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Arab countries, Qatar should mend Persian Gulf rift by direct talks: Russian FM

Russia says the so-called quartet of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and Qatar should begin direct negotiations to defuse an unprecedented diplomatic crisis that erupted three months ago in the Persian Gulf region.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir in Saudi Arabia’s western port city of Jeddah on Sunday, a few hours after he met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

“We have confirmed our position (that we are) in favor of settling the disagreements by means of negotiations, by directly expressing concerns and achieving solutions which would take into account the concerns and the interests of all parties,” Lavrov told the presser.

The deep rift in the region occurred on June 5, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt severed ties with Qatar, officially accusing Doha of supporting “terrorism” and destabilizing the Middle East, allegations that Qatar says are unjustified and stem from false claims and assumptions.

To further pressure Qatar, Saudi Arabia totally closed its land border with its tiny neighbor, through which much of the peninsular country’s food supply crossed.

Later in June, the four Arab countries urged Qatar to abide by a 13-point list of demands if it wanted the crippling blockade lifted. The demands included shutting down the Doha-based Al Jazeera broadcaster, scaling back cooperation with Iran, closing the Turkish military base in Qatar, and paying an unspecified sum in reparations.

Qatar, however, strongly refused to comply, calling the wide-ranging demands “unrealistic, unreasonable and unacceptable.” In return, the four feuding countries vowed to impose further sanctions on Doha.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, right, meets with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 10, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

On July 21, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said in a live TV address that the blockade against Doha was “a pre-planned smearing campaign.”

A number of attempts to heal the rift have so far been made, but all to no avail, including those of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, whose country has been playing the role of a key mediator since the beginning of the crisis.

Lavrov further said that Kremlin was “interested in all those mediatory efforts that are currently being made producing results and the unity of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) being restored.”

Also in July, the Russian top diplomat expressed Moscow’s readiness to help mediate the row, if approached, saying Kremlin was interested in the crisis to be “overcome” through seeking solutions “which will be acceptable for all participants of this process.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) attends a joint press conference with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Doha on August 30, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Late last month, Lavrov also met with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and the emir of Qatar in the capital Doha, calling on both sides for holding dialogue to resolve the crisis. He also said at the time that Moscow was willing to “bolster trade and economic ties” with the Arab peninsular country.

On June 10, some five days after the beginning of the political standoff, Lavrov also urged the Qatari foreign minister, when he was on a visit to Moscow, to settle the crisis via talks, calling for “all contradictions to be resolved at the negotiation table through a mutually respectful dialogue.”

Last week, however, Riyadh suspended any talks with Doha, accusing it of “distorting facts”, shortly after a report of a telephone call between the Qatari emir and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman suggested a breakthrough in the Persian Gulf row.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir attends a press conference with his Russian counterpart (not pictured) at the Saudi Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jeddah, September 10, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The Saudi foreign minister, for his part, said at the presser on Sunday that Riyadh sought “seriousness” from the Qatari side.

“We want clarity in the Qatari position, we want seriousness in finding a solution to this crisis that leads to the implementation of principles which all countries support: no supporting terrorism, no welcoming unwanted guests, no spreading hate, no intervention in others’ affairs,” Jubeir said.

However, he threatened that Doha would face more pressure if it did not comply with the list of demands the siege states made in June. “We have taken some measures and we will continue to do so and we will maintain our position until Qatar responds,” he warned, adding that Qatar “must respond to these requests in order to open a new page.”

The coordinated move against Doha is spearheaded by Riyadh, which often manages to have its vassal states fall into line. Saudi Arabia itself is known as the main sponsor of Wahhabi terrorists it has accused Qatar of supporting. Some analysts believe the Saudi anger is rather because Qatar acts more independently of Riyadh, including in its relations with Iran.

Syrian pro-government forces hold a position near the village of al-Maleha in the northern countryside of Dayr al-Zawr on September 9, 2017 during the ongoing battle against Daesh Takfiri terrorists. (Photo by AFP)

De-escalation zones in Syria

Elsewhere in their comments, the two diplomats touched upon the issue of de-escalation zones in war-torn Syria.

Saudi Arabia “supports the creation of de-escalation zones and looks forward to starting a political process that will end the Syrian crisis,” Jubeir said.

The fourth round of the intra-Syrian talks, held in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in May, resulted in an agreement on four de-escalation zones to be formed across Syria, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey serving as guarantor states.

The upcoming Astana talks, scheduled to be held next week, is aimed at facilitating the creation of the fourth de-escalation zone in Syria’s western province of Idlib, where significant concentrations of Takfiri terrorists, most notably from al-Nusra Front, are operating.

“I hope the agreements on the parameters of the fourth zone in Idlib will be formalized” in the next Astana talks, Lavrov said, describing the creation of the safe zones as “an important step forward” in strengthening of the truce agreement and in facilitating the resolution of humanitarian problems in the Arab country.

The Syrian government’s delegation has so far not met directly with representatives of the foreign-sponsored armed opposition groups since there is no unified delegation from the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and two other groups, known as Cairo and Moscow platforms, which all claim to represent the opposition.

“We actively support the effort of our Saudi partners in unifying different groups of the opposition, Riyadh, Moscow, and Cairo, and in creating a single negotiating team for talks in Geneva. The same work was conducted in Astana, where government representatives began to talk with military officers on battle fields,” Lavrov said.

Astana has hosted five rounds of peace talks on Syria since January. The negotiations are aimed at bringing an end to the foreign-backed militancy in the violence-battered Arab country that began in March 2011.

The talks in Astana have been going on in tandem with another series of talks held in the Swiss city of Geneva and brokered by the UN. The world body’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has sought to unify the opposition for a substantive round of negotiations in October, against the backdrop of seven rounds of largely unsuccessful talks in Geneva.

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