Archive for November, 2017

Rival US and Russian resolutions defeated on Syria weapons

November 17, 2017

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Rival U.S. and Russian resolutions to extend the mandate of experts trying to determine who was responsible for chemical attacks in Syria were defeated Thursday at a heated Security Council meeting that reflected the deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow.

The result of the two votes means that the expert body — the Joint Investigative Mechanism known as the JIM — will cease operations when its current mandate expires at midnight Thursday. The U.S., its allies and human rights groups called it a serious blow to efforts to hold accountable those responsible for carrying out chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

During a three-hour drama, Russia first vetoed the U.S. draft resolution which was supported by 11 of the 15 Security Council members. Bolivia joined Russia in voting “no” and China and Egypt abstained.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia withdrew the Russian resolution over Moscow’s insistence that it be voted on second not first as required under council rules. But using another council rule, Bolivia then resubmitted and called for a vote on that resolution.

It failed to receive the minimum nine “yes” votes required for adoption. Only Russia, China, Bolivia and Kazakhstan voted in favor while seven council members voted against and four abstained. Japan late Thursday proposed a 30-day extension of the JIM and the Security Council was expected to discuss it on Friday.

At the heart of the dispute was the demand by Russia, Syria’s most important ally, for major changes in the way the JIM operates and the U.S. insistence that the JIM’s current mandate and independence be preserved.

After the votes, the United States and Russia blamed each other for ending the JIM’s operations, both insisting they wanted it to continue. “To my Russian friends, the next chemical weapons attack is on your head,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said. “By not having a JIM, you are basically telling the entire world that chemical weapons are OK to use. That’s what we should be embarrassed about today.”

Russia’s Nebenzia shot back saying: “Today it became absolutely clear we need a robust professional mechanism that will help to prevent the threat of chemical terrorism in the region, and you need a puppet-like structure to manipulate public opinion — which on the basis of false information will time after time accuse the Syrian government of violating international norms.”

Those who voted against the Russian resolution put forward by Bolivia “bear the full brunt of responsibility for the cessation of the operations of the JIM,” Nebenzia said. Russia has been highly critical of the JIM’s findings that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015, and used sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun last April 4 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others who survived the nerve agent.

Syria repeated its denial of using chemical weapons. The JIM has also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas in 2015 adsnd again in September 2016 in Um Hosh in Aleppo. Nebenzia accused the JIM of “fundamental flaws” in blaming President Bashar Assad’s government for the attacks.

He cited its use of “remote working methods” and failure to visit Khan Sheikhoun, “focusing solely on dubious testimony from opposition and even terrorist groups, the disregard for the whole range of rules and methods provided for under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

Haley countered that Russia and its allies “want a JIM that doesn’t have independence.” “They want a JIM that doesn’t have reporting,” she said. “They want a JIM that they can micromanage, or that any member can micromanage.”

Haley noted that this was the 10th veto by Russia to support Syria. “You have to realize when a country is playing games with people’s lives,” she said. “That’s exactly what is happening here. And it’s been happening for 10 times.”

The vote took place against the backdrop of the military and political situation in Syria, where Assad’s forces have gained the upper hand. A new round of U.N.-hosted Syrian peace talks is scheduled to start in Geneva on Nov. 28.

Haley said: “The only thing that today has proved is that Russia cannot be trusted in the political process with Syria.” “Russia will not be a good and trusted actor because they want to control who’s at fault,” she said. “They want to control what happens. They want to control that area because they want to work with Iran and Syria to make sure that they have it all under control.”

Nebenia said Haley “betrayed what was trying to be hidden all the time, but in fact the whole thing was envisaged and invented to show that Russia should not be trusted in the Syrian political process.”

“It’s not coincidental,” he said, “because the political process in Syria is … slowly gaining momentum and Russia is very instrumental in it. And so this is the very opportune moment to tell that Russia should not play the role here.”

Nebenzia said he didn’t think Thursday’s votes would affect the Geneva talks which Russia supports.

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In Syria’s Raqqa, IS makes last stand at city’s stadium

October 17, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces battling the Islamic State group in Syria on Tuesday captured the city hospital in Raqqa, leaving IS militants holed up at the local stadium, their last stand in the fight over what was once the extremists’ de facto capital.

The hospital was one of IS last holdouts in Raqqa and had doubled as a hospital and an IS command center. Its capture left IS militants cornered in and around the notorious municipal stadium. Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital. The fighting was still underway with militants who had refused to surrender, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that a major push by the SDF on the municipal stadium was underway. Clashes are ongoing around the stadium with “a small group” of militants, said a senior Kurdish commander. “We hope it won’t take long. Our aim is to clear the stadium also today.”

He said there is no sign of civilians in the stadium or around it but hat his troops are cautious because they expect IS has laid mines in the fortified stadium building. The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The stadium served as an arms depot, a security headquarters and one of the Islamic State militants’ largest jails in their self-styled caliphate. The U.S.-led coalition said it had not carried out any airstrikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours, starting from noon Sunday.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said with the capture of the hospital, the last black IS flag raised in the city had been taken down. On Monday, the SDF captured Raqqa’s infamous public square where Islamic State militants used to perform brutal executions and beheadings.

Paradise Square became synonymous with the group’s reign of terror. After declaring their self-styled caliphate in 2014, the militants used Raqqa’s central city square to carry out public beheadings and killings, forcing the residents to watch after summoning them with loudspeakers. Bodies and severed heads would linger there for days, mounted on posts. Residents described how the bodies of those executed would be labelled, each with his or her perceived crime, for the public to see.

The square previously known for its famous ice cream shop was quickly renamed from Paradise to Hell Square, Jahim in Arabic. The battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.

The fall of the city would be a huge blow to IS, which has steadily been losing territory in Iraq and Syria. In the campaign, the city suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings leveled and in ruins.

Syrian refugees return to areas liberated from Daesh

October 14, 2017

Syrian refugees in Turkey have started to return to areas liberated from Daesh in the north of their country, Anadolu news agency reported on Friday. The areas were liberated as part of the Euphrates Shield Operation carried out by the Free Syrian Army with Turkish army support. The operation ended in March this year.

According to Anadolu, around 100 Syrian refugees, including women and children, left the refugee camps in Turkey to go back home. The refugees were transported by minibuses owned by the Disaster and Emergency Department run by the office of the Turkish Prime Minister.

Syrian refugee Farouq K told Anadolu that he has spent five years in the refugee camps and decided to go back to the areas liberated from “terror” in Syria. He expressed his thanks to Turkey for its efforts to provide security to parts of his country.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171014-syrian-refugees-return-to-areas-liberated-from-daesh/.

Syria: Local militants evacuate as Raqqa battle nears end

October 14, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition and local officials said Saturday that Syrian Islamic State fighters and civilians will be allowed to evacuate Raqqa, a deal that signals the imminent capture of the city but flouts earlier U.S. protests of negotiating safe exits for the extremist group.

Foreign fighters will be excluded from the evacuation deal, the coalition said. The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the final battle for Raqqa was underway, apparently propelled by negotiation efforts that secured the surrender and evacuation of dozens of Syrian militants still holed up in the city.

In a statement, the U.S.-led coalition said a convoy of vehicles was set to leave Raqqa following the deal brokered by a local council formed by their Kurdish allies and Arab tribal leaders. The tribal leaders said they appealed to the coalition and the SDF to allow the evacuation of local Islamic State fighters to stem further violence.

“Because our aim is liberation not killing, we appealed to the SDF to arrange for the local fighters and secure their exit to outside of the city, with our guarantees,” the tribal leaders said in a statement.

It was not clear how many evacuees there were or where they would go, but the tribesmen said their evacuation would save the lives of civilians who the extremist fighters have used as human shields. Last week, there was an estimated 4,000 civilians still in the city.

With the push to liberate the Arab-majority Raqqa led by Kurdish-dominated forces, local officials fear a backlash once the city falls. The initiative appeared to be an attempt by local leaders to stem such tension.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the talks were bogged down over the fate of the foreign fighters there, which according to a local Kurdish commander include French, Russian, Azeri, Indonesian and Turkish combatants.

The U.S.-led coalition said it “was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the Coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqah with less risk of civilian casualties.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for IS.

The evacuation deal places the U.S. in a bind as it had earlier said that only surrender, not a negotiated withdrawal for IS fighters in Raqqa, would be accepted. The top U.S. envoy for the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, had previously stated that foreign fighters in Raqqa would die in the city. Omar Alloush, a senior member of the Raqqa Civil Council, said Friday around 100 militants had surrendered.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters travelling with him Friday that the U.S. would accept the surrender of IS militants who would be interrogated for intelligence purposes. “Right now, as the bottom drops out from underneath (IS), more and more of them are either surrendering — some are trying to surrender, and some amongst them — more fanatical ones aren’t allowing them to,” he said, using a different acronym for the extremist group.

Only weeks ago, the U.S. coalition obstructed a Hezbollah-negotiated deal to evacuate IS fighters from its borders with Syria toward the border with Iraq. The coalition bombed the road used by the convoy evacuating the militants, only to finally capitulate following Russian calls asking it to allow Syrian troops in the area to advance.

It is also not clear what kind of justice would be meted out to those surrendering militants in the absence of established courts in Kurdish-dominated northern Syria. A senior local Kurdish commander said foreign fighters were unlikely to surrender so his forces are expecting to “comb them out” of at least two neighborhoods. He said it could be a matter of a day or two.

Scores of civilians were seen in a video Friday leaving Raqqa in desperate and terrified conditions. They emerged from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrived at a Kurdish-held area of the city, in haunting scenes reflecting their years-long ordeals.

The U.S.-led coalition said it expects “difficult fighting” in the days ahead to completely oust IS from the city and secure it. SDF and U.S. officials said the remaining militants are mostly suicide bombers who only have small arms and rifles. Backed into a small area, they have no access to their weapon of choice, car bombs, said Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman.

Also Saturday, the Syrian and Russian militaries announced that Syrian troops and allied fighters had seized the town of Mayadeen, an Islamic State stronghold in the country’s east. The Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Syrian soldiers had driven IS fighters from the town, which he said was the extremist group’s last major stronghold in eastern Syria.

Over the past months, Mayadeen had become a refuge for IS’s leaders as they faced an intense crackdown in Syria and Iraq. On the western bank of the Euphrates River, Mayadeen was also a major node in the race for control of the oil-rich eastern Deir el-Zour province that straddles the border with Iraq. Washington has feared advances by Syrian troops and allied fighters could help Iran expand its influence across the region and establish a “Shiite corridor” of land links from Iraq to Lebanon, and all the way to Israel. Iran backs militias fighting alongside the Syrian military.

Diverting fighters from the battle for Raqqa, the U.S.-backed SDF made a bid for the province to secure territories there, focusing on securing the Iraq border, still mostly controlled by IS. The Syrian government eyed Mayadeen earlier this month, fearing the SDF would get there first. The race accelerated amid fear of potential confrontations as Syrian troops crossed the Euphrates river to reach the oil-rich eastern banks.

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Observatory, confirmed that government troops, backed by Shiite militias, had taken control of Mayadeen but said they were still combing it for militants. With the fall of Mayadeen and retaking of Raqqa, Islamic State fighters are losing two of their last strongholds in Syria as their self-declared caliphate crumbles. The militants are currently besieged in the city of Deir el-Zour, leaving them with one last major urban bastion, the strategic town of Boukamal, on the border with Syria and Iraq.

Militants seized Raqqa in 2014, the first city to fall under the full control of the extremist group, and declared it the caliphate of their self-styled caliphate. It became synonymous with IS’s reign of terror, with public killings and beheadings — videotaped slayings that have shocked the world. It was also from Raqqa, which became a destination for foreign fighters from around the world, that many of IS’s attacks in the West were plotted.

The latest battle for Raqqa began in June, with heavy street-by-street fighting amid intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and shelling. The battle has dragged on in the face of stiff resistance from the militants.

Local official: 100 IS fighters surrender in Syria’s Raqqa

October 13, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Some 100 fighters from the Islamic State group handed themselves over to U.S.-backed fighters in the northern city of Raqqa Friday as fighting continued with remaining gunmen in a pocket inside the city.

Omar Alloush of the Raqqa Civilian Council did not give details how the 100 fighters surrendered but said fighting is still ongoing in parts of the city that was once the de facto capital of IS. U.S.-backed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been on the offensive in Raqqa since early June and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

IS still controls the city’s stadium that is believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small part of northern Raqqa. “There are still fighters but the area they control is getting smaller,” said Mohammed Khedher of Sound and Picture Organization, which tracks atrocities by IS in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier Friday, scores of civilians including women and children fled the last few remaining neighborhoods held by the IS in Raqqa, ahead of an anticipated final push by U.S.-backed fighters seeking to retake the city.

A new video that emerged Friday shows desperate, terrified residents emerging from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrive. They seemed to be taking advantage of a slowdown in the fighting and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition amid efforts to ensure the safe evacuation of an estimated 4,000 civilians who remain trapped in the city.

The coalition has said that IS militants are holding some civilians to use as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly damaged by the fighting, and activists have reported that over 1,000 civilians have been killed there since June.

The video released by the Turkey-based Kurdish Mezopotamya Medya on Friday showed clearly petrified residents running toward safety, some clutching babies or wounded people. “This is my husband, we are civilians!” one woman cried, fearing that fighters from the U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces would take him away. Some of the arriving men were searched before being allowed in while others kissed the ground in relief.

“God is stronger than them (IS),” shouted another woman, clutching what appeared to be a large Quran in her hand. Another elderly man hobbled out on crutches, begging for water. After drinking from a bottle handed to him, he collapsed on the ground in exhaustion.

Gunfire could be heard in the background. SDF fighters have been on the offensive in Raqqa since June 5 and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city that was the de facto capital of IS. IS still controls the city’s stadium believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small area north of Raqqa.

Palestinian Authority takes over Egypt border crossing

2017-11-01

RAFAH – Hamas handed over control of the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday, an AFP journalist said, in a first key test of a Palestinian reconciliation accord agreed last month.

Nazmi Muhanna, the Palestinian Authority’s top official for border crossings, formally received control of the Rafah crossing with Egypt from his Hamas counterpart.

At a separate checkpoint with Israel, an AFP photographer also saw Hamas installations being dismantled.

At the Rafah crossing, Palestinian and Egyptian flags were flying, with large pictures of Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Hisham Adwan, director of information at the Hamas crossings authority, said that Palestinian Authority employees would resume full control of the border.

Under the Egyptian-brokered deal, the Palestinian Authority is due to take full control of Gaza by December 1.

The checkpoints had been due to be handed over by November 1 and were seen as a first key test of the strength of the reconciliation agreement.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007 when the Islamists seized control in a near civil war with Abbas’s Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank.

A number of issues, including the future of Hamas’ vast military wing, remain uncertain.

Multiple previous reconciliation agreements have collapsed.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85704.

Hariri’s exit sparks fears of fresh war in Lebanon

2017-11-05

BEIRUT – Saad Hariri’s resignation from Lebanon’s premiership has raised fears that regional tensions were about to escalate and that the small country would once again pay a heavy price.

Analysts said the Saudi-backed Sunni politician’s move on Saturday to step down from the helm less than a year after forming a government was more than just the latest hiccup in Lebanon’s notoriously dysfunctional politics.

“It’s a dangerous decision whose consequences will be heavier than what Lebanon can bear,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said.

Hariri announced his resignation in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia, accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilizing the entire region.

Hezbollah is part of the government, but the clout of a group whose military arsenal outstrips that of Lebanon’s own armed forces is far greater than its share of cabinet posts.

For years now, Lebanon has been deeply divided between a camp dominated by the Shiite Tehran-backed Hezbollah and a Saudi-supported movement led by Hariri.

“Hariri has started a cold war that could escalate into a civil war, bearing in mind that Hezbollah is unmatched in Lebanon on the military level,” Khashan said.

The rift in Lebanon’s political class led to the assassination in 2005 of Hariri’s father Rafik, an immensely influential tycoon who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia.

– Iran-Saudi flare-up –

Investigations pointed to the responsibility of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Other political assassinations in the anti-Hezbollah camp ensued, then a month-long war between the powerful militia and neighboring Israel, as well as violent internal clashes that harked back to the dark days of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Twelve years on, Lebanese politics remain just as toxically sectarian and the threat of another flare-up very real. Hariri even said on Saturday he feared going the way of his father.

His resignation came in a context of high tension between Saudi Arabia, once the region’s powerhouse, and Iran, which has played an increasingly prominent political and military role in the region recently.

On Friday, Hariri met Iran’s most seasoned diplomat, Ali Akbar Velayati, before flying to Saudi Arabia and resigning from there via a Saudi-funded television network.

“The timing and venue of the resignation are surprising… but not the resignation itself,” said Fadia Kiwane, political science professor at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University.

“The situation is developing rapidly and we’re at a turning point… there could be a deadly clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” she said.

“In that event, the two main camps in Lebanon will clash too.”

Over the past few weeks, a Saudi minister, Thamer al-Sabhan, has unleashed virulent attacks against Hezbollah on social media.

– New war with Israel? –

“The terrorist party should be punished… and confronted by force,” he wrote last month.

Other than just an internal conflict, analysts also do not rule out an external attack on Hezbollah, be it by Saudi Arabia directly or by the Shiite militia’s arch-foe Israel.

“Hariri is saying ‘there is no government any more, Hezbollah is not part of it’… and he is thus legitimizing any military strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Khashan said.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in 2006, and Israeli politicians have ramped up the rhetoric lately, warning that its military was prepared for war with Lebanon.

Any new war damaging key infrastructure would have a disastrous impact on a country already weakened by ballooning debt, corruption and the demographic pressure from a massive influx of Syrian refugees.

As soon as the news of Hariri’s resignation broke, many Lebanese took to social media to voice their fears of a return to violence.

“After Hariri’s resignation, a war will be launched against Lebanon,” wrote one of them, Ali Hammoud, on Twitter.

On the streets of Beirut, even those who had little sympathy for Hariri expressed concern.

“We’re headed for the worst,” said one shop owner.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85776.

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