Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

In Syria, Putin orders partial Russia troop withdrawal

December 11, 2017

AFP

Syrian Presidency Facebook page/AFP / –Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad held talks during the Kremlin strongman’s first visit to Syria

President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Syria on Monday and ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the war-torn country, saying their task had been largely completed.

Putin, who announced last week he would seek a fourth term in a poll in March, was welcomed at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the surprise stopover.

The two men were pictured smiling and hugging, with Putin hailing a “significant result of our joint work”.

In a televised speech to Russian troops, Putin said he had ordered his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to start a partial withdrawal.

“I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia,” he said in a televised speech at the base in Latakia province, a government stronghold.

Russia first intervened in the conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of its ally Damascus targeting both the Islamic State group (IS) and other jihadists as well as rebels fighting government troops.

Putin said the troops had helped the Syrian army crush the “most battle-ready group of international terrorists,” apparently referring to IS.

“On the whole the task has been completed. And completed brilliantly.”

Putin said last month that efforts to end the war were entering a “new stage” as the focus shifted from military intervention to political reforms.

AFP/File / Vasily Maximov — Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of its ally Damascus targeting both the Islamic State group and other jihadists as well as rebels fighting government troops 

He said both Hmeimim and Russia’s naval facility in Tartus would continue to function and warned that Russia would repel any fresh attacks by militants.

“If terrorists rear their heads again we will inflict the blows that they have not seen yet,” he said.

– ‘Our homeland thanks you’ –

Putin made the Syria stopover, the first by a Russian head of state since then president Dmitry Medvedev visited in 2010, en route to Egypt where he arrived later Monday.

From there, Putin is scheduled to travel to Turkey for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Kremlin strongman thanked the troops for defending Russia from terrorism and helping Syria remain a “sovereign independent state”.

He said the conflict proved that Russia’s armed forces, including intelligence officers, pilots, sailors, special forces, military police, sappers and military advisers, were on top form, and he also praised the country’s defence industry.

“Our homeland thanks you, my friends,” he said. “Have a safe trip. I thank you for your service.”

Putin also inspected the troops who goose-stepped to the tune of a popular Soviet-era song about World War II, and held talks with Assad.

– ‘Syrians will never forget’ –

The Syrian leader expressed his “deep gratitude” for Russia’s role in the conflict.

“The Syrians will never forget what the Russian forces did,” official Syria media quoted him as saying.

“Their blood mixed with the blood of the martyrs of the Syrian army. This means that this blood is stronger than terrorism and its mercenaries.”

Putin said he would discuss Russia’s efforts to convene Syria’s political congress with the leaders of Egypt and Turkey, and then brief Assad.

Last month, Putin welcomed Assad for a surprise summit at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Last week Putin announced he would be standing in the March presidential election that he is expected to effortlessly win, and his lightning visit to Syria can be expected to play well with the voters.

The commander of Russia’s forces in Syria, Sergei Surovikin, said 23 Russian planes, two helicopters and military police would be returning to Russia soon, national television reported.

The first jets were scheduled to leave Monday.

The size of the Russian deployment in Syria is not known but independent Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer has told AFP that up to 10,000 troops and private contractors could have taken part in the conflict.

Putin had ruled out dispatching ground forces in Syria, making the air force the mainstay of Moscow’s Syria campaign.

Around 40 Russian servicemen have reportedly been killed in Syria since Moscow’s intervention. The Kremlin has acknowledged some of those deaths.

But the losses may be higher given the number of Russian troops and mercenaries believed to be in the country, observers say.

More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule that sparked a brutal crackdown.

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Iraq holds military parade celebrating victory over Daesh — Abadi eyes victory

December 10, 2017

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has declared December 10 an annual national holiday. Above, Abadi speaks before security forces after declaring final victory over Daesh on Saturday. (Handout via Reuters)

BAGHDAD: An Iraqi military parade celebrating final victory over Daesh is underway in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, an Iraqi military spokesman said on Sunday.

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Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared final victory over Daesh on Saturday after Iraqi forces drove its last remnants from the country, three years after the militant group captured about a third of Iraq’s territory.
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Iraqi forces recaptured the last areas still under Daesh control along the border with Syria and secured the western desert, Abadi said, thus marking the end of the war against the militants.
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His announcement comes two days after the Russian military announced the defeat of the militants in neighboring Syria, where Moscow is backing Syrian government forces.
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Abadi declared December 10 an annual national holiday.
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The parade was not being broadcast live and only state media was allowed to attend, but several squadrons of Iraqi helicopters flew over Baghdad on Saturday carrying Iraqi flags in a rehearsal for the victory parade.
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Fighter jets were seen and heard flying over Baghdad’s skies on Sunday.

Lebanon’s Hariri denounces Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary’s visit to border

December 9, 2017

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FILE PHOTO: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks after a cabinet meeting in Baabda near Beirut, Lebanon December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo Reuters

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The head of an Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militia has visited Lebanon’s border with Israel accompanied by Hezbollah fighters, a video released on Saturday showed, in a show of Iranian influence that Lebanon’s prime minister called illegal.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iraqi paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, declared his readiness “to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause”, in the video footage widely circulating on social media.

His appearance at the frontier is likely to be seen in the Middle East as an example of Tehran demonstrating its reach, and could add to tension in Lebanon, caught in a regional tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri issued a statement saying the border visit by a paramilitary in uniform violated Lebanese law. He had instructed security chiefs to “prevent any person from carrying out activities of a military nature on the country’s territory and to prevent any illegal actions”, and barred Khazali from entering the country, it said.

Lebanon is still recovering from a crisis triggered a month ago, when Hariri announced his resignation while visiting Saudi Arabia, accusing Iran and Hezbollah of meddling in regional conflicts in violation of Lebanon’s policy of non-intervention.

Hariri returned to Lebanon two weeks later and withdrew his resignation last week, while his government restated its non-intervention policy.

Hezbollah, a heavily armed Shi’ite group that fights openly in Syria as an ally of Iran, serves in the power-sharing government with Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician with deep business and political ties to Saudi Arabia.

A commander in an alliance between Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said al-Khazali was accompanied by officers from Asaib Ahl al-Haq and visited the entire border with “occupied Palestine”.

The commander did not say when the visit took place.

In the video, an unidentified commander, presumably from Hezbollah, gestures toward military outposts in northern Israel and explains to Khazali that they were hit by Hezbollah missiles in previous confrontations between the group and Israel.

“We are now on the border separating southern Lebanon with occupied Palestine with our brothers in Hezbollah, and announce our full preparedness to stand united…against the Israeli occupier,” Khazali says in the video.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in June that any future war waged by Israel against Syria or Lebanon could draw in fighters from countries including Iran and Iraq.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who established Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, have mobilized Shi’ite militias from around the region in recent years. They have fought Islamic State in Iraq and helped President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Israel’s Mightmare: Iraqi Shi’ite militia leader visits Lebanese-Israeli border with Hezbollah

December 9, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The head of an Iran-backed Iraqi Shi‘ite militia has visited Lebanon’s border with Israel accompanied by allies from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, a video released on Saturday showed.

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Iraq’s Shi’ite militia leader Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib al-Haq, speaks to Reuters during an interview in Baghdad January 4, 2012. REUTERS/Kareem Raheem

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iraqi paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, declared his full readiness “to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause” in the face of the “Israeli occupation”, according to video footage widely circulating on social media.

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Iraqi paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq

A commander in the alliance, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said al-Khazali was accompanied by officers from Asaib Ahl al-Haq. He visited the entire border with “occupied Palestine”.

It was not clear exactly when the visit took place.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in June that any future war waged by Israel against Syria or Lebanon could draw in thousands of fighters from countries including Iran and Iraq.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who established Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, have mobilized Shi‘ite militias from around the region in recent years. They have fought Islamic State in Iraq and helped President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria.

Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Bolton

Turkey’s Erdogan seeks to lead Islamic response on Jerusalem

December 9, 2017

Turkish leader calls President Donald Trump’s recognition of holy city as Israel’s capital a ‘red line’ for Muslims

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the Justice and Development (AK) Party's provincial heads meeting in Ankara, November 17, 2017. ( AFP/ADEM ALTAN)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the Justice and Development (AK) Party’s provincial heads meeting in Ankara, November 17, 2017. ( AFP/ADEM ALTAN)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Turkey’s leader is seeking to spearhead Islamic reaction to the US declaration on Jerusalem, but it is uncertain if he can coordinate a meaningful response among often disunited Muslim nations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who regards himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, had fulminated against President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital even before it was officially announced this week.

Erdogan described the status of the city, whose eastern sector Palestinians see as the capital of their future state, as a “red line” for Muslims.

With Trump disregarding such warnings, the Turkish president used his position as the current chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to call a summit of the pan-Islamic group.

“He is seeking to garner an international response,” said Ziya Meral, resident fellow at the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, noting Erdogan had spoken to Muslim allies and non-Islamic leaders.

“What Turkey can do tangibly next is far from clear and responses have risks for Erdogan and Turkey,” he told AFP.

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Turkey in 2016 agreed to resume full diplomatic relations with Israel after the crisis triggered by the deadly storming by Israel of a Turkish ship seeking to break the Gaza blockade in 2010.

Cooperation has resumed, most significantly in energy. But Erdogan has rarely mustered much public enthusiasm for ties with Israel and retains warm relations with Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that controls Gaza.

Erdogan’s supporters proudly recall how he famously walked out of a January 2009 debate in Davos with then Israeli president Shimon Peres, complaining he was not given enough time to respond and repeatedly saying “one minute!”.

The Turkish leader has left diplomatic niceties aside in warning his US counterpart of the dangers of the move, using the backyard-style rhetoric he usually keeps for bitter enemies.

“Hey Trump! What do you want to do?” Erdogan said Thursday. “What kind of approach is this? Political leaders do not stir things up, they seek to make peace!”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani greet each other before a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, in Sochi, Russia, November 22. 2017. (Kayhan Ozer/Pool via AP)

In a Wednesday address from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was unclear if Erdogan’s strong reaction would have any impact on Trump.

“What is clear is that the Jerusalem issue will inevitably exacerbate the malaise in the US-Turkish relationship, which was already under considerable strain.”

Trump’s arrival as US leader was welcomed by Ankara but relations have hit new trouble due to rows over the Syria conflict, an explosive legal case in New York and even a mutual visa suspension.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) shares an “ideological affinity” with Hamas.

This suggests “Erdogan can never be an honest broker on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he said.

The Istanbul summit of the OIC — an organisation founded in 1969 after an arson attack on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem — will offer Erdogan the chance to showcase his status as a global Muslim leader.

But it remains unclear if he will be able to come close to shifting the 57 members — including arch foes like Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia — into anything resembling a coordinated position.

“Turkey… will seek a prominent role in coordinating Muslim reactions to the US move,” wrote analysts Ofer Zalzberg and Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

But they added most leaders in the Gulf, Egypt and elsewhere are “likely to make do with rhetorical expressions of opposition” and were unlikely to risk sacrificing good relations with the US.

Crucially watched will be attendance from President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s Egypt — a bete noire of Erdogan — and Gulf kingpin Saudi Arabia which is under the sway of powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has sought an enhanced role for the OIC. Thanks to his backing Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu — who later stood against Erdogan in presidential elections — was secretary general of the Jeddah-based group from 2004-2014.

“Turkey has attempted to be a flag bearer for Muslim alliances for the last 12 years to very limited outcomes,” said Meral of the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research.

“OIC is a weak entity with very little shared agenda and commitment to shared causes,” he said, adding a better option to help the Palestinians would be to work more closely with EU and Western nations who have criticized the move.

https://www.timesofisrael.com/turkeys-erdogan-seeks-to-lead-muslim-response-on-jerusalem/

Lebanon emerges from crisis with Iran on top, but risks remain

December 8, 2017

By Samia NakhoulTom Perry

 Reuters

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s allies in Lebanon have emerged even stronger from a crisis triggered by Saudi Arabia, which achieved little more than to force the Saudis’ main Lebanese ally – Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri – closer to Tehran’s friends in Beirut

Saudi Arabia aimed to hurt Iran in Lebanon by forcing Hariri’s resignation on Nov. 4 and torpedoing his coalition deal with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies, using its influence over the Sunni leader to cause trouble for the Shi‘ite group.

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Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri

Instead, the move backfired as Western states censured Riyadh over a step they feared would destabilize Lebanon, despite their shared concerns over the regional role of the heavily armed Hezbollah.

Hariri revoked his resignation on Tuesday, drawing a line under the crisis caused by his announcement from Riyadh. Lebanese officials say he was put under house arrest before French intervention led to his return home. Riyadh and Hariri deny this.

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But while the crisis has abated, its causes – Hezbollah’s growing military influence in the region and Saudi Arabia’s determination to counter Iran – seem likely to bring more trouble Lebanon’s way sooner or later.

Hezbollah supporters cheer as they listen to a speech of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2017. Bilal Hussein-AP

Hariri has identified possible Gulf Arab sanctions as a major risk to the Lebanese economy. Analysts also see a risk of another war with Hezbollah’s old foe, Israel, which is alarmed by the group’s strength in Lebanon and Syria.

The episode also leaves big questions over Lebanese politics, long influenced by Saudi Arabia, a patron of the Lebanese Sunni community.

One senior Lebanese politician said the experience had “left a big scar” on Hariri, once the “the spiritual son of Saudi Arabia”. “After this, it will not be easy to have a normal relationship again.”

Meeting on Tuesday for the first time since the resignation, Hariri’s government indirectly acknowledged Saudi concerns over Hezbollah’s role outside Lebanon. At Hariri’s behest, it reaffirmed its policy of staying out of Arab conflicts.

A top Lebanese official said Western pressure forced Saudi Arabia to retreat from its Lebanon plan but further Saudi moves could not be ruled out: “Can we restrain Saudi from going toward madness? In my view, no.”

A Western diplomat said Saudi measures targeting the Lebanese economy were “a genuine possibility” at some point though the international community would likely try to influence how tough any sanctions would be.

“I think the Saudis have understood from the international reaction that Lebanon isn’t a pitch on which they are playing alone. There are other players who have interests who don’t want to see those undermined,” the diplomat said.

“At the same time, the international community’s patience isn’t unlimited. It will be hard to protect Lebanon indefinitely if there is no tangible progress on rolling back Hezbollah.”

NASRALLAH SEEN SOFTENING RHETORIC

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Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

Hezbollah was the only group allowed to keep its weapons at the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war to fight Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon.

Its militia has been a source of controversy in Lebanon since the Israeli withdrawal of 2000.

With Saudi backing, Hariri led a Lebanese political alliance to confront the group, but that resulted in Hezbollah’s takeover of Beirut in 2008 during a brief civil war.

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FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/File Photo via Reuters)

Hezbollah’s stature has grown in the chaos that swept the Arab world after 2011. It has backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and helped in the war against Islamic State in Iraq.

But its role in the Yemen conflict is seen as the main factor behind the crisis in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran and Hezbollah of military support for the Iranian-allied Houthis in their war with a Saudi-led coalition.

Hariri has repeatedly flagged Yemen as the cause of the latest crisis, and warned that Lebanon’s economy is at stake.

The economy depends on remittances from expat workers, particularly in the Gulf. Any threat to inflows is seen as a risk to the system that finances the heavily indebted state.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has appeared to recalibrate his rhetoric in response to the crisis.

Last month, he denied his group was fighting in Yemen, or sending weapons to the Houthis, or firing rockets at Saudi Arabia from Yemeni territory. He also indicated Hezbollah could pull its fighters from Iraq. The remarks on the eve of Hariri’s return were seen as “appeasing”, a source close to Hariri said.

WESTERN INTERESTS

Hariri has twice led coalition governments including Hezbollah despite his enmity toward the group: five Hezbollah members have been charged by a U.N.-backed tribunal with the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri.

Hezbollah denies any involvement.

Hariri’s willingness to compromise with Hezbollah was a factor behind the Saudi move against him and has drawn criticism from within the Sunni community. His status as Lebanon’s most influential Sunni will be put to the test in parliamentary elections next year.

Ashraf Rifi, a hawkish Sunni politician, said the way Hariri reversed his resignation was a “farce” and a “surrender to the Hezbollah project”.

The senior politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah may offer Hariri a “gesture” over its regional role but saw little prospect of the group fundamentally changing course. President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could pressure the group “a little bit to be cooler on certain issues”, the politician said.

But Lebanese in Saudi Arabia still had reason to be afraid for their livelihoods: “I think with time the Lebanese will try to disentangle themselves from Saudi Arabia, but this will cost Lebanon a lot because revenues will be reduced.”

The Hariri crisis marked an unprecedented intervention in Lebanon, even in a country with a long history of foreign meddling. It also underlined the different priorities of Saudi Arabia and its Western allies in Lebanon – a major recipient of aid to help it host 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

On the last day of Hariri’s stay in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman summoned him for a meeting and kept him waiting for hours, delaying his departure for France where President Emanuel Macron was waiting for him, the senior politician and a top Lebanese official said.

“Macron was calling Saad to find out where he was,” said the senior politician, adding that Macron then called Crown Prince Mohammad to tell him he was expecting Hariri for lunch.

Western states want stability in Lebanon, the politician said. “They need Lebanon as a platform for observing the Arab world. They have invested a lot here, and if there is a civil war, (there is the question of) what to do with all the Syrian refugees.”

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; editing by Giles Elgood

Russia declares Syria ‘completely liberated’ from IS jihadists

December 7, 2017

AFP

© Dominique Derda, France 2, AFP | A Russian soldier seen at the battle of Deir Ezzor on September 15.

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-12-07

Russia’s defence ministry on Thursday said its mission to oust Islamic State jihadists from Syria had been “accomplished” with the country “completely liberated” from the extremist group.

“The Russian armed forces’ goal to defeat armed groups of the ISIL terrorist organisation in Syria has been accomplished,” said senior military officer Sergei Rudskoi, using an alternative acronym for the group.

“There is not a single village or district in Syria under the control of ISIL. The territory of Syria has been completely liberated from fighters of this terrorist organisation,” he told reporters.

There has been an “unprecedented” involvement by Russia’s airforce in recent days, he said, with warplanes making 100 sorties and staging up to 250 strikes daily.

At the same time, special forces were active on the ground directing planes and “destroying the most odious leaders of militant groups behind enemy lines,” he said.

>> Video: Clearing our Syria’s last Islamic State group strongholds

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said Thursday that IS still holds about eight percent of Deir Ezzor province.

Rudskoi said “separate sabotage bands of ISIL” could still be operating but would be fought by Syrian government troops, indicating that Russia’s involvement would be scaled down.

“With the liquidation of armed bands of the ISIL terrorist group in Syria, the Russian contingent will concentrate its main efforts on providing aid to the Syrian people in rebuilding peace” and ensuring ceasefire commitments were met, he said.

>> Video: What happens once the IS group is defeated in Syria?

Russia began its bombing raids in September 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered forces.

Those strikes have helped Assad regain control over much of war-ravaged Syria.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin said efforts to end the war were entering a “new stage” as the focus shifts from military intervention to political reform.

More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule that sparked a brutal crackdown.

(AFP)

French President Macron arrives in Qatar amid Arab boycott of Doha, uproar over Trump decision on Jerusalem

December 7, 2017

AFP and The Associated Press

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© France 24, screen capture | President Macron arrives in Doha on December 7, 2017.

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-12-07

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Qatar on Thursday for a one-day trip to the small Gulf country as it faces continued isolation and a boycott by some of its Arab neighbors.

Macron landed and immediately traveled to the vast al-Udeid Air Base, home to some 10,000 American troops and the forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command. France also has a contingent of soldiers at the base, which is crucial to the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and to the war in Afghanistan.

Macron smiled and shook hands with the French and American soldiers who greeted him at the base before walking into a meeting with the base’s top commanders.

Speaking to coalition soldiers, he said the next few months of battle will determine the outcome of the war against the IS group in Iraq in Syria.

“This military win does not signify the end of the operations and the end of our battle because first we need to stabilize and win peace in Iraq and Syria,” he told troops. “Next spring is decisive in the situation in Iraq.”

Macron also stressed in his remarks at the air base that France wants to avoid partition in Syria and “avoid the domination of certain international elements whose interests contradict peace.”

The French president later will hold talks with Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Macron is traveling with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who in 2015 as defense minister helped negotiate a multibillion dollar deal with Qatar to buy 24 Rafale fighter jets. Qatar may announce during Macron’s visit that it will purchase up to 12 more of the French-made Dassault Rafale jets.

Macron’s visit comes just days after a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Kuwait failed to bring the standoff any closer to a resolution in the dispute engulfing Qatar. In June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar over allegations it supports extremists and has too-close relations with Iran.

Qatar has long denied supporting extremists and shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Tehran.

Also likely to come up during Macron’s visit is President Donald Trump‘s announcement that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians claim the city’s eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state.

Before Macron’s arrival, Qatar’s ruler held calls with Trump, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Qatar has, in the past, provided crucial aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which is run by the militant Hamas group, and has helped pay public sector wages in the besieged Palestinian territory.

(AP)

 

U.S., France urge Russia to “deliver” Assad delegation to Syria peace talks

December 6, 2017

By Tom Miles

Reuters

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States and France called on Russia on Wednesday to deliver the delegation of President Bashar al-Assad to Syria peace talks in Geneva after discussions on ending the six-year war resumed with no sign of the government attending.

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Syria’s U.N. ambassador and chief negociator Bashar al-Ja’afari. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The eighth round of negotiations began last week and after a few days with little apparent progress, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said the government delegation, led by Bashar al-Ja‘afari, was returning to Damascus to “consult and refresh”.

De Mistura expected talks to resume “around Tuesday” Dec. 5, but Ja‘afari left Geneva on Saturday and said he might not come back because the opposition had stated that Assad could not play a role in a future interim government.

A source close to the Syrian government’s negotiating team told Reuters the delegation was still in Damascus on Wednesday.

“We have said to the Russians it is important that the Syrian regime be at the table and be part of these negotiations and part of the discussion,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a news conference in Brussels. “We have left it to the Russians to deliver them to table.”

Syrian officials have not said if Ja‘afari will return to the talks but opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said on Monday a government boycott would be “an embarrassment to Russia”, which is keen to see a negotiated end to the war.

The opposition negotiating team arrived at the U.N. offices in Geneva on Wednesday morning to resume talks with de Mistura, who declined to comment late on Tuesday when asked about the absence of Ja‘afari’s negotiators.

“It takes two to Tango, but at the same time you need to talk to the other party,” Aridi told reporters on Wednesday. “If they are quite serious about bringing peace to Syria, well they should show up.”

France, a key backer of the Syrian opposition, accused the government of blocking the U.N.-led effort and refusing to engage in good faith to achieve a political solution.

“This refusal highlights the obstruction strategy of the political process carried out by the Damascus regime, which is responsible for the absence of progress in the negotiations,” French foreign ministry deputy spokesman Alexandre Georgini told reporters.

He also said that Russia, as one of Assad’s main supporters, needed to assume its responsibilities so that the Syrian government finally entered the negotiations.

The Russian mission in Geneva did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

During last week’s sessions, de Mistura shuttled between representatives of the warring sides, who did not meet face-to-face. He had planned to continue the round until Dec. 15.

Reporting by Issam Abdullah in Geneva, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Robin Emmott in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Putin Wants to Win, But Not at All Costs

December 6, 2017
His military strategy is far more calculated than his predecessors.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Bloomberg
Breaking the Soviet mold.

 Photographer: Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images)

As Russia has worked to convince the world that its military power is growing, it has concealed its costs in terms of blood and treasure. But newly revealed statistics show surprisingly low casualties despite engagements in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria.

It was the latest evidence that President Vladimir Putin’s military strategy is far more calculated than his predecessors, who were willing to win at all costs. Boris Yeltsin’s losses in Chechnya gutted his public support and the Soviet Union’s costly, failed Afghanistan adventure helped speed the end of an empire. Putin’s position is far more secure, which makes his approach to war all the more difficult to explain.

Russia has not reported active duty casualties since 2010 even as it expanded its military operations on several fronts. In 2015, Putin was accused of trying to hide losses in eastern Ukraine, where Russia stubbornly denies military involvement, by classifying data on losses incurred in “peacetime military operations.”

This week, the daily newspaper Vedomosti discovered the casualties figures on the Russian government procurement website. In October, Sogaz, an insurance company owned by a group of investors close to Putin, won the tender to insure Russian military personnel against death and injury. Everyone in active service — conscripts, professional contract soldiers, officers — is insured. In 2016, that meant 1,191,095 people.

Along with the requirements and probability tables, the Defense Ministry, which organized the tender published the number of insurance claims made in 2012 through 2016. Of these claims, 3,198 were related to deaths. The deaths didn’t necessarily occur the same year as the claims were made, but the count should be close enough to the actual number of casualties.

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Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber released bombs over Syria

These fall far short of earlier losses, these are small. In 2000, for example, the Russian military lost 1,310 people in Chechnya, according to official statistics.

In 2014, Ukraine accused Russia of sending troops to stop it from crushing two pro-Russian, separatist “people’s republics” in its eastern part. Regular Russian troops apparently did show up in eastern Ukraine at crucial moments of the conflict, such as when the Ukrainian military was surrounded at Ilovaysk in August and September, 2014, and when they were crushed at Debaltseve in January and February, 2015. According to the Ukrainian defense ministry, it lost 432 service members in these two battles. If the small peak of Russian casualties in 2014 indicates the Ilovaysk episode, and if about 650 deaths a year in 2012 and 2013 are standard peaceful-year numbers, Russia lost about 170 service members in the Ilovaysk intervention. The Debaltseve casualties were statistically negligible.

So clearly were the regular military’s losses in Syria, where Russia began a largely aerial operation in support of President Bashar Al-Assad in September, 2015.

When Putin came to Assad’s rescue, many Russians — including some Putin supporters — feared he might get bogged down there, as the Soviets did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviet Union lost more than 15,000 people in the 10-year war — enough for the deaths to register on most Russians’ radars. Nobel prizewinner Svetlana Aleksievich described the grief and the anger in her 1989 novel, Zinc Boys. In terms of military casualties, however, Putin’s Syrian campaign has cost his regime remarkably little, and now that the fighting is almost over, any damage to his domestic standing is highly unlikely.

The Russian military tradition — at least in the 20th century wars — wasn’t about keeping soldiers alive but about achieving goals at any price. The current numbers indicate a change — but perhaps not an entirely positive one. Under Putin, Russia fights its wars in a different way.

In Ukraine, the separatist forces, consisting of Ukrainian nationals, Russian nationalist volunteers and mercenaries, bear the brunt of the losses in a war that has already killed more than 10,000 people. In Syria, the Russian boots on the ground — as opposed to planes in the air — weren’t, for the most part, regular service members but fighters of the Wagner Group — a private military company run by Dmitri Utkin, a former Russian military intelligence lieutenant colonel. Its 6,000-strong mercenary force, not all of it Russian, has reportedly taken part in the Ukrainian action, too, including the Crimea takeover. There’s only anecdotal information about Wagner’s losses, though they would have far less political significance, of course.

As Putin increased and rearmed the Russian military, he has also embraced the concept of hybrid war, shifting much of the burden onto the shoulders of irregulars. In part thanks to that shift, Russia’s military losses in 2014, the worst of the last five years, only reached 68.8 per 100,000 — significantly less than the 88.1 service members per 100,000 the U.S. lost in 2010, the last year for which data are publicly available from the Defense Casualty Analysis System.

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Contrary to its well-established practice, the Russian defense ministry didn’t try to deny the casualty numbers after Vedomosti unearthed the tender documentation. So perhaps the leak wasn’t accidental: Putin is preparing to announce his bid for a fourth term as president, and the relatively small losses should help him show off his prowess as commander-in-chief. Still, they won’t justify Russia’s participation in the destruction of Ukraine or the human, economic and diplomatic cost that disastrous Putin decision has imposed on Russia itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-12-06/putin-wants-to-win-but-not-at-all-costs

See also:

Putin reveals secrets of Russia’s Crimea takeover plot

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31796226

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“Little green men” appeared in Crimea