UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned Thursday that if Syria goes forward with presidential elections, it would likely mean the end of reconciliation talks with the Syrian opposition.
“If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government,” Brahimi told reporters at the UN in New York Thursday, after briefing the UN Security Council on the situation.
“We would like the help of the Council and all those who can help to make sure that if and when we have a third round it will be a little bit more productive than the second one,” Brahimi said.
But Russia on Thursday blocked a draft UN Security Council statement that expressed the body’s support for Brahimi’s Syria mediation efforts, and would have endorsed his call for parallel talks on ending terrorism and a political transition.
Russia’s envoy Vitaly Churkin did not attend Brahimi’s briefing, but was seen by Bloomberg News’ UN reporter conferring with Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Ja’afari outside the Council in the UN’s Turkish lounge during the session.
Ja’afari later told UN reporters Thursday that Syria’s parliament was discussing an election law that would apply to all of Syria’s elections—presidential, parliamentary and local—but did not confirm if presidential elections would go forward this summer.
Britain’s UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant took to Twitter Thursday to express disappointment that the UN Security Council could not muster agreement for “even [a] simple statement of support” for Brahimi’s efforts.
Brahimi is due to brief the full UN General Assembly on his Syria mediation efforts on Friday. It’s not clear if he’s seeking a vote to back his efforts from the UN General Assembly, in which no country has a veto.
(Photo by Bloomberg News’ Sangwon Yoon, of Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin and Syria’s Bashar Jaafari conferring outside the UN Security Council Thursday, via Twitter.)
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.”
The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.
“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.
“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”
That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.
Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).
US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.
“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”
With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.
“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.
Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.
“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.
“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”
But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.
“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.
The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.
With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”
“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”
UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.
Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.
Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.
“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.
The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”
Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.
“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.
“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation. And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”
If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.
Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.
“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”
“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning. “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process. There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”
Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.
Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.
US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.
“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”
(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)
US Syria envoy Robert Ford retired on Friday after 30 years distinguished service, the State Department announced Friday.
Ford’s “extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists Friday.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Lawrence Silverman will temporarily serve as his replacement until a permanent successor is named, Psaki said.
US officials tell Al-Monitor that US diplomat Daniel Rubenstein will be named as Ford’s permanent successor working with the Syrian opposition. Rubenstein, described by colleagues as an “outstanding Arabist,” currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau (INR).
Rubenstein previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Jordan (2005-2008), as the US Consul General in Jerusalem (2009-2012), and as chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt. Rubenstein, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, also served in earlier postings in Damascus, Tunis, Tel Aviv, and Brasilia. He couldn’t immediately be reached Saturday for comment.
Israel’s stance on acceptable terms for a final Iran nuclear deal remains as uncompromising as that which divided Washington and Jerusalem on the merits of an interim nuclear deal last fall, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said Monday following a trip last week to the Middle East.
“Their position is no, no, no: No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program,” Kaine, referring to Israeli leaders, said in answer to a question on a conference call briefing with journalists Monday on his trip last week to Israel, Ramallah, Lebanon and Egypt.
Netanyahu, in a meeting with Senators Kaine and Angus King (Independent-Maine) in Israel last week, “said nothing about the pending legislation,” Kaine said, referring to stalled Iran sanctions legislation co-sponsored by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ron Kirk (R-Illinois). “He expressed what he has [previously] expressed. He has not backed away one iota [from his position] that the interim deal is a bad idea in his view. But he acknowledged…that the deal is done.”
Now the Israeli leader is turning his focus to how to “structure the final deal …so that it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished, and what would such a deal look like,” Kaine said, adding that Netanyahu did not refer to specific draft U.S. legislation on the matter. “He’s aware that if we can’t find an acceptable deal, it’s not hard to get Congress to pass more sanctions.”
When Netanyahu comes to Washington next week to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and to meet with President Obama, “I suspect that rather than a speech that three quarter deals with” the six month Join Plan of Action that went into effect last month, he will spend “a lot of time on what should be the components of a final deal” and what “assurances will be needed.”
Asked if the Israeli leader had shown any signs of softening his maximalist positions from last fall that an acceptable Iran nuclear deal could allow no centrifuges or domestic Iranian enrichment, Kaine said no.
“I understand and they [the Israelis] understand that this is a negotiation,” Kaine said. “At the end of the day, we have the same goal of a diplomatic solution, [of Iran] without a nuclear weapon and easy ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Exactly how to define that question of what is acceptable in terms of nuclear research and what is unacceptable, that gets too close to a weapon, there are some gray areas.”
“The US and Israeli perspectives may be a little different,” Kaine continued. “That demands communication.”
“I would like there to be zero enrichment, I would like there to be no facilities, I would like there not to be an indigenous program,” lead US Iran negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told journalists in Israel over the weekend. “I think I would like many things in life. But that does not mean I will always get them, and that is not necessarily the only path to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that the international community can have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program.”
Kaine also said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders expressed gratitude for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to advance a framework for an Israel-Palestine two state solution, but that both expressed doubts the other side was willing to make the necessary compromises and concessions for it to succeed.
In Lebanon, he said Lebanese leaders told him and King that they appreciated US financial support for humanitarian efforts to support the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country, but that what was needed is to improve conditions inside Syria to slow the refugee exodus and move to end the conflict. He and King were preparing to leave a briefing at the US embassy in Beirut last week when a suicide blast went off some five miles south at an Iranian cultural center, killing several people–the latest sign of sectarian spillover violence from Syria’s civil war that threatens to destabilize its neighbors.
Kaine, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East and South Asia subcommittee, plans to hold a subcommittee hearing on Lebanon on Tuesday.
Photo: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), right, meets in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Sen. Angus King (I-Me.), via Washington Jewish Week.
Vienna__ Diplomats from Iran and six world powers said Wednesday they had agreed on an agenda of issues and a timetable of meetings to proceed in negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.
The framework agenda includes the issues that will need to be addressed and a timetable for trying to reach an agreement in six months, one diplomat from the P5+1, speaking not for attribution, described here Wednesday.
“We have [a] timetable of meetings and identification of issues,” a Western official at the talks, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor late Wednesday..
A framework agreement has been reached, an Iranian negotiator affirmed to Al- Monitor late Wednesday evening just after talks broke for the night. The Islamic Republic News Agency, citing Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, reported late Wednesday that a framework agreement had been reached, and a next round of talks would be held in Vienna in mid to late March.
“This round of talks has been productive and useful,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf, in Vienna, told journalists on a State Department press conference call Wednesday. “We do think we have made some progress in the past two days.”
Talks, which began on Tuesday, are expected to wrap up on Thursday midday. In part, the cut off time seemed influenced by the fact that lead international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, summoned EU foreign ministers to Brussels for an emergency meeting on the Ukraine crisis Thursday at 2pm.
Iranian officials have also said the talks are going well. But like their P5+1 counterparts, they have said little to the press since talks got underway here Tuesday.
“it’s not finished yet, but overall it’s positive,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday evening as he departed the negotiations venue. He said he didn’t know if there would be anything on paper, but thought there would be a framework completed by Thursday.
The negotiations over the structure, sequence and organization of the final deal talks require heavy lifting on the front end in part to keep everybody on board. Apparently, provisional details were not worked out in advance through bilateral channels in order to avoid any surprises, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group. But the complications of the forthcoming negotiations are likely going to require bilateral consultations once the framework is agreed, he said.
The issues “are not black and white,” Vaez told Al- Monitor Wednesday. “The scale of the problem is such that figuring out mechanisms for tackling them, without any doubt, is going to be extremely complicated.”
“A confidential channel [as a way] to break deadlock on the nuclear talks is now needed to start gaining understanding on issues of common interest [and] in order to consolidate this process,” Vaez said. “Start somewhere, start where [you] have common interests.”
But Iran to date has not authorized Iranian officials to negotiate with American counterparts on issues beyond the nuclear file, Vaez said.
“I think it’s been clear from day one that [Iranian Supreme Leader Aytaollah] Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Vaez said. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness….The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”
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 →
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.)
Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Holocaust a “horrifying tragedy” that “should never occur again” in an interview with Germany’s Phoenix TV.
In a shift, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row during Zarif’s panel at the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (photo top right).
Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced that Iran will host a conference on Syrian humanitarian assistance involving Swiss, Syrian and Iranian officials in Tehran. Last week, Amir-Abdollahian denied an Al Jazeera report that Iranian officials were meeting in Bern with the Syrian sides.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul shows daylight with PM Erdogan on Syria policy.
GOP Senators say John Kerry expressed frustration with Russia slow-rolling US on Syria.
Iran’s top clergy backs Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy.