Syrian opposition postpones participation in peace talks

The Guardian reports: UN-sponsored Syrian peace talks are facing a new crisis after opposition negotiators decided to delay their participation in the formal process until officials representing President Bashar al-Assad start to discuss the creation of a transitional government in Damascus – which they have so far refused to do.

Riyad Hijab, head of the opposition higher negotiations committee (HNC), was due to announce next steps after a meeting with the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, which followed tense consultations in a divided rebel camp. But a scheduled evening press conference with Hijab was postponed until Tuesday.

De Mistura, clearly seeking to play down the significance of the decision, said the opposition negotiators would remain in Geneva and the talks would continue, though possibly informally and outside the UN headquarters at the Palais des Nations. But key opposition officials, sceptical about the prospects for the future, were already planning to leave town. [Continue reading…]

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UN-backed government moves to secure control in Libya

The Wall Street Journal reports: Libya’s United Nations-backed unity government moved Wednesday to consolidate political control of the country, hours after a rival administration dissolved itself after years of factional power struggles.

A newly established advisory council for the country’s prime minister elected Adbulrahman Swehli as chairman, as the unity government sought to bolster its authority following the announcement late Tuesday by Tripoli’s self-declared administration that it was stepping down.

The decision by the Tripoli administration to disband is a major step forward in attempts by the U.N. and the U.S. and other foreign powers to restore a semblance of stability in Libya and blunt the growth of Islamic State, which has exploited the chaos in the North African nation and gained a foothold along its Mediterranean coast, a stone’s throw from Europe.

Libya has been split by rival legislatures since 2014, with an Islamist-leaning parliament in the capital Tripoli, known as the General National Congress, and an internationally-recognized parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk called the House of Representatives.

In a statement late Tuesday, Khalifa al-Ghwell, head of the General National Congress, said his administration was ceasing its activities to “preserve the higher interests of the country and prevent bloodshed and divisions.” [Continue reading…]

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Civilian casualties in Afghan war are unabated in 2016

The New York Times reports: With nearly 2,000 civilians killed or wounded and more than 80,000 people displaced this year already, the Afghan conflict continues to affect lives in record numbers, the United Nations said on Sunday.

The report came as fighting raged across several provinces. For a third day, government forces repelled Taliban attacks across several districts of Kunduz and were trying to prevent the insurgents from taking the provincial capital, as they did in the fall.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan documented 600 civilian deaths and 1,343 wounded in the first three months of 2016, which by most accounts is expected to be a bloody year as the Taliban rejected the latest efforts to bring them to peace talks. While the death toll fell 13 percent from the same period last year, the number of wounded increased 11 percent, the report said, with a high rise among children. [Continue reading…]

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‘Frustrated’ UN Syria envoy says wake-up call needed on aid access

Reuters reports: The U.N. envoy for Syria said on Thursday he was frustrated that there was little improvement in aid deliveries to besieged areas, saying it was a “wake-up call” that had to be heeded.

The United Nations, which is mediating peace talks in Geneva, has been banking on an improvement in the humanitarian situation across Syria after a partial truce brokered by Russia and the United States in late February.

But with the “cessation of hostilities” increasingly shaky, aid access is beginning to drop off.

“(There is) disappointment, frustration indeed, particularly in this period when we are expecting incremental improvements in reaching places which are besieged,” Staffan de Mistura told reporters after meeting envoys from countries which form part of the humanitarian taskforce.

He said the taskforce should take it as a “wake-up call to make sure we don’t just sit passively during these meetings to acknowledge the fact that there are no improvements. We need improvements.”

A document released to reporters from the U.N. Inter-Agency Humanitarian Operations showed that so far in April there had only been four aid operations and only 0.8 percent of people in besieged areas had been reached. [Continue reading…]

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Fighting surges in Syria amid apparent collapse of truce backed by U.S., Russia

The Washington Post reports: A surge in fighting across Syria on Thursday signaled the apparent collapse of a landmark cease-fire that has been under mounting stress in recent days because of intensifying assaults by government forces and rebels.

The partial truce, which took effect in late February, represented a rare moment of agreement over the Syrian conflict between its most powerful outside players: Russia and the United States.

Although Moscow backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Washington supports his opposition, the powers cajoled their Syrian allies into an agreement to cease hostilities to promote peace talks in Geneva that resumed Wednesday. The burst of fighting will almost certainly complicate those talks — now in their second round — and prolong a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions.

“The more breaches of the truce we see, the more it shows that Assad does not want a political solution,” said the head of the opposition delegation in Geneva, Mohammed Alloush.

The opposition insists that a political solution requires Assad’s exit from power, but the Syrian leader and his allies have firmly rejected this. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. readies ‘Plan B’ to arm Syria rebels

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Central Intelligence Agency and its regional partners have drawn up plans to supply more-powerful weapons to moderate rebels in Syria fighting the Russia-backed regime in the event the country’s six-week-old truce collapses, according to U.S. and other officials.

The preparations for a so-called Plan B center on providing vetted rebel units with weapons systems that would help them in directing attacks against Syrian regime aircraft and artillery positions, the officials said.

The Wall Street Journal first reported in February that President Barack Obama’s top military and intelligence advisers were pressing the White House to come up with a Plan B to counter Russia in Syria. Since then, fresh details have emerged on the nature of the new weaponry that could be deployed under the covert program.

The preparations were discussed at a secret meeting of spy chiefs in the Middle East just before the cease-fire took effect on Feb. 27 and in follow-on exchanges between intelligence services.

In those meetings, officials briefed on the deliberations said, coalition members received provisional assurances from the CIA that they would be given approval to expand support to Syria’s moderate opposition. Coalition members have agreed on the outlines of Plan B, but the White House must still approve the list of specific Plan B weapons systems before they can be introduced to the battlefield. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s partial cease-fire shows signs of crumbling

The New York Times reports: A fragile and partial cease-fire in Syria is coming under new strains, with ground clashes and airstrikes intensifying as the government promises a new offensive and prepares to hold controversial parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

France, one of the most outspoken international opponents of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and Iran, his closest ally, both issued warnings that the partial cease-fire, which has lasted far longer than any other and has reduced the daily death toll significantly since Feb. 27, faced the threat of collapse.

A day before the next round of peace talks is set to start, France, along with opposition negotiators, blamed new government attacks in the northern province of Aleppo and the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, for endangering the agreement, while Iran blamed “armed groups” fighting the government. Officials in the United States, too, said they were very concerned about the rise in violence.

The expressions of worry mounted as the special envoy for the United Nations, Staffan de Mistura, traveled to Tehran as part of a regional tour before the talks, which are set to resume in Geneva on Wednesday. After meeting with Iranian officials, he said he had emphasized the need to maintain the partial truce, known as a cessation of hostilities. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s Assad holds elections despite peace talks in Geneva

The Washington Post reports: Even as Syrian peace efforts resumed Wednesday in Geneva, President Bashar al-Assad took a major jab at the process from Damascus: voting in parliamentary elections denounced as a farce by the opposition.

Syria’s state-run media published photographs of the embattled leader and his wife, Asma al-Assad, smiling as they cast ballots in the capital for a new 250-member parliament.

The decision to hold the elections during peace talks in Geneva backed by the United Nations was yet another signal that the Syrian leader has no plans to step aside — a key demand of the opposition delegation at the negotiations. [Continue reading…]

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Syria peace talks — democracy left out in the cold

Saleh M. Mohamed writes: This week, United Nations talks meant to chart a path toward a peaceful, democratic future for Syria are set to resume in Geneva. But, in an absurd twist, the legitimate representatives of a large, democratically governed area in the country will not be invited to attend.

This area is called Rojava, in the northern part of Syria, and despite its frequent description as “Kurdish,” it is governed inclusively by Kurds, Arabs, and the area’s other ethnic groups. Furthermore, its self-defense forces are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States that have advanced toward Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s power in Syria.

Both in strategic and moral terms, Rojava’s existence is a rare bright spot in this conflict. So the exclusion of its representatives from the U.N. process is not only unfair, but makes no sense if the aim of the talks is to establish a viable path to democracy in Syria.

The primary reason for this injustice is that Turkey opposes Rojava’s military force, the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., claiming it is one and the same with the P.K.K., a Kurdish group with a long history of armed conflict with the Turkish government.

This is not true. Both groups are Kurdish, but the Syrian Kurds, with their Arab allies and international support, are locked in a difficult, but thus far successful, battle against the Islamic State. The Y.P.G.’s fight is about Syria, not Turkey. Its role is to defend the institutions of self-government in Northern Syria (the party of which I am co-president, the Democratic Union Party, is part of this political coalition, along with other parties and civil society organizations).

It’s a fair question to ask what kind of democracy this is. Its central philosophy is that people should govern themselves from the bottom up, and so as much decision making as possible is left to local assemblies. These assemblies, furthermore, are designed to ensure a voice for non-Kurdish minorities and for women. This is real and genuinely inclusive democracy, and it deserves to be supported, not ignored. [Continue reading…]

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Barack Obama: Israel’s most loyal protector

Lara Friedman writes: With the Obama administration in its final year, several officials have said that the president has grown so frustrated with trying to revive Middle East peace talks that he may lay down his own outline for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement, in the form of a resolution in the United Nations Security Council.

If that happens, count on two reactions: Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will oppose it, and a chorus of American politicians and commentators will suggest that it would be unprecedented — even unthinkable — for an American president to support a Security Council resolution that Israel opposed, rather than veto it.

Last spring, when similar reports circulated, Senator John McCain of Arizona said that such an action would “contradict American policy for the last at least 10 presidents of the United States.” The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in a letter protesting that “for decades the U.S. has used its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Israel from undue pressure at the world body.” A bipartisan group of senators agreed, seeking assurances that the policy would not change.

Remarkably, the assumption beneath those protests — that President Obama would be committing an unprecedented betrayal of the American-Israeli relationship if he did not block every Security Council resolution that challenged the actions or positions of Israel’s government — has gone unchallenged.

Yet it flies in the face of truth. Over seven years, Mr. Obama has not permitted passage of any Security Council resolution specifically critical of Israel. But a careful examination of the record shows that, since 1967, every other American president allowed, or even had America vote for, Security Council resolutions taking Israel to task for actions and policies toward the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors. [Continue reading…]

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Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure. They’re wrong

Shadi Hamid writes: Libya and the 2011 NATO intervention there have become synonymous with failure, disaster, and the Middle East being a “shit show” (to use President Obama’s colorful descriptor). It has perhaps never been more important to question this prevailing wisdom, because how we interpret Libya affects how we interpret Syria and, importantly, how we assess Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Of course, Libya, as anyone can see, is a mess, and Americans are reasonably asking if the intervention was a mistake. But just because it’s reasonable doesn’t make it right.

Most criticisms of the intervention, even with the benefit of hindsight, fall short. It is certainly true that the intervention didn’t produce something resembling a stable democracy. This, however, was never the goal. The goal was to protect civilians and prevent a massacre.

Critics erroneously compare Libya today to any number of false ideals, but this is not the correct way to evaluate the success or failure of the intervention. To do that, we should compare Libya today to what Libya would have looked like if we hadn’t intervened. By that standard, the Libya intervention was successful: The country is better off today than it would have been had the international community allowed dictator Muammar Qaddafi to continue his rampage across the country.

Critics further assert that the intervention caused, created, or somehow led to civil war. In fact, the civil war had already started before the intervention began. As for today’s chaos, violence, and general instability, these are more plausibly tied not to the original intervention but to the international community’s failures after intervention. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s Tripoli authority rejects UN-backed government

Al Jazeera reports: Libya’s new unity government has been thrown into chaos, as the head of its rival Tripoli-based authority apparently refused to cede power.

Contradicting an earlier announcement that his National Salvation Government was ready to step aside, Tripoli’s unrecognised Prime Minister Khalifa Ghweil urged his ministers not to stand down in a statement on Wednesday.

“Given the requirements of public interest… you are requested to continue your mission in accordance with the law,” he said, threatening to prosecute anyone working with the new government. [Continue reading…]

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One of Libya’s rival governments steps down as new UN-brokered unity government is installed

The Associated Press reports: One of Libya’s rival governments has resigned, a step that helps efforts by a new, UN-brokered unity government to assert itself in the capital Tripoli despite opposition from some local militias.

In a statement, the Tripoli-based National Salvation government said it would “cease duties” as executive authority, and therefore absolve itself of responsibility for the country’s fate.

“We put the interests of the nation above anything else, and stress that the bloodshed stop and the nation be saved from division and fragmentation,” the statement read.

Western nations view the new unity government as the best hope for ending Libya’s chaos and uniting all factions against an increasingly powerful Islamic State affiliate, which has seized the central city of Sirte. Another government, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, still opposes the UN-backed body. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The United States and European allies, including Italy, France and Britain, have made the unity government’s establishment a key precondition for launching twin missions to begin an international stabilization effort and help combat a growing Islamic State affiliate there.

Each of those tasks will be strained by tensions among militia factions that Western nations hope will form a unified front against terrorist groups and by strong reluctance among European nations to wade into Libya’s chaos — even among those countries most threatened by the Islamic State’s growth across the Mediterranean.

The tentative political progress comes as the United States moves forward with plans to launch intensified attacks against the Islamic State’s Libyan branch, which has up to 8,000 fighters and is the group’s strongest affiliate outside Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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The end of the Arab affair

Bassel Salloukh writes: What kind of a Syria will emerge from the wreckage of – so far – more than five years of fighting? This is the question international, regional, and local actors are pondering as ‘proximity talks’ between Syrian government envoys and representatives of the internationally-designated opposition commenced in Geneva in March 2016 under UN auspices.

What political system can restore a semblance of territorial integrity to a country devastated by all kinds of overlapping international, regional, and local wars and crisscrossed by transnational and local salafi-jihadi groups, where sectarian and ethnic identities, never the sole markers of political identity, have been securitised and are now assumed primordial and the main source of political identity and community?

How will communities that have witnessed political mobilisation in the name of the sect or the ethnic group, as well as sectarian and ethnic massacres, accept to live together again under the same flag or inside the same borders?

The inescapable question then is whether postwar Syria will retain its centralised unitary political structure, will be divided along ethno-federal lines, or a middle ground will be devised between these binary choices that may help restore peace to Syria without altering its political geography forever or denying its peoples their justifiable democratic aspirations. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: An unviable regime facing a divided opposition

Aron Lund writes: While Syria’s Sunni Arab rebels share many goals and allies, and infighting among them remains relatively rare, these factions have never managed to find a center of gravity around which to unify. Forceful international support is often portrayed as the means to change this, but in fact, it has had the opposite effect. The West and its allies have intervened to empower rivals to the jihadi bloc that would otherwise dominate, thus cementing the insurgency’s fragmentation instead of ending it. This dynamic is unlikely to go away. The large Islamist rebel factions that could tip the scales in a non-jihadi direction, such as Ahrar al-Sham, seem unwilling and unable to disentangle themselves from the Nusra Front. This leaves the Sunni Arab insurgency stuck in a position from which it cannot win.

That leaves Bashar al-Assad. While he has so far succeeded in preventing the emergence of a credible competitor and blocking all proposals for a political transition, the president has not yet offered a positive plan for how to reunify and stabilize Syria. At this point, his regime seems at once inevitable and unviable.

Even with strong Russian and Iranian support, Assad’s government seems too weak to reconquer the country by force. The president could theoretically compensate for this weakness by engaging in effective diplomacy or striking deals with his opponents, but he has so far shown neither the inclination nor the ability to do so. Indeed, the resistance to a full-blown Assad restoration would be massive; hatred of Assad and his family is a main motivating cause of the insurgency as well as its international support networks.

Assad might, however, be able to engineer international acquiescence to his continued dominance of a fractured country. If things continue to go the government’s way militarily, as they have since Russia intervened on September 30, and if international resistance to him subsides, Assad could potentially lock down the core regions of what has become known as “useful Syria.” This could include Damascus, Homs, Hama, Tartous, Latakia, and Aleppo, plus parts or all of Deir Ezzor, Daraa, and Raqqa. International economic and military support channeled through the central government could then sustain, and to some extent revive, the state apparatus. In so doing, it would help to reconnect some, though not all, of the peripheral areas to Damascus.

But even in this scenario, the bloodshed would not be over. There would certainly be flare-ups between Assad and other actors. In some areas, notably those now controlled by jihadists, the war would be likely to last for a long, long time. Human rights abuses in government-held territory would of course continue unabated and Syrians would be doomed to kiss the boot of the Assad family for another generation. Even beyond that, political stability would be of only a relative nature. Over time, the government would struggle to re-create a functioning economy, survive internal challenges, and retain basic cohesion. Still, this is probably the direction in which Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to nudge the Geneva peace process, arguing that it is the only way of avoiding a permanent state collapse. And no other major actor has offered a credible way forward. It is entirely possible that such a victory for Assad, if it can be called that, would only postpone rather than prevent complete state failure. [Continue reading…]

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