UN Envoy Says Assad Must Be Part of “Political Solution” in Syria

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United Nations (UN) special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks during at the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels, Belgium on February 02, 2015. Anadolu Agency/Dursun Aydemir

Published Friday, February 13, 2015

Three people were wounded, including one policeman, in an explosion Friday at a police checkpoint near the Syrian border in the southern Turkish town of Suruc, local officials said, the latest in a series of bombings to hit Turkey this year.

Meanwhile, the United Nations envoy to Syria said that President Bashar al-Assad remained part of a political solution to the nearly four-year war in Syria, as the Syrian army and its ally Hezbollah continue advances in southern provinces.

The cause of the blast was not immediately clear, but Turkish media said emergency service vehicles had rushed to the scene.

"The explosion took place in a rubbish bin close to a police checkpoint. Three people, including a policeman, were lightly wounded," the governor of the Sanliurfa region, which includes Suruc, Izzettin Kucuk, told Turkish television.

Kucuk did not say if the explosion had been caused by a bomb.

However, sources told Reuters the explosives were placed under a car and detonated by remote control near the town of Suruc, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of the Syrian town of Kobane, where Kurdish fighters forced out Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists after a four-month siege.

Indeed, a photograph published by Turkish media showed a charred and badly damaged vehicle with its windows blown out and smoke rising from the bonnet.

The wounded, a police officer and two workers, were being treated in hospital for injuries caused by the explosion, which occurred at 10:40 am (GMT+2).

The sources initially said two people were hurt.

Bomb disposal experts at the scene were investigating to determine the type of the explosives, the sources said.

There were no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, which is likely to put police on heightened alert after recent blasts in Istanbul. The proximity to Syria will raise concerns the attack is related to the conflict there.

The retaking of the predominantly Kurdish Kobane by the People's Protection Units (YPG) at the end of last month was a major defeat for the ISIS that controls approximately 52,000 square kilometers in Syria and Iraq.

Various militant groups, whether Islamist, Kurdish or leftist, have carried out bomb attacks in Turkey.

Last month, a suicide bomber killed herself and a police officer in Sultanahmet, Istanbul's historic center and a prime tourist destination.

A leftist militant group initially claimed responsibility, then retracted the claim.

Later, media cited police sources as saying the bomber was a Russian citizen from the Muslim-majority regions of Chechnya or Dagestan with links to ISIS.

Hundreds of fighters from Russia's north Caucasus, including Chechnya, are believed to have travelled through Turkey to fight with ISIS, and European governments have urged Ankara to tighten border controls to prevent the flow of foreign fighters.

Five days after the Sultanahmet bombing, homemade explosive devices were found in two Istanbul shopping malls and defused. A week after that, a bomb exploded in central Istanbul and police detonated two others in controlled explosions.

The bombing comes a day after the UN Security Council banned all trade in antiquities from war-torn Syria, threatened sanctions on anyone buying oil from ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front militants, and urged states to stop paying kidnap ransoms.

The resolution is said to put fresh pressure on Turkey, seen as a transit point for oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

According to Damascus and Kurdish PKK leaders, Turkey, a NATO member and Washington's key ally in the region, has been playing a major role in fueling the armed crisis in Syria by opening its borders and allowing free access to foreign jihadists into Syria.

”Assad part of the solution,” UN envoy says

Meanwhile, the UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said Friday any peaceful solution to the fighting in Syria must involve Assad.

"President Assad is part of the solution," de Mistura told a joint press conference with Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz in Vienna.

"I will continue to have very important discussions with him," he added, noting that "the only solution is a political solution."

This was the first time a UN envoy on Syria explicitly named Assad as part of a peaceful solution after nearly four years of fighting between pro-government fighters and Western-backed rebels seeking the leader's overthrow.

De Mistura, who was in Damascus this week where he met with Assad, is due to deliver a report on his mission to the UN Security Council on February 17.

If no solution to the conflict is found, "the only one who takes advantage of it is Daesh (ISIS)," de Mistura said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

The group is a "monster waiting for this conflict to take place in order to be able to take advantage," he said.

Kurz meanwhile agreed that "in the fight against ISIS it can be necessary to fight on the same side," but insisted that "Assad will never be a friend or even a partner."

In Vienna, de Mistura said the government still controlled a large part of Syria, and that Assad was "part of the solution for the reduction of the violence," clarifying an earlier remark at a news conference that Assad was part of "the solution."

"I am not talking about a final solution," de Mistura told Reuters by phone. "That is something that only the Syrians, if you had asked me, would have to decide upon. The main point was he is part of the solution in reducing violence."

Earlier, speaking at a news conference with Kurz, he had said: "There is a large part of Syria which is under the control of the Syrian government and I will continue having very important discussions with him because he is part also of the solution."

Human rights groups and Assad critics have slammed the Syrian government's use of crude "barrel bombs" in rebel-held areas which have killed and injured civilians. Assad denied that his army used barrel bombs or any other form of "indiscriminate violence" in a BBC interview this week.

In the interview, Assad also said that, in the fight against ISIS, "there is no dialogue" with the US-led coalition, which began airstrikes on ISIS-held regions in Syria in September, a month after it started targeting the jihadist group in neighboring Iraq.

"There's, let's say, information, but not dialogue," the embattled leader said.

Assad reiterated that the UN envoy must pressure all states to implement Security Council resolutions 2170 and 2178 on halting funding of “terrorists” and facilitating their flow into Syria.

De Mistura was hopeful that all sides would cooperate and back his proposed “freezing” plan in order to restore security to Aleppo.

Since October, de Mistura has been working on a plan to broker "local freezes," starting in the northern city of Aleppo, to alleviate fighting that has killed more than 210,000 people in four years, 2,700 of them in January alone according to pro-opposition monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He has frequently said the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub before the war, would be a "good candidate" for such a "freeze."

Aleppo, Syria's second city, is at the heart of clashes between government forces and allied fighters and a range of insurgents which include Nusra, Islamist brigades, foreign fighters in other groups and Western-backed rebels.

Meanwhile, a survey published on Thursday showed most residents in opposition-held areas of Syria's Aleppo favored the UN's proposal of a "freeze" in fighting, but are sceptical that a truce will hold.

The poll said 53 percent of people surveyed favored a lull in fighting, with 38 percent saying a freeze would allow humanitarian aid to reach war-torn areas of Syria's second city.

Less than 10 percent said a truce would expedite a political solution to Syria's conflict, however.

The poll, conducted by the Sada Center for Research and Public Opinion and the Arab Reform Initiative, surveyed 975 people in opposition-held areas of Aleppo city.

Eighty-nine percent of respondents meanwhile said a freeze would either prove unworkable or unstable without rules binding the regime and opposition factions operating in Aleppo.

But most — 77 percent — did not have faith in the international community to be a trustworthy guarantor.

Nonetheless, because of the daily violence and shortages they face, "a wide majority seems ready to accept the truce under any circumstances," the pollsters said.

According to the Arab Reform Initiative, which is close to Syria's opposition, more than 400,000 people live in rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

Battle near Golan Heights continues

A Syrian rebel commander in the south vowed to wage guerrilla war against the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah and Syrian government forces which have launched a major offensive against militants in the sensitive border region near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan.

The offensive that got under way this week is focused in an area south of Damascus that is the last notable foothold of the mainstream armed opposition to Assad, who has consolidated control over much of western Syria.

The Syrian defense minister visited the frontline on Thursday, Hezbollah's al-Manar TV station reported, as the Syrian army on Wednesday secured territory including four hills and three towns previously held by members of Nusra.

The battle — the most serious effort to date by the state to take back the south — was mostly brought to a halt on Thursday by snow.

According to the Observatory, the army shelled Jizeh and the west of Atman village in the southern province of Daraa.

Battles raged on in several parts of Daraa, pitting rebels and a local al-Qaeda affiliate against the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters, the Observatory said.

"Despite the fighting, the Hezbollah-led advance was forced to slow down by heavy snow in the area," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Four days of fighting had killed 19 combatants on the government side and 48 on the opposition side, Rahman said, adding, the advances by Hezbollah and the government should not be underestimated.

Multiple Lebanese media outlets commented on the advances of the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters in the south, stating that the decision to launch the southern offensive had been taken several weeks ago, after an attack in the southern Syrian area of Quneitra. An Israeli missile targeted a convoy in Quneitra killing an Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters, including a senior commander and the son of renowned Hezbollah senior commander Imad Mughnieh, Jihad Mughnieh.

The assault near the armistice line on the Golan is aimed at “breaking the stretch of territory that they (rebels) are trying to establish” at the border, a Syrian security source said.

"The battle could be lengthy. It will be hit and run — this is the system we are going to use in battle," said Abu Osama al-Jolani, a senior commander in the southern rebel alliance.

"We are not a state army defending borders... we operate a system of guerrilla warfare. As far as we are concerned, land is not important," he added, speaking to Reuters via the Internet from an area near the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Abdel Rahman told AFP on Thursday that 300 elite Hezbollah fighters were allegedly deployed on Syria's southern front.

"This really is Hezbollah's battle," he claimed.

An Israeli official briefed on intelligence, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the current offensive "involves Hezbollah more heavily than in previous operations," adding "there are hundreds of their fighters involved."

Jolani claimed the Syrian army was playing no role in the battle. "This is a very important test for the Southern Front," he said. "We ask all the states of the world to help the Syrian people and to help us the way Iran and Russia help the regime."

Jolani, who allegedly held the rank of major when he defected from the Syrian army in 2011, claimed the attacking forces had sustained heavy losses and their gains were insignificant. He is now deputy commander of the "First Army," formed from three smaller rebel groups in January.

The Southern Front rebel alliance includes groups that have received support from foreign states opposed to Assad. The support has included what the rebels describe as small amounts of military aid, including some US-made anti-tank missiles.

With much of the north and east held by jihadist groups including the powerful ISIS jihadist group, the southern rebels, often described as the best organized of the non-jihadist armed opposition, see themselves as the last hope for the Syrian armed opposition as the four-year conflict has become hijacked by Islamist militants.

The opposition complains that while the Syrian government has received vital military support from Assad's allies, including Hezbollah and Iran, Arab and Western states that want to see Assad gone have failed to do the same.

But Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian wing, and other Islamist brigades and rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, who the US and other allies want to arm and train, currently have a presence in the region. Islamist insurgents also control wide expanses of Syria's north and east.

Damascus has repeatedly accused groups such as Nusra, who are active in the Quneitra countryside, of working hand in glove with Israel from which they receive logistic support.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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