseh, and called for an immediate ceasefire so UN monitors could go in.

“I was deeply saddened and outraged to learn of reports of yet another massacre committed by the Syrian regime that has claimed the lives of over 200 men, women, and children in the village of Traymseh,” Clinton said in a statement Friday.

“Credible reports indicate that this unconscionable act was carried out by artillery, tanks, and helicopters – indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians,” Clinton’s statement continued, calling for Bashar al-Assad to leave power so “a political transition begins.”

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, confirmed Friday that heavy weaponry and assault helicopters were used in a sustained attack on the village, near Hama, giving credence to opposition activists’ claims that the village was the target of a government assault. Anti-regime activists have said as many as 200 people were killed, but those figures could not be confirmed.

Amateur video released Friday showed the bodies of 17 people.

“We call for an immediate ceasefire in and around Hama to allow the UN observer mission to enter Traymseh,” Clinton said.  “Those who committed these atrocities will be identified and held accountable.” Continue reading

Draft UN resolution calls for sanctions if Syria troops don't stop killing in 10 days

The Back Channel is posting a draft UN Security Council resolution circulating on Syria, dated July 12, 2012. The draft resolution, written by British diplomats in close consultation with the US, France, and Germany, calls for sanctions to be imposed if Syrian forces do not stop their assault on population centers within ten days.

It also calls for full implementation of envoy Kofi Annan's 6-point plan, and for the UN monitoring mission to be renewed for 45 days.

The Security Council, “acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations” calls on Syrian authorities to “cease troop movements towards population centres, …use of heavy weapons in such centres, …and to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from population centres to their barracks.”

It further “decides that, if the Syrian authorities have not fully complied with [the] … above within ten days, then it shall impose immediately measures under Article 41 of the UN Charter,” the draft resolution states.

The resolution “includes a clear threat of sanctions if the regime fails in its first step of stopping the use of heavy weapons with a fixed timeline,” Mark Lyall Grant, the U.K.’s UN envoy in New York, said Tuesday, Bloomberg News' Flavia Krause-Jackson reported Thursday.  “We’ve heard a lot of commitments in the past. They have not been followed through.” Continue reading

Iran Seeks Sustained Dialogue

Barbara Slavin reports:

As Iran and world powers agreed to continue talking, Iranian officials put forward a detailed explanation of their point of view including a proposal for high-level negotiations every three months.

A 10-page document (.pdf) given Tuesday (July 3) to Iran experts by Iran’s mission to the United Nations also calls for lifting all sanctions against Iran and a framework for “comprehensive and targeted dialogue for long term cooperation” that goes beyond the nuclear issue. It includes elements of a bigger bargain normalizing Iran’s status in the international community.

Among four “objectives” for the proposed dialogue, sanctions relief is listed first. The goal, the paper says, is “to normalize Iran’s nuclear file in the UN Security Council and in the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Governors by total termination of the UNSC, unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran.”

The priority is not surprising given the fact that draconian new sanctions went into effect July 1 that bar European countries from importing Iranian oil and insuring Iranian oil shipments to others. Iran also faces sanctions under four UN resolutions and a raft of unilateral US penalties. Its oil exports have dropped by a million barrels a day since last year and historic rival Iraq is now pumping more oil. While Iran is practiced in adapting to sanctions, its people are struggling to deal with a collapsed currency and inflation of more than 30 percent.

In addition to sanctions relief, Iran wants recognition of its right to enrich uranium in exchange for continuing to fulfill its obligations to keep its nuclear program open to international inspections.

Iran also seeks cooperation on nuclear safety and newer nuclear technology than a half-century old Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes and a hodge-podge Russian-German nuclear power plant at Bushehr that has yet to become fully operational. Continue reading