UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

Internally displaced Syrian children walk in a mud near tents, in northern Aleppo countryside, Syria, on January 20, 2021. (REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano)
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Updated 23 January 2021

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

  • Geir Pederson wants enhanced international diplomacy, and tighter focus on progress in drafting new constitution
  • The fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee begins in Geneva on Monday

NEW YORK: Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Friday called for “more serious and cooperative” international diplomacy as part of political efforts to improve the lives of the Syrian people and develop a vision for the future of their country.

Speaking ahead of the fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which begins on Monday in Geneva, he also urged committee members to focus their efforts and work more effectively to speed up progress on constitutional reform.

Pedersen expressed hope that much-needed international engagement with the peace process is now possible.

“After all, despite the differences, key states are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to Resolution 2254,” he added, referring to the UN Security Council resolution, adopted in 2015, that calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pedersen, who briefed the Security Council this week on the latest developments, highlighted the fact that five foreign armies are active in Syria and “violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity (have been) going on for years.”

Although the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey in the northwest of the country resulted in a de-escalation of hostilities, Pedersen warned that this relative calm remains fragile.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) 

“All of these issues cannot be sorted out by the Syrians alone,” he said. (They) need an international cooperation (and) a real exchange of views (among all parties).

“If that political will is lacking it would be very, very difficult to move this process forward ... if you leave this to the UN alone, we will not be able to succeed.”

Top on the agenda on Monday will be discussion of the basic principles of the Syrian constitution. Pedersen said he has been meeting with the two co-chairs of the committee on a regular basis, and has also had intensive discussions with the “Middle Third” civil-society group, which includes society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside of Syria.

His experiences during the past year, he said, lead him to believe there is potential for finding common ground. No single actor or group of actors can impose its will on Syria or settle the conflict alone — they must work together, he added.

The time has now come for the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee to organize and focus its efforts by establishing “more effective and operational working methods,” Pedersen said, so that they can begin to move forward from preparing constitutional reforms to actually drafting them, and agreeing on clear agendas and discussion topics for future meetings.

“There needs to be more urgency (in) delivering progress in this process,” he added.

As he saluted the work of civil society groups and “all the Syrians who do what they can to improve the situation on the ground and support a political process,” Pedersen singled out women in particular for praise. He has been particularly proactive in seeking input from the Women’s Advisory Board.

“It is a priority for all of us to make sure that we have full participation of Syrian women in the political process,” he said. “(Promoting) their core constitutional rights is central for me, as the facilitator of the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

Asked about plans for large-scale prisoner swaps, Pedersen said that although this is not on the agenda for the talks in Geneva this week, it is always part of his own agenda. The disappointment over the lack of progress on the issue so far means “that we should work even harder” on it, he added.

“This is a file that really has an impact on nearly every Syrian family, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “(I) have appealed (for) more information on the missing. (We) need to see the early release of women, children, the elderly and the sick, and I think (nothing) should stop that from happening.”

The members of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee are due to arrive in Geneva on Saturday, and Pedersen will consult with the co-chairs over the weekend before the main talks begin on Monday.

Asked whether he expects this latest round of negotiations to be a success for the UN, Pedersen said: “I really do not think this is the question; the question (is) whether it is a success for the Syrian people and (their) aspirations.

“My hope has been that the Constitutional Committee, if it is handled in the correct manner, could start to build trust and (be) a door-opener for a broader political process.

“But the (committee) cannot work in isolation ... we need political will from the different parties to be able to move forward.”

He added: “The (committee) is just one aspect, and it is not the one aspect that will solve the Syrian crisis. If we are to see changes in the situation on the ground, there are other factors that need to be discussed.”

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

Updated 6 min 38 sec ago

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

  • Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them

CAIRO: Qatar and Egypt have agreed to appointment envoys and reopen their embassies in the wake of the AlUla agreement to mend relations with Doha.

The resolve came after delegations from both countries held talks in Kuwait to plan the normalization of links between the nations.

“The two parties agreed to resume the work of their diplomatic missions … followed by the appointment of an Egyptian ambassador in Doha and a Qatari ambassador in Cairo,” an Egyptian diplomatic source said.

Qatar’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Ibrahim Abdul Aziz Al-Sahlawi, was expected to become Doha’s envoy in Cairo, the source added.

During the meeting in Kuwait, Egypt was said to have set out its conditions for settling relations with Qatar, which included strict demands for Doha not to interfere in Egyptian internal affairs.

The AlUla agreement, signed on Jan. 5 during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in the ancient city, saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt restore ties with Qatar, ending a dispute which started in 2017.

A statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “The two sides welcomed the measures taken by both countries after signing the AlUla agreement as a step toward building confidence between the two brotherly countries.”

The meeting discussed ways to enhance joint work and bilateral relations in areas including security, stability, and economic development.

Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them and for its efforts to heal the rift and promote Arab unity.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Cairo and Doha had exchanged two official memoranda agreeing to restore diplomatic relations and on Jan. 18 flights between Egypt and Qatar resumed after having been suspended for more than three years.

Jordan reimposes Friday curfew as virus surges

Updated 24 February 2021

Jordan reimposes Friday curfew as virus surges

  • An existing nightly curfew will begin at 10 p.m. instead of midnight
  • From Sunday a maximum of 30 percent of public-sector employees will be allowed at their workplace

AMMAN: Jordan has reimposed an all-day curfew on Fridays to stem the spread of coronavirus as cases rise, officials said Wednesday.
“Starting this week, the government is imposing a curfew throughout the kingdom from 10 p.m. (2000 GMT) Thursdays until 6 am Saturdays,” Information Minister Ali Al-Ayed said in a statement.
Walking to a mosque for Friday prayers, however, is permitted, he said.
An existing nightly curfew will begin at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, while from Sunday a maximum of 30 percent of public-sector employees will be allowed at their workplace.
The toughening of Covid-19 restrictions returns Jordan to rules imposed in March last year, and which were only eased last month.
“The kingdom has witnessed a rapid spread of Covid in recent weeks. This is why swift and strict measures are needed,” Health Minister Nazir Obeidat said.
Jordan, which began vaccinations last month, has officially recorded more than 376,000 novel coronavirus cases and over 4,600 deaths out of a population of 10.5 million people.


Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara

Updated 24 February 2021

Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara

  • Greek PM: ‘The best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident’

ANKARA: While Turkey and Greece came together to resume talks over their maritime disputes, the decades-long tension between the countries has resurfaced again. 

Ankara claimed four Greek F-16 jets harassed a Turkish research vessel in the Aegean Sea on Tuesday by dropping a flare two miles away from the ship near the Greek island of Lemnos — an accusation that was quickly denied by Athens. 

Greece’s Air Force was conducting an exercise in the Aegean Sea at the time, but allegedly far away from the Turkish vessel. 

In a press briefing, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country responded with the “necessary retaliation in line with the rules. While we are carrying out scientific work, harassment is not correct. It doesn't fit in our good neighborly ties.”

The Greek Defense Ministry insisted their jets never harassed the Turkish vessel.

Turkey’s new research vessel, the TCG Cesme, conducted annual hydrographic survey work last week in international waters between the two countries, stirring Athens' anger. 

The Greek Foreign Ministry criticized the presence of the Turkish vessel in the area, describing it as “an unnecessary move that doesn't help positive sentiment.”

In retaliation, Ankara accused Greece of conducting similar military exercises in the Aegean Sea near islands that are supposed to be non-militarized by international and bilateral agreements.

The incident triggered, once again, the unresolved bilateral dispute over maritime zones as both countries continue to pursue energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

The second round of exploratory talks was expected to be held in Athens in early March. It was scheduled ahead of the EU Summit on March 25-26, during which Brussels will decide on possible sanctions on Ankara over its energy exploration missions in the eastern Mediterranean. 

“It is important that the resumption of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey does not elicit hopes for a breakthrough,” George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the International Center of European Formation, told Arab News.  

“The two countries interpret dialogue in different terms and employ relevant political communication strategies. New tensions concerning the research ship Cesme are nothing new in the modern history of bilateral relations, but they further deteriorate an already toxic climate.”

Turkish-Greek relations have already been tested with the Cyprus conflict as Ankara ruled out discussing a federal system to reunify the divided island. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Feb. 10 that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “will get to know the crazy Turks as well.”

The harsh rhetoric illustrates Turkey’s anger about the bizonal and bicommunal federation offer from Greece, and it did not stop there. 

“Exploratory talks were supposed to be held in Athens but Mitsotakis challenged me,” Erdogan said in the Parliament. “How can we sit down with you now? Know your place first.”

According to Tzogopoulos, without a positive agenda, long-term solutions are unlikely.  

“For now the best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident, while experienced Greek and Turkish diplomats continue their work,” he said. 

Tzogopoulos said that from a European perspective, a model of selective engagement with Turkey is being studied in Brussels. 

“This will continue despite new tensions,” he said. “From a NATO perspective, deconfliction remains a priority and this goal has been met until now.”

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain

Updated 24 February 2021

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain

  • The family support project, named “Thamarat” (Fruits), is initially being rolled out in four of Sudan’s 18 states
  • Inflation has risen to more than 300%, and there have been frequent shortages of bread, fuel, power and medicine

KHARTOUM: Sudan launched a scheme on Wednesday to alleviate the impact of a severe economic crisis by paying out monthly cash allowances of $5 that are eventually meant to reach 80% of the population.
The first $400 million phase of the program is financed by the World Bank and other donors, but disbursement of funds had been delayed ahead of a steep currency devaluation announced early on Sunday.
The family support project, named “Thamarat” (Fruits), is initially being rolled out in four of Sudan’s 18 states.
Sudan has been roiled by an economic crisis that triggered protests against former ruler Omar Al-Bashir and continued after his overthrow in April 2019.
An uneasy, transitional military-civilian alliance now governs the country of 45 million. Inflation has risen to more than 300%, and there have been frequent shortages of bread, fuel, power and medicine.
“The Thamarat program is here to help people through this hard time,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said as he launched the program in Al-Kalakla, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of the capital, Khartoum.
Hamdok acknowledged that the scheme had been slow to start but appealed to people to be patient. Logistical challenges registering families have contributed to delays, officials say.
“We aspire to have it cover all of Sudan’s states soon,” Hamdok said.
The government had taken measures try to limit price increases after devaluation, but that the allowances were designed to cushion the impact of any further inflation, said Finance Minister Jibril Ibrahim.
“We will try to make sure they (prices rises) don’t happen, but if they do people will have extra income to face these increases,” he said.
“We want this to be a productive program. We want people to pool their money and start small productive projects.”

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

Updated 24 February 2021

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

JERUSALEM: Israel on Wednesday described Iran’s move to restrict some site inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog as a “threat” that required a response.
Iran this week began limiting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to sites and other information in response to the US refusal so far to lift sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump.
“Israel sees this step as a threat and it must not go by without response,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement.
“We will never allow Iran to control the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon,” he added.
Israel’s government, led by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was vehemently opposed to the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated between Tehran and world powers.
Netanyahu applauded when Trump scrapped the deal almost three years ago.
The Israeli leader has repeatedly urged US President Joe Biden not to restore the deal.
But Biden, European powers and Iran are still trying to keep the nuclear accord alive.
Tehran demands Washington take the first step by scrapping painful sanctions Trump had imposed since 2018, while Washington insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments, some of which it has backed away from.
Iran’s parliament had set Sunday as the deadline to limit to some IAEA inspections, a move that took effect on Tuesday.
The IAEA and Iran agreed a temporary technical deal allowing the watchdog to “retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” according to IAEA chief Rafael Grossi.
With inspections now restricted, Ashkenazi said that “Iran is destroying what remains of the IAEA’s oversight.”
Iran says its nuclear program is civilian in nature.
Netanyahu alleges the Islamic republic is pursuing a nuclear weapon and insists this marks one of the gravest threats to the Jewish people since the Nazi Holocaust.