No solution in Syria without Assad

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A SENIOR Turkish official said last Friday that it was no longer ‘realistic’ to insist on a solution to the Syria conflict excluding President Bashar al-Assad, just three days before new peace talks.

‘We have to be pragmatic, realistic. The facts on the ground have changed dramatically,’ Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek told a panel on Syria at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

‘Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad. It is not realistic.’ Simsek’s comments come as Turkey, a vocal critic of the regime in Damascus, sponsors talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Monday, together with key Assad allies Russia and Iran to shore up a ceasefire in the war battered country.

Turkey has backed Syrian opposition rebels fighting against Assad since the complex conflict began with anti-government demonstrations in March 2011, even saying previously that his days were numbered. Simsek appeared to reflect a policy shift away from Turkey’s long-held position of being against Assad having any role when the conflict ends, though he still blamed him for the war’s carnage.

‘As far as our position on Assad is concerned, we think that the suffering of Syrian people and tragedies clearly… the blame is squarely on Assad,’ Simsek said. Turkey recently hosted talks between Russia, which backs Damascus with military support, and Syrian opposition fighters.

Russia and Turkey have become closer after repairing ties last summer that had frayed following the downing of a Russian war plane on the Syrian border in November 2015.

Ankara and Moscow brokered a ceasefire between Assad’s forces and rebel groups in late December, but violence has again escalated across the country, particularly around the capital.

At Davos, Simsek said there had to be ‘a beginning in Astana’ to make sure the conflict stops. ‘For now at least the fighting has stopped, it is very, very critical because that is the beginning of anything else,’ he added. The process is to make sure that we translate the current lull into a more lasting ceasefire initially, and then of course talk about more mundane stuff, settling the conflict.’

There has so far been no indication of clashes with Assad’s forces or that Turkey plans any offensive against Syrian government-held territory. Russia has generally steered clear of sharp criticism of the Turkish offensive. And officials in Ankara dismiss talk of any secret ‘bargain’ with Moscow over Syria.

Five Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack in northern Syria blamed on IS jihadists, local media reported last Friday, quoting the Turkish military. Another nine soldiers were wounded in the bombing in Al-Bab, where Turkish-backed rebels have suffered heavy casualties in a weeks-long bid to retake the town from IS, the private Dogan news agency said.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said destruction by IS jihadists at Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra was disturbing. ”What is happening (in Palmyra) is a real tragedy from the point of view of cultural and historical heritage,’ President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow.

IS recaptured Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, from government forces on December 11 and the new devastation reportedly occurred earlier this month.

• Members of the Syrian opposition delegation arrived on Sunday in the Kazakh capital Astana for face-to-face peace talks with the war-torn nation’s government. The talks, set to begin yesterday, are the first time a delegation composed exclusively of rebel groups will negotiate with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush flew into Astana on Sunday morning. He was accompanied by around a dozen rebel figures, including Fares Buyush of the Idlib Army, Hassan Ibrahim of the Southern Front and Mamoun Hajj Moussa of Suqur al-Sham.

A source close to the opposition’s team said that the delegation had been broadened from eight rebel figures to a total of 14, in addition to 21 legal and political advisers. The 10-member government delegation, headed by its UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, left Damascus on Sunday, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

Rebels have insisted the talks will focus solely on reinforcing a frail nationwide truce brokered by opposition supporter Turkey and Syrian government ally Russia last month. Although the two countries have backed opposing sides of Syria’s nearly six-year conflict, they have worked hand-in-hand in recent weeks to secure an end to the brutal war that has killed more than 300,000.

The Astana talks, which Bashar al-Assad ally Iran is also helping organise, will be the first test of this new partnership. They are being held in the city’s luxury Rixos President Hotel, where staff members set up a single large table in a conference room under blue banners bearing the hashtag #AstanaProcess.

Rebels and Syrian government figures are to sit in the same room, along with UN envoy for Syria Staffan den Mistura. Den Mistura on Sunday hailed the talks as a ‘good initiative’ in comments carried by Russian news agencies. In addition to the hundreds of thousands killed, more than half of the country’s population has been displaced since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011.

Though the talks have been welcomed by all parties in the conflict, delegates from both sides headed to Kazakhstan with apparently opposing ideas about the goals, with President Assad insisting Thursday that rebels lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.

Although Assad said the talks would prioritise reaching a ceasefire, Damascus has insisted it will seek a ‘comprehensive’ political solution to the conflict. Moscow said last week that the objective was to ‘consolidate’ the ceasefire and to involve rebel field commanders in the ‘political process’ to end the bloodshed, creating a basis for a new round of UN-hosted negotiations in Geneva next month.

Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, an experienced negotiator involved in past failed talks in Geneva, will head the delegation in Astana. Mohammad Alloush of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group – whose rebel commander cousin Zahran Alloush was killed in an air strike in December 2015 – will lead a ‘military delegation’ of around eight people.

They will be backed by nine legal and political advisors from the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) umbrella group. But key rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said it would snub the Astana talks, claiming the reason was ceasefire violations and ongoing Russian air strikes.