Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Brawn or Brains?

My bodybuilding and weightlifting career at a glance
(The following is the first of three posts Fawaz Najia had ready but did not have time to publish before he lost his battle with cancer on April 20)

Building a chiseled, steely and toned physique and clinching the “Mr. Lebanon” title at 17 took me just under five years of training.

All I did meanwhile was to study at the Collège du Sacré-Coeur, train at the Cercle de la Jeunesse Catholique, eat healthy and sleep. Weekend leisure was rationed. It was a movie outing to Martyrs’ Square in winter or a swimming spell in summer at the Bain Militaire or the Saint Simon. They were Beirut’s answer above all others to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica.

I embarked on my bodybuilding journey at Elie David’s gym at the CJC at age 13. Cycling was the only sport I engaged in earlier. In the years when my parents rented a summerhouse from the Chidiacs in Bikfaya, I used to cycle daily to Dhour el Shouair either direct or through Bhannes.

David provided me with professional expertise, support and motivation. He customized my three weekly workout programs to suit my age. He determined what equipment I used, how many sets I did and the number of repetitions.  He changed these as I grew up, working my way from the beginner phase to the intermediate and the advanced. In each phase, the focus was all-inclusive – neck, shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, shoulders, chest, back, waist, abdominals, quadriceps and calves.

"Mr. Lebanon" 1953
David’s coaching and recommendation of specialized magazines on muscle building, healthy eating and dangers of overtraining helped drastically improve my physique.

There were no steroids, vitamin supplements or fat blasting pills to gulp and no muscle T-shirts or special workout shorts to parade. There were no sophisticated gym and fitness equipment to use either.

Healthy eating meant full fat milk, eggs (boiled or poached), fish, pulses and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Personally, I had a great weakness for fresh sugarcane juice, which was more refreshing than nutritious. Three times a week, I would cap my workouts by walking to a juice bar opposite Roxy Cinema at the mouth of Beirut’s commercial center. The 20-25 square meters bar offered the glass of fresh apple, orange, strawberry, grape or sugarcane juice at a standard price of LL 0.25. The biggest piece of equipment at the counter was a sugarcane juicer machine made in Egypt. It worked manually but broke down more often than not.

Gym wear was a swim brief. You carried it back and forth together with a shower towel. Both were rolled into a tubular wet swimming bag. If you carried one it meant you were almost surely a gym member.

Gym equipment was also plain: high and parallel bars, rings, a climbing rope, training benches, dumbbells and barbells, weights and mats (chiefly for abdominals training routines).

I secured the “Mr. Lebanon” title in my height category at a national competition held in April 1953 at the Rivoli Cinema on Martyrs’ Square. (Title winners in the two other categories were Malih Alewan and Mohammed Mortada). Some months later, I joined a bodybuilding exhibition at the Dunia cinema, also on Martyrs’ Square. There I received an honorary medal for sports from Mrs. Salma Bissar, wife of Kamel Mroue, founder of two Beirut dailies, al-Hayat and The Daily Star.

From bodybuilding to weightlifting...

... and breaking records
That’s when I starting wondering where to go from there. Before long, I opted to transition to a new sport, new training grounds and a new coach.

The new sport was obviously weightlifting, the closest you could get to bodybuilding.

The new gym was at the Youth Sports Club co-founded and managed by Mahmoud Kayssi. The club had been newly relocated to near my home in Ras el-Nabeh and was renowned for churning out topflight boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters. Among them, for instance, were Zakariya Shehab, Khalil Taha and Mustafa Lahham. The three starred at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Shehab and Taha won silver and bronze in Greco-Roman wrestling while weightlifter Lahham ranked fifth in his lightweight category.

The new coach was none other than Mohammed Ameen Makkouk, an extraordinary old hand at weightlifting.

Training – always one-on-one under Makkouk -- turned out to be more stressful and challenging, at times even frustrating. But the progress, the achievements and the public support and acclamation that came with it were exhilarating. I was not even 19 when I won Lebanon’s 1954 weightlifting championship and set four new national records in Press, Snatch, Clean and Jerk and Total in my weight category. Khodr Traboulsi and Najm el-Ra’i shared the previous all-time highs between them.

My new records galvanized local sports editors. I was their new “rookie of the year.” Oddly, that was when I started pondering my exit from competitive sports altogether. As a new student at the American University (AUB), I felt the pressures of competition from thereon would weigh down my studies. I told myself, “You won the topmost titles in two sports disciplines, set national records in one and learned the graces, skills and virtues associated with good sportsmanship. Time you concentrated on getting a university degree then build a career and earn a living.”

My decision to bring down the curtain on weightlifting preceded or followed:

-- Exhibitions at the Farouk Theater (on Martyrs’ Square), in the Bekaa town of Zahle and at the Youth Sports Club’s grounds in Ras el-Nabeh.

I am center, sailing with the Lebanon delegation to Genoa in 1954
Representing Lebanon
Receiving the medal and kudos from Costy Zurayk and Emile Bustani
-- A memorable 1954 trip behind the Iron Curtain with Lebanon’s delegation to the 12th World University Summer Games in Budapest. We boarded ship in Beirut, sailed to Genoa via Port Said and Athens before traveling by train to the Hungarian capital through Austria. The punishing journey did not impede our sharing in the games’ opening ceremony at the 100,000-seat Népstadion. Setting a new AUB record during a Field Day on campus, which earned me a celebratory medal and kudos from AUB’s Acting President Constantine (“Costy”) Zurayk and Member of Parliament Emile Bustani, member of the AUB Board of Trustees and president of the Alumni Association.

-- My Lebanon captaincy in a friendly matchup with visiting Soviet weightlifters led by Arkady Vorobyov as they trained for the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. Henri Pharaon later entertained both teams at his most remarkable two-story stone palace in Beirut where he amassed art and antiquities.  He was the uncontested patron of Lebanese sports with a passion for horses who helped found independent Lebanon and designed the Lebanese flag.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Farewell Ma’alem, à toute...

Fawaz C. Najia: 1935-2014
Middle East Publisher, Editor and ArabSaga blogger Fawaz C. Najia lost his battle against cancer and passed away peacefully in London early on Sunday morning (April 20).
As one of the greats in the Arab English-language media, he was known to all of us who worked with him and were close as the Ma’alem – the teacher, the master.
Indeed, the Ma’alem was an encyclopedia in the region’s politics since the 1950s. He either participated in or covered the Middle East, especially Palestine, through his various publications -- Monday Morning weekly and Ike daily in Beirut, Lebanon, then Mideast Mirror newsletter in London.
But he was also a Ma’alem in life. Apart from journalism, in the 40 years I was with him he taught me generosity, humility and kindness. He was an avantgardist always ahead of his time, a feminist, an advocate for human rights and the rights of the Palestinian people and a firm supporter and believer in the Syrian people’s current battle.
Although creating a blog was on his mind for some time, he started guest-posting on my blog Mich Café at the start of the Arab Spring, as events began to unfold in Tunisia and then Egypt. Encouraged by the high number of readers, and with the help of Mohammed Kharroubi who set up the blog for him, ArabSaga was launched in January 2012. It was his way of communicating the saga of the Arab world to an English-reading public.
The war in Syria deeply affected the Ma’alem. He could not believe the silence and inaction of the international community. After working on a Syria post, he was left drained. Two weeks ago, when I visited him in hospital in London, I was often not able to understand what he was saying. But one morning, he whispered something about Latakia. Even then, the plight of the Syrian people was on his mind.
ArabSaga kept him going during his eight-month battle with cancer. It is only at the beginning of February, when his eyesight let him down and he was unable to read, that he stopped writing.
The Ma’alem had three personal posts he had not yet published – “Brawn or Brains?” “My journalism mentors before the Internet,” and “Life lessons from Costi Zurayk and Rafic Hariri.” Whenever he was about to post one of them, a more important current event would take precedence.
I will publish these three posts to add to the 625 he produced over two years, the majority of which are still relevant and will most probably be well into the future. They are a record of the events of the past two years, he Lebanon civil war and the Arab saga.
Among his most painful he wrote was the six-part series about “The cost of gagging Beirut.” Those who were “gagged” were personal friends he always remembered. 
There is so much to say, but for now farewell Ma’almi, à toute and May you now rest in peace.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Thousands of homes deliberately razed in Syria

Tadamon neighborhood of Damascus in July (top) and September 2012

Mazzeh area of Damascus in February (top) and July 2013
Satellite imagery, witness statements, and video and photographic evidence show that Syrian authorities deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of residential buildings in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.  

The 38-page report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers that violated the laws of war.
The demolitions either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch found.

“Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.” 
The Syrian government, as part of its Geneva-2 negotiations, should make a commitment to immediately end demolitions that violate international law and to compensate and provide alternative housing to the victims, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  
The seven cases Human Rights Watch documented took place between July 2012 and July 2013 in the following areas: the Masha’ al-Arb’een and Wadi al-Joz neighborhoods in Hama, and the Qaboun, Tadamon, Barzeh, Mazzeh military airport, and Harran Al-‘Awamid neighborhoods in and near Damascus.  

The total building area demolished, based on analysis of the satellite imagery, is at least 145 hectares – an area equivalent to about 200 soccer fields. Many of the demolished buildings were apartment blocks several stories high, some as many as eight. Thousands of families have lost their homes as a result of these demolitions.
All of the affected neighborhoods were widely considered by the authorities and by witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch to be opposition strongholds.  
Government officials and pro-government media outlets have claimed that the demolitions were part of urban planning efforts or removal of illegally constructed buildings. However, the demolitions were supervised by military forces and often followed fighting in the areas between government and opposition forces.
As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, there have been no similar demolitions in areas that generally support the government, although many houses in those areas were also allegedly built without the necessary permits. 
These circumstances, as well as witness statements and more candid statements by government officials reported in the media, indicate that the demolitions were related to the armed conflict and either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians in violation of the laws of war.   
One woman who lived near Wadi al-Joz, one of the demolished neighborhoods in Hama, told Human Rights Watch: “After the demolition in Wadi al-Joz, the army came to our neighborhood with loudspeakers. They said that they would destroy our neighborhood like they destroyed Wadi al-Joz and Masha’ al-Arb’een should a single bullet be fired from here.”
Several owners of houses that were demolished contended that contrary to the government’s stated pretext for the demolitions, they had all the necessary permits and documents for their houses. 
Commenting on the demolitions in an interview with an international journalist in October 2012, the governor of the Damascus countryside, Hussein Makhlouf, also explicitly stated that the demolitions were essential to drive out opposition fighters. 
Some of the demolitions took place around government military or strategic sites that opposition forces had attacked. While the authorities might have been justified in taking some targeted measures to protect these military or strategic locations, the destruction of hundreds of residential buildings, in some cases kilometers away, appears to have been disproportionate and to have violated international law.     

Local residents told Human Rights Watch government forces gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible for them to remove most of their belongings. Owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said they had received no compensation. 

One local restaurant owner from the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus told Human Rights Watch security forces arrived one morning unannounced with bulldozers and ordered him to leave the premises: “When I asked why, the soldier said ‘no more questions’ or else I would be detained.” 
He said they denied permission to remove anything from the restaurant and forced him to leave on foot, leaving his motorcycle behind.
“As I was walking I looked back and I saw the bulldozer demolishing my shop,” he said. “The shop was opened by my grandfather many years ago. I personally managed the restaurant for eight years. Before my eyes, all of my family’s hard work was destroyed in one second.”

The report is based on detailed analysis of 15 “very-high resolution” commercial satellite images and interviews with 16 witnesses to the demolitions and owners whose houses were demolished.
In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed media reports, government decrees, and videos of the destruction and its aftermath posted on YouTube. 

“No one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict,” Solvang said. “This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion. The UN Security Council should, with an ICC referral, send a clear message that cover-ups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.” 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

55,000 digital images of 11,000 Assad torture victims

By Ian Black, Middle East editor

Report photo
Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees, according to three eminent international lawyers.

The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to last August.

Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.

The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.

The three lawyers interviewed the source, a military policeman who worked secretly with a Syrian opposition group and later defected and fled the country. In three sessions in the last 10 days they found him credible and truthful and his account "most compelling".

They put all evidence under rigorous scrutiny, says their report, which has been obtained by the Guardian and CNN.

The authors are:

-- Sir Desmond de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone

-- Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and

-- Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.

The defector, who for security reasons is identified only as Caesar, was a photographer with the Syrian military police. He smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups, has called for the overthrow of Assad and demanded his prosecution.

The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the UN, governments and human rights groups. Its publication appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week's UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.

Caesar told the investigators his job was "taking pictures of killed detainees". He did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture. But he did describe a highly bureaucratic system.

"The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar's function being to photograph the corpses… There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse," the report says.

"The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out."

Families were told that the cause of death was either a "heart attack" or "breathing problems", it added. "The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death.

"When the corpse was taken to the military hospital it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital. Once the bodies were photographed, they were taken for burial in a rural area."

Three experienced forensic science experts examined and authenticated samples of 55,000 digital images, comprising about 11,000 victims. "Overall there was evidence that a significant number of the deceased were emaciated and a significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects," the report says.

"In only a minority of the cases … could a convincing injury that would account for death be seen, but any fatal injury to the back of the body would not be represented in the images …

"The forensics team make clear that there are many ways in which an individual may be killed with minimal or even absent external evidence of the mechanism."

The inquiry team said it was satisfied there was "clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. It would support findings of crimes against humanity and could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime."

De Silva told the Guardian the evidence "documented industrial-scale killing". He added: "This is a smoking gun of a kind we didn't have before. It makes a very strong case indeed."

Calls for Assad or others to face justice at the international criminal court in The Hague have foundered on the problems that Syria is not a member of the court, and that the required referral by the UN Security Council might not be supported by the US and UK or would be blocked by Russia, Syria's close ally.

Nice said: "It would not necessarily be possible to track back with any degree of certainty to the head of state. Ultimately, in any war crimes trial you can imagine a prosecutor arguing that the overall quantity of evidence meant that the pattern of behavior would have been approved at a high level.

"But whether you can go beyond that and say it must be head of state-approved is rather more difficult. But 'widespread and systematic' does betoken government control."

Crane said: "Now we have direct evidence of what was happening to people who had disappeared. This is the first provable, direct evidence of what has happened to at least 11,000 human beings who have been tortured and executed and apparently disposed of.

"This is amazing. This is the type of evidence a prosecutor looks for and hopes for. We have pictures, with numbers that marry up with papers with identical numbers – official government documents. We have the person who took those pictures. That's beyond-reasonable-doubt-type evidence."

A US administration official told the Guardian on Monday: "We stand with the rest of the world in horror at these images which have come to light. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of the regime and call on it to adhere to international obligations with respect to the treatment of prisoners.

"We have long spoken out about mistreatment and deteriorating prison conditions in Syria. These latest reports, and the photographs that support them, demonstrate just how far the regime is willing to go to not only deny freedom and dignity to the Syrian people, but to inflict significant emotional and physical pain in the process. To be sure, these reports suggest widespread and apparently systematic violations of international humanitarian law.

"The regime has the ability to improve the atmosphere for negotiations in Geneva by making progress in several areas. However, this latest report of horrific and inhumane prison conditions/actions further underscores that if anything, it is tarnishing the environment for the talks.

"As we have for over two years, and again today, we call on the Syrian government to grant immediate and unfettered access to all their detention facilities by international documentation bodies, including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

"We have long said that those responsible for atrocities in Syria must be held accountable for their gross violations of human rights. The United States continues to support efforts to promote accountability and transitional justice, and we call on the international community to do the same."

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, said: "This report offers further evidence of the systematic violence and brutality being visited upon the people of Syria by the Assad regime. We will continue to press for action on all human rights violations in Syria, and for accountability for those who perpetrate them."

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch said his organization had not had the opportunity to authenticate the images. But he added: "We have documented repeatedly how Syria's security services regularly torture – sometimes to death – detainees in their custody.

"These photos – if authentic – suggest that we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria's notorious dungeons. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and that is for the negotiating parties at Geneva II to grant unhindered access to Syria's detention facilities to independent monitors."

Saturday, 18 January 2014

UPDATE: Opposition votes to join Geneva-2

Syria's political opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has agreed to attend next week's Geneva-2 peace talks, to be held in the Swiss resort of Montreux.
The SNC’s 121-member general assembly took the decision at a meeting in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
The aim of the talks is to start the process of setting up a “transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers” to end the three-year Syria war.
Of the 75 delegates who voted, 58 were in favor, 14 were against, one abstained and two others did not vote.
The remaining 46 members of the SNC general assembly boycotted the session altogether.

Syrian opposition coalition likely to join Geneva-2

Kerry: “We’re not going to be fooled by Assad”
The Syrian National Coalition's logo
“Chances are the Syrian National Coalition will decide to join the Geneva-2 peace talks,” proclaims a front-page headline in the authoritative Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat this morning.
Pan-Arab al-Hayat, another Saudi-owned daily, talks of an American-Russian understanding that the priority at Geneva-2 would be “to set up a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers and supervise the armed forces and security services.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at this yesterday at his Joint Press Availability at the State Department’s Ben Franklin Room with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade.
SPOKESPERSON JEN PSAKI: The first question will be from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.
QUESTION: A question for Secretary Kerry. Sir, after you became Secretary of State, you made the point repeatedly that it was important to change Bashar al-Assad’s calculation in order to achieve a political solution at Geneva II. Now almost a year later, it’s clear that the Assad regime believes its position is stronger than ever. In his letter to the United Nations, the Syria foreign minister, who will be leading the delegation to Geneva-2, suggests that the purpose of going to Geneva is to fight terrorism, not discuss a political transition. In fact, he says some points in the invitation the Syrian Government received from the UN are “in conflict with the legal and political position of the state of Syria.”
Sir, my question is: How can you expect to make progress toward a political transition at Geneva-2 if the Assad government does not even accept the purpose of the conference, which is what its own letter suggests. Have you been in contact with the Syrian Government over the past 24 hours to obtain an assurance that it accepts the purpose of the meeting? And doesn’t the Syrian foreign minister’s letter mean that more pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Assad government in order to make political headway? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, Michael. Yesterday I addressed directly the revisionism of the Syrian regime in its effort to try to divert the purpose, which will not be successful. More than 30 nations are going to assemble, all of whom, thus far, and if there are more, will be and must be committed to the Geneva-1 communiqué. Now, you were with me in Paris the other day when Foreign Minister Lavrov stood up and reiterated that the purpose of this conference is the implementation of the Geneva-1 communiqué.
Nobody would have believed that Assad would have given up his chemical weapons. But he did. And the reason he did is that his patrons came to understand that he had to. And I believe, as we begin to get to Geneva, and begin to get into this process, that it will become clear that there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he’s going to be part of that future. It’s not going to happen. The people who are the opponents of this regime will never, ever stop. There will be a low-grade insurgency at least, and worse, potentially even a civil war if it continues, because they will not stop.
Now we also are not out of options with respect to what we may be able to do to increase the pressure and further change the calculation. And I think we’ve made that clear to the Russian foreign minister and others, and nor are other players short of an ability to be able to have an impact here.
So I think they can bluster, they can protest, they can put out distortions. The bottom line is: We are going to Geneva to implement Geneva-1. And if Assad doesn’t do that, he will invite greater response in various ways from various people over a period of time. So I’m not particularly surprised that he is trying to divert this. He’s been doing this for months, trying to make himself the protector of Syria against extremists, when he himself has even been funding some of those extremists – even purposely ceding some territory to them in order to make them more of a problem so he can make the argument that he is somehow the protector against them. Nobody is going to be fooled. We’re not going to be fooled by this process.
So Foreign Minister Lavrov has stated: They are supporting the Geneva-1 communiqué and the government has to come and negotiate around the communiqué. And since Russia is one of the primary benefactors of the Assad regime, we believe the Russians have a high stake in helping to make certain that Assad understands exactly what the parameters of this negotiation are.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Assad tables Aleppo ceasefire and prisoner swap

Moallem and Lavrov after their joint press conference in Moscow today (Reuters)

Within 24 hours of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry slamming Syrian government efforts to change the focus of next week’s Geneva-2 peace talks, Damascus today handed over a plan for an Aleppo ceasefire and readied for a possible prisoner exchange with the opposition.
At the news conference held after his meeting today with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Mansion in Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Damascus is ready to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with opposition forces in the flashpoint city of Aleppo.
A list of rebel prisoners has also been drawn up in preparation for a proposed exchange of prisoners.

“Taking into account the role of the Russian Federation in halting the bloodshed in Syria and our relationship of trust, today I have given Minister Lavrov a ceasefire plan for the city of Aleppo,” Russia Today (RT) quoted Muallem as saying.
He asked Lavrov to coordinate with his contacts in the Syrian opposition in order to ensure the execution of the new plan, adding that if it is successful it could be implemented in other areas of the war-torn country.
“I really hope all sides will keep to the terms of the agreement. If this happens, then we can implement this plan in other cities.”
Addressing the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Muallem said the Syrian government is already working with the UN to deliver aid to “a number of regions.” However, the success of the humanitarian program depends on rebel fighters keeping to their pledge not to open fire on humanitarian convoys, he said.
Refuting claims the Syrian Army is bombing its own citizens, Muallem said such allegations “do not reflect the reality of the current situation.” He laid the blame at the feet of terrorist organizations that are being supported by international players.
“According to the constitution, the Syrian government is obligated to protect its citizens and public institutions in Syria. Terrorists and terror groups are responsible for these destructive acts,” said Muallem, adding: “These groups are growing in number because of outside support from known states.”
Lavrov echoed this opinion, describing as “irresponsible” accusations that Damascus is carrying out strikes on its own citizens. 
“In Syria, civilians are suffering on both sides, but it is totally irresponsible to accuse the government of purposely targeting civilians,” said Lavrov. “To make such accusations, serious proof is required.”
Both foreign ministers said opposition representation is absolutely essential for the success of the Geneva-2 talks, which are set to kick off next Monday. They believe the conference will pave the way for the creation of a transitional government to bring an end to the three-year conflict.
The Syrian National Coalition – the main political opposition umbrella organization – is meeting in Istanbul later today to decide whether it will attend the Geneva talks.
In remarks to the press at the State Department’s Briefing Room yesterday, Thursday, Kerry said in part:
I know that many of you have been asking about some of the recent revisionism as to why the international community will be gathering in Montreux next week, so let me make it clear here today.
From the very moment that we announced the goal of holding the Geneva conference on Syria, we all agreed that the purpose was specifically and solely to implement the 2012 Geneva-1 communiqué. That purpose, that sole purpose, could not have been more clear at the time this was announced and it could not be more clear today. It has been reiterated in international statement after international statement that the parties have signed up to, and venue after venue, in resolution after resolution, including most recently in Paris last weekend when both the London 11 and the Russian Federation reaffirmed their commitment to that objective, the implementation of Geneva-1.
So for anyone seeking to rewrite this history or to muddy the waters, let me state one more time what Geneva-2 is about: It is about establishing a process essential to the formation of a transition government body – governing body with full executive powers established by mutual consent. That process – it is the only way to bring about an end to the civil war that has triggered one of the planet’s most severe humanitarian disasters and which has created the seeding grounds for extremism.
The Syrian people need to be able to determine the future of their country. Their voice must be heard. And any names put forward for leadership of Syria’s transition must, according to the terms of Geneva-1 and every one of the reiterations of that being the heart and soul of Geneva-2, those names must be agreed to by both the opposition and the regime. That is the very definition of mutual consent.
This means that any figure that is deemed unacceptable by either side, whether President Assad or a member of the opposition, cannot be a part of the future. The United Nations, the United States, Russia, and all the countries attending know what this conference is about. After all, that was the basis of the UN invitation sent individually to each country, a restatement of the purpose of implementing Geneva-1. And attendance by both sides and the parties can come only with their acceptance of the goals of the conference.
We too are deeply concerned about the rise of extremism. The world needs no reminder that Syria has become the magnet for jihadists and extremists. It is the strongest magnet for terror of any place today. So it defies logic to imagine that those whose brutality created this magnet, how they could ever lead Syria away from extremism and towards a better future is beyond any kind of logic or common sense.
And so on the eve of the Syrian Opposition Coalition general assembly meeting tomorrow (today, Friday) to decide whether to participate in Geneva in the peace conference, the United States, for these reasons, urges a positive vote. We do so knowing that the Geneva peace conference is not the end but rather the beginning, the launch of a process, a process that is the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution, and a political solution to this terrible conflict that has taken many, many, many, too many lives.
We will continue to push in the meantime for vital access for humanitarian assistance. I talked yesterday with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Lavrov in an effort to push still harder for access to some areas where the regime played games with the convoys, taking them around a circuitous route instead of directly in the way that the opposition had arranged for and was willing to protect them in. It is important that there be no games played with this process.
We will also continue to fight for ceasefires where we could achieve them, and we will continue to fight for the exchange or release of captive journalists and aid workers and others in order to try to improve the climate for negotiations.
Now, obviously, none of this will be easy. Ending a war and stopping a slaughter never is easy. We believe, though, this is the only road that can lead to the place where the civilized world has joined together in an effort to lead the parties to a better outcome. And to the Syrian people, let me reiterate: The United States and the international community will continue to provide help and support, as we did yesterday in Kuwait, where we pledged $380 million of additional assistance in order to try to relieve the pain and suffering of the refugees.
We will continue to stand with the people of Syria writ large, all the people, in an effort to provide them with the dignity and the new Syria, which they are fighting for. Thank you.