The European Union’s foreign policy chief on Monday expressed cautious optimism about Syria’s peace process, urging international and regional actors to build on the current, favorable conditions even as fighting raged between rival militant groups in southern Syria.
In Geneva, where ongoing proximity peace talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition had adjourned over the weekend, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura was to meet with the two sides separately.
On a visit to Beirut, EU’s Federica Mogherini said recent developments — including a cease-fire that has been largely holding across the war-torn Mideast country since Feb. 27 and the delivery of aid to besieged areas — reflect “positive” steps unseen in the previous five years of conflict in Syria.
Mogherini met with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil and Prime Minister Tammam Salam and discussed the issue of Syrian refugees and the attacks by the Islamic State group in Lebanon and in Paris last November. She also went to Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley to meet Syrian refugees who are among hundreds of thousands who have fled to Lebanon.
Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people, has given refuge to more than 1 million Syrian refugees.
“Today, we have something that not only last year but all the previous five years we did not have,” she said, speaking of the peace process. “We have today conditions that were never in place before.”
She stressed that Syrian partners and the international and regional players have to build on these positive steps.
“Obviously, (it’s) something fragile and we all have to focus very much on protecting the steps that have been taken, making sure that they consolidate and that they also go far,” Mogherini said.
In Syria, meanwhile, a militant faction loyal to the Islamic State group — the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade — attacked and captured the southern Syrian villages of Tseel after intense clashes with rival groups including al-Qaida’s branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front.
Also Monday, Syria’s state TV showed President Bashar Assad hosting wounded Syrian soldiers in a reception hall with his wife, Asmaa. The country’s five-year civil war has killed more than 250,000 people and wounded more than a million.
Elsewhere, the Cairo-based Arab League rejected last week’s declaration by Syrian Kurds of a de-facto federal region in northern Syria. The league’s deputy chief, Ahmed bin Helli, said Monday that calls for federalization could impact Syria’s unity.
On Thursday, a meeting of some 200 Syrian Kurdish officials declared they were establishing a federal region, insisting they don’t seek secession but rather making sure the country remains one nation.
In Syria’s civil war, Kurdish fighters have emerged as the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State group and are backed militarily by the United States. A long oppressed minority, the Kurds took advantage of the chaos of the war to advance their goals of autonomy. After Assad’s troops withdrew from Kurdish areas to focus elsewhere in Syria, they declared their own civil administration in 2013.