Assad Receives Russian Minister of Defense

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus

Moscow- Head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad received Tuesday Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the instruction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian presidency said in a statement.

“During the meeting, the issues of military and military-technical cooperation were discussed in the context of the successful actions of the Syrian government troops with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces aimed at the complete destruction of ISIS in Syria,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Shoigu and Assad also discussed issues of stabilization of the situation in Syria, the functioning of de-escalation zones, and humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said Tuesday that the representatives of the Syrian armed opposition will actively participate in the upcoming sixth round of the talks on the Syrian settlement, which will be held in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.

“Representatives of the Syrian armed opposition have made official requests to Kazakhstan’s consulates asking for entrance visas. This means that representatives of the Syrian armed opposition will actively participate in the next round, like the last time,” the Foreign Minister told reporters.

According to Abdrakhmanov, groups that represent the Southern Front will participate in the sixth round, as well as other groups, which had been part of the Astana talks since their beginning.

“The Jordanian side will also participate as an observer and will be represented by highly placed officials from their external affairs departments,” the Minister said.

The establishment of the fourth and the last zone of de-escalation of violence in Syria, namely in its northern Idlib province, is going to be in the spotlight of the upcoming high-level international meeting on Syria in Astana.

The talks, attended by high-ranking officials from the three ceasefire guarantor states — Russia, Iran and Turkey — as well as representatives of the Syrian government and armed opposition, will be held on September 13-15.

So far, three zones of de-escalation have been established: in the south along the border with Jordan, in Eastern Ghouta and to the north of Homs. Consultations on the fourth and most problematic de-escalation zone in the Idlib province are ongoing.

In July, Russia, Turkey and Iran, with help from Jordan and the United States as observers, tried to coordinate a whole range of specifics on the establishment of the four safe zones, but could not agree on all the details and sign the package of documents as a whole.

Since July, three out of four zones were coordinated and announced outside of the Astana framework.

Syrian Opposition Fails to Form Unified Delegation to Geneva

Members of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee and the Cairo and Moscow groups meet in Riyadh on August 21, 2017

Beirut, Riyadh– Syrian opposition meetings in Riyadh ended on the first day without managing to form a unified delegation to participate in the Geneva negotiations.

The meetings in Riyadh, which were supposed to stretch over two or three days, saw an exchange of accusations between the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and the “Moscow” platform over the failure to form a unified delegation, highlighting an almost impossible quest to overcome thorny disputes, especially those related to the power transition and the fate of dictator Bashar al-Assad.

While the HNC held the Moscow platform responsible for the interruption of the Riyadh talks by rejecting any text referring to Assad’s departure, the Committee’s spokesman, Riad Naasan Agha told Asharq al-Awsat: “We have reached understandings without making an agreement.”

“Today the ball is in the court of the United Nations and the international envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura,” HNC member Yehia al-Aridi said, adding: “If a unified delegation is established at a later stage, it will be only formal.”

Sources who attended the Riyadh meetings on Tuesday told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Moscow platform has stressed its adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as the sole and fundamental reference point in the negotiations, while the HNC has underlined its commitment to the outcome of Geneva 1 and all international resolutions, including UNSCR 2118, 2254 and General Assembly Resolution 60/262.

On the other hand, the head of the “Moscow” platform, Kadri Jamil, denied his group’s adherence to Assad’s maintaining power, and said: “We are not calling for him to remain in power, but we reject any preconditions on his departure, and we want this matter to be discussed on the negotiation table.”

He noted that the “Moscow” platform would rather not discuss Assad’s fate at the present time, but focus instead on “common denominators”, a proposal which was strongly rejected by Aridi.

“How can I negotiate with the representative of Assad on the departure of the President?” Aridi asked.

“His departure is an essential part of the political transition and cannot be ignored,” he added.

Syrian Opposition Meetings in Riyadh Start with Limited Hopes for Consensus


Beirut, Riyadh – The Syrian opposition kicked off on Monday its meetings in Riyadh, amid little hope over the possibility to reach consensus over disputed issues, in particular the transitional phase and the fate of Syrian regime head Bashar al-Assad.

Well-informed sources in the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said they expected the talks to end with the formation of a single opposition delegation with divergent views, in wake of each party’s adherence to its own stances.

While the meetings were held on Monday with much secrecy, the HNC issued a statement saying that the opposition had convened in a morning session, which brought together 23 representatives from the HNC and the “Cairo” and “Moscow” platforms, to discuss the transitional governance phase and Assad’s fate.

The statement added that the representatives met with Saudi undersecretary for foreign affairs Adel al-Mardud for an hour and a half, during which they discussed the importance of reaching a single vision that represents the Syrian opposition and preparing for the second round of Riyadh talks.

“Based on the meetings of the first day, we can say that the rate of optimism does not exceed 40 percent. It is likely that the HNC and the Moscow and Cairo platforms will head to the Geneva negotiations in one delegation, while recognizing that it is impossible to agree on a unified vision regarding the transition and the fate of Assad,” the HNC sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Meanwhile, a source in the Syrian opposition told Asharq Al-Awsat that real efforts were being exerted by the opposition parties in Riyadh to unite their ranks and agree on the principles of a political solution, pointing out that the current divergence of views was mainly about the time left for Assad in power and the transitional rule.

The HNC stressed its rejection of Assad in power even for an interim period, while the Cairo platform had expressed its refusal to any role for the regime and its leader in Syria’s future.

On the other hand, the head of the Moscow platform, Qadri Jamil, proposed a solution to keep Assad in power and appoint five deputies, who would represent him in parliament, a proposal strongly rejected by the other opposition parties.

Car Blast Hits Syrian Port City of Latakia


London- A car bomb on Saturday hit the Syrian port city of Latakia, the Lebanese Hezbollah group’s al Manar television station and a monitor said.

The blast lead to injuries according to reports.

A statement by Reuters read that the television station flashed that an explosive laden car caused the blast in the Tashreen district of the city that embraces supporters of Syria’s head of regime Bashar al Assad.

It also cited casualties but gave no details.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported an explosion in the city saying it was likely caused by a car blast and said there were several injuries, with some in critical condition.

Pro-regime “Latakia Now” newspaper stated that the explosion took place near a checkpoint for Assad troops, adding that army men and forces have foiled the attempt of the car to get into city and saved it from a deadly attack.

Moqtada al-Sadr: We don’t Want Two Armies in Iraq


Jeddah – Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of Iraq’s Sadrist movement, underlined the importance to integrate government forces with the fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces under the leadership of the prime minister and the commander of the armed forces, pointing out that he refuses to have two armies in the country.

“The presence of the Popular Mobilization Forces outside the state is causing many problems,” he said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat.

Sadr did not rule out allying with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the head of the National Coalition Ammar al-Hakim in the upcoming elections, saying: “I have no objection to the alliance (with them), not as a person, but as the Sadrist movement, especially as we are about to form a bloc of independent technocrats to take Iraq to safety while providing services to citizens.”

The Iraqi official warned against the separation of Kurdistan, noting that he urged the region’s leaders to postpone the independence referendum, which will be held on September 25.

“We consider the Kurds as a component of the Iraqi people; however, problems accumulated by the previous governments have led them to call for independence,” he said, adding that Kurdistan’s separation from Iraq would “bring problems from inside and outside” the borders.

On the relations with Saudi Arabia, Sadr highlighted convergent views during his meeting with the Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Prince Mohammed Salman bin Abdulaziz in Jeddah last month.

“We discussed with the Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques several issues, mainly Iraq, as well as developments in the region, including Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jerusalem, the Iranian-Saudi relations, and Baghdad’s relations with Riyadh. We have reached similar visions,” he stated.

“Prince Mohammed bin Salman was very frank with us during the meeting, as we were with him,” the Iraqi leader added.

Asked about the future of the Saudi-Iraqi coordination in wake of Abadi’s visit to the Kingdom, Sadr replied: “The visit of Abadi to Saudi Arabia comes within the framework of boosting the relationship between the two governments. My visit to the Kingdom aims to consolidate ties between the two peoples.”

He stressed Iraq’s keenness to improve relations with Riyadh during the current period, noting that in the past 10 years, there was a certain sensitivity that should be removed and that “tension is gradually being alleviated”.

Regarding Iran’s policies and interference in the region, the Shi’ite leader said: “We want the situation in the region to calm down and for all the parties to tolerate each other in order to consolidate values that would eradicate sectarian and political tensions.”

Commenting on the latest string of terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia, Sadr stated that the Kingdom has terribly suffered from terrorism and extremism, “like all the countries of the world.” He called for unifying international efforts to end extremist and terrorist ideology.

On Syria, the Iraqi leader called for the withdrawal of all armed forces from Syria.

“The armed groups are supposed to withdraw (from Syria); and if the decision were mine, there would be no interference in Syrian affairs. My decision has angered many people, but I want to preserve the blood of the Syrian people.”

He noted that the departure of Bashar al-Assad would pave the way for peace in the country.

“The truth is that more than a month ago, I demanded that Assad step down for the sake of Syria, which is suffering from atrocities, destruction, war and terrorism,” Sadr said.

“If [Assad] steps down, there will be a breakthrough, and certainly greater peace,” he added.

The Guardian: ‘UN Pays Tens of Millions to Assad Regime under Syria Aid Program’


London- The British Guardian has revealed series of contracts awarded to Syrian government and charities linked to Head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad’s family.

“The UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with Assad, as part of an aid program that critics fear is increasingly at the whim of the government in Damascus,” a Guardian investigation has found.

Businessmen whose companies are under US and EU sanctions have been paid substantial sums by the UN mission, as have government departments and charities – including one set up by Assad’s wife Asma al-Assad and another by his closest associate Rami Makhlouf.

The UN said it can only work with a small number of partners approved by Assad and that it does all it can to ensure the money is spent properly, according to the Guardian.

The UN has paid more than $13 million to the Syrian government to boost farming and agriculture, yet the EU has banned trade with the departments in question for fear of how the money will be used, the British newspaper was informed.

The UN also paid at least four million dollars to the state-owned fuel supplier, which is also on the EU sanctions list.

The report further added that two UN agencies have partnered with the Syria Trust charity, an organization started and chaired by Assad’s wife, Asma, who is under both US and EU sanctions, spending a total of $8.5 million.

On the other hand, UNICEF has paid $267,933 to the Bustan Association, owned and run by Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s wealthiest man.

He is a friend and cousin of Assad, and his charity has been linked to several pro-regime militia groups.

Makhlouf runs the mobile phone network Syriatel, which the UN has also paid at least $700,000 in recent years.

He is on the EU sanctions list and was described in US diplomatic cables as the country’s “poster boy for corruption”.

The Guardian stressed that analysis of the United Nations own procurement documents show its agencies have done business with at least another 258 Syrian companies, paying sums as high as $54 million and £36 million, down to $30,000.

Moreover, the report said that UN highlights the money it has spent putting up staff at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus as a case in point.

UN agencies paid around nine million dollars to the hotel between 2014 and 2015 – which is understood to still be one-third owned by Syria’s ministry of tourism, a department outlawed under EU sanctions.

Russia Woos the World With New Plan on Syria


Caught between the hope of securing a lasting foothold in the Middle East and the fear of inheriting an impossible situation, Russia is trying to re-gauge its Syrian policy with possible support from the Trump administration in Washington.

The key feature of Russia’s evolving new strategy is an attempt at changing the narrative on Syria from one depicting a civil war to one presented as a humanitarian emergency that deserves massive international aid.

Western analysts say the new narrative has the merit of pushing aside thorny issues such as the future of President Bashar al-Assad and power-sharing in a future government.

Russia’s other aim is to divert international attention from the investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity that might concern not only Assad but also Moscow’s own military in Syria.

A glimpse of the new Russian narrative was offered by Moscow’s senior diplomat Evgeniy Zagayanov earlier this year in a paper presented to the United Nations’ Security Council proposing a project to clear minefields created by ISIS in and around the desert location of Palmyra.

The council put the demand on the backburner after members argued that tackling the humanitarian problem in a serious way would require the removal of hurdles set by President Assad’s government.

“The issue of humanitarian assistance to Syria cannot be reduced to the issue of blockages and hard-to-reach regions,” Vladimir Safronkov, a senior Russian diplomat, told the council a few weeks later.

Since then, Moscow experts have been working on what is labelled “master plan for relief and rebuilding in Syria.” The plan envisages separate projects to re-start and re-vitalise such a key industries as oil and gas production, the extraction of phosphate, and the reopening of regional trade routes.

Russia has already presented a plan, estimated to cost over $300 million, for demining 40 per cent of the Syrian territory within 22 months.

According to David Butter, a Syrian expert with Chatham House in London, the Kremlin has already enlisted a number of Russian firms to pick up putative contracts in all those fields.

The next plank of Russia’s new strategy consists of extending the so-called “de-escalation zones”, currently limited to five or six localities in the south, to other parts of Syria with Idlib province regarded as the next priority.

“Russia is trying to freeze the political situation and the reality of control; on the ground,” says Ahmad Ansari, an Iranian researcher. “Once a de-escalation zone is set up it would matter little who is in nominal control. And, in time, people will come to focus on possible reconstruction projects than the nature of power in Damascus.”

However, the proposed “frozen situation” would require at least two things: a minimum of municipal administration and a police presence to impose a minimum of security.

Moscow is trying to deal with the first problem with a plan for installing provisional municipal councils in “de-escalation zones.”

A team of administrative experts from Moscow are expected to visit Syria next month to help with the planning needed. That would put Russia as a “firewall” between the Assad regime, kept in distance in Damascus with nominal control, and the opposition forces in actual control on the ground.

To solve the second problem Russia is already training special police units for deployment in Syria. According to Moscow sources the first batch of 80 policemen are expected to arrive in Syria in September after a special course including training in Arabic language.

According to Moscow sources, President Vladimir Putin evoked the outline of the proposed “master plan for relief and rebuilding in Syria” during his meeting in Hamburg with US President Donald Trump. Russians believe that Trump, with his background in construction and real estate, would be more likely to appreciate the “master plan” than classical politicians.

Russia also hopes that the marginalization of Iran in Syria, implicit in the new Moscow strategy, may be an added an incentive for Trump who seems determined to clip Iran’s wings through all means short of military intervention.

Western experts put the cost of a comprehensive reconstruction programme in Syria at over $1.2 trillion, something that Russia, with its economy in dire straits as a result of sanctions and the fall in energy prices, is in no position to offer. In fact, earlier this month Tatyana Gulikova, head of the Russian Pubic Accounts Office, reported that the number of Russians living below poverty line rose by a whipping two million to a total of 22 million in 2016 compared to the year before.

According to Oleg Buklemishev, a Professor at Moscow State University, even if Russian economy returns to growth in 2017, Moscow would still be in no position to maintain social commitments while spending vast sums on foreign policy projects such as involvement in Syria.

Dangling the “master plan” for rebuilding Syria may also whet the appetite of the European Union at a time it is desperate to seek stimulants for its stagnant economy. According to French sources, Putin raised the issue with French President Emmanuel macron in their meeting in Versailles last May.

The “master plan” also appeals to Turkey whose major construction firms have sustained heavy losses, especially after being forced to leave Libya after Muammar Kaddafi’s demise. The same firms also face a more hostile environment in other Arab states as well as the European Union.

Both Jordan and Lebanon are also keen to see an injection of new financial resources into the region’s economy through the Syrian “masterplan”.

In His meeting with President Trump in Washington, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri even expressed the hope that his country would be seen as the launching pad for the rebuilding of Syria.

On domestic front, the new “ relief and reconstruction” narrative may appeal to Russian Muslim, some 20 per cent of the population, who are concerned about their county’s involvement in massacring Syrians.

It is too early to obtain a full picture of the new Russian strategy in Syria. It seems to be a collage of disparate political, security and economic concepts that may prove to be contradictory rather than complimentary.

The Russian strategy would reduce the remnants of the Assad regime to a mere ghost of a government. That may please Assad’s opponents but would leave the fundamental issue of who should govern Syria unresolved.

Russia may be able to secure the small percentage of Syrian territory it needs to protect its baes on the Mediterranean built will not be able to provide the financial and human resources needed to provide a credible measure of stability to other parts of the country.

With both Iran and Turkey busy carving their own enclaves in Syrian territory, the country’s fragmentation may become a fait accompli.

On a smaller scale France tried a similar policy in the Central Africa Republic and Congo Brazzaville during their respective civil wars. The result in both cases was a signal failure.

Even if the Russian plan garners the support it needs it will solve nothing in the medium and long-term; the key problem is who should govern Syria on whose behalf.

Efforts to Form Joint Military Council between Syrian Regime, Opposition

Moscow, Beirut – US President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that his country and Russia could work together on Syria and several other issues, as sources in Moscow revealed that US-Russian efforts were underway to form a military council that would gather representatives from the Syrian regime and the opposition.

The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the expected council would assume several responsibilities in the transitional phase, including countering terrorism.

“Radical transformation in the Syrian file settlement and the achievement of breakthroughs in the Geneva process are largely related to cooperation between Moscow and Washington,” the sources noted.

Meanwhile, well-informed sources in the Kazakh capital told Asharq Al-Awsat that everyone “is waiting for the outcome of the US-Russian cooperation in Syria, which would bring about radical changes on the scene and reflect on the Geneva negotiations.”

“Some changes may take place during or after the next round of Astana talks expected in August, where a final agreement on de-escalation zones is likely to be announced, which means creating a new reality on the ground,” the sources said.

Meanwhile, the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva on Wednesday did not see any new developments, except for continuous efforts to unify the opposition factions’ stance on the transitional period. Yet, the fate of the regime’s head, Bashar al-Assad, is so far disrupting efforts to unify the opposition.

The “Moscow Platform”, headed by Kadri Jamil, asked for more time to submit its final position on the transition, Brigadier-General Fattah Hassoun from the Free Syrian Army told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He pointed out that an agreement was reached between all the platforms on the Constitution and the elections, and the only pending issue was the transition of power.

In a news conference on Wednesday, the head of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) Nasr al-Hariri urged the United Nations to meet its commitments with regards to the implementation of international resolutions pertaining to the political transition in Syria.

Speaking following an extensive meeting with UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, Hariri said: “We have opened the door with the Moscow/Cairo platforms. This is out of our own will, not under pressure.”

“These discussions are ongoing. We have found some common ground. These discussions are important and serious and are happening for the first time,” he added.

Mattis: Iran is the Most Destabilizing Influence in the Middle East

Washington – US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that Iran was the most destabilizing country in the Middle East and that the Iranian regime was behind the causes of conflicts in the region.

Mattis on Tuesday granted a phone interview to a high school journalism student in Washington, during which he extensively talked about the new US administration’s policy in dealing with current crises, as well as the role of Iran and Russia in the region.

“Iran is certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East,” he stated.

“For example, for so long when Russia vetoed the United Nations so they couldn’t do anything about it, the only reason that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is still in power and has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and allowed the terrorists a place to set up camp and millions, literally millions of people, forced out of their homes with nothing but what they could cram into a car or put on their back, it’s all because of Iran,” Mattis noted.

The US defense secretary underlined the need to differentiate between the Iranian people and the regime.

“The Iranian people are definitely not the problem, it’s the regime that sends agents around to murder ambassadors in Pakistan or in Washington DC. It’s the regime that provides missiles to Lebanese Hezbollah or the Houthi in Yemen,” he stated.

On the Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria, Mattis said: “The only reason that Assad is still in power is Russia’s diplomatic veto, Iran’s military power, and now Russia’s military power. Without those two, the Syrian people would have run him out five years ago.”

Asked about the history between Russia and Iran that is influencing their relationship today, the US official said: “The Russians have had military bases, military relationships there for the last 30 to 40 years, so there’s a certain kinship. Another one is that Russia right now has chosen to be a strategic competitor with NATO and with the United States, so this is an area they can compete in.”

Assad in Hmeimim Base: ‘I Won’t Forget Moscow’s Stance’

Bashar al-Assad in Hmeimim Air Base.

London- On the sidelines of his visit to Hmeimim military air base, where Russian air forces are based, head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad stressed that he will never forget Russia’s support for him in the Syrian war.

“Russia has provided weapons and ammunition to support Syria in its war against terrorism, but more importantly it has offered blood as well, which is the dearest thing a human being can give to fellow humans,” Assad said, according to Sputnik news agency.

“The Syrian people will not forget that their Russian brethren stood alongside them in this patriotic war. Salute to all the Russian fighters and to the leadership of Hmeimim base and the Russian military leadership, and the biggest salute to President Vladimir Putin.”

This is the second time Assad tours outside Damascus, where he had delivered the Eid prayer in the city of Hama, located in central Syria, whereas the Hmeimim base is located in the province of Latakia east Syria.

He visited Hama after the Russian army bombed the countryside of the city and weeks later after attacking Khan Sheikhun with chemical weapons, which Washington responded to by bombing the regime forces.