Archive for the ‘ Levant News ’ Category

Extraordinary summit of OIC on Palestine to be held in Istanbul, Friday

May 16, 2018

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will hold an extraordinary summit in Istanbul on Friday to discuss “the latest serious developments in the State of Palestine.”

The organization, which comprises 57 member nations, said in a statement that the summit will be held at the invitation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the chairman of the 13th session of the Islamic Summit Conference.

The Israeli occupation army killed 61 Palestinians on Monday, including a baby girl, and injured nearly 3,000 during a protest in the Gaza Strip against the transfer of the US Embassy to the occupied city of Jerusalem.

Turkey also declared a three-day mourning period for those killed in Gaza on Monday, and called its ambassadors in Washington and Tel Aviv for consultations.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180516-extraordinary-summit-of-oic-on-palestine-to-be-held-in-istanbul-friday/.

Advertisements

Turkey, Russia agree on demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region, the last major stronghold of anti-government rebels where fears had been running high of a devastating offensive by government forces.

The zone will be established by Oct. 15 and be 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) deep, with troops from Russia and NATO-member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols, President Vladimir Putin said at the end of a more than three-hour meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.

The deal marked a significant agreement between the two leaders and effectively delays an offensive by Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies, one that Turkey fears would create a humanitarian crisis near its border.

Putin said “radical militants” would have to withdraw from the zone. Among them would be those from the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee. The group denies it is linked to al-Qaida.

It was not immediately clear exactly how the deal would be implemented in the province, which is home to more than 3 million Syrians and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters from various groups. “I believe that with this agreement we prevented a great humanitarian crisis in Idlib,” Erdogan said at a joint briefing with Putin.

Turkey has been eager to prevent an assault by Syrian government troops in the province. Putin said he believed the agreement on Idlib could hasten final resolution of Syria’s long and devastating civil war.

“We agreed that practical implementation of the steps we plan will give a fresh impetus to the process of political settlement of the Syrian conflict and will make it possible to invigorate efforts in the Geneva format and will help restore peace in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government agreed with the Putin-Erdogan plan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters in Sochi that “in the coming hours, we will agree with them on all the positions put forth in this document.”

Ahmed Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian political opposition in exile, said the agreement offered Russia a chance to walk back its threat against Idlib and represented a success for diplomatic pressure from Turkey and the United States, which was also against an offensive.

Ramadan also said the deal offers the Syrian government and Russia one of their main demands, which is securing the highway that passes through Idlib and links northern Syria with other cities. That was one of the government’s strategic aims in an offensive in Idlib.

“Turkey offered Putin a ladder with which to climb down from the tree, threatening a military offensive in Idlib that had little chance for success,” Ramadan said in a series of text messages with The Associated Press. “The Turkish and U.S. serious pressures were the reason behind Russia abstaining from the offensive and offering an air cover which means Iran alone won’t be able to carry out the offensive with the overstretched forces of the Assad regime.”

He said Russia has also refrained from its accusations that the rebels are all terrorists. “Russia swallowed all its accusations,” he said. “Turkey is in a strong position.” He said the zone would be enforced by Turkish patrols on the opposition side and Russian patrols on the government side.

Ramadan added that the opposition was now stronger than when it was after losses in Daraa and Ghouta. He said the Russians reached the agreement without negotiating it first with the Syrian government, pointing to Shoigu’s comments that Moscow will discuss the deal with the Syrian government later.

Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed rebel group Faylaq al-Sham, thanked Erdogan for preventing an offensive and giving the rebels time to defend their rebellion and people. Millions “of civilians in Idlib are in peace,” he tweeted.

He said he was confident that the deal “would not have been possible without the steadfastness of our people and fighters. Thank you, Erdogan.” Capt. Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed umbrella group of opposition fighters known as the National Front for Liberation, said diplomatic efforts have prevented a wide-offensive on Idlib but that his group still needs to learn the details of the deal.

He said the nature of the demilitarized zone and how it would be implemented are not yet clear. “We need details,” he said, adding that the Assad government has broken many agreements before, including the Russian-Turkey negotiated de-escalation zones.

“We will remain ready for fighting,” he said. Russia has called Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and had said the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. In recent weeks, Russian officials repeatedly claimed rebels in Idlib were preparing a chemical weapons attack that could be blamed on the Syrian government and prompt a retaliatory strike by the West.

Turkey had appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

The International Rescue Committee, a New-York based humanitarian group, said the people of Idlib “will rest easier tonight knowing that they are less likely to face an impending assault.” However, Lorraine Bramwell, the group’s Syria country director, cautioned that previous de-escalation deals didn’t last long.

“In order to give people in Idlib peace of mind then, this agreement needs to be built upon by the global powers working together to find a lasting political solution that protects civilians,” Bramwell said. “It is also essential that humanitarian organizations are allowed to reach those who will remain in need throughout Idlib, including in any ‘demilitarized zone.'”

Idlib and surrounding areas were quiet Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz reported this story in Moscow and AP writer Sarah El Deeb reported from Beirut. AP writer Neyran Elden in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

Leaders of Russia, Turkey meet to discuss Syria’s Idlib

September 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The presidents of Russia and Turkey were meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday in a bid to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis around a rebel-held region in Syria.

The province of Idlib in the country’s north-west is the last stronghold of Syrian rebels, and Turkey has been eager to prevent a potential government offensive there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in just 10 days after Russia and Iran expressed support for the idea of an offensive.

Russia calls Idlib a hotbed of terrorism and says the Syrian government has the right to retake control of it. Turkey has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

Putin and Erdogan sat down for talks Monday afternoon. Putin told Erdogan in opening remarks carried by Russian news agencies that he and Erdogan will be “looking for solutions where there are none right now,” without mentioning Idlib by name.

Erdogan in his reply expressed hope that the joint statement that the two leaders are expected to make later on Monday will be “a different hope for the whole region.” It was quiet in Idlib and surrounding areas Monday, a continuation of the calm that started less than a week ago amid Russia-Turkey talks.

Idlib and surrounding areas is home to over 3 million Syrians, and an estimated 60,000 rebel fighters.

Qatar opens courts in Gaza

September 17, 2018

The Qatari envoy yesterday inaugurated the Justice Palace complex in the central Gaza Strip.

Qatari Ambassador Mohamed Al-Emadi, head of the National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, launched the 11 dunam (2.7 acre) site which cost $11 million to build and comprises the Supreme Judicial Council, the Supreme Court, as well as Appeal, First Instance and Reconciliation courts.Abdul Raouf Al-Halabi, president of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary in the Gaza Strip, praised Qatar’s efforts to complete the project and its continued support to the Palestinian people.

“I am pleased on behalf of myself and my colleagues in the Supreme Council of the Judiciary. We welcome your presence here,” he said.

Al-Halabi explained that this project is a major Palestinian landmark, “to begin through this moment the first stage of the march of judicial development in the Gaza Strip.”

He thanked the Qatari Ambassador and his team for their efforts and support to complete the project.

The National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza is carrying out a number of projects in the Gaza Strip as a part of $407 million grant from His Highness the Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180917-qatar-opens-courts-in-gaza/.

Saudi Arabia buys Iron Dome defense system from Israel

September 13, 2018

Saudi Arabia is reported to have purchased the Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel signaling a rapprochement between the two countries, according to several diplomatic sources quoted in Al-Khaleej Online.

Saudi Arabia not only wants political convergence with Israel, said the sources, but also seeks to reach a level where it publicly purchases heavy and developed weapons from Tel Aviv like the UAE does.

Israeli-Saudi relations are the best they have ever been. Chief of staff of the Israeli army, General Gadi Eisenkot, recently said in an interview with the British-based Saudi Elaph newspaper that Israel was prepared to share intelligence with the Saudi side in order to counter Iran’s influence.

Moreover, a former senior official in the Israeli army revealed that he had recently had two meetings with two prominent Saudi emirs, who confirmed that Israel was no longer an enemy of Saudi Arabia.

The sources confirmed that Saudi Arabia has recently convinced Israel through very strong mediation by the United States during secret tripartite meetings in Washington to sell it its advanced Iron Dome system.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180913-saudi-arabia-buys-iron-dome-defence-system-from-israel/.

Putin seeks to defuse downing of Russian plane off Syria

September 19, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli airstrike, killing all 15 people aboard, in what President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday was “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

The downing of the Il-20 highlighted the dangers posed by the conflicting interests of various powers in the crowded skies over Syria and threatened the close security ties between Russia and Israel. In an effort to maintain that relationship, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called Putin to express sorrow over the death of the plane’s crew, blamed the plane’s loss squarely on Syria and offered to send Israel’s air force chief to Moscow to share information about the incident.

The Russian military said the plane was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday night as it was returning to the Russian air base in Syria. The incident triggered testy exchanges of blame between Israel and Russia.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah militia, noting that it warned Russia of the coming raid in line with de-confliction agreements. It said the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the plane when the Israeli jets were already inside Israeli airspace.

But the Russian Defense Ministry said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. It pointedly accused the Israeli military of deliberately using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge the Syrian defenses and threatened to retaliate.

“The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian air defense,” said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, to declare that “the Israeli side bears full responsibility” for the plane’s downing and to warn that Russia “reserves the right to retaliate.”

But Putin took a more cautious tone, describing the incident as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.” At the same time, he said Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.”

“It will be the steps that everyone will notice,” he said without elaboration. Netanyahu, who has maintained warm personal ties with Putin and frequently traveled to Russia for Syria-focused talks, noted the need for Russia and Israel to continue coordinating their action in Syria. At the same time, he emphasized Israel would not tolerate the Iranian military presence in Syria.

Putin told Netanyahu that the Israeli raid violated Syria’s sovereignty and breached the Russian-Israeli de-confliction agreement. He urged the Israeli side “not to allow such situations to happen again,” according to the Kremlin.

Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war, but it has carried out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah. Israel has acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times, and Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent clashes between their forces in Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.

“Until now, Russia’s armed forces have granted Israeli jets the freedom to strike targets in Syria at will, on the condition that a sufficiently early warning is provided to Russia,” said Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “The glue binding this gentleman’s agreement — the Putin-Netanyahu personal relationship — will likely tide this issue over for the time being.”

Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly relations with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow said that it struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.

In response to Israeli worries, Russia also has shelved plans to arm Syria with sophisticated air defense assets, such as the long-range S-300 systems that could pose a significant threat to Israeli aircraft.

The downing of the plane could change that. Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel Army Radio that the incident could have “strategic implications” for Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.

“I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel’s freedom of activity,” she said. Some Russian lawmakers and retired military officers called for a forceful response, saying Russia should provide Syria with the S-300 air defense systems and other sophisticated weapons to prevent any further strikes.

Shoigu, the defense minister, warned his Israeli counterpart that “we won’t leave such action without response.” Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 to support Syrian President Bashar Assad after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies against the Islamic State group increased the possibility of dangerous confrontations over Syria.

The downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish jet in November 2015 put Moscow and Ankara on the verge of military confrontation, but they later negotiated a series of de-escalation agreements for Syria together with Iran.

“The implementation of de-escalation across Syria a year ago introduced a new reality to Syria, in which foreign states are now actively competing to assert their own influence over overlapping territorial space,” Lister said. “Though appropriate measures have been put in place to manage this, the risk of state-on-state conflagrations like we saw overnight has never been higher. With a meaningful political settlement in Syria an increasingly far-fetched objective, this could well be the new reality we live with for years to come.”

The U.S. also expressed sorrow over the Russian deaths, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying it was a reminder of the need to find “permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria’s crowded theater of operations.”

President Donald Trump, appearing at a White House news conference with Poland’s president, called it a “very sad thing” and said it was “not a good situation.” But Trump also said that the United States has done a “tremendous job” battling the Islamic State group in Syria. He went on to suggest that the nation’s mission there was “very close to being finished.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the shootdown complicates relations between Assad and the Russian government but has “no effect whatever” on the U.S. campaign to defeat Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Before the latest incident, Russia had lost at least seven warplanes and seven combat helicopters in Syria and also had seen dozens of troops killed in ground combat. And there have been other Syria-related deaths of Russians.

A Russian passenger plane carrying tourists from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort crashed over the Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 people aboard. The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group said it blew up the plane with a bomb smuggled on board.

And in December 2016, a passenger jet carrying members of the Red Army Choir to a New Year’s concert at a Russian military base in Syria crashed in the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi in southern Russia, killing all 92 people aboard. The investigation of that crash is continuing, but officials have indicated that pilot error was the likely cause.

Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Josef Federman and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Jonathan Lemire in Washington, contributed to this report.

Russia blames Israel for plane shot down by Syrian missile

September 18, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 15 people on board, the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday. It blamed Israel for the crash, saying the plane was caught in the crossfire as four Israeli fighters attacked targets in northwestern Syria.

The Russian military said the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday as it was returning to its home base nearby. “The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defense,” Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, later Tuesday to say that Israel is “fully to blame” for the deaths, the ministry said. The military said Israel did not warn it of its operation over Latakia province until one minute before the strike, which did not give the Russian plane enough time to escape.

The Israeli military said in a statement Tuesday that its jets were already within Israeli airspace when the incident occurred. Israel offered condolences over the death of the Russian troops but said it holds the Syrian government “fully responsible.” It also blamed Iran and Hezbollah for what it described as an “unfortunate incident.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said a recovery operation has already located the plane’s wreckage at sea and has retrieved some bodies and some fragments of the plane. For several years, Israel and Russia have maintained a special hotline to prevent their air forces from clashing in the skies over Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.

Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and it has two military bases in the country, including one close to the Mediterranean coast. Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 in support of the Syrian government, after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its coalition partners against the Islamic State group, increased the specter of dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria.

Turkey’s troops are also on the ground in northern Syria and are patrolling the skies over the region as Ankara seeks to ramp up its influence there and curb the expansion of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory.

Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But it has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah. Israel has also acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times. Israel has warned that it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in postwar Syria.

Throughout the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained continuous contact with Russia. Netanyahu frequently travels to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syria issue.

The Israeli military said the Russian plane fell victim to the “extensive and inaccurate” firing of Syrian surface-to-air missile systems and that the Israeli jets — which were carrying out a raid against a Syrian government facility in another place — had already left Syrian airspace by that point.

The Israeli military said that hotline with Russia was in operation and that it would share with Russia all the data at its disposal. Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel’s Army Radio station that the shooting down of the plane is problematic for many reasons.

“I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel’s freedom of activity,” she said. The plane crashed only hours after the leaders of Russia and Turkey reached an agreement to avert an all-out offensive by Syrian government forces to retake Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold in Idlib.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Tuesday called the deal “a landmark and crucial agreement for Syria’s future” and said the shooting down of the plane will have no impact on it. In Damascus, Syria’s foreign ministry welcomed the agreement, while vowing that it will continue the fight against “terrorism until liberating the last inch of the Syrian territory, whether through military operations or through local reconciliations.”

Iran also welcomed the agreement, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeting: “Diplomacy works.”

Josef Federman and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Advertisements