PARIS, March 5, (Agencies): Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Saturday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave at the beginning of a political transition, not at the end. “For us it is very clear it’s at the beginning of the process, not at the end of the process, it’s not going to be 18 months,” Jubeir said during a visit to France. His comments came days before the United Nations plans to reconvene peace talks to try to end the five-year-old civil war in Syria.
The United States and other Western governments that were previously calling for Assad’s early departure have quietly backed away from that demand as his position has been strengthened by Russia’s military involvement in Syria since last September. Jubeir also said Saudi Arabia will take delivery of French arms it originally ordered for Lebanon.
In February, Saudi Arabia suspended a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army in response to Beirut’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. “We made the decision that we will stop the $3 billion from going to the Lebanese military and instead they will be rediverted to the Saudi military,” Jubeir told journalists during a visit in Paris. “So the contracts (with France) will be completed but the clients will be the Saudi military”.
Syria peace talks set for March 9 will begin the following day with participants due to arrive in Geneva over several days, the UN envoy said in statements published Saturday. Staffan de Mistura told the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat it was his “intention” for the talks aimed at ending Syria’s five-year war to begin in the afternoon of March 9. But he said he expected them to begin in earnest on the following day “I think that we will begin on March 10. That is when the process will start,” he said according to an Arabic translation of his remarks published by the newspaper. While some delegates are expected to arrive in Geneva on March 9, others are not expected until March 11 or even 14 because of “problems with hotel reservations”, De Mistura is quoted as saying.
He said preparatory meetings will be held ahead of “in-depth discussions separately” which each faction. A first round of talks in early February was cut short amid intensifying Russian air strikes in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. But a fragile ceasefire drawn up by Russia and the United States and backed by the UN Security Council that entered into force on Feb 27 is now in its second week, despite accusations of violations.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Saturday it had registered nine ceasefire violations in Syria over the past 24 hours. In a statement, it said there had been six violations in Aleppo province, one in Damascus, one in Latakia and one in Daraa. It also said that Syria’s Idlib province was attacked from the territory of Turkey. Russian air forces did not made strikes on armed formations, the ministry added. One of the main Western-backed Syrian opposition groups has elected a new leader after the term of its former chief ended.