United States to press Russia on Syria’s Assad

Reuters 23/03/2016

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to press President Vladimir Putin over a political transition for Syria on Thursday, after Europe’s foreign policy chief turned up unexpectedly in Geneva to try to reinvigorate peace talks.
With a fragile truce in place and Europe pressing the warring sides to keep going with negotiations, a state department official said Kerry wants to “get down to brass tacks” on the question of President Bashar al-Assad’s future.
The head of Syria’s delegation in Geneva sounded positive after meeting European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, a rare encounter with a senior Western figure.
“For the first time, I can tell you that we were able to break the impasse, maybe in the form and a little bit in substance,” he said, adding that the government would attend the next round of talks after legislative elections in government-held areas on April 13.
He did not give any details and Mogherini said the EU had not changed its position on the need to start a political transition in Damascus. The Saudi-backed opposition, whose chief delegate also met Mogherini, has said there are no points of convergence.
The negotiations have been bogged down on a series of issues and one delegate said it was up to Kerry and Putin to create a breakthrough.
“We’re waiting for a U.S.-Russian accord to solve the (key) issue once and for all. Until they resolve it this process will drag on,” Randa Kassis, who heads up a Moscow-backed opposition group, said.
While the United States want Assad to step aside, Russia says only the Syrian people can decide his fate at the ballot box and has bristled at any talk of regime change.
Kerry is holding talks with Putin at the Kremlin on Thursday, in a meeting arranged after the Russian leader’s surprise announcement on March 14 that he was partially withdrawing his forces from Syria.
“The Secretary would like to now really hear where President Putin is in his thinking … on a political transition” in Syria, the official said as Kerry arrived in Moscow.
“Obviously what we are looking for, and what we have been looking for, is how we are going to transition Syria away from Assad’s leadership,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

After five years of conflict that has killed over 250,000 people and caused the world’s worst refugee crisis, Washington and Moscow reached a deal three weeks ago for a cessation of hostilities and delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas.
The State Department official said meetings with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would evaluate the status of the ceasefire and try to “get on the same page” about ending violations and increasing humanitarian assistance.
Russia this week threatened to act unilaterally against those who violate the ceasefire unless it reached a deal with the United States on ways to detect and prevent truce breaches.
The Syrian opposition has accused government forces of renewing sieges and stepping up a campaign of barrel-bombing across the country.
Government officials have rejected any discussion on the fate of Assad.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the peace talks were always going to be long and difficult, and it was too early to talk about patience running out on any side.
U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday he hoped the U.S-Russia meeting would give an impetus to the peace talks where the divisive issue of a political transition is stalling progress.
But the State Department official played down expectations the meeting would have an immediate impact on the talks, which adjourn on Thursday.
A Syrian activist at the talks, Jihad Makdissi, said de Mistura was planning to issue a paper on a “potential common vision”.
The Syrian government delegation said the U.N. envoy had handed them a document which they would study on their return to Damascus. No details of either paper were disclosed.
However, the United Nations said the Syrian government had given verbal assurances that aid convoys can go into three or four areas that its forces are besieging.
U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said the United Nations had been allowed to enter eight or nine of the 11 areas it had asked to supply with aid, including three or four besieged areas.
But it had not been allowed to go into the town of Daraya, where the World Food Programme has said some people have been reduced to eating grass.

On the battlefield, Syrian government forces and their allies were reported to have pushed forward against Islamic State fighters to reach the outskirts of the historic city of Palmyra on Wednesday.

State news agency SANA quoted a military source who said the army and allied militia advanced in the hills outside Palmyra and towards a road junction “after eliminating the last terrorist Daesh groups there”, referring to Islamic State fighters. Islamic State is not covered by the truce agreement.
The Syrian army is trying to recapture Palmyra, which Islamic State seized in May, to open a road to the mostly IS-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor.
Clashes raged around Palmyra after government forces took control of most of a nearby hill with air cover from Syrian and Russian warplanes, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Russia has withdrawn around half of its air force in Syria, according to Reuters calculations based on state TV footage, some of which was not broadcast.
But Moscow has maintained a group of Su-24 bombers at its Latakia air base and deployed a number of advanced attack helicopters, meaning it is able to continue a reduced number of air strikes in the country.
Operating from Russia’s Shayrat air base southeast of Homs, the helicopter force will be used to secure territory gains around Aleppo and support the Syrian army offensive against Islamic State in Palmyra, Western officials said.


According to a senior member of the delegation, Moscow-Cairo-formed Syrian delegation has condemned Tuesday’s Brussels terrorist attacks.

Sputnik 23/03/2016

The Moscow-Cairo-formed Syrian delegation has condemned Tuesday’s Brussels terrorist attacks, stressing the need to end delays to the intra-Syrian peace talks, a senior member of the delegation said on Wednesday.
“We would like to condemn yesterday’s attacks and express our pain…There can be no more delays in implementing the UN resolutions [on Syria]. It causes further bloodshed. The majority of Syrian people do not accept any further delay,” Randa Kassis told reporters.


Syria peace talks: Kurds, Moscow Group create roadblocks

Firstpost 17/03/2016

Geneva: Talks to end Syria’s brutal five-year conflict were rattled Thursday by uncertainty surrounding the arrival of a second Opposition group and the declaration by Syria’s Kurds of an autonomous region.
UN mediator Staffan de Mistura met for the first time late Wednesday with an umbrella delegation including the so-called Moscow Group, which is demanding an equal seat at the negotiating table in Geneva.
But such a move would be hotly contested by the “official” opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – a broad collection of political and armed opposition factions which joined forces in Riyadh last December.
The HNC is due to have a second official meeting with de Mistura on Thursday, where it is expected to insist on its demand to remain the sole opposition representative in the talks.
“That is one of the most important points,” a Western diplomat told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The entry into the talks of the Moscow Group, along with the so-called Cairo and Istana groups, followed Russia’s surprise decision this week to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, where they had been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Western governments had voiced hopes the pullout, expected to be completed by the end of the week, could boost the talks by pressuring Assad.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday his country could ramp up its presence again if needed “literally within several hours”.
In Geneva, it was not immediately clear what impact the inclusion of the pro-Moscow group would have on the talks, or whether it was a gesture from de Mistura to Russia following the pullout.

The entry into the talks of the Moscow Group, along with the so-called Cairo and Istana groups, followed Russia’s surprise decision this week to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, where they had been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Western governments had voiced hopes the pullout, expected to be completed by the end of the week, could boost the talks by pressuring Assad.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday his country could ramp up its presence again if needed “literally within several hours”.
In Geneva, it was not immediately clear what impact the inclusion of the pro-Moscow group would have on the talks, or whether it was a gesture from de Mistura to Russia following the pullout.

‘Negotiating delegation’
The UN has not yet clarified what role the Moscow Group would play but its co-president Randa Kassis told reporters Wednesday her camp was in Geneva “as a negotiating delegation”.
Jihad Makdissi, a member of the Cairo group, told AFP Thursday: “We will sit at the table as two (opposition) delegations,” adding that de Mistura had agreed to meet again with the new delegation in the coming days.
The Moscow Group is tolerated by Damascus and has not insisted on Assad’s departure as a condition for creating a transitional government, which is an unequivocal HNC demand.
The HNC and the Western powers that support it meanwhile insist only one opposition delegation and one government delegation can actually negotiate.
The Moscow Group has no troops on the ground in Syria, and is being put forward to “support the idea that there is no united opposition and to cast doubt on HNC’s legitimacy,” the Western diplomat said, adding that adding a second opposition delegation was “a highly contentious issue.”
Adding another level of complexity to the difficult talks, Kurdish parties so far excluded from the negotiations in Geneva on Thursday declared a federal region in areas under their control in northern Syria, as they seek further autonomy.
A wide range of critics have warned this could threaten efforts to forge a united Syria.
Speaking ahead of the Kurdish declaration, de Mistura branded the federalism push as possibly “dangerous”, according to the Swiss news agency ATS.
The Moscow Group said it was working to “lift the embargo” against bringing in Kurdish delegates, while a member of the Syrian government delegation told AFP the Kurds would be “invited to the talks in the next stage”.

‘More serious stage’
Despite the intricate web of interests surrounding the talks, observers say the current round of dialogue is taking place in a far more constructive atmosphere than during multiple previous failed peace efforts.
The talks — currently indirect — follow a ceasefire between the government and some opposition groups introduced on February 27 that remains broadly in place.
“The talks have entered a more serious stage,” the regime delegation source said.
De Mistura has voiced tentative optimism, backed by US Secretary of State John Kerry who heads to Moscow next week to discuss the peace drive.
“We may face the best opportunity that we’ve had in years to end (the war),” Kerry said Tuesday.
The conflict has killed more than 270,000 people and send millions fleeing, many seeking new lives in Europe where the influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia has created a huge headache for the EU.


The Latest: Syrian group ‘optimistic’ about Geneva talks

The Associated Press 16/03/2016

A leader of an expatriate Syrian group is praising Russia’s will to support peace talks and expressing hopes they will be successful before the U.S. presidential election this fall.
Randa Kassis spoke to reporters Wednesday after a loosely affiliated, self-described opposition organization known as the Cairo, Moscow and Astana Groups met with the U.N. special envoy in Geneva.
She said she was optimistic for the talks and noted that “President Obama himself wants the success of these negotiations.”


Syria Peace Process Making Progress Despite Some Flaws

Sputnik 14/03/2016

The political process aimed at resolving the Syrian crisis is making progress despite failures at some stages, Syrian moderate opposition figure Randa Kassis told Sputnik on Monday.
“The importance of this political process is that it will continue and will never stop despite failures at some stages,” Kassis, who is a member of a moderate opposition delegation at the Syria proximity talks in Geneva, said.
“We know the causes of failures at each stage of the [Syria peace] talks — they are linked to positions taken by the delegations from the Syrian government and the Riyadh-based opposition, which apparently misunderstood or never read carefully the agreements reached in Vienna [last November],” Kassis stressed.
“They claim that they agree with these agreements, but they put forward demands that contradict these agreements,” she added.


Russia FM confirms importance of participation of Kurds in intra-Syrian talks

Tass 10/03/2016

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has noted the importance of involving Kurds in intra-Syrian talks at the meeting with president of Syria’s Movement of the Pluralistic Society Randa Kassis, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
“The necessity was stressed of soonest launch of sustainable negotiations process under UN auspices between Syrian government and opposition in accordance with provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. In this context, the importance was emphasized of necessity to involve all Syrian sides in these talks – in particular, opposition representatives with pro-Moscow, pro-Cairo and other political platforms, including representatives of Kurdish forces as it is envisaged by Munich statement of the International Syria Support Group,” the foreign ministry said.
Lavrov and Kassis paid special attention to observance of ceasefire regime that entered into force in Syria on February 27 and uncompromising struggle against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization banned in Russia and other terrorist groups in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2268, the ministry added.


Lavrov Stressed Role of Secular Factions in Syrian Process – Opposition

Sputnik 10/03/2016

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed the importance of the Syrian secular democratic opposition’s participation in the political process in the country, Syrian moderate opposition figure Randa Kassis told Sputnik Thursday after a meeting with the diplomat in Moscow.
The opposition figure added that she had informed Lavrov of the delegation’s intentions to “continue participation in the political process, despite the fact that many want it to fail.”
Syria has been mired in civil war since 2011, with government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad fighting numerous opposition factions and extremist groups.
The substantive Syria peace talks are expected to begin Geneva by March 14. Three delegations have been invited to the talks – the Damascus government delegation, the moderate opposition delegation which was formed during negotiations of Moscow and Cairo, and the High Negotiations Committee which was formed in talks in Riyadh.
“During the meeting, [Lavrov] said that the delegation of the democratic secular opposition at the talks in Geneva is a delegation which takes part in negotiations on equal conditions as delegations of the regime and Riyadh, its participation in the political process and development of the constitution is essential,” Kassis, a member of the Syrian opposition delegation formed after consultations in Moscow and Cairo, said.


Syrian government says it won’t negotiate solely with Saudi-backed HNC

Ukraine Today 17/03/2016

Moscow-backed Syrian opposition say we are in a ‘golden moment’ for civil war resolution.
The Syrian government is refusing to conduct talks with the Saudi-backed High Negotiating Committee, the HNC. Syrian delegation chief Bashar al-Jafaari says other opposition groups must also be present.

Bashar Al-Jaafari, head of Syrian government delegation: “No one can monopolise the opposition. We will not have talks with only one opposition group, but rather with all opposition delegations. As the Syrian government delegation, we do not want to have direct talks with terrorists. Most members of the Saudi-backed delegation are terrorists.”

Meanwhile, a group of Moscow-backed political activists are issuing their first public statement on transition in Syria. They believe both Russia and the US are fully behind efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Middle Eastern state’s five-year civil war.

Randa Kassis, opposition negotiating group member: “Let me assure you, there is a real Russian will to ensure the success of these negotiations and to launch a political process. Adding to this, there is the will of U.S. President Barak Obama to ensure the success of these negotiations. We are now in a golden period.”
The current round of peace talks is scheduled to last until March 24th. It is hoped the negotiations will lead to a political solution to the civil war in Syria. The death toll from the fighting is already in the hundreds of thousands. Last autumn Russia intervened in the conflict to prop up its ally President Bashar al-Assad. Earlier this week Moscow announced a withdrawal. Russian President Putin says his county has achieved its objectives.

Press release on Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov’s meetings on the sidelines of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva

MID 03/03/2016

On February 2, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov met with Bashar Ja’afari, Head of the Syrian Government’s delegation, representatives of the democratic and secular Syrian opposition Qadri Jamil, Randa Kassis and Heisam Manaa, as well as Ambassador Fu Cong, Deputy Permanent Representative of China to the UN, on the sidelines of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. The above conducted a detailed discussion of issues related to the intra-Syrian talks and filling them with substantive content.
The Russian side underscored the need to represent the entire Syrian opposition during the dialogue and the imperative nature of implementing all provisions of the Vienna documents of the International Syria Support Group and Resolution No. 2254 of the UN Security Council.
Mr Gatilov also exchanged opinions on the course and prospects of the intra-Syrian negotiating process with Anwar Abdul-Hadi, Director of the Political Bureau of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Damascus.


Press release on Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s telephone conversation with Randa Kassis, leader of the Syrian opposition Movement for a Pluralistic Society

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation 12/01/2016

On January 12, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov had a telephone conversation with Randa Kassis, the leader of the Syrian opposition Movement for a Pluralistic Society. The call was initiated by the Syrian side.
The parties reiterated the need for an early political settlement in the Syrian crisis through an inclusive intra-Syrian negotiating process in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.