Geneva Talks in Jeopardy Over US Arms for Syria Rebels

January 29th, 2014 - by admin & The New York Times – 2014-01-29 01:10:41

Geneva Talks in Jeopardy Over US Arms for Syria Rebels

Geneva Talks in Jeopardy Over US Arms for Syria Rebels
Jason Ditz /

(January 28, 2014) — Yesterday’s report confirming the US Congress has secretly funded sending arms to Syrian rebels through the rest of this fiscal year are having a major, deleterious impact on peace talks in Geneva, and may be threatening the viability of those talks.

The revelation dramatically undercut US claims that Geneva II was supposed to settle the conflict with a peaceful transition of power, and officials say there was concern that the US is overtly trying to undermine the deal.

The afternoon was supposed to center around talks about the “transition,” with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to present their proposal. Instead, afternoon talks were cancelled outright as all the focus was on the US arms shipments.

The State Department downplayed the problem, insisting they support the “moderate opposition,” but in a rebellion dominated by al-Qaeda, it isn’t even clear who that is anymore, and the specter of the US throwing more arms into the conflict is not welcome, no matter the excuse.

Syrian Talks Disrupted by Congress’s Approval of Aid to Rebels
Anne Barnard and Nick Cumming-Brucej / The New York Times

GENEVA (January. 28, 2014) — New fireworks erupted at talks between the Syrian government and the opposition here on Tuesday, as the government sharply criticized a recent decision by the United States Congress to approve continued support for the Syrian rebels, and the United Nations’ top mediator decided not to continue talks in the afternoon.

The opposition delegation presented a detailed plan for the future of Syria, said Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the delegation. But after what Mr. Shahbandar called an “outburst” from the government’s lead negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari, no further discussion was held on forming a transitional government, the central issue in the talks under the protocols of the first Geneva conference, in 2012.

Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, played down the clash in the morning meeting, saying in an interview that the two sides had spent “10 minutes laughing” after Mr. Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, joked that Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned pan-Arab news channel that the government despises for its sympathetic stance on the insurgency, was “founded by Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.”

Mr. Zoubi said the American aid to the rebels, now with explicit congressional approval, contradicted the United States’ role as a sponsor of the peace talks. Russia, the other sponsor, has supported the Syrian government with arms sales, but Syrian officials say that falls under legal bilateral relations and is not equivalent to the American funding.

“Russia is working with the Americans to find a political solution, and suddenly they find a solution which contradicts the initiative,” he said, referring to the American financing of the rebels. “Do they want to destroy Geneva?” He accused the United States of supporting terrorists.

The State Department rejected that claim. “Any notion that we support terrorists is ludicrous,” Edgar Vasquez, a department spokesman in Geneva, said in a statement. Referring to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, he added: “The Assad regime is a magnet for terrorists. The regime’s brutality is the source of the violent extremism in Syria today. We support the moderate political and military opposition who are fighting for the freedom and dignity of all the Syrian people.”

Members of Congress last year raised a variety of concerns about a CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels in Jordan, accusing the Obama administration of wading deeper into the Syrian war without a clear strategy, and expressing worries that the arms could end up in the hands of Islamic militants.

The White House was able to overcome these objections, and lawmakers ended up approving money for the mission in classified defense appropriations legislation, as Reuters reported on Monday.

But the exchanges in Geneva again illustrated how little common ground there is. The United Nations mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon: “These are not easy negotiations. They were not easy before, they will not be easy in the coming few days, but I’m glad that nobody is willing to leave.”

The two sides have been unable to even begin discussing the issue of political transition. The government submitted a new document as an opening statement for the basis of talks that did not refer to a transition of power, and the opposition rejected it.

Nor was there progress on what Mr. Brahimi and others had hoped would be the easiest win for the talks, a humanitarian pause in the fighting in the western Syrian city of Homs to allow aid to reach blockaded areas there.

The United Nations has trucks loaded with food for up to 2,500 people ready at a warehouse outside Homs but has not yet received authorization to proceed, a World Food Program spokeswoman told reporters on Tuesday.

In four days of stuttering peace talks in Geneva, Mr. Brahimi has pressed Syria’s government and opposition to allow aid agencies to enter blockaded areas of Homs and let civilians leave as a confidence-building step, but with little success.

Tuesday’s afternoon session was canceled over what opposition delegates described as differences over the goal of the talks, and to give the government time to make a proposal for the future of the country.

“There is deep resistance by the regime to move the discussions onto the question of a transitional government,” an opposition negotiator, Ahmed Jakal, told Reuters. Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s negotiating team, told The Associated Press that the opposition was giving the government the chance “to come out with their own vision for a future Syria” within the context of the agreement reached at the first Geneva conference.

On the question of humanitarian assistance, the Syrian government says it is generally ready to provide aid under an existing plan worked out with international agencies, and blames threats from insurgents for any obstruction.

But the opposition coalition, its Western backers and some United Nations agencies say that when it comes to specific permission, particularly for convoys to enter areas under insurgent control, the government often denies access.

“The humanitarian discussions haven’t produced much, unfortunately,” Mr. Brahimi told reporters at the end of Monday’s discussions, citing “all sorts of problems,” including the presence of snipers.

The World Food Program spokeswoman, Elisabeth Byrs, said the United Nations was preparing to send in a convoy once it received the go-ahead; the agency has been unable to get supplies into the Old City of Homs for over a year.

United Nations agencies say they do not know how many people remain in the Old City, but in addition to the month’s worth of supplies for 2,500 people, the World Food Program also has specialized nutrition for children presumed to be suffering from acute malnutrition and stunted growth.

The agency distributed food to 687,000 people at 50 other locations in Homs Province last month, Ms. Byrs said, but in many towns it has been able to enter only every three to six months.

The United Nations is increasingly concerned about the fate of 775,000 people elsewhere in the country, including in the city of Deir al-Zour in the east, which it has been unable to reach for some months, Ms. Byrs added.

United States officials in Geneva said earlier that talks were continuing among the United Nations, Russia, the Syrian government and the opposition on the issues of humanitarian aid to “besieged communities,” prisoner releases and exchanges, and localized cease-fires — all seen by international negotiators as potential confidence-building measures.

Western diplomats have said that if progress is not made soon, they may take the impasse to the Security Council, where they believe Russia is less likely now to use its veto than in the past because it is concerned about its image on the eve of hosting the Winter Olympics.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Geneva, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.

A version of this article appears in print on January 29, 2014, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Syrian Talks Disrupted by Congress’s Approval of Aid to Rebels.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.