Syrian government eyes peace dividend from New York meeting

Assad regime wants ‘clearcut decisions’ on terrorist groups and credible opposition

 

The Syrian government says it hopes today’s meeting in New York of the Syria Support Group will achieve progress toward implementing the road map set out by 17 foreign ministers in Vienna last month.

This road map calls for a concerted effort to fight terrorism, talks between government and opposition delegations on January 1st, the formation of a transitional authority, the adoption of new constitution and elections in 18 months’ time.

Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told The Irish Times in Damascus priority must be given to reaching “clearcut decisions” on identifying terrorist groups operating in the country and credible opposition representatives ready to settle the crisis on a political basis.

“On the first issue [identifying terrorist groups], nothing has been achieved yet. Consultations are still going on. On the second, we believe . . . the party that will finally decide and present a concrete proposal is the United Nations, [mediator Staffan] de Mistura and his team” – indicating the government would accept the team’s decisions.

The road map generated expectations that there can be progress in efforts to secure an end to the conflict and a political solution. However, Mr Mekdad said concern was raised by the Riyadh conference on December 8th on western- and Arab-backed expatriate political opposition figures and representatives from armed groups. He argued “some parties” seek to include in the opposition team members of “terrorist groups that have . . . links with al-Qaeda and Daesh [Islamic State, Isis]”.

He said that Ahrar al-Sham, a major fundamentalist force which attended the gathering, is fighting alongside al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, notably in northern Syria. He called for the establishment of a “clear distinction” between terrorist groups and political groups.

‘Terrorist’

Three-quarters of civilian casualties have, reportedly, taken place in insurgent-held areas as a result of government action and interinsurgent clashes.

Commenting on US secretary of state John Kerry’s statement following top-level meetings in Moscow that the US and its partners were “not seeking regime change in Syria” while insisting President Bashar al-Assad should not be the country’s future leader, Mr Mekdad said, “We are accustomed to all these contradictions.”

Responsibility

Russia

Mr Mekdad said: “Once [external] support for terrorism ceases, 70 per cent of the crisis will be eliminated and then we [can] sit with Syrians and sort out our problems through national dialogue.”

He cited last week’s evacuation by armed elements of the Homs suburb of al-Waer as a good example of the truce and reconciliation model which should be adopted across Syria as the means to end the conflict. Armed opposition groups contend this model involves the surrender or evacuation of their fighters and the loss of control over areas they hold.

Mr Mekdad denied reports that Russian and Iranian support for Syria is waning. On Russia, he said “the only power that is fighting terrorism seriously [in the air] is Russia”, which has conducted more than 4,000 strikes against targets in Syria. Russian “actions against terrorist groups are growing every day”.

Russia’s escalation with “strategic weapons is a clear manifestation” of this policy, whether from “the Caspian Sea or the Mediterranean or sorties by their airplanes [based] in Syria.”

Asked whether he believed world powers will form an international coalition to battle terrorism, he said: “This is what we have been waiting for and what Russia has been calling for for a long time.”

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