Photo: Reuven Remez, Truman Institute

Hope That New Syria Peace Talks Will End Fighting

Syrian Opposition Reaches Out to Israel

Representatives from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition parties are due to meet in Astana, Kazakhstan next week for talks brokered by Russia, which supports Assad, and Turkey, which backs some of the opposition groups.

Some in Syria say that as the fighting approaches its sixth anniversary, with more than 400,000 dead, all sides want the fighting to end.

“The UN is not officially involved in these talks but as a person working here in Syria you feel a sense of optimism among the citizens,” Firas al-Khateeb, the spokesman for UNHCR in Damascus told The Media Line. “In the past the terms were different and the cease-fire was shorter and one side did not fully adhere to the agreement. Many people feel that this time it’s long term and maybe more formal than previous times.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the ongoing Syria conflict had triggered instability in the Middle East and terror attacks across the world.

“The consequences of this conflict have become too dangerous for everyone,” Guterres told reporters at the United Nations in Geneva.

Success in Astana “can help create the conditions for a political process that should resume in Geneva in February that can lead to concrete results”, he added.

The Syria talks were also on the agenda at a rare meeting between Syrian opposition figures and Israelis, sponsored by the Truman Institute for Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Also open to the public, as well as students, a hall that seats 800 was over-filled as Israelis came to listen to two Syrian opposition figures.

Israel has given treated more than 2000 wounded Syrians in an Israeli hospital in northern Israel, and Israelis have organized food and clothing drives for Syrian refugees.

Sirwan Kajjo, a Syrian-Kurdish journalist, who now lives in Washington, said these actions have changed some Syrians’ views of Israel.

“They feel like they’ve been told Israel is the ultimate enemy for 50 years and now the enemy that is supposed to kill you is actually helping you survive in this chaotic environment,” Kajjo told The Media Line. “This will only increase if Israel gets more involved.”

He said that many of the opposition groups in southern Syria are open to having good relations with Israel, and that Israel should cooperate with the international community to establish a no-fly zone in southern Syria. When it comes to incoming US President Donald Trump, he said there are conflicting predictions.

“On the one hand, Trump will get more involved in the war against ISIS which is something that we as Kurds want,” he said. “But he doesn’t have a Syria policy yet. He has said he will willing to work with Assad to destroy Assad. But Assad is responsible for the murders of over 500,000 people so it’s important for us that Assad won’t be in the picture in a future Syria.”

During the discussion, Kajjo played a recorded message from Fahd al-Masri, the chairman of the National Salvation Front in Syria from Paris.

“Our goal is for the new Syria to be outside of conflict and to focus on building a culture of peace,” he said. “The new Syria won’t be hostile in any way to Israel or any state in the region.”

Issam Zeitoun, a Syrian opposition activist who lives in Germany, asked Israel to do more to help end the fighting in Syria.
“All Syrians have suffered under this regime,” he told the crowd of Israelis. “Something must be done. The Syrian people are too weak. We need the help of the international community.”

He advocated a mini-state in southern Syria controlled by the opposition, an area includes the Golan Heights, part of which Israel acquired in 1967 and later annexed, and part of which is still under Syrian control.

Officially, Israel has taken no position on whether Assad should be part of Syria’s future. Privately, some Israeli officials have said that Israel prefers Assad, fearing that there could be chaos if he leaves. Zeitoun said that Israel, like the rest of the international community, is making a mistake.

“If the international community is dealing with Assad like this, the fighting will not end, not in 2017 and not in 2030,” he told The Media Line. “We don’t need to underestimate him. Although he is pretending to be a fool he knows exactly what he is doing.”

The event was repeatedly interrupted by Arab students who said the guests should be working for Palestinian rights instead of cooperating with Israel.

“If you have two patients and one has a hurt finger and the other has a serious head injury, who would you help first,” Zeitoun yelled at one protestor. “We are bleeding, and we need to help ourselves first.”

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