Kerry & Biden battle it out over Syria

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VICE President Joe Biden said on Saturday that if upcoming negotiations fail and no political solution to the civil war in Syria is possible, the United States is prepared to step in with major military force.

‘We do know it would better if we can reach a political solution but we are prepared … if that’s not possible … to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh,’ Biden said following a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Another US official quickly stepped in to clarify Biden’s remarks, saying that the military solution applied only to the Islamic State, as opposed to Syria in its entirety. The official added that ‘there is no change in US policy’.

According to the White House, negotiating a settlement between the Syrian government and rebel forces is of great importance, as it would help bring the Islamic State down another notch.

While Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US will no longer be seeking regime change in Syria following a compromise with Moscow, Biden said that he was in discussion with Davutoglu about how both countries could provide Sunni rebel forces with the support they need to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Biden arrived last Thursday in Istanbul for the purpose of deepening US cooperation with Turkey on the fight against the Islamic State. This included Biden urging Turkey to do more to secure a 60-mile section of its border with Syria, which has been used repeatedly by ISIS for supply routes. Biden also brought up the issue of Iraq’s displeasure with Turkish military encroachment.

Davutoglu insisted that Turkish forces were solely in Iraq to train local forces against ISIS. That issue is far from resolved, but the next step is for talks to open with the Iraqi government. The next iteration of the Syrian peace talks were supposed to take place Monday in Geneva, but they’ve been delayed because of an unresolved dispute over which parties will comprise the opposition. Negotiations continued over the weekend. There still seem to be nearly intractable differences between the US and Russia on which parties to invite.

l A senior official in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling party has said the government will not make any new concessions in the upcoming Geneva peace talks.

‘We will not make new concessions at the Geneva peace talks,’ the assistant regional secretary of al-Baath Arab Socialist Party, Hilal al-Hilal, said on Sunday.

The comments come ahead of talks which were planned to start in the Swiss city on January 25. The Geneva talks, which are likely to be delayed, are part of an 18-month timetable approved unanimously last December by the United Nations Security Council to resolve the Syria conflict.

The UNSC Resolution 2254 endorses a roadmap for a peace process in Syria. The resolution calls for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and the formation of a ‘credible, inclusive and non-sectarian’ government within six months and UN-supervised ‘free and fair elections’ within 18 months.

The Syrian government has announced its readiness to participate in the negotiations but stressed that Damascus should be provided with a list of terrorist groups who are barred from the meeting and also the names of Syrian opposition figures expected to join the talks.

The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has hinted that foreign-backed opposition groups in Syria who enjoy support from major governments including France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are deliberately undermining ongoing efforts for a political solution in Syria, according to a report by the Foreign Policy magazine.

‘The truth is that the parties remain locked in fixed positions and a “zero-sum” game’ de Mistura told a closed-door briefing to the 15-nation UN Security Council meeting on January 18, adding, ‘Parties disagree not only on substance, but… they also question that the UN could or should exercise its discretion in “finalising” the opposition list.’

Damascus has been fighting foreign-backed militant groups in the country since 2011. The war in Syria has so far claimed the lives of over 260,000 people and displaced nearly half of population.

• The United States has once again reassured Saudi Arabia of its ‘solid relationship’ with the kingdom following the removal of sanctions on Iran. ‘We have as solid a relationship, as clear an alliance, and as strong a friendship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we’ve ever had,’ US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday before departing Riyadh for Laos after his 24-hour visit.

He repeated the same US allegations against Iran that it had been moving towards producing nuclear weapons before it reached a deal with the P5+1, saying the Washington-Riyadh relationship will remain unchanged after the agreement.

‘Nothing has changed because we worked to eliminate a nuclear weapon with a country in the region,’ he added. ‘We will continue to work in the region with our friends and our allies.’

Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany (P5+1), finalised the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, on July 14, 2015. On January 16, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced that sanctions imposed on Tehran over its nuclear programme had been lifted. The announcement was made after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA.

Under the JCPOA, limits are put on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the removal of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. The sanctions relief has angered some Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Kerry has long sought to reduce concerns among the US’ Persian Gulf allies about the overtures to Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf neighbours have felt that they no longer receive support from their traditional ally Washington in its illegal fight against Yemen.

However, Kerry on Saturday reiterated Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war on Yemen, which has so far claimed the lives of at least 8,000 people. He said the Saudi decision to launch airstrikes in Yemen was aimed at dealing with the Ansarullah movement and al-Qaeda operatives in the Arab country.