x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Russia slams Syrian rebel stance on Geneva talks

UN-Arab League envoy arrives in Syria as Russia slams Syrian rebels for threatening anyone who attends the proposed Geneva peace talks.

BEIRUT // UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Syria yesterday to seek support for a peace conference, while Russia slammed rebels for threatening anyone who attends the proposed Geneva talks.

Mr Brahimi’s return to Damascus for the first time since December came as international experts said they had been prevented by war from reaching two inspection sites, the first setback in their mission to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014.

Mr Brahimi has visited capitals across the Middle East to discuss plans for the Geneva 2 meeting, tentatively set for November 23, to try to halt more than two and a half years of bloodshed in Syria.

But opposition forces have not yet decided whether they will attend and Gulf Arab states backing the Syrian rebels have soured on the talks after Mr Brahimi said on Saturday that their rival Iran, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s main regional ally, should join the international conference.

Mr Brahimi met Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad, in Damascus but there was no word on whether Mr Al Assad would see him.

In the latest blow to peace efforts, 19 militant Islamist groups fighting to topple the Assad regime issued a statement Sunday saying the Geneva conference “is not, nor will it ever be our people’s choice or our revolution’s demand”.

A statement read out by Suqur Al-Sham brigade chief Ahmad Eissa Al Sheikh in a video posted online said anyone who attends the talks would be committing “treason” and “would have to answer for it before our courts”, implying they could face execution.

Russia yesterday issued a stinging rebuke to the rebels.

“It is outrageous that some of these extremist, terrorist organisations fighting government forces in Syria are starting to make threats,” foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.

A senior Turkish official said yesterday that Mr Brahimi has not pushed for any deal on his tour, remaining in “listening and watching mode” and leaving active negotiating to Moscow and Washington.

Riyadh and Tehran see the struggle in Syria as determining which of them ends up with greater influence.

Saudi Arabia threatened to distance itself from the United States last week over its perceived inaction on Syria and its renewed efforts at reconciliation with Iran.

The diplomatic wrangling has made the Syrian opposition feel weaker and even more reluctant to consider attending Geneva 2.

“All these issues are getting tangled up into the other. Like the Saudis, we are very afraid that the United States’ other interests in Iran will come at the cost of the Syrian cause,” said Samir Nashar, an executive member of the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition’s umbrella body abroad.

“If you ask me, this meeting won’t happen on November 23. It won’t happen ever.”

Syria’s political opposition in exile is also facing mounting pressure from fighters on the ground to reject any negotiations that would not require Mr Al Assad’s ousting.

Many of Syria’s main rebel brigades on Saturday rejected any negotiations not based on Assad’s removal and said they would charge anyone who attended them with treason.

Mr Al Assad and Iran, however, have said they will only go to talks that set no preconditions.

It is not clear how the United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the talks, can reconcile the conflicting demands of the various parties to enable to conference to convene.

The United States, which backs the opposition, and Russia, a main arms supplier to Mr Al Assad, agreed in May to try to arrange the Geneva 2 talks to build on an earlier meeting in the Swiss city in June 2012 that called for political transition in Syria, without defining what the Syrian president’s role might be.

The resumption of peace talks was mooted when Russia and the US agreed on a deal for Mr Al Assad to give up his chemical weapons.

But yesterday The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said its inspectors had been unable to reach two remaining chemical weapons sites due to the war.

Inspectors were supposed to have visited all sites declared by Syria by Sunday.

But the OPCW said that while 21 of 23 sites had been inspected, “the two remaining sites have not been visited due to security reasons”.

Washington claims that the Assad regime was responsible for a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb in August, a charge the government denies.

To avoid punitive US strikes for the attack, Mr Al Assad agreed to give up his stockpile of chemical weapons.

On the battlefront, Syria’s army regained control of the Christian town of Sadad in the central province of Homs after days of fighting against rebels and militant fighters, Syria’s state news agency Sana reported yesterday.

“Our valiant forces have re-established security and stability in Sadad,” Sana said.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters