Posts Tagged ‘Bashar al-Assad’

Syria and Russia say withdrawal of Iran, Hezbollah ‘not on agenda’

May 23, 2018

Syria’s deputy foreign minister said Wednesday Damascus did not envisage Iran and Hezbollah participating in the withdrawal of foreign forces from the war-torn country as announced last week by Russia.

Asked whether the removal of Iranian and Hezbollah forces could end Israel’s strikes on Syria, Faisal Mekdad told RIA Novosti state news agency that “this topic is not even on the agenda for discussion.”

“All these forces oppose terrorism. They are not making an attempt to violate the sovereignty and territory of Syria,” he said in comments translated into Russian.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Thursday, with the Russian leader saying “foreign armed forces will withdraw from Syrian territory” although he gave few details.

But Russia’s chief Syria negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev later told journalists that the withdrawal of foreign troops should be done “as a whole” and include Iranians and Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese group that is an ally of Iran and Assad.

“We are talking about all the foreign troop divisions which still have troops in Syrian territory. That includes the Americans and the Turks and Hezbollah, of course, and the Iranians,” Lavrentyev said on Friday, quoted by RIA Novosti.

Mekdad, however, suggested Russia had not meant to say this.

“I don’t think that our Russian friends meant the forces that entered Syria in agreement with the Syrian government,” he said.

“Russia demanded the withdrawal of forces that are here without agreement: that is the forces of the US, France, Turkey and other forces that are here illegitimately.”

Russia and Iran are both allied with Assad. Together with rebel-supporting Turkey, they have been brokering peace talks in Astana, the Kazakh capital, running in parallel to talks supervised by the United Nations.

Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was acting on the basis that both Hezbollah and the Iranians, “just like the Russian air forces, are in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government.”

AFP

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Iran slams U.S. sanctions push, Syria rejects idea of Iranian withdrawal

May 23, 2018

Iran on Wednesday kept up a drumbeat of opposition to U.S. demands for sweeping change in its foreign policy and nuclear program, and Tehran’s ally Damascus dismissed out of hand a U.S. call for a withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria.

rance, one of several European powers dismayed by the U.S. withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear accord, said Washington’s method of adding more sanctions on Tehran would reinforce the country’s dominant hardliners.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday threatened Iran with “the strongest sanctions in history” if it did not curb its regional influence, accusing Tehran of supporting armed groups in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Pompeo was speaking two weeks after President Donald Trump pulled out of an international nuclear deal with Iran that had lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program. European powers see the accord as the best chance of stopping Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, to discuss Iran's nuclear deal, on May 15, 2018 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Thierry Monasse)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, to discuss Iran’s nuclear deal, on May 15, 2018 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Thierry Monasse)

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Pompeo had repeated old allegations against Tehran “only with a stronger and more indecent tone”.

“Mr Pompeo and other U.S. officials in the current administration are prisoners of their wrong illusions, prisoners of their past and have been taken hostage by corrupt pressure groups,” he told state television.

Image result for Major General Mohammad Bagheri,

Major General Mohammad Bagheri,

A senior Iranian military official, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, said Iran would not bow to Washington’s pressure to limit its military activities.

“This enemy (the United States) does not have the courage for military confrontation and face-to-face war with Iran, but it’s trying to put economic and mental pressures on the Iranian nation,” state news agency IRNA reported him as saying.

“ENDANGERING THE REGION”

In Damascus, Syria’s deputy foreign minister dismissed the notion of a withdrawal of Iranian forces.

In Syria’s seven-year-old conflict, Iran has provided vital support to President Bashar al-Assad’s military. Its forces and the militias it backs from the region, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, helped Damascus claw back control of major cities from militants and rebels.

“Whether Iranian forces or Hezbollah withdraw or stay in Syria is not up for discussion because it’s the (business) of the Syrian government,” Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV cited Faisal Mekdad as saying.

In Paris, France’s foreign minister said the U.S. decision to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and implement a tough strategy on the country would strengthen Tehran’s hardliners and endanger the region.

“We disagree with the method because this collection of sanctions which will be set up against Iran will not enable dialogue and, on the contrary, it will reinforce the conservatives and weaken President Rouhani. This posture risks endangering the region more,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Inter radio.

He said Paris would continue to implement the agreement even if it did agree with the United States that Iran’s ballistic missile activity and regional hegemonic ambitions needed to be curbed.

He said Paris shared Washington’s concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile “frenzy” and regional ambitions, but the 2015 nuclear deal was the best chance of stopping Tehran developing a nuclear bomb.

Deputy foreign ministers of the remaining parties to the accord – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – will meet their Iranian counterpart on Friday in Vienna.

The meeting will assess what can be done to keep the deal and circumvent extraterritorial American sanctions that are impacting foreign business appetite for Iran.

For a graphic on Iran’s nuclear program: tmsnrt.rs/2rvkaq6

Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Ellen Francis in Beirut, Editing by William Maclean and Janet Lawrence

Reuters

Iraqi Voters Seem to Reject U.S., Iran With Support for Sadr — Voters fed up with war and old faces

May 15, 2018

Strong showing for cleric in early, incomplete results scrambles the political landscape

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr entered the political mainstream with a nationalist message that rejects influence from Iraq’s two biggest allies, the U.S. and Iran.
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr entered the political mainstream with a nationalist message that rejects influence from Iraq’s two biggest allies, the U.S. and Iran. PHOTO: HAIDAR HAMDANI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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ERBIL, Iraq—Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s apparent political breakthrough in national elections is forcing the U.S. and Iran to confront the prospect that a frequent critic of both is poised to take the lead in selecting Iraq’s next premier.

In a vote seen as a contest between the U.S. and Iran for influence in Iraq, Mr. Sadr’s strong showing in early, incomplete results scrambled the political landscape. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who had implicit American support, and Iran-aligned candidates lagged behind Mr. Sadr’s unlikely alliance with Iraq’s communists.

A firebrand whose Mahdi Army militia once fought U.S. forces and was implicated in sectarian bloodshed, Mr. Sadr has since entered the mainstream with a nationalist message that rejects influence from Iraq’s two biggest allies, the U.S. and Iran.

Mr. Sadr has never held office, but is now expected to play a kingmaker role in choosing the next prime minister, avoiding direct involvement in politics.

Mr. Sadr is openly hostile to the U.S., calling for American troops to leave the country. However, he has become more pragmatic in recent years, and some of his interests now may correspond more closely with Washington’s than those of Iran.

He has engaged with Sunni allies of the U.S. like Saudi Arabia and shown support for Mr. Abadi, who led the country to victory over Islamic State and has sought to reach acrossIraq’s sectarian divide.

Mr. Sadr has put himself at odds with Iran by saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should go, and is against sending Iraqis to fight in Syria as part of Iran’s so-called Resistance Front. He has also criticized Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq as undisciplined.

Politicians close to Mr. Sadr have indicated he is most likely to partner with Mr. Abadi, a U.S. ally. It isn’t clear what kind of policies a government of his design would pursue, but it would achieve a key U.S. goal of blunting Tehran’s influence over political decisions in Baghdad.

“The Iraqi political camp that is closer to Iran’s interests has lost the electoral battle and the other camp has won,” said Alaa Mustafa, a political analyst and professor at Baghdad University.

With preliminary results counted in all but two of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Mr. Sadr’s Sairun coalition was near the top in most of them. Results have yet to be announced for the Kurdish province of Duhok and the ethnically mixed Kirkuk, where Arabs and Turkmen have accuse Kurds of tampering with the vote to give themselves a majority.

Final results, including the number of seats allocated to each party, are expected in the coming days. The Fateh alliance, representing Shiite militias with ties to Iran, appeared to have finished second overall. It was a disappointing showing for Mr. Abadi, whose Victory coalition was predicted to win a plurality but came in third.

The results chart a comeback for Mr. Sadr that began two years ago when his followers breached the blast walls surrounding Iraq’s “Green Zone”—the heavily fortified center of Iraq’s government—and invaded Parliament demanding an end to corruption.

Those protests gave birth to Mr. Sadr’s coalition with the Iraqi Communist Party for Saturday’s election.

A Kurdish man after casting his ballot paper in Erbil. Iraq’s leaders face a daunting list of challenges, including rebuilding areas devastated by the war and preventing the resurgence of Islamic State.
A Kurdish man after casting his ballot paper in Erbil. Iraq’s leaders face a daunting list of challenges, including rebuilding areas devastated by the war and preventing the resurgence of Islamic State. PHOTO: GAILAN HAJI/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

As one of the few Iraqi politicians with a real popular base, Mr. Sadr benefited from a historically low turnout, reflecting deep disillusionment with the political elite that has governed the country since it became a democracy 15 years ago.

“Sadr had a prophecy that came true: He said people will win over corrupt politicians and that is what happened,” said Razaq Hussein, a 24-year-old Baghdad student who took part in the Green Zone protest and voted for Mr. Sadr on Saturday.

“Then, people stormed the Green Zone and scared the corrupt politicians. Now…the Sairun coalition stormed the elections,” Mr. Hussein said.

Mr. Sadr has long held sway with low-income Shiites and took up the mantle from his father, who opposed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and was shot and killed in the street in a suspected assassination.

In the prior parliament, Mr. Sadr had 34 lawmakers, but, in a populist stroke, he banned them from running in Saturday’s election, seeking to appeal to voters fed up with old faces.

Among the fresh faces on Mr. Sadr’s list was Montadher al-Zaidi, a journalist who won notoriety by hurling a shoe at President George W. Bush during a press conference following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“Our main goal is to restore the sovereignty of Iraqi decision-making away from both Iranian and American influence,” Mr. Zaidi said.

He has vowed to do away with corruption and appoint technocrats to the cabinet, ending a system whereby Iraq’s influential sectarian and ethnic political parties divvy up ministries and government offices among themselves.

Iraq’s leaders face a daunting list of challenges, including rebuilding areas devastated by the war and preventing the resurgence of Islamic State. Iraq needs more than $80 billion to fix the damage done by Islamic State, the World Bank says, but is struggling to attract foreign investment.

Mr. Sadr will need to choose at least one of the main runners-up as a partner to form the biggest bloc, which is entitled to nominate a prime minister in the first session of Parliament.

Write to Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com and Ali Nabhan at ali.nabhan@wsj.com

Appeared in the May 15, 2018, print edition as ‘Iraq Cleric Gains Sway After Upset Vote.’

https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraqi-voters-seem-to-reject-u-s-iran-with-support-for-sadr-1526307075

Netanyahu: Iran Crossed Red Line, Israel Acted in Self Defense

May 11, 2018

Israel and Iran on brink of war after unprecedented Syria bombardment in response to alleged Golan Heights attack

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Biggest Israeli intervention in neighbouring Syria since beginning of civil war sparked by what IDF says was first ever direct Iranian rocket attack on its troops

By Bethan McKernan Beirut

The Independent Online
Israel and Iran on brink of war after unprecedented Syria bombardment

Israel has launched its most intensive attack on Iranian positions in neighbouring Syria since the civil war began in 2011, bringing two of the region’s major powers closer to the brink of direct confrontation than ever before.

The early morning bombardment killed 23 people, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said. It was issued in response to what the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said was the first ever Iranian rocket attack on its troops, in the Golan Heights.

:: Latest updates amid calls for de-escalation as Israel and Iran lurch towards armed conflict 

The confrontation marks the most significant military skirmish between the two enemies to date amid a backdrop of escalating regional tensions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Iran “crossed a red line” and the Israeli response using airstrikes was “appropriate”.

The actions were a “clear message” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he said, adding: “We are in the midst of a protracted battle and our policy is clear: We will not allow Iran to entrench itself militarily in Syria.”

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani meanwhile urged European nations to “clearly state their actions and stances to compensate for the withdrawal of the United States in the short time that is left”.

“Iran has always sought to reduce tensions in the region, trying to strengthen security and stability,” he told German chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call, one of number he made to a series of world leaders throughout the day.

Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron have both called for “calm on all sides”.

The White House condemned what it said was Iran’s “provocative rocket attacks from Syria against Israeli citizens”, emphasising “Israel’s right to act in self-defence.”

Russia also called the strikes a “alarming development” and urged for a de-escalation.

During the overnight incident civilians in both the Golan Heights, the Damascus countryside and Syria’s south were kept awake by the sound of low-flying military jets and explosions.

Israel has been on heightened alert in recent days in anticipation of an Iranian attack: Tehran has vowed retaliation for two other recent Israeli strikes in Syria which targeted and killed at least 13 Iranian nationals.

The IDF said 20 Fajr or Grad missiles were fired by the Iranian Quds Force at its positions in the Golan Heights border area, several of which were intercepted by Israel’s missile defence systems. No Israelis were injured.

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Iranian officials offered no immediate comment on Israel’s claim about the missile fire. Later on Thursday Lebanon’s al Manar TV quoted the vice-president of Iran’s National Security Committee as saying, “Iran has no relation to the missiles that hit the enemy entity yesterday.”

The blistering Israeli response targeted what officials said was almost all of Iran’s military infrastructure inside Syria, including dozens of weapons storage sites and intelligence centres used by elite Iranian forces, as well as Syrian air defence systems. The Syrian systems did not damage any Israeli planes.

“They need to remember the saying that if it rains on us, it’ll storm on them,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told media on Thursday. “I hope we finished this chapter and everyone got the message.”

According to the Russian military, Israel fired more than 70 missiles during the attack.

Sana, Syria’s state news agency, quoted a Syrian military official as saying Israeli missiles hit air defence positions, radar stations and a weapons warehouse, but claimed most incoming rockets were intercepted. It said the hostilities were triggered by Israeli fire over the border – something which has not happened since 1974. SOHR also said it believed the incident began with a volley of fire on the Qunietra region town of Baath.

According to Syrian army command three people died and two were injured in the attack. It was not immediately clear whether the casualties were Iranian or Syrian. SOHR said at least five Syrian soldiers were killed.

Israel has largely managed to stay out of the complex seven-year-old conflict next-door, although the Golan Heights is restive and authorities have retaliated to occasional stray rockets with reprisals.

Around 100 Israeli airstrikes in Syrian territory in the last few years have aimed to prevent weapons smuggling to the Iran-allied Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which also fights alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Hezbollah, like Iran, is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

As Assad has slowly regained control of the country, tensions between Iran and Israel have ratcheted up, with Israeli officials warning they will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria.

Donald Trump‘s announcement earlier this week that his country would unilaterally withdraw from the landmark 2015 nuclear dealagreed between Iran and world powers has also set the Middle East on edge.

While Iran has said Israeli aggression against its troops in Syria will not go unheeded, Tehran’s technical ability to hit back is limited.

Iranian officials are also wary of being drawn into a wider military escalation while they are trying to garner international support to save the nuclear agreement, which gave Iran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Thursday’s flare-up came just hours after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a visit to Moscow, where he and Russian president Vladimir Putin discussed Syria’s war.

Russia militarily intervened in the conflict in 2015, turning the tide of the war in Assad’s favour.

Mr Netanyahu’s office said after the meeting that Russia was “unlikely” to limit Israel’s armed actions in Syria.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-iran-war-latest-syria-golan-heights-rocket-air-strikes-a8344291.html

Iran targets Israeli bases across Syrian frontier, Israel pounds Syria — Israel says it hit “all Iranian bases in Syria”

May 10, 2018

Iranian forces in Syria launched a rocket attack on Israeli army bases in the Golan Heights early on Thursday, Israel said, prompting one of the heaviest Israeli barrages against Syria since the conflict there began in 2011.

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Syrian missile fire is seen in the night sky near Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018. REUTERS-Omar Sanadiki

Reuters

The attack on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, just past midnight, marked the first time Iranian forces have hit Israel from Syria, where they have deployed along with Iran-backed Shi’ite militias and Russian troops to support President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war.

Dozens of Israeli missiles hit a radar station, Syrian air defense positions and an ammunition dump, Syrian state media said, underscoring the risks of a wider escalation involving Iran and its regional allies.

“I hope we finished this chapter and everyone got the message,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at the Herzliya security conference, near Tel Aviv, on Thursday morning.

Israel said 20 Iranian Grad and Fajr rockets were shot down by its Iron Dome air defense system or fell short of the Golan targets. The Quds Force, an external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, carried out the launch, Israel said.

“It was commanded and ordered by (Quds Force chief General) Qassem Soleimani and it has not achieved its purpose,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Israel struck back by destroying dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, Conricus said, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft units that tried unsuccessfully to shoot down Israeli planes.

“We do not know yet the (Iranian) casualty count,” he said.

“But I can say that in terms of our purpose, we focused less on personnel and more on capabilities and hardware … to inflict long-term damage on the Iranian military establishment in Syria. We assess it will take substantial time to replenish.”

Israeli schools in the Golan Heights opened as usual on Thursday morning, after sirens had sent residents to shelters during the night.

This frame grab from video provided on Wednesday, May, 9, 2018 by Syria News, shows people standing in front of flames rising after an attack on an area known to have numerous Syrian army military bases, in Kisweh, south of Damascus, Syria on Tuesday. (Syria News, via AP)

This frame grab from video provided on Wednesday, May, 9, 2018 by Syria News, shows people standing in front of flames rising after an attack on an area known to have numerous Syrian army military bases, in Kisweh, south of Damascus, Syria on Tuesday. (Syria News, via AP)

“I do not reside on the border of New Zealand-Australia. We are located here facing Syria and Lebanon and this is the reality which we will overcome together, especially with the IDF (Israel Defence Forces),” said Alex Gudish, a Golan settler.

An illustrative map showing the general locations of Israeli strikes in Syria in response to a presumed Iranian attack on the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

‘RIGHT DECISION’

The Israelis fear that Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are turning Syria into a new front against them. Israel says its occasional strikes in Syria aim to foil that.

Iran vowed retaliation after a suspected Israeli air strike last month killed seven of its military personnel in a Syrian air base.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat, and has repeatedly targeted Iranian forces and allied militia in Syria.

Expectations of a regional flare-up were stoked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal. Hours later, Israeli rocket rockets targeted a military base in Kisweh, a commander in the pro-Syrian government regional alliance said.

That attack killed 15 people, including eight Iranians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, though the commander said there were no casualties. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

The Trump administration cast its hard line against the Iranian nuclear deal as a response, in part, to Tehran’s military interventions in the region.

The Golan flare-up with Israel “is just further demonstration that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted and another good reminder that the president made the right decision to get out of the Iran deal,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

RUSSIA WARNED

The tensions worry Russia, which wants to stabilize Syria.

Thursday’s flare-up came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a visit to Moscow, where he discussed Syria concerns with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Conricus said Israel forewarned Russia of its strikes on Thursday, which Syrian state media first reported hit Baath City in Quneitra, near the border. Further waves of missiles followed. Syrian state media said Israeli missiles had been brought down over Damascus, Homs and Sueida.

“Air defenses confronted tens of Israeli rockets and some of them reached their target and destroyed one of the radar sites,” Syrian state news agency SANA reported, citing a military source. Another rocket hit an ammunition warehouse, it said.

Syrian state television broadcast footage of its air defenses firing, and playing patriotic songs. Damascus residents described explosions in the sky from air defense systems.

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported Israeli jets circling over Lebanese territory early on Thursday before exiting.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Dahlia Nehme and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Grant McCool, Peter Cooney, Tom Perry and Larry King

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Hezbollah allies set for gains in Lebanon parliament: unofficial results

May 7, 2018

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The Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah and its political allies looked set to win more than half the seats in Lebanon’s first parliamentary election in nine years, according to preliminary results cited by politicians and Lebanese media.

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People walk past a campaign banner showing Lebanese Parliament Speaker and candidate for parliamentary election Nabih Berri and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Lebanon May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Reuters

The result, if confirmed by the final count, would boost Hezbollah politically, with parties and individuals aligned with the heavily armed group securing a simple majority in parliament in Sunday’s election.

Hezbollah’s powerful position in Lebanon reflects Iran’s regional ascendancy through Iraq and Syria all the way to Beirut. It is classified as a terrorist group by the United States and an enemy of neighboring Israel.

The unofficial results also indicated that Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri would emerge as the Sunni Islamic leader with the biggest bloc in the 128-seat parliament, making him the frontrunner to form the next government even though he lost seats.

Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni according to the country’s sectarian power-sharing system. The new government, like the outgoing one, is expected to include all the main parties. Talks over Cabinet posts are expected to take time.

International donors want to see Beirut embark on serious economic reforms to reduce state debt levels before they will release billions pledged at a Paris conference in April.

The election was held under a complex new law that redrew constituency boundaries and changed the electoral system from winner-takes-all to a proportional one. The interior minister said official results would be declared on Monday morning.

HEZBOLLAH WEAPONS

The staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, appears to have emerged as a big winner, nearly doubling its MPs to 15 from eight, according to the unofficial indications.

Hezbollah and groups and individuals affiliated to it secured at least 67 seats, according to a Reuters calculation based on preliminary results for nearly all the seats that were obtained from politicians and campaigns and reported in Lebanese media.

Hezbollah’s allies include the Shi’ite Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement established by President Michel Aoun and other groups and individuals that view its weapons as an asset to Lebanon.

Hezbollah-backed Sunnis did well in the cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the unofficial results showed.

But Hezbollah lost ground in one of its strongholds, the Baalbek-Hermel constituency. Two of the 10 seats there were won by its opponents, one going to the Lebanese Forces and the other to Future.

Hezbollah-backed winners include Jamil al-Sayyed, a retired Shi’ite general and former Lebanese intelligence chief who is a close friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to the unofficial results.

Sayyed was one of the most powerful men in Lebanon in the 15 years of Syrian domination that followed the 1975-90 civil war. Another face from that era, Abdul Rahim Mrad, will also make a comeback having won a Sunni seat, the unofficial results show.

Turnout was 49.2 percent, down from 54 percent the last time legislative elections were held nine years ago.

‘FIX THE PATH’

Lebanon should have held a parliamentary election in 2013 but MPs instead voted to extend their own term because leaders could not agree on a new parliamentary election law.

An anti-Hezbollah alliance led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won a majority in parliament in 2009.

But that “March 14” alliance has disintegrated and Saudi Arabia has switched its attention and resources to confronting Iran in other parts of the region, notably Yemen.

Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader, said the results showed there was a “popular ground” that backs March 14 and would “give us strength and a push to fix the path much more than we were able to in the past years”.

Geagea is Hezbollah’s most prominent Lebanese Christian opponent. He led the Lebanese Forces militia in the last years of the civil war, during which he was an adversary of Aoun.

The question of Hezbollah’s weapons has slipped down the political agenda in Lebanon in recent years. Hezbollah has grown militarily more powerful since 2012, deploying its fighters to Syria and Iraq where it has fought in support of Iranian allies.

Hariri, who led years of political conflict with the group, says it is an issue to be resolved at the regional level through dialogue.

The Lebanon vote is to be followed on May 12 by an Iraqi election that is also set to underline Iran’s reach, with one of three pro-Tehran Shi’ite leaders set to become prime minister.

Enhanced Hezbollah sway over Lebanon will likely alarm the United States, which arms and trains the Lebanese army.

But the group and its allies are not on course to win the two-thirds majority that would allow them to pass big decisions such as changing the constitution.

Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Paul Tait

Putin 4.0 to launch amid crackdown on opposition

May 6, 2018

Vladimir Putin will on Monday be inaugurated for his fourth Kremlin term under the shadow of hugely strained ties with the West and a crackdown on the opposition, with Alexei Navalny and hundreds more detained at the weekend.

© Sputnik/AFP/File / by Victoria LOGUINOVA-YAKOVLEVA | Russian President Vladimir Putin’s victory in the March election was never in question and the prospect of his inauguration has generated little excitement

AFP

Opposition leader Navalny was held along with nearly 1,600 of his supporters on Saturday during nationwide rallies against Putin as police and paramilitary activists used force to break up demonstrations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Putin, who has ruled Russia for 18 years and used his last term to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and launch a military campaign in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad the next year, has promised to improve living standards at home during his next Kremlin stint.

But he has remained silent on the issue of his succession — despite this being an inevitable concern as the constitution bars him from running again when his fourth term ends in 2024.

Putin has struggled to revive an economy that crashed after Moscow was hit with Western sanctions over its annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by a fall in global oil prices in 2016.

Despite this, his victory in the March election was never in question and the prospect of an inauguration in the Kremlin’s gilded Andreyevsky hall has generated little excitement.

This year Putin’s minders are reportedly planning a fairly low-key inauguration ceremony that will not include a lavish Kremlin reception in an apparent effort to eschew any bad publicity.

In 2012, Putin’s black cortege raced through the deserted Moscow streets on its way to his third Kremlin inauguration, in what many saw as a major faux pas.

This time Putin is only expected to meet volunteers who took part in his election campaign.

Protest leader Navalny, who was barred from challenging Putin in the March election, had called on Russians to stage a day of rallies across the country on Saturday under the catchy slogan “Not our Tsar”.

– ‘Red line’-

Tatyana Stanovaya, a Paris-based analyst for the Centre of Political Technologies in Moscow, said that with the crackdown on the opposition the Kremlin wanted to show it would brook no dissent under Putin’s new term.

“The Kremlin wants to draw a red line which cannot be crossed,” Stanovaya told AFP.

Observers expressed fears that the detentions could lead to a new wave of criminal cases after similar rallies in 2012 against Putin’s return to the Kremlin from the post of prime minister led to a huge crackdown on the protest movement.

In May 2012, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest Putin’s inauguration for a third Kremlin term, with rallies descending into clashes with police.

Criminal charges were brought against around 30 demonstrators and many of them were sentenced to prison terms of between 2.5 years and 4.5 years.

A major crackdown on dissent ensued, with authorities introducing a raft of measures to bolster control over the internet, which remains the only space where the opposition can freely organise.

In a sign this trend would continue into Putin’s fourth term, last month the state telecoms watchdog tried to block popular messaging app Telegram and said Facebook could be next.

Political analysts said that Moscow’s attitude towards the West — which has only hardened over the crises in Ukraine and Syria, as well as accusations of spy poisoning in the UK and election meddling in the US — was also unlikely to change under Putin 4.0.

“For Putin any concession is a sign of weakness, so there shouldn’t be any expectation of a change in foreign policy,” said Konstantin Kalachev, the head of the Political Expert Group think tank in Moscow.

“Also, foreign policies are one of the main foundations of his support within the country. Putin needs to guarantee national unity, and for this he needs an enemy.”

– ‘Take everyone by surprise’ –

But Independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said the president’s approach to the international community would have to shift over the next term.

“Russia hasn’t been so isolated since the Soviet war in Afghanistan,” he told AFP, referring to the 1979-1989 conflict.

After the annexation of Crimea, “Putin needs to change his soldiers’ boots for some trainers,” Oreshkin said.

“Now his task isn’t to bring any new lands to Russia, but to force the world to consider Russia’s interests and accept its previous conquests.”

Reports that Alexei Kudrin — a liberal former finance minister who is respected abroad — could return to the Kremlin in a reshuffle, suggest the president could be seeking a less confrontational approach.

Oreshkin said Putin would stay on for the full term to carry out this task but Kalachev suggested the president could leave the Kremlin before he serves out the six years.

“He will stay in power, but not necessarily in the presidency,” he said.

“For Putin to write his place in history, he needs to pick the right moment to go. Serving another six years is a road to nowhere. He will leave in a way that takes everyone by surprise.”

by Victoria LOGUINOVA-YAKOVLEVA

Pompeo Rails Against Iran During Visit to Saudi Arabia

April 29, 2018

Secretary of state says U.S. is working with its allies to ‘fix’ the Iran nuclear deal

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh. PHOTO: BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

RIYADH—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a broadside against Iran on his first foreign trip as the U.S.’s top diplomat, calling Tehran the world’s “greatest sponsor of terrorism” and repeating President Donald Trump’s threat to pull out of the nuclear deal if it isn’t changed.

“We are determined to make sure [Iran] never possesses a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Pompeo said at a joint news conference in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. “The Iran deal in its current form does not provide that assurance.”

Mr. Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday evening with a host of regional issues to discuss with King Salman and his 32-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed, the country’s day-to-day ruler. The U.S. has called on Arab countries to send a military force to Syria, is seeking an end to war between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni rebels, and is looking for the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to end their feud with neighboring Qatar.

Iran took center stage, though, reflecting Mr. Pompeo’s opposition to the agreement negotiated in 2015 between Iran and the U.S. and five other world powers that constraints Iran’s nuclear program in return for relief from international sanctions.

Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. was working with its European allies to “fix” the deal. Mr. Trump has criticized the agreement for a provision that allows Tehran to restart its nuclear progress after a decade, among other things.

Mr. Trump has set May 12 as a deadline for changing the Iran deal. On that date, he can refuse to continue providing sanctions relief for Iran, setting up an uncertain series of events.

Mr. Pompeo said Iran’s actions in the Middle East had to be taken into account as the U.S. and Europe try to hash out a way forward on the Iran deal. He said Iran “destabilizes this entire region,” supporting Yemeni rebels who fire missiles on Saudi Arabia and backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war.

“Unlike the prior administration, we will not neglect the vast scope of Iran’s terrorism. It is indeed the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Iran has only behaved worse since the deal was approved.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, right, shakes hands with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, right, shakes hands with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh. PHOTO:FAYEZ NURELDINE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Mr. Jubeir said Saudi Arabia supported the Trump administration’s efforts to amend the nuclear deal.

Riyadh was the first destination for Mr. Pompeo on a quick tour through the Middle East after his confirmation as secretary of state last week. Later on Sunday, he is expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. On Monday, he is set to go to Amman, Jordan.

By making Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first official trip abroad, Mr. Pompeo underscored the deepened relationship that Mr. Trump has tried to develop with the Saudis. Mr. Trump also chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign trip and has sought closer ties with Riyadh as a bulwark against Iran.

Mr. Pompeo said he had dinner with Prince Mohammed, who this month finished a nearly three-week tour of the U.S., including a stop in Washington to see Mr. Trump. In addition to Iran, Mr. Jubeir said, Mr. Pompeo discussed the Syrian civil war, supporting Iraq, the crisis in Yemen, Libya’s chaotic governance and politics in Lebanon, where an election is taking place this week.

Mr. Pompeo signaled it was time to resolve a diplomatic impasse between Qatar and its neighbors. Mr. Trump initially signaled support for isolating Qatar, but Mr. Pompeo issued a call for unity.

“Gulf unity is necessary, we need to achieve it,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo didn’t mention an American proposal for an Arab military force to take over from U.S. troops once Islamic State is defeated in Syria. He did call on Muslim countries to “take the lead in combating terrorism and radicalization around the world.”

“America is prepared to stand with Saudi Arabia” in regards to shared interest and security, Mr. Pompeo said, but he added: “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush terrorism for them.”

Syria strikes also sent message to N.Korea: Japan DefMin

April 21, 2018

AFP

© AFP | US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis shakes hands with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera during a meeting at the Pentagon

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US-led air strikes against the Syrian regime also sent a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ahead of talks with President Donald Trump, Japan’s defense minister said Friday.Observers have suggested the strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could strengthen Trump’s hand in talks, as they showed Kim that the West has the political will to back up its rhetoric — as well as the capability for precise strikes launched from afar.

“This is an action that was taken against weapons of mass destruction, and I think this gave a certain message to North Korea as well,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said through an interpreter.

Mattis said last week’s strikes on three facilities tied to Assad’s chemical weapons program had garnered broad international backing.

“Let me address Assad, should he ignore the international community,” Mattis said.

“There has been full support for that regrettable but necessary attack on his research and engineering part of his weapons program — weapons of mass destruction. He would be ill-advised to ignore the international community’s statement, and we stand ready to address anything in the future.”

Onodera was at the Pentagon for a meeting with Mattis, who said the US-Japan alliance was “the cornerstone for peace and security” throughout the Pacific region.

“Together we are carefully reviewing a possible new path to peace, and at the same time we remain vigilant,” he said, referring to North Korea.

Onodera said the US and Japan must work “synergetically” along with the international community to “make North Korea abandon all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile program in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

Trump and Kim are expected to have talks around Kim’s nuclear program in late May or June. The location of what would be a historic summit has not yet been disclosed.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley Has a Message for Larry Kudlow (and Russia): “I don’t get confused.”

April 18, 2018

Comments follow suggestion by fellow administration official that she suffered ‘momentary confusion’

By Jeremy B White
The Independent

America’s ambassador to the United Nations rebuked a fellow Trump aide’s suggestion that she was “confused” in announcing new sanctions on Russian firms.

“With all due respect, I don’t get confused”, ambassador Nikki Haley told Fox News.

Her comment was a response to National Economic Council chairman Larry Kudlow’s saying earlier in the day that Ms Haley “got ahead of the curve”.

“There might have been some momentary confusion about that,” Mr Kudlow told reporters.

The administration has sent mixed messages about imposing additional sanctions in recent days.

While Ms Haley on Sunday pointed to imminent penalties on Russian businesses connected to Syria’s chemical weapons programme, subsequent reports said Donald Trump had not yet decided whether to sign off on new sanctions.

“The President has been clear that he’s going to be tough on Russia. But at the same time, he’d still like to have a good relationship with them”, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the day after Ms Haley’s initial comment, adding that “we’re continuing to evaluate a number of sanctions”.

US to impose new sanctions on Russia in wake of Syria chemical attack, says UN ambassador Nikki Haley

In announcing joint military strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities with the UK and France, Mr Trump specifically lambasted Russia for its support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, saying “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilised nations as a force for stability and peace”.

But Mr Trump has also repeatedly professed admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and has cast doubts on intelligence assessments that Mr Putin directed a broad offensive intended to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

Earlier this year the administration delayed imposing congressionally mandated sanctions on Russia for election meddling.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/russia-sanctions-nikki-haley-donald-trump-larry-kudlow-i-dont-get-confused-a8309676.html