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

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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

US sees Moscow Iran talks as pivotal

Moscow__Diplomats from five nations and Iran have arrived in Moscow ahead of a new round of nuclear talks Monday that some American diplomats consider pivotal to determining whether to continue pursuing the current incremental approach.

“Tomorrow’s E3 + 3 talks in Moscow are important meetings,” a senior Western official told journalists in Moscow Sunday.

”Iran should come prepared to negotiate seriously and take concrete steps to address the unified proposal laid out” in Baghdad, the official continued.”Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear energy under the NPT, but it must first meet its international obligations,” the official said. “If Iran remains unwilling to take the opportunities these talks present, it will face continuing and intensified pressure and isolation.”

Western diplomats said Sunday they have asked Iran to respond to a detailed proposal put forward by the six-nation negotiating group at a meeting last month in Baghdad. That package called for Iran to halt its production of 20 percent enriched uranium, ship out its 20 percent stockpile, and halt operations at Fordow, a highly fortified enrichment facility built into a mountain near Qom. In return, Iran would get spare parts for old US civilian airliners and fuel and safety upgrades for a reactor that makes medical isotopes.

But some American advisers say if Iran does not show a willingness in Moscow to seriously engage on that interim proposal, then the United States should consider pivoting to a different, higher stakes, approach, that they say would clarify Iran’s intentions.

“We have to see what comes out of Moscow,” Dennis Ross, former senior Obama White House strategist and a consultant to the National Security Council, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Sunday. “If Moscow produces something that exceeds expectations, we should try this track. If not, then we have to prepare to pivot, with the US at that point taking the lead to coordinate.”

The current approach, focused on a short-term confidence building proposal that seeks to address Iran’s higher enrichment activities, “had a certain logic,” Ross said. But if it doesn’t start showing results, “given the other pressures the US is under, the Iranians keep enriching, and accumulating, Israeli patience wears very thin. If we want diplomacy to have any success, the current track is unlikely do so. We should offer something more of an end game proposal.”

Ross laid out his proposal—described by some current and former Obama officials as “go big” and first reported by Al Monitor—in the New Republic this week.

“The Obama administration is considering putting forward a broader proposal to Iran, rather than the more incremental one presented at a meeting last month in Baghdad,” Al Monitor reported June 7th. “Those arguing in favor of the ‘go big’ approach say their thinking has been influenced by two recent diplomatic encounters with Iran that cast doubt on the viability of an incremental deal, as well as by Israeli concerns over any interim deal being the last one reached with Iran for the next few years, officials said.”

A number of other Iran analysts, including Andrew Parasiliti of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US, have urged both sides to put forward an “end game” that can provide  confidence that concessions now will lead to a resolution of the crisis. “To close the deal and advance the negotiations, the P5+1 could recognize Iran’s right to enrichment in the context of Iran being a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and freeze all pending sanctions on Iran,” Parasiliti wrote. “Additionally, the P5+1 might request a good-faith strategic pause in enrichment while Iran resolves outstanding questions about its nuclear program.”

But key US allies are not yet prepared to consider shifting from the current step-by-step approach.

“I don’t think it makes much sense to undercut our own proposal by attacking it,” one western diplomat told Al Monitor Sunday on condition of anonymity. Continue reading

Jalili reasserts Iran’s right to enrichment

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told Iranian lawmakers Wednesday that the international community should take a more cooperative stance in order to advance negotiations with Tehran, and reasserted Iran’s right to enrichment for energy purposes.

“What has ended is the time of illogical pressure strategy, and on the opposite the time for dialogue and cooperation has started and the West should move in the direction of talks and cooperation strategy,” Jalili told an open session of Iran’s parliament, Iran’s FARS news agency reported.

“Based on the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), enrichment is an inalienable right of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iran is a member of the NPT and if enrichment is for peaceful purposes, there will be no problem (restriction),” he said.

His comments come ahead of the next round of P5+1/Iran talks, due to take place in Moscow June 18-19th.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in meetings in Iran today ahead of Moscow hosting the talks, and also to discuss Syria. Russia–as well as UN/Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan–have pressed for Iran to be included in a contact  group on the Syria violence, but the United States has so far rejected the idea. Continue reading

Aaron Miller: US may need Russian help more on Iran than Syria

Veteran US diplomat and new Al Monitor columnist, Aaron David Miller, takes a hard-nosed look on the front page at the miserable Syria options available. His conclusion, that the idea du jour that Russia can be persuaded to switch horses from Assad is worth a try, but is probably a long shot:

The thinking is that the Russians may be prepared to bail on the Assad family if remnants of the regime can be included in a transition allowing Moscow to maintain its influence. This variation of the Yemeni approach, which is to squeeze out the autocrat but leave some of the old regime in place, may be worth a try. But the odds are long for its success.

First, it’s not at all clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin, having seen Russia diddled by the Americans and Europeans on the Libyan intervention will want to be played the fool again. … Indeed, Russia’s insistence that Iran be brought in as part of a new contact group suggests that Putin is in no hurry to solve the Syria problem.

Among his points which most resonates: Continue reading

Iran complains over preparations for Moscow nuclear talks

Deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the international community spoke twice by phone last Friday, European diplomats said Monday. But the conversations have apparently not resolved Iranian concerns about upcoming nuclear talks in Moscow, as evinced by an Iranian PR push portraying international negotiators as intransigent and thus responsible for any failure at the meeting.

“Clearly there is a discernible change in Iranian tactics,” a European diplomat, speaking anonymously, told Al Monitor Monday.

Iran wants a meeting in advance of Moscow to prepare the agenda, Iranian analysts said. But European diplomats say the Iranian negotiators are playing games.

The Iran-EU bickering comes as diplomats from the six-nation negotiating group known as the P5+1 arrived in Strasbourg Monday to consult ahead of the next round of Iran nuclear talks, which are due to be held in Moscow June 18-19th. In advance of the meeting, however, Iranian media have steadily reported on a series of letters from Iran’s nuclear negotiators to their European Union counterparts, warning that the talks won’t go well if their requests for an experts meeting in advance aren’t granted.

Iranian media reported Monday on the latest such letter from Iran’s number two nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri to his European Union counterpart, Helga Schmid.

In the letter, dated Sunday June 10, Bagheri wrote that his boss, Saeed Jalilli, had complained to EU foreign policy chief Caatherine Ashton at a meeting in Baghdad last month that “your lack of preparation has caused the trend of the talks to be slowed down and even lead to standstill,” Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.

(A western official said what in fact became apparent in an Ashton-Jalili bilateral meeting in Baghdad on May 23rd were seeming divisions within Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Specifically, Jalili in Baghdad distanced himself from some positions that his deputy Bagheri had taken in two preparatory meetings with Schmid held quietly in Geneva  in mid May, the source said. That may in part explain why western negotiators have been unreceptive this time to Iranian requests for an “experts meeting” ahead of the Moscow talks, proposing instead a meeting between chief political envoys.)

The Guardian’s Julian Borger adds Monday: “At the end of last week, it appears confusion slipped into farce when the deputy Iranian negotiator, Ali Bagheri, claimed to his EU counterpart, Helga Schmid, that he was not aware of any such proposal, even though he was there at the table when it was handed over. Consequently, Schmid resent the text over the weekend.”)

European diplomats said they hoped to possibly ease some of the acrimony in a telephone conversation scheduled to take place later Monday between Ashton and Jalili.

“We are keen, we want them to engage,” on a confidence building proposal put forward at the Baghdad meeting, the European diplomat said, of western expectations for Iran at the upcoming meeting in Moscow.

He said they have been “doubly surprised” that Bagheri, who he described as “genteel and cordial,” in previous interactions, is recently writing “such acerbic letters.”

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the lead US rep to the talks, flew to Strasbourg, France for meetings Monday and Tuesday with her counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China as well as the EU’s Ashton.

“The United States remains united with other P5+1 partners in our commitment to serious preparations for the Moscow round of talks, and to enabling the diplomatic track to succeed,” the State Department said in a statement Sunday announcing Sherman’s travel. Continue reading

Monday links

  • Egypt’s Mubarak reported to be in a coma (CNN)
  • The Netanyahu paradox (Vanity Fair)
  • Vogue regrets Asma al-Assad profile (NY Times)
  • Syrian National Council picks secular Kurdish academic as new leader (AP)
  • P5+1 political directors meet in Strasbourg on Iran (State Department)
  • Russian FM Sergei Lavrov to Tehran Wednesday ahead of Moscow nuclear talks (Al-Arabiya)
  • Iran’s Ali Bagheri writes EU negotiator again to press for agenda-meeting (IRNA)
  • Iran talks: time for a bold new approach? (Imran Khan; back story: Al Monitor)
  • Iran bans women from watching public screenings of Euro 2012 soccer games (AFP) Continue reading