Security talks begin in Munich, with Syria in focus

AFP, MUNICH, Germany

Sun, Feb 03, 2013 - Page 6

Syria’s opposition leader said the international community must not be a bystander to the tragedy of the Syrian people as US and other officials, ministers and military brass gathered for the Munich Security Conference.

US Vice President Joe Biden was due to attend the Munich talks yesterday.

The freshly re-inaugurated Biden, who on Friday met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, was to in Munich turn his attention to Syria, amid fears the conflict may spill over the country’s borders.

He was scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib, and also see UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, the White House said.

Outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Iran was stepping up its support for the Syrian regime and that Russia was still arming it, heightening concerns after Damascus threatened to retaliate over a reported Israeli air raid.

“What we would like to see from other countries, including Russia, is an acknowledgment that [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad must go and that there needs to be a transition within Syria to a new government,” White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.

Khatib on Friday said the international community must not be a “bystander” to the “tragedy” of the Syrian people and reiterated his willingness to talk to the regime.

He joined Brahimi for late-night panel talks at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

“As a gesture of good will ... we are ready to sit at the negotiating table with the regime, but we don’t want their hands to be full of blood,” Khatib said, calling for the release of detainees.

In a surprise move on Wednesday, Khatib announced he was ready for dialogue with officials of al-Assad’s regime, subject to conditions, including that “160,000 detainees” are released.

Howver, the opposition Syrian National Coalition said on Thursday that any talks on the country’s political future must be about the departure of the regime of al-Assad.

Asked what Khatib would ask of the US and other governments, he said, speaking through an interpreter, “everything you would provide us with to end the injustice is acceptable.”

“The Syrian people are living a tragedy right now,” he added.

He called for “some kind of electronic interference” to prevent the aircraft of the regime shelling the Syrian people.

“If that doesn’t work, I would demand to destroy the planes and weapons of the Syrian regime because it is just not acceptable for the international community to be a bystander just watching what’s happening to the Syrian people,” he said.

“We hate war, we do not advocate war ... I am warning if this crisis persists, it would have grave ramifications on the whole region,” he added.

Brahimi for his part called for a “clear decision” from the UN Security Council to set the agenda for a peaceful solution.

Also on the Munich agenda was Iran. Biden, as he began a three-nation European tour on Friday, cautioned Tehran that the opportunity for talks with the West over its contested nuclear program was not open-ended.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was expected to attend the Munich talks, as well as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who represents the so-called P5+1 group of the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany in talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“[US] President [Barack] Obama has made clear that containment is not an option. We will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily quoted Biden as saying.

“We think there is time and space for diplomacy — accompanied with economic pressure. But this window will not be open for an unlimited time,” he said in remarks published in German.

Iran and the six world powers held three rounds of talks last year aimed at easing the standoff over Iran’s nuclear activities, which Tehran insists are entirely peaceful, but the last round ended in stalemate in June in Moscow.

Another round of talks was initially expected to be held in December last year or last month, but a date and a location have still not been set amid indications that neither side is prepared to substantially change its position.

NATO’s plan to withdraw the bulk of its 100,000 combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, as well as developments in the Muslim and Arab world two years after the Arab Spring revolts, are also set to be themes at the talks.

Mali is also expected to focus minds.

Opening the conference Friday, German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere said it was “right and imperative” for France to intervene but military intervention was only the start of a long road towards conflict resolution.