Iran, Russia lash out at US plans to protect oil in Syria

October 29, 2019

GENEVA (AP) — Iran and Russia on Tuesday criticized and scoffed at Trump administration plans to protect oil deposits in Syria, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accusing Washington of “illegal” actions.

Lavrov joined Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Geneva to lend support to U.N.-backed talks among Syrian government, opposition and civil society delegations on the country’s constitution starting Wednesday.

The most pointed comments at their joint news conference addressed new Pentagon plans to increase efforts to protect Syria’s oil fields from both the Islamic State radical group and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government, even as U.S. forces are withdrawn from other parts of the country.

“Well, it seems that the United States is staying to protect the oil — and at least President Trump is honest to say what the United States intends to do,” said Zarif with a smile. Lavrov accused the United States of looking for a “pretext” to protect the oil deposits. He said any “exploitation of natural resources of a sovereign state without its consent is illegal,” according to a translator of his remarks in Russian.

Cavusoglu, however, remained focused on a top priority for Turkey in Syria: Ensuring that Kurdish fighters whom the United States supported to help drive out ISIS don’t threaten Turkish interests. Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s. Turkey, U.S. and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey has led a military incursion into northeastern Syria to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) “safe zone” between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish border. Cavusoglu reiterated the hopes of Turkey — along with much of the international community — that Syria won’t split apart. He suggested that areas now controlled by Turkish forces and their allies in Syria could one day be “handed over” to the Syrian government, especially if the talks enhance prospects for peace and stability.

“When times come that the Syrian regime, at the end of this political process, is capable enough to protect the country’s territories and eliminate the terrorist organization (PKK) from that, I think all the territories should be handed over to Syria,” he said. “This is the territory of Syria.”

Israel’s Gantz, Netanyahu hold talks to break gov’t deadlock

October 27, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister and his main rival opened a new round of unity talks Sunday in the latest effort to break a political stalemate and avoid an unprecedented third parliamentary election in less than a year.

Israel has been paralyzed by political deadlock following an inconclusive election last month, with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor the rival Blue and White party in control of a 61-seat majority in parliament.

After nearly a month of efforts, Netanyahu last week said he had failed to cobble together a coalition. Israel’s president has now given the task to Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz. Gantz, a former military chief, met with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv to discuss a possible power-sharing agreement. Gantz’s party issued a statement that the two discussed possible options and agreed to a second meeting.

Ahead of the talks, Netanyahu expressed support for a “broad national unity government.” Speaking to his Cabinet, Netanyahu said such a coalition is essential for Israel to face what he said were mounting security challenges around the region.

“We must make tough decisions that require a government with broad shoulders,” he said. “This is not a political question, but a national and security question of the highest order. I hope that we can advance this goal in the coming days.”

With Blue and White controlling 33 seats in parliament and Likud holding 32, the two parties together have enough support to form a government together. While both men support the idea of a unity deal, they have disagreed over who should lead it.

Netanyahu wants his traditional religious and nationalist allies to sit with Likud and Blue and White. Gantz has been cool to sitting together with Netanyahu’s hardline allies. He also refuses to serve under a Netanyahu-led government while the long-serving leader faces possible indictment for corruption charges. Israel’s attorney general is to decide on whether to charge Netanyahu in the coming weeks.

Ahead of their meeting, negotiators from the two parties met for preparatory talks that were “held in good spirits,” according to a Blue and White statement. It is the first time in more than a decade that a candidate other than Netanyahu has been given the opportunity to form a government.

But without Likud, Gantz’s options are limited. He can try to break up Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and win over smaller hard-line parties. So far, there is no sign of that happening. His remaining potential partners include a diverse group of parties that have little in common, including the secular ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, dovish Jewish parties and a grouping of Arab parties, which have never sat in a government before.

The country has faced political paralysis since Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman refused to sit in a government with Netanyahu’s ultra-religious partners following April’s election. That decision robbed Netanyahu of a parliamentary majority, leading to last month’s inconclusive election.

Lieberman has refused to endorse either candidate for prime minister and demands they reach a unity deal. If the sides fail, Israel could face a third election early next year.

Anger as Israel official attends Morocco conference

October 16, 2019

Moroccan anti-normalization activists have expressed their anger as a former Israeli interior minister attended an international symposium in Marrakech and gave a presentation, a move the activists described as a “crime of penetration”.

Former Knesset member Meir Sheetrit attended the World Policy Conference, which was held last weekend in Marrakech. The event was attended by ministers and officials from Moroccan and all over the world, according to Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

The Morocco Observatory Against Normalisation with Israel said the presence of Sheetrit is a “new Zionist crime of penetration”, denouncing conferences in Morocco that allow current and former Israeli officials to attend.

No Arab country has established formal political, economic, or cultural relations with the occupying state, except for Jordan and Egypt, which have signed peace agreements with Israel.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191016-anger-as-israel-official-attends-morocco-conference/.

Israel opens natural spring to visitors – except Palestinians

October 16, 2019

Israeli authorities have opened a natural spring in southern Jerusalem to visitors, “but on the explicit condition that Palestinians not be allowed to enter the site”, reported Haaretz.

The decision by police yesterday meant that the Ein Hanya spring “was kept under heavy guard by the police and Border Police, which even closed the road leading to Palestinian towns”.

Meanwhile, “hundreds of Israelis visited the site”, said Haaretz.

As described by the paper, Ein Hanya “is one of the largest and most important natural springs in the Jerusalem area”.

While it is located within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, Palestinian residents of neighboring village Al-Walaja “regularly visit it”.

Much of Al-Walaja’s land has been confiscated by Israeli authorities over the decades, with village land straddling the 1967 ‘Green Line’

The official opening of the spring as a tourism site was subject to repeated delays, thanks to “a dispute over whether entry fees should be charged”, as well as the “police’s demand that Palestinians not be allowed to enter”.

Police have also insisted that a checkpoint be relocated further south, “so that it would separate Palestinian towns from the spring”, at an estimated cost of 12 million shekels ($3.4 million).

The spring has now opened for just three days, before closing again “until the checkpoint is moved”.

According to Haaretz, “over the past few days, police have stepped up enforcement against Palestinian farmers seeking to work land near the spring”, and have “even forced a farmer to leave”.

Shaul Goldstein, the nature authority’s director, “said his agency has no objection to Palestinians visiting the spring, nor does it have any interest in moving the checkpoint.”

However, he noted that “since Ein Hanya is located in Jerusalem, from the defense establishment’s perspective, any Palestinian who goes there is in the capital illegally.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191016-israel-opens-natural-spring-to-visitors-except-palestinians/.

Russia seeks to cement its role as power broker in Syria

October 16, 2019

CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (AP) — Russia moved to fill the void left by the United States in northern Syria on Tuesday, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government forces and Turkish troops. At the same time, tensions grew within NATO as Turkey defied growing condemnation of its invasion from its Western allies.

Now in its seventh day, Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters has caused tens of thousands to flee their homes, has upended alliances and is re-drawing the map of northern Syria for yet another time in the 8-year-old war.

Russia moved quickly to further entrench its role as a power broker after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria. The American move effectively abandoned the Kurdish fighters who were allied with the U.S. and cleared the way for Turkey’s invasion aimed at crushing them.

Desperate for a new protector, the Kurdish administration struck a deal with the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces on Sunday began moving into Kurdish-administered areas to shield them against Turkey.

Syrian troops waved flags after they rolled into Manbij, a flashpoint town west of the Euphrates River that Turkey had been aiming to capture and wrest from Kurdish control. Video by Russian journalists with the troops showed what appeared to be an abandoned outpost where U.S. forces had been stationed.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Myles B. Caggins, confirmed U.S. troops had completed their pullout from Manbij. During the withdrawal, contacts were kept open with the Turks and Russians to ensure the several hundred American forces there got out safely, U.S. officials said.

U.S. troops have had outposts in Manbij since 2017, when they went in to avert a battle over the town between Turkish and Kurdish fighters. Now Russia was playing that role. Outside Manbij, Russian troops patrolled front lines between Turkish and Syrian army positions to keep them apart, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

“No one is interested” in fighting between Syrian government troops and Turkish forces, said Alexander Lavrentyev, Moscow’s envoy for Syria. Russia “is not going to allow it,” he told Russian state news agencies.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Washington is “deeply concerned” that Russian troops are patrolling between the two sides. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to discuss “issues of mutual interest in the context of situation in Syria,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a brief statement, without elaborating.

Russia has been a staunch ally of Assad for decades and entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, providing air power that eventually turned the tide of the war in his favor. The Russian military has shipped weapons to Damascus, trained thousands of troops and put its advisers in key Syrian military units.

In the first week of the Turkish assault, at least 154 fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been killed, as well as 128 fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian factions , according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the war. It said at least 69 civilians have been killed in Syria. Turkey says six of its soldiers have died, as well as at least 20 Turkish civilians killed by Kurdish mortar fire across the border.

Despite the Syrian and Russian deployments, Turkey insisted it would capture Manbij. Asked on Sky News if Turkey’s military was willing to fight Assad’s army, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, “We hope it’s not going to happen, but again we are determined to get control over Manbij.”

Mortar fire from Manbij killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded seven others, the Turkish Defense Ministry said. An Associated Press team later saw up to 200 Turkish troops along with armored vehicles crossing near Manbij and Kobani, a border town that is not yet secured by Syrian forces. Farther east on the border, Turkish and Kurdish forces were in heavy battles over the town of Ras al-Ayn, captured by Turkish troops days earlier.

A U.S. official said the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops being withdrawn from northern Syria will reposition in Iraq, Kuwait and possibly Jordan. The U.S. forces in Iraq could conduct cross-border operations against the Islamic State group in Syria as they did before creating the now-abandoned partnership with Syrian Kurdish-led forces, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive planning for a U.S. pullout.

After opening the way for the Turkish assault with its pullout, Washington is now trying to restrain its fellow NATO member. Trump on Monday announced sanctions aimed at Turkey’s economy. The U.S. called on Turkey to stop the offensive and declare a cease-fire, while European Union countries moved to broaden an arms sale embargo against their easternmost ally.

Trump was sending Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to Ankara to try to begin negotiations to stop the fighting. Pence said Trump spoke directly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who promised not to attack the border town of Kobani, which in 2015 saw the Islamic State group’s first defeat in a battle by the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan made clear, however, that he had no intention of halting the Turkish offensive. “They say ‘declare a ceasefire.’ We could never declare a ceasefire,” he told reporters. The U.N. Security Council planned a closed meeting Wednesday on the situation, requested by Germany and other EU members. “Everybody hopes that … we can do something to bring back the parties to the peace process,” said the current Security Council president, South Africa’s U.N. Ambassador Jerry Matjila.

NATO ambassadors also will meet on Wednesday in Brussels on Turkey’s offensive, said alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Erdogan defended Turkey’s offensive in a column in the Wall Street Journal, urging the international community to support Ankara’s effort to create what it calls a resettlement “safe zone” for refugees in northeastern Syria, or “begin admitting refugees.”

“Turkey reached its limit,” Erdogan wrote of the 3.6 million Syrians in his country. He said Turkey’s warnings it would be unable to stop refugee floods into the West without international support “fell on deaf ears.”

Turkey said it invaded northern Syria to create a zone of control the entire length of the border and drive out the Kurdish fighters, which it regards as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

Instead, after the Kurds’ deal with Damascus, a new de facto carving up of the border appeared to be taking shape. Turkish forces control the beginnings of a truncated zone roughly in the center of the border about 100 kilometers (60 miles) long between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Syrian government troops were moving into or increasing their presence in areas on either side of that enclave, including Manbij to the west and the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh in the far northeastern corner of Syria.

Though they gain protection from the Turks by the deal with Damascus, the Kurds risk losing the virtual self-rule they have enjoyed across the northeast — the heartland of their minority community — ever since Assad pulled his troops from the area seven years ago to fight rebels elsewhere.

The U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator said at least 160,000 civilians in northeastern Syria have been displaced amid the Turkish operations.

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.

Facebook takes down page of Palestine news site

October 11, 2019

Facebook on Wednesday deleted the page of the Palestinian Information Center (PIC) in a move, the news site says, which is part of its war on Palestinian content on social media networks.

The site’s management said Facebook provided them with no prior warning before deleting the page, which had nearly five million followers, without any justification.

They called on Facebook to reinstate the page and stop its battle against Palestinian content, saying they have contested the ban.

The Palestinian Information Center has previously been forced to suspend posting on Facebook after the social media giant banned the accounts of some of its directors. Member of management have also seen their accounts deleted and removed.

The blocking of the PIC’s page comes as part of an extensive campaign in recent weeks that included many Palestinian social media platforms.

The Palestinian Information Center was founded in December 1997 in Arabic, as the first Palestinian news site, dedicated to advocating the Palestinian cause and the Arab conflict with the Zionist occupier. It is biased in favor of the rights of the Palestinian people and their sanctities and the legitimate right to resist the occupier by all legitimate and internationally guaranteed means. It is the only Palestinian site that broadcasts its material in eight languages.

Earlier this week, journalists and activists in Palestine launched a social media campaign against Facebook’s censorship of Palestinian content.

Using the hashtag FBblocksPalestine, the drive hopes to bring to light “the threat posed by Facebook against Palestinian content, and to make it public, as well as reveal the double-standard policy of Facebook management in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian incitement on its site,” says Eyad Rifai, head of Sada Social Centre which is running the drive.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191011-facebook-takes-down-page-of-palestine-news-site/.

From Beirut to Hong Kong, protests evoke global frustration

October 26, 2019

BEIRUT (AP) — In Hong Kong, it was a complicated extradition dispute involving a murder suspect. In Beirut, it was a proposed tax on the popular WhatsApp messenger service. In Chile, it was a 4-cent hike in subway fares.

Recent weeks have seen mass protests and clashes erupt in far-flung places triggered by seemingly minor actions that each came to be seen as the final straw. The demonstrations are fueled by local grievances, but reflect worldwide frustration at growing inequality, corrupt elites and broken promises.

Where past waves of protests, like the 2011 Arab Spring or the rallies that accelerated the breakup of the Soviet Union, took aim at dictatorships, the latest demonstrations are rattling elected governments. The unrest on three continents, coupled with the toxic dysfunction in Washington and London, raises fresh concerns over whether the liberal international order, with free elections and free markets, can still deliver on its promises.

THE PEOPLE STILL WANT THE FALL OF THE REGIME

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets after the government floated a new tax on WhatsApp on the heels of an austerity package that came in response to an increasingly severe fiscal crisis.

The protests rapidly escalated into an indictment of the entire post-civil war order , in which a sectarian power-sharing arrangement has transformed former warlords and other elites into a permanent political class. In the three decades since the war ended, the same leaders have used patronage networks to get themselves re-elected again and again even as the government has failed to reliably provide basic services like electricity, water and trash collection.

A similar story has unfolded in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, where a government that distributes power and top offices among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has calcified into a corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries as services and infrastructure fall into further ruin despite the country’s considerable oil wealth.

“Thieves! Thieves!” protesters in both countries chanted this week.

“Massive economic mismanagement coupled with spiraling corruption have pauperized large segments of the Arab people,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “It is no wonder then that millions of Arabs are fed up.”

The protests in both countries target governments that are close to Iran and backed by its heavily armed local allies, raising fears of a violent backlash. Nearly 200 Iraqis have been killed in recent clashes with security forces, and supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group have brawled with protesters in Beirut.

“There is no magical bullet or easy answer to the severe crisis of governance in Arab lands,” Gerges said. “The struggle will be fierce and long and costly, but there is no turning back.”

RISING UP AGAINST A RISING CHINA

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in early June after the semiautonomous city passed an extradition bill that put residents at risk of being sent to China’s judicial system. At one point, protesters said they had brought 2 million people into the streets.

Authorities were forced to drop the extradition proposal , which was triggered by the need to resolve the status of a murder suspect wanted for killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. But by then, the movement had snowballed to include demands for full democracy in the form of direct elections for the city’s top leader.

Since China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the city’s leaders have been selected by an elite committee made up mostly of pro-Beijing tycoons. Local councillors and half of the Asian financial center’s legislature are directly elected, but the other half are chosen by representatives from the finance, tourism, catering, accounting and other industries, which adds to the public discontent over stifled promises of democracy.

Underlying the Hong Kong protest movement are rising fears about China’s tightening grip on the city and worries that Beijing is reneging on promises not to meddle with Hong Kong’s Western-style civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

Protesters also fear China’s technology-powered authoritarianism. Wearing masks to conceal their identities, they have cut down “smart lampposts” and smashed surveillance cameras. They worry about artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition surveillance systems capturing their biometric data and sending it for processing by Chinese technology giants to track and identify them.

UNREST IN WEALTHY, DEMOCRATIC CHILE

On Friday, an estimated 1 million Chileans filled the streets of the capital Santiago, more than ever took to the streets during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet or the democratic governments that came after him.

The protests were sparked by the subway fare hike but soon morphed into a mass movement against inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries. At least 19 people have been killed as protesters have clashed with police in recent days.

Protesters tried to force their way onto the grounds of Chile’s legislature Friday, provoking an evacuation of the building. Police fired tear gas to fend off hundreds of demonstrators on the perimeter as some lawmakers and administrative staff hurried out of the legislative building, which is in the port city of Valparaiso.

Marta Lagos, head of Latinobarometro, a nonprofit survey group in Chile, said the protests have exposed the shortcomings of the country’s political system. “There is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society,” Lagos said.

Struggling to contain the strife, President Sebastián Piñera’s administration announced increases in the minimum wage, raised minimum pensions by 20% and rolled back the subway fare increase.

He put a 9.2% increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year, but with analysts predicting his resignation and fresh elections, the consequences of that move could fall to his successor.

CATALAN PROTESTS TAKE A VIOLENT TURN

For years, Catalan separatists have held peaceful, festive marches, but the movement took a violent turn last week when protests erupted over the imprisonment of nine leaders who led a bid for independence from Spain in 2017.

That failed attempt left the separatist movement rudderless, with 12 of its leaders arrested and most of the rest fleeing the country, including former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.

New activist collectives have emerged in their place, including one calling itself the Tsunami Democratic, which uses its own app and encrypted messages to call for “civil disobedience.”

But one of its first calls to protest, after the Oct. 31 Supreme Court ruling jailing the leaders, turned into a massive siege of Barcelona’s international airport, with rioters clashing with police late into the night.

The group has borrowed some of its tactics and rhetoric from the Hong Kong protesters, and protesters in both places have staged demonstrations in support of one another, though most Hong Kong protesters have been careful not to push for independence from China — one of President Xi Jinping’s “red lines.”

That one movement is struggling against domination by one-party China while the other is rising up against a European democracy is a distinction that has been lost in the tear gas.

Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed.