Iraqi forces recaptures crossing on Syria border from IS

2017-11-03

BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces said they recaptured an important crossing on the border with Syria from the Islamic State group on Friday as they advanced into the jihadists’ last bastion in Iraq.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said troops had “regained full control” of the Husaybah border post on the edge of the town of Al-Qaim after launching a push to oust the jihadists.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi released a statement congratulating the armed forces for “entering into Al-Qaim and liberating” the border crossing.

An Iraqi army officer said that the jihadists “deserted the border post after several of them were killed” and headed off into Syria.

Al-Qaim and the surrounding areas are the last remnants of the self-styled caliphate IS declared after rampaging across Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Iraqi forces backed up by air strikes from a US-led coalition launched the operation last week to seize back the strategically located pocket of barren desert along the Euphrates river.

IS is simultaneously battling for survival in its holdouts across the border in Syria, where government troops said they ousted the group from the key city of Deir Ezzor on Friday.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85756.

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Lebanon Investigates Visit of Iraqi Militia Leader to the South

Sunday, 10 December, 2017

The appearance of the head of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia during a visit to Lebanon’s border with Israel, accompanied by Hezbollah fighters, sparked a wave of anger, especially as it came shortly after the government announced the adoption of a policy to dissociate the country from external conflicts.

In a video released on Saturday, Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iraqi paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, declared his readiness “to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause”, just four days after the Lebanese political parties announced the adoption of the policy of “dissociation” from external and regional conflicts.

The video showed an unidentified commander, presumably from Hezbollah, gesturing toward military outposts located along the borders, while Khazali was talking to another person through a wireless device, telling him: “ I am now with the brothers in Hezbollah in the area of Kfarkila, which is a few meters away from occupied Palestine; we declare the full readiness to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri ordered the security apparatus to conduct the necessary investigations into the presence of the Iraqi leader on the Lebanese territories, which he said violated the Lebanese laws.

Presidential sources told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that President Michel Aoun has requested further information about the video, while military sources denied that Khazali has entered the Lebanese territories in a legitimate way.

“The entry of any foreigner to this border area requires a permit from the Lebanese Army, which did not happen,” the sources said, stressing that Khazali has entered the area illegaly.

A statement issued by the premier’s office said: “Hariri contacted the concerned military and security officials to conduct the necessary investigations and take measures to prevent any person or party from carrying out any military activity on the Lebanese territory, and to thwart any illegal act as shown in the video.”

The Lebanese prime minister also ordered that Khazali would be banned from entering Lebanon again, the statement added.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1108901/lebanon-investigates-visit-iraqi-militia-leader-south.

Thousands of Russian private contractors fighting in Syria

December 12, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Before he was killed by a sniper in Syria at age 23, Ivan Slyshkin wrote a poignant message on social media to his fiancee: “We will see each other soon — and I will hold you as tight as I possibly can.”

But Slyshkin’s name won’t be found among the Russian Defense Ministry’s official casualties in the fight against Islamic State extremists. That’s because the young man who left his hometown of Ozyorsk in the Ural mountains was one of thousands of Russians deployed to Syria by a shadowy, private military contractor known as Wagner, which the government doesn’t talk about.

Slyshkin’s gravestone depicts him holding a machine gun, according to a local news website Znak.com that sent a reporter to his March 2 funeral in Ozyorsk, where friends said he joined Wagner to earn money to pay for his wedding.

“He was in Wagner’s group,” his friend Andrei Zotov told The Associated Press, adding that Slyshkin was killed as the security forces were advancing on the Al-Shayer oil field north of Palmyra. “There are many good guys there. He volunteered to join the company,” Zotov said. “Like many Russian fighters, he wanted to solve his money issues.”

The St. Petersburg-based website Fontanka reported that about 3,000 Russians under contract to the Wagner group have fought in Syria since 2015, months before Russia’s two-year military campaign helped to turn the tide of the civil war in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Moscow ally.

When Putin went to a Russian air base in Syria on Monday and told Russian troops that “you are coming back home with victory,” he did not mention the private contractors. Russian troops are expected to remain in Syria for years while the contractors are likely to stay to guard lucrative oil and gas fields under a contract between the Syrian government and another Russian company allegedly linked to a businessman known as “Putin’s chef” for his close ties to the Kremlin.

Proxy fighters like Slyshkin have played a key role in Syria. In addition to augmenting troops officially sent by Moscow, their secret deployment has helped keep the official Russian death toll low as Putin seeks re-election next year.

The Russian Defense Ministry has said 41 of its troops have died in Syria. But according to Fontanka, another 73 private contractors have been killed there. The Kremlin and the Defense Ministry have stonewalled questions about Russians fighting in Syria in a private capacity. Private contractors have been used by countries like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan for years; Russian law forbids the hiring of mercenaries or working as one.

But Russia has used such proxies before — in the conflict to help pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014. One Russian commander boasted of working alongside Russian troops who said they were “on vacation” while fighting in Ukraine.

The Defense Ministry has refused to say how many of its troops are in Syria, although one estimate based on absentee ballots cast in the Russian parliamentary election last year indicated 4,300 personnel were deployed there. That number probably rose this year because Moscow sent Russian military police to patrol “de-escalation zones.”

“The Russian people are not very enthused by the idea of an empire that would involve their boys coming home in body bags. There’s clearly a lack enthusiasm for this conflict,” said Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.

“By having this military company Wagner, they can have a force they can actually deploy … but when people die, it doesn’t have to be announced,” Galeotti said. Fontanka, which is respected for its independent reporting, has obtained what it described as Wagner’s spreadsheets and recruitment forms that indicate thousands of Russians have fought in Syria. Of about 3,000 Wagner employees deployed to Syria over the years, the single largest contingent at a given time has been about 1,500, said Denis Korotkov, a reporter for Fontanka.

Since 2015, at least 73 of them have died, he said. Another investigative group, Conflict Intelligence Team, or CIT, put the number of private contractor deaths at 101. Both outlets say those are conservative estimates.

“The most important proof is people, dead and alive, who have said they are mercenaries and their relatives say there are mercenaries,” said CIT founder Ruslan Leviev. “How would hundreds of people all over the country collude and come up with the same story?”

Activists with CIT made a name for the group by combing social media and other records for Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and are doing the same for Syria. Both Fontanka and CIT published photos from what they called a Wagner training base in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia. Some of the facilities look identical to those seen in official Defense Ministry photos of a military base in Molkino, in the same area.

Agreements signed with the security companies have kept the private contractors and members of their families from speaking to the media about their activities. Survivors receive generous compensation for keeping silent, and most attempts by AP to contact relatives and friends of those killed have been unsuccessful.

Media in southern Russia reported the death of Alexander Karchenkov in Syria in November 2016. The BelPressa website showed the mayor of his hometown of Stary Oskol giving a medal to Karchenkov’s tearful widow, Marina, and mother.

Marina Karchenkova said her husband went to Syria as a contract soldier because he “had children to raise.” In a handwritten form dated December 2015, Karchenkov said he was unemployed, serving in the Soviet army in 1989-1991 and as a volunteer in Kosovo in 1998-2000.

In October, the Islamic State group released video of two Russian captives it said had been fighting in Syria, and one of them identified himself as Roman Zabolotny and said the other was Grigory Tsurkanu. The Defense Ministry denied they were Russian servicemen, and media reports said they were working for Wagner. Their fate at the hands of the extremists is unknown.

The Wagner group was founded by retired Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, who came under U.S. sanctions in June after the Treasury Department said the company had recruited former soldiers to join the separatists fighting in Ukraine. Utkin was photographed a year ago at a Kremlin banquet thrown by Putin to honor military veterans.

Also under U.S. sanctions is Yevgeny Prigozhin, the St. Petersburg entrepreneur dubbed “Putin’s chef” by Russian media because of his restaurants and catering businesses that once hosted the Kremlin leader’s dinners with foreign dignitaries. In the more than 10 years since establishing a relationship with Putin, his business expanded to other services for the military.

Earlier this year, an anti-corruption foundation run by opposition leader Alexei Navalny detailed how Prigozhin’s firms have come to dominate Defense Ministry contracts. The U.S. State Department put Prigozhin on its sanctions list in 2016 related to the Ukrainian conflict, citing his “extensive business dealings” with the Defense Ministry.

Among the firms linked to Prigozhin is Evro Polis, a Moscow-registered company that Fontanka reported has become a front for Wagner’s operations in Syria. In 2016, Evro Polis listed the sale of food products as its core activities, according to the Spark Interfax database. But this year, it listed mining, oil and gas production, and opened an office in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The AP obtained a copy of a 48-page contract between Evro Polis and Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp., which said the Russian company would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure from Islamic State militants. While the five-year contract could not be authenticated, Fontanka reported the same deal in June.

“The link between Evro Polis and Prigozhin is significant and is not in doubt,” said Fontanka’s Korotkov. “We believe that this firm is just a cover for the private company Wagner, and it could be an attempt to legalize this group, possibly for a commercial use later on.”

Both Evro Polis and Prigozhin’s Concorde Management and Consulting were unavailable for comment, and the Defense Ministry did not reply to AP’s request for comment. An AP reporter who went to Evro Polis’ Damascus office in November found it closed, with no sign on the door.

Syria’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources declined comment when asked about the Evro Polis deal. Asked about the contract, the Russian Energy Ministry told Fontanka it cannot divulge “commercial secrets,” and declined comment to the AP.

As the Russian campaign in Syria draws to a close, the private contractors will probably stay, analysts say. Wagner is “is likely to cement its footing because we saw that there were not only military goals to pursue … but there is a commercial motive,” Leviev said. “Someone needs to guard the oil fields.”

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed.

Thousands of Indonesians again protest Trump’s Jerusalem move

December 10, 2017

Thousands protested outside the US Embassy in the Indonesian capital on Sunday against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, many waving banners saying “Palestine is in our hearts”.

Leaders in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, have joined a global chorus of condemnation of Trump’s announcement, including Western allies who say it is a blow to peace efforts and risks sparking more violence.

Thousands of protesters in Muslim-majority countries in Asia have rallied in recent days to condemn the US move.

Israel maintains that all of Jerusalem is its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state and say Trump’s move has left them completely sidelined.

Palestinian people were among the first to recognize Indonesia’s independence in 1945, Sohibul Iman, president of the opposition Prosperous Justice Party which organised the rally, told protesters.

Indonesia should be more proactive in “urging the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) member states and UN Security Council and the international community to respond immediately with more decisive and concrete political and diplomatic actions in saving the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation and its collaborator, the United States of America,” Iman said.

“Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim country has the largest responsibility toward the independence of Palestine and the management of Jerusalem,” he told reporters, adding that he hoped Indonesia would take a leading role within the OIC on the matter.

“Trump has disrupted world peace. It’s terrible,” one protester, Yusri, told Reuters.

The decision was “a major disaster for the Palestinian people, while the Palestinian’s own rights have been taken away for a long time,” said Septi, a student at the rally.

Indonesia’s foreign minister left for Jordan on Sunday to meet the Palestinian and Jordanian foreign ministers “to convey Indonesia’s full support for Palestine”.

Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in a 1967 war, to be occupied territory, and say the status of the city should be left to be decided at future Israeli-Palestinian talks.

While the international community has almost unanimously disagreed with Donald Trump’s announcement, reports suggest that the announcement was done with the pre-agreement of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi Arabia going as far as, allegedly, stating to the Palestinian President to accept a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem as the alternative Palestinian capital.

Since the announcement, Saudi Arabia’s royal court has sent notices to the nation’s media outlets to limit the airtime given to protests against Trump’s announcement.

Emboldened by Trump’s announcement, Israeli housing Minister Yoav Galant decided on Friday to promote a plan to build 14,000 new settlement units in the occupied Jerusalem.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171210-thousands-of-indonesians-again-protest-trumps-jerusalem-move/.

Israeli defense chief calls for Arab boycott after protests

December 10, 2017

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister called Sunday for a boycott of Arab businesses in an area where residents took part in violent protests against President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard in the volatile city in the first attack since the dramatic announcement.

Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said the Arabs of Wadi Ara in northern Israel were “not part of us” and that Jewish Israelis should no longer visit their villages and buy their products. Hundreds of Israeli Arabs protested Saturday along a major highway in northern Israel, where dozens of masked rioters hurled stones at buses and police vehicles. Three Israelis were wounded and several vehicles were damaged.

“These people do not belong to the state of Israel. They have no connection to this country,” Lieberman told Israel’s Army Radio. “Moreover, I would call on all citizens of Israel — stop going to their stores, stop buying, stop getting services, simply a boycott on Wadi Ara. They need to feel that they are not welcome here.”

Lieberman has long called for Wadi Ara to be included in his proposed swap of lands and populations as part of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians. The residents, like many of Israel’s Arab minority, sympathize with the Palestinians of the West Bank and often openly identify with them. But they are also Israeli citizens who largely reject the notion of becoming part of a future Palestinian state.

The comments sparked criticism of racism and collective punishment toward a community of which only a small minority were violent. It also raised questions about how Israel could so aggressively oppose international boycott campaigns against it while one of its most senior ministers called for one against its own citizens.

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint list in parliament, said Lieberman’s call for a boycott of Arabs was reminiscent of the worst regimes in history. Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security from the ruling Likud Party, said that Lieberman’s diplomatic plan was not applicable and he rejected the notion of giving up the country’s sovereignty just because it had Arab citizens.

The violent protests inside Israel were part of the larger Palestinian “day of rage” following Trump’s announcement that he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and planned to move the U.S. Embassy there.

Protests and demonstrations took place in dozens of locations across the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, lands captured by Israel during the 1967 war that the Palestinians want to be part of their future state.

They resumed briefly Sunday, with Palestinian youths in the West Bank city of Bethlehem hurling stones toward Israeli soldiers, who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas. In Jerusalem, police said a 24-year-old Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard at the entrance to the city’s central bus station. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the guard sustained a serious wound to his upper body and the attacker was apprehended.

Israel’s Channel 10 TV news aired security camera footage from the scene showing the attacker removing his jacket near the security gate and then thrusting what looked like a knife into the guard’s chest before fleeing.

In more than two years of intermittent attacks, Palestinians have killed more than 50 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks. Israeli forces have killed more than 260 Palestinians in that time, mostly attackers.

Trump’s announcement raised fears that a new wave of violence would erupt in its wake. But three days of mass protests were relatively contained. Four Palestinians were killed in Gaza in Israeli airstrikes following rocket fire from there and in clashes along the border. In the West Bank there were dozens of injuries, but no deaths.

The status of Jerusalem lies at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Trump’s move was widely perceived as siding with Israel. Even small crises over Jerusalem and the status of the holy sites in its Old City have sparked deadly bloodshed in the past. Trump’s announcement triggered denunciations from around the world, even from close allies, that suggested he had needlessly stirred more conflict in an already volatile region.

In Israel, the move was embraced as a long overdue acknowledgement of Israel’s seat of parliament and government and the historic capital of the Jewish people dating back 3,000 years. Upon departing for a diplomatic visit to Paris and Brussels, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was prepared to respond to critics.

“While I respect Europe, I am not prepared to accept a double standard from it. I hear voices from there condemning President Trump’s historic statement but I have not heard condemnations of the rockets fired at Israel or the terrible incitement against it,” he said. “I am not prepared to accept this hypocrisy, and as usual at this important forum I will present Israel’s truth without fear and with head held high.”

5 Jordanians go missing in Saudi Arabia

December 3, 2017

Five Jordanian nationals have gone missing in Saudi Arabia, according to a Jordanian foreign ministry source.

The five were on a hunting trip in the northwestern Tabuk region when they disappeared, the source told Anadolu Agency, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak to media.

He, however, denied reports that the five had been found dead.

There was no comment from Saudi authorities on the report.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171203-5-jordanians-go-missing-in-saudi-arabia/.

China to deploy ‘Night Tigers’ to Syria in support of Assad’s forces

29 November, 2017

China will deploy troops to Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as the East Asian country becomes increasingly concerned about the presence of Islamic militants in its far western region of Xinjiang.

The Chinese Ministry of Defense intends to send two units known as the “Tigers of Siberia” and the “Night Tigers” from the Special Operations Forces to aid regime troops against militant factions, New Khaleej reported, citing informed sources.

Some 5,000 ethnic Uighurs from China’s violence-prone region of Xinjiang are fighting in various militant groups in Syria, the Syrian ambassador to China said earlier this year.

Chinese state media has blamed violence in Xinjiang on extremists who were trained in Syria.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang in the past few years, most in unrest between Uighurs and ethnic majority Han Chinese. The government blames the unrest on Islamist militants who want a separate state called East Turkestan.

Uighurs themselves complain of discrimination and say their traditional and religious way of life is being eroded by Chinese domestic policy and an influx of settlers from elsewhere in China.

China has said that “East Turkestan terrorist forces” had posed several threats against the government.

Assad has previously praised “crucial cooperation” between Syria and Chinese intelligence against Uighur militants, adding ties with China were “on the rise”.

Chinese military personnel have been on the ground in Syria since at least last year, training Syrian forces to use China-made weapons.

China has also joined Russia in blocking resolutions critical of the regime at the United Nations Security Council, as one of the five vetoing powers on the panel.

Source: The New Arab.

Link: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2017/11/29/china-to-deploy-night-tigers-to-syria.