Russian and Turkish officials lay groundwork for Syrian peace talks, Lebanon’s new president visits Riyadh and the man nominated to oversee EU finances faces a grilling.
RUSSIA AND TURKEY LAY GROUNDWORK FOR SYRIAN TALKS
Russian officials arrive in Turkey on Monday to discuss a framework for Syrian peace talks that are scheduled to begin on Jan. 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Russia and Turkey are hoping to capitalise on the momentum of a ceasefire they brokered last week.
However, violations of the ceasefire by the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Shi’ites threaten the success of the Astana peace talks. The Syrian government is continuing to attack moderate rebel groups around Damascus under the guise of attacking extremist groups, such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which have been excluded from the ceasefire.
Citing these violations, 10 rebel factions, including two of the largest – the Free Syrian Army and Jaish al-Fatah, an Islamist alliance – have suspended their participation in the Astana talks. The factions say they will reengage in fighting if violations continue.
The success of the Astana peace talks will depend on Russia’s ability to kerb pro-Assad forces from further violations and Turkey’s ability to persuade opposition groups to re-join negotiations.
LEBANON’S PRESIDENT VISITS RIYADH
On Monday, Lebanon’s recently elected president, Michel Aoun, will visit Saudi Arabia on his first foreign visit. Aoun will be hoping to normalise relations between the two, but any rapprochement will be complicated by Aoun’s 10-year political alliance with Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
While ties have historically been strong between the two countries, Saudi Arabia is concerned that regional rival Iran could use Hezbollah to control Lebanon; the Shi’ite group is considered to be more powerful than the Lebanese Army.
Aoun intends to persuade Riyadh to recommence its $4 billion grant to the Lebanese Army and allow Gulf citizens to again travel to Lebanon. If the military grant is reinstated, Saudi Arabia will seek assurances that the weapons will not fall into the hands of Hezbollah, which is currently fighting Saudi-backed rebels in support of the Syrian government.
Considering that Iran has also offered to arm Lebanon’s military, Saudi Arabia is likely to revive the military grant after Monday’s discussions in an attempt to curb Tehran’s influence.
EUROPE’S NEW BUDGET CHIEF FACES EXAMINATION
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pick for the European Commission will face a grilling in Brussels on Monday. Merkel announced that fellow conservative Guenther Oettinger would become the European Commissioner for the Budget and Human Resources, an influential position.
Mr Oettinger will be questioned over a speech he delivered last year where he reportedly mocked women, questioned gay marriage and called Chinese people “slit eyes”. In November, information came to light alleging Oettinger used the private jet of a lobbyist with ties to the Kremlin without disclosing it.
A group of NGOs, including Transparency International EU, have called for the European Parliament to deny Oettinger’s appointment. While European lawmakers are expected to grill him over his indiscretions, Merkel’s pick is expected to be appointed.