Syria agrees to enter fresh peace talks, amid new rebel evacuation deals

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DAMASCUS, — Syria‘s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Thursday that his government was ready to partake in next month’s peace talks in Geneva, amid fresh deals concluded in rebel-held areas near the capital Damascus for the evacuation of militants toward northern Syria, reports say.

Syria “is ready to participate in the Syrian-Syrian dialogue in Geneva without any foreign interference,” al-Moallem said, in the first official Syrian response to the international decision adopted at the UN Security Council recently regarding finding a political end to the nearly five-year-old crisis.

Last week, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed a resolution, which calls for Syria peace talks to begin in early January. It also calls for a nationwide cease-fire in Syria to come into effect “as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition have begun initial steps towards a political transition under UN auspices.”

The resolution also says that the truce should be carried out in parallel with the talks. Still, actions against terrorist groups would not be affected, meaning that Russian, French and U.S. air strikes against Islamic State (IS) will continue.

Analysts in Syria said the new resolution has reflected a new understanding between Moscow and Washington, particularly after the two seem to have overlooked some details that have for long been obstacles standing in the face of an international consensus, mainly the issue of the Syrian presidency.

The new resolution included the Syrians’ right to choose their leadership, without having a clear call for President Bashar al-Assad’s departure.

During his meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing, al-Moallem said that a progress in the efforts to reach a political solutions is linked to victory over terrorism which has become a matter of global priority and requires pushing forward the international efforts to dry up the sources of terrorism and prevent the infiltration of terrorists across the border.

The minister added that any attempt be any international party to interfere in the Syrians’ right to decide their future is rejected.

For her part, Syria’s Presidential Political and Media Advisor, Buthaina Shaba’an said in a recent interview that the adoption of new roadmap at Security Council was prompted by the West’ failure in Syria, the success of the Russian vision and the spread of terrorism to the US and France.

Putting this resolution into effect depends on whether the terrorism-sponsoring countries come to believe that they have reached an impasse and have to change their position, said Shaba’an, adding that “now it is high time that the resolution be implemented if there is an international will and real intention to stop targeting and draining Syria.”

Essential for the implementation of these resolutions is having the Turkish borders closed to the terrorists and having the countries funding and arming terrorists held accountable, Shaba’an noted.

“If they do that, it would be a real prelude to an effective political process with us definitely involved,” she said, adding that the Syrian decision will be extremely independent in the negotiations next month in Geneva.

While the political wheels were rolling in the international arena, the Syrian government seemed determined to continue with local truce its Ministry of National Reconciliation with the help of the UN have been implementing.

A source told Xinhua on Thursday that as many as 5,000 armed militants and their families are planned to be evacuated from the al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Qadam districts south of the capital Damascus next Saturday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said members of the Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front are among the hardline militants who will be evacuated to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, namely to the de facto city of al-Raqqa and the town of Mare’ in the countryside of the northern province of Aleppo.

Those radicals have rejected to be reconciled with the government and that explains their evacuation, while the rebels who will stay in the districts will have to hand over their weapons and surrender themselves to the Syrian authorities to have their criminal records cleared under the deal.

As a goodwill sign, the rebels started removing sand barriers and opened roads between al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Qadam, while the government busses were allowed to reach those areas as part of the preparations to evacuate the hardline jihadists, the source said.

The new deal is also under the UN mediation, said the source, adding that after the implementation of the evacuation in al-Hajar and al-Qadam, a truce with undeclared conditions will be implemented next Monday in the rebel-held town of Zabadani, northwest of the capital Damascus and the two besieged Shiite towns of Kafraya and Foa in the countryside of the northwestern province of Idlib.

Previously, the rebels wanted Syrian authorities to halt a broad offensive on rebel-held Zabadani and Madaya towns, while the Iranians and Syrian governments wanted jihadi groups in northwestern province of Idlib to halt their attacks on Shiite towns, which have been subject to repetitive attacks and suffocating siege.

A six-month ceasefire went into effect simultaneously last September in Kafraya and Foa and Zabadani in west of Damascus, near Lebanese borders.

The ceasefire was planned to be followed by a 25-point agreement, which is expected to start soon to settle the situation in the Shiite towns and Zabadani.

Local reports said in September that the 25-point agreement, which has been concluded between an Iranian delegation, representing Syrian government, and the Jaish al-Fateh and Ahrar al-Sham rebels, will include halting battles in other areas, such as towns adjacent to Zabadani, namely Madaya, Buqain, Surghaya and the surrounding military posts.

The agreement also includes bringing an end to confrontations and attacks in towns of Binnish, Taftanaz, Taum, Maret Misrin, and cities of Idlib, Ram Hamdan, Zardna, and Shallakh in province of Idlib.

The agreement could see the total withdrawal of rebels and their families from Zabadani. The only destination for the rebels and their families from Zabadani is Idlib, much of which fell to Jaish al-Fateh in recent months. In return, the wounded people, women, children and men above age 50 will be allowed to leave Kafraya and Foa, two of the very few government positions in Idlib.

Earlier this month, nearly 300 rebels evacuated the district of al-Waer, the last rebel-held district west of the central city of Homs under a similar deal mediated by the UN.

Muhammad al-Omari, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Reconciliation, said Thursday that 2016 will witness an acceleration in the national reconciliations in Syria, which will go in tandem with the achievements of the Syrian army.

Almost a quarter of a million people, including nearly 12,000 children, have been killed in Syria’s conflict since it broke out in March 2011.

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