‘Deep breaths’ for tough new Syria talks in Vi­enna

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

VI­ENNA: Some 20 coun­tries and in­ter­na­tional bod­ies met in Vi­enna again yes­ter­day grop­ing for a way out of Syria’s hor­rific civil war, with deep di­vi­sions over Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad’s fu­ture and which rebel groups to back. The sec­ond such gath­er­ing in two weeks comes as Is­lamist rebels suf­fer a num­ber of set­backs in Syria and Iraq at the hands of As­sad’s army helped by Rus­sian air strikes, and Kur­dish forces backed by the US. Be­fore leav­ing for Vi­enna, US Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry warned that a quick break­through was un­likely in the talks which bring to­gether key play­ers like Rus­sia, Iran, Saudi Ara­bia and UN spe­cial en­voy St­ef­fan de Mis­tura.

“I can­not say... that we are on the thresh­old of a com­pre­hen­sive agree­ment, no,” said Kerry, who ar­rived in the Aus­trian cap­i­tal on Fri­day af­ter­noon for pre­lim­i­nary talks with his Saudi, Turk­ish and UN coun­ter­parts. “The walls of mis­trust within Syria, within the re­gion, within the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity are thick and they are high.”In over four years, fight­ing be­tween As­sad’s regime and rebel groups as well as Is­lamic State (IS) mil­i­tants has killed over 250,000 peo­ple and forced mil­lions into ex­ile, leav­ing many of them stranded in neigh­bour­ing states. Oth­ers have headed to Europe, where au­thor­i­ties have been on alert af­ter sev­eral deadly ji­hadist at­tacks this year.

In the lat­est, 120 peo­ple were killed in a wave of co­or­di­nated at­tacks in Paris on Fri­day, in­clud­ing a mas­sacre dur­ing a rock con­cert by men shout­ing “Al­lahu akbar” and blam­ing France’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Syria. At the last talks on Oc­to­ber 30, the par­tic­i­pants urged the United Na­tions to bro­ker a peace deal be­tween the regime and op­po­si­tion to clear the way for a new con­sti­tu­tion and UN-su­per­vised elec­tions. Build­ing on that, this round of talks in the Aus­trian cap­i­tal will try to agree on a roadmap for peace that would in­clude a cease­fire be­tween As­sad’s forces and some op­po­si­tion groups.

‘As­sad must go’

But a key is­sue-which was ab­sent from the last meet­ing’s dec­la­ra­tion-re­mains As­sad’s fu­ture. Western and Arab coun­tries want him out of the way in or­der to al­low a tran­si­tional gov­ern­ment to unite the coun­try be­hind a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process and to de­feat IS. Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary Philip Ham­mond said on Fri­day that As­sad “has to go”. He added, how­ever, that Western pow­ers “recog­nise that if there will be a tran­si­tion he may play a part, up to a point, in that tran­si­tion”. But Rus­sia, car­ry­ing out air strikes against Syr­ian rebels since late Septem­ber, is to­gether with Iran stick­ing with As­sad, see­ing him as the best bul­wark against IS.

“Syria is a sov­er­eign coun­try, Bashar Al-As­sad is a pres­i­dent elected by the peo­ple,” Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin said in an in­ter­view re­leased Fri­day. That aside, the talks will fo­cus on de­cid­ing which of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, rebel and op­po­si­tion fac­tions-none of whom will be rep­re­sented at the talks-will shape the coun­try’s fu­ture. But de­cid­ing which of the many op­po­si­tion groups are mod­er­ate enough to be ac­cept­able and which to side­line as “ter­ror­ists” is likely to be no easy task. “It will re­quire deep breaths on sev­eral sides, in­clud­ing the US side,”Ham­mond said on Tues­day.

Violence rages

On the ground, wide­spread fight­ing was rag­ing in Syria and Iraq and fur­ther afield, with IS claim­ing a twin bomb at­tack in Beirut on Thurs­day that killed 44 and wounded least 239. The at­tack, the big­gest ever at­trib­uted to IS in Le­banon, harked back to a cam­paign against the Shi­ite move­ment Hezbol­lah be­tween 2013 and 2014, os­ten­si­bly in re­venge for its mil­i­tary sup­port to As­sad. But in Syria, As­sad’s army scored its sec­ond im­por­tant vic­tory in two days on Thurs­day by cap­tur­ing Al-Hader, a for­mer op­po­si­tion bas­tion largely con­trolled by Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate Al-Nusra Front and other Is­lamists. Bol­stered by the Rus­sian air strikes, the break­through came just 48 hours af­ter regime forces broke a siege by IS of the Kweyris air base in the east of Aleppo prov­ince.

On Fri­day the US-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces coali­tion of Syr­ian Arab and Kur­dish fight­ers it had ejected IS from Al-Hol, a key po­si­tion on the border with Iraq for the sup­ply of arms and equip­ment. In Iraq, Kur­dish pesh­merga forces and Yazidi mi­nor­ity fight­ers, backed by US-led air strikes, lib­er­ated the town of Sin­jar and cut a key IS sup­ply line, Iraqi Kur­dish leader Mas­sud Barzani said Fri­day. And the US mil­i­tary said Fri­day that is “rea­son­ably cer­tain” that it killed “Ji­hadi John”, the no­to­ri­ous mil­i­tant with a Bri­tish ac­cent in grisly IS ex­e­cu­tion videos, in a drone strike in Syria. US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama said the US has now halted the ex­pan­sion of IS, call­ing in an in­ter­view broad­cast Fri­day for a stepped up drive to “com­pletely de­cap­i­tate” the mil­i­tants’ oper­a­tions. —AFP

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