Russian withdrawal from Syria ‘very positive,’ says Saudi Arabia
RIYADH – Reuters
REUTERS photoRussia’s partial withdrawal of forces from Syria is “a very positive step,” Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on March 16, adding that he hoped it would compel Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make concessions.
Saudi Arabia is a leading supporter of the rebels fighting Assad and was aghast at Russia’s intervention in support of the Syrian president last year that helped to turn the war in his favor.
“It is our hope that it will contribute to an acceleration of the political process based on the Geneva 1 declaration and that it will compel the Assad regime to make the concessions necessary to bring about a political transition,” Jubeir said.
Jubeir’s comments, made to Reuters and local state television channels, were Saudi Arabia’s first official response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on March 14 of the partial withdrawal of forces.
Syria’s ambassador to U.N. Bashar Ja’afari said March 16 after a meeting with U.N. envoy for Syria that he rejected a suggestion by the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) that the Geneva talks should move to a direct format, saying nobody should have a monopoly on representing the opposition.
Ja’afari described the HNC chief negotiator Mohammad Alloush as a terrorist, saying the rebel group he belongs to, and which controls large swathes of the besieged suburbs of Damascus, was responsible for the death of many innocent people.
“We will not engage with this terrorist in direct talks, with this terrorist in particular, and so there won’t be any direct talks unless this terrorist apologizes and also shaves off his beard,” Ja’afari said.
Ja’afari also said he had “useful and promising” talks with the U.N. deputy Syria envoy Ramzy Ezzeldin, noting that procedural issues had to be thrashed out before moving to an agenda that tackled divisive issues.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has been hosting separate meetings with government and opposition delegates - including Alloush - since the “proximity talks” resumed on March 14.
On March 16, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told reporters in Baghdad that they were not sure that Russia’s announced pullout from Syria was genuine.
“If it turns out to be a genuine pullout - and we don’t know that,” he said of Russia’s announcement, without finishing his sentence.
“We’ve seen before, in Ukraine, Russia talking about a withdrawal, and then it turned out to be merely a rotation of forces,” he said.
Asked about oil market speculation of a “grand bargain” involving Saudi energy policy and Russian foreign policy, Jubeir said: “As far as I know, and I believe I am in a position to know, there is no such thing.”
Saudi Arabia, Russia and some other producers recently agreed to freeze oil production at current levels as a move towards halting the long slide in crude prices since summer 2014 that has greatly reduced energy exporters’ income.