Posts Tagged ‘Assad regime’

Besieged enclave of Ghouta on brink of falling to Syrian regime

March 16, 2018

About 15,000 people flee opposition area seven years since protests that led to war

Syrians leave eastern Ghouta
 Syrians leave eastern Ghouta for regime-held areas. Airstrikes have broken up the enclave. Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian opposition enclave of Ghouta is on the brink of falling to regime forces, three weeks into a relentless air blitz and seven years to the day since the first stirrings of anti-regime protests, which went on to spark nationwide insurrection, then a devastating war.

Up to 15,000 people had fled from the town of Hamouriyah by nightfall on Thursday into regime-held areas, their exit aided by Syrian and Russian forces who had besieged them throughout much of the conflict, their defiance withering as another bloody anniversary was marked.

Airstrikes and ground assaults have split Ghouta into three areas. Those who remained in the enclave on the eastern edges of Damascus on Thursday were trying to secure guarantees of safety from Russian officials.

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Updated map:

The exodus was expected to continue through the night and for the rest of the week, marking the beginning of the end for the most important opposition stronghold in Syria, and allowing the Syrian regime and its allies to eventually claim control of most of the capital.

The probable fall of Ghouta has left the international community scrambling to come up with arrangements for how to feed and house the people it believes may still be in the area, possible as many as 400,000.

Syria has become a war of numbers, all of which make for numbing reading. Nearly two-thirds of its pre-war population are internally displaced or have fled into neighbouring countries. More than 500,000 people have been killed, more than 100,000 people remain under arrest or forcibly disappeared, most of them in government prisons, and a generation of children have faced what the UN describes as psychological ruin.

The death toll in Ghouta is thought to be above 1,500, with many victims still buried under rubble. Entire neighbourhoods have been flattened by bombing that has regularly been labelled indiscriminate and merciless.

Aid agencies had pleaded to be allowed to deliver food and medicine to populations that Syrian and Russian officials claimed were led by terrorist groups. The same militants were on Thursday attempting to broker terms of a civilian evacuation and their eventual departure.

A doctor from Ghouta said many local people remained unsure of what to do. Few appeared to trust guarantees of safe passage that were being offered by the same troops who had bombed them intensely since mid-February.

“As doctors, we will continue our work,” said a physician. “We are from this community. If they remain here, we will stay here. If they choose something else, we will reassess our choices.

“They are taking town after town and everything has been burned. It is systematic destruction that is meant to bring down the entire area on the heads of its residents. There is no place to flee to. People are scared of a slaughter.”

Like other Ghouta residents contacted by the Guardian, the doctor asked to remain anonymous, fearing retribution from regime officials if he decided to flee. A local journalist also declined to put his name to his words.

“Today, there are civilian movements that are demanding at the very least for the United Nations to guarantee the evacuation of these families,” he said.

“The thousands who left the central part of eastern Ghouta are doing so without any guarantees, to regime areas, and no UN organisation can oversee them. They are in areas controlled by the regime.”

Mahmoud Bwedany, a student, said: “What will happen … other than the violation of human rights and forced displacement, is they will take the military-age youth to the army and they’ll arrest whoever is on their wanted list. The scene makes you weep. We need someone to stand up to the regime and Russia.”

An opposition counterattack in Hamouriyah reclaimed some neighbourhoods on Thursday night. However, a sense of resignation hung over other parts of the enclave that had been central to the opposition’s stand against the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

The protest movement that erupted on 15 March 2011 was underpinned by a class struggle, with the ranks of the original rebel groups largely comprised of the country’s working poor. Ghouta, 15 minutes’ drive from the presidential palace, had defied multiple attempts to retake it, as the rebel strongholds of Homs, Aleppo and Zabadani fell.

It was first hit by airstrikes in late 2012, then devastated by a massive sarin attackin August 2013, which killed more than 1,300 people, and was linked by the UN, UK, US and France to the Syrian military.

Ghouta locals said they feared Syrian officials would wreak revenge on them if they were forced to cross into regime-controlled territory, and the impunity that has characterised the conflict would mean there would be no retribution for any forced disappearances.

Syrian children wait to be evacuated from eastern Ghouta
 Syrian children wait to be evacuated from eastern Ghouta. The UN said they have suffered psychological ruin. Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

All 11 attempts to sanction the Syrian government at the UN security council have been blocked by Russia and China. Plaintive demands by UN officials that civilian populations be spared from bombing have been routinely ignored and Syria’s health and education systems have been systematically targeted.

The US national security adviser, HR McMaster, blamed Russia and Iran for the deaths and said they should both pay a political and economic price for their support of the Assad regime.

McMaster said Russian bombers conducted more than 20 sorties a day against eastern Ghouta, while Moscow had impeded aid deliveries and international investigations into Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people.

Speaking at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, McMaster claimed that over the past six years, Tehran had provided more than $16bn (£11.5bn) to the regime and transported foreign Shia militias and weapons to Syria.

“It is time to impose serious political and economic consequences on Moscow and Tehran,” said McMaster, whose position is widely believed to be under threat, in part because of his tough stance towards Russia.

The fall of Ghouta would leave Idlib province as the final major opposition stronghold in Syria. Home to more than 2.6 million people, at least 1 million of them displaced or forcibly transferred from elsewhere in the country, Idlib is a volatile mix of populations and militant groups.

Up to 15,000 extremists aligned to al-Qaida have held sway over much of the area for the past three years. However, they have been forced from many of their strongholds by attacks from opposition groups in recent weeks.

Ali Deeb, a Ghouta student, said: “We don’t want to go to Idlib. “We’re only just coming to terms with what is happening here. Somebody has to help us, surely.”


Eastern Ghouta massacre: Mattis says ‘either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad’

March 11, 2018

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Children are treated in Eastern Ghouta after the Assad regime apparently used chemical weapons on the civilian population. AFP photo


MUSCAT/BEIRUT: The Assad regime and its Russian allies are either incompetent or acting illegally by killing civilians in Eastern Ghouta, the US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday.
Mattis also issued a new warning about the regime’s use of chemical weapons. “Right now we’re getting reports — I don’t have evidence that I can show you — but I’m aware of the reports of chlorine gas use,” he said before arriving in Oman on a trip to the Middle East.
“There’s an awful lot of reports about chlorine gas use or about symptoms that could be resulting from chlorine gas.”
Asked whether the US would respond militarily, as it did last year with missile strikes on a Syrian air base, Mattis said: “I’m not going to strictly define it, but we have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas.”
Mattis said the bloodbath in Eastern Ghouta, the opposition enclave near Damascus where the civilian death toll in the 22-day regime offensive rose on Sunday to at least 1,111, showed that regime troops were “at best indiscriminately” attacking and “at worst targeting hospitals.”
“I don’t know which it is, whether they’re incompetent or whether they’re committing illegal acts or both,” he said.
Russia could be complicit, Mattis said. “Either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad.”
US President Trump Donald has said he will not tolerate chemical weapons attacks but has not yet made a decision about the latest reports, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in Washington.
“In this case, the intelligence community is working diligently to verify what happened there.
“I’ve seen the pictures. You’ve seen the pictures as well. We have a higher standard to make sure we understand precisely what took place, precisely who did it, so that our response can meet the threat.
“The president asks me nearly every day what it is the intelligence community knows about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and who else — the Russians or the Iranians — who might be responsible for them.”
Assad regime forces have carved Eastern Ghouta into two, dealing a major setback to the opposition and threatening to exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation.
A military media outlet linked to the Syrian regime and its ally Hezbollah said pro-regime forces had broken through opposition lines to establish a corridor through the besieged region.
In three weeks of fighting, regime forces have overrun more than half the area and split the remainder into three pockets, isolating the urban hub of Douma. On Sunday, regime troops battered the edges of each pocket with air raids, barrel bombs and rockets.

Assad regime accused of ‘apocalypse’ as forces tighten noose around opposition enclave in Ghouta

March 8, 2018

Syrian child Hossam Hawari, 8, is treated from a shrapnel wound at a makeshift clinic in Kafr Batna following Syrian regime airstrikes on opposition-held areas in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Tuesday. (AFP)

DOUMA: Syria’s regime sent reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, tightening the noose around the shrinking opposition enclave.

The blistering onslaught has prompted outrage against the regime, with the UN’s human rights chief saying the government was orchestrating an “apocalypse” in Syria.
The Russia-backed Syrian regime forces and allied militia launched an offensive on Feb. 18 to retake the last opposition bastion near Damascus.
They have since taken more than 40 percent of the enclave, waging a devastating bombing campaign that has killed more than 800 civilians.
Heavy airstrikes battered several key towns in the zone on Wednesday, as the Syrian regime dispatched hundreds of pro-regime militiamen to the front.
“At least 700 Afghan, Palestinian, and Syrian loyalist militiamen came from Aleppo and were sent late on Tuesday to Ghouta,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based war monitor said the reinforcements were deployed to two main battlefronts on the western side of the enclave, including the town of Harasta.
Regime troops on Wednesday were within firing range of the key towns of Misraba and Beit Sawa, and had taken up positions at the edges of Jisreen and Hammuriyeh.
Three civilians including one child were killed in heavy airstrikes on Jisreen on Wednesday, the Observatory said.
That brought the toll in more than two weeks of bombing to 810 civilians, including 179 children.
Syria’s state television on Wednesday morning showed a live broadcast of farmland adjacent to Misraba, with columns of smoke emerging from the town’s skyline.
The bombardment has continued despite a one-month cease-fire demanded by the UN Security Council more than a week ago.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein said the Syrian regime and its foreign allies were already planning their next “apocalypse.”
“This month, it is Eastern Ghouta which is, in the words of the secretary-general, hell on earth; next month or the month after, it will be somewhere else where people face an apocalypse — an apocalypse intended, planned and executed by individuals within the government, apparently with the full backing of some of their foreign supporters,” said Hussein.
Eastern Ghouta’s roughly 400,000 residents have lived under government siege since 2013, facing severe shortages of food and medicines even before the latest offensive began.
Forty-six aid trucks entered the area on Monday for the first time since the offensive, but had to cut short their deliveries and leave due to heavy bombardment.
Nearly half of the food aid could not be delivered and Syrian authorities removed some medical and health supplies from the trucks, the UN said.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all warring sides to allow aid trucks to return for a planned second delivery to the enclave’s main town of Douma on Thursday.
Meanwhile, also on Wednesday Syrian refugees and German politicians condemned a visit to Damascus by members of an anti-immigrant party, saying their depictions of life in the city as “normal” were especially offensive when Ghouta was being bombarded.
Seven members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are currently on a “fact-finding” trip to Syria, which the party wants classified as a safe-country of origin. This would make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers from Germany.
Syrians in Germany have been particularly angered by posts on the Facebook page of Christian Blex, a regional AfD lawmaker, who wrote that Syrian President Bashar Assad wanted the 600,000 Syrians who have sought refuge in Germany to return.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman slammed the visit.
“Those who flatter this regime disqualify themselves,” Steffen Seibert told a regular news conference. “The Syrian regime shows every day how inhumanly it treats its own people.”
A spokesman for the AfD said the visit was private and did not represent the AfD’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag lower house, though it included some Bundestag deputies.

Satellite Images of Iranian Missile Base in Syria May Signal an Israeli Strike

March 1, 2018


The Fox News report evokes the BBC report from December on a military base for pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Syria. The base was bombed from the air a few weeks later

.Israeli satellite images reveal: Iran builds military base near Damascus
Israeli satellite images reveal: Iran builds military base near Damascus.: Imagesat International (ISI)

Judging by historic precedent, the report Fox News aired Wednesday on the new Iranian military base in Syria is like cocking a gun: it’s the warning before the blast. The same happened in December. A few weeks after the BBC reported based on “Western intelligence” sources, on a base for pro-Iranian Shiite in Syria, the base was bombed from the air. Foreign media attributed the attack to Israel, though Israel as usual declined to comment.

The last week has brought more reports about Iran’s establishment in Syria – the deployment of Shiite militias, the presence of military experts, soldiers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as plans to build bases and weapons factories. First The New York Times published a detailed map showing the Iranian reinforcement, now Fox News reports that the new base near Damascus includes big hangars, that could house missiles capable of hitting anywhere in Israel.

Israeli satellite images reveal: Iran builds military base near Damascus
Israeli satellite images reveal: Iran builds military base near Damascus.Imagesat International (ISI)

Fox News, like the BBC before it, broadcast satellite images of the suspect site. The conservative news network quoted the same opaque Western sources. One may assume that definition is a relatively flexible one, and that it’s perfectly accurate if one reads that as sources located somewhere west of Iran.

These reports follow a number of other developments, one being Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unusual speech last week at the International Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 18. There for the first time he threatened a direct hit on Iran and military action against the Assad regime. Another is Netanyahu’s anticipated meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington next month; and when a group of senators returned home from visiting Israel, they stated that the new threats by Iran require the administration to reconsider giving Israel more military aid.

Speaking to the Voice of Israel radio on Wednesday morning, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel would not accept Iranian establishment in Lebanon, and certainly not let it position long-range missiles there. The minister however repeated that Israel is not looking for war up north.


Iranian presence in Syria

Most of the Syrian medium- and long-range missiles were used up or destroyed during the seven-year civil war. Iran’s attempts have centered so far mainly on arming Hezbollah and, lately, it’s been trying to improve the accuracy of the Lebanese organization’s guided rockets.

Yet assuming that Iran is preparing for future war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, it makes sense, as far as it’s concerned, to prepare a second front deep inside Syria. That would force the Israeli air force to stretch its aggressive capacities over a wider area, enabling the Iranians and their partners to launch missiles at Israel from a greater distance, even if the Israeli army embarks on a broad ground campaign in Lebanon.

The new threat against Iran was issued two and a half weeks after the day of Israeli-Syrian-Iranian fighting on February 10. That day the Israeli army shot down an Iranian drone that had penetrated Israeli territory by Beit She’an; in retaliation, Israel attacked an Iranian command bunker by Tadmor (Palmyra) in central Syria, and the Syrian aerial defense downed an Israeli F-16 fighter jet.

Despite the price the parties paid (including Syria, after Israeli jets bombed its antiaircraft batteries in response), the latest report seems to show the parties are continuing to follow their own original plans. Iran continues to increase its assets in Syria, which Israel may target again. The foreign press hasn’t reported any more Israeli bombing raids on Syria since February 10, but senior Israeli sources have already spelled out that the policy of deterrence in the north will continue.

In other words, in light of the Fox News report, it’s fair to assume that the countdown has started for another aerial clash in the Syrian skies. Even with the parties stating that they do not want war, it will take extraordinary navigational skills to prevent matters from spiraling out of control.

North Korea is supplying chemical weapons to Syria

February 28, 2018

Amid an investigation that the Assad regime has been using chemical weapons, a panel of UN weapons experts has now linked North Korean chemical weapons supplies to Syria. This may have been going on for decades, it says.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Getty Images/AFP/KCNA)

UN weapons experts have found that North Korea has been supplying Syria with items used in manufacturing chemical weapons, according to an unpublished report released to US media.

The report seen by The New York Times and The Associated Press claims to provide “substantial new evidence” of North Korea exporting material used in Syrian ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs as far back as 2008. It is also alleges that North Korean missile technicians traveled to Syria and were observed working at known chemical weapons and missile facilities inside the country.

Apart from violating UN sanctions, the experts reportedly describe the arrangement as a source of much needed cash for North Korea’s nuclear missile program; for the Syrians, it would enable them to maintain their chemical weapons arsenal.

The report includes Syria’s response to the panel about the allegations: “There are no Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) technical companies in Syria and the only presence of some DPRK individuals are confined in the field of sports under private individual contracts for training athletics and gymnastics.”

The UN panel said Syrian officials had not responded to a request for documents that would support this assertion, nor had the UN been given a list of all North Koreans who have traveled to Syria.

Read more: US blames Russia for Syria chemical weapons attacks

a man is bending over rubble on the road, collecting samples.A Syrian man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, Syria, in April 2017

Links to evidence

Although Syria signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, and said that it had given up its chemical weapons stocks, the latest UN report underscores ongoing concerns that the Assad regime has reneged on this agreement.

One example of the illegal trade agreement cited in the report was a visit by a technical delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in August 2016. This trip “involved the transfer to Syria of special resistance valves and thermometers known for use in chemical weapons programs.”

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 Medical staff treats a young child in Syria after apparent use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Reuters photo

The panel also examined container shipments sent by the Chinese company Cheng Tong Trading Co. Ltd. to Damascus-based companies in 2016 and 2017. They found that 13 shipping containers were filled with “acid resistant tiles,” which are commonly used for building chemical weapons factories. There were apparently enough to cover 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet), enough for a large-scale industrial project.

The experts also investigated the activities of Ryu Jin, a senior official in Syria for the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation known as KOMID, who is on the UN sanctions blacklist.  KOMID is the DPRK’s main arms dealer and primary exporter of material and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons. Ryu Jin is believed to have exported ball-bearings and fiber-optic cables to Syria, earning over €100,000.

Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war

Investigations opened

Revelations of chemical weapons violations followed closely after an announcement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Tuesday that it had opened an investigation into attacks on rebel-held eastern Ghouta. It will be examining strikes that took place on Sunday, which authorities claim killed a child and caused symptoms consistent with exposure to chorine gas.

Read more: Syrian civilians treated for ‘suffocation’ after Saraqeb airstrikes

Earlier this month, political leaders in Great Britain, France and the United States said they would support targeted military action against the Assad regime, if there was proof that chemical weapons had been used.

cl/kms (AP, dpa)


Iran Is Trying to Avoid a Clash but May Surprise Israel

February 26, 2018


Tehran will find it hard to remain silent for long if Israel strikes Iranian targets; at some stage it might shock us with the timing, weapons or method

Iran's military chief Mohammad Bagheri, right, on a visit to Turkey.
Iran’s military chief Mohammad Bagheri, right, on a visit to Turkey. Reuters / Stringer

The latest confrontation between Israel and Iran on the northern front was predictable. We can assume that neither side wanted the clash, but with Tehran having sent substantial Iranian and Shi’ite combat forces to Syria  while arming Hezbollah with advanced weapons, and with Israel determined to check the danger, a clash was almost inevitable.

On top of that is the consensus among Israel’s leaders that Iran presents the most serious threat to Israel. This perception is based on a number of elements: Hezbollah and its huge missile system, Iran’s large and improved missile system, and Tehran’s policy of encircling Israel with radical Shi’ites, marked by the anti-Israel front in Syria and Lebanon.

Clearly if Iran goes nuclear some day this threat will increase to an unprecedented level. But the balance of powers is more complex. The main tool used by the Israel Defense Forces in Syria is the air force, and Iran has no answer to it; its own air force is based on planes 30 to 40 years old and clearly can’t cope with its Israeli rival.

In addition, Iran has to operate forces hundreds of kilometers from its borders without any real defense when they’re subject to Israeli attacks and provocations by Sunni groups in Syria. Weapons convoys to Hezbollah and arms plants in Syria are exposed to attacks.

The United States also poses a threat to Iran. The Trump administration has defined Iran as a threat of the highest order to the United States and its allies due to its use of terror, intervention in other countries, construction of a large missile system, and above all its attempt to produce nuclear weapons.

The U.S. administration hasn’t yet taken any practical steps to stop the threat, and it’s not clear whether it will, but Iran isn’t certain it won’t, and the last thing Tehran wants is a confrontation with the United States. Meanwhile, the declaration by Washington that it will leave a military force in northern Syria for an indefinite period to check Iranian influence should worry Tehran.

Although Russia – currently the most influential player in Syria – stands alongside Iran and recognizes Iran’s right to maintain forces in Syria, there are differences of opinion, conflicts of interest and suspicions between Tehran and Moscow. As a result, Iran fears that if an overall agreement in Syria is achieved, Russia won’t insist on leaving Bashar Assad’s regime in place if it receives a promise that it can continue to use its air base and naval base there.

If the Assad regime is ousted in the context of an agreement, Iran’s influence in Syria will suffer a serious blow. Iran thus hasn’t yet responded with fire to attacks against weapons convoys and factories in Syria.

Even when Iran challenged Israel in the most recent clash, it did so with a drone, not by opening fire. Since early 2015, Hezbollah has also refrained from responding to what could be perceived as Israeli provocations. This reluctance to respond apparently stems from a recognition of Israel’s significant military advantage in the north.

The Iranians are also likely to fear that a confrontation with Israel would give Israel a chance to attack the nuclear weapons sites in Iran. Moreover, Iran apparently doesn’t seek a confrontation because its top priority is to stabilize the Assad regime and exploit its standing in Syria to strengthen its influence in Iraq and Lebanon. An entanglement with Israel could block these goals.

Iran’s supreme regional goal is to entrench itself in Syria and its neighbors for the long term. It has already paid a high price for this in blood and money, and there’s no reason to assume that it will give this up. Israel, meanwhile, must prevent Iran from leaving its forces and the Shi’ite militias in Syria – including Hezbollah – for the long term. This basic conflict could lead to a confrontation again – and there’s no evidence yet of a responsible adult among the great powers to ease the conflict of interests.

The bottom line is that Iran is trying to avoid a confrontation with Israel, but will find it hard to remain silent for long if Israel strikes Iranian targets. Thus we must take into account that at some stage Iran will take a military action to deter Israel. Iran will want to surprise Israel – with the timing, weapons or method. For that purpose it will prefer to activate Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias so as not to get involved itself.

Iran may instruct Hezbollah to use its missile system, despite the risks involved both to it and its emissaries. Iran would probably try to exploit an opportunity when Israel is preoccupied with another crisis – the main candidate is a conflict with Hamas in Gaza. And of course there’s also the possibility of a mistake in judgment that would get Iran embroiled in a conflict with Israel.

Ephraim Kam is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.

Hezbollah is destabilizing Lebanon, region: Tillerson — “Threaten Lebanon’s stability, independence and sovereignty.”

February 16, 2018

Arab News

Saad Hariri said that he assured Tillerson of ‘Lebanon’s right to explore, invest and develop our natural resources in our territorial waters.’ (AP)
BEIRUT: American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday that the US regarded Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and “we do not differentiate between its military and political arms, and it is unacceptable for militias like Hezbollah to act outside the rule of law.”
Tillerson added in a press conference with the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut that “the Lebanese army is the only defender of the Lebanese State.”
“The people of Lebanon should also be concerned about how Hezbollah’s actions and its growing arsenal bring unwanted and unhelpful scrutiny on Lebanon,” Tillerson said. “Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has only perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime.”
“The Lebanese government must distance itself from external conflicts and Hezbollah must stop its activities abroad,” he said.
Tillerson held talks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The presidential palace press office said that Aoun asked that the US “work on preventing Israel from continuing its assaults on Lebanese sovereignty” by land and sea and to abide by the implementation of Resolution 1701 (guaranteeing Lebanon’s territorial sovereignty) to preserve the stability that South Lebanon has enjoyed since 2006.”
Lebanon “can no longer bear the repercussions of Syrian refugees on its security, stability and economy, especially as international aid is insufficient,” the statement said.
It called for “a secure and gradual return of the Syrians to their country and a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis,” noting that “the decision of the United States to reduce its contribution to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) will add to the burden placed on Lebanon in caring for these refugees.”
Aoun said: “Lebanon is fully committed to the self-distancing policy, but is not responsible for what happens because of the interventions from abroad due to its inability to influence that.”
Tillerson also held talks with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. A statement later said that Berri talked about “the daily Israeli violations, the construction of the concrete wall at points inside Lebanese territory, and Israel’s claims to the special economic zone (of Lebanon).”
Tillerson and the delegation then held talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri. During a joint press conference Hariri stressed Lebanon’s “commitment to the self-distancing policy” and Lebanon’s interest in “maintaining the best relations with Arab countries and the international community.”
Hariri said that he “assured secretary Tillerson of Lebanon’s right to explore, invest and develop our natural resources in our territorial waters. We also agreed that the Lebanese banking sector is the cornerstone of our economy, and I reiterated that this sector is solid and sound … and in full compliance with international laws and regulations.”
Hariri noted that “Lebanon is committed to Resolutions 1701 and 2373 (renewing the mandate of the UN interim force in Lebanon) and we want to move to a permanent cease-fire with Israel, but the Israeli violations of our sovereignty are hampering this process, let alone the Israeli rhetoric.”
Secretary Tillerson said that the US stands by the Lebanese people and its legitimate institutions against regional challenges and threats. He also praised the American partnership with the Lebanese military and the internal security forces in the fight against Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
On Syrian refugees, Tillerson said that “the United States has provided $1.6 billion to help with refugee affairs and host Lebanese communities. The United States stands side by side with the Lebanese people in confronting these challenges that threaten Lebanon’s stability, independence and sovereignty.”
On the Iranian nuclear agreement, Tillerson said that President Trump had indicated that he wanted the flaws in this agreement to be addressed. “We are working with the other signatories to this agreement and with European partners to move forward to deal with the imbalances in the agreement.”
On the recent escalation between Israel on one side and Iran and Syria on the other, Hariri said: “We are with all its types of pacification because the region is not lacking additional tensions and wars.”
Asked about the situation between Turkey and the US over Syria, Tillerson said: “Turkey is an important ally to us in the battle against Daesh and has always been supportive of all efforts. The relationship is very positive and we intend to build on the important aspects that we share. There may be tactical differences about achieving the goals, but the main goal is to eliminate incitement, terrorism, reduce violence, protect the innocent and reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Syria.”
On Turkey’s demand that the US take back heavy weapons from the Kurdish YPG, Tillerson said: “We have never given heavy arms to the YPG so there is none to take back.”


Could Germany act as mediator between Israel and Iran?

February 13, 2018

The recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria have sparked concerns of a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran. DW spoke with Middle East expert Gil Murciano about the conflict, and Germany’s potential role as mediator.

Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights (Reuters/A. Awad)

DW: An Israeli fighter jet was downed by anti-aircraft fire this weekend in Syria. In response, Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria, including against what it described as Iranian targets. Is Syria going to become an arena of open confrontation between Israel and Iran?

Gil Murciano: In Syria, things are moving from the chaos of civil war to a new order, the fruits of which Iran is trying to harvest in an attempt to strengthen its influence. They want to build naval and air bases in Syria and strengthen Hezbollah. The Israelis, on the other side, had amidst all the chaos relied on non-intervention, but now they see themselves confronted with a new situation in which they are strategically inferior. It’s the first time they see their arch enemy on the other side of the border with the capability of turning Syria into a platform to attack Israel in the future. The Israelis are completely changing their policy, taking much greater risks in order to halt this dynamic.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not ruling out further military action. How far can Israel go?

This weekend we saws Israel’s willingness — for the first time, I think — to actually attack an Iranian target with Iranian forces. Up to now, Israel has been trying to avoid direct confrontation on this level with the Iranians. So this is a new step. And the possibility becomes much more probable that the cycle of the steps and countersteps could lead to an open escalation. From the Israeli point of view the question is not whether there will be a next round, but when it will arise.

How many military forces in Syria are actually under Iranian influence?

Dr. Gil Murciano (2018 by SWP)


Gil Murciano is a Middle East expert at the SWP think tank

With pro-Iranian militias, we are talking about 7,000 to 10,000 combatants. In addition, there are roughly a few hundred Iranian experts from the Revolutionary Guards and Quds forces. But the real issue from the Israeli point of view is the changing power between Iran and its host, the Syrian regime of [President Bashar al-Assad]. Before the civil war, the Assad regime could say “stop” or “go” — it could actually control the the extent of Iran’s involvement. Now the Syrian regime is dependent on Iran for its survival. Therefore, Iran is free to advance its own interests: building bases in Syrian territory that may later be used against Israel and integrating Iranian forces into the structure of the Syrian army and advancing them later to the border of Israel.

Is the Assad regime really willing to allow Iran to start a war against Israel from Syrian territory?

It often seems that Iran and the Syrian regime are speaking the same narrative. But we do see some cracks, when looking under the surface. An Iranian chief-of-staff came to Syria a couple of months ago with a list of demands, both on the economic and security level: for example mining rights, including Uranium and building bases. The Syrians were effective in blocking these Iranian attempts. The Assad regime, in this fragile situation, is also trying to avoid reaching direct confrontation with Israel and trying to keep Iranian interests at bay. The Russians are trying to contain Iranian influence as well.

Read more: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran want in the Syria conflict?

How do you see Russia’s role with regard to Israel and Iran?

They do tolerate Israel’s airstrikes as well as Iranian activities in Syria, but they are trying to avoid taking sides. Their main interest here is to keep on building the independent capacities of the Assad regime. The Russians have nothing more to gain in Syria, for them it is just about losses. So far, the Russians have been able to sustain the friction between those sides.

Can Israel count on the backing of the United States in a direct confrontation with Iran in Syria?

In the past, the Americans were an important part in the Israelis’ policy regarding Syria and Lebanon. But today, when it comes to the Syria issue, we see a complete absence of the US. You see the Americans leaving the arena to the Russians. This is one of the reasons why Israel is conducting such an active diplomatic campaign vis-a-vis the Russians throughout the last two years. The Syrian issue currently is not on the radar of US policy.

Are there options for the Europeans to mediate?

I think the EU and, specifically in this case, Germany have a unique potential. It is both a strategic ally of Israel, and at the same time it enjoys some level of access or reliability from Iran. Germany is the only actor in the Western world that has some practical experience in mediating informal agreements between Israel, Iran and Hezbollah — the relevant factors in this conflict. Here I refer to the POW swap where Germany was the main negotiator and facilitator in the past. So it has the know-how, the capacities, and a huge interest to stop this cycle of escalation. The shockwave of a third war in this region would have an impact over the Mediterranean. In Lebanon alone we have 1.5 million refugees who, in case of a war, might be knocking on Europe’s doors.

Gil Murciano is a Middle East and Africa expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) think tank in Berlin.

Syrians Suffering Under Iran-Supported Regime Praise israeli Strikes

February 11, 2018
 FEBRUARY 11, 2018 16:14

“Iran proved through its intervention in Syria that it incited hatred against Israel just to achieve its goals of keeping the regime in power.”

The Iranian drone (inset) that entered Israeli airspace yesterday was launched from a Syrian base

The Iranian drone (inset) that entered Israeli airspace yesterday was launched from a Syrian base in the Homs desert, which Israel later bombed. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON’S UNIT)

Qais al-Khazali, the head of the Iraqi Shi’a Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, celebrated the downing of an Israeli F-16 by Syrian air defense in a series of tweets over the weekend. Although most responses were supportive, one mocked him and Iran for being “pawns, luring children to their death.”

This is part of the much wider debate unfolding between opponents and supporters of the Syrian regime. In this debate, Israel’s actions and any perception of Iranian gains have ramifications across the region. For supporters of Assad and Tehran, the “axis of resistance” has scored a great victory against the “Zionists.” For those who have stood with the Syrian rebellion and watched Assad’s barrel bombs killing civilians for years, the Israeli air strikes against the Iranians in Syria are a welcome sign.

يوم سعيد والطائرات الاسرائيلية تقصف مواقع حزب الله وإيران في سوريا ومواقع أخرى لنظام بشار .. الاخوانجية سيقفون مع ايران وسوريا وحزب الله ضد الضربات الاسرائيلية .. وأما أنا سأقف اليوم ليس لتحية الجيش الاسرائيلي ولكن لأتمنى أن يهلك الظالمين بالظالمين

“A happy day that Israeli planes bomb Hezbollah and Iran sites in Syria and other sites of the Bashar [Assad] regime,” a Saudi named Mansour al-Khamis tweeted in Arabic to his 29,000 followers on Saturday. He claimed the Muslim Brotherhood stands with Iran, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, but today “I will stand not to salute the Israeli Army but to that the oppressors will destroy the unjust.” Replies to his tweet included accusations that “Wahhabi Saudi Arabia” was collaborating with Israel.

Twelve years ago, during the Israel-Hezbollah war, the region was vastly different. Then, the support for Hezbollah and its claims of “victory” over Israel were more widespread. Now, the cleavages in the region between supporters of Assad, Iran and Hezbollah and those who look on with more favor as Israel targeted a dozen sites in Syria on Saturday, are more stark. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war irretrievably tarnished the group’s image for many people. Iran has been portrayed in cartoons in the region as a grasping octopus with bloody hands reaching into Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

Faisal al-Qassem, who hosts The Opposite Direction debate program on Al Jazeera, provided some balanced comments on the Syrian-Israel clash. In a series of provocative tweets, he blamed Israel for Iran and its militias being in Syria in the first place. However, he also gave voice to others who challenge the conspiracy theories that allege Israel is secretly allied with the Assad regime in order to weaken the Syrian people. He also retweeted a comment from a man named Myassein Najjar who noted the irony of Russia complaining about Israel violating Syrian sovereignty, while Russia violates Syrian sovereignty. In a February 10 poll on Al-Qassem’s Twitter in Arabic, he asked who his followers support: Iran and its militias or Israel. Fifty-fix percent of respondents, fully 12,800 people, said they supported Israel.

لو اندلعت حرب (لو لو لو لو ) بين اسرائيل من جهة وإيران وميليشياتها في سوريا من جهة أخرى، من ستؤيد؟

44%إيران وميليشياتها

“THERE IS no Syrian in his right mind who would line up with Israel against his native Syria, but you will find millions of Syrians queuing up with the blue devils [Israel] against the fascist sectarian regime that has surpassed all the monsters on earth in killing Syrians,” wrote one anonymous Syrian about the situation.

A knowledgeable Syrian source who supports the opposition said he hopes Israel will continue its retaliation against Iranian targets in Syria. “Everybody now, including me, is thinking that if Israel does not hit then it is afraid. One harsh hit at least.” He hoped to see Iran and Hezbollah “broken” by Israeli strikes. Hezbollah has been a key supporter of Assad, sending thousands of fighters to Syria over the last six years. When there were rumors on Saturday night of explosions near Aleppo on Mount Azzan, the source said many assumed it was Israel. “After the massive killing inflicted on civilians, the opposition and activists started to see Iran as the biggest enemy,” he says. “Syrians always compare between Israel and the Iranian-supported regime.”

He noted that these divisions between support for the regime and Israel’s policies have repercussions beyond Syria. For instance, he claimed “Ahed Tamimi’s father is a regime supporter.” He said that stories about the Tamimis had been circulated among Syrian opposition members who wondered, “If his daughter was a Syrian, would she dare shout at a soldier [as she shouted at Israeli soldiers]?”  No, he says. “She would be killed [by the regime] immediately.” This shows how the Palestinian conflict plays out in Syria.

He argues that Iran seeks to use the Syrian regime and its supporters against Israel. “It will incite hatred against Israel just to achieve its ideological dream and to keep the regime of clerics in power.” This has wider repercussions. He argues Israel miscalculated in the first years of the rebellion, preferring Assad because the Assad family had kept the border calm for decades. “Now they [Israel] faces Iran in Syria. A lot of Arab youth are misled by these two evil regimes [Syria and Iran].” He asserts that if the opposition came to power that eventually there could be discussions with Israel about “normalization.”

This illustrates the major ramifications caused by any action of Israel or Iran. It is not just about a few bases in Syria, or a drone over Beit She’an, but a wider conflict that has repercussions across the region. From Syrian refugees trying to make a new life, to Shi’a militias in Iraq and commentators in Doha and Riyadh, Saturday’s events were watched closely.

    Syrian regime allies say the downing of Israeli F-16 is a game changer

    February 10, 2018

    Israeli soldiers block a road near the Israeli border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Feb. 10, 2018. (Reuters)
    Iran denounced Israeli “lies” on Saturday and said Syria had the right to “legitimate self-defense” in response to air strikes launched by Israel after an alleged Iranian drone incursion into its territory. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said.
    Iranian spokespersons went on to claim that the downed Iranian drone by Tel Aviv was on a surveillance operation monitoring Daesh.
    Ghashmi also re-iterated Tehran’s position that it “does not have a military presence in Syria, and has only sent military advisers at the request of the Syrian government.”
    Lebanon also criticized the Israeli air strikes, and said it would write a letter of protest to the United Nations over the use of its airspace for the raids, according to a statement from its foreign ministry.
    On the other hand, Lebanon pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah indicated in a statement that the downing of an Israeli F-16 jet fighter is “the start of a new strategic phase” which would limit Israeli exploitation of Syrian airspaces.
    The Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday that all countries in the region should respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It also said that any threats to the safety of Russian servicemen in Syria are unacceptable.