UN envoy in Syria for talks as West sees Russian build-up
The UN envoy for Syria discussed his peace proposals with officials in Damascus on Thursday, as Western fears grow that Russia is ramping up military support for President Bashar al-Assad.
Experts said Russia’s steadfast backing for Assad and the growing waves of Syrians seeking refuge in the West might force Europe to abandon its goal of regime change to achieve peace.
The UN’s Syria pointman Staffan de Mistura held talks with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem during his sixth visit to Damascus in search of an end to a four-year-old war in which 240,000 people have died.
“We will continue the meetings,” de Mistura told reporters afterwards, declining to elaborate.
The visit comes after the envoy was strongly criticised by the Syrian government last month for “making statements that lack objectivity and facts” about deadly regime air raids.
According to Syria’s official news agency SANA, de Mistura met with Muallem to address the regime’s questions about the envoy’s proposed 60-page peace plan.
The initiative, set to begin this month, was submitted to Damascus in mid-August and would set up four working groups to address safety and protection, counter-terrorism, political and legal issues and reconstruction.
But de Mistura on Thursday said the groups’ work would be “for brainstorming and would not be binding,” according to his office’s spokeswoman Jessy Chahine.
Syria’s regime had wanted the committees’ conclusions to not be mandatory, a diplomat in Damascus said.
Muallem for his part said “fighting terrorism in Syria is the priority” and “the gateway to a political solution in Syria”.
The regime refers to all of its opponents — including non-violent activists — as “terrorists”.
De Mistura also met with internal opposition figure Hassan Abdel-Azim, who told journalists he was ready to participate in the envoy’s plan.
“But fighting terrorism demands first the end of the conflict between the regime and the opposition,” Abdel-Azim said.
– Fighting terrorism ‘only way’ –
Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said Thursday the regime and Russia were “on the same page concerning the solution to the crisis” but that the UN had different priorities.
The Syrian and Russian leaders “have signalled that there is no political solution without defeating terrorism. It’s the only way to put an end to the war in Syria,” the daily wrote.
But it said de Mistura’s plan “is aligned with the positions held by the ‘opposition coalition,’ America, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who want the political solution to come before the fight against terrorism.”
The United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have been leading backers of the political and armed opposition throughout Syria’s conflict, which has forced millions to flee since it broke out in 2011.
Washington has expressed serious concern in recent weeks that Russia, a decades-long backer of Syria’s regime, is escalating its military aid to forces loyal to Assad.
Russia has reportedly moved artillery units and tanks to an airport in Assad’s coastal stronghold in Latakia province, along with dozens of personnel and temporary housing for hundreds more.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that Moscow had proposed opening a “military-to-military conversation” with Washington to ensure that Russian forces do not come into conflict with a US-led coalition fighting jihadists with the Islamic State group.
– ‘Stability at all costs’ –
Combined with Moscow’s staunch backing for Assad, the arrival of thousands of Syrian asylum-seekers may also push Europe to adopt a new approach towards the regime, experts said.
“Indeed, after the migrant crisis, we heard several European voices pleading for a closer cooperation with Assad and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” said Karim Bitar, head of research at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations.
“Clearly, the ‘stability at all costs’ narrative is rapidly gaining ground. After the Libyan debacle and the unending Syrian tragedy, many people came to mistakenly believe that a return to authoritarianism is the only solution to the Middle East crisis,” Bitar told AFP.
“The proponents of the ‘Assad as a lesser-evil’ theory are now more vocal and coming out openly in favour of a rapprochement with Assad to fight IS.”
On Thursday, Syrian government air strikes on Raqa, IS’s de facto capital in Syria, killed 18 people, including jihadists and civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Regime air raids on Aleppo city in the last 24 hours also left 53 people dead, including 13 children, the monitor said.
In what appeared to be a coordinated campaign, different branches of IS on Thursday posted online videos calling on Muslims to seek safety in areas of Syria and Iraq under its control following a string of migrant shipwreck tragedies.
One of the videos says refugees “are living under their (European countries’) laws humiliated and submissive, instead of fleeing to the land of Muslims to live in dignity under its sword”.