Archive for March 18, 2017


Monday 16 January 2017

Syrian rebel groups have decided to attend peace talks backed by Russia and Turkey in Kazakhstan to press for implementation of a widely violated ceasefire, rebel officials said on Monday, in a boost for Moscow-led diplomacy.

Russia, the most powerful ally of President Bashar al-Assad, set the new diplomatic effort in motion after the Syrian opposition suffered a major defeat last month when it lost the rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo.

Rebel groups took the decision at meetings that are under way in Ankara, and are now working to form a delegation that will be different to one sent to peace talks in Geneva last year by a Saudi-backed opposition group.

The talks are scheduled for 23 January in Astana.

“The factions will go and the first thing they will discuss will be the matter of the ceasefire and the violations by the regime,” said an official in a Free Syrian Army rebel group who declined to be identified because the rebel groups had yet to appoint a spokesman.

A second official, Zakaria Malahifji of the Fastaqim rebel group, said: “The majority of the groups decided to attend. Discussions will be on the ceasefire – the humanitarian issues – aid deliveries, release of detainees.”

Turkey has been a major backer of the rebellion against Assad, but its priorities in Syria appear to have shifted away from toppling Assad towards combating both Kurdish groups and Islamic State in areas of northern Syria near its border.

The Saudi-backed opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, said on Saturday that it had supported efforts towards the planned peace talks in Kazakhstan, and viewed the meeting as a preliminary step for resuming the next round of political negotiations in Geneva.

The HNC, formed in Riyadh in December 2015, includes both political and armed opponents of Assad.

Malahifji said the new delegation would be formed in coordination with the HNC, but it would differ from it because “the Russians are focusing very much on the military factions”.

“The committee stresses its support to the military delegation… and expresses hope that the meeting would reinforce the truce,” the HNC said.

The HNC also expressed hope that the meeting would “establish a phase of confidence” through the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, especially articles concerning ending sieges of cities and towns, delivering aid and releasing detainees.

The HNC said it “appreciates efforts” to make the Astana talks fruitful, adding that the meeting represents a step that “paves the way for political talks” in Geneva next month.

The statement, which did not clarify whether the HNC has been invited to the Astana talks, stressed that “discussing the political track … should be held under the UN sponsorship and supervision”.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-rebels-agree-attend-peace-talks-khazakstan-17265393.

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January 14, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants launched their biggest assault in a year on government-held areas of the contested city of Deir el-Zour Saturday, attacking from several fronts and triggering intense fighting in the eastern region bordering Iraq, the Syrian government and opposition activists said.

Syrian state TV said three people were killed and nine were wounded in IS rocket attacks on several neighborhoods of the city. Intense fighting broke out between Syrian troops and the extremist group’s fighters both inside the city and around the vicinity of a nearby military airport controlled by government forces. The militants had launched their multi-pronged attack starting from the area of Baghaliyeh near the northwestern tip of the city. Deir el-Zour carries strategic significance for IS as it links the group’s Iraq territory to its de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.

Loud explosions that shook the city were reported. Activists said Syrian warplanes were taking part in the battles. The Deir Ezzor 24 news network reported ongoing clashes since the morning near Deir el-Zour military airport and other fronts in the city and said Syrian warplanes targeted Baghaliyeh and Ayash areas and the vicinity of an army base known as Brigade 137 west of the city.

The extremist group, which controls most of Deir el-Zour province, has kept the provincial capital under siege since 2014. Government forces have withstood the encirclement thanks to air-dropped humanitarian assistance and weapons and ammunition flown into the airport. Remaining residents have reported malnourishment and starvation amid severe shortages of food, water and fuel.

IS has tried to capture the government-held neighborhoods of Deir el-Zour and the city’s suburbs over the past months without much success. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday’s offensive was the most intense since mid-January 2016, when the group killed dozens of people, most of them pro-government militiamen, in wide-scale attacks on the city that saw the group make significant advances. Most of those casualties took place in Baghaliyeh and the killings — many people were shot dead or beheaded — were some of the worst carried out by the extremist group.

The Observatory said the group has recently brought in reinforcements, including large amounts of ammunition and fuel, in preparation for the battle. It said at least 32 people were killed in Saturday’s fighting, including 12 soldiers and allied militiamen and 20 IS fighters.

The Islamic State group, which in 2014 seized large parts of Iraq and Syria and established a so-called Islamic “caliphate” straddling both sides of the border, is under intense pressure in both countries where it has lost significant territory in recent months.

Meanwhile in northern Syria, opposition activists reported a series of government airstrikes on Idlib province over the past 24 hours, including an attack that killed at least 11, mostly civilians, in Maaret Misrin.

In Damascus, the government maintained its offensive to uproot rebels in control of a nearby valley that provides the capital with the majority of its water supply, further threatening a fragile cease-fire that appeared to be fraying.

State-run news agency SANA reported later Saturday that “terrorists” had assassinated Ahmad al-Ghadban, who was appointed by the government to coordinate with rebels in the opposition-held Barada Valley to stop the fighting and allow maintenance workers to fix the water facility there.

For days negotiations have stalled and failed to restore the water flow to the capital — restricted since Dec. 22 — and to end the government offensive to uproot the rebels in the valley. The U.N. says the capital has suffered a water shortage that has affected nearly 5.5 million residents. The fighting has trapped nearly 100,000 residents of the opposition-held valley.

The cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey, who support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, went into effect on Dec. 30. It excludes extremist groups such as the Islamic State group.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.

January 07, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — A car bomb ripped through a busy commercial district in a rebel-held Syrian town along the Turkish border Saturday, killing nearly 50 in a huge explosion that damaged buildings and left rescuers scrambling to find survivors amid the wreckage, opposition activists said.

Rescuers and doctors said the explosion was so large there were nearly 100 wounded and burned. Over 50 wounded were transported to the Turkish border town of Kilis for treatment, as local hospitals couldn’t cope.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Locals said a rigged tanker caused the explosion and blamed Islamic State militants, who have carried out attacks in the town before. The militant group has been increasingly pressed in Syria and Iraq, and has escalated its attacks against Turkey — which backs Syrian opposition fighters in a campaign against the group in northern Syria.

Azaz, only a couple of miles from the Turkish border, is a key town on a route used by opposition fighters moving between Syria and Turkey, and is a hub for anti-government activists as well as many displaced from the recent fighting in Aleppo city. Activists say its pre-war population of 30,000 has swelled.

It is also sandwiched between rival groups, including Kurdish fighters to the west and Turkey-backed opposition groups to the east. Islamic State militants, who have tried to advance on the key border town before have been pushed back farther east in recent months in the Turkey-backed offensive.

The bomb went off early Saturday afternoon outside a local courthouse and security headquarters operated by the opposition fighters who control the town, resident and activist Saif Alnajdi told The Associated Press from Azaz.

“It hit the busiest part of the town,” Alnajdi said, referring to the administrative part of town. A medical worker speaking to a local media outfit, al-Jisr, said many charred bodies, and body parts mixed with bones and mud, were piled up in local hospitals.

Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said at least 48 people were killed, including 14 fighters and guards to the local courthouse. He said the explosion was caused by a rigged water or fuel tanker, which explained the large blast and high death toll. The activist-operated local Azaz Media center and Shabha Press put the death toll at 60, adding that search and rescue operations continued for hours after the explosion.

Alnajdi said rescue workers were still working to identify and remove the bodies from the area, suggesting that the death toll was not final. He said some of the severely wounded were transported across the border into the Turkish town of Kilis for treatment. The Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency said 53 wounded Syrians were brought to Kilis’ local hospital for treatment, including five in critical condition, transferred to Gaziantep. The agency said one later died.

Media activist Baha al-Halabi, based in Aleppo province and who gathered information from Azaz residents, said witnesses reported many unidentified bodies. Footage shared online showed a large plume of black smoke rising above the chaotic street with the sound of gunfire in the background as onlookers gathered around the site. In one instance, a father ran away from the scene, carrying his child to safety.

The court house and the security headquarters were damaged, as well as the Red Crescent and municipality offices, according to activists in the area. Many rebels and civilians who were pushed out of Aleppo city during a massive government offensive late last year have resettled in Azaz. Syrian Kurdish forces control territory to the west of Azaz, and have often tried advancing toward the town, causing friction with Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters. To the east, opposition fighters backed by Turkey have been pushing back Islamic State extremists, gaining territory and advancing on the IS-stronghold town of al-Bab, further east. Turkey considers Syria Kurdish factions there terrorists, linked to a local group it is battling at home.

A nationwide week-long cease-fire has mostly held across most of Syria after Russia and Turkey, who support opposite sides of the conflict, reached an agreement late December. It is set to pave the way for peace talks between Assad’s government and the opposition in Kazakhstan later this month. The Islamic State group and al-Qaida-linked group Fatah al-Sham Front are not included in the deal, according to the Syrian government.

Associated press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.

2017-02-13

GAZA – Hamas elected in secret a hardline member of the Palestinian Islamist movement’s armed wing as its new Gaza leader on Monday, indicating a tougher stand against longtime adversary Israel.

Yahya Sinwar was elected to head the Hamas political office in the Gaza Strip, officials from the party said on condition of anonymity.

An influential military figure, Sinwar represents for some the hardest line within the Islamist movement which has fought three wars against Israel since 2008.

He will succeed politician Ismail Haniya and becomes the second most important figure in the party after Khaled Meshaal.

Sinwar was held in Israeli jail for more than 20 years until 2011, when he was released along with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured five years earlier.

He has since become a senior figure in the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.

In September 2015, Sinwar’s name was added to the US terrorism blacklist alongside two other Qassam members.

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political analyst in Gaza, said the appointment showed the military wing was asserting its dominance in Hamas.

Israel’s foreign ministry and prime minister’s office declined to comment, but the defense ministry body responsible for the Palestinian territories labelled him the head of Hamas’s “radical camp”.

– Secretive –

A graduate in Arabic, Sinwar was born in the Khan Younis refugee camp of southern Gaza in 1962 and founded “Majd,” one of Hamas’s intelligence services.

In 1988, he was arrested by Israel for “terrorist activity” and eventually sentenced to four life sentences.

Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, two years after Israel pulled its forces out but Sinwar remained in jail for another four years.

He was released in October 2011 as part of a mammoth deal for Shalit, who was captured in 2006.

Washington accuses Sinwar of pushing for kidnapping more Israeli soldiers as a bargaining chip for Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas currently claims to be holding four Israelis in captivity in Gaza, though Israel says the two soldiers among them were killed in the 2014 war.

After his release from jail, Sinwar initially made a number of public appearances.

Later, however, he disappeared from public view and was presented in Hamas media as the commander of Qassam’s elite units.

On Monday, he seemed set to step back into the public sphere at a time when Hamas has been holding elections.

The election process, ongoing for months, is shrouded in mystery and it was unclear how Sinwar was appointed and if and when other appointments will be announced.

There was no reference to his appointment on the Hamas website Monday afternoon.

Haniya is seen by many observers as the most likely successor to Hamas’s overall leader Meshaal, who currently lives in exile.

Sinwar, however, could have significant freedom inside Gaza.

– ‘Escalation’ –

Both Palestinian and Israeli analysts said the appointment could make another conflict between the two sides more likely.

“I think it is an indication that we might see an escalation with the Israeli occupation in the coming stage,” said Abu Saada, the Gaza analyst.

“Sinwar is known to not accept any facilitation that eases the tense situation with the occupation,” Abu Saada said.

“We might see in the coming stage further provocations against Israel and violent responses against Gaza.”

Israel last year appointed hardline rightwinger Avigdor Lieberman as its defense minister.

After his appointment, he warned the next war with Gaza would be the last as “we will completely destroy them”.

Kobi Michael, an analyst and former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s strategic affairs ministry, said the appointment would alarm Israeli politicians.

“He represents the most radical and extreme line of Hamas,” he told reporters. “Sinwar believes in armed resistance. He doesn’t believe in any sort of cooperation with Israel.”

In the 2014 war, 2,251 Palestinians and 74 Israelis died.

The Jewish state maintains a crippling blockade on Gaza which it says is necessary to restrict Hamas’s ability to rearm but which the UN says amounts to collective punishment.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81418.

2017-01-18

MOSCOW – The main Palestinian parties on Tuesday announced a deal to form a national unity government prior to the holding of elections, after three days of reconciliation talks in Moscow.

“We have reached agreement under which, within 48 hours, we will call on (Palestinian leader) Mahmud Abbas to launch consultations on the creation of a government” of national unity, senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad told a press conference, speaking in Arabic.

Ater the government is formed, the Palestinians would set up a national council, which would include Palestinians in exile, and hold elections.

“Today the conditions for (such an initiative) are better than ever,” said Ahmad.

The non-official talks in Moscow began on Sunday under Russian auspices with the goal of restoring “the unity of the Palestinian people.” Representatives came from Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions.

Abbas’s secular party Fatah and the Islamist Hamas have been at loggerheads since the latter seized Gaza in a near civil war in 2007.

Last year the Palestinian government postponed the first municipal polls in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in 10 years after the high court ruled they should be held only in the Fatah-run West Bank.

The last time the Palestinians staged elections in which both Hamas and Fatah took part was in 2006.

The Palestinian representatives also met on Monday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and asked him to dissuade incoming US president Donald Trump from carrying out a campaign pledge to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Israel captured east Jerusalem during the 1967 war and later annexed it — in a move not recognized by the international community — declaring all of the city its unified capital.

“We sensed understanding on the part of Mr. Lavrov,” said Ahmad.

Ahmad and Moussa Abu Marzouk of Hamas spoke derisively of the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the EU and UN — in its years-long effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The Quartet’s work completely failed. It was unable to advance the decisions taken by the international community, including (UN) resolutions,” said Ahmad.

“It is imperative to find a new working mechanism for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, said he no longer wanted to work with the Quartet but instead with countries and organisations on an individual basis.

“Russia can play a substantial role” in the region, he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80933.

March 10, 2017

Joseph Aoun, Lebanon’s newly-appointed military chief, said Friday that the Lebanese army must remain on guard against “Israeli ambitions and schemes” in the region.

Addressing army officers in Beirut, Aoun cited perceived threats to Southern Lebanon.

“I have full confidence that you will… be prepared to protect our southern border from the Israeli enemy’s sabotage,” he asserted.

Aoun also stressed Lebanon’s readiness to cooperate with the international community with a view to applying UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was adopted following Lebanon’s 2006 conflict with Israel.

Resolution 1701 called on Israel to withdraw its forces from Southern Lebanon to allow the deployment of UN peacekeepers along the border between the two countries.

Aoun also said that the Lebanese military would continue to work for the release of nine Lebanese soldiers captured by the Daesh terrorist group three years ago.

In mid-2014, Daesh militants captured several Lebanese military personnel following clashes in the Lebanese town of Arsal on the Syrian border.

Aoun was made commander of Lebanon’s armed forces on Wednesday after being promoted to the rank of general.

Replacing General Jean Kahwaji at the post, Aoun is known to be close to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, although the two are not related.

Before assuming the post, Aoun had commanded the Lebanese Army’s 9th Brigade, which is deployed on Lebanon’s border with Syria.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170310-new-lebanese-army-chief-warns-against-israeli-schemes/.

2017-02-13

CAIRO – Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Monday started his first visit to Cairo since his election in October and held talks with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“Hopes of the role that Egypt could play are high. An Egypt of moderation and openness… could launch an Arab rescue initiative based on a strategy to fight terrorism,” Aoun said at a joint press conference.

He said Egypt could “work on finding political solutions for the crises in the Arab world and especially Syria”.

The two sides “agreed on the need to stand together against the dangers of terrorism”, Sisi said, adding that Egypt was ready “to support the capabilities of Lebanon’s army and its various security bodies”.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian, was to meet later the same day with the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, and also hold talks with Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb of Al-Azhar, the highest institution of Sunni Islam.

On Tuesday, the Lebanese president is scheduled to meet Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary general of the Cairo-based Arab League.

Aoun, who was elected with the support of the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah, visited Saudi Arabia last month on a mission to patch up relations with Riyadh.

A Lebanese official source said at the time that Saudi Arabia and Lebanon had agreed to hold talks on restoring a $3-billion military aid package that Riyadh froze last year.

Mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia, a fierce regional rival of Iran, froze the aid deal over what it said was Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon.

Aoun’s election ended a two-year deadlock between Iran- and Saudi-backed blocs in the Lebanese parliament.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81415.

2017-02-27

Jordan’s position towards the Syrian civil war has often appeared unclear: It supports moderate rebel groups from the Syrian Free Army (FSA) yet there is no great display of animosity between Amman and Da­mascus.

The Syrian regime has refrained from painting Jordan with the same damning brush as it does Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In turn, the Jordanians have not been as vocal in the call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, as some of their allies have.

Some analysts said Jordan has been maintaining a balancing act: accommodating the position of its US and Gulf financiers without adopting an anti-Assad stance wholeheartedly.

There are many tribal relations between Jordanians and Syrians and King Abdullah II cannot afford to appear to be totally indifferent to the death and suffering of civilians at the hands of pro-Assad forces.

There are more than 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Observers, however, pointed to a recent change in Jordan’s policy towards the Syrian conflict that appears to focus on the increasing threat of terror from Islamic State (ISIS) militants and other groups.

“Analysts say that these developments pushed Jordan out of its so-called grey zone and disengage from the Gulf position towards the Syrian issue,” wrote Khalil Qandil in the Jordanian website Assabeel.net.

Jordanian political analyst Amer al-Sabaylah said Jordan was preparing to protect its borders from threats of terror and was looking at Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria as an example.

“Jordan’s priority in fighting terror requires finding a partner in the Syrian south to replicate the Turkish intervention in Syria but without a direct Jordanian involvement,” Sabaylah told Assabeel.net.

His views were shared by other Jordanian analysts.

“Unlike Turkey, Jordan cannot afford nor does it want to carry out a military incursion into southern Syria, a region that is vital to its national security,” wrote Amman-based commentator Osama al-Sha­rif in the Jordan Times.

“Instead, it is building a coalition of moderate rebel groups and local tribal fighters to fend off possible advance by Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “It is also carrying out preemptive aerial strikes against Daesh positions in southern Syria.”

Jordanian political science Professor Hassan al-Khalidi told the website 24.ae that Amman was primarily concerned with its own security.

“The Jordanian maneuvers in the Syrian issue are primarily aimed at protecting (Jordan’s) northern borders in the event that they are flooded with the remnants of terrorist groups fleeing areas under pressure in Syria and Iraq.”

Brigadier-General Sami Kafawin, the commander of Jordan’s border guards, told the Associated Press that ISIS was expanding its influence in a makeshift border camp that hosts tens of thousands of displaced Syrians.

Jordan also appears to fear that the FSA faction it backs in Southern Syria would be weakened by the resumed Russian air strikes against moderate rebels in Deraa, which would allow ISIS and other radical groups to flourish on its borders.

As a result of new clashes between FSA rebels and the regime, two projectiles reportedly fell on the Jordan side of the border, slightly wounding one person.

Diplomatically, at the invitation of Russia, Jordan attended as a monitor the latest round of talks between the Syrian regime and rebels in Astana. It was also invited to be present during the Geneva talks on February 23rd.

King Abdullah II had also met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a staunch supporter of Assad, to discuss the Syrian crisis.

The pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Addiyar reported that top intelligence official Ali Mam­louk recently met with the Jordanian king in Amman to “coordinate together against terror”.

Many Syrians have looked with suspicion towards what they say is a friendly relationship between As­sad and Amman, despite Jordan’s backing of the FSA.

They say that King Abdullah’s support of Syrian moderate rebels has always been in Jordan’s favour — to counter radical groups — and that Amman is now being more open about it, dismissing the suggestion that there is a shift in strategy.

The Syrians are not alone in thinking that. Jordanian analyst Fahad al-Khitan said that Jordan’s priority for a long time has been to secure its border areas from the threat of militant groups such as ISIS. “Noth­ing changed in that strategy,” he wrote in the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad.

Jordan will be hosting the next Arab League annual meeting on March 29th but, as was the case in previous summits, Assad will not be invited since the bloc suspended Syria’s membership in 2011.

“How the invitations are dealt with will be based on the decisions of the Arab League, and we will abide by what it has decided,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Sa­fadi said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for the Syrian government to be permitted to re­join the bloc but Jordan is unable to fulfil Moscow’s request, even if it wanted to.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81722.