Syria conflict: Russia sees no prospect of settlement

Welcome to Middle East Live.

Here’s a roundup of the main developments and analysis:

Syria

Russia has dampened hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough by saying it sees no prospect of a settlement to the Syrian crisis, but deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov appeared to back opposition calls for dialogue. Speaking to RIA Novosti he said: “Unfortunately, no prospects [for a Syrian settlement] are seen and one of the reasons is our western partners do not properly work with the [country’s] opposition. The task is to achieve political settlement of the Syrian crisis, to persuade both sides to sit down at the negotiating table and start searching for ways to solve the problems their country is facing.”

Members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition have called for an emergency meeting to clarify a proposal by its leader Moaz al-Khatib to enter negotiations with the Assad government amid signs of reluctant acceptance of the idea. Members of the Syrian National Council, the largest group in the opposition coalition, have criticised the move. But an official told Reuters that the council did not want to oust Khatib as leader because it now accepted that the offer of talks had support on the street. “Khatib seems to be in tune with popular mood but the council feels that the initiative is all over the place and it needs to be defined in writing,” the official said.

Khatib and the coalition do not have enough legitimacy or power to make offers of talks, according to the commentator Karl Sharro. Writing for Syria Deeply, he says the group has to first earn power by taking control of rebel-held areas inside Syria. 

The testing ground for any leadership is their effectiveness in those areas and among the hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered around the neighbouring countries.

Al-Khatib’s mistake was not realising that one cannot negotiate from a position of weakness. If he is serious about turning the situation around, he and the National Coalition will have to compete with the likes of Al-Nusra Front for the support of the Syrian people, on the ground.

The opposition should not rule out a negotiated political settlement that can avoid the prospect of an elongated civil war which will only add to the devastation and loss of life, but it must earn a seat at the negotiating table first.

Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib (right) suggested that Syrian vice president Farouq al-Sharaa (left) could lead negotiations for a transition government.
Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib (right) suggested that Syrian vice president Farouq al-Sharaa (left) could lead negotiations for a transition government. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Humanitarian crisis

Dirty water diseases are spreading in Syria, compounding the problems of hospitals that are perilously short of medicine and doctors after nearly two years of fighting, according to a warning from the World Health Organisation. “The biggest concern for us is the breakdown of the water and sanitation system and the increasing numbers of water-borne diseases,” WHO representative Elisabeth Hoff told a news briefing.

The number of Syrian refugees has topped three-quarters of a million, new figures from the UN’s refugee agency says. The UNHCR says the total number of registered refugees and individuals awaiting registration stood at 763,527 people on 4 February. The number of Syrian refugees to Lebanon could double by May, the agency said.

Lebanon

The Shia militia Hezbollah was behind the bombing of a bus filled with Israeli tourists in the Black Sea city of Burgas last July, a Bulgarian investigation has concluded. Five Israeli tourists, the driver and the bomber were killed in the blast. The apparently clear link between Hezbollah and a terrorist attack on European soil opens the way for the EU to include the Lebanese militia on its list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

Israel

Barack Obama plans to travel to Israel for the first time since taking office as part of tour of the Middle East next month. The trip seems designed to signal a new start in his fraught relationship with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, rather than an ambitious effort to revive a stalled peace process, according to the New York Times. 

Iran

During his historic visit to Egypt President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was nearly struck by a shoe from a Syrian furious at Iran’s support for the Syrian government, the New York Times’ Lede blog reports. Earlier in the day, Ahmadinejad was told not to interfere in Bahrain by a senior Sunni cleric.

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