Opposition figures say no government including Assad would be legitimate

MOSCOW/BEIRUT/GENEVA — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said it would not be difficult to agree on a new Syrian government including opposition figures, but his opponents responded on Wednesday that no administration would be legitimate while he remained in office.

Mr Assad, bolstered by military victory in the desert city of Palmyra, was quoted by Russia’s RIA news agency as saying a new draft constitution could be ready in weeks and a government that included opposition, independents and loyalists could be agreed.

While the distribution of portfolios and other technical issues would need to be discussed at Geneva peace talks, which resume next month, “these are not difficult questions”, Mr Assad said.

Opposition negotiators immediately dismissed Mr Assad’s remarks, saying that a political settlement could be reached only by establishing a transitional body with full powers, not another government under Mr Assad.

“What Bashar al-Assad is talking about has no relation to the political process,” said George Sabra of the High Negotiations Committee.

The US also rejected Mr Assad’s comments. “I don’t know whether he envisioned himself being a part of that national unity government. Obviously that would be a nonstarter for us,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

At the same time, at a conference in Geneva on Wednesday, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on countries to resettle nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees in the next three years.

“This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity,” he said, though his appeal won immediate responses from only three countries — Italy, Sweden and the US.

The UN’s refugee agency aims to re-settle about 480,000, about 10% of those now in neighbouring countries, by the end of 2018, but concedes it is battling to overcome widespread fear and political wrangling.

Prior to Wednesday’s ministerial-level talks, countries had pledged 179,000 places since 2013, refugee agency figures show.

“We have heard pledges that increase resettlement and humanitarian admission to over 185,000,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said at the end of the meeting, signalling an increase of just 6,000 places.

Commenting on the outcome, aid groups Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council said governments had shown “a shocking lack of political and moral leadership.” “Almost all states attending have failed to show the level of generosity required,” they said in a joint statement.

The European Union (EU) proposed that 54,000 places never attributed under the EU’s own relocation scheme be used to admit Syrian refugees from Turkey, on a voluntary basis, Grandi said.

“Altogether it could provide solutions for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees,” he said.

The EU and Turkey last week struck an agreement intended to cut off the flow from Syria, but arrivals along the main migrant route into Greece rose sharply on Wednesday.

Migrant flows from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean are picking up too, and Italy’s coast guard and navy vessels rescued 1,361 from boats and rubber dinghies on Wednesday.

Mr Ban urged countries to pledge new legal pathways for admitting the refugees, such as resettlement or humanitarian admission, family reunions, as well as labour and study opportunities.

“Success at this high-level meeting today will drive momentum in the months ahead,” Mr Ban told reporters, pointing to a series of upcoming conferences.

Italy and Sweden made concrete pledges to resettle an additional 1,500 and 3,000 refugees a year respectively, but not all of them would be Syrians.

“Last year over 163,000 people, 51,000 of those from Syria, applied for asylum in our country — the highest number per capita in all of Europe,” said Sweden’s Justice and Migration minister Morgan Johansson.

US Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, referring to commitments already announced by the Obama administration, said her country could resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of September.

EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said 4,555 refugees from Syria’s neighbours had been resettled in 11 EU states in its scheme for 22,504 people established last July.

The Russian Federation said it was doubling places for Syrians eligible for free university studies to 300.

“My country is working on strengthening the ceasefire and assisting the (Syrian) government in combating terrorist groups,” Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Gennady Gatilov, said.

Syria’s crisis erupted five years ago with protests against Mr Assad, which were put down with force. It descended into a civil war, which has killed more than 250,000, drawn in global military powers and helped Islamic State (IS) establish its self-declared caliphate. Nearly 5-million refugees have been driven abroad.

“These are people with death at their back and a wall in their face,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said.

Syria’s ambassador, Hussam Aala, urged countries to “repatriate refugees and not resettle them in third countries” so as to ensure against “brain drain”.

He also urged support for Syrian peace talks while lifting “unilateral economic coercive measures”.

Mr Assad told RIA the war had cost more than $200bn in economic losses and damage to infrastructure. That is in line with a UN-backed body, which estimates physical damage at $90bn, with an additional $169bn of accumulated losses from a collapse in gross domestic product to less than half the 2011 level.

Despite Mr Assad’s upbeat assessment of the chances for a political solution, his comments reflected deep differences with the opposition. It says that for the last four years international agreements on Syria’s future have centred on the principle of setting up a transitional governing body.

Mr Assad’s opponents have understood that such a body would have full powers, and that he would not play a further role.

But the president said the very idea of a transitional body was “illogical and unconstitutional”.

“That’s why the solution is forming a national unity government, which prepares for a new constitution,” he said, adding that its formation would be agreed in Geneva.

Russia’s six-month-old intervention in Syria helped swing military momentum in Mr Assad’s favour, reversing last summer’s gains by insurgents including Western-backed rebels and helping government forces to drive IS out of Palmyra on Sunday.

The recapture of the Palmyra and its military airport, in the central Syrian desert, opens up the road further east to the IS bastions of Deir al-Zor province and Raqqa.

The Russian-backed Syrian ground forces are concentrated in western parts of the country, confronting IS on its western front. US-backed efforts in Syria, including Washington’s support for a joint Kurdish-Arab force against the jihadi group, are focused instead on its northeastern flank.

Since capturing Palmyra, Syrian government forces and their allies have been targeted two towns to the east and west of the city, seeking to eliminate IS from an expanse of desert in the centre of the country.

Reuters

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