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SYRIA

Syria foes finally meet face-to-face in Geneva

Syria's government and opposition finally met face-to-face on Saturday as difficult UN-sponsored peace talks inched forward in Geneva.

Syria foes finally meet face-to-face in Geneva
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad talks to the press ahead of the Geneva meet. Photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP

After a false start on Friday, the two sides came together in the same room with mediator Lakhdar Brahimi at the UN's headquarters in Europe.

The meeting, which saw only Brahimi speak while the two delegations listened, wrapped up in under half an hour. The two sides then broke up into separate rooms with Brahimi expected to shuttle between them.

"It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus, but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people," said Anas Al Abda, a member of the opposition negotiating team.

"Maybe we are having to swallow our resentment, but we are here, we are serious, we have clear instructions, we are coming with an open and positive mindset," the head of the regime negotiating team, Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari, told AFP.

The UN said the two sides would be back in the same room at 4pm for a session the opposition says will focus on humanitarian issues — especially the situation in the besieged central city of Homs — but the regime says will be more general.

Despite being so short, the meeting still marked progress after a difficult first day for the talks saw President Bashar al-Assad's regime accuse the opposition of obstructing the negotiations and threatening to walk away.

Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, the two sides are meeting for the first time, in the biggest diplomatic push yet to stem Syria's bloodshed after nearly three years of civil war.

Brahimi announced late Friday that the parties had agreed to come together, admitting that the process was proving difficult.

"We never expected this to be easy," Brahimi told reporters. "I think the two parties understand what is at stake."

The opposition insists the talks should focus on Assad leaving power and the formation of a transitional government based on an agreement reached during a first peace conference in Geneva in 2012.

The regime says Assad's role is not up for debate at this conference — dubbed Geneva II — and denies the initial Geneva deal requires him to go.

Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the talks, which are expected to last about a week, but diplomats have said simply bringing the two sides together for the first time was an important step.

Abda said he expected that in "the first few days or maybe weeks" of talks the two sides would speak only through Brahimi.

With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators will be focusing on short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localised ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.

Opposition officials have said they want Saturday's afternoon session to focus on the central city of Homs, where hundreds of families are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.

Abda said the opposition wanted to discuss a "one- or two-week ceasefire" and humanitarian access to Homs.

He said a deal could move quickly because the International Committee of the Red Cross had already made some approaches in Syria about arranging aid deliveries and exit corridors from the city.

An ICRC spokeswoman in Geneva refused to confirm this.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad denied the talks would focus on Homs.

"The situation in Homs, in Aleppo and elsewhere deserves to be discussed, but today we will not discuss these issues, which need time and consultations," he told AFP.

"We will talk about general questions," he said, refusing to elaborate.

The preliminary stage of the conference in the Swiss town of Montreux on Wednesday was marked by fiery exchanges, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem labelling the opposition "traitors" and agents of foreign governments.

Erupting after the regime cracked down on protests inspired by the Arab Spring, Syria's civil war has claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.

Pitting Assad's regime, dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, against largely Sunni Muslim rebels, the war has unsettled large parts of the Middle East.

It took months of efforts to convince the two sides to come to the conference, with the opposition National Coalition only deciding at the last minute to attend.

Questions have been raised about whether the opposition delegation is truly representative of Assad's opponents and if it would be able to implement any deal with rebel fighters on the ground.

The fighting continued in Syria on Saturday, with the regime's air force striking rebel-held areas near Damascus and Aleppo, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said fighting was raging across Syria's multiple fronts, including at the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus.

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BASEL

Is Basel the best Swiss city for foreigners and Geneva the worst?

Switzerland’s cities usually nab top rankings in international quality of living studies. But in a new survey, only one Swiss town made it to the top 10. Here’s why.

Basel is Switzerland’s best city for international workers. Photo by Nadine Marfurt on Unsplash
Basel is Switzerland’s best city for international workers. Photo by Nadine Marfurt on Unsplash

Basel is ranked in the 9th place out of 57 cities surveyed in the new Expat City Ranking 2021.

Carried out by InterNations, the annual survey rates cities around the world in terms of advantages they offer to foreign nationals who move there for professional reasons.

READ MORE: The best commuter towns if you work in Basel

The survey, which polled 12,420 people for its 2021 edition, ranks cities based on criteria such as Quality of Urban Living, Getting Settled, Urban Work Life, Finance & Housing, and Local Cost of Living, along with their sub-categories.

Of the four Swiss cities analysed in the study — Geneva, Zurich, Basel, and Lausanne — only Basel was highly rated, and is one of only three European cities ranked in the top 10 (the others are Prague, in 7th place, and Madrid in 10th).

This is why

A popular destination for international employees because of its pharmaceutical industry, including giants like Roche and Novartis, Basel ranked well across all categories.

For instance, it is in the 1st place for its public transportation network, in a 2nd position in terms of Quality of Urban Living, and in 3rd for Safety & Politics.

All expats in Basel (100 percent) are satisfied with public transportation, versus 69 percent globally. The public transportation system is excellent”, one respondent said.

Nearly all participants (97 percent) feel safe there, against 84 percent globally. The city also performs well in the Urban Work Life Index (6th), particularly for the state of the local economy, which is in the 1st place and the working hours (8th); additionally,  75 percent are happy with their working hours, compared to 66 percent globally.

More than four in five expats (84 percent) find their disposable household income enough or more than enough to cover their expenses (versus 77 percent globally), and 77 percent are satisfied with their financial situation (against 64 globally).

Where Basel is doing less well is in the  Finance & Housing Index (34th place), though it still ranks ahead of other Swiss cities: Zurich (37th), Lausanne (39th), and Geneva (53rd).

But the city ranks 48th in the Local Cost of Living Index: 69 percent of foreigners living there are dissatisfied with the cost of living, more than double the global average (34 percent).

The Getting Settled Index (39th) is another of Basel’s weak points. Internationals struggle with getting used to the local culture: more than one in four respondents (26 percent) state that they find this difficult — this figure is 18 percent 1globally.

It is worth mentioning that in the 2020 InterNations survey, Basel ranked in the 24th place, so it progressed impressively this year.

What about Geneva?

Switzerland’s most “international” city due to the presence of a number of United Nations agencies and multinational companies, places near the bottom of the ranking, in the 47th place.

“It has the worst results among the Swiss cities included in the report and is the only one that does not rank in the global top 10 of the Quality of Urban Living Index”, InterNations said.

Similar to the other Swiss cities, Geneva ranks among the top 10 for political stability (1st) and in the bottom 10 for the affordability of healthcare (56th). However, it lags behind for all other factors, with expats particularly dissatisfied with the local leisure options (23 percent versus 14 percent globally).

“Interestingly, the comparably low quality of life does not make Geneva any easier to afford: on the contrary, it is the worst-ranking city worldwide in the Local Cost of Living Index (57th) and by far the worst-rated Swiss city in the Finance & Housing Index (53rd)”, the report noted.

It added that “while Geneva comes 26th in the Finance Subcategory, it ranks 55th in the Housing Subcategory, only ahead of Dublin (56th) and Munich (57th). Expats find housing in Geneva unaffordable (87 percent  vs. 39 percent globally) and hard to find (63 percent vs. 23 percent globally).”

READ MORE: Why is Geneva’s rent the highest in Switzerland?

Geneva has a fairly average performance in the Urban Work Life Index (28th) but receives worse results in the Getting Settled Index (43rd). It ends up in the bottom 10 of the Feeling Welcome (52nd), Local Friendliness (50th), and Friends & Socializing (48th) subcategories.

“It is certainly not easy to integrate into the local culture and community,” said one respondent. In fact, 35 percent find the locals generally unfriendly, against 16 percent globally).

The difficulty is making friends in Switzerland is a well-known phenomenon among the international community.

READ MORE: ‘Suspicious of the unknown’: Is it difficult to make friends in Switzerland?

Maybe this is also why they find it hard to get used to the local culture (32 percent versus  18 percent globally) and do not feel at home — 33 percent compared to 19 percent  globally).

Zurich and Lausanne

The two other Swiss cities with a high proportion of international residents fall between the “best” and the “worst”, with Lausanne in the 21st place and Zurich in the 34th.

“All of them rank among the bottom 10 worldwide for the local cost living but among the top 10 for the local quality of life— except for Geneva, which lands in 21st place.”, the survey noted.

This InterNations chart shows how the four the cities are doing in each category. Please click here for a larger version of the chart. 

Image: Internations

You can find out more about each of the four cities from these links. 

READ MORE: Ten things Zurich residents take for granted

Zurich versus Geneva: Six big differences between Switzerland’s two biggest cities

Swiss town ranked the ‘world’s best small city’

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