Assad Expects End to Isolation in Face of Jihadists: French Lawmaker

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People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters stand on top of a hill at sunset on February 26, 2015, after they retook parts of the town of Tal Hamis, southeast of the city of Qameshli, after six days of clashes with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group jihadists in Syria's Hasaka province. AFP/Delil Souleiman

Published Friday, February 27, 2015

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad no longer wants to "remain isolated in the face of the terrorist threat," one of the French lawmakers who met him in Damascus on a much-decried private trip said Friday.

The announcement comes as a domestic and exiled Syrian opposition bodies announced a common roadmap for the crisis in Syria following a series of meetings in Syria.

Senator Francois Zocchetto was one of several French lawmakers who traveled to the Syrian capital and met with high-ranking officials including Assad on Wednesday in a visit that drew an angry response from the French government, which cut diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012.

"Bashar al-Assad is reserved, he does not easily confide in people," Zocchetto told Radio Classique. "He said he expected to no longer remain isolated in the face of the terrorist threat."

The trip was feted by Syrian media as reflecting rising sentiment within Western countries that their governments should re-engage with Assad to try and resolve the four-year conflict and rein in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, which controls swathes of the country.

But both French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned the lawmakers' talks with Assad, whom they described as a "dictator" and "butcher."

"(They) have taken it upon themselves to meet with a dictator who is the cause of one of the worst civil wars of recent years," Hollande told reporters during a visit to the Philippines.

Zocchetto said both the head of the Senate and its foreign affairs commission were made aware of the private trip. He added that one of the other lawmakers on the visit — Gerard Bapt from the ruling Socialist Party (PS), who did not attend the talks with Assad — had also informed the presidency and the foreign ministry.

"We do not carry an official message from the French government," Zocchetto said.

"It's hard to say that we want to fight against terrorism in France and ignore what is going on in Syria,” he added. "This secular state could disappear tomorrow... because right now there is no longer any moderate Syrian opposition."

Bapt, who led the delegation, said on France Inter on Thursday that the visit was made in the hope of promoting a ceasefire.

"One does not have the sense, in Syria, of seeing a government that is about to fall," Bapt said. "If there is to be peace, we have to find a way to talk to each other."

Recent reports are suggesting that some European Union countries which withdrew their ambassadors from Syria are saying privately it is time for more communication with Damascus.

Those states have become more vocal in internal meetings about the need to talk to the Syrian government and have a presence in the capital.

In France, some government and opposition lawmakers have begun to criticize Paris's stance, as have former officials and some diplomats in private.

Despite the Syrian government’s call for international cooperation to fight jihadist militancy, Britain, France and the US remain opposed to contacts with Assad, aiming to train so-called moderate rebels to fight both the regime and jihadist groups.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius wrote in a joint editorial published Friday by newspapers Le Monde and Al-Hayat that Assad cannot "credibly" be part of any future government combating the threat from ISIS in the country.

Assad is "stoking injustice, disorder and extremism" in Syria, the editorial read.

They claimed that Assad is seeking to rehabilitate his public image despite a conflict in Syria which has lasted nearly four years, killed at least 210,000 people and displaced nearly 12 million others.

"For our own national security, we have to defeat ISIL (ISIS) in Syria. We need a partner in Syria to work with against the extremists and this means a political settlement agreed between the Syrian parties leading to a unity government in Syria," the editorial said.

"It is clear to us that Assad could not credibly be part of any such administration," it added.

Two Syrian opposition bodies agree on crisis roadmap

Meanwhile, Syria's main domestic and exiled opposition groups said Friday they had agreed a joint draft roadmap for the first time calling for a transitional governing body and an end to the brutal conflict.

The draft document comes after representatives from the exiled Syrian National Coalition and the domestic National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) met in Paris.

"This is the first time that we have an agreement between both organizations, the Coalition and the NCCDC," said Khalaf Dahowd, a member of the NCCDC's executive bureau.

Dahowd said representatives from the two opposition groups met in Paris between Sunday and Tuesday, at talks hosted by France but carried out without international involvement.

"It was Syrian-Syrian. There was no foreign power involved. No one was in our meetings, and that was very good," he told AFP.

He said the two sides had agreed a draft document based on UN Security Council resolutions on Syria and the so-called Geneva communique that emerged from peace talks in the Swiss city in 2012.

In a statement, the National Coalition said the document "specifies that the primary goal of negotiations with the Assad regime is to establish a civil, democratic, pluralistic system that ensures equal rights and duties for all Syrians."

"It stresses that a regional and international consensus is needed for negotiations to succeed," the statement added.

The National Coalition is the key political representative of Syria's opposition and is officially recognized by much of the international community. It has participated in several rounds of failed peace talks and insists that Assad must step down in any resolution of the country's nearly four-year-old conflict.

The NCCDC, which is also known as the National Coordination Body, is part of the country's small so-called "tolerated" opposition, operating inside Syria under tight restrictions.

The two opposition groups met in Cairo in January, but the Coalition was only represented informally, and no agreement emerged.

A key sticking point in peace talks has been the future of Assad. The Coalition insists he must step down, while the NCCDC has called for a transitional body without referring specifically to Assad's role.

Dahowd said the draft document referenced the Geneva communique's call for a transitional body with full powers.

"The Geneva communique talks about a transitional government body that should have full power, so that includes executive powers," he said.

The meeting drew praise from Washington, a key backer of the Coalition.

"The effort reflects the moderate opposition's ongoing work for a democratic, pluralistic, united Syria that fully respects the state of law and the rights of every citizen through a negotiated process consistent with the principles of the Geneva communique," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.

Kurdish forces advance further against ISIS

Kurdish fighters seized the eastern and southern outskirts Friday of a key ISIS stronghold in Syria's northeastern Hasaka province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

Fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) had entered Tal Hamis and captured parts of the town after six days of clashes with the jihadists, the Observatory said.

The town is northeast of the provincial capital, Hasaka city, and has been under ISIS control for more than a year.

Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said the town was "one of the most important strongholds" of the group in the region.

The Kurdish advance comes after days of fighting in which YPG forces have taken some 103 villages and hamlets in the area.

Since the clashes began Saturday, at least 175 ISIS fighters have been killed by the Kurds and airstrikes by a the US-led coalition.

Additionally, 30 fighters from the YPG and Arab rebel units fighting alongside them have been killed. Among the dead was an Australian, the first Westerner to die in a Kurdish unit in Syria.

The Pentagon said the coalition had carried out several airstrikes in Hasaka province Thursday, including three near Hasaka city and three near Tal Hamis.

The fighting in Tal Hamis came as Kurdish forces continued to battle ISIS after an offensive elsewhere in the province, in which the jihadists have kidnapped at least 220 Assyrian Christians.

The offensive, in which ISIS also seized 10 villages, has prompted a mass exodus of an estimated 5,000 residents to the cities of Qamishli and Hasaka.

Jean Tolo, an official with the Assyrian Organization for Relief and Development in Qamishli said the pace of arrivals had slowed by Friday.

"We are offering the displaced food and everything they need," he told AFP by telephone.

"There are doctors working for free ready to deal with any emergency," he added, saying around 200 Assyrian families were sheltering in Qamishli with another 900 in Hasaka city.

ISIS has systematically targeted religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. It has destroyed churches and Christian shrines in Syria, and demanded that Christians living under its rule pay a tax known as jizya.

The Assyrians, from one of the world's oldest Christian communities, have been under increasing threat since ISIS captured large parts of Syria.

There were 30,000 Assyrians in Syria before the country's civil war erupted in 2011. At that point Syria had an estimated Christian population of about 1.2 million.

The group last week released a video showing its members beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

ISIS also persecutes Sunni Muslims who do not swear allegiance to its self-declared "caliphate" or follow its Salafi ideology.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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