DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s president sacked a deputy prime minister who met Western officials to discuss the possibility of holding a peace conference, saying he acted without permission. The Tuesday decree was the latest blow to diplomatic efforts to bring the country’s warring parties to the negotiating table.
The sacking came as the U.N.’s health agency said it confirmed 10 polio cases in northeast Syria — the first confirmed outbreak of the highly contagious disease in the country in 14 years. Officials warned the disease threatened to spread among an estimated half-million children who have never received immunization because of the 2 ½ year civil war.
Deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil was fired after a weekend meeting in Geneva that Washington says was with its ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.
The Oct. 26 meeting was to discuss the possibility of holding a conference next month, also in Geneva, to negotiate a settlement to Syria’s conflict, said a U.S. official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the private conversation.
Three days later, President Bashar Assad issued a decree relieving Jamil of his duties for “undertaking activities and meetings outside the homeland without coordination with the government,” Syria’s government news agency SANA said.
Jamil told Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that he also met with a Russian diplomat and U.N. officials. He did not say whether his moves were coordinated with Assad.
“I am not an employee,” he said. “I am a political activist.”
Assad has said in principle that his government will attend talks, but it will not negotiate with the country’s disparate armed rebel groups.
But sacking Jamil appeared to signal the government was hardening its stance, or that it feared he was jockeying for a position in a post-Assad Syria.
In other diplomatic efforts aimed at convincing warring parties to attend the conference, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is currently in Syria to meet officials and opposition figures.
A key sticking point is Assad’s future: Much of Syria’s fractured opposition rejects any transition plan in which Assad or his close associates are involved.
Meanwhile, a U.N. official warned cases of polio confirmed in Syria could risk spreading across the war-battered country because of a lack of access to clean water, sewage infrastructure and a lack of vaccinations.
World Health Organization spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer said they confirmed 10 cases among babies and toddlers, all under two. Rosenbauer said they were awaiting lab results on another 12 cases showing polio symptoms.
The polio virus usually infects children in unsanitary conditions through consuming food or drink contaminated with feces. It attacks the nerves and can kill or paralyze, and can spread widely and unnoticed before it starts crippling children.
“This is a communicable disease - with population movements it can travel to other areas,” said Rosenbauer. “So the risk is high of spread across the region.”
Neighboring Lebanon and Jordan are likely to be at particular risk because the two countries have absorbed the bulk of Syrian refugees fleeing war-torn areas. The refugees often flee places where children have not been vaccinated. The poorest refugees often crowd, several families together, into apartments and dilapidated shacks.