Opposition urges Moscow to push regime over peace settlement

Syrians walk along a destroyed street in Raqqa on Wednesday, two months after Syrian Democratic Forces captured the city from Daesh. (AFP)
Updated 22 December 2017

Opposition urges Moscow to push regime over peace settlement

ASTANA: Syria’s opposition on Thursday said it was more important “than ever before” that Russia push Bashar Assad’s regime toward a political settlement, as new peace talks kicked off in Kazakhstan.
A new round of Syria peace talks backed by powerbrokers Russia, Iran and Turkey began earlier Thursday in the Kazakh capital Astana as major powers seek to revive a hobbled peace process.
Delegations from Russia, Iran and Turkey along with Syrian regime representatives and a 20-strong opposition delegation had all arrived in the Kazakh capital Astana for two days of talks, a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman said.
The UN’s envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is expected to attend the second day of talks on Friday, the ministry added.
“We are asking the Russian side, now more than ever before, to put pressure on the regime to push it toward a political settlement,” the Syrian opposition delegation said in a statement after meeting with a UN team.
“The detainees are the priority for the military delegation. We will focus on this cause with the Russian delegation,” the statement added.
The negotiators will also focus on the reinforcement of the cease-fire, especially in the de-escalation zones, as well as the lifting of sieges on all towns and villages and the delivery of assistance to those in need, the statement said.
The regime’s news agency reported that Russia’s delegation had “met separately with the Iranian and Turkish delegations.”
“After the bilateral meetings, there will be a trilateral meeting between the three sponsor states,” it said.
The negotiations should conclude with a plenary session involving all the parties on Friday.
The eighth round of talks comes after Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian forces during a surprise visit to the war-torn country last week.
Moscow has spearheaded the talks in Astana since the start of the year as it tries to turn its game-changing military intervention in Syria into a negotiated settlement.
The Kremlin also hopes to convene a political congress in the Black Sea resort of Sochi which would bring together regime officials and the opposition to reinvigorate a hobbled peace process.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday there were currently “no dates” for the Sochi congress as of yet.
“The most important thing here is preparedness. No one is trying to artificially accelerate this process,” Peskov told reporters.
Since the start of Syria’s war in 2011, numerous diplomatic attempts to halt the conflict have stumbled, mainly over Assad’s future.
A fragile cease-fire brokered at the end of last year by Moscow and rebel-aligned Ankara has been bolstered somewhat by the negotiations in Astana, which began in January.
Recent rounds of talks in Kazakhstan have focussed on implementing a Russia-led plan for four “de-escalation zones” to stem fighting between the regime and the opposition.
A year on from the devastating and strategically crucial regime victory in Aleppo, Damascus has consolidated control over much of the country, wresting territory from extremist factions not party to the truce, particularly Daesh.
Diplomatic contacts between the major parties in the conflict have intensified in recent months, but there is no sign that Damascus and its armed opponents are any closer to a political settlement.
The Astana talks have run in parallel to negotiations taking place in Geneva with the backing of the UN.
Both the Astana and Geneva negotiations have failed to bear much fruit, and the planned Sochi congress appears to be Moscow’s attempt to force the pace in a bid for a political settlement.
But representatives of the opposition have expressed fears the congress could prove a distraction from the UN negotiations.
The war has left more than 340,000 people dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


In Iraq, virus revives traumas of Daesh survivors

Updated 04 December 2020

In Iraq, virus revives traumas of Daesh survivors

BAJET KANDALA CAMP, Iraq: For half a decade, Zedan suffered recurring nightmares about militants overrunning his hometown in northern Iraq. The 21-year-old Yazidi was just starting to recover when COVID-19 revived his trauma.
Zedan had lost several relatives when Daesh stormed into Sinjar, the rugged heartland of the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq’s northwest.
The militants killed Yazidi men, took the boys as child soldiers and forced the women into sexual slavery.
Zedan and the surviving members of his family fled, finding refuge in the Bajet Kandala camp near the Syrian border where they still live today.
“We used to be farmers living a good life. Then IS (Daesh) came,” he said, wringing his hands.
In a pre-fabricated building hosting the camp’s mental health clinic, Zedan shared his traumas with Bayda Othman, a psychologist for international NGO Premiere Urgence. Zedan refers to the violence of 2014 vaguely as “the events.”
The UN says they may constitute something much more serious: Genocide.
“I started having nightmares every night. I would see men in black coming to kill us,” Zedan said, telling Othman that he had attempted suicide several times. He has been seeing her for years, learning how to cope with his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through breathing exercises that she taught him.
Earlier this year, his nightly panic attacks stopped. Finally, he could sleep again. But only for a few months.
In March, Iraq declared a nationwide lockdown to try to contain the spread of Covid-19. Zedan broke down.
“I fear that my family could catch the virus or give it to me,” he said. “It obsesses me.”
As lockdown dragged on, Zedan’s brother lost his job at a stationery shop on the edge of the camp.
“There’s no more money coming into the family now. Just thinking about it gives me a panic attack,” he said.
“The nightmares returned, and so did my desire to die.”
Out of Iraq’s 40 million citizens, one in four is mentally vulnerable, the World Health Organization says.
But the country is in dire shortage of mental health specialists, with only three per 1 million people.

HIGHLIGHT

The Daesh extremists killed Yazidi men, took the boys as child soldiers and forced the women into sexual slavery.

Speaking about trauma or psychological problems is widely considered taboo, and patients who spoke to AFP agreed to do so on the condition that only their first names would be used.
In camps across Iraq, which still host some 200,000 people displaced by violence, the pandemic has pushed many people with psychological problems into remission, Othman said.
“We noticed a resurgence of PTSD cases, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts,” she told AFP.
In October, there were three attempted suicides in Bajet Kandala alone by displaced people, who said their movements outside the camp were restricted by the lockdown, or whose economic situation had deteriorated even further.
A tissue factory who fired people en masse, a potato farm that shut down, a haberdashery in growing debt: Unemployment is a common thread among Othman’s patients.
“It leads to financial problems, but also a loss of self-confidence, which rekindles trauma,” she said.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about a quarter of Iraqis who were employed prior to lockdown have been permanently laid off.
Youth were particularly hard hit: 36 percent of 18-24 years old who had been employed were dismissed, the ILO said.
A new patient in her forties walked toward the clinic, her hair covered in a sky-blue veil.
Once settled in a faux-leather chair, Jamila revealed that she, too, feels destabilized by the pandemic.
The Yazidi survivor lives in a one-room tent with her son and four daughters. But she doesn’t feel at home.
“I have totally abandoned my children. I feel all alone even though they’re always at home. I hit them during my panic attacks — I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.
Othman tried to soothe Jamila, telling her: “Hatred is the result of untreated sadness. We take it out on relatives, especially when we feel devalued — men prey on women, and women on children.”
But the trauma is not just an issue for the displaced, specialists warn.
“With the isolation and lack of access to care, children who have lived a genocide develop difficulties as they become adults,” said Lina Villa, the head of the mental health unit at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in northern Iraq.
“We fear suicide rates will go up in the years to come.”