Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Under Putin, Russia increases clout in the Middle East

December 13, 2017

The Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — When Russia launched a military campaign in Syria two years ago, President Vladimir Putin sought to save his ally from imminent collapse and break Russia’s international isolation over a crisis in Ukraine.

He achieved that and more, emerging as a key stakeholder in the Middle East who has brokered deals with many of its key players — from Iran to Saudi Arabia to Turkey and Israel. It’s a regional footprint that comes with a degree of clout that even the Soviet Union, which depended on a handful of Arab allies, couldn’t dream of during the Cold War era.

And it was accomplished with limited resources and a lot of audacity.

“Vladimir Putin is determined to restore a greater role for Russia as a global power … and the Middle East is really the main area where Russia has that potential, in part because the Soviet Union played that role in the Soviet period,” said William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at RAND Corporation.

With just a few dozen jets and several thousand troops, Russia waded into Syria’s war and stubbornly pressed its campaign despite international scorn and an outcry over resulting civilian casualties.

Russia’s bold intervention in Syria came as the United States under President Barack Obama steered clear of military engagement and found itself in a series of acrimonious disputes with key allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Under the vastly inconsistent policies of Donald Trump, and in an era of an inward looking, America-first U.S. policy, Russia’s maneuvers became all the more poignant on the global stage.

Putin’s success in the region was on full display Monday, with the confident and upbeat leader moving between Syria, Egypt and Turkey in a whirlwind tour a week after announcing he will seek re-election for another six-year term in March.

Speaking to Russian troops on the tarmac at Hemeimeem air base in Syria, Putin declared victory over the Islamic State group and Syrian rebels and announced he had ordered a scaling down of the Russian contingent in Syria. In Egypt, he signed a deal for the construction of a nuclear reactor on the country’s Mediterranean coast and sought to strengthen his relationship with a key regional power that has in the past three years bought billions of dollars in Russian weapons. And in Turkey, a NATO member, the Russian leader appeared to be on the same page with strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan on key issues.

The Russian president was frequently derided for his penchant for a 19th century-style Realpolitik characterized by cynical political calculus. But Putin’s approach paid off in Syria, where he managed to play on the conflicting interests of regional powers and strike deals with various players.

When Putin decided to intervene in Syria, President Bashar Assad was on the verge of collapse, his forces losing on all fronts. Within weeks, the Russian military had airlifted supplies needed to set up a base in Assad’s heartland and launched an air campaign at the end of September 2015.

At first, observers were skeptical about Putin’s Syria adventure given Russia’s economic troubles and the overwhelming negative odds on the chaotic Syrian battlefield, where the Islamic State group, al-Qaida militants and a motley collection of rebels backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others were routing Assad’s shrinking military.

Many in the West and in Russia predicted Syria would turn into another Afghanistan — a botched Soviet intervention that led to massive losses and ended in a humiliating 1989 withdrawal after nearly a decade of fighting. Putin argued that Russia needed to intervene in Syria to fight a terror threat, but made it clear that he wasn’t going to walk into a trap like the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Another reason for skepticism was the Russian military meltdown that followed the Soviet collapse. The army’s vulnerabilities were highlighted by separatist wars in Chechnya and a brief 2008 war with Georgia, where the lack of modern communications and weapons, lack of coordination between various military branches and poor discipline were woefully apparent.

But the Syrian campaign suddenly saw a different Russian military — one armed with sophisticated precision weapons, well-trained, neatly-dressed and proud of its mission.

“Putin managed to explain to the Russian people why Syria was important and not only did he explain it, he also showed them Syria wasn’t going to be Afghanistan,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, told The Associated Press.

The war saw the combat debut of an array of Russian weapons, including long-range cruise missiles that were fired from surface navy ships, submarines and bombers.

The display of Moscow’s revamped arsenals also served another key goal — to show the U.S. and its NATO allies that Russia no longer exclusively relies on nuclear weapons. The new cruise missiles gave Putin a long-sought long-range precision cruise capability that only the U.S. had before.

Early in the campaign, Moscow found itself on the verge of a military conflict with Ankara after a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian warplane on the Syrian border in November 2015. But just a few months later, Putin mended ties with Turkey, offering President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strong support after a failed coup attempt. They struck a deal on Syria, setting up de-escalation zones that helped reduce fighting.

Russia also reached out to other key players — from Iran, which staunchly backed Assad, to the Saudis, the Qataris and others who supported the opposition. It also communicated with Israel to make sure the conflict didn’t hurt their friendly relationship.

Russian military successes in Syria and its rapprochement with Turkey paved the way for another Putin diplomatic coup — a warming of ties with Saudi Arabia, Moscow’s opponent since Cold War times when it armed Afghan fighters battling the Soviet invasion. In a first-ever visit by a Saudi monarch, King Salman visited Russia in October.

While declaring victory in Syria, Putin made it clear Russia is there to stay. He plans to expand the air base and turn a crumbling Soviet-era naval supply facility in Syria’s port of Tartus into a full-fledged navy base capable of hosting big ships.

Russia has also drafted a deal with Egypt to allow its warplanes to use bases there — a deployment unseen since the times when Egypt was a key Soviet ally in the Mideast before going to the U.S. side in the mid-1970s.

Courtney, the RAND analyst, said despite Putin’s successes in the region, Russia will remain a limited great power that serves mainly as a military supplier because it lacks the resources and capability that the West has for nation building or reconstruction.

“The challenge for Putin is to turn the use of his military force and military weapons supplies in the Middle East to something that is a lasting success, and we don’t yet see how Russia is going to get there,” he said.

https://apnews.com/f2777a51c0e849fdbf293c522242377e/Under-Putin,-Russia-increases-clout-in-the-Middle-East

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Karam reported from Beirut.

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Putin’s Syria Victory Lap Teaches Middle Eastern Leaders One Important Lesson: Russia not leaving anytime soon

December 13, 2017

Visiting Syria, Egypt and Turkey in one day, Putin establishes himself as the only world leader with real influence in the Middle East

By Anshel Pfeffer Dec 13, 2017 10:14 AM
read more: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.828367

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad visiting the Khmeimim air base in Latakia Province, Syriam December 11, 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad visiting the Khmeimim air base in Latakia Province, Syriam December 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via Reuters
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As Russian President Vladimir Putin landed Monday morning at Khmeimim air base in Syria, the first person to greet him as he stepped onto the tarmac was a Russian military officer. Only then was he approached by Syrian President Bashar Assad, and together they walked down the runway, passing Russian bomber jets and attack helicopters.
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The message was clear. The first visit to Syria in seven years by a foreign leader wasn’t a regular state visit: Putin was there to inspect Russia’s latest outpost.
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He may have taken the opportunity to announce that Russia is to begin withdrawing most of its troops from Syria. But that was mainly a statement for domestic consumption – back home, the idea of foreign wars isn’t very popular.
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On the ground in Syria, though, the message was very different. Russia now has its permanent base in the Middle East, and just because the battle against the Islamic State is winding down, that doesn’t mean the Russian aircraft will be leaving anytime soon.

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Putin’s short stop in Khmeimim, on his way to a longer visit to Cairo in Egypt and Ankara in Turkey, was very much a victory lap. Twenty-seven months since the Russian deployment to Syria began, no one has any illusions that, as far as the Kremlin is concerned, this has been a resounding success. There were expectations that this foreign intervention in a Mideast war would end in tears, as so many previous ones had. But not this time.

Questions were raised over whether Russia’s military – still undergoing a transition from its old and unwieldy Soviet Red Army version – could carry out a prolonged and long-range deployment of this scale. But despite a few mishaps, which included the smoke-shrouded arrival of the ineffective aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov last year, the modernized Russian army pulled it off.

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Of course, this was nothing like the interventions of the United States and its allies in recent years. Putin’s aims were not to bring democracy and freedom to Syria. On the contrary, he set out to keep a blood-soaked dictator in place, and did so by indiscriminately bombing civilian targets that were held by rebel forces.
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Putin plays by Moscow rules, and by those rules this has indeed been a resounding success. He has kept an ally in place, cemented a strategic regional alliance that includes Iran, ensured Russia has long-term rights for air and sea bases in the Mediterranean (Khmeimim and the port of Tartus) and established himself as the only world leader with real influence in the region.

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Putin did all this despite Russia’s faltering economy, hit by plunging oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, and despite the threat of Islamist terror attacks on Russian soil in retaliation. He did it because he identified a historic opportunity during the presidency of Barack Obama, with the United States in retreat from the region, to assert Russian power instead. Obama opened the door for Russia, and President Donald Trump is now keeping it wide open.

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It is important to keep Putin’s achievement in focus. He hasn’t rebuilt Syria and has no intention of doing so. Unlike the United States, which poured hundreds of billions of dollars in civilian aid into Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin’s approach is a much more instrumental one. To the victor the spoils, and he certainly has no intention of picking up any tabs.

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Syria will remain a ruined nation for decades to come, over half of its population uprooted and a quarter living outside the country as refugees. Putin never intended to save Syria, just the mass murderer who is still its president. For other countries in the region, including Israel, this means that for the time being at least, they have to deal with Putin regarding any postwar arrangements.

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Absent from the ceremony at Khmeimim were Assad’s other patrons, the Iranians. But they are there to stay as well. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already made clear that there is no obligation on the Russians or Iranians – who are both there “at the invitation” of the Syrian regime – to leave. And Russia, for the time being at least, is happy for Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and other Shia militias, to provide the “boots on the ground” to continue pacifying the country, parts of which are still under rebel control.

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As far as Israel is concerned, Putin seems willing to listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concerns over Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. So far, though, he has yet to put any perceivable pressure on the Iranians, and there is no reason to believe he will.

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On the other hand, no less significantly, Russia – which controls large parts of Syria’s airspace – has not tried to block, or even publicly condemn, the airstrikes on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria that foreign media have attributed to Israel.

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Interestingly, we’ve seen a scaling-down of Netanyahu’s rhetoric: from demands of no Iranian presence in Syria, to no Iranian bases, and now to no missile factories. Netanyahu has understood. Putin respects power and prefers making his real deals behind the scenes. In Syria, everyone must play now by Moscow rules.

Anshel Pfeffer
read more: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.828367

Russia Will Have to Decide How It Wants to Split Syria With Iran

December 13, 2017

Moscow is withdrawing troops, but both it and Tehran have experience achieving influence by other means

Zvi Bar’el Dec 13, 2017 8:12 AM
Haaretz

Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Khmeimim air base in northern Syria, December 11, 2017.

Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Khmeimim air base in northern Syria, December 11, 2017. Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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“Your friends and homeland await you,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told his soldiers at Russia’s Khmeimim air base in northern Syria on Monday. It was great news for the soldiers, advisers and pilots who had “completed the mission of fighting terror in Syria,” as Putin put it. But these soldiers don’t yet know when they can start packing, and mainly, how many of them will get to leave.

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Does Putin plan to withdraw his forces as part of the diplomatic efforts being made in Geneva, or does he plan to leave them in Syria until he knows the results of the talks from which the regime’s people pulled out and then returned on Sunday? And will Russia end its oversight of the de-escalation areas (security zones) in southern and central Syria, or will these missions continue as per the guidelines agreed on with the United States, Iran and Turkey?

In his announcement, Putin didn’t detail the conditions for the troop withdrawal, its scope or date, so one can assume that the plan isn’t to totally abandon Syria but to partly reduce the Russian presence. The critical areas, like supervising the security zones and the country’s eastern border, will continue as usual. A week from Thursday the forum on the security zones is scheduled to convene in Astana, the Kazakh capital, to discuss inspection arrangements and how to divide responsibility between Russia, Iran and Turkey.

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Given Putin’s announcement, this meeting must interest Israel very much, since it wants to see if Putin can persuade the Iranians to move their troops eastward past the 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) line in southern Syria. Turkey, meanwhile, wants Russia’s consent to let its forces deepen their control over northern Syria so it can block the expansion of the Kurdish-controlled region, an issue also expected to be discussed in Astana.

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Putin’s commitment to strike the terror groups if they raise their heads makes it clear that he doesn’t plan to leave the military arena or change his strategy that shifted the balance of power in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s favor. But a withdrawal – even a partial one – may make it legitimate for him to insist that all foreign forces leave Syria.

This would mean mainly the American and Turkish forces, which don’t enjoy the legitimacy of the Russian and Iranian forces that were “invited” by Assad, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it two weeks ago. This is reinforced by the wording chosen by Putin –  that Russian forces defeated most of the Islamic State forces. Therefore the United States, which justified its military involvement in Syria as a war against the Islamic State, now has no reason to be in Syria.

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The Pentagon reacted skeptically. “Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect U.S. priorities in Syria,” the Pentagon spokesman said. But the United States has had only one declared objective in Syria – eradicating the Islamic State. After the Iraqi prime minister announced last week that the group had been defeated in his country, with Russia now chiming in with its declaration of success in Syria, it isn’t clear what the Trump administration means by “U.S. priorities in Syria.”

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Russia’s success, which will certainly play a key role in the Russian election campaign in March, isn’t just seen in the way it changed the balance of power in Assad’s favor.

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Particularly striking is the way it removed the United States from the scene and managed a complex weave of local cease-fires that let it establish security zones. But this achievement will have a hard time surviving without a military umbrella that oversees the ban on attacks in the security zones while continuing to battle regime opponents that are defined as terror groups. To achieve both objectives, the regime will need significant Russian forces, especially the air force.

Image result for Putin in Syria, december, 2017, photos

Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2nd left, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, chat with Russian military pilots at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. Declaring a victory in Syria, Putin on Monday visited a Russian military air base in the country and announced a partial pullout of Russian forces from the Mideast nation. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

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A withdrawal of Russian forces throws Iran’s military involvement in Syria into even sharper relief. The Israeli and American assumption is that Tehran will seek to exploit the Russian withdrawal by increasing its number of military bases in the country and dispatching large numbers of fighters.

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But this isn’t the only possible scenario. Russia and Iran aren’t conducting a zero-sum game in Syria and aren’t competing for Assad’s heart, which is totally dependent on both of them. In any diplomatic agreement on Syria’s future, the status of the Syrian dictator is assured, at least in the short term; the question is how the economic and diplomatic booty will be divided between Russia and Iran. Neither can force the other out of the arena, and both have an interest in stabilizing the country and preventing the establishment of cantons.

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Realizing this interest is dependent on agreements Iran and Russia will reach, not on a military struggle over territorial control that would require keeping troops in Syria for a long time, which neither country wants. Moreover, both Iran and Russia have experience achieving influence in other countries by economic and diplomatic means, not necessarily military force.

By Zvi Bar’el
read more: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/.premium-1.828512

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Russia will keep bases in Syria to strike at ‘terrorists’: Kremlin

December 12, 2017

Reuters

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will keep a naval and an air base in Syria capable of carrying out strikes against “terrorists” if required after a partial military pull-out announced by President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

Putin on Monday ordered “a significant part” of Moscow’s military contingent to start pulling out of Syria, declaring their work largely done.

Image result for Putin in Syria, december, 2017, photos

Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2nd left, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, chat with Russian military pilots at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. Declaring a victory in Syria, Putin on Monday visited a Russian military air base in the country and announced a partial pullout of Russian forces from the Mideast nation. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Putin, who polls show will be re-elected comfortably in March, made the announcement during a surprise visit to the Russian Hmeymim air base, where he met President Bashar al-Assad and addressed Russian forces.

“Thanks to the fact that the operation to save Syria and the liberation of Syrian land from terrorists have been completed, there is no longer a need for broad-scale combat strength,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

But he added that Russia will keep the Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province and its naval facility in the port of Tartous.

“The President stressed that the terrorists might try to ‘walk tall’ again in Syria. If that happens, crushing blows will be carried out,” Peskov said.

Reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Jack Stubbs and Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Richard Balmforth

Turkey’s Erdogan Angry With Arab Nations for “Feeble” Response After Trump’s Recognition of Jerusalem as Capital of Israel

December 12, 2017

Though Withdrawing from Syria, Russia ‘Is Back in the Middle East’ — Russia shows the willpower, resolve, and capability to back up military force with hard diplomacy and achieve results

December 12, 2017

Sputnik

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing, suit and outdoor

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December 12, 2017

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Syria on Monday, where he announced that his nation would begin to withdraw “a significant part” of their military forces deployed in the Middle Eastern nation as its long civil war draws to a close.

Putin’s announcement was discussed on Radio Sputnik’s Loud & Clear by hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou and guests Mark Sleboda and Rick Sterling. Sleboda is a Russia-based international relations and security analyst and frequent critic of US policy, while Sterling is a journalist and member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, an organization that supports the Syrian government.

​”It was a surprise,” said Sleboda. “Putin was obviously headed on the way to Cairo, and then on the way back to Turkey, but the side trip to Syria and particularly to the Russian airbase in Syria certainly was a surprise. As for this announcement, this ‘mission accomplished’ moment… we’ve heard several previous such ‘Russia is withdrawing their military forces from Syria’ claims before.”

“I think there were certainly enough caveats and qualifications to Putin’s statement that, while recognizing the significant victories that have been achieved, we should take this announcement with a grain of salt. Russia is not leaving Syria, they are not leaving their military bases. There remain significant military hurdles: significant terrorist concentrations, the entirety of Idlib governance is under the control of al Qaeda. I think this was probably primarily an announcement for domestic political consumption, as Putin announces his intent to run again for another six-year term in 2018.”

“It’s also a reminder to the Americans that at least the majority of the fighting in east Syria against [Daesh] is done,” Sleboda added. “They no longer at least hold any urban areas, at least there the military mission is accomplished. The US no longer has any excuse, not that they ever had any legal remit for their operations in east Syria. But Putin was letting them know that it’s time for them to pack their bags and go home.”

Becker pointed out a CNN headline from early 2016 that was quite similar to the recent one — but Russia did not pull forces out as CNN claimed; they actually intensified their military involvement.

Sterling elaborated on Moscow’s movements: “It’s an indication of an intent. They don’t plan on maintaining a large military force there indefinitely, but they can come back if needed. The fact is that Russia is not very far from Syria, only about 600 miles from Sochi, their air base. It’s not very hard for the Russian Air Force to move at least some of their airplanes and pilots and so forth up into southern Russia, and if needed they can still be called into duty in Syria.”

Kiriakou asked the guests if they believed it possible that Russia could end up in an quagmire in Syria, similar to what has happened to the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sleboda replied that Russia was likely to remain in the Middle East for years to come, but of their own volition.

“Russia is back in a big way in the Middle East. Suddenly everyone in the Middle East [is working with Moscow]: Iraq, which the government there, although showing a lot of the signs of independence, was installed as a result of the US invasion and regime change there. Saudi Arabia has come to the table with Russia to sign oil deals and potential military deals after losing this oil price war.”

“Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, they’re all now looking to Russia because Russia has showed the willpower, resolve, and capability to back up military force with hard diplomacy and achieve results in the Middle East — something that the US and all of their regime change and intervention has not shown anything with anywhere near so positive a result.”

“So Russia is back in the Middle East. They’re not leaving Syria, they have no intentions of leaving Syria.”

https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201712121059916495-putin-announcement-russia-syria-withdrawal/

See also:

Whirlwind Putin Tour Highlights Moscow’s New Reach in Mideast

Source:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/world/europe/putin-syria-russia.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fworld&action=click&contentCollection=world&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=sectionfront

The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, third from right, and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, second from right, at a Russian air base in Syria on Monday. Credit Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev

Putin visits Egypt in sign of closer ties

December 11, 2017
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Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and suit
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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, shake hands during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.(Alexander Zemlianichenko/ pool photo via AP/Associated Press)
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 December 11 at 10:13 AM
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CAIRO — Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Egypt on Monday, where he signed a deal to advance plans for a nuclear reactor but disappointed his hosts by delaying the resumption of direct flights that were suspended after the 2015 bombing of a Russian passenger plane.During Putin’s second visit to Egypt in as many years, he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi appeared keen to cement their countries’ ties, which have deepened in recent years as Moscow has expanded its reach across the region.

“Russia always paid a special attention to expanding friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Egypt, our longtime reliable partner in the Middle East and North Africa,” Putin said.

El-Sissi said the two countries had “a relationship with a long history,” characterized by “strength and durability.”

El-Sissi, who has visited Russia twice since taking office in 2014, has signed deals to buy billions of dollars’ worth of Russian weapons, including fighter jets and assault helicopters. Last month, Russia approved a draft agreement with Egypt to allow Russian warplanes to use Egyptian military bases.

The United States remains Egypt’s main international backer, providing an estimated $1.3 billion in military and economic aid each year. But ties suffered a blow in 2013, when the Obama administration criticized the military overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected leader amid mass protests against his rule. Relations have improved under President Donald Trump, who has also sought better relations with Moscow.

Neither Putin nor el-Sissi referred to the use of the air bases when they read prepared statements after their talks, a possible indicator of the sensitivity of the issue in Egypt, which has long rejected the basing of foreign forces on its territory.

With Putin and el-Sissi looking on, officials from both countries signed the deal on the nuclear reactor. Egypt has reached an agreement in principle to borrow $25 billion, or roughly 80 percent of the reactor’s cost, from Russia. The signing of the agreement ends months of wrangling between the two sides over technical and financial details.

Putin flew to Cairo after a brief and previously unannounced visit to a Russian military air base in Syria. The air base has served as the main foothold for the air campaign Russia has waged since September 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Egypt’s increasingly close ties with Russia harken back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Cairo became a close Russian ally at the height of the Cold War.

Egypt changed sides in the 1970s under the late President Anwar Sadat, who replaced Moscow with Washington as his country’s chief economic and military backer following the signing of a U.S.-sponsored peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Egypt has since become a major recipient of U.S. aid.

Under el-Sissi, Egypt has been able to maintain close ties with both Russia and the United States.

But the question of resuming flights between Egypt and Russia remains unsolved after Putin’s visit, a significant setback for Egypt.

The flights were suspended when the Islamic State group downed a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula two years ago, killing all 224 people on board. Egypt has since spent millions of dollars to upgrade security at its airports and undergone numerous checks by Russian experts.

The suspension of Russian flights has dealt a devastating blow to Egypt’s vital tourism industry. Britain, another major source of visitors, suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Red Sea resort in Sinai from which the doomed Russian airliner took off.

On Monday, Putin praised Egypt’s efforts to beef up security at its airports, saying the two countries have come close to a deal to resume flights, but did not give a timeline.

“Security agencies reported to me that we are generally ready to restore a direct air link between Moscow and Cairo,” Putin said, adding that an agreement could be signed “in the nearest time.”

Russian Transport Minister Maxi Sokolov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying flights between Moscow and Cairo could be restored by early February. There was no immediate mention of restoring an air link to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Underlining the importance of the flights, a pro-government Cairo daily on Monday ran banner headlines in both Russian and Arabic, saying: “Your Excellency: When will Russian tourism return to Egypt?”

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

Palestinian reconciliation hits ‘obstacles’ on deadline: Fatah

December 10, 2017

AFP

© AFP | Palestinians wave the national flag during a demonstration in Gaza City on December 3, 2017, in support of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation

RAMALLAH (PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES) (AFP) – A planned handover of power in Gaza from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority under a landmark reconciliation accord hit “obstacles” on Sunday’s deadline to do so, a top official said.Islamist movement Hamas was originally due to transfer power in the enclave on December 1 under the reconciliation agreement with rival faction Fatah, but that deadline was initially put back by 10 days.

Hamas said at the weekend that it was handing over all government ministries to the Palestinian Authority, but Fatah’s top negotiator said that was not yet the case.

“There have been obstacles today,” Azzam al-Ahmad said in a statement on Sunday published on official news agency WAFA.

“I hope they will be resolved before this evening so our people will feel that their national factions are honest with what they agreed on and pledged.”

Ahmad said that after the handover takes place, a meeting would be held in Cairo — Egypt mediated the reconciliation deal — to discuss next steps.

The reconciliation deal reached in October is aimed at ending the 10-year feud between Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank.

The handover would end Hamas’s long dominance of the blockaded Gaza Strip, and has raised hopes that deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the territory could be addressed.

A range of complex issues remains to be resolved, including security control of Gaza and the fate of two separate civil administrations.

Unrest over US President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has further complicated the process.

Clashes and protests have erupted in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza since Trump’s declaration on Wednesday.

Angry protesters lash out against Trump across Muslim world

December 9, 2017

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — Large crowds of worshippers across the Muslim world staged anti-U.S. marches Friday, some stomping on posters of Donald Trump or burning American flags in the largest outpouring of anger yet at the U.S. president’s recognition of bitterly contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In the holy city itself, prayers at Islam’s third-holiest site dispersed largely without incident, but Palestinians clashed with Israeli troops in several dozen West Bank hotspots and on the border with the Gaza Strip.

Israeli warplanes struck Hamas military targets in the Gaza Strip Friday in response to a rocket fired from the zone that Israel’s military said was intercepted by its Iron Dome missile-defense system.

The Palestinian health ministry said at least 15 people were injured in Friday’s air strikes.

Earlier, a 30-year-old Gaza man was killed by Israeli gunfire, the first death of a protester since Trump’s dramatic midweek announcement. Two Palestinians were seriously wounded, health officials said.

Dozens of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were hit by live rounds or rubber-coated steel or inhaled tear gas, the officials said.

Trump’s pivot on Jerusalem triggered warnings from America’s friends and foes alike that he is needlessly stirring more conflict in an already volatile region.

Muslim faithful prayed in the compound of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Friday amid heightened tension following a decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Dec. 8)

The religious and political dispute over Jerusalem forms the emotional core of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The ancient city is home to major Muslim, Jewish and Christian shrines and looms large in the competing national narratives of Israelis and Palestinians.

Trump’s decision on Jerusalem is widely seen in the region as a blatant expression of pro-Israel bias, but it was unclear if protests and confrontations would maintain momentum after Friday. More extensive violence has erupted in the Palestinian areas in the past, including deadly bloodshed triggered by disputes over Jerusalem.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement and other groups had called for three “days of rage” this week. However, Abbas remains an opponent of violence, saying it’s counterproductive and that he might at some point order his security forces to contain protests.

Separately, Fatah’s rival, the Gaza-based Islamic militant Hamas, called this week for a third uprising against Israel, but such appeals have fizzled as Palestinians become more disillusioned with their leaders.

On Friday, demonstrators in the West Bank torched heaps of tires, sending columns of thick black smoke rising over the cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem. Palestinian stone-throwers traded volleys in the streets with soldiers firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Along the Gaza-Israel border fence, Israeli troops fired at stone-throwers.

Across the region — from Asia’s Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan to North Africa’s Algeria and Lebanon in the Levant — thousands of worshippers poured into the streets after midday prayers to voice their anger. Some protesters burned U.S. and Israeli flags or stomped Trump posters that showed the president alongside a Nazi swastika.

In Jordan’s capital of Amman, thousands marched through the center of town, chanting “America is the head of the snake.”

Pro-Western Jordan is a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic extremists, but King Abdullah II cannot afford to be seen as soft on Jerusalem. His Hashemite dynasty derives its legitimacy from its role as guardian of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest site.

Trump’s decision has also strained U.S. foreign relations.

U.N. Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov told an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Friday that Trump’s announcement created a “serious risk” of a chain of unilateral actions that would push the goal of peace further away.

Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour warned of the danger of “a never-ending religious war that will only be exploited by extremists, fueling more radicalism, violence and strife in the region and elsewhere.”

Even traditional U.S. allies sharply criticized Trump’s decision.

Sweden’s U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog said the U.S. action “contradicts international law and Security Council resolutions.” Britain’s Ambassador Matthew Rycroft called the U.S. decision “unhelpful to peace,” the French envoy expressed regret and Italy’s Sebastiano Cardi warned of “the risk of unrest and tensions in the region.”

The U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, told the council that the Trump administration is more committed to peace “than we’ve ever been before — and we believe we might be closer to that goal than ever before.” Haley did not explain.

In Europe, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday played down the impact of Trump’s policy shift, which also included a pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Tillerson said it will likely take years for the U.S. to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

In a news conference with the French foreign minister, Tillerson said Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital “did not indicate any final status for Jerusalem.”

The United States is making clear that Jerusalem’s borders will be left to Israelis and Palestinians to “negotiate and decide,” he said.

Most countries around the world have not recognized Israel’s 1967 annexation of east Jerusalem and maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv. Under a longstanding international consensus, the fate of the city is to be determined in negotiations.

Trump’s announcement delivered a blow to Abbas, a supporter of the idea of reaching Palestinian statehood through U.S.-led negotiations with Israel. In siding with Israel on Jerusalem, he has said, the Trump administration effectively disqualified itself as a mediator.

However, Abbas has not decided how to move forward, including whether he will rule out future U.S.-brokered negotiations. Trump has said he still intends to propose a Mideast peace deal.

More than two decades of intermittent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have failed to bring the Palestinians closer to statehood. Some in Abbas’ inner circle say the old paradigm, with the U.S. serving as mediator, is no longer relevant.

On Thursday, a senior Fatah official said the Palestinians would not receive Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the West Bank later this month, but it was not immediately clear if the official spoke for Abbas.

The Arab League, an umbrella group of close to two dozen states, is to meet Saturday to try to forge a joint position, followed next week by a gathering in Turkey of the 57-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Turkish officials said Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to Turkey next week for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Jerusalem’s status and other issues.

___

Laub reported from Jericho, West Bank. Associated Press writers Fares Akram in Gaza City, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, Alice Su in Amman, Jordan, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations also contributed to this report.

Palestinians clash over Trump move on Jerusalem

December 9, 2017

By Sara Shayanian and Sam Howard  |  Updated Dec. 8, 2017

UPI

Palestinians burn tires in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip Friday during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Photo by Ismael Mohamad/UPI

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 (UPI) — Israeli troops killed at least two Palestinian protester as clashes escalated over U.S. President Donald Trump‘s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The Health Ministry in Gaza reported Mohammad al-Masri, 30, was shot by Israeli Defense Forces east of Khan Younis. Another man in his fifties was killed in the northern part of Gaza, Haaretz reported.

An estimated 3,000 Palestinian protesters held demonstrations and clashed with IDF at nearly 30 locations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip — leaving nearly 250 Palestinians injured.

Palestinian protesters threw rocks at IDF soldiers in Bethlehem after Friday prayers near the Jacir Palace Hotel, officials said. Israeli forces responded by firing tear gas.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said 40 people in Kusra struggled with tear gas inhalation.

In Israel, a rocket launched from Gaza hit the small town of Sderot on Friday night, Haaretz reported. It wasn’t immediately clear if the attack inflicted any casualties on the town.

Protests also ensued across the Muslim world, as demonstrations were planned in Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.

Iranian prayer leader Ayatollah Khatami called for mass protests over Trump’s move, which some analysts say now makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more difficult.

“He proved that the cure for the issue of Palestine is only, only, an intifada,” Khatami said. “Only intifadas can turn day into a dark night for the Zionist regime.”

At the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, hundreds of protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Allahu Akbar” or “God is greatest.” In Malaysia, protesters burned Trump in effigy.

The worldwide protests were sparked by Trump’s announcement Wednesday that the United States would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the latter as the capital of Israel. Previous U.S. presidents have refused to take that step — believing Jerusalem’s status should be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the move may prevent the United States from mediating future Palestinian-Israeli peace talks — something it’s done for decades.

“Until now, it could have had a mediation role in this conflict, but it has excluded itself a little,” Le Drian said.

“The reality is they are alone and isolated on this issue.”

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