Archive for May, 2015

APNewsBreak: Turkey, Saudi in pact to help anti-Assad rebels

May 08, 2015

ISTANBUL (AP) — Casting aside U.S. concerns about aiding extremist groups, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have converged on an aggressive new strategy to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The two countries — one a democracy, the other a conservative kingdom — have for years been at odds over how to deal with Assad, their common enemy. But mutual frustration with what they consider American indecision has brought the two together in a strategic alliance that is driving recent rebel gains in northern Syria, and has helped strengthen a new coalition of anti-Assad insurgents, Turkish officials say.

That is provoking concern in the United States, which does not want rebel groups, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, uniting to topple Assad. The Obama administration worries that the revived rebel alliance could potentially put a more dangerous radical Islamist regime in Assad’s place, just as the U.S. is focused on bringing down the Islamic State group. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said the administration is concerned that the new alliance is helping Nusra gain territory in Syria.

The coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia reflects renewed urgency and impatience with the Obama administration’s policy in the region. Saudi Arabia previously kept its distance and funding from some anti-Assad Islamist groups at Washington’s urging, according to Turkish officials. Saudi Arabia and Turkey also differed about the role of the international Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the Syrian opposition. Turkey supports the group, while the Saudi monarchy considers it a threat to its rule at home; that has translated into differences on the ground — until recently.

“The key is that the Saudis are no longer working against the opposition,” a Turkish official said. He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Turkish officials say the Obama administration has disengaged from Syria as it focuses on rapprochement with Iran. While the U.S. administration is focused on degrading the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, they say it has no coherent strategy for ending the rule of Assad, Iran’s key ally in the region.

The new Turkish and Saudi push suggests that they view Assad as a bigger threat to the region than groups like Nusra. Turkish officials discount the possibility that Nusra will ever be in a position to hold sway over much of Syria.

Under Turkish and Saudi patronage, the rebel advance has undermined a sense that the Assad government is winning the civil war — and demonstrated how the new alliance can yield immediate results. The pact was sealed in early March when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Riyadh to meet Saudi’s recently crowned King Salman. Relations had been tense between Erdogan and the late King Abdullah, in great part over Erdogan’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudi shift appears to be part of broader proxy war against Iran that includes Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The new partnership adds Saudi money to Turkey’s logistical support.

“It’s a different world now in Syria, because the Saudi pocketbook has opened and the Americans can’t tell them not to do it,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s quite clear that Salman has prioritized efforts against Iran over those against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Turkish-Saudi agreement has led to a new joint command center in the northeastern Syrian province of Idlib. There, a coalition of groups — including Nusra and other Islamist brigades such as Ahrar al-Sham that Washington views as extremist — are progressively eroding Assad’s front. The rebel coalition also includes more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army that have received U.S. support in the past.

At the end of March, the alliance — calling itself “Conquest Army” — took the city of Idlib, followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour and then a government military base. “They have really learned to fight together,” the Turkish official said.

Turkish officials say that Turkey provides logistical and intelligence support to some members of the coalition, but has no interaction with Nusra — which it considers a terrorist group. But the difference with IS, the officials say, is that Turkey does not view Nusra as a security threat and therefore does not impede it.

The Turkish official who touted the Conquest Army’s ability to fight cohesively said, however, that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have moved to bolster Ahrar al-Sham at Nusra’s expense. This strays from the U.S. line that al-Sham is an extremist group, but Turkish officials say they distinguish between international jihadist groups and others with more localized aims. They place al-Sham in the latter category.

Moreover, they hope to use al-Sham’s rise to put pressure on Nusra to renounce its ties to al-Qaida and open itself to outside help. Turkish officials say that the U.S. has no strategy for stabilizing Syria. One Turkish official said that the CIA has even lately halted its support for anti-Assad groups in northern Iraq. U.S. trainers are now in Turkey on a train-and-equip program aimed at adding fighters to counter the Islamic State group and bolster moderate forces in Syria, but Turkish officials are skeptical that it will amount to much.

Usama Abu Zeid, a legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army, confirmed that the new coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia — as well as Qatar — had facilitated the rebel advance, but said that it not yet led to a new flow of arms. He said rather that the fighters had seized large caches of arms from Syrian government facilities.

So far, Abu Zeid said, the new understanding between the militia groups and their international partners has led to quick success. “We were able to cause a lot of damage and capture more territory from the regime,” he said.

But Landis said that it is a dangerous game — especially for Turkey. “The cautionary tale is that every power in the Middle East has tried to harness the power of Islamists to their own ends,” he said, noting that Assad’s government also backed Islamists in Iraq who later turned their guns on him. “It always seems to blow back.”

Syrian insurgents seize last military base in Idlib province

May 19, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Insurgents in Syria captured the last military base and several small villages in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, marking the latest collapse of government troops in the region now almost entirely in opposition hands, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said factions — including al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham — captured Mastoumeh base after days of fighting. It said government forces left the base and withdrew to the nearby town of Ariha.

The Local Coordination Committees said the Islamic militants targeted the government forces as they were retreating, heading toward Ariha. In an implicit acknowledgement of defeat, state-run Syrian TV said army units in Mastoumeh base were moving to reinforce defenses in Ariha further south. Ariha is one of the last government holdouts to remain in Idlib.

Government troops withdrew from the provincial capital of Idlib after it fell to opposition fighters in March, followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour and Qarmeed military base days later. The Idlib offensive is being led by a unified command known as Jaysh al-Fateh, or Conquest Army, and aided by a new strategic alliance between Turkey and Saudi Arabia to strengthen insurgents fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

Assad recently acknowledged what he said were recent military “setbacks,” in the war against insurgents trying to topple him, promising a comeback by his troops in northern Syria. His forces are also engaged in heavy fighting with Islamic State group militants trying to advance toward government-held areas in the central town of Palmyra, an ancient heritage site.

Meanwhile, Assad received support on Tuesday from his top ally, Iran. State-run news agency SANA said Iran is extending a credit line to make up for market needs and reported that the two countries have signed several agreements in the fields of electricity, industry, oil and investment.

The new credit was announced during a visit to Damascus by Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran is believed to have supplied his government with billions of dollars since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Tehran extended a $1 billion credit line to Syria to help support the local currency in June 2013.

The new credit — it was not clear how much — comes as the Syrian pound’s depreciation has accelerated. Velayati, who met with Assad on Tuesday, promised continued Iranian support for Syria with everything necessary to boost the Syrian people’s “resistance in defending their homeland and confronting terrorism” and its sponsors. Assad’s government refers to those trying to topple him as “terrorists.”

Turkey’s head of Religious Affairs vows to rebuild all destroyed mosques in Gaza

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Israel has violated human rights of Palestinians and used internationally banned weapons against civilians in Gaza, Turkey’s head of religious affairs said Sunday.

Mehmet Gormez, president of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, made the remarks during his first trip to the Gaza Strip Sunday. Gormez is in the coastal enclave on the invitation of Palestinian Minister of Religious Affairs Yusuf Ismail al-Sheikh.

Referring to Israeli government’s eight-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, Gormez said that the people of Gaza had free minds and free hearts despite the daily horrors they faced.

He said that the Israeli army had used internationally banned weapons in its anti-Palestinian deadly operations in the Gaza Strip. “Israel used internationally banned weapons and violated religious and human rights [of Palestinians]. Israel must be prosecuted,” he added.

During his visit, Gormez vowed to support the rebuilding of all the mosques destroyed during Operation ‘Protective Edge’.

Gormez also met with Ismail Haniyeh, deputy chairman of the Hamas political bureau, in Gaza. Haniyeh praised Turkey’s assistance to Palestinians, which he said was an indication of the “reliable and sacred” bond between the two sides.

“Gaza in particular and Palestine in general praises Turkey’s support in all domains…We will never forget the Turkish That blood was spilled on the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla in a bid to break the siege on the Gaza Strip” the senior Hamas leader said.

On July 8, 2014, Israel launched its “Operation Protective Edge” offensive in the Gaza Strip that left more than 2,000 people, most of them civilians, dead. The Israeli bombardment had also left around 11,855 housing units destroyed or severely damaged, and at least 425,000 people were displaced, according to an August 2014 UN report.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/18723-turkeys-head-of-religious-affairs-vows-to-rebuild-all-destroyed-mosques-in-gaza.

Vatican recognizes state of Palestine in new treaty

May 13, 2015

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican officially recognized the state of Palestine in a new treaty finalized Wednesday, immediately sparking Israeli ire and accusations that the move hurt peace prospects.

The treaty, which concerns the activities of the Catholic Church in Palestinian territory, is both deeply symbolic and makes explicit that the Holy See has switched its diplomatic recognition from the Palestine Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine.

The Vatican had welcomed the decision by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 to recognize a Palestinian state and had referred to the Palestine state since. But the treaty is the first legal document negotiated between the Holy See and the Palestinian state, giving the Vatican’s former signs of recognition an unambiguous confirmation in a formal, bilateral treaty.

“Yes, it’s a recognition that the state exists,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was “disappointed.” “This move does not promote the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations,” the ministry said in a text message.

The United States and Israel oppose recognition, arguing that it undermines U.S.-led efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian deal on the terms of Palestinian statehood. Most countries in Western Europe have held off on recognition, but some have hinted that their position could change if peace efforts remain deadlocked.

The treaty was finalized days before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits Pope Francis at the Vatican. Abbas is heading to Rome to attend Francis’ canonization Sunday of two new saints from the Holy Land.

“This is a very important recognition as the Vatican has a very important political status that stems from its spiritual status,” said Abbas’ senior aide, Nabil Shaath. “We expect more EU countries to follow.”

The Vatican has been referring unofficially to the state of Palestine since 2012. During Pope Francis’ 2014 visit to the Holy Land, the Vatican’s official program referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine.”

The Vatican’s foreign minister, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, acknowledged the change in status, but said the shift was simply in line with the Holy See’s position. The Holy See clearly tried to underplay the development, suggesting that its 2012 press statement welcoming the U.N. vote constituted its first official recognition. Nowhere in that statement does the Vatican say it recognizes the state of Palestine, and the Holy See couldn’t vote for the U.N. resolution because it doesn’t have voting rights at the General Assembly.

The Vatican’s efforts to downplay the move seemed justified given the swift condemnation of the development by Israeli groups: The American Jewish Committee said it was “counterproductive to all who seek true peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” The Anti-Defamation League said it was “premature.”

“We appreciate that the Vatican’s basic intention is to promote Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, but believe that this diplomatic recognition will be unhelpful to that end,” the ADL’s Abraham Foxman said.

The 2012 U.N. vote recognized Palestine as a non-member observer state, made up of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians celebrated the vote as a milestone in their quest for international recognition. Most countries in Africa, Asia and South America have individually recognized Palestine. In Western Europe, Sweden took the step last year, while several parliaments have approved non-binding motions urging recognition.

This isn’t the first time that the Vatican under Francis has taken diplomatic moves knowing that it would please some quarters and ruffle feathers elsewhere: Just last month, he referred to the slaughter of Armenians by Turkish Ottomans a century ago as a “genocide,” prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador.

AP writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed.

Hamas fires back at Abbas, says ready for elections

Sunday, 03 May 2015

Palestinian resistance faction Hamas on Sunday said it is ready to compete in the parliamentary and presidential elections and accused President Mahmoud Abbas of hampering its conduct.

In a Sunday statement, the resistance faction declared its readiness to compete in Palestinian elections and accused Abbas of stalling its procedures.

Hamas said that Abbas is not serious about conducting the elections, as he hasn’t issued a presidential decree setting a date for the polls.

The movement also condemned Abbas for demanding a written request from Hamas to hold elections, saying that the demand serves to “deepen the [Palestinian] divide” and avoid implementing the outcome of the reconciliation agreements.

On Saturday, former US President Jimmy Carter said that Abbas would hold presidential and legislative elections once he receives a written request in this regard from Hamas.

Rival Palestinian factions Fatah, which leader is Abbas himself, and Hamas signed a reconciliation deal in April of last year that called for the formation of a national unity government.

The government was formed last summer, but it has yet to assume full control of the Gaza Strip, which has been suffering under an all-out Israeli blockade since 2007.

The blockade has deprived 1.9 million residents in the coastal territory of almost all basic needs.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/18412-hamas-fires-back-at-abbas-says-ready-for-elections.

Hamas calls for new strategy to protect Aqsa Mosque

Sunday, 03 May 2015

Palestinian faction Hamas on Saturday called for devising an Arab-Palestinian strategy for the protection of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israeli authorities are trying to impose a new fait accompli by allowing Israeli settlers to repeatedly force their way into Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, Hamas said in a statement.

Israel is trying to exploit the Arab world’s preoccupation with its domestic problems to divide up Al-Aqsa Mosque complex and continue with its “Judaisation,” Hamas said

The Palestinian faction went on to reiterate that Al-Aqsa Mosque was at the heart of the conflict between the Arabs and Israel and that the responsibility of defending it fell on the shoulders of Palestinian resistance factions.

In a Saturday report by Himma News – a media group focused on Jerusalem news and Al-Aqsa Mosque in particular – said that some 1,300 Israeli settlers have barged into Al-Aqsa Mosque complex throughout April.

In recent months, groups of extremist Jewish settlers – often accompanied by Israeli security forces – have repeatedly forced their way into the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex.

The frequent violations anger Palestinian Muslims and occasionally lead to violent confrontations.

For Muslims, Al-Aqsa represents the world’s third holiest site. Jews, for their part, refer to the area as the “Temple Mount,” claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East War.

It annexed the entire city in 1980, claiming it as the capital of the self-proclaimed Jewish state – a move never recognized by the international community.

In September 2000, a visit to Al-Aqsa by controversial Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked what later became known as the “Second Intifada,” a popular uprising against Israel’s decades-long occupation in which thousands of Palestinians were killed.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/18403-hamas-calls-for-new-strategy-to-protect-aqsa-mosque.

Israel’s Netanyahu completes formation of government

May 07, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completed the formation of a new coalition late Wednesday, putting him at the helm of a hard-line government that appears to be set on a collision course with the U.S. and other key allies.

Netanyahu reached a deal with the nationalist Jewish Home party shortly before a midnight deadline, clinching a slim parliamentary majority and averting an embarrassing scenario that would have forced him from office. But with a government dominated by hard-liners that support increased West Bank settlement construction and oppose peace moves with the Palestinians, he could have a hard time rallying international support. Controlling just 61 of 120 parliamentary seats, the narrow coalition could also struggle to press forward with a domestic agenda.

After Netanyahu’s Likud Party won March 17 elections with 30 seats, it seemed he would have a relatively easy time forming a coalition and serving a fourth term as prime minister. But the six-week negotiating process, which expired at midnight, turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated as rival coalition partners and members of the Likud jockeyed for influential Cabinet ministries.

“I am sure that nobody is surprised that the negotiations continued with all the factions and nobody is surprised it ended at the time it did,” Netanyahu said late Wednesday. He vowed to install “a strong and stable government for the people of Israel” by next week, yet also hinted he would court additional partners in the near future.

“Sixty-one is a good number, and 61-plus is an even better number,” he said. “But it starts at 61 and we will begin. We have a lot of work ahead of us.” The coalition talks stalled this week when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a longtime partner of Netanyahu’s, unexpectedly stepped down and announced his secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party was joining the opposition.

That left Netanyahu dependent on Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, a former aide who has a rocky relationship with Netanyahu. With Bennett driving a hard bargain, the talks stretched throughout the day and well into the night before Netanyahu called President Reuven Rivlin, as required by law, to announce the deal.

“I congratulate you on completing the formation of the government. I have received your letter of confirmation, and look forward to the convening of the Knesset as soon as possible, to approve the government,” Rivlin said.

Netanyahu had until midnight to speak to Rivlin. Otherwise, the president would have been required to ask another politician to try to form a government. Analysts do not expect the new government to last long or accomplish much.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the centrist Zionist Union, called the coalition “a national failure government.” He said it was “an embarrassing farce” and “the narrowest in Israel’s history.”

During the campaign, Netanyahu angered the White House when he said that he would not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch. Although he has tried to backtrack, the White House has reacted with skepticism. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is dominated by hard-liners opposed to Palestinian independence, a position that is shared by the Jewish Home. The odds of peace talks restarting — much less making any progress — appear slim.

The Jewish Home’s close ties with the settler movement mean that there will likely be great pressure on the new government to expand construction on occupied lands. The international community overwhelmingly opposes settlement construction, and the Palestinians are trying to push forward with a war crimes case against the settlements at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. U.S. officials have said they could have a hard time defending Israeli policies if the government isn’t committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The new government could also struggle at home. Under the coalition deal, the Jewish Home gained control of the influential Education and Justice Ministries. The incoming justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, is an outspoken critic of the country’s judiciary and is expected to seek a greater voice in the appointment of judges.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are bent on reversing reforms passed by the last government. Those reforms sought to end an unpopular system that granted the ultra-Orthodox exemptions from compulsory military service, welfare subsidies to study full-time instead of entering the work force and generous budgets for a religious school system that largely ignores key subjects like math, English and computer studies.

These longstanding benefits have bred widespread resentment among the secular majority. Wiping out the reforms is likely to generate renewed public anger. Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party spearheaded the outgoing government’s reforms, said there was little to celebrate Wednesday night.

“A narrow, suspicious and sectoral government is on its way,” he said, vowing to “do everything” to stop “the clearance sale of the country” to parties with narrow interests. Netanyahu’s last partner, Kulanu, is a centrist party focused on bringing relief to Israel’s struggling middle class. Although in control of the Finance Ministry, the party could struggle passing reforms due to the slim parliamentary majority.

Ian Deitch contributed to this report.