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MIDEAST >Allies claim US backing for political solution in Syria

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U.S. allies said they had won assurances on Feb. 17 from new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Washington backed a political solution to the Syria conflict, ahead of U.N. peace talks.

On the sidelines of a G20 gathering in Germany, Tillerson joined a group of countries who support the Syrian opposition for talks on a way to end the nearly six-year war.

“All the participants want a political solution because a military solution alone won’t lead to peace in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters in Bonn, adding that “Tillerson became very involved in the debates.” 

The meeting of the so-called “like-minded” nations - made up of around a dozen Western and Arab countries as well as Turkey - was the first since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

Diplomats had said before the talks that they were hoping for clarity on whether there had been a change in U.S. policy on Syria, particularly on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting came ahead of a new round of United Nations-led talks in Geneva on Feb. 23 involving Syrian regime and rebel representatives.

As of Feb. 17, The United Nations is no longer using the phrase “political transition” to describe the goals of next week’s Syria peace talks, in a potentially major concession to negotiators representing al-Assad.

“Political transition” is a phrase understood by the opposition to mean a removal of al-Assad or at least an erosion of his powers. But his government has rejected any suggestion that it could be on the table, and at previous peace talks in Geneva his negotiators consistently tried to steer away from it.

Yara Sharif, spokeswoman for U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, initially told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva on Feb. 17 that the talks, due to start on Feb. 23, would address the political transition. 

“I think, yes, you can use the word ‘political transition’. It is going to be a focus I guess as it has been in the past,” she said in response to a reporter’s question.

But she later sent an email to clarify her comment. 

“This morning at the briefing I was asked about the intra-Syrian negotiations and whether the issue of political transition would be discussed,” she said, in an email to Reuters.

“For clarification purposes, please note that the negotiations will be entirely guided by [U.N.] Security Council Resolution 2254, which talks specifically about governance, a new constitution and elections in Syria.”

The December 2015 resolution was unanimously adopted as the basis for peace talks, which ran fitfully through the first months of 2016 but never resumed after the end of April.

This came one day after Syrian regime and rebel representatives failed on Feb. 16 to make any breakthroughs at talks in Kazakhstan, as key powerbrokers Russia, Turkey and Iran sought to shore up a shaky cease-fire.

The meeting was the second time key players Moscow, Tehran and Ankara have brought the warring sides to the Kazakh capital of Astana.

But the government delegation and rebels again did not hold one-on-one talks and no joint statement was agreed after a final 40-minute meeting involving all the parties. 

Instead regime allies Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey followed up an earlier pledge by agreeing to set up a joint monitoring group to try to ensure a fragile six-week truce in the war-torn country.  

“The question of observing the cease-fire is being solved and we are hopeful to solve political questions too,” Russian mediator Alexander Lavrentiev said.

Lead rebel negotiator Mohammad Alloush said that the meeting “didn’t achieve anything practical” but claimed the armed opposition received several pledges from Moscow.  

Russia promised to stop shelling opposition areas and to help push for the release of political prisoners, he said, as well as to send a “schedule” for the end of a regime siege around Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

February/17/2017

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