Archive for February, 2018

Aid groups: 8,500 Syrians still held in Jordanian no-go camp

January 30, 2018

AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (AP) — International aid groups say about 8,500 Syrians are still locked up behind barbed wire in a no-go section of Jordan’s second-largest refugee camp, despite initial assurances in 2016 the arrangement is temporary.

The Jordan INGO Forum, an alliance of 60 groups, asked Jordan to expedite security screenings of those held in Azraq camp’s “Village 5,” saying that at the current pace this would take until October 2020.

The alliance asked Jordan in a recent report to lift movement restrictions on Syrians in camps. Coordinator Yannick Martin said on Tuesday that Jordan has done much to host Syrian refugees, but that “a frank dialogue needs to take place” on movement restrictions.

Jordan says its security is paramount, that it shoulders a heavy refugee burden and that its security vetting is exemplary.

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Syria opposition to boycott Russian peace talks

2018-01-27

VIENNA – Syria’s main opposition group on Friday said it would boycott Russian peace talks next week in a major blow to Moscow’s diplomatic efforts towards resolving the brutal seven-year conflict.

“Russia has not succeeded in promoting its conference,” the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) said on its Twitter account.

“The SNC has decided not to participate at Sochi after marathon negotiations with the UN and representatives of countries involved in Syria.”

Dozens of rebel groups had already refused to join the talks in the Black Sea resort next Monday and Tuesday organised by the Syrian regime’s powerful ally Moscow, and the question of whether the main opposition would attend has overshadowed two days of separate UN-backed peace talks in Vienna.

Those talks stretched late into Friday night, with both regime officials and the SNC meeting separately with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura — who did not strike an especially optimistic tone after the grueling negotiations.

As with eight previous rounds of failed UN-backed talks in Geneva, there was no sign that the warring sides had met face to face at discussions intended to lay the groundwork for a new post-war constitution.

De Mistura, speaking to reporters early Saturday, admitted there had been a disheartening lack of progress up until now in finding a solution for a war that has killed more than 340,000 people.

“I share the immense frustration of millions of Syrians inside and outside the country at the lack of a political settlement to date,” he said.

– Russian ambitions –

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has decided to send his envoy Staffan de Mistura to the Sochi conference next week, a UN spokesman said Saturday, despite the opposition boycott.

Russia had long sought UN participation in the Sochi conference aimed at advancing toward an end to the six-year war in Syria.

Guterres “is confident that the congress in Sochi will be an important contribution” to reviving the peace talks held under UN auspices in Geneva, said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

The UN spokesman indicated that Guterres had received assurances that the Sochi conference would not seek to sideline the UN talks.

Guterres was briefed by De Mistura on the outcome of the Vienna talks and has taken into account a statement from Russia that the result of the Sochi conference “would be brought to Geneva as a contribution to the intra-Syrian talks process under the auspices of the United Nations,” the spokesman said in a statement.

The UN chief has “decided to accept the invitation of the Russian Federation to send a representative to attend the Sochi Congress” and has asked De Mistura to go, he added.

De Mistura earlier stressed the legitimacy of the UN-led talks over Russia’s parallel peace push, however, saying firmly that a political transition for Syria “is to be reached in the UN-led Geneva process”.

“I hope that the forthcoming Syrian national dialogue congress in Sochi will contribute to a revived and credible intra-Syrian process under the UN in Geneva,” he added.

Ahead of an SNC press conference on Saturday morning there was little detail about why the opposition had ultimately decided to boycott Sochi, though spokesman Yahya al-Aridi earlier described the talks in Vienna as “tough”.

Western powers have viewed the Russian peace initiative — which is also backed by Turkey and Iran — with suspicion, worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine the UN-backed talks with an ultimate view to carving out a settlement that strengthens its ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

– ‘Black comedy’ –

Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at Chatham House think-tank, said Russia’s long-term strategic interests were at play in Sochi.

“They want to present themselves as peace brokers, not only in Syria but in the Middle East in general, a role traditionally carried out by the Americans,” Haid said.

“For the Russians to take this role, they have to do what the Americans were not able to do” — find a solution in Syria, he said.

The Vienna talks were also marked by anger from the regime over a leaked set of political proposals from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain and France that would involve strengthening the role of Syria’s prime minister — at the expense of Assad’s authority.

Top government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters it was “tantamount to a black comedy” that these countries were seeking to shape Syria’s political future, as Arabic and English versions of the document circulated online.

“All of them have participated in the bloodshed of the Syrian people,” he said of the five nations, blasting the US as the country “that created ISIS” and adding that Saudi Arabia was anything but a “beacon of freedom in the east”.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86959.

Erdogan threatens to expand north Syria offensive

2018-01-26

ANKARA – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday threatened to expand Turkey’s offensive in Syria against a Kurdish militia, despite rising concern and calls for restraint from the US and other Western allies.

In the seventh day of the operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, Erdogan vowed to “clean up” the Syrian city of Manbij.

The United States has raised concerns over the deadly offensive, and analysts say direct military conflict between the two NATO powers is possible since the US has a military presence in Manbij.

Turkey launched operation “Olive Branch” against the YPG on Saturday, supporting Syrian rebels with ground troops, air strikes and artillery fire.

While the YPG is still working closely with Washington against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Ankara views the YPG as a terror organisation allied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Turkey.

The PKK is blacklisted by Ankara and its Western allies as a terror outfit.

Erdogan vowed in a speech in Ankara that Turkey would “continue our fight until there is no terrorist on our border”, but did not elaborate.

He said the operation would last until “we reach our goals,” adding: “Afterwards we will, as promised, clean up Manbij of terrorists.”

But Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday insisted Turkey was not intending to occupy Afrin and would return the region to its “real” owners.

– US ties ‘teetering on brink’ –

Tensions between Ankara and Washington are already high but the offensive has added further strain to their relationship. The two sides disagreed about the content of telephone talks between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

Washington said Trump had urged Turkey to “limit its military actions” but a Turkish official said the US statement did “not accurately reflect the content” of the call.

Erdogan criticized Turkey’s allies, including the United States, which he said called for the operation to be “short” and “limited” in scope, referring to previous interventions.

“How long has Afghanistan lasted? Nearly 20 years. How long has it (the conflict) lasted in Iraq? Nearly 18 years!” he thundered.

Washington has more than 2,000 special forces and support troops inside Syria, mainly east of the Euphrates in an area also controlled by the YPG but separate from Afrin, which is west of the river.

According to Anthony Skinner, director of MENA at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, “direct military conflict” between Turkish and US forces is possible because of Erdogan’s threats to expand the campaign to Manbij.

“Turkish-US relations are teetering on the brink of a precipice,” Skinner added.

The European Union has also expressed concern over the Turkish intervention in Syria, which is further complicating the war that has claimed more than 340,000 lives since 2011.

– ‘Nothing is left’ –

Turkey continued shelling YPG positions in Afrin on Friday, state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

Speaking to AFP in the Syrian town of Azaz held by pro-Ankara fighters, Syrian rebel Ali Yassin said the goal was “to cleanse this region of terrorists”, adding: “We do not want terrorists in our country.”

Erdogan said “343 terrorists have been neutralized” during the operation so far. It was not possible to independently verify the toll.

Three Turkish soldiers have been killed since the start of the offensive, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said 58 Ankara-backed Syrian rebels and 53 US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and YPG fighters had been killed.

The SDF is an umbrella grouping composed mainly of YPG fighters.

The Observatory has said 38 civilians have been killed mainly as a result of Turkish shelling but Ankara strongly rejects such claims, saying it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.

Thousands of people have reportedly fled the Afrin region’s border towns, many of them to Afrin city, after fleeing Turkish artillery fire.

“The shells hit every neighborhood, they hit the generators and the bakery. Nothing is left,” Merhi Hassan said, after fleeing his native Jandairis, a border town.

– Afrin urges Syria to intervene –

Afrin’s executive council on Thursday called on Syria to intervene to stop Turkish planes.

Syrian Kurdish groups, long marginalized in Syria, took advantage of the withdrawal of regime forces from the north at the beginning of the conflict to assert their autonomy from 2012.

Kurdish fighters and government troops have largely stayed away from each other since then, albeit with short-lived clashes in the cities of Hasakeh and Qamishli.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86951.

Fearing backlash, Fatah postpones visit to Gaza

February 15, 2018

Fatah has postponed an expected visit by a senior delegation to the Gaza Strip until further notice, sources told the Palestinian newspaper yesterday.

The sources said that the visit was called off by Fatah Central Committee. The delegation had intended to hold meetings with Palestinian factions in Gaza.

Sources believe the visit was postponed to avoid officials being blamed for the failure of reconciliation efforts.

Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement in October last year which saw the Palestinian Authority taking control of ministries and border crossings in the besieged Gaza Strip.

However many have accused the PA of failing to fulfill its part of the deal as salaries of civil servants have remained unpaid, the electricity crisis has not been resolved and borders continue to be closed.

Cleaning staff at medical centers in Gaza went on strike earlier this week demanding their outstanding wages be paid. Workers say they have not been paid for five months. Hospitals in the Strip have been forced to scale back their work as a result of the walkout with the Ministry of Health saying 500 surgeries have been postponed.

Fatah member Fraih Abu Middain said yesterday that President Mahmoud Abbas told him that “Gaza is going to starve until it bows down. Hamas must handover government, money and weapons in order to achieve the reconciliation.”

International aid groups have repeatedly condemned the PA and Israel’s use of collective punishment when dealing with the Gaza Strip.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180215-fearing-backlash-fatah-postpones-visit-to-gaza/.

Oman FM visits Al-Aqsa in ‘historic’ move

February 16, 2018

Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi bin Abdullah visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque yesterday.

Azzam Al-Khatib, the director of the Islamic Waqf in occupied Jerusalem, who received the Omani minister, described the visit as “historic” and said it was aimed at supporting the people of Jerusalem.

The visit comes after a meeting between the Omani minister and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

During a press conference with the PA president, the Omani foreign minister called on the Arab countries to “accept the invitation of Mahmoud Abbas to visit Palestine and occupied Jerusalem, stressing that the Palestinian people are not alone and that all the Arab peoples are behind them”.

“What is required is the hard work of the Palestinians to build their country, which has historically been a beacon of science, containing universities, schools, professors and experts,” he added.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180216-oman-fm-visits-al-aqsa-in-historic-move/.

Israeli settler leader says settlements grew rapidly in 2017

February 20, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — The number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank grew at nearly twice the rate of Israel’s overall population last year, a settler leader said Monday, predicting that settlement growth would surge even more in the coming years thanks in part to the Trump presidency.

Yaakov Katz said that President Donald Trump, backed by a Mideast team dominated by settler supporters, has created a friendly new atmosphere conducive to settlement growth after eight contentious years with the Obama White House.

“This is the first time, after years, that we are surrounded by people who really like us, love us, and they are not trying to be objective,” Katz said. “We have to thank God he sent Trump to be president of the United States.”

Katz is founder of “West Bank Jewish Population Stats,” a report sponsored by “Bet El Institutions,” a prominent settler organization that has ties to Trump’s closest Mideast advisers. He said the figures are based on official data from the Israeli Interior Ministry not yet available to the public.

According to his figures, the West Bank settler population reached 435,159 as of Jan. 1, up 3.4 percent from 420,899 a year earlier. The settler population has grown 21.4 percent in the last five years.

In comparison, Israel’s total population grew 1.8 percent to 8.743 million last year, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Katz said the rapid growth of the settlements should put to rest the idea of a two-state solution favored by the Palestinians and most of the international community.

Based on recent growth patterns, he said the West Bank settler population could approach 500,000 by the time Trump leaves office. His study did not include the more than 200,000 Israelis now living in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.

“We are changing the map,” he said. “The idea of the two-state solution is over. It is irreversible.” The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for a future independent state. Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

A string of U.S. presidents, both Republican and Democrat, have endorsed the idea of a two-state solution and have joined the international community in opposing settlements as obstacles to peace. But after years of failed U.S.-led peace efforts, Trump has taken a different line. He says he would support a two-state solution only if both sides agree to it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition is dominated by settler allies who oppose Palestinian independence.

Trump also has taken a softer stance toward the settlements, urging restraint at times but avoiding the strong condemnations of his predecessors. His ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a former president of Bet El Institutions. His chief Mideast adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, has donated to the group, and even Trump once sent a donation.

These deep ties to the settlements have helped fuel Palestinian suspicions of the White House. Those suspicions deepened after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, prompting the Palestinians to say the U.S. can no longer be an honest Mideast broker. Trump’s team has been working on a peace proposal, though it is not clear when it will be released.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the figures reflect an Israeli policy of building settlements to destroy the two-state solution. He said Trump’s muted response encourages more settlement building.

“What is required of the world, including the American administration, is to condemn the settlements as illegitimate and illegal and to recognize the principle of two states on the 1967 borders,” he said. “if they want to keep hope in any future peace process, they must stop these plans.”

Brian Reeves, spokesman for Peace Now, an anti-settlement monitoring group, said it could not corroborate Katz’s figures but that they are in the “ballpark” of its own estimates. Katz said the settlement growth has been fueled both by natural growth of the population, which is heavily religious and tends to have larger families, as well as the attraction of cheaper housing in the West Bank.

He predicted even faster growth in the coming years, claiming that the Trump White House has given Netanyahu a “green light” to advance construction. “Bibi is less afraid of what the president will say about him,” he said. “We are very, very, very happy with the Trump administration.”

Israeli PM Netanyahu to Iran: Don’t test Israel’s resolve

February 18, 2018

MUNICH (AP) — The international nuclear deal with Iran has emboldened Tehran to become increasingly aggressive in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, warning that Iran should “not test Israel’s resolve.”

Netanyahu said if the U.S. decides to scrap the 2015 nuclear deal, which he has long opposed, “I think they’ll do nothing.” But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, appearing two hours later at the same Munich Security Conference, fired back that Netanyahu’s comment was “delusional thinking.”

“I can assure that if Iran’s interests are not secured, Iran will respond, will respond seriously. And I believe it would be a response that means people would be sorry for taking the erroneous action they did,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed deep skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal that lifted sanctions against the country. He extended sanctions waivers in January but said he would not do so again when they come up for renewal in May unless his concerns are addressed.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a main architect of the nuclear deal, said it was “absolutely critical” to ensure it survives. “We know what the world looks like without the Iran nuclear agreement,” he said Sunday, speaking at the same conference. “It’s not a better place.”

If the U.S. abandons the current nuclear deal it’s unlikely Iran would consider a new one, Kerry said. “The problem is the waters have been muddied because of this credibility issue about America’s willingness to live up to any deal,” he said.

Kerry dismissed Netanyahu’s contention that Iran would be on its way to having a nuclear arsenal in 10 years, saying “that’s fundamentally not accurate.” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir weighed in, saying the Iran nuclear deal “has flaws that need to be fixed.” He said that, among other things, the inspection system needs to be more intrusive.

“The world has to extract a price from Iran for its aggressive behavior,” he added. Netanyahu told world leaders, diplomats and defense officials at the conference that the deal was similar to the infamous 1938 “Munich Agreement” that Western powers signed with Adolf Hitler in an attempt to stave off war in Europe, which became synonymous with appeasement.

“The concessions to Hitler only emboldened the Nazi regime,” he said. “Rather than choosing a path that might have prevented war… those well-intentioned leaders made a wider war inevitable and far more costly.”

Similarly, he said, the Iranian nuclear agreement has “unleashed a dangerous Iranian tiger in our region and beyond.” Declaring that Iran’s “brazenness hit new highs,” he theatrically held up a fragment of what he said was an Iranian drone shot down last week by Israel in Israeli airspace and challenged Zarif.

“Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should, it’s yours,” Netanyahu said. “You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran — do not test Israel’s resolve!” Tehran has denied that the drone belonged to Iran. Zarif on Sunday dismissed Netanyahu’s stunt as “a cartoonish circus… which does not even deserve the dignity of a response.”

Netanyahu has been projecting a business-as-usual approach on his visit to Germany amid uproar at home after police on Tuesday said was sufficient evidence to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases. The Israeli leader has angrily rejected the accusations and denounced what he describes as an overzealous police investigation. He has also dismissed the accusations as a witch hunt orchestrated by a hostile media.

Zarif suggested the Israeli leader might be escalating tensions with Iran simply to distract from his domestic problems. Denouncing what he said were Israel’s “almost daily illegal incursions into Syrian airspace,” Zarif said Israel was trying “to create these cartoonish images to blame others for its own strategic blunders, or maybe to evade the domestic crisis they’re facing.”

Netanyahu told the audience that destroying the drone was a demonstration of Israel’s resolve. “Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us but against Iran itself.”

Lebanese Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf accused Israel of being hypocritical, saying that he’d had “an Israeli drone above my head for the past 15 years” and warning about any aggression from its neighbor.

“Lebanon has no belligerent intent on anybody, but watch out, we will defend ourselves,” he said. “We also have partners, we also have friends, we also have people willing to die for their country. We are for peace, yet we will not stand for any threat and we will not accept any aggression. ”

Moulson reported from Berlin.

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