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Press review: UN Syria envoy quits and Moscow slams rights violations in Ukraine, Baltics

Top stories in the Russian press on Friday
UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura  AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura
© AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Kommersant: UN Special Envoy for Syria to step down

Consultations are underway in the United Nations on choosing a new Special Envoy for Syria to replace Staffan de Mistura, who decided to retire at the end of November. The Italian diplomat spoke about his decision at a time when the negotiations on forming a constitutional committee in Syria, which he oversaw, had been deadlocked. Sources told Kommersant about candidates being considered to replace him.

"Even if the constitutional committee is formed, it will be mired in contradictions. Perhaps, de Mistura decided to leave now, having achieved the most that he could," a source familiar with the work of the UN Syria envoy told Kommersant.

The UN is now hashing over who to select to occupy this post. Sources told Kommersant, several individuals are now being looked at. The list includes Special Representative for Iraq and Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq Jan Kubis, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nicolay Mladenov, and former Foreign Minister of Algeria, Ramtan Lamamra. "Kubis would be a worthy successor to de Mistura, but our Western colleagues might not approve his candidacy, Mladenov as well. Perhaps there will be more names," a diplomatic source in Moscow told the newspaper. According to the source, the new Special Envoy must be an authoritative figure, with whom all parties to the conflict will be ready to work.

One of the leaders of the Syrian armed opposition Colonel Fateh Hasun told Kommersant that the key point for de Mistura’s successor is that he holds neutral views and is a professional. Official speaker of the Syrian opposition delegation at the Astana talks Ayman al-Asimi told the newspaper that the country of origin or personality of the new Special Envoy wouldn’t matter, only the way the countries working on the Syrian sentiment will work with him. He noted that a shared understanding between Turkey, the United States and Russia is very important for progress on Syria, since these countries are deeply involved in resolving the conflict.


Izvestia: Moscow castigates human rights violations in Ukraine, Baltics

Russians living in Ukraine face mounting danger State Secretary and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Izvestia. According to him, the Foreign Ministry is demanding action from international institutions to gross violations of human rights and freedoms by Kiev under a forced Ukrainization policy against the population. This topic, along with the issue of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltics being repressed, will be given special attention at the 6th World Congress of Russian Compatriots in Moscow that will start on October 31.

"There is a growing concern about the developments in Ukraine, where people are in a difficult, often threatening situation," Karasin told Izvestia. "We are well aware that humanitarian actions in defense of the Russian language or of their faith and culture sometimes require dedication. Kiev is holding forced Ukrainization of the population with the aid of their new ‘education’ law and other ‘initiatives’," he added.

According to the diplomat, the Russian Foreign Ministry sent a protest over this to all international organizations. "We will keep track of their reaction to such gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Ukraine," he emphasized.

Since the end of last year, the situation in Latvia has also dramatically worsened, where "in violation of all international legal normative documents and recommendations of the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, the actual ban on education in Russian was introduced, just like in Ukraine," the diplomat pointed out.


Kommersant: Russian-Georgian tension might hinder Open Skies deal

The future of the Treaty on Open Skies largely depends on the Vienna event that will take place on October 22. The agreement allows 34 participant states to conduct observation flights over each other’s territory. According to Kommersant, the special commission will coordinate the quota for 2019, but the meeting may end in failure due to the contradictions between Russia and Georgia around the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia attained in 2018, no flights were made under the agreement. If flight activity is not resumed, the future of the deal will be threatened, the newspaper wrote.

In 2018, the accord was hindered by the conflict between Russia and Georgia, when Tbilisi was outraged about Moscow not allowing flights in the 10-km zone at the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This discord is because Russia recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, whereas Tbilisi does not.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Kommersant that Moscow observed the agreement to the letter. The Georgian Foreign Ministry informed the newspaper that "through its destructive actions, Russia brought negotiations on quotas to a dead end." Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry told Kommersant that on April 23, Moscow lifted the restrictions on flying in the 10-km zones, noting "the permanent nature of this decision will depend on Georgia conscientiously fulfilling its obligations under the Treaty on Open Skies".

However, the Georgian Foreign Ministry does not see any reason for concessions. "Therefore, neither in 2019, nor in the future will Georgia accept any observation flights by the Russian Federation until it resumes full and unconditional implementation of the Open Skies Treaty," a source in the department told Kommersant.

It is not clear whether it will be possible to agree on fly quotas for 2019 given this climate. If not, it will be a serious blow to the treaty, which is already in danger because of the precarious US-Russia ties.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US to keep presence in northeastern Syria to counter Iran

Washington has abandoned the idea of withdrawing its military contingent from Syria’s northeast, a former high-ranking French diplomat told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. According to the source, hints that a shift in American strategy is underway have emerged in recent weeks. Washington needs the northeast regions of Syria to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East.

"When observing the situation over the past few weeks, one can say that President Trump’s administration is taking on a new responsibility towards Syria," the source said.

"It seems to me that Washington understands that if it wants to maintain its position and protect Syria from Iran’s influence, it is necessary to retain control of the Euphrates coast," the source explained, adding, "In my opinion, the Americans realized that this is one of the few levers they have to drive the Assad regime to the negotiating table."

The source cited the recent appointment of James Jeffrey as US Special Representative for Syria as one of the indirect signs of a change in Washington’s vision. He is an unwavering opponent of reducing US military presence in Syria and is in favor of a decisive struggle against Tehran’s influence. As recently as October 15, the American diplomat set off on a Middle Eastern tour of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Jeffrey's schedule included meetings with "leaders of the Syrian opposition and civil society groups."

It would be important for the US that the Persian Gulf states deal with the reconstruction of the Syrian provinces, the former diplomat added. "This is one of the conditions that President Trump laid out to maintain US military presence in Syria," the source told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.


Izvestia: Syria receives fine-tuned S-300s

Russia has supplied Syria with three divisions of S-300PM-2 anti-aircraft missile systems, which stand out from the original version thanks to a more sophisticated multi-function radar, mobile command posts, as well as light and guidance stations. Sources in the Ministry of Defense told Izvestia that allegations that the anti-aircraft complexes transferred to Syria will be serviced by Iranian teams are groundless. The Iranians have never worked on the S-300PM-2. Only Russian specialists are familiar with this system, since these complexes are used in several regiments of the Russian Armed Forces.

According to sources in the Russian Defense Ministry, the information that Iranian anti-aircraft gunners will control the anti-aircraft systems transferred to Syria are groundless because the ‘Syrian’ S-300PM-2s and S-300PMU-2s, which were delivered to Iran, are different systems.

Even if the Iranians were invited to work with the S-300PM-2, it would be difficult for them to immediately take up combat duty. To work on the S-300PM-2, a higher level of training is required than for the export version, former Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force for Joint CIS Air Defense System Aytech Bizhev told Izvestia. "It would be problematic to immediately change from the PMU-2 to the PM-2. It would take time to study the advanced equipment and to deal with the working algorithms,” the expert noted.


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