Hollande Awards Hariri High-Level Legion, Vows to Support Lebanon

Hollande and Hariri at the Elysee on Monday

Paris- In his first official visit to Europe since he returned to the Grand Serail following Lebanon’s presidential elections, Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in Paris on Monday before heading later to Berlin and Brussels.

Hariri’s presence in Europe is important due to his participation in the International Summit for supporting the future of Syria and the region to be held in Brussels this week.

Looking at the special relations linking Hariri with France, similar to the relations that linked his father late Rafik Hariri with former president Jacques Chirac and other French officials, Hollande was keen to award the Lebanese prime minister the insignia of Commander of the Legion of Honor at a ceremony that took place at the Elysee Palace. The award, which is the highest legion offered to foreign figures, was presented following bilateral talks between the two men.

Hariri’s decision to visit Paris and Berlin before attending the Brussels Conference did not come as a coincidence. Lebanon relies on both European capitals to echo its voice during the mentioned conference, particularly due to the special relations linking Lebanon and France and the weight of the German economy and its impact on EU decisions.

It was clear from Hariri’s comments that the premier wanted to tackle the issue of Syrian refugees during his meetings in the European capitals.

After talks with his French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve at the Matignon palace on Monday, Hariri said: “I am afraid that the international community is not aware like us of the impact that this will have on Lebanon. Hence, we ask the international community to invest all it can for the benefit of Lebanon.”

The Lebanese premier said Lebanon can not be doing a public service for the international community while the latter is not assuming its responsibilities vis-à-vis Lebanon.

Hariri warned that the country is suffering economically. “We have 20% of unemployment among the Lebanese, 30% among youth, and 50% among Syrian refugees, and this puts a huge pressure on the Lebanese, economically, socially and security wise,” he said.

These numbers pushed Hariri to plan on asking the international community for between $10 billion and $12 billion per year in aid to help boost the local economy upset by the Syrian war.

Later at the Elysee Palace, President Hollande described Hariri as a man of moderation who had managed to get his country out of the civil war, through dialogue and compromise.

The French president also praised Hariri for carrying the torch of his father, Rafik and said France will support Lebanon to face terrorism and carry the burden of the Syrian refugees.

“I am aware of the hardship your country is experiencing with the war in Syria, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees… All this calls for solidarity of the international community with Lebanon, France in particular,” Hollande said.

For his part, Hariri said it was a great honor to receive the French award.

“I want to tell you, Mr. President, how much I appreciate your gesture today. The bonds that unite our two countries are strong and ancient,” Hariri said.

Trump’s Priorities in Syria Lead to Uncertainty

Geneva, Beirut- The priorities of the Trump administration uncovered by US officials on Thursday have mixed all the cards on the eve of the end of Syria’s fifth round of peace talks held in Geneva.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US ambassador to the UN both said that Trump’s administration seeks a long term political solution to the Syrian crisis instead of focusing on the fate of the head of Syria’s regime.

“The status and the longer-term status of Bashar Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson said Thursday in a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The comments of both US officials echoed in Paris where French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the Syrian conflict should not only depend on the “question” of Assad’s fate.

“If some want at any price that we debate whether we keep Assad or not, this is not how the question is asked,” Ayrault said after arriving in Brussels on Friday to attend a NATO meeting.

Meanwhile, the “Geneva 5” peace talks on Syria ended Friday the way they started, without reaching any concrete solution.

The last day of the talks witnessed extensive negotiations concerning the implications of Washington’s new priorities.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Syrian opposition member Farah al-Atassi underestimated the comments of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, saying they were “unofficial.”

Al-Atassi said US Special Envoy to Syria, Deputy Assistant State Secretary Michael Ratney, told the opposition delegation that the new US policy regarding Syria “was not set yet.”

In Geneva, UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura refused to reveal whether his mission would end with Geneva 5, or will be “technically” extended for another 15 days, as some sources said.

However, Asharq Al-Awsat learned that high-ranking sources from de Mistura’s office asserted to the Syrian opposition delegation that the UN envoy “was staying in his position.”

Nasr al-Hariri: Intra-Syrian Negotiations Could Last 20 Years

Syria's main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) leader Nasr al-Hariri arrives for a meeting with United Nations Syria envoy on the first day of a new round of Syria peace talks on February 23, 2017 in Geneva. UN-brokered Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva, but hopes of a breakthrough are dim, clouded by persistent violence and deadlock over the country's political future.

Geneva – Head of the Syrian opposition delegation to Geneva Nasr al-Hariri called on the international community to exert more efforts on the Syrian Regime to convince it to discuss all issues submitted for negotiations, adding that should such efforts fail, the intra-Syrian talks could last for 20 years.

In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in Geneva, Hariri criticized what he described as Russia’s “duplicate” role in Syria.

In this regard, he noted that statements made by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov in Geneva came in contradiction with continuous attacks by Russian aircrafts against Syrian cities.

“There is a blatant contradiction between actual field developments and the course of negotiations,” the lead opposition negotiator said.

He stated that while the Russians “promote themselves as the guarantor of the success of the ceasefire”, Russian officers were behind several shelling operations in the region of Idlib.

“Parts of the attacks against our regions are perpetrated by the regime, and the others are launched by the Russians,” Hariri said.

Asked about the outcome of his meeting with Gatilov in Geneva, the Syrian opposition official said that the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) has stressed its adherence to the implementation of all relevant Security Council resolutions and the 2012 Geneva Declaration.

Hariri said he informed the Russian diplomat that achieving a political transition was the key to any solution to the Syrian crisis.

“We have a clear stance that neither Bashar al-Assad nor any of his regime members would have a role in the transitional period and the future of Syria,” he stated.

Hariri said he was confident that UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura was the right person to fulfil the mission assigned to him.

“However, the absence of a true international will to reach a solution and the international community’s failure to set a mechanism that would force the parties to abide by a [peace] roadmap, would make de Mistura a hostage of both Syrian sides,” he added.

Asked about the US role in the Syrian file, the opposition negotiator said: “We are paying an exorbitant price for the catastrophic mistakes of [former US President Barack] Obama’s policy in Syria.”

He added that while the new US Administration was yet to present its vision on resolving the Syrian crisis, it should deploy more efforts to stop Iran from spreading its influence in the Arab country.

De Mistura Stays UN’s Special Envoy for Syria as Geneva Talks Remain Stalled


Geneva – UN had finally given out signs that the Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will remain in position, after days of rumors that he might resign.

Syrian and diplomatic delegations at the Geneva 5 talks had been occupied with the speculations concerning de Mistura’s future. Yet, the conference is still in place without any worth mentioning progress.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov is actively communicating with all Syrian parties in Geneva aiming to achieve developments.

Deputy Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Farhan Haq announced that Secretary General is very pleased with the work that de Mistura has been doing and gives him his full support.

UN Sec-Gen Antonio Guterres urged on Tuesday all parties to the Syrian conflict to exert new peace efforts in the Geneva talks.

During his visit to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Guterres expressed his support for the efforts of de Mistura, stressing that he is doing an “amazing job” and enjoys his “full confidence.”

“He managed to bring together all parties to the conflict in Geneva. Talks are going on and I wish him the best success together with all those that are meeting with him,” Guterres said.

Guterres reiterated that the war on terrorism in Syria will fail if a political solution to the conflict is not reached.

“Let’s be clear, it’s very important to fight terrorism but the fight against terrorism in Syria will not be successful if a political solution will not be found as well,” he added.

Official sources in Geneva informed Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Jean-Marc Ayrault contacted UN Sec-Gen informing about the future of de Mistura.

Guterres told the French FM that the UN envoy wanted to end his mission for personal reasons, but he did however indicate that he would extend his task for a determined period of time for the Sec-Gen to determine if any results were achievable during the current talks or the ones that follows.

UN Sec-Gen might resort to assigning a new envoy if no progress has been achieved, according to the sources. And in any case, the sources are relieved for the fact that de Mistura remained in his position “for the time being” because by remaining in his post, this means that international efforts will continue despite not achieving any tangible progress in the Syrian crisis.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gatilov is still contacting all concerned parties including UN envoy and the opposition delegation, whereas he is expected to meet with Syrian parties and representatives of the countries in Geneva.

Earlier on Tuesday, Gatilov met with delegations of the government and Cairo and Moscow platforms.

High Negotiations Committee (HNC) met with Gatilov in UN’s Geneva headquarters but it didn’t disclose the contents of the meeting.

HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet said the talks were very positive and Russia expressed its will in holding discussions to promote the ongoing Geneva talks in the future.

“Russia said the next round of Astana talks will be held in the first week of May, which on this occasion is making preparations for the political progress made here in Geneva,” said Meslet.

Meslet warned that the opposition group may not participate in the next round of negotiations in Astana if the situation on the ground in Syria doesn’t improve.

HNC spokesman informed Gatilov of a two-fold message: the delegation’s seriousness in achieving real constructive involvement according to the agenda set by the UN envoy, and the lack of progress achieved by the government’s delegation.

HNC blamed Syrian government representatives for discussing anti-terrorism instead of peace talks, which they said the government made no progress in during these talks. The opposition also said the Syrian government disrupted the ceasefire which forced residents to flee their hometown.

Humanitarian situations as well as the ceasefire and cases of its violation by the regime were also discussed during the meeting.

Meslet stated that HNC wants to see improvements on the ground in order to decide whether they will participate in next Astana meeting in May or not. He explained that what is happening now on the ground is completely different from what was agreed upon in Astana with violations of the ceasefire in Wadi Barada, Waar, as well as strikes in several areas in Damascus region.

The spokesperson also reported Gatilov saying that Astana 4 will be held in Kazakhstan during the first week of May, two weeks after the “technical” meeting in Tehran on April 18 and 19.

Diplomatic sources in Geneva informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Astana 4 will be on May 4 and 5 and with the same form of previous talks. They added that Gatilov came to Geneva to prevent the failure of the talks and achieve progress in the issue of constitution. The Russian official also wants to pressure the government’s delegation to show openness to political solution.

Syrian government representatives are resisting saying that the constitution is a Syrian matter that only concerns Syrians, and by agreeing to this debate it means they are looking into a process of political transition, something the regime doesn’t want.

Gatilov announced that he had an open exchange of views with HNC and the two came to the common conclusion that it would be very much in favor of having good development this round and continuation of discussions, in order to reach the goal of independent territorial integrity in Syria.

Gatilov said they did not discuss the opposition’s calls for the stand-down of Syrian head of regime Bashar al-Assad, which will be dealt with by de Mistura.

Referring to the issue of a Syrian ceasefire, the Russian official said it was not hopeless and the ceasefire agreement had been observed to some extent according to Russia’s observations, which needs the cooperation of international parties and each Syrian party.

The current atmosphere suggests that the international envoy needs to achieve progress that serves as the bases for new steps, which can’t be accomplished by leaving each party to discuss the issues they feel like discussing.

Foreign diplomatic sources said that de Mistura must attain responses from both parties on issues mentioned in the non-paper presented last Saturday.

Meanwhile, according to sources which informed Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, both the Turkish and US envoys were clear to the HNC that it must accept the envoy’s non-paper.

Head of HNC Nasr al-Hariri described his meeting with de Mistura as “good” adding that they discussed elections.

Nasr hoped these negotiations won’t end up fruitless and would reach a development towards a political process.

Moscow Sets March 20 Date for Geneva 5

UN Special Envoy for Syria de Mistura delivers his speech during the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich

Paris- Western diplomatic sources saw that the main positive result of the eight days of Geneva 4 is that both delegations (the regime and the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian Opposition (HNC)) agreed to discuss in a parallel manner the following four topics: governance, constitution, elections and terrorism in Geneva 5.

They considered that this would prevent any of the two parties from hurdling the progress in discussions because slowness in one topic would be met with an advancement in another file in a way that maintains political dynamism.

Also, both parties have finally agreed to the four topics suggested by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.

Regarding Geneva 5, these sources revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the Russian party intended to announce resumption of negotiations on March 20 without getting back to de Mistura in an attempt to put pressure on him. De Mistura, in his concluding news conference, did not specify a date and only announced that Geneva 5 would be held in March.

However, Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar al Ja’afari and head of the Syrian government delegation, said on Saturday that Damascus is still considering whether it will return to the talks in Geneva next month.

Although this is a significant step but it is still a procedural one and true success is measured by achieving a progress “in depth”.

De Mistura Concludes Geneva 4, to Announce Next Round of Talks following New York Meetings

Paris – UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announced on Friday the conclusion of the fourth round of the UN-mediated intra-Syrian talks in Geneva.

The international envoy said that participants have agreed to discuss in parallel, all four “package” deal proposals for crisis resolution — governance, constitution, elections and counterterrorism.

The envoy said that the exact date for the launching of the 5th round of talks in the Swiss city would be announced following his visit to New York in the coming few days and his meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

He noted however that the talks would be held later this month.

Counter-terrorism – an issue pushed by the Syrian pro-regime delegation – had been added to the agenda, the UN envoy said.

“What I saw … gives me some feeling that we are moving in the right direction,” he told reporters at the end of eight days of talks.

He said counter-terrorism had been added as a “fourth package” to the talks, alongside efforts to establish a “credible, inclusive government”, drafting a new constitution and holding free and fair elections.

In a news conference on Friday, de Mistura said: “I believe…and expect that the sides should now pursue a framework agreement containing an agreed political package so that a negotiated transitional political process can be implemented as indicated by (UN) Resolution 2254.”

He added that the UN recognized only two terrorist groups: ISIS and the former Nusra Front, once an al-Qaeda affiliate. Neither is part of the UN peace process.

The international envoy stressed the need to maintain indirect negotiations, awaiting the appropriate conditions for both sides to engage into direct talks.

He also expressed his readiness to form working groups or committees to discuss the four baskets and fill the time vacuum until the launching of the fifth round of peace talks.

Geneva: Intra-Syrian Talks Likely to be Suspended Friday, Resume on March 20


Geneva – The fourth round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva “have not yet risen to the level of negotiations”, despite continuous efforts deployed by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, according to European diplomatic sources.

The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the ongoing talks were likely to be suspended on Friday, with no substantial progress.

Consequently, the next round of talks would be resumed on March 20, according to sources from the Syrian opposition.

Meanwhile, the High Negotiation Committee (HNC) – Syria’s main opposition group – was expected to meet late Monday with a Russian envoy to discuss calls for Kurdish groups to join the ongoing negotiations.

The group has urged Russia to put pressure on the government of Head of Regime Bashar al-Assad to prop up stumbling efforts to end the conflict.

“We hope … that we will see real, positive and constructive support to the political process,” said lead opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri after holding talks with De Mistura on Monday.

“We hope … to see support [from Moscow] for the peace process which will ultimately lead to peace by putting pressure on the regime,” he added.

HNC officials said that the opposition delegation would meet Russia’s Middle East director Sergei Vershinin to discuss comments recently made by Moscow’s deputy foreign minister that Kurdish groups must take part in the talks.

Earlier this week, Russia said it hoped the Syrian opposition would form a joint delegation for the Geneva peace talks, RIA Novosti news agency said, citing Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

The agency also quoted Bogdanov as saying that Kurdish representatives should also take part in the talks.

Opposition sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the meeting with the Russian delegation would be of high importance, as it would witness discussions about maintaining the fragile ceasefire that was agreed last year and Moscow’s position on the roadmap stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for the formation of a non-confessional transitional administration.

Geneva 4: Race between Security Escalation, Actual Launch of Negotiations


Geneva – U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura condemned a militant attack in the Syrian city of Homs on Saturday, describing it as a deliberate attempt to ruin the ongoing peace talks in Geneva.

Suicide bombers attacked two Syrian security offices in Homs, killing dozens with gunfire and explosions including the head of military security.

In a statement from Geneva, de Mistura said: “Spoilers were always expected, and should continue to be expected, to try to influence the proceedings of the talks. It is in the interest of all parties who are against terrorism and are committed to a political process in Syria not to allow these attempts to succeed.”

Speaking to reporters following a meeting with the U.N. envoy, the Syrian government’s lead negotiator Bashar Jaafari called on the opposition to condemn the attacks.

“If anyone refuses to condemn this terrorist attack then he is an accomplice of terrorism and we will deal with them accordingly,” Jaafari said.

He added that the latest attacks in Homs were a “message from the sponsors of terror to Geneva”, which is currently hosting the fourth round of U.N.-backed intra-Syrian talks.

High Negotiations Committee (HNC) chief spokesman Salim al-Muslat said that the suicide attacks were perpetrated by the “regime and its tools”.

In the wake of Saturday’s bloody developments that seemed to threaten the ongoing peace talks, de Mistura is multiplying efforts to effectively launch the negotiations, which were expected to witness unprecedented direct talks between the opposition and the government delegations.

The two delegations would present their opinion on a working paper submitted by the international envoy on Friday regarding procedural and other key political issues that he had hoped to be able to begin addressing.

On Sunday, De Mistura is scheduled to meet separately with representatives from the Cairo and Moscow platforms, after he had met on Saturday with the pro-government delegation.

Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the international envoy was deploying all efforts to form a unified opposition delegation.

European diplomatic sources stressed that de Mistura’s attempts were also backed by Russia, as divisions among opposition parties would weaken the ongoing talks.

Geneva 4: Procedural Matters Dominate Talks as Regime, Opposition Delegations Agree to Sit Together

Paris – Procedural issues overshadowed the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva on Friday, ahead of expected first-time direct negotiations between the regime and opposition delegations – a move seen as the fruit of hard efforts deployed by U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Syrian opposition delegates have for the first time called for face-to face talks with regime representatives ahead of the fourth round of negotiations, which kicked off earlier this week in the Swiss city.

Previous negotiations have been conducted through a mediator in separate rooms.

High Negotiations Committee spokesman Salem al-Muslet said he did not want this round to be like the one a year ago, which was fruitless.

“We want to see real seriousness on the negotiations table, this is why we demand direct negotiations to save time because every day costs us and the Syrians more souls, famine and sieges,” western news agencies quoted al-Muslet as saying.

The international envoy announced that he would meet with the delegations of the Cairo and Moscow platforms on Saturday.

He added, however, that he did not expect any “special announcement” to be made over the weekend.

Sources from de Mistura’s office told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the envoy has set March 6 as the deadline for the fourth round of negotiations.

Earlier on Friday, de Mistura met with the Damascus delegation and the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) delegation to discuss the format and the work plan for the intra-Syria talks.

The HNC delegation is headed by the secretary general of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Nasr al-Hariri.

Hariri described his meeting with the U.N. envoy as “positive”, adding that the latter has submitted fresh proposals and ideas to “seriously engage in the political transition process.”

However, Hariri was quick to clarify, saying: “Until now, we don’t have any specific steps, but we have held discussions and arrangements for the coming days of negotiations, which are aimed at achieving a fair political solution.”

He added that a paper he received from de Mistura “tackles procedural matters and some of the thoughts he submitted to launch the political process.”

Earlier in the day, de Mistura met with the Damascus delegation to discuss the format and the work plan for the talks.

Head of the delegation Bashar Jaafari said he received a paper from de Mistura which he would consider and discuss with the special envoy later.

4th Round of Syrian Talks in Geneva: Ambiguity Continues

Geneva – U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura successfully prevented on Thursday the failure of the fourth round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, after he convinced representatives of the Syrian opposition factions to sit together as a unified delegation at the opening session, which was delayed from 3 till 7 pm.

Representatives from the opposition groups sat on the left of the international enjoy, where a large table was dedicated to the main opposition bloc – the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – and two smaller tables were reserved for the two other groups – the Moscow and the Cairo platforms.

Representatives from the U.N. Security Council and the Friends of Syria Group attended the opening session, which saw only a speech by de Mistura.

“I ask you to work together. I know it’s not going to be easy to end this horrible conflict and lay the foundation for a country at peace with itself, sovereign and unified,” de Mistura told both pro-regime and opposition delegations, who sat on opposite sides of the stage.

“It is your opportunity and solemn responsibility… not to condemn future generations of Syrian children to long years of bitter and bloody conflict,” he added.

“The Syrian people desperately all want an end to this conflict and you all know it,” he continued.

“You are the first ones to tell us it. They are waiting for a relief from their own suffering and dream of a new road out of this nightmare to a new and normal future in dignity,” the international envoy also said.

De Mistura described the negotiations as a difficult task, adding that they would center on U.N. Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a new constitution, U.N.-supervised elections and transparent and accountable governance.

He said the feeble ceasefire brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran had opened a window of opportunity.

“The effort has jump-started the process … to see if there is a political road forward and we don’t want to miss this opportunity,” he stressed.

An atmosphere of ambiguity surrounded Thursday’s opening session, which was delayed following disputes between the HNC and de Mistura over the structure of the opposition delegation.

The dispute was partly due to the international envoy’s inclusion of two other groups – the Moscow and the Cairo platforms – in the talks. The envoy invited the two pro-Russia, regime-tolerated opposition groups to sit separately from the HNC.

Western sources told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that they have “advised” the main opposition group to stay in Geneva “whatever happened” and that they have received “reassurances” in this regard.

The sources added that they have urged the opposition to focus on the transitional plan that it has presented last September during the London meetings on Syria.

For his part, Russia’s envoy to the U.N. in Geneva Alexei Borodavkin underlined to necessity to fully implement Resolution 2254, including the clause pertaining to fighting terrorism.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, member of the Cairo platform Jamal Suleiman explained that disagreements between the opposition delegations were also due to a dispute over the formation of three committees that would be in charge of studying the “political transition process” as stipulated in Resolution 2254.

European sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the current weaknesses in the opposition were mainly due to the ambiguity in the U.S. position towards the Syrian file, awaiting a clear stance by President Donald Trump’s administration on this matter.