x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iran’s Zarif in Damascus ahead of Geneva 2 peace talks

The Iranian foreign minister met with Syria's president Bashar Al Assad in Damascus ahead of the Geneva 2 peace conference.

DAMASCUS // Syrian president Bashar Al Assad met the foreign minister of Iran, a key ally of his regime, in Damascus on Wednesday, state news agency SANA said.

Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived from Jordan, where he had been as part of a regional tour that also included a visit to Lebanon on Monday.

His meeting with Mr Al Assad comes less than a week before the so-called Geneva II peace conference, which is aimed at ending the conflict in Syria that has killed 130,000 people in nearly three years.

Earlier, SANA had quoted Mr Zarif as saying the purpose of his visit “was to help ensure that the international Geneva II conference on Syria brings about results that are in the interests of the Syrian people.”

Mr Zarif also said he would “work to coordinate a position... that would restore calm and security to Syria,” while urging “all parties to battle extremism and terrorism, which are threats to us all.”

The top Iranian diplomat had said in Beirut on Monday that countries seeking to keep Iran away from the Geneva II peace conference would “regret” his country’s absence.

The United States secretary of state, John Kerry, has said Tehran could participate in talks only if it agrees to the principles set out at the creation of a transitional government.

During his visit to Lebanon on Monday, Mr Zarif met president Michel Sleiman as well as Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of the Shiite movement Hizbollah, a Tehran ally that has sent thousands of men to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

Also on Wednesday, Syria’s deputy foreign minister told the BBC that intelligence services of Western countries opposed to Mr Al Assad’s regime have visited Damascus to discuss security cooperation with his government.

“I will not specify (which countries) but many of them have visited Damascus, yes,” said Faisal Mekdad.

Mr Mekdad said that the contacts appeared to show a rift between the political and security authorities in some countries opposed to Mr Al Assad.

Western powers have supported the opposition with rhetoric but have backed away from material aid as Al Qaeda-linked groups take advantage of a power vacuum in rebel-held regions.

Western countries are worried about the presence in rebel ranks of foreign Islamist militants who have travelled to Syria to join a near three-year-old struggle to topple Mr Al Assad.

“Frankly speaking the spirit has changed,” Mr Mekdad added.

“When these countries ask us for security cooperation, then it seems to me there is a schism between the political and security leaderships.”

Asked if he was confirming that British intelligence had been in contact with Syria, he declined a direct reply.

“I am saying that many of these countries have contacted us to coordinate security measures,” he added.

Syria plunged into civil war after an uprising against four decades of Al Assad family rule erupted in March 2011 and descended into an armed insurgency after the army cracked down on protests.

Recent weeks have seen infighting between rebel groups and Al Qaeda-affiliated militants.

More than 700 fighters from both groups have been killed in 12 days of combat pitting the two sides against each other.

While rebels have mostly been on the offensive in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has regained near-total control of Raqa province.

On Tuesday night, Isil “set free dozens of Islamist rebels” who had been captured in Raqa during the recent battles in the province.

Earlier that day, rebels fighting the jihadists withdrew from the province.

On Wednesday, the government air force carried out an air raid on Raqa city, the only provincial capital to have fallen out of Mr Al Assad’s control.

Syrian rebels fighting the Isil in the north of the country on Wednesday killed a militant leader in the town of Saraqeb, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Isil’s emir in Saraqeb (Idlib province) Abul Baraa was shot dead this morning,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based monitoring group.

Abul Baraa, a Belgian militant of Arab origin, last week warned Syrian rebels to halt an anti-Isil offensive they launched early January or face suicide attacks against their positions.

Since his January 6 warning, Islamist and moderate rebel positions have been hit by jihadists’ suicide attacks — mostly car bombs — in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqa provinces, which have killed dozens of opposition fighters.

More than 130,000 people have died over the course of Syria’s war, and millions more have been displaced.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters