Posts Tagged ‘Assad’

Turkey Election Campaign Heats Up: Daily Sabah Says CHP’s İnce, if elected, will work with war criminal Assad

June 12, 2018

Daily Sabah

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Muharrem İnce, the CHP’s presidential candidate, gives a speech at a rally as part of his election campaign.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition CHP, signaled for closer relations with the countries in the region, including the Assad regime, if their candidate Muharrem İnce becomes president. He also blamed Washington and Moscow for the upheaval in the Middle East

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said that their presidential candidate Muharrem İnce will visit Middle Eastern countries, including Syria’s Bashar Assad regime, to bring peace to the region if he wins the elections on June 24. Speaking at a meeting of the Union of Chambers of Merchants and Craftsmen in eastern Malatya province, Kılıçdaroğlu said that they are determinant to establish a “Middle East Peace and Cooperation Organization” with Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, adding that this is only way to stop bloodshed in the region.

After civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the Assad regime has not been considered a legal representative of the Syrian people by many countries including the U.S., U.K, EU and several regional powers. They have frequently reiterated that Assad has no place in Syria’s future and called for a transition period that leads to a democratic election to form a new government in the war-torn country. Assad is blamed for the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians since the beginning of the civil war.

The CHP previously expressed necessity of talks with Assad several times. In February, in his address at the CHP’s parliamentary group meeting, Kılıçdaroğlu called on the government to establish contact with the Assad regime to resolve the conflict in Syria.

Also, while announcing the 230-page election declaration in May, Kılıçdaroğlu said, “After stability is ensured in Syria and non-state actors are disarmed, we will support a political solution where the Syrian people will be able to make decisions on their own.”

While the CHP calls for establishing contact and talks with Assad, the government has been against it, saying that Assad needs to be removed and replaced by a democratically elected government.

In response to Kılıçdaroğlu’s call over the issue, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in February that Turkey will not contact or sit at the table with Assad.

“What will we talk about with a murderer who has killed one million of his citizens,” the president said.

During his speech in Malatya, Kılıçdaroğlu also blamed the U.S. and Russia for inciting violence in the Middle East by providing weapons to warring sides.

“They [the U.S. and Russia] say ‘let’s kill each other.’ Why we would let them?” Kılıçdaroğlu said.

In February, Kılıçdaroğlu called the government to get rid of “the yoke of the U.S. and Russia,” saying that the two powers were the main source of weapons in Syria and urged the government to pursue dialogue with its neighbors instead of imperial powers.

The CHP’s presidential candidate also embraced an anti-U.S. rhetoric in his election campaign. In May, İnce vowed to shut down the U.S.’ Incirlik Air Base by Christmas unless the U.S. extradites the leader of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), Fetullah Gülen, who is accused by Ankara of perpetrating the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

“If you [the United States] don’t hand him back, we will shut down Incirlik and send back U.S. soldiers on Dec. 24 and they can celebrate Christmas with their families,” İnce said.

The Syrian civil war erupted in 2011 when the Assad regime harshly responded to protesters who had poured into the streets to demand more rights and freedom. The protests initially emerged following the Arab Spring demonstrations that resulted in strongmen in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya stepping down.

The cruelty against protesters triggered a rebellion in significant parts of the country, turning into a brutal civil war before long. So far an estimated 500,000 people have been killed in the war. Around six million people have been displaced internally and another five million were driven abroad as refugees.

With the backing of Russia and Iran, the Assad regime recently recovered swathes of territories and now controls the majority of Syria. Yet, regime forces still have tracts of land that remain outside of their authority at the borders with Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, three of its five neighboring countries.


Delusional Assad denies Moscow running the show in Syria

June 10, 2018

Assad admitted his government has disagreed with Russia and Iran throughout the country’s seven-year conflict — Moscow intervened militarily in Syria’s conflict in 2015, when Assad’s forces were struggling to hold territory against rebel fighters

DAMASCUS: Syria’s President Bashar Assad denied Moscow is running the show in his war-torn country, saying in an interview released Sunday his government operates independently of its Russian and Iranian allies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in Sochi on May 17, 2018

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in Sochi on May 17, 2018

In a wide-ranging interview in Damascus with the Mail on Sunday, Assad slammed the United States and British military actions in Syria as “colonial” while praising supporter Russia.

Defiant: Bashar al-Assad talks to journalist Hala Jaber in his palace in Damascus last week

Defiant: Bashar al-Assad talks to journalist Hala Jaber in his palace in Damascus last week

“We’ve had good relations with Russia for more than six decades now, nearly seven decades. They never, during our relation, try to dictate, even if there are differences,” he told the British newspaper.

Assad admitted his government has disagreed with Russia and Iran throughout the country’s seven-year conflict.

“That’s very natural, but at the end the only decision about what’s going on in Syria and what’s going to happen, it’s a Syrian decision,” he said.

Moscow intervened militarily in Syria’s conflict in 2015, when Assad’s forces were struggling to hold territory against rebel fighters.

Russian air strikes and military advisers have since helped regime troops seize back more than half the country.

Tehran, too, has sent military advisers to Syria, but Assad has denied that Iranian troops are on the ground.

Iran’s regional foe, Israel, has repeatedly warned it will not accept an entrenched Iranian presence in Syria.

It is suspected of carrying out numerous raids on Syrian government positions over the years, and last month announced unprecedented strikes on what it said were Tehran-operated bases in Syria.

In his interview, Assad denied Moscow had ever had prior knowledge of such strikes, despite close cooperation between Israel and Russia.

“No, no, that’s not true,” he said.

“Russia never coordinated with anyone against Syria, either politically or militarily, and that’s (a) contradiction,” he said.

“How could they help the Syrian army advancing and at the same time work with our enemies in order to destroy our army?“

Syria’s war has also drawn in many Western powers, who first backed rebel groups against Assad then shifted their focus to defeating the Islamic State jihadist group as part of a US-led coalition.

Assad lambasted the American and British interventions, saying they were “breaching the sovereignty of Syria.”

“This is colonial policy, that’s how we see it, and this is not new,” he said.

He also told the Mail on Sunday that his country had stopped intelligence sharing with European nations.

“They want to exchange information despite their governments being politically against ours, so we said… When you change your political position, we’re ready,” he said.

“Now, there’s no cooperation with any European intelligence agencies including the British.”

The interview, according to the Mail on Sunday, was Assad’s first with a British journalist since 2015. Its full transcript was published on Syrian state news agency SANA.

See also:

I use chemicals? Prove it! Syrian President Assad brands gas attacks ‘fake news’ and calls Theresa May a ‘colonialist and a liar’ in astonishing face to face interview

Netanyahu warns Assad on Iranian presence in Syria

June 7, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “no longer immune” from retaliation, while declaring the Iran nuclear deal over after Washington ditched the accord.

Noting that Israel had stayed out of Syria’s protracted civil war, in which Tehran backs Assad, Netanyahu said increasing Iranian encroachment required “a new calculus”.

© POOL/AFP/File / by Joe JACKSON | “If he fires at us, as we’ve just demonstrated, we will destroy his forces,” Netanyahu said of Assad at an event organised by the Policy Exchange think tank in London

“He is no longer immune, his regime is no longer immune. If he fires at us, as we’ve just demonstrated, we will destroy his forces,” the Israeli leader said at an event organised by the Policy Exchange think tank in London.

Last month, Israel launched a large-scale attack on purported Iranian targets in Syria following what it said was a barrage of rockets fired by Iran from the country toward its forces in the occupied Golan Heights.

Even before that, Israel had been blamed for a series of recent strikes inside Syria that killed Iranians, though it has not acknowledged them.

“Syria has to understand that Israel will not tolerate the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria against Israel,” Netanyahu added.

“The consequences are not merely to the Iranian forces there but to the Assad regime as well,” he said, adding: “I think it’s something that he should consider very seriously”.

Netanyahu is on a three-day European tour — visiting Berlin and Paris earlier this week — marked by strategic differences on Iran, as its leaders attempt to rescue the nuclear deal after US withdrawal in May.

He met Wednesday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, who reiterated London’s “firm commitment” to the accord, according to Downing Street.

But the Israeli leader said Thursday “the weight of the American economy” was already dooming “this very bad agreement”.

“It’s a done deal — in the other meaning of the word,” he added, noting companies were already pulling out of Iran under threat of damaging US sanctions.

“You have to choose whether to do business with Iran, or forego doing business with the United States… that’s a no-brainer and everybody’s choosing it effectively as we speak.”

Netanyahu said he had reiterated his dislike for the 2015 deal, which offers sanctions relief in exchange for strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities.

However, the focus of his discussions in Europe had been on reducing Iran’s presence in Syria, he added.

“I found considerable agreement on that goal.”

At the same time, he criticised his European hosts for an outdated approach to the region.

Netanyahu said Iranian expansion had led to a “realignment” of relations with Arab states in the Middle East who also oppose Tehran — something Britain and western Europe were “evidently not understanding”.

“There is a whole realignment taking place in the Middle East — they’re sort of stuck in the past,” he added, displaying a map of the world with numerous countries highlighted to show Israel’s “expanding diplomatic horizons”.

“I think there’s a west European problem with recognising that the world is changing,” he said.


Is Trump Following a Grand Mideast Strategy?

June 6, 2018

His approach to Israel, Arab allies and Iran makes it look that way. Syria will pose a major challenge.

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In this Saturday, May 20, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a bilateral meeting, in Riyadh.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

What if President Trump’s foreign policy isn’t as impulsive as it may seem? Put aside Korea and trade and consider the Middle East. Mr. Trump’s disregard of orthodoxy could turn out to be exactly what’s needed to sequence a comprehensive strategy for stabilizing the region—and to stanch the flow of Islamist terror to Europe and the U.S.

The first step has been to forge a working consensus among Israel and its Arab neighbors, aligned to contain Iran and frustrate its dreams of a Shiite crescent through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Mr. Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip, in May 2017, and has cultivated the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a putative reformer of Wahhabism.

He has collaborated with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, another advocate for reform of Islam, and respected the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, while calling out Qatar for its support of Hamas in Gaza. While none of these nations—except Israel—exemplify American ideals of liberty and the rule of law, they share an interest in fighting Islamist terror and ultimately enlisting U.S. support for better governance and economic opportunities for their young populations.

The new alliance faces three main challenges: containing Iran’s imperial ambitions and support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah; stabilizing Syria to finish off Islamic State and foreclose the next iteration of caliphate-seeking terror, while also ending Bashar Assad’s devastation of Syrian Sunni Arabs; and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last has become a low priority in the Arab world, but its resolution would liberate Israel to assume a deserved mantle of regional leadership.

The president was still right to start with the Palestinian file, while consolidating the alliance and working toward consensus goals and strategies for the other two challenges. His recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital codified a truth that must be accepted before Israel and the Palestinians can move forward together. The December announcement was brilliantly timed to confirm, validate and stress-test the new regional alliances.

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All the partners stayed quiet or offered pro forma objections, thereby passing the test—except the Palestinians. This was an opportunity for them to express disappointment and to resume negotiations for their own state, with its capital also in Jerusalem. Instead, President Mahmoud Abbas cursed President Trump: “Yekhreb Beitak,”:“May your house come to ruin.” Then, as the embassy was moving last month, Hamas incited border riots in Gaza that killed scores of Palestinians.

There’s nobody home right now to engage in peace negotiations on behalf of the Palestinians. On the West Bank they are led by the affable but unreliable Mr. Abbas, who is 82 and in the 14th year of his four-year term, continues to propagate base anti-Semitism. He is routinely bullied by subordinates—I’ve seen it privately in person—and is trying to govern from a hospital bed. He has no apparent viable successor. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Ordinary Palestinians are desperate for the peace that would integrate them into Israel’s economic miracle, but their illegitimate leadership is worsening their people’s misery to curry sympathy from naive Westerners. Still, Mr. Trump deserves credit for crystallizing the regional alignment that lays a foundation for progress once someone emerges with legitimacy to speak for the Palestinians.

Next, the president delivered on his promise to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a move that repudiated his predecessor’s supposed crowning foreign-policy achievement, defied Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, and frustrated America’s European allies. The JCPOA might have delayed Iran’s nuclear program, but it didn’t even pretend to eliminate it. Withdrawing from the deal could be a very good decision—provided it’s eventually replaced with a real nonproliferation regime and an arrangement that contains Iran and its proxies’ terror and mischief in the region.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May 21 Iran strategy speech articulated the challenge well, but making it happen will require exceptionally smart diplomacy. North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies need to be brought on board lest Iran drive a wedge between them and the U.S.—which could otherwise yield even more serious mutually destructive retaliatory trade wars than seem likely now with China, Mexico, Canada and Europe.

Then comes the ultimate prize, stabilizing Syria by stopping Mr. Assad’s domestic bloodletting, containing the spread of Sunni extremism, and ideally opening the door for Syrian migrants to return home. The Trump administration is still behind the curve here. Besides launching airstrikes to punish Mr. Assad’s grotesque and illegal chemical drops on his own people, the president has talked about pulling out of Syria “soon,” which would widen the vacuum Vladimir Putin’s Russia is aggressively filling—and for good reason: Syria is the door that must be closed to block Islamist radicalism from reaching Russia from the Middle East.

A serious approach to stopping the spread of Islamist terror, which should be the highest priority in the region for U.S. homeland security, necessitates that the U.S. stay engaged and develop a real Syria strategy. This could be a huge accomplishment, with the not-incidental bonus of getting the failed “reset” with Russia back on track. Cold War talk is the rage in Washington these days, and Mr. Putin’s thuggish behavior doesn’t help. But Russia, the U.S. and Israel have critical common interests in redressing the spread of Islamism much closer to Russia than America. So far, Israel is alone in cultivating the Russians, with the U.S. out of the picture as Mr. Putin earns credit for constructively rolling back Iranian influence on Israel’s northern border.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton smiles with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after she gave him a device with red knob during a meeting on March 6, 2009 in Geneva.  FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has little affinity for the Iranian ayatollahs, especially with their competing nuclear and energy ambitions—imagine an oil-rich Cuba with nukes. Mr. Putin is in bed with Mr. Assad and Iran for lack of a better alternative. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Turkey can’t be trusted to help insulate Russia, and the U.S. and Europe are understandably hostile to Mr. Putin’s moves in Ukraine and Syria.

Yet Russia needs American partnership, and it’s clearly in everyone’s interest to collaborate toward an alternative to Mr. Assad and Iran for shoring up Syria. The U.S. will certainly have a better chance of restraining Mr. Putin’s misbehavior at home and abroad if it seizes the initiative to stabilize the Middle East with Russia and Israel. This should be high on the agenda for the next Trump-Putin meeting.

Successfully dealing with Russia and Middle Eastern and European allies could produce a long-overdue realignment of international alliances set in the 20th century’s bipolar rivalry of economic systems, to address rogue nations like Iran and the decentralized, multipolar threats of nonstate terrorists afflicting East and West. Given the initial chaos around the administration’s other international negotiations, this may be a lot to expect. After decades of Middle East failure, though, bold disruption seems exactly what is necessary. Last century’s “experts” have had their turn.

Mr. Arbess is CEO of Xerion Investments and co-founder of No Labels.


Obama and Putin at a June G8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. (EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/RIA NOVOSTI/KREM)

Obama and Putin at a June G-8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. (EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/RIA NOVOSTI/KREM)

Roadmap for Syria’s Manbij to be announced after Pompeo-Çavuşoğlu meeting on Monday, Turkey sayys

June 3, 2018

The roadmap on Syria’s Manbij is expected to be announced following negotiations between Turkey and the U.S., which will take place after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 4 in Washington, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Saturday.

Speaking to reporters in the southern Antalya province, Çavuşoğlu said the meeting would focus on withdrawal of the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) terror group from the northern Syrian city and ensuring stability in the region.

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Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu

“Who will govern here [Manbij] until a political solution is reached in the country? Who will be responsible for security? Joint action and joint decision with the U.S. on these issues is the basic framework of the main roadmap,” Çavuşoğlu said.

He said if the Manbij plan is implemented successfully, other YPG-held Syrian towns would follow.

“We have to stabilize these places,” Çavuşoğlu said, adding that there are hundreds of thousands of Kurds who had to flee persecution by YPG.

The foreign minister highlighted that the return of Syrians to their homes depends on ensuring stability, noting that over 170,000 of them have returned following the successful Operation Euphrates Shield.

Çavuşoğlu noted that twice the amount of Syrians would return after the terrorists are completely cleared.

Should the final deal be agreed on June 4, YPG/PKK terrorists will leave Manbij in accordance with a date to be determined in Washington.

In the second phase which is expected to start 45 days after June 4, the U.S. and Turkish military and intelligence authorities will start a joint inspection of Manbij.

The third phase includes forming a local administration in Manbij within 60 days after June 4.

The military council responsible for security and the local council responsible for municipal services will be formed taking ethnic distribution of the population into consideration.

Following a visit by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Ankara in February, Turkey and the U.S. established a mechanism to address separate issues in working groups, including the stabilization of Manbij and to prevent any undesirable clashes.

The first meeting of the working group on Syria was held on March 8-9 in Washington.

U.S. military support for the YPG/PKK terrorist group in Manbij has strained ties between Ankara and Washington and has led to fears of military clashes between the two NATO allies since there are roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in the city.

In January, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, northern Syria to clear terrorist groups from the area. After liberating the city of Afrin, Ankara said it might also extend its operation further east to Manbij unless the YPG/PKK terrorist group leaves the strategically located city.

Syria links talks on south to US withdrawal

June 3, 2018

More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war since it started in 2011 — The US is present in the north of Syria, where it has been backing a Kurdish-led alliance

A Syrian fighter sits carrying a machine gun in a fortified area near the frontlines at a opposition-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa on Saturday. (AFP)

Syria’s foreign minister on Saturday linked any talks on the future of a rebel-held southern region with the departure of US forces from another area bordering Iraq and Jordan.

Regime ally Russia has called for a meeting with the United States and Jordan on the future of the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In recent weeks, Damascus has sent military reinforcements to the two provinces, which comprise some of the closest rebel-held areas to the capital.

President Vladimir Putin has spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu about proposed talks.

“We have not yet entered into negotiations over the southern front,” Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said at a press conference in Damascus.

“The indicator will be the withdrawal of the United States from our land in At-Tanaf” near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, Muallem said.

The United States and its allies have used a base in the area to train a force fighting the Islamic State group.

“Don’t believe anything that is said about an agreement on the south until you see that the United States has withdrawn its forces from the At-Tanaf base,” he said.

“It must withdraw its forces from At-Tanaf.”

“We have strived from the start to resolve the issue in the ways that we are used to, which are reconciliations,” he said. “If it is not feasible, we will see what will happen.”

Moscow-brokered reconciliation deals have seen rebels withdraw from several areas of Syria including opposition strongholds close to the capital, often after blistering regime offensives and sieges.

Last month, Washington warned Damascus it would take “firm” action if the regime violated a ceasefire deal for southern Syria that was negotiated with Russia and Jordan last year.

The warning came after regime aircraft dropped leaflets on Daraa, urging the rebels who control most of the province to lay down their weapons or face an offensive.

The United States is also present in the north of Syria, where it has been backing a Kurdish-led alliance fighting IS.

Muallem also criticised a US-Turkish roadmap for “security and stability” in the Kurdish-held city of Manbij near the Turkish border.

The agreement came after forces led by Turkey, who considers Syria’s Kurdish militia to be “terrorists”, in March seized the enclave of Afrin west of Manbij.

That had raised fears of a confrontation between Turkish troops and American forces based in Manbij.

“Not just in Manbij but also in Afrin and on every inch of Syrian soil, we consider Turkey to be an aggressor,” the foreign minister said.

“Neither the United States nor Turkey has the right to negotiate over a Syrian city,” he said, describing any such deal as “infringing on Syrian sovereignty”.


Israel, Russia Discuss Pushing Iran Back From Syria’s Border and Assad’s Return to Area

June 1, 2018

Israel sees an opportunity to push the Iranians away from the Syria border without risking war with them and Hezbollah

Missile fire is seen over Daraa, Syria, May 10, 2018.
Missile fire is seen over Daraa, Syria, May 10, 2018.\ ALAA AL-FAQIR/ REUTERS

The events in Syria, and efforts by Israel to curb the establishment of an Iranian military presence there, still top the list of priorities here. Gaza is seen as a secondary arena, one that must be contained and restrained while the more pressing problem is addressed.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the Gaza cease-fire was attained, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman left for a short visit to Moscow. At a meeting on Thursday afternoon with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, he discussed the reduction of the Iranian presence in Syria.

Lieberman was optimistic this week regarding the chances of moving the Iranians and the Shi’ite militias they bankroll further back from their border with Israel in the Golan Heights. This realistic expectation apparently has to do with changes in southern Syria, in keeping with the earlier agreement to reduce friction in the region, signed by the United States, Russia and Jordan last November.

It is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is insisting on raising the threshold of demands. On Wednesday, at the annual memorial for those killed on the Irgun arms ship Altalena in 1948, he said that Israel would continue to act against Iranian encroachment, “not only opposite the Golan Heights but everywhere in Syria.” Netanyahu’s reasoning, expressed in closed-door conversations with foreign leaders, hinges on the dangers that in his opinion could arise from the deployment of Iranian long-range missiles deep within Syrian territory. Such missiles, he believes, would enable Iran to open an additional front against Israel during a future war, in addition to the threat posed by Hezbollah’s large arsenal of missiles in Lebanon.

Would an agreement on pushing the Iranians away from Israel’s border with Syria also include the return of the Assad regime to that area? Four years ago, rebels pushed pro-Assad forces back from the entire border zone, except for a small area on the slopes of Mt. Hermon on the Syrian side. Local forces identified with ISIS still control an enclave in the southern Golan Heights, near the three-way border with Jordan. In the past year, Israeli intelligence has raised the possibility of a renewed attack on those forces by the regime and its supporters in a bid to control the entire Syrian Golan region. So far, this scenario has not been realized, partly due to Israeli opposition and partly because Assad has had more urgent missions to contend with, such as fighting the rebels in Idlib, in northern Syria.

Israel has tightened its connections Syrians near the border, offering significant humanitarian aid (including food and medication, as well as medical treatment in Israel) to people living and, according to foreign reports, has also equipped them with arms and ammunition. However, the various sides apparently understand that this is a temporary alliance, the stability of which will be influenced by broader considerations. No one will send in Israeli soldiers to save these villages from the return of the regime. It is more reasonable to assume that agreements on compromise and capitulation would be reached with the rebels if the Syrian army in fact returns to the border.

Preliminary details from Lieberman’s meeting with Shoygu and a phone call Netanyahu held on Thursday evening with Russian President Vladimir Putin suggest a possibility that Israel will indeed give silent consent for Assad’s return to the border. The possibility that the Iranians and the militias will pull away east of the Damascus-Suwayda road, some 70 kilometers from the Israeli border, was discussed in the talks.

Israel now sees a window of opportunity up north for distancing the Iranians without the situation devolving into a war against them and Hezbollah. Not all of Israel’s neighbors are equally optimistic. Not long ago, Cyprus, in conjunction with the EU, dedicated a new center for crisis management. The first large-scale exercise was held at the compound last month, with the participation of delegates from 18 countries (Israel was defined as an observer state). The scenario for the exercise imagined a mass evacuation of Western citizens from Lebanon via Cyprus during a war. Those who planned the exercise were able to base this scenario on reality: It is exactly what happened in 2006, during the latest war between Israel and Hezbollah.

In Syria, Putin and Netanyahu Were on the Same Side All Along

May 31, 2018

Putin is ready to ditch Iran to keep Israel happy and save Assad’s victory

.Putin and Netanyahu toast during a reception in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018.
Putin and Netanyahu toast during a reception in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018.Alexei Nikolsky/AP

As Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman meets his Russian counterpart Thursday in Moscow to discuss the arrangements for keeping Iran and its proxies away from Israel’s border with Syria, they will be merely formalizing an understanding between the two countries that has long been in the making. It should have been clear from the beginning of the Russian involvement in Syria nearly three years ago that, when forced to choose between Israel and Iran, Vladimir Putin would come out on Israel’s side.

This has little if anything to do with Putin’s own special brand of philo-semitism. The Russian president is not the sentimental type. He favors Israel because it is currently the only regional power capable of ruining his plans. Putin, who wanted to ensure that the Bashar Assad regime survived in Syria, had a shared interest with Iran, which sees Syria as part of its axis of influence in the region. Iran supplied the ground forces to prop up the Assad regime, which in mid-2015 was very close to collapse. Not so much its own troops, but its proxy Lebanese militia Hezbollah and tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, who were paid or press-ganged into joining the Fatemiyoun brigades, that Iran financed, armed and sent to Syria.

Putin, for political reasons, did not want to risk too many Russian soldiers in Syria. Coffins coming home would have eroded his popularity. Moscow supplied the air-power and the combination of Russian Sukhoi fighter jets bombing rebel enclaves from thousands of feet, and Iranian-paid Shi’ite fighters mopping up the survivors, saved Bashar Assad. Now that the war in Syria has been decided in Assad’s favor, the Russians have less need for Tehran’s boots on the ground.

File photo: Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018.
File photo: Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

>> To get Iran out of Syria, Israel and the U.S. must cooperate with Putin | Analysis

Russia of course has no plans to leave Syria. It is its client state and thanks to the Assad regime, Russia has its coveted warm-water ports on the Mediterranean. Iran wants to remain as well, but Israel sees the Iranian long-term presence as a strategic threat and since Russia has little need for Iran either, the choice is clear.

Throughout Russia’s presence in Syria, Israel didn’t attack the Iranian-backed ground forces – just the convoys and depots of advanced missiles that could be used in the future by Hezbollah or Iranian officers to strike Israel. Jerusalem’s circumspection in not targeting the elements that Russia needed to prop up Assad, along with Israel’s assurances to Moscow that it has no intention in intervening in the battle for power in Damascus, ensured that the two countries were never on opposite sides of the war.

Now that Assad is back in control of most of Syria and rolling back the few remaining pockets of rebels, Putin is keenly aware that the only regional force that can seriously ruin his plans, should it choose to do so, is Israel. Iran can’t and won’t jeopardize Assad. In addition, Iran can’t turn against Russia since it needs its commercial ties with Moscow more than ever, now that the Trump administration has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Moscow meeting Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shvigo on  May 31, 2018.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Moscow meeting Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu on May 31, 2018.Ariel Harmony / Ministry of Defense

The week after the first Russian aircraft landed at Syria’s Khmeimim airbase in September 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow, agreeing on ground-rules with Putin. Ever since, Israel has continued carrying out its periodic airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah assets in Syria, with barely an occasional bland diplomatic protest from the Kremlin. Effectively Israel was allowed free rein to attack targets that were ostensibly under Russia’s air-defense umbrella. The understanding was clear – Israel would not do anything that could hamper Russia’s campaign to save Assad. Everything else was fair game.

Netanyahu was the first to understand that as soon as former U.S. President Barack Obama had broken his own commitment and decided not to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian citizens, the United States had ceased to become a serious player in the region. Putin inserted himself into the vacuum created by Obama and Netanyahu moved quickly to establish his own arrangement with the Russian leader. As the Sukhois landed in Syria, many Israeli security officials and experts fretted that Israel’s freedom of operation over Syria was over. But one of their colleagues in Moscow said: “You’ll see. Putin respects Israel’s military force. And Putin and Netanyahu understand each other. They will find a way to get along.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Moscow meeting Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shvigo on  May 31, 2018.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Moscow meeting Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu on May 31, 2018.Ariel Harmony / Ministry of Defense

Assad denies presence of Iranian forces in Syria

May 31, 2018

Dictator says upgrading air defenses ‘with Russian help’ the only way to deter Israel, Moscow averted ‘direct conflict’ with US

Times of Israel
May 31, 2018

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Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with the Greek Kathimerini newspaper, in Damascus, Syria, in this photo released May 10, 2018. (SANA via AP)

Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday denied the presence in his country of any Iranian troops.

Much of Iran’s infrastructure in Syria has been set up on Syrian military bases, Israel says, and the IDF has frequently hit Syrian air defenses during strikes on Iranian targets.

Earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force carried out its biggest operation in Syria in 40 years when it attacked more than 50 Iranian targets in response to an Iranian rocket barrage at the Golan Heights, amid warnings from Jerusalem that it would not tolerate Tehran’s attempts to entrench itself militarily on Israel’s northern border.

But according to Assad, Iran’s presence in his country is limited to an advisory capacity.

In a wide-ranging interview with Russia’s RT television, Assad said that “not a single Iranian” but rather “tens of Syrian martyrs” had been killed in recent Israeli airstrikes on his country and that claims to the contrary were “a lie.”

A tank flying the Hezbollah terror group’s flag is seen in the Qara area in Syria’s Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

“We do not have Iranian troops. We never had, and you cannot hide it,” he said, adding, “Like we invited the Russians, we could have invited the Iranians.”

Long-simmering tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria stepped up considerably in recent months, beginning in February when an Iranian drone carrying explosives was flown from the T-4 air base in central Syria into Israeli airspace and was shot down by an IAF helicopter.

On Wednesday night, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman set off for Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to discuss Iran’s growing military presence in Syria.

“The primary focus of the defense establishment is preventing the entrenchment of Iran and its proxies in Syria,” Liberman wrote in a tweet before his flight.

In an apparent reference to Iranian forces, on Wednesday Russian state media outlet TASS quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying foreign militias should leave southwestern Syria as soon as possible.

Lavrov echoed comments he made earlier in the week, when he said that only Syrian troops should be stationed in the rebel-held Daraa province, a region adjacent to the Israeli border that has emerged as a flashpoint in a wider standoff between the Jewish state and Iran.

Plea for Russian air defenses

During the interview with RT, Assad also said that the only way to stop Israeli airstrikes on his country was to beef up its air defenses with Russia’s help.

Assad seemed to contradict himself by saying, “Our air defense is much stronger than before, thanks to the Russian support,” but also conceding that “[anti-government militias and Israel, according to his claim] destroyed a big part of our air defenses.”

“The recent attacks by the Israelis and by the Americans and British and French proved that we are in a better situation,” he said. “The only option is to improve our air defense, this is the only thing we can do, and we are doing that.”

Illustrative image of Russian S-400 long-range air defense missile systems deployed at Hemeimeem air base in Syria, December 16, 2015. (Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that a decision had not yet been made on supplying Syria with advanced air defense systems, a development that Israel fears could hamper its efforts to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syrian territory and transfers of arms supplies to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

Assad also said that Russia had averted “direct conflict” with the US in Syria and a far greater attack than the one launched in April by the US, UK and France on alleged Syrian chemical sites, following a chemical weapons attack on civilians attributed to the Syrian government — a charge that Assad denied.

“We were close to have direct conflict between the Russian forces and the American forces, and fortunately, it has been avoided, not by the wisdom of the American leadership, but by the wisdom of the Russian leadership,” he said.

Threat to attack US-backed Kurds

Assad also warned US-backed Kurdish forces he would not hesitate to use force to retake the third of the country they control.

“The only problem left in Syria is the SDF,” Assad said, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces which has spearheaded battles against Islamic State group jihadists.

“We’re going to deal with it by two options,” he said. “The first one: we started now opening doors for negotiations. Because the majority of them are Syrians, supposedly they like their country, they don’t like to be puppets to any foreigners.

“We have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we’re going to resort… to liberating those areas by force,” Assad added. “It’s our land, it’s our right and it’s our duty to liberate it, and the Americans should leave. Somehow they’re going to leave.”

Assad said that his generation had been forced to live under the threat of Israeli attack since they were children, but that it was “nonsense” to say that they were afraid.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.


Assad says US must leave Syria, vows to use force if negotiations with SDF fail

May 31, 2018

Bashar al-Assad said the United States should learn the lesson of Iraq and withdraw from Syria, and promised to recover areas of the country held by U.S.-backed militias through negotiations or force.

“The only problem left in Syria is the SDF,” Assad told Russia Today in an interview aired Thursday, referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia alliance dominated by PKK terrorist group’s Syrian offshoot the People Protection Forces (YPG) which is backed by the U.S.

“We’re going to deal with it by two options,” he said.

“The first one: we started now opening doors for negotiations. Because the majority of them are Syrians, supposedly they like their country, they don’t like to be puppets to any foreigners,” Assad said.

“We have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we’re going to resort… to liberating those areas by force,” he said.

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In this file photo released by the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency on March 18, 2018, shows Bashar al-Assad (c) talking with regime troops in eastern Ghouta. (AFP Photo)

“We don’t have any other options, with the Americans or without the Americans. It’s our land, it’s our right and it’s our duty to liberate it, and the Americans should leave. Somehow they’re going to leave,” he said.

“They came to Iraq with no legal basis, and look what happened to them. They have to learn the lesson. Iraq is no exception, and Syria is no exception. People will not accept foreigners in this region anymore,” he said.

The SDF controls some one-third of Syrian territory mostly east and north of the Euphrates River.

Both the SDF and Russian-backed regime troops are engaged in separate operations against Daesh terrorists in eastern Syria, creating a highly volatile situation where de-confliction mechanisms have already been tested several times.

Assad also said that a confrontation between Russia and U.S. forces over Syria was narrowly avoided.

“We were close to have direct conflict between the Russian forces and the American forces,” he said.

“Fortunately, it has been avoided, not by the wisdom of the American leadership, but by the wisdom of the Russian leadership.”

Responding to U.S. President Donald Trump’s description of him as “Animal Assad”, the Syrian leader said: “What you say is what you are”. Trump called Assad an animal after a suspected poison gas attack on a rebel-held town near Damascus in April.

Assad reiterated the regime’s denial that it carried out the attack in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma, saying that the regime did not have chemical weapons and it would not have been in its interest to carry out such a strike.

The Douma attack triggered missile strikes on Syria by the United States, Britain and France which they said targeted Assad’s chemical weapons program.

Assad has recovered swathes of Syrian territory with military backing from Russia and Iran and is now militarily unassailable in the conflict that began in 2011.

Large areas however remain outside his control at the borders with Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. These include the SDF-held parts of the north and east, and chunks of territory held by opposition forces in the northwest and southwest.

Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Tehran’s influence in Syria, earlier this month said it destroyed dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time.

Iran-backed militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah have played a big role in support of Assad during the conflict. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have also deployed in the country.

Assad said Iran’s presence in Syria was limited to officers who were assisting the Syrian army. Assad, apparently referring to the May 10 attack, by Israel said “we had tens of Syrian martyrs and wounded soldiers, not a single Iranian” casualty.

Asked if there was anything Syria could do to stop Israeli air strikes, Assad said: “The only option is to improve our air defense, this is the only thing we can do, and we are doing that”. He said that Syria’s air defenses were now much stronger than before thanks to Russia.