ABU DHABI // UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed yesterday called on the parties involved in Syrian talks to “stop blaming each other” as the negotiations struggled to get going in Geneva.
His comments came after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who announced that two Syrian rebel groups it considers terrorist organisations can participate in peace talks.
Russia had previously opposed the participation of hardliners Jaish Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham in the UN-hosted talks between the Syrian regime and opposition in Geneva.
Mr Lavrov made clear on Tuesday that Russia still considers both as “terrorist groups”.
“This does not mean that this is an acknowledgement of Jaish Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham as two legitimate partners in the negotiations,” he said at the end of a two-day visit to the UAE.
“We agreed and the government delegation agreed with us, that if they are to participate in the negotiations process, they will do so in a private capacity.”
Mr Lavrov added that “many parties” in the International Syrian Support Group also consider Jaish Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham, two of the most militarily powerful groups on the ground in Syria, to be terrorist in nature.
His remarks followed talks in Abu Dhabi with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and Sheikh Abdullah to discuss regional unrest, including the war in Syria.
Those involved in the Syria crisis “should stop blaming one party or the other. We should all work to safeguard a better future for Syrians and put our disagreements aside,” Sheikh Abdullah said at a joint press conference with Mr Lavrov.
“Without that we will not be honest or fair in ending the Syrian situation.”
Earlier this week, Syrian regime officials said they would “never accept” any role for the two groups in the talks.
Mohamed Alloush, Jaish Al Islam’s political leader, is the chief negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee, which formed in Riyadh in December to represent a coalition of armed and political Syrian opposition groups. The HNC is backed by Saudi Arabia as the main representative of the opposition at the Geneva talks.
The HNC initially refused to attend the talks, which were due to start last Friday, saying the Syrian regime must first halt attacks on civilians, release prisoners and end sieges on rebel-controlled areas where thousands face starvation. But on Monday, an HNC delegation arrived in Geneva and UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced that the negotiations had officially begun.
Yesterday, the talks were already in disarray, however, as the government denied that formal negotiations had begun and the HNC cancelled a meeting with Mr de Mistura, saying that its demands had still not been met.
Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces edged close to breaking a long-running rebel siege on two government-held Shiite villages in Aleppo province, backed by heavy Russian air strikes.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring groups said at least 18 civilians had been killed in Russian raids on Tuesday, including five women, three children and two emergency workers.
Despite all this, Russia’s acceptance of a role for Mr Alloush’s group and Ahrar Al Sham was an unexpected move that may hold more significance for future talks if not the current, stalled negotiations.
“Important, consequential shift. Suggests talks will put in place more appropriate structures for future negotiations,” Michael Hanna, a senior Middle East analyst with the New York-based The Century Foundation think tank, posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
It was still unclear what concessions Russia may expect in return. Mr Lavrov said that some Syrian opposition members who were based in Moscow were having trouble obtaining Swiss visas, in a reference to figures seen as close to Russia and not accepted by the HNC.
“Staffan de Mistura should deal with all parties in a balanced way,” he added.
The HNC has become increasingly concerned that the United States – which organised the Geneva talks along with Russia – is backing away from previous demands that Bashar Al Assad step down. It sees Washington as pressuring it to accept Moscow’s position that the question of the president’s fate can wait until after negotiations over a political transition that will include a new constitution and elections.
While the UAE backs the HNC, officials have not condemned Russia’s involvement in Syria in the same way as their counterparts in Riyadh.
Mr Lavrov, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Abdullah also discussed the turmoil in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the nuclear accord with Iran and its effect on the Gulf region during their talks on Tuesday. The Russian foreign minister was scheduled to hold talks in Oman on Wednesday.
His trip to the two GCC countries who have the strongest bilateral relations with Russia is a chance for Moscow to “demonstrate that it has alternative options in the GCC, not only Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but that it can also talk to Oman and the UAE who are more friendly, who are more flexible in terms of Syria policy as well as oil policy,” said Yury Barmin, an analyst of Gulf-Russia relations based in Moscow.
“We know well in Moscow that Oman and the Emirates are not in favor of deterioration between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Russia is ready to mediate [and] it is possible to do this only with coordination with the Emirates and Oman,” said Elena Suponina, director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies’ Middle East and Asia Centre.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
Source: uae news