Jeers rang out as the Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem left the podium of the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday in a rare protest inside the world body.
Mr Muallem had used the platform to make remarks that appeared to undermine commitments to the UN’s Geneva negotiations with a claim that no opposition force existed that was a “credible partner” for peace.
The foreign minister’s address coincided with a meeting between Riad Hijab, the General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, and Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations.
“What Muallem said is not just an attack on us, the opposition, but an attack on the entire international community,” said Bassam Barabandi, a spokesman for the opposition body. “We met this morning with Mr Guterres who said it is Geneva not Astana that is the process for negotiating peace and reconciliation and without that there can be no reconstruction.”
Just days after the opposition activist Orouba Barakat, 60, and her daughter Halla, 23, were found stabbed to death in an Istanbul flat, Mr Muallem warned the Turkish government that Damascus was ready to retaliate for its support for the opposition. “Turkey under Erdogan has taken aggressive policies as it labours under the illusion that it will serve Turkey’s agenda in Syria and the wider region,” he said. “Syria reserves the right to respond to any such aggression.”
While claiming Syria was ready to “scale up” internal reconciliation efforts, he said the deconfliction zones negotiated in Astana and elsewhere were a temporary standstill and not yet the basis of a lasting ceasefire.
Syria has been the subject of intense talks during the annual General Assembly. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy met with Syrian opposition delegations as well as wider groups drawn from the community and with Mr Muallem.
Controversy dogged Mr Muallem too after he met with Jebran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister, triggering a row in Beirut that the encounter was normalising relations with the neighbouring regime.
“What we warned against — falling in the lap of the Syrian regime that is accused of the crime of eradication of its people — began to come to fruition,” said Akram Chehayeb, a Democratic Gathering MP in a statement. “The photo that media outlets are circulating on the meeting with the foreign minister of the criminal regime in Damascus doesn’t align with working towards national unity, which we have called for and that we are working for.”
A joint delegation of civil society groups met with Mr De Mistura and warned against relying too much on the Astana talks to address the Syrian conflict, saying these had “hijacked” important issues like the release of detainees and the need for accountability on the forcibly disappeared.
“The delegation urged Mr De Mistura to reintegrate these issues into the Geneva process,” said a statement from the delegation, which included the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) and SAWA for Development and Aid. “De-escalation zones may provide hope for an end to violence. The Assad regime, and all those responsible for war crimes, should not be rewarded with funds for and control over reconstruction or early recovery.
The groups also called for the UN’s mechanism for consulting civil society — the Civil Society Support Room — to be restructured. The groups also called for the UN’s mechanism for consulting civil society — the Civil Society Support Room — to be restructured.