US and Russia bid to unblock Syria talks

Washington and Moscow promised on Thursday to help unblock stagnant Syrian peace talks, as Western countries demanded that Damascus keep its promise to release males detained during the evacuation from Homs.

US and Russia bid to unblock Syria talks
Man helps a youth after a reported air strike by government forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Thursday. Photo: Fadi Al-Halabi/AMC/AFP

The United States and Russia have "promised that they will help both here and in their capitals and elsewhere to unblock the situation for us," UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in Geneva after meeting high-level diplomats from the two countries.
The meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman came after Syria's warring sides spent days in Geneva trading blame for the violence ravaging their country.
"The hard work of this diplomacy continues, and the United States will continue to support this work going forward," a US official said after Thursday's meeting.
The so-called Geneva II negotiations, which began on January 22nd, have so far done nothing to end the nearly three-year civil war that has claimed more than 136,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
"Until now, we are not making much progress," Brahimi said, acknowledging that "failure is always staring at us in the face."
Syria's foes did not meet on Thursday and were expected to hold only separate meetings with Brahimi on Friday.
Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, a key ally of Syria, initiated the talks, but remained on the sidelines during the first round in January, allowing Brahimi to run the show.
But the current round of talks, which started on Monday and could stretch into Saturday, has achieved little beyond an endless restating of positions and there has been pressure on the two major powers to play a bigger part.
"The presence now of the United States and Russia comes at the right time," opposition chief negotiator Hadi Bahra told AFP, insisting the pair needed to "pressure the regime to be more serious."
Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad, meanwhile told AFP "all the pressure should be put on the other side."
Gatilov met the regime delegation chief, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, on Wednesday, and the opposition delegation was meeting Sherman Thursday evening.
It was unclear though if they could push the sides closer to actual dialogue.
The opposition has presented a detailed plan for political change, maintaining that the only way forward is to create a transitional government, without President Bashar al-Assad.
The regime however insists Assad's future is not up for discussion and has refused to even touch on politics until the battle against what it calls rebel "terrorism" is resolved.

 'The world is watching' 

Meanwhile, regime air attacks and fighting has sent the death toll in Syria soaring.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported an average of 236 people killed daily since the Geneva II process began, many of them as regime forces drop explosive-packed barrels on rebel areas.

Rights groups have repeatedly condemned the use of helicopter-borne barrel bombs as "indiscriminate".

Washington and London meanwhile demanded Damascus honour a pledge to release hundreds of men detained after being evacuated from besieged rebel-held districts of Homs this week.
"The regime should know that the world is watching with deep concern what is taking place in Homs and the status of these male evacuees," said State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the detentions "outrageous".
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi told AFP that "young men aged between 16 and 54 will be freed today," but did not specify how many.
Barazi said 390 were initially detained and that 181 have already been freed, including 70 on Thursday.
But according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, only a small number have been released, while activists said men still in the besieged areas feared indefinite detention or even kidnapping by paramilitary groups if they leave the rebel-controlled enclaves.
The UN-led humanitarian operation began last Friday in ravaged Homs, Syria's third city, where regime forces have besieged rebel-held districts for more than 18 months, and where residents have been surviving mainly on olives and wild plants.
The Homs operation, which began nearly a week ago, has so far seen the evacuation of some 1,400 people from the rebel-held districts and the distribution of 6.2 tonnes of flour and 500 food parcels.
Although no evacuations or aid deliveries were expected Thursday, Barazi said the truce will probably be extended until Saturday night to allow humanitarian operations to resume on Friday.
Elsewhere, the UN refugee agency said it had set up an air bridge to deliver 800 tonnes of mainly medicine, clothing and blankets to the northeastern city of Qamishli.
Nine flights had already gone from Damascus since February 6th and more were planned in an aid operation aimed at circumventing the dangers of overland travel.

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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’