Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has been re-elected with 95.1 percent of the votes cast, the parliamentary speaker announced Thursday, following an election criticised by the opposition and Western nations.
The two other presidential candidates, former state minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmud Merhi, a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition”, received 1.5 percent and 3.3 percent of the vote respectively, according to the official results of Wednesday’s election.
In a country ravaged by war since 2011, 14.2 million people went to the polls, a turnout rate of 76.64 percent, according to the parliamentary speaker.
The election went ahead in the two-thirds of the country controlled by the government, and in some Syrian embassy overseas.
It was the second presidential election in the country since the start of the war which has cost over 388,000 lives.
In 2014, Assad obtained 88 percent of the vote, according to the official results.
Assad has dismissed Western accusations that Wednesday’s vote was neither “free nor fair”.
The United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy have condemned the electoral process as “illegitimate”.
The EU said Monday it is working to secure a big increase in Covid vaccine supplies from next month to recover from a disappointingly slow start to its jabs rollout.
The urgency of the push was underlined by Italy announcing that its toll of virus deaths had topped 100,000.
Meanwhile, former EU member Britain reopened its schools as a tough lockdown and successful first-jabs programme brought daily infection numbers down 90 percent from where they were two months ago.
Signs of economic revival in the US — where vaccinated people can now mingle unmasked per the latest medical recommendation — also point to the world’s wealthier countries aiming for a mid-year bounceback from the pandemic.
But people in other countries and territories are struggling, including in Syria where President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma tested positive for Covid-19.
Israel — which has reopened restaurants and bars after fully inoculating 44 percent of its population — has begun to vaccinate Palestinians holding work permits.
Around the world, almost 305 million vaccine doses have been injected, according to an AFP count at 1200 GMT Monday, with the US in the lead in absolute terms at 90 million doses.
Global leisure travel remains devastated, with the UN’s World Tourism Organization saying nearly one in three destinations remain completely closed to international tourists.
But tourist-dependent countries are taking steps to ease restrictions ahead of a hoped-for return of vaccinated visitors.
Thailand will from April halve its hotel quarantine period to one week for vaccinated arrivals.
Vaccinated Israelis will avoid quarantine in both Greece and Cyprus, while the latter will also welcome vaccinated British tourists.
– Pressure in Europe –
Mounting public pressure to have vaccines unlock a semblance of pre-pandemic life is being felt by Europe’s leaders.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen told a German newspaper, Stuttgarter Nachrichten, that vaccine deliveries to the European Union should double between April and June compared to the first three months of 2021, to 300 million doses.
Even though that is 100 million fewer than projected in a February summit of EU leaders, she stands by her goal to see 70 percent of adults in the EU fully vaccinated by mid-September.
But von der Leyen told another German paper, Wirtschaftswoche, that to get there the bloc could halt further vaccine exports, after Italy last week stopped an AstraZeneca shipment to Australia.
“That was not a one-off,” she warned.
That ban was under an EU mechanism created in January to prevent vaccine-makers under contract with the bloc under-delivering to Europe while meeting commitments elsewhere.
Von der Leyen has felt the heat from a failed first-quarter rollout that depended largely on Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca, which supplied just a fraction of the 100 million doses it was contracted to deliver to the EU.
Over this year and next, the EU has pre-purchased 2.6 billion doses — more than enough for the EU’s total 450 million population, with the extra eventually to go to poorer neighbouring and African countries.
The portfolio covers the three vaccines currently authorised for the EU, from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, as well as ones likely to get approval — Johnson & Johnson, Curevac and Sanofi-GSK — and candidate vaccines from Novavax and Valneva.
Yet according to the last official figures from February 26, EU countries have received 51.5 million doses, and administered 29.2 million of them, roughly two-thirds as first jabs and one-third as second jabs.
After initially restricting AstraZeneca’s shot to under-65s, Italy on Monday authorised it for all adults, following in the steps of France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark.
Romania also dropped advice that the AstraZeneca shot should only be given to under-55s.
– ‘Russian roulette’ –
To further ensure supplies of all approved vaccines, the EU’s pointman on clearing production bottlenecks, industry commissioner Thierry Breton, on Monday held talks with his US counterpart Jeffrey Zients on ways to ensure vaccine supply chains are unimpeded across the Atlantic.
The US and the EU are vaccine powerhouses, traditionally supplying most of the world. While the US has a blanket export ban on vaccines and ingredients, the EU’s mechanism is only for finished vaccines.
The focus for Brussels and Washington is on the vaccines developed in Western countries, whose clinical data is fully available to medical authorities and whose production facilities fall under EU or US jurisdiction.
But the EU is also having to fend off growing interest by some of its hard-hit member states — such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and possibly Austria — in Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
The European Medicines Agency has started a rolling review of that vaccine.
But the head of the EMA’s management board, Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, warned on Austrian television that EU countries authorising it before the process was complete would be playing “Russian roulette” with their citizens’ health.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma have tested positive for Covid-19 after experiencing mild symptoms, the presidency said Monday.
“After experiencing mild symptoms that resemble… Covid-19, President al-Assad and first lady Asma Al-Assad took a PCR test, and the result showed that they are infected with the virus,” the presidency said in a statement.
“They are in good health and their condition is stable,” the statement added.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned US-backed Kurdish forces he would not hesitate to use force to retake the third of the country they control.
“The only problem left in Syria is the SDF,” Assad told Russia Today in an interview aired Thursday, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces which has spearheaded battles against Islamic State group (IS) jihadists.
“We’re going to deal with it by two options,” he said.
“The first one: we started now opening doors for negotiations. Because the majority of them are Syrians, supposedly they like their country, they don’t like to be puppets to any foreigners,” Assad said in English.
“We have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we’re going to resort… to liberating those areas by force.”
The Kurds in oil-rich northeastern Syria have long pushed for increased autonomy in their heartland but Damascus has insisted it intends to reassert its authority over the entire country.
“It’s our land, it’s our right and it’s our duty to liberate it,” Assad said. “The Americans should leave. Somehow they’re going to leave.”
The SDF, dominated by the militia of a self-proclaimed Kurdish autonomous administration, has air support from the US-led coalition against IS and backing from US and French special forces on the ground.
Still, the SDF is a local force, said spokesman Kino Gabriel.
“We’re a Syrian force par excellence, not a toy in the hands of any side — internal or external,” Gabriel told AFP on Thursday.
Gabriel denied negotiations between the government and the SDF.
He declined to comment on how the alliance would respond in case Assad attacked Kurdish areas, and there has been no other statement from the SDF’s military command.
Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for the US-led coalition, also did not specify how the body would react to such an attack.
“The SDF has done an amazing job helping get Daesh off the battlefield and they should be commended, not threatened,” he told AFP on Thursday, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Both the SDF and Russian-backed Syrian troops are engaged in separate operations against IS in east Syria, creating a highly volatile situation, where de-confliction mechanisms have already been tested several times.
The SDF has clashed with Syrian regime fighters on the ground, and the coalition has bombed government forces and their allies on multiple occasions.
Assad said a confrontation between Russia and US forces over Syria had also been narrowly avoided.
“We were close to having a direct conflict between the Russian forces and the American forces,” he said.
“Fortunately, it has been avoided, not by the wisdom of the American leadership, but by the wisdom of the Russian leadership.”
A US-led wave of Western missile strikes on Syrian government targets across the country last month raised fears of a Russian response and full-blown internationalisation of the conflict.
More strikes by US ally Israel have further raised fears that the devastating seven-year war could still escalate.
Israel has said it is targeting military infrastructure run by its archfoe Iran, which has been Damascus’s other key ally in the conflict.
No ‘Iranian troops’
But Assad denied Tehran had any active troops in Syria: “The most important fact regarding this issue, is that we don’t have Iranian troops.”
“We could not hide it, and we would not be ashamed to say that we have. We invited the Russians, we could have invited the Iranians,” he told RT.
Assad said there were Iranian officers working alongside the Syrian army, but that they were not combat troops.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, has repeatedly recorded Iranian deaths in Syria, including in Israeli strikes.
Syria’s army has been bolstered by fighters from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and local militias, but it was Russia’s vast 2015 military intervention that turned the tide in Assad’s favour.
He has since reconquered large parts of the country with a mix of military pressure and “reconciliation” deals, which he touted again on Thursday.
“You have to open the doors and you have to distinguish between different kinds of people,” he told RT.
“The majority of the people who were against the government… in the different liberated areas, actually in their hearts they are with the government,” Assad said.
“They could tell the difference between having a government and having chaos.”
Syria’s conflict broke out in 2011 with protests calling on Assad to step down, but it evolved into a brutal conflict that has left more than 350,000 people dead.
The Observatory said Thursday that coalition air strikes on an IS-held village in east Syria had killed at least eight people, three of them children.
President Vladimir Putin said the Russian army had “saved Syria as a state” after meeting with leader Bashar al-Assad in Russia, as Syrian regime forces take an upper hand over rebels and the Islamic State group.
Monday’s talks came during an unannounced “working visit” by Assad to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, ahead of a summit between Putin and the leaders of Turkey and Iran on Wednesday aimed at re-booting the Syrian peace process.
“As for our joint work in the fight against terrorism in Syria, this military operation is coming to an end,” Putin said, according to a transcript published on the Kremlin’s website.
The Russian leader praised Assad and predicted terrorism would suffer an “inevitable” defeat in the country.
“Thanks to the Russian army, Syria has been saved as a state. Much has been done to stabilise the situation in Syria,” the transcript said.
“It is in our interest to advance the political process… we don’t want to look back and we are ready for dialogue with all those who want to come up with a political settlement,” Assad said in translated comments.
Putin said he would consult world leaders on his talks with Assad, including with US president Donald Trump in a telephone call expected on Tuesday.
The Russian army’s Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, told Russian news agencies that “despite the fact that there remains a raft of unresolved problems” the military stage “is coming to its logical conclusion”.
Putin will Wednesday host Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani for the first in a series of summits on the peace process, ahead of parallel UN-led talks in Geneva set for November 28.
The meeting — the first such three-way summit between the trio — comes as Ankara, Moscow and Tehran cooperate with increasing intensity on ending the over six-year civil war in Syria that has left 330,000 dead and millions homeless.
The cooperation comes despite Turkey still officially being on an opposite side of the Syria conflict from Russia and Iran, which are key Assad backers.
“Assad’s visit…shows that there was a need to relay the Syrian leadership’s position on a future settlement to the Kremlin, and that (Assad) was interested in the forthcoming summit with the presidents of Iran and Turkey,” said Russian political analyst Azhdar Kurtov.
“It is unlikely this was just another demonstration of the Kremlin’s political loyalty to Assad,” he told AFP.
“The open-war phase in the Syria conflict will soon be over and the question of a political solution will become more pressing than before.”
Russia, Iran and Turkey have backed negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana that have brought together the representatives of the opposition and the regime seven times this year.
– ‘Relaunch direct negotiations’ –
The talks led to the creation of four so-called “de-escalation zones” that produced a drop in violence, but sporadic fighting and bombardment has continued.
Moscow is now seeking to steer the process in a political direction.
The Sochi summit will help to “relaunch direct negotiations between the Syrian government and the range of the opposition”, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Moscow’s military intervention in Syria from 2015 is widely seen as tipping the balance in the conflict.
Since then the Syrian army has reclaimed the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group and driven rebels out of their northern bastion Aleppo.
This week regime forces also ousted the IS from its last urban stronghold in the country, Albu Kamal.
– Assad’s fate –
Previous attempts to end the war have stalled over the question of the fate of Assad.
But Turkey is showing greater flexibility, even if it remains unlikely that it will officially accept the prospect of the Syrian president remaining in power, said Timur Akhmetov, a Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.
“For now, to keep a say in the future political negotiations is more important for Turkey than to have Assad departed from power,” he told AFP.
Different factions of the Syrian opposition will meet from Wednesday in Riyadh in talks hosted by Saudi Arabia.
The aim of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee is to reach consensus on a strategy for talks in Geneva, which will focus on a new constitution for Syria and fresh elections.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has congratulated Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad on Damascus’s results in “fighting terrorist groups,” the Kremlin said Tuesday.
“For a start I want to congratulate you with the results that Syria is achieving in the fight against terrorist groups… the Syrian nation is going through a very serious experience and nonetheless is approaching the final, inevitable defeat of the terrorists,” Putin told Assad, the Kremlin website reported.
Russia is starting to withdraw forces from Syria and its aircraft carrier group would be the first to leave, the Russian Armed Forces said.
Tasks set for the carrier group, led by the Admiral Kuznetsov vessel, had been completed, the commander of the Russian force in Syria Col-Gen Andrei Kartapolov was quoted as saying.
The announcement is coming days after Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire in Syria, which according to the UN, is largely holding.
Russia has carried out air strikes on anti-government rebels since 2015.
Moscow’s involvement is credited with turning the war in favour of its ally, Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.
Russian news agencies quoted General Valery Gerasimov as saying: “In accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defence Ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria.”
Syrian government and allied forces are pushing toward Aleppo, pursuing their week-old offensive to take the rebel-held part of the city after dozens of overnight air strikes.
The Syrian army told the insurgents to leave their positions, offering safe passage and aid supplies.
Syrian forces supported by Iranian-backed militias and Russian air power began their push to take the whole of the divided city after a ceasefire collapsed last month.
An air campaign by the Syrian government and its allies has been reinforced by a ground offensive against the besieged eastern half of Aleppo, where insurgents have been holding out. Hospitals have been badly hit in the assault, medics say.
Reuters reports that while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, spoke by phone to discuss normalisation of the situation, Britain said the bombing of hospitals by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad made it impossible to talk about peace.
“It is the continuing savagery of the Assad regime against the people of Aleppo and the complicity of the Russians in committing what are patently war crimes – bombing hospitals, when they know they are hospitals and nothing but hospitals – that is making it impossible for peace negotiations to resume,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian military said on Sunday that the army and its allies had advanced south from the Handarat refugee camp north of the city, taking the Kindi hospital and parts of the Shuqaif industrial area.
Zakaria Malahifji, of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim, told Reuters there were clashes in this area on Sunday.
The Observatory said air strikes and shelling continued on Sunday and there was fierce fighting all along the front line which cuts the city in two.
The Syrian army said that rebel fighters should vacate east Aleppo in return for safe passage and aid supplies. “The army high command calls on all armed fighters in the eastern neighborhood of Aleppo to leave these neighborhoods and let civilian residents live their normal lives,” a statement carried by state news agency SANA said.
East Aleppo came under siege in early July after its main supply route, the Castello Road, fell under government control.
International attempts to establish ceasefires to allow in United Nations humanitarian aid have failed, although other aid groups have brought in limited supplies.
The residents of the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya have welcomed the first deliveries of food aid to reach the city since 2012.
The latest delivery to Darayya was made by teams from the Syrian Red Crescent and the United Nations’ humanitarian body.
The UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said on Thursday that the Syrian government had given permission for aid to be delivered to 19 besieged areas, where an estimated 600,000 people live.
Trucks carrying medicine, food and flour entered the town that was among the first to report protests against President Bashar Al-assad’s Government.
The operations director of the Syrian Red Crescent, Tamam Mehrez, also told AFP that the goods would be enough for residents for one month.
An official with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said that he had met some beneficiaries of the food aid and community leaders.
“The supply of the very basic commodities is very challenging, so as a consequence the prices of the commodities themselves are very high whenever they are available,” he said.
The delivery of food supplies came a week after a joint convoy of the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and SARC reached Daraya and delivered medicine, vaccines, baby formula, and “nutritional items for children” but no food.
However, violence was reported on Friday in the rebel-held area as crude barrel bombs have been dropped on the suburb, according to the Local Council of Daraya.
This came just hours after the food aid was delivered to its residents
Daraya has been under siege since November 2012 and has witnessed some of the worst bombardment during Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year.
A top Syrian negotiator has pulled out of the Syria peace talks.
The chief negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, says by not bringing a political deal or easing the plight of Syrians, the talks have failed.
He said in a statement that the peace talks had also failed to secure the release of thousands of detainees or to push Syria towards a political transition without President Bashar al Assad.
“The three rounds of talks were unsuccessful because of the stubbornness of the regime and its continued bombardments and aggressions towards the Syrian people,” Mohammed said.
“The endless negotiations are harming the fate of the Syrian people,” Alloush added, “I therefore announce my withdrawal from the delegation and my resignation” from the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
Mohammed Alloush is the representative of the powerful Jaish al Islam rebel faction in the Saudi-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed, and about 11 million people forced from their homes during the civil war.
A man believed to be Hezbollah’s most senior military commander in the Syrian war has been killed in Damascus.
The Lebanon-based militant group says in a statement that Mustafa Amine Badreddine died in a large explosion near Damascus airport.
Badreddine is charged with leading the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005.
Hezbollah supports Syria’s president, Bashar Al-Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria.
The US Treasury, which imposed sanctions on Badreddine last July, said at the time he was “responsible for Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria since 2011, including the movement of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to Syria, in support of the Syrian regime”.
The group said it was working to “define the nature of the explosion and its cause, and whether it was the result of an air strike, or missile (attack) or artillery”.