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.”

South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

Updated 6 sec ago

South Sudan’s vice president expresses concern over ongoing peace talks

  • The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people

JUBA, South Sudan: South Sudan ‘s vice president said Thursday that peace talks in neighboring Kenya have failed to acknowledge the country’s peace agreement established in 2018, alleging a new draft agreement is aimed at replacing the original peace deal.
Riek Machar in a protest letter to the talks’ mediator said the draft established alternative institutions to replace or run in parallel with those established by the previous peace agreement. He added that the current peace talks should complement and not obliterate the original deal.
The former rebel leader signed an agreement with President Salva Kiir in 2018 that ended a five-year civil war that killed about 400,000 people. Machar and Kiir were on opposite sides in the war and Machar was appointed vice president after the 2018 deal. His group isn’t part of the current talks, which are for groups that were not included in the 2018 agreement.
Despite the peace deal, violence in South Sudan has continued, most of it attributed to rebel groups and warring ethnic groups.
The body mandated with monitoring the implementation of the 2018 peace deal raised concerns in May over the slow implementation of election related tasks with only a few months left until December elections.
Opposition groups that were not part of the 2018 peace agreement have been in talks in Kenya since May 9 aimed at bringing groups on board ahead of the December elections.
The talks have resulted in a draft agreement that recommends an extension of the transitional period to provide more time for election preparations.
President Kiir on Thursday received a progress report from government representatives in the ongoing talks with the government spokesperson telling media that participants in the talks are close to reaching a final agreement.


Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

Updated 21 June 2024

Israel’s pledge to guard an aid route into Gaza falls flat as lawlessness blocks distribution

  • Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military said Sunday that it was establishing a new safe corridor to deliver aid into southern Gaza. But days later, this self-declared “tactical pause” has brought little relief to desperate Palestinians.
The United Nations and international aid organizations say a breakdown in law and order has made the aid route unusable.
With thousands of truckloads of aid piled up, groups of armed men are regularly blocking convoys, holding drivers at gunpoint and rifling through their cargo, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media on the issue.
He said lawlessness has emerged as the main obstacle to aid distribution in southern Gaza — where an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians displaced from Rafah, or more than half of Gaza’s entire population, are now sheltering in tent camps and cramped apartments without adequate food, water, or medical supplies.
Here is a closer look at the security challenges facing the UN and aid organizations.
Israel’s ‘tactical pause’ stymied
Israel said Sunday it would observe daily pauses in combat along a route stretching from Kerem Shalom — the strip’s only operational aid crossing in the south — to the nearby city of Khan Younis. Before the pause, aid organizations had reported that the need to coordinate trucks’ movement with the Israelis in an active combat zone was slowing aid distribution.
The UN official familiar with the aid effort said that there has been no sign of Israeli activity along the route. The UN tried to send a convoy of 60 trucks down the road Tuesday to pick up aid at Kerem Shalom. But 35 of the trucks were intercepted by armed men, the official said.
In recent days, armed men have moved closer to the crossing and set up roadblocks to halt trucks loaded with supplies, the UN official said. They have rifled through the pallets in search of smuggled cigarettes, a rare luxury in a territory where a single smoke can go for $25.
The surge in lawlessness is a result of growing desperation in Gaza and the power vacuum that left by Hamas’s waning power over the territory, said Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza who is now in Cairo.
With the territory’s police force targeted by Israel, he said, crime has reemerged as an untreated issue in Gaza.
“After Hamas came to power, one of the things that they brought under their control was the lawlessness of the so-called big clans,” said Abusada. “Now, that’s left for the Palestinians on their own to deal with it. So once again, we are seeing shootings between families, there are thefts, all the bad things are happening.”
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, used to deploy local Palestinian police to escort aid convoys, but many refused to continue serving after airstrikes killed at least eight police officers in Rafah, the agency said.
Israel says the police are legitimate targets because they are controlled by Hamas.
Is any aid still getting into Gaza?
The situation has largely paralyzed aid distribution to the south — particularly since Gaza’s nearby Rafah crossing with Egypt was closed when Israel invaded the city early last month.
The UN official said that 25 trucks of flour used the route Tuesday. Some private commercial trucks also got through — many of which used armed security to deter groups seeking to seize their cargo. An AP reporter stationed along the road Monday saw at least eight trucks pass by, armed security guards riding on top.
Before Israel’s offensive into the city of Rafah, hundreds of fuel trucks routinely entered the area.
The UN has now begun rerouting some fuel trucks through northern Gaza. Farhan Haq, a UN spokesman, said five fuel trucks entered Gaza Wednesday. The UN humanitarian office reported that these were the first fuel deliveries since early June and supplies remain scarce.
Aid groups say only a ceasefire and a reopening of the Rafah crossing could significantly increase aid flow to the area.
The military body in charge of coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, COGAT, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Security concerns also afflict aid from US pier project
The US installed a pier off Gaza’s coast last month, aiming to provide an additional route for aid to enter Gaza. But the ambitious project has suffered repeated logistical and security setbacks.
Cyprus, a partner in the effort, said the pier was up and running again Thursday after being detached for a second time last week because of rough seas. COGAT said Thursday there were “hundreds of aid pallets awaiting collection and distribution by the UN aid agencies.”
But there, too, security concerns are hindering distribution of aid.
The UN suspended its cooperation with the pier on June 9 – a day after rumors swirled that the Israeli military had used the area in a hostage rescue operation that left over 270 Palestinians dead. Photos of the operation have shown an Israeli helicopter in the vicinity of the pier.
Both Israel and the US deny the pier was used in the operation. But the perception that the pier was used for military purposes could endanger humanitarian workers, and threaten humanitarian groups’ principles of of neutrality, the UN says.
Aid workers said they are working with the Israelis to find a solution, but that the security burden falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders.
UN and other humanitarian officials, including Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, met with Israel’s military chief and COGAT officials this week to seek solutions.
USAID said afterward that the meeting ended with promises of specific actions, but gave no details.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah: What weapons does it have?

Updated 20 June 2024

Lebanon’s Hezbollah: What weapons does it have?

  • Many of the Shiite Muslim group’s weapons are Iranian, Russian or Chinese models

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah has drawn on an expanded arsenal in ongoing hostilities with Israel, with leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah saying in a speech on Wednesday the Iran-backed group had obtained new weapons.
He did not identify the new weapons, but said they would “emerge in the field.”
Hezbollah’s latest conflict with Israel, which has raged in parallel with the Gaza war, has raised concerns of further escalation between the regional enemies, which last fought a major war in 2006.
Here is a snapshot of Hezbollah’s arsenal:

Hezbollah’s military strength is underpinned by upwards of 150,000 missiles and rockets of various types and ranges, according to the World Factbook of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Hezbollah says it has rockets that can hit all areas of Israel. Many of them are unguided, but it also has precision missiles, drones and anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.
Hezbollah’s main supporter and weapons supplier is Iran. Analysts say Tehran sends arms to the group by land via Iraq and Syria, both Middle Eastern countries where Iran has close ties and influence. Many of the Shiite Muslim group’s weapons are Iranian, Russian or Chinese models.
Nasrallah said in 2021 the group has 100,000 fighters. The CIA World Factbook says it was estimated in 2022 to have up to 45,000 fighters, split between roughly 20,000 full-time and 25,000 reserve personnel.

Hezbollah used guided anti-tank missiles extensively in the 2006 war. It has deployed guided rockets again in the latest hostilities. These include the Russian-made Kornet.
Hezbollah has also used an Iranian-made guided missile known as “al-Mas,” according to a report by the pro-Iran Arabic broadcaster Al-Mayadeen.
A report by Israel’s Alma Research and Education Center published in April described the Al-Mas as an anti-tank weapon that can hit targets beyond the line of sight following an arched trajectory, enabling it to strike from above.
The missile is part of a family of weapons made by Iran through reverse engineering based on the Israeli Spike missile family, the report said. It said the missile was a “flagship product” of Iran’s defense industry in Hezbollah’s possession.
Hezbollah said on June 6 it had fired at an Israeli warplane. A source familiar with its arsenal said it was the first time the group had done so, calling it a milestone, while declining to identify the weapon used.
Hezbollah has also shot down Israeli drones during this conflict using surface-to-air missiles.
The first such incident was on Oct. 29 when Hezbollah for the first time said it had used anti-aircraft weaponry it had long been thought to have.
Hezbollah has used such missiles several times since, downing Israeli Hermes 450 and Hermes 900 drones.

Hezbollah has repeatedly launched explosive one-way drones, including in some of its more complicated attacks. It launched some to distract Israeli air defenses, while explosives-laden drones were flown at targets.
More recently, the group has announced attacks that use drones that drop bombs and return to Lebanon, rather than just flying at their targets.
Hezbollah’s drones include what it says are the locally-assembled Ayoub and Mersad models, which analysts say are cheap and relatively easy to produce.

Unguided rockets comprised the bulk of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal in the last war with Israel in 2006, when the group fired about 4,000 of them into Israel — mostly Russian-made Katyusha-style missiles with a range of up to 30 km (19 miles).
Nasrallah has said the biggest change in Hezbollah’s arsenal since 2006 is the expansion of its precision guidance systems.
In 2022, he said Hezbollah had the ability within Lebanon to retrofit thousands of rockets with guidance systems to make them precision missiles.
Hezbollah has Iranian models, such as Raad (Arabic for Thunder), Fajr (Dawn) and Zilzal (Earthquake) rockets, which have a more powerful payload and longer range than Katyushas.
Rockets fired by Hezbollah at Israel during the Gaza conflict since October have included Katyushas and Burkan (volcano) missiles with an explosive payload of 300-500 kg.
Its Iranian-made Falaq 2 rockets it used for the first time on June 8, could carry a bigger warhead than the Falaq 1 used in the past.
Hinting at the damage it could do, Nasrallah in 2016 made a veiled threat that Hezbollah could hit ammonia storage tanks in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, saying the result would be “like a nuclear bomb.”

Hezbollah first proved it had anti-ship missiles in 2006, when it hit an Israeli warship 16 km (10 miles) off the coast, killing four Israeli personnel and damaging the vessel.
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has acquired the Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missile with a range of 300 km (186 miles), sources familiar with its arsenal say. Hezbollah has not confirmed it has the weapon.
Hezbollah has also broadcast videos that it says show more of the same type of anti-ship missile used in 2006.


Activists file torture complaint against Iranian held in France

Bashir Biazar. (Photo/social media)
Updated 20 June 2024

Activists file torture complaint against Iranian held in France

  • It accuses Biazar of complicity in torture due to his past work with Iranian state broadcasting conglomerate IRIB, describing him as a former director of production there

PARIS: Activists said on Thursday they were filing a torture complaint against an Iranian citizen held in France who was reportedly a former senior figure in state television in the country.
During strained relations between Paris and Tehran, Bashir Biazar has been held in administrative detention in France since June 3, pending expulsion from the country for separate reasons.
His lawyer has denounced his detention and planned expulsion as “political,” while officials in Iran have condemned France over his arrest and urged his release.
Activist group Iran Justice and victims of human rights violations filed the complaint against Biazar in Paris. If the court decides to follow up, he could be kept in France to stand trial.
It accuses Biazar of complicity in torture due to his past work with Iranian state broadcasting conglomerate IRIB, describing him as a former director of production there.
Iranian state media have described him as a “cultural figure.”
The complaint refers to the regular broadcasts by Iranian state television of statements by — and even interviews with — Iranian or foreign prisoners, which activists regard as forced confessions.
There are “serious indications” that Biazar could have been “personally involved” in recording such broadcasts, said lawyer Chirinne Ardakani.


Netanyahu says Israel needs US ammunition in ‘war for its existence’

Updated 20 June 2024

Netanyahu says Israel needs US ammunition in ‘war for its existence’

  • The Israeli leader’s comments came after he angered Washington with a video statement this week accusing it of “withholding weapons and ammunitions to Israel“
  • US officials have said they were not aware of what Netanyahu was referring to

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday the country needs ammunition from the United States in “the war for its existence,” directly addressing the White House after it criticized him for complaining about arms deliveries related to the Gaza war.
“I am prepared to suffer personal attacks provided that Israel receives the ammunition from the US that it needs in the war for its existence,” he said in a statement.
The Israeli leader’s comments came after he angered Washington with a video statement this week accusing it of “withholding weapons and ammunitions to Israel.”
US officials have said they were not aware of what Netanyahu was referring to.
“Those comments were deeply disappointing and certainly vexing to us, given the amount of support that we have and will continue to provide,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists earlier on Thursday.
Washington said that there is only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs that is under review because of concerns about their use in densely populated areas in Gaza.
Kirby separately said that US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is due to meet his Israeli counterpart Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer on Thursday.
Washington is Israel’s main military backer, but the White House has voiced frustration over the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, where Israel has conducted more than eight months of operations against Hamas.