Russia seeks UN backing for Syria truce

Syrian refugee Fatima Slu, 5, and her brother, Banken, 6, whose family fled from Aleppo, look out from their family’s shelter during a snowfall at the Ritsona, Greece refugee camp about 86 kilometers (53 miles) north of Athens, on Friday, Dec. 30, 2016. Over 62,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece after a series of Balkan border closures and a European Union deal with Turkey to stop migrant flows. -AP –

BEIRUT: Russia is pushing for a UN Security Council vote yesterday to support the ceasefire it helped broker in Syria, where the truce remained largely intact on its second day despite sporadic clashes. Moscow says it wants the United Nations to be involved in peace talks between Damascus and rebels in Kazakhstan in January, although the UN is negotiating its own separate peace efforts.

Rebel supporter Turkey and key regime ally Russia, which brokered the truce, say the talks in the Kazakh capital Astana aim to supplement UN-backed peace efforts, rather than replace them. They want to involve regional players like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin voiced hope that the council would vote on the draft resolution-which also endorses the planned talks in Kazakhstan-“and adopt it unanimously”.

Diplomats however said they did not see how a quick UN weekend vote could occur as the resolution needed to be “seriously studied” and hinted Russia might be hard-pressed to muster the nine votes needed for it to pass. Washington is conspicuously absent from the new process, but Moscow has said it hoped to bring US President-elect Donald Trump’s administration on board once he takes office in January.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor of the war, said that most of the country remained calm yesterday. But limited clashes continued in some areas including Wadi Barada near Damascus and the southern city of Daraa where one opposition fighter was killed. The fighting in Wadi Barada has led to water shortages that have affected four million people in the capital, with the two sides trading blame.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said that five rebel fighters were killed on Friday in the opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus and in Wadi Barada where helicopters carried out raids on rebel positions. A civilian was also killed by regime sniper fire in Eastern Ghouta while another died in shelling in Wadi Barada, he said. The forces in Wadi Barada include former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, which Syria’s government says is excluded from the ceasefire.

‘Real opportunity’

Syria’s government and its ally Iran have both welcomed the ceasefire deal. Damascus called it a “real opportunity” to find a political solution to the war, which has killed more than 310,000 people since it began in March 2011 with protests against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

Despite being left out of the process, Washington described the truce as “positive”. Analysts were cautious but said the involvement of Russia, Iran and Turkey could be important. Sam Heller, fellow at The Century Foundation, said there was “real interest and urgency” from Moscow and Ankara, but expressed doubts about whether Tehran and Damascus were on board. “All indications are that Iran and the regime want to continue towards a military conclusion,” he said.

Talks in Astana

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he would now reduce Moscow’s military contingent in Syria, which has been fighting to bolster the government since last year. But he added Russia would continue to fight “terrorism” and maintain its support for President Bashar Al-Assad’s government.

Despite backing opposite sides in the conflict, Turkey and Russia have worked increasingly closely on Syria, brokering a deal this month to allow the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters from Aleppo. Their ceasefire deal calls for negotiations over a political solution to end the conflict that has killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions to flee.

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he hoped the agreement would “pave the way for productive talks”, but also reiterated he wants negotiations mediated by his office to continue next year. In an interview published yesterday, de Mistura said a UN resolution that foresees a political transition in Syria was also still on the table, although the focus had shifted following territorial gains by the regime.

“We now have before us another scenario: a negotiation between the Assad regime and the rebels,” he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. The Security Council held closed-door consultations on the Russian-proposed resolution early Friday and Moscow later amended the draft at the request of several member states. The latest version of the resolution, a copy of which was seen by AFP, includes a reference to the talks being led by de Mistura.

Violations

Syrian rebel groups said yesterday they would consider a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey “null and void” if the Damascus government’s forces and their allies continued to violate it. Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has urged the United Nations to give its blessing to the fragile ceasefire, the third truce this year seeking to end nearly six years of war in Syria.

Clashes and air strikes have persisted in some areas since the ceasefire began on Friday, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Saturday the truce was still largely holding. “Continued violations by the regime and bombardment and attempts to attack areas under the control of the revolutionary factions will make the agreement null and void,” a statement signed by a number of rebel groups said.

The statement said government forces and their allies including Lebanese Hezbollah had been trying to press advances, particularly in an area northwest of Damascus in the rebel-held Wadi Barada valley. The Observatory, which is based in Britain, said government forces and the rebels had clashed on Saturday in Wadi Barada.

Rebels say the army is seeking to recapture the area, where a major spring provides most of Damascus’s water supplies. Several people were killed in violence there on Friday, the Observatory said. Blasts from government shellfire were also heard in the southern provinces of Quneitra and Deraa, the Observatory said. – Agencies

This article was published on 31/12/2016