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On Syria, de Mistura's Working Groups Rejected by Syrian Coalition & Others

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, October 3 -- When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the Security Council about Syria back on July 29, he was the opening act for his envoy Staffan de Mistura, and his new "Working Group" proposal.

 Now the Syrian Coalition and others, named below, have rejected the Working Groups "unless ambiguities are resolved." Here is their full statement:

"Joint Statement on the Latest Developments and Implications of the Political Process in Syria

Syrian Coalition Political Committee October 03, 2015

Political offices of the undersigned rebel factions and the Syrian Coalition’s political committee held a meeting and thoroughly studied the proposals put forward by the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, namely the “work groups" initiative. After in-depth reviewing of the regional and international reality engulfing the Syrian arena as well as recent sensitive developments with profound field and political influence, and out of our concern for the possibility of launching a new failed political process costing Syrians even more thousands of lives, and more destruction to the remnants of the country's infrastructure, we affirm the following points:

First: Participants in the meeting emphasize their commitment to reaching a political solution to achieve the goals of the revolution, preserve the identity of the Syrian people and end their suffering. This political process however must ensure that the current regime is not reproduced or that its head and pillars, whose hands are stained with the blood of Syrians, are given any role in the transitional political process or in Syria’s future.
Second: While forces of the revolution and the opposition have always dealt fully positive with the UN envoy despite the absence of any practical results on the ground, they emphasize they will continue to positively deal with the United Nations in order to achieve the interests of the Syrian people.
Third: The Syrian people have completely lost confidence in the ability of the international community to support their cause after five years of regime crimes committed against them with Iranian military support, Russian political coverage and a legitimacy that the international community still insists on providing to the murderous regime. The current popular outrage must be taken into account in any political process which must be preceded by real steps to win the confidence of the Syrian people. The most important of these steps is to explicitly declare that the head of the regime and its pillars cannot be given any role to play in the political process.
Fourth: Bashar al-Assad has no place in any political process depending on the following legal and practical reasons:

Bashar al-Assad inherited power in an entirely illegal way.
Bashar al-Assad became a war criminal the moment he began killing Syrians who peacefully demanded their rights. He used illegal chemical weapons against innocent civilians. These crimes have been documented by neutral international organizations to prevent any doubt in the matter.

Bashar al-Assad and his regime have shown utmost reluctance to engage in any political process, have not abided by any declared truces, and have shown non-cooperation with the international community purely with humanitarian issues. All of this has left him with no credibility or confidence.

While Bashar al-Assad and his regime have failed in their alleged war against ISIS or to achieve any intellectual or field victory against this extremist organization, there is compelling evidence on full coordination between the two sides and the role Assad’s regime plays in the emergence of ISIS.
Bashar al-Assad has opened the doors of Syria to foreign militias who commit the worst sectarian massacres at the same time as fuelling sectarian rhetoric, which deprives him of any eligibility to participate in any political process that aims to unite the country.

Finally, Bashar al-Assad has handed over Syria to Iranian and Russian invaders, thus committing an unforgivable act of betrayal to the country's history, its future and dignity.
Fifth: We consider that dissolving the security agencies and the restructuring of the military institution directly responsible for killing Syrians an essential item for any political solution. This beleaguered and crumbling military institution has turned into sectarian militias led by Iran. It cannot therefore form the nucleus of a national army, nor can it be trusted by the Syrian people to restore security and stability to the country.
Sixth: The formation of a transitional governing body is a process of full transfer of power in which Bashar al-Assad and pillars of his regime have no place. We emphasize the need to preserve state institutions and prevent their disintegration as they belong to the Syrian people, and to prevent the country from sliding into more chaos.
Seventh: We consider that proposing the "work groups" initiative ignores the majority of the relevant United Nations resolutions on Syria, particularly resolutions 2118, 2165 and 2139. This initiative is in fact a complicated political process that requires confidence-building between the Syrian people on the one hand and the party that will sponsor the political process, namely the United Nations. Confidence-building can only be achieved through the implementation of the above-mentioned UN resolutions that the Syrian regime has so far disabled them.
Eighth: We consider that the "work groups" initiative in its current form and its unclear mechanisms provides the perfect environment to reproduce the regime. These “work groups” must instead be based on clear principles regarding standards for selecting the participants in these groups and the final vision for the solution.
Ninth: We condemn Russia’s direct military escalation in Syria and consider the Syrian regime fully responsible as it has turned Syria into a hotbed for foreign intervention. The silence of the international community also bears responsibility for this escalation and represents a point of no return in the relationship between the Syrian people and Russia. This escalation clearly shows that Russia is not serious or sincere in its commitment to the political process, and that it has never been a honest mediator but a party to the conflict and a key ally of the criminal regime.
Tenth: While forces of the revolution and its institutions reaffirm commitment to our people, we vow to exert the utmost efforts to close ranks and correct previous mistakes. We also vow that the revolution will remain faithful to its principles and the blood of its fallen heroes, and that we will strike a balance between achieving our objectives and safeguarding our fundamental principles. We also pledge to alleviate the suffering of our people, expedite victory and to dedicate our political and military capabilities for this purpose.
Accordingly, the “work groups” initiative in its current form is unacceptable neither practically nor legally process unless the above-mentioned points are taken into consideration and the ambiguities shaping the mechanisms of this initiative are resolved.
Rebel factions:
Ahrar al-Sham Movement
Jaish al-Islam
Islamic Union of Ajnad al-Sham
Al-Sham Legion
Al-Sham Revolutionaries
The Levant Front
Al-Rahman Corps
Homs Corps
Al-Mujahideen Army
Fastaqim Kama Umert Conglomeration
Ajnad al-Sham
Noureddine Zanki Movement
Homs Liberation Movement
The South’s 1st Army
Al-Yarmouk Army
The 1st Corps
Al-Tawhid Army - Homs
The Tribes Army
Division 101
Division 13
Amoud Horan Division
The Tribes Corps
Tahrir al-Sham Division
The Central Division
Division 16 Infantry
Sultan Murad Aldin Division
The 1st Coastal Division
Fajr al-Tawhid Division
Salahuddin Division
Division 24 Infantry
Al-Qadisiyah Division
Shabab al-Sunnah Division
Ossoud al-Sunnah Division
Fallujat Horan Division
March 18 Division
The 69th Davison- Special Tasks
Ahrar Nawa Division
Khaiyalet al-Zaidi Division
Shuhadaa’ al-Hirak Division
Al- Sham Unified Front
Al-Asala wal Tanmiya Front
Ansar al-Islam Front
Al-Inqath Fighting Front
Suqur Jabal al-Zawiya Brigade
Fursan al-Haqq Brigade
Farouk al-Janoub Brigade
Shuhadaa’ al-Islam Brigade
Al-Fatah Brigade
Al-Siddiq Brigade
Talbeesah Brigade
Ahbab Omar Brigade
Ahfad al-Rassoul Brigade
Jisr Houran Brigade
Tawhid Kataeb Houran
Tafas Brigade
Al-Muhajirin wal Ansar Brigade
Youssef al-Azmah Brigade
Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade
Shabab al-Huda Brigade
Al-Sahel 10th Brigade
Al-Furqan Brigades
Suqur al-Ghab Brigades
Ansar al-Sham
Abnaa’ al-Qadisiyah
Al-Safwah Battalions
Al-Omari Brigades Conglomerate
Izraa’ Brigades Conglomerate
Regiment 111
The 1st Regiment
The Artillery Regiment
The FSA Brigades in Hasaka"

 Back on September 22, de Mistura issued a Note to Correspondents with the names of the facilitators of the four Working Groups: "Mr. Jan Egeland as facilitator for the Safety and Protection thematic Working Group; Mr. Nicolas Michel as facilitator for the Political and Legal Issues thematic Working Group; Mr. Volker Perthes as facilitator for the Military, Security and Counterterrorism thematic Working Group; and Ms. Birgitta Holst Alani as facilitator for the Continuity of Public Services, Reconstruction and Development thematic Working Group."

  Nicolas Michel, as reported by Inner City Press, appeared in Damascus in 2012 with then-envoy Kofi Annan.

  Before that, as exclusively reported by Inner City Press, he accepted rent money for a 12,000 a month apartment on Park Avenue in New York from the Swiss government, while ostensibly being a full time UN official.

 Still, Michel then and says has answered more Press questions then, for example, UN Peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, who while dodging questions linked UN rapes to "R&R", on video here.

  One wonders if these Working Group positions are full-time, how they are compensated and if outside employments remain. Watch this site.

 What de Mistura set out, however, was a mere "deepening" of the Geneva Consultations he's been engaged in since May 5. In what seemed like form over substance, de Mistura said:

   “What I am today proposing is deepening the Geneva Consultations format. I now intend to invited Syrians to parallel, or simultaneous, thematic discussions through intra-Syrian working groups addressing the key aspects of the Communique, as identified by them in the first phase of the Consultations.”

   These key aspects were bullet-pointed by de Mistura as “Safety and protection for all, including ending sieges, ensuring medical access and releasing detainees;

"political and Constitutional issues including essential principles, transitional governing body and elections;

"military and security issues including combating terrorism, cease-fires and integration of forces; and

"public institutions, reconstruction and development, including institutions continuing to deliver public services under a top leadership acceptable to all and acting in accordance with principles of good government and human rights.”

  While de Mistura referred to a "Fear of the Black Flag" flying over Damascus, it wasn't clear who would be in these working groups. Nevertheless it was said that the Security Council was working on a Presidential Statement to support de Mistura.

  When Ban himself spoke, all the trappings of gravitas were given. The day's UN noon briefing was canceled, in deference to Ban's (scripted?) question and answer session set for 12:40 pm.

  Even before 10 am, Ban's personal rostrum or lectern was set up at the UNTV stakeout. Given that it was torn from the hands even of a member state's foreign minister - and later President of the General Assembly -- this meant the UN assumed no member state would want (or dare) to speak before Ban's 12:40 pm stakeout.

 This is today's UN.  More at

   Likewise, de Mistura was reported on July 21-22 to have "sound[ed] alarm over battle at Syria border," the question arose, Where did de Mistura sound this alarm?

  When de Mistura had statements to make, back on July 10 and before that on June 10, the UN Spokesperson's office sent the statement to all media on its distribution list and put it online. But that was not done in this case. Why not?

 Some note that de Mistura is under fire, on issues ranging from his hiring (see Inner City Press exclusive reporting, below) to being too silent or ineffectual. So is this new way of "communicating," to a single Western wire service, an attempt to more effective control the message and the pass-through messager? We'll have more on this.

Back on April 24 when Mistura came to the UN Security Council stakeout, Inner City Press asked him about criticism of how he has run his office to date. De Mistura declined to respond. But see below.

 On May 30, the UN Spokesperson's Office issued a statement for de Mistura, condemning "the death of at least 70 civilians in Syria's northern Aleppo province by barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters."  The statement, full text here, said that "all evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of the civilian victims in the Syrian conflict have been caused by the use of such indiscriminate aerial weapons." Some were sure to wonder, what about ISIS?

  But as de Mistura holds a new round on consultations in Geneva, with all press coverage Banned, he is belatedly replacing his principal political affairs officer with one Stephanie Koury, Inner City Press is informed, who in Iraq headed the UN's Kirkuk office, as well as a stint in another of the UN's failed (or turned-over) mediation missions, in Yemen, see below.

 Previously, Inner City Press reported on how de Mistura ingratiated himself to Ban Ki-moon by hiring and promoting Ban's son in law Siddharth Chatterjee while serving as envoy in Iraq. (Some of that reported was censored, but not on Inner City Press.) This led to push-back from the UN, which continues to the day - something that the new Free UN Coalition for Access opposes.

  Last week the UN said of de Mistura's upcoming five to six weeks of talks on Syria in Geneva that there will be no interviews or stakeouts, nor even any photo-sprays, during all that time. FUNCA opposes this closing-down of the UN as well.

  A picture has emerged of de Mistura's running of the UN's Syria office, in which "cronies" from his time in Iraq and after that Afghanistan have been favored in jobs, with very little to show for it.

  De Mistura's functional political affairs chief, for example, has been Elpida Rouka, who was de Mistura's "Special Assistant" in Iraq. Her i-Phone composed political memos have been exclusively mocked to Inner City Press by close associates of de Mistura, but de Mistura declared her the only authorized channel of "substantive" information to UN Headquarters in New York.

 At a key moment in de Mistura's doomed push for a "freeze" in Aleppo, Inner City Presss is exclusively informed that de Mistura went with, over ceasefire expert Julian Hottinger, one Matt Waldman, listed as an adviser not only of de Mistura on Syria but also of the European Institute for Peace, which as Inner City Press has reported de Mistura remains president of the Board of Governors.

 (Back in September 2014, Inner City Press asked the UN Office of the Spokesperson, "please confirm or deny that Mr. de Mistura will be (allowed to be) based in Brussels, and separate state his contract status: When Actually Employed? Paid at USG level? Is he being allowed to continue working with / for any non-UN organization, if so which, and what review of possible conflicts of interest was made, and by whom?")

  One might think that the UN's Syria envoy position is or should be a full time job, without outside second positions like continuing as president of the board of a group like the European Institute for Peace. But this is the UN, where the special representative on Cyprus Alexander Downer was allowed to work full time at an investment bank or consultancy Bespoke Approach, Tony Blair as Middle East Quartet representative and businessman, and now a similar UNdisclosed arrangement in Yemen.

(Inner City Press has four times asked simple public financial disclosure questions about Ban's new Yemen envoy Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, without answer.)

  All of the above said, de Mistura is a pleasant man; while in Afghanistan he pledged to get to the bottom of the murder of UN staffer Louis Maxwell there although he never did (nor did others in today's UN).  But Inner City Press - and FUNCA - are committed to a closely-covered and open UN, and the trend, from the top down, is in quite the opposite direction. Here was the UN's "Note to Correspondents" -

The Geneva Consultations on Syria will begin next week Monday, 4 May, at the Palais des Nations and last for an initial period of five to six weeks.

The Special Envoy of the Secretary-General Staffan de Mistura has invited as many of the parties as possible, primarily the Syrian parties (government, opposition and civil society), as well as the regional and international stakeholders, to discuss with the Special Envoy, the dire situation in Syria today and to provide their candid views on where we stand vis-a-vis implementation of the Geneva Communiqué almost three years since it was adopted.

The Special Envoy and the Deputy Special Envoy, Ramzy Ezzeldine Ramzy, will conduct closed and separate consultations with each party.

There will be no photo opportunities, no stakeouts, and no interviews while the consultations are being conducted at the Palais. However, periodic photo and video feeds will be provided by UN Photo and UN Television.

The UNOG Spokesman and Director, a.i., of the UN Information Service in Geneva, and the Office of the Special Envoy's Public Information Officer, will provide periodic updates to the Geneva Press Corps and others, as and when appropriate and necessary.

No major public announcements are expected during, or at the conclusion of, these Consultations. The Special Envoy will assess the progress of his stock-taking at the end of the process and report to the Secretary-General with his findings and recommendations.

Thank you for understanding. 

  Thank you indeed.

 Back on April 24, Inner City Press asked de Mistura if the Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen changed any of the dynamics on Syria.

  In reply, de Mistura told Inner City Press that "everything in the region these days is connected." He added that he is focused on Syria.

 Inner City Press also asked de Mistura about criticism made by his former adviser Mouin Rabbani on Qatar's Al Jazeera TV, that Mistura is out of his depth and not up for the task.

 De Mistura replied, I will not respond, you would do the same, if one of your ex-colleagues...

  Inner City Press asked the question because it hadn't been asked, tellingly.

 Dina Kawar said Mistura “mentioned what he will do next month in Geneva, holding separate meetings with the Syrian parties, representatives of the civil society and regional and international actors. He will provide his assessment to the Secretary General and keep the Security Council informed,” Kawar said, taking no questions.

  Staffan de Mistura emerged, saying he would take two or three questions. He said, “the only way is to test, a stress test,” a phrase like his previous “freeze.” He said, “by end of June we should be in the position to reassess whether any convergence on substance and report to the Secretary General.”

  De Mistura said, “This is not Geneva Three, this is a series of consultation, one to one. We can convene and ask everyone to come and not exclude anyone.. Iran is a member country of the UN, it is a major play in the region, it has influence in Syria. The UN has the right, and will be inviting everyone.”

  Unlike Montreux, it was observed by... one wag.

  Back on April 16, that the Syrian chemical weapons victim and doctor who briefed the UN Security Council did so behind closed doors, with no UN Television coverage, was a product of the Council's rules.

  It was an “Arria formula” meeting, which was not be listed in the UN Journal or even on the blue electronic signs outside it. (The sign said the meeting was about "nutrition.")

  Afterward chemical weapons victim Qusai Zakarya took some questions in the hall, before again going behind closed doors of the UN Censorship Alliance, see below.

  Inner City Press in this public space asked Qusai Zakarya what he thought of UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura.

Qusai Zakarya said replied to Inner City Press, "I think Staffan de Mistura is a hypocrite. I think his very disgusting attempt to shine up the image of the regime is exposed to the Syrian people and to a nlot of members of the international community. His offer on freezes was a joke. If he really cared about saving lives he would have convinced the regime to stop using its fire power. We have a lot of outrage against his attempts, the deal he was trying to offer, it's just another false attempt to shine up the image of the regime."

   Inner City Press asked him if he would meet with any UN official. “I can't answer that questio right now,” he said. Then the convoy went to the clubhouse of the UN Censorship Alliance, which had sent notice only to those who pay it money: "They will have just presented their accounts in front of the UN Security Council at an Arria-formula meeting on Syria Chemical Weapons."

     But why would the doctors, in holding a supposed press conference afterward, not do so in the UN Press Briefing Room on UNTV, as can be done by any NGO or individual as long as sponsored by a member state?

    Instead, the sequel  show was also behind closed door, in the UN Censorship Alliance (UNCA), not on UNTV. This is the same UNCA which hosted former Syrian Coalition head Ahmad al Jarba, allowing him to claim he had a “UN press briefing.”  It is a scam.

  And so on April 24 Inner City Press asked UN spokesman Dujarric if Jarba's successor, after Hadi al Bahra, Khaled Khoja will hold a Q&A session in the open UN Press Briefing Room. We'll see.

    UNCA and its board members have, for example, sought to get other journalists thrown out of the UN, for reporting on the financial relationship of UNCA's then and now president Giampaolo Pioli with an alleged war criminal, accepting rent money from him and later agree to screen his war crimes denial film inside the UN, under the UNCA banner.  If one has a case to make, this is not the place to make it.

  Even since its outright censorship bid, the way UNCA is run gives less and less confidence. On April 10, the UN Spokesperson's Office announced over its public address system that "in a few short moments in the UNCA room there will be a press conference by a State Department official."

   But as Inner City Press immediately reported, it wasn't any "press conference" -- it was off the record spin, typical of this UNCA now known as the UN's Censorship Alliance (the invitation they send to those who pay UNCA money is below.)

  Just before 5 pm, the UN Spokesperson's Office made a second public address system announcement: it was NOT a press conference, but rather an off the record presentation by the US State Department.

  All this in the big room the UN gives to UNCA, its Censorship Alliance. Why is the UN involved in this in any way at all?

  The announcement by UNCA president Giampaolo Pioli, sent only to those who pay UNCA money (then forwarded to Inner City Press along with messages of shock and disgust) said

"For correspondents interested in an informal off-the-record meeting with [the] Deputy Director, Media Hub of the Americas, U.S. Department of State Bureau of Public Affairs, please join us in the UNCA Meeting Room, Friday, April 10th at 3:30pm.

"The meeting will be to explain the work of the State Department Public Affairs bureau that works with international media, to provide assistance in gaining better access to State Department officials and information, in addition to presenting the work done in the Media Hub of the Americas where the Director is the State Department spokesperson in Spanish and Portuguese for regional media and Spain and Portugal.

Thank you,

Giampaolo Pioli
UNCA President"
 Pioli's invite linked to a self-description of this US Bureau of Public Affairs, that “PA/IME works in close collaboration with State Department and interagency colleagues to create and manage tools to ensure accurate coverage of U.S. foreign policy by major international media.”

    UNCA represents only part of the UN press corps. This writer, for example, quit the group after 2012.  UNCA is said by UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric to receive the first question in the UN Press Briefing Room “by tradition,” even after UNCA's Executive Board tried to get the investigative Press thrown out of the UN for its reporting about Sri Lanka, UN Peacekeeping and colonialism (Herve Ladsous) among other topics.

 UNCA did nothing when Ladsous adopted the policy of refusing to answer any questions from the investigative Press, and having his spokespeople physically grab the UNTV microphone to try to avoid the questions being heard.

  Now UNCA wants to facilitate “accurate coverage of U.S. foreign policy.” Does it perform this service for other countries?

    Inner City Press, like the new Free UN Coalition for Access which it co-founded after quitting UNCA, is not against "accurate coverage of US foreign policy." Last month, Inner City Press asked the US State Department about Yemen (including the decision not to evacuate Yemeni Americans from the country), Cuba (the US restrictions on its diplomats at the UN), the Maldives, Middle East and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In each case, Inner City Press reported the answers in full, where possible with video.

  But why provide this platform for one country and not others? Earlier on April 10 UNCA will have a presentation by a former US CIA employee who served in Saipan, Korea, Vietnam and "Burma," as the UNCA notice puts it.

  What has happened to this UNCA under Pioli and presumably current Executive Committee members from Reuters, the US Broadcast Board of Governors and ANSA? And how now can the UN continue to “partner” with UNCA, exclusively, using this partial group as a proxy for the wider press corps?

 Earlier on April 9, when the UN with little notice canceled its question and answer noon briefing in deference to a "press encounter" with Ban Ki-moon at which Dujarric handpicked the questioners and Ban notably did not call for a halt or even pause in airstrikes on Yemen, UNCA said nothing. (They will, however, have a "Prosecco toast" with Ban later in the month.)

 The Free UN Coalition spoke up in criticism, as here. We'll have more on and of this.


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