Unconditional ‘Geneva 4’ Talks on Syria

Geneva, Tel Aviv- U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura issued a warning ahead of the fourth round of intra-Syrian peace talks expected in Geneva on Thursday by saying some parties could disrupt the meeting and provoke one side or the other to walk out.

“There are spoilers, we have seen it all the time during the last talks and perhaps they may even be attempting or tempted to [do] something before or during the talks to provoke one side or the other to walk out,” de Mistura said on Wednesday.

On the eve of the intra-Syrian talks, which had been stopped for nine months, the three opposition delegations plus the regime delegation arrived to the Swiss city amid fears they would be unable to achieve any serious breakthrough in the Syrian crisis.

On Wednesday, de Mistura told a press conference in Geneva he would be continuing to push for negotiations even if the ceasefire is not respected.

“We will be very reluctant to engage in pre-conditions, and in fact I will be refusing them,” he said.

De Mistura said Russia, which has supported head of the regime Bashar Assad’s military advances, had asked the Syrian government to “silence their own skies in the areas touched by the ceasefire” during the talks.

He added: “We have been requesting those who have the influence on the opposition to try themselves also to do the same.”

European sources and opposition officials told Asharq Al-Awsat that preparatory meetings were held in Geneva on Wednesday to coordinate the positions expected to be announced the next day.

A meeting was held between U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Syria Michael Ratney and the High Negotiations Committee delegation, while other meetings occurred with representatives of the states supporting the Syrian opposition.

The sources said western officials advised the opposition delegations not to withdraw from the meeings, similar to what they have done last April. “The best gift we can offer to Bashar Assad is our withdrawal from the talks and therefore, give the Iranians an excuse to escalate the military operations,” a member of the opposition told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Separately, while reports said Israeli jets pounded targets near the Syrian capital overnight Wednesday, Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot reassured Israelis that there is no willingness by the enemies both on the northern front and in Gaza to initiate a military campaign against Israel.

On Wednesday media reports said Israel targeted a weapons shipment to Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” in the Katif suburbs of the capital.

Extensive Efforts to Solve ‘Geneva 4’ Knots


Geneva – Diplomatic sources in Geneva told Asharq Al-Awsat on Tuesday that representatives from the so-called Syria Support Group would first hold an intra-meeting before sitting with U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in an effort to solve the knots blocking the upcoming negotiations.

On Tuesday, extensive efforts were exerted by several parties in the Swiss city to prepare for the official launch of the fourth round of Syria peace talks expected to kick off on Thursday at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva.

The two U.N. committees tasked to discuss the ceasefire in Syria and the delivery of humanitarian aid, will also hold two exceptional meetings on Wednesday to “prepare the best ground” for the launch of “healthy” talks.

However, two issues, one procedural and the other linked to the nature of the work, still need some clarifications.

Asharq Al-Awsat learned that the main difference between this fourth round of talks and its previous ones is de Mistura’s hope to hold face-to-face meetings between representatives from the Syrian regime and opposition factions, rather than through a mediator.

Asharq Al-Awsat also learned that Russians were also pushing for direct talks between the attending delegations similar to what happened in the first round of the “Astana” meeting.

Concerning the knot related to the presence of different opposition delegations, western sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that de Mistura and his team were capable of solving the issue.

The U.N. envoy will refer to “participants,” when mentioning representatives of the Moscow and Cairo platform, while he would use the term “opposition delegation” when referring to the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) representatives.

Michael Contet, chief of staff to de Mistura, told a regular U.N. briefing that the U.N. envoy was putting the final touches to arrangements for the talks.

“The invitations as well as the substantive agenda for the negotiations are all based on the wide scope of Security Council resolutions, in particular (U.N. Security Council Resolution) 2254, which is our main guidance in this process,” he said.

Concerning the issue of Kurds, it is now certain that neither the Kurdistan Democratic Party nor its linked Syrian Democratic Forces or People’s Protection Units would be at the negotiation table in Geneva. Sources from the Syrian opposition said Kurds would be represented in the HNC delegation.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition, insisted to AFP that “the main issue in this round will be the political transition.”

“The opposition delegation will focus on a proposition to form a transitional governance body,” he said, adding that it would “present a complete plan on the topic including how it will be executed based on international resolutions.”

At the battlefield, sources from the armed Syrian opposition said the group froze an arm shipment that was expected to reach opposition fighters in the northwest of Syria in coordination with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), after being attacked by hardliners last month.

Officials at the Syrian opposition said the main target behind freezing the shipment is to prevent the arms and money offered to the armed opposition from falling in the hands of hardliners.

The officials expect the arms aid would only be temporarily stopped.

French Sources ‘Pressuring’ De Mistura on Syrian Opposition Delegation

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Reuters

Paris- Paris and other parties have been putting pressure on U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to back off from hints that he would form Syria’s opposition delegation in case the latter failed to do so by February 8, according to senior French official sources.

The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat they informed de Mistura that he should give the entity enough time to form its delegation, which is supposed to include members from the political opposition, different factions fighting in Syria, and many of those who are pro a political solution.

Moreover, they told de Mistura that he does not have the political authority to impose on them the delegation’s membership.

What Paris is telling the representative of the U.N. Secretary General is also applied for Russia, Iran and Turkey.

However, it believes that the opposition’s mission will not be easy due to converging viewpoints on the Kurds given that Turkey totally rejects the presence of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), People’s Protection Units (YPG) or Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the delegation regardless of their military presence in the battlefield.

According to French sources, the Turkish-Russian agreement, which under the Kurds were excluded from the Astana talks, will also be applied to the Geneva meeting. This means de Mistura will find it difficult to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Nevertheless, although Paris believes in the importance of the Kurdish representation, it considers that this matter should not be an obstacle to the Geneva talks.

France also believes that de Mistura should find a diplomatic solution to put on hold the participation of the Kurds, whose presence in the opposition delegation is important in reaching a political solution in the country.

Mahmoud Abbas: Israeli Settlement Law is an ‘Aggression against our People’

Paris – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has described a new Israeli law legalizing settlements as an attack against his people.

Speaking on Tuesday during a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande, Abbas said the law was illegal and was “obviously against the wishes of the international community.”

“Our goal is peace, but Israel is working from the basis of a single state,” the Palestinian president said.

“This is an aggression against our people that we will be opposing in international organizations,” he added.

Abbas and Hollande met in Paris a day after the Israeli parliament legalized dozens of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“I want to believe that Israel and its government will reconsider this law,” Hollande said.

Israel’s new law was met with wide international disapproval. Britain, France, the United Nations and Jordan criticized the law, which was passed by the parliament on Monday.

Hours before the Palestinian president’s meeting with Hollande, Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), said the bill is “putting the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution”.

Erekat described the recent Israeli measure as “theft”. He said the Israeli government was trying to legalize looting Palestinian land.

In his joint statement with Hollande, Abbas warned against moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign promises.

“Any move in that direction is an error and shouldn’t be done prior to an agreement on a political solution,” he said.

Fillon Apologizes Amidst Calls for his Withdrawal from French Presidential Race


Paris- French right-wing presidential candidate Francois Fillon, once seen as a front-runner to face the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the final round of the presidential election in May, has seen his ratings drop after anti-fraud prosecutors opened an investigation into allegations that he paid his wife and children large amounts of taxpayers’ money for fake parliamentary assistant jobs.

At a press conference on Monday, he refused to stand down as a candidate, insisting the jobs he gave his family were real, but he nonetheless offered his apologies to the French people.

Fillon apologized for employing his wife, while noting that it is not illegal and he is not the only politician to have done so.

“What was acceptable yesterday … is not today,” Fillon said.

“It was a mistake. I deeply regret it and I present my excuses to the French.”

French politicians are allowed to hire family members as aides as long as they actually do the jobs for which they are paid.

However, French prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation into the possible misuse of public funds to determine whether or not Penelope Fillon in fact did any work for her husband.

That inquiry has now been extended to look at roles Fillon gave his children while he was a senator.

The preliminary probe involves suspicions of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds.

Fillon’s popularity has dropped in the past two weeks following allegations that his British-born wife Penelope was paid 830,000 euros ($900,000) between 1998 and 2013 as a parliamentary assistant.

He also hired two of his children as assistants, paying them €84,000 pre-tax between 2005 and 2007.

The Paris prosecutor’s office on Thursday expanded its investigation to include Fillon’s son and daughter.

Fillon laid out for reporters in some detail his own facts about the accusations.

“Yes, I employed my wife as an aide,” Fillon said. He said she was paid an average 3,677 euros per month over 15 years.

“They call this job fictitious,” he said, laying out the ill-defined duties of parliamentary aides who work “in the shadows.”

“Her salary was perfectly justified because her work was indispensable to my activities as an elected official,” he said.

Fillon said the scandal grew out of a political conspiracy to take him out of the race, and make it a face-off between far-right leader Marine Le Pen — whose family he blasted as “untouchable” — and Emmanuel Macron, an untested former banker and Socialist Party maverick whom Fillon called a “guru.”

Fillon’s attempt to go on a counter-offensive came as Le Monde revealed new elements relating to the preliminary investigation.

The French newspaper reported that investigators were examining Fillon’s ties to Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, the billionaire businessman owner of the literary magazine Revue des Deux Mondes, who is also reported to have allegedly paid Penelope Fillon €100,000 for doing little work.

The investigators are looking at whether the businessman paid Penelope Fillon about €5,000 a month pre-tax between May 2012 and December 2013 in return for being recommended by Fillon for France’s highest honor in 2010.

Fillon also gave details of the consulting firm he set up in 2012 at the end of his five-year term as prime minister.

The Canard Enchaîné, which broke the story of Penelope Fillon’s parliamentary assistant jobs, had reported that the company paid Fillon an after-tax salary of €757,000 since 2012.

Opponents had demanded he reveal the source of the money.

During the press conference, Fillon listed the company’s key clients and said no Russian business had paid him nor the Russian government, saying that all conferences he gave in Russia were free.

Besides far-right Le Pen and centrist Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon are running for president.

French Elections Battered by Scandals

Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, member of The Republicans political party and 2017 presidential candidate of the French centre-right, leaves home in Paris, France, February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Paris- The French right-wing is going through a crisis following the scandal of the “fake employments” of the wife of Francois Fillion, once the clear front-runner to become France’s next president, and two of his sons.

Three months prior to the first round of elections, many questions were raised on Fillion’s ability to continue the race as the right-wing’s candidate. After he almost guaranteed his entrance to the Elyse in the coming spring, things have changed. Results of the recent survey showed that Fillion’s qualification to the second round of elections is shaking.

Some observers see that depriving Fillion from his chances in winning the elections was due to a campaign led by media. The Canard Enchainé newspaper, reported that Penelope Fillion, the candidate’s wife served for years as a parliamentary assistant of her husband and the deputy who succeeded him when he became a Prime Minister. The report also said that the conservative candidate’s wife earned more than €400,000 as his parliamentary assistant and £100,000 as a contributor to a literary review owned by a friend.

Also two of Fillon’s children earned £84,000 from the French Senate when their father was one of its members, The Canard Enchaine continued. The French law allows Senate members to recruit family members as assistants. However, Penelope Fillon was accused of earning money without actually working in her position, which is a kind of fraud, especially that the reported sums were huge.

A week after the scandal, Fillon didn’t provide convincing justifications. On Tuesday, the Financial Police Department questioned him and his wife for six hours. Authorities also inspected his office looking for evidence and proofs to clarify these reports, which may wipe out the right-wing’s chance to win these elections and to regain presidency. Few days after the scandal, Fillion said that these procedures target his integrity and his candidature, accusing the communist authority of standing behind this plot.

Political observers in France see that Fillon may be obliged to quit the electoral race if accusations persist. Despite that, the French right-wing has fiercely backed his candidate facing the scandal wave that target him, yet, reports say that the right front has set a plan B, and that names of alternative candidates are being discussed.

Recent polls showed that Fillon’s popularity has dropped five to six points, and that he is expected to receive 19-20% from votes in the first electoral round, to rank third after Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen.

Roadmap for Stability in the Mediterranean

Barcelona- Amid remarkable concerns on the survival of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), the meeting of the union’s ministers of foreign affairs or their representatives in Barcelona came to adopt a roadmap for the sake of the region.

The roadmap stressed three main goals: contributing to the regional stability, enhancing the Mediterranean integration, and investing in human development.

The meeting also included a two-day forum entitled “Youth to serve stability and growth in the Mediterranean”, which hosted 500 people from all the Mediterranean countries to partake in dozens of symposiums and workshops.

In his opening speech, Fathallah Sijilmass, secretary general of the union asserted that all the convening parties in Barcelona have agreed on the importance of reaching regional solutions to confront current challenges.

He added that security requires growth and that all parties have to work hard to reach effective solutions for their serious challenges including illegal migrations, terrorism, and fundamentalism, by enhancing economic and social development, providing work opportunities for youths and by encouraging dialogue and mutual understanding.

The Union, which joins conflicting parties, faced many threatening challenges like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Gaza wars, and the Arab Spring, but succeeded in coping with them; the Union has launched projects of humanitarian and economic growth, and maintained its main mission as a platform for the regional dialogue.

During the meeting, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini considered that only greater regional integration can reduce the instability of the Mediterranean region and solve conflicts.

The Mediterranean parties have agreed that the Union’s projects of human and economic development have been the perfect response to the security challenges and the migration waves.

Mogherini said that the Union has adopted 47 regional projects with a budget of EUR5.5 including 25 projects, which were already launched. Till date, the Union’s budget has been covered by the European Union and the member states.
However, ministers who gathered in Barcelona have agreed to open doors for external funding, which reflect the member states’ will in expanding the General Secretariat’s efforts.

A diplomatic source that attended the meeting told Asharq Al-Awsat that this Union cannot solve the region’s crises and that it is not assigned to. However, he considered that the Union can efficiently contribute to solutions as it is the only platform that maintained dialogue and communication lines among parties despite the major obstacles.

The European source added that the region has faced a phase of uncertainty because of the unclear policies of the new U.S. administration. He concluded that while waiting for the regional and international solutions for the region’s crises, the Union will maintain its efforts in implementing projects to help women and youths in the east and south Mediterranean in cooperation with the regions’ governments.

France Concerned about the Return of its ‘Terrorists’ from Battlefields in Iraq, Syria


Paris – Top level meetings are being planned by senior Government officials over fears the ISIS operatives could unleash more terror in France which is still in a state of emergency.

France is concerned about the return of French extremists fighting for ISIS and Nusra Front in Syria and Iraq with all the security threat they represent.

Director of the French coordination of counter-terrorism unit (UCLAT) Loic Garnier said the number of foreigners who joined ISIS in 2015 reached 30,000, but that number currently dropped to 12,000, including 3000 Europeans.

He stated that 3,000 Europeans, including about 700 French, joined the ranks of ISIS terrorist organization operating in Iraq and Syria.

“According to reports, the number of French in that region is about 700 people, and the number of people killed is around 232,” Garnier said.

Garnier also noted that approximately 200 of the French national ISIS militants have returned home and said that the French police are closely monitoring these individuals – while also noting that tracking them continuously is difficult.

He added that there are still roughly 1,000 people in France who could potentially be willing to join ISIS terror ranks.

The Head of UCLAT highlighted that several hundred women and children are among these French nationals, and expressed concern for the children who are, according to him, growing up without any sense of right or wrong.

French authorities began tracking people on a database in March of 2015 following the Charlie Hebdo attacks and shootings at a kosher market in January of that year that killed 17 people. However that did not prevent the subsequent coordinated attacks in Paris in November of last year which killed 130 or the horrifying slaughter of 86 people at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice in July.

There have been a total of 21 terror attacks across the country since December 2014 sparking widespread anger and a backlash against French president Francois Hollande.

Frances ‘Conditioned’ Support for Astana Syrian Peace Talks


Paris- France declared its conditioned support three days ahead of the Syria talks to be held in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, despite that the European country did not receive an official invitation to the negotiations. The peace talks are the first to bring face to face a representing regime delegation and a majority of opposition forces.

A high profile French diplomat is expected to attend the Astana talks and advise the opposition’s delegation, sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.

France supports the goals of the Astana meeting on the Syrian settlement, which include the consolidation of ceasefire regime and preparation for the upcoming Geneva talks, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal on Jan 17.

“The meeting in Astana is being organized by Russia and Turkey in cooperation. We understand that it will be aimed at​ ​ establishing sustainable ceasefire regime and preparing for Geneva talks resumption on February 8.. ​
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault confirmed that France supports the goals,” Nadal said during a briefing, reminding that Ayrault held talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu over the weekend.

The guarantors of a nationwide Syrian ceasefire, namely, Russia and Turkey collectively determined the format of the Astana talks, aimed at bringing the Syrian government and opposition groups to the negotiating table, and the list of participants, also involving international actors interested in resolving the conflict.

The talks are set to be held on January 23.

Resolution 2254 was adopted in December 2015 and endorsed a number of earlier plans to start political settlement for the Syrian conflict. The preceding international agreements included the 2012 Geneva Communique and the Vienna Statements by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

Despite the mystery engulfing the Astana talks, in the absence of a clearly outlined agenda, Paris reaffirmed that it continues to support the opposition’s participation at the talks and encourages it.

On the other hand, France fears that a Russian-Iranian play at the Astana talks would be to amend the international references used for establishing peace in Syria, and to oust the Syrian opposition Higher Negotiation Committee from the peace process.

Arab World Institute in Paris Greets Saudi Arabia for Generous Funding


Paris – During a ceremony attended by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and the President of the institute in Paris, Jack Langhe, the Arab World Institute in Paris unveiled a new memorial plaque featuring a message to greet Saudi Arabia for its generous financial contribution allocated for its renovation. The event was also attended by many guests including professors from the institute and the Saudi Ambassador to Paris.

In his keynote addressed on the sidelines of the event, Langh greeted the Kingdom, which provided a major contribution to renovate the building, especially its exterior façade inspired by the old Arabic architecture. Lang said that former Saudi King Khalid bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud initiated the idea of establishing this one-of-its-kind institute in the seventies. The institute has been a hub for cultural dialogue and has played a major role in spreading the Arabic language across France and Europe, the president stated.

Langhe later revealed that the Kingdom allocated USD5 million for the institute, which has sought to collect USD13 million for the required renewal works – Qatar also allocated USD2 million.

During a brief speech he addressed during the event, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed the Kingdom’s eagerness on motivating dialogue among different people and applauded the institute’s continuous role as symbol of cooperation and communication among nations.

Jubeir noted that this cultural foundation was launched 27 years ago and that the protection of such foundation is a duty. He considered that Saudi Arabia has contributed in supporting an institution that work on spreading the Arab civilization among western countries and serve in enhancing communication and cohabitation among different cultures and people.