Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’

China draws three-stage path for Myanmar, Bangladesh to resolve Rohingya crisis

November 20, 2017

Reuters

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Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attends the 13th Asia Europe Foreign Ministers Meeting (ASEM) in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, November 20, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer Reuters

By Yimou Lee

NAYPYITAW (Reuters) – China called for a ceasefire in Myanmar’s Rakhine State so that Rohingya Muslim refugees can return from Bangladesh, proposing a three-stage approach to the crisis as diplomats from 51 mostly Asian and European countries gathered in Myanmar on Monday.

More than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since late August driven out by a military clearance operation in Buddhist majority Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Amid a burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe, rights groups have accused the Myanmar military of committing atrocities, while foreign critics have blasted Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize winner who leads the country’s less than two-year-old civilian administration, for failing to speak out more strongly.

On Monday, Suu Kyi opened a Asia-Europe Meeting for foreign ministers that had been scheduled to take place in Myanmar before the outbreak of the current crisis.

Speaking in Naypyitaw on Sunday having arrived from Dhaka, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China believed Myanmar and Bangladesh could work out a mutually acceptable way to end the crisis.

“The first phase is to effect a ceasefire on the ground, to return to stability and order, so the people can enjoy peace and no longer be forced to flee,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement citing Wang.

“With the hard work of all sides, at present the first phase’s aim has already basically been achieved, and the key is to prevent a flare-up, especially that there is no rekindling the flames of war.”

Visiting Myanmar last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made many of the same points, but he also called for a credible investigation into reports of atrocities.

REPATRIATION PROCESS

Once a ceasefire is seen to be working, Wang said talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh should find a workable solution for the return of refugees, and the final phase should be to work toward a long-term solution based on poverty alleviation.

Myanmar and Bangladesh officials began talks last month to settle a repatriation process for Rohingya refugees, and Bangladesh’s foreign minister expects to take those talks to the next level in coming days.

Speaking on the sidelines of the ASEM meeting, European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said: “we believe that stopping the violence, the flow of refugees and guarantee full humanitarian access to the Rakhine state, and safe, sustainable repatriation of refugees are going to be key.”

Mogherini, who also visited Bangladesh over the weekend, said, “there’s a real possibility of Myanmar and Bangladesh reaching a memorandum of understanding and agreement for the safe repatriation of refugees to Myanmar.”

She said the European bloc was ready to help with the process.

It was unclear, however, whether a safe return was possible – or advisable – given that thousands of Rohingya women and children are still stranded on the beaches trying to flee hunger and instability in Rakhine.

Myanmar intends to resettle most refugees who return to Rakhine state in new “model villages”, rather than on the land they previously occupied, an approach criticized in the past by the United Nations as effectively creating permanent camps.

Aside from restoring peace for Rohingya to return home, Myanmar also had to resolve the issue of their citizenship, having treated them as stateless for decades, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, told a news conference in Tokyo.

He said the UNHCR was ready to assist both countries with the repatriation process and said it could help Myanmar with the citizenship verification of the Rohingya. Until now it has not been invited to participate in either.

“Much as resources are needed in Bangladesh to respond to the crisis, the solutions to this crisis lie in Myanmar,” Grandi said.

VIOLENCE LARGELY OVER

The refugee crisis erupted after the military launched a brutal counter-insurgency operation against the militants after attacks on an army base and 30 police posts in Rakhine on Aug. 25.

Myanmar’s military has said that all fighting against the Rohingya militants died out on Sept.5.

The group behind those attacks, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), had declared a one-month ceasefire on Sept.10, which was rejected by the Myanmar government. But there have been no serious clashes since.

The United States and other Western countries have become more engaged with Myanmar in recent years, since it began a transition to civilian government after nearly 50 years of military rule. Currently, there is a power sharing arrangement, whereby Myanmar’s generals retain autonomy over defense, internal security and border issues.

China has close relations with both Myanmar and Bangladesh, and has long been a key player in lawless borderlands where rebel ethnic groups have fought Myanmar’s government for decades. The conflict in those border regions have occasionally pushed thousands of refugees to seek shelter in China.

Since the Rohingya crisis, China has repeatedly expressed support for what it calls the Myanmar government’s efforts to protect stability.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Antoni Slodkowski in YANGON and Thomas Wilson in TOKYO; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Copyright 2017 Thomson Reuters.

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‘Belt and Road’ project: China’s new vision and Turkey

November 15, 2017

Analysis

By  Emel Parlar Dal

Does the Belt and Road project really have the potential to introduce a Chinese alternative to the established world order?

ISTANBUL

U.S. President Donald Trump’s 13-day Asia tour, which began on Nov. 5 with Japan and includes, first and foremost, China, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, is already signaling that the U.S. is drawing up a new Asian strategy.

Although it is suggested that the visit is outwardly based on the goal of creating a coordination and business alliance to take tougher measures against North Korea, this 13-day diplomacy tour by Trump, the longest Asian tour ever taken by a U.S. president since George H. W. Bush’s 12-day visit in 1991, is dropping major hints about the discomfort the U.S. is feeling towards the recent transformation in power balances in Asia.

One such hint is that the region, defined to date by Washington as “Asia-Pacific”, began to be conceptualized as the “Indo-Pacific region” starting from before this visit. We may say that the most important reason for this visit as well as the conceptual transformation accompanying it — beyond the ostentatious North Korean threat — directly relates to containing or controlling the rise of China, which is now following a global trajectory after its spread over Asia.

The aspect of this Chinese rise that will pose the greatest challenge to the U.S.’ position as a superpower is the Belt and Road project, which is China’s global strategic partnership vision with pragmatic foundations and a win-win strategy as opposed to the security-related tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Does the Belt and Road project really have the potential to introduce a Chinese alternative to the established world order? What countries, multilateral structures and regions constitute the main partners of the project?

And how important are Turkey and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railroad project to this massive undertaking, considering that the current final destination of this project (Kars) is a Turkish province?

Image result for Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railroad project, photos

Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railroad project

Is Belt and Road main pillar of China’s new world vision?

At a time when the basic paradigms of the international order are being questioned once again, China is the focal point of almost every other analysis because of its position in the international hierarchy and because it is seen as possessed of the greatest potential to develop new alternatives.

Indeed, it would not be wrong to argue that China has in recent years been transforming its infrastructure-based activities and foreign aid-based activities, which it has independently carried out for many years, especially in the neighboring regions, into a formula for a new vision of the world.

What is currently on display in the showcase of this vision, being advertised in an increasingly audible and visible fashion since the 2000s, is — as it is called now — “Belt and Road”, which was originally called “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he first announced it in 2013.

As was stressed by Xi Jinping during his long speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress held in October, China is now seeking to shape its global strategy in search of a “new” order in a “new” era.

In this context, while consolidating its new geo-economic and geo-strategic stance in its foreign policy, China, with its new pragmatic approach of regionalism and inter-regionalism, is offering an inclusive model based on a win-win mentality as opposed to the Western-origin conditional/normative integration projects that are becoming less appealing by the day in the international system; an inclusive model that the countries the model is being offered to can accept and adopt more easily.

Through this project, which is trying to connect Asia, Europe and Africa together with land and sea routes and economic corridors, China takes interest in not only the infrastructure projects that would provide the said connections; it also considers steps towards policy cooperation, the joining together of activities, unimpeded trade, financial integration and establishing ties between peoples among the project’s goals; steps that will hopefully facilitate the efforts to keep these connections smooth and operational.

The project, which will connect the Chinese hinterland to Europe by road via Central Asia, will also be connecting Chinese ports to Europe by sea, calling at ports in South East Asia and Africa.

In addition to these, the project will incorporate the economic corridors of China-Mongolia-Russia, New Eurasia, China-Central Asia-Western Asia, China-Pakistan, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar and China-the Indochina Peninsula.

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In addition to massive investment agreements signed to date, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, established by China to finance the project, provide significant clues about the holistic structure of the project.

Likewise, China’s emphasis on the safety of all roads and transit routes within the framework of the project is one of the important dimensions of this pragmatic approach regarding the sustainability of the project.

In fact, this project can be regarded as the locomotive of Xi Jinping’s vision of becoming an equal superpower alternative to the U.S.; a vision that took Jinping years to formulate; a vision that has been carrying China above and beyond being merely a regional hegemon in Asia.

One of the first balancing efforts of the U.S. under Trump in the face of such a possibility [of China becoming the new superpower] came in the form of steadily growing convergence with India and Japan.

By signaling that Australia could as well be invited to come onboard, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the first signals of the steps they have planned to take against China’s grand vision or strategy.

Well, with this convergence taking place in Asia-Pacific through the American driving force, what countries and which multilateral groupings and regions does China prioritize?

Strategic partners of ‘Belt and Road’

China, as already mentioned, offers a global partnership strategy based on a win-win concept with the Belt and Road project, where each country can be a stakeholder regardless of normative conditions or loyalties.

The sheer number of the countries taking part in the project — 69 so far, including China — demonstrates the degree to which the Belt and Road project has been received favorably in such a short time in comparison to other infrastructure and strategic vision projects on the scene.

Another important point that needs to be emphasized here is that China has been trying to activate the Belt and Road project not only through the bilateral relations it has developed but through the regional and interregional multilateral structures, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), ASEAN + China, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC), the Asia-Europe Summit, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures, the Chinese-Arab Cooperation Forum, the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Dialogue, the Economic Partnership of Greater Mekong Sub-Region, and the Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC).

The key strategic partners of the Belt and Road will be Central Asian countries through which the land links that will constitute the main pillar of the project pass, and of them, three countries stand out: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which were participants of the Belt and Road Forum last May.

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Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Project Important for Europe

In the discussions at the Forum, the railway link between China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan had come to the forefront as the most important infrastructure project that the project promises for the future of Central Asia.

Outside of China, Pakistan and Indonesia particularly stand out among those countries home to a number of projects already launched as part of China’s massive initiative. China signed agreements with Indonesia, already one of the economic corridors of the project, for the financing of over 50 projects, especially in 2015.

Africa is the most important region that stands out in terms of the sea routes of the project. Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Egypt, Senegal, Tanzania, and Tunisia are among the areas where the project takes on the greatest intensity continent-wise.

In the African leg of the project, Egypt stands out particularly, because China sees the Suez Canal as one of the most important transit points of the project and is already one of the biggest investors in the development of the canal.

In short, with the Belt and Road project, China is creating strategic partnerships in Central Asia, South East Asia, and Africa as the basis for its new foreign policy vision.

Where does Turkey stand in this partnership vision and what are Turkey’s main concerns?

What is Turkey’s position with regard to ‘Belt and Road’?

The “Belt and Road International Cooperation” forum, also known as the “Modern Silk Road”, held on May 14-15, 2017 in Beijing with the participation of the heads of states and governments of 29 countries, including Turkey, is an important cornerstone to understand the project’s expectations from Turkey, Turkey’s actual capacity as well as the current difficulties it has.

Unlike most European states, Turkey has high expectations from this mega trade and transportation project, considered the most important project of this century.

More than anything else, this project seems to overlap with Turkey’s own development goals and the new role it has designed for itself as well as the ideological infrastructure of this role in the changing post-western international system, in which power and competition are gradually shifting from the Global North to the Global South.

It is undoubtedly not a surprising development that Turkey has been seeking new alternatives and partnerships in international politics in this new era marked by ups and downs in its relations with the West, and following a strategy of convergence with China, the most powerful state of the Global South, because of a dwindling capital flow owing to these ups and downs.

Beyond the economic and commercial expectations — they are surely of the main reasons behind Turkey’s interest in the Belt and Road project — the growing closeness between Turkey and China will create a geopolitical and strategic impact on a regional and global scale.

We can additionally mention the positive contributions that may arise from the project to Turkey’s regional and global leverage, the roles it plays, and its international image.

Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement just before the Belt and Road Forum — “Our convergence with China will create a significant impact in the world” — illustrates the above observation.

In which leg of the project is Turkey situated and how does it contribute to it? We need to first mention the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, whose construction began in 2007. It was inaugurated at the Port of Baku in Alat two weeks ago and is situated at the middle belt of the Iron Silk Road, which aims to establish an uninterrupted link between Beijing and London.

Another initiative is also worth mentioning: a high-speed train project, planned between Edirne and Kars [the northwestern-most and northeastern-most provinces of Turkey, respectively] as an extension to the BTK line. It will cost a total of $30 billion.

Turkey is making an important contribution to the Iron Silk Road, having completed the middle belt of the Beijing-London line with the Marmaray [the world’s first undersea railway] and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge — the third on the Bosporus Strait — both of which had been designed as part of the Iron Silk Road.

The BTK railway has a total length of 838 kilometers, 76 kilometers of which passes through Turkey, 259 through Georgia and the rest 503 through Azerbaijan. It is envisaged that this line will be initially carrying one million passengers and 6.5 million tons of cargo annually.

It is planned that the BTK line, whose current capacity is expected to increase to 3 million passengers and 17 million tons of cargo annually, will be carrying Chinese merchandise to the Caspian Sea and Baku’s Alat Port by way of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and eventually to Europe through Georgia and Turkey.

Another feature of the BTK is that it will shorten the China-Europe route by about 7,000 kilometers, given that all railways from China to Europe currently go through Russia. Thus, bypassing Russia will reduce the overall duration of this long route to 15 days.

In the same manner, with this new project, it is estimated that a significant portion of the freight traffic between China and Europe will shift from Russia to this particular route.

Turkey’s reservations, and expectations from China

Turkey, on the other hand, does have its concerns about China’s historic project. Despite acting less warily of the project than its European allies, Turkey is focusing on the possibility that the project might further widen the already yawning gap in the import-export balance of its trade with China.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s (Turkstat) figures on 2016, Turkey’s imports from China stood at $25 billion whereas its exports to it were worth a mere $2.3 billion. What is striking here is, Turkey’s exports to China have gradually decreased since 2013 while its imports have remained around the same level.

Again, according to Turkstat data, Chinese exports have also seen a gradual decrease since 2013 whereas its imports have remained around the same levels. According to Turkish officials, this 10-fold difference between exports and imports is far from sustainable.

Therefore, Turkey must increase its exports to China to equal at least a half of its imports to strike a desirable balance, and the two countries must reach an agreement for China to offer Turkey greater access to its domestic market.

Likewise, we observe that Turkey, just like its European allies, is expecting China — an advocate of globalization and liberalization in economics — to lift the quotas and restrictions on foreign investors in its domestic market and to discard the rules that favor its own domestic companies with greater advantages.

All these concerns set aside, given the economic corridors in the Belt and Road project and the initiatives China has separately established with certain countries, it is clear that China is conferring an important role on Turkey, albeit not a primary or pivotal one.

In general, it can be assessed that Turkey’s role in the project is being shaped by how the Chinese-Russian competition is reflected on Central Asia, Caucasia and the Middle East, a region Turkey is a part of.

With this project, China is containing its two chief rivals Russia and India with secure alternative routes, through which it is creating itself new spheres of trade and security.

In the same way, it can be predicted that China will try and negate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (from which it has been excluded), whose infrastructure saw completion during the Obama era.

This partnership envisages that the U.S. can enjoy free trade with Southeast Asian and Oceania countries even though President Donald Trump claims that the U.S. will withdraw from it.

When assessing the Turkey leg of the project, we need to consider these geo-economic elements as well as all other dimensions, including security. Such a comprehensive assessment is very important if we do not wish for this win-win mentality — the primary reason for the project — to turn into a loss for Turkey.

Last but not least, the Belt and Road project might as well serve as an example of similar transportation and transit routes that Turkey may consider developing on its own initiative in the years to come and of the new initiatives of regionalism that it may help to shape.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

http://aa.com.tr/en/analysis-news/analysis-belt-and-road-project-chinas-new-vision-and-turkey/965994

U.S. Pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi Only Helps China, Aides Warn

November 14, 2017

Ahead of Rex Tillerson visit to Myanmar, leader’s team says West is driving them closer to Beijing

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar—Aides to Aung San Suu Kyi have been warning Western ambassadors that their pressure on Myanmar in support of ethnic Rohingya Muslims is pushing the country closer to China—a sign of the resistance that awaits U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visits on Wednesday.

Washington and others are pressing Buddhist-majority Myanmar and its Nobel Prize-winning leader to do more to address a humanitarian crisis caused by a military crackdown on the Rohingya that drove over 600,000 people across the border into Bangladesh.

Mr. Tillerson in September condemned what he called the “horrors that we are witnessing” in Myanmar, amid reports that the military had burned Rohingya villages and killed and raped villagers. Proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress seeks to block the assets of military leaders and ban their travel.

During his visit, Mr. Tillerson intends to meet with senior leaders and officials on actions to address the crisis and U.S. support for the democratic transition in the formerly military-ruled country, according to the State Department.

Myanmar denies refugee accounts of atrocities during the security operations, which came after a Rohingya militant group attacked military outposts near the border in August. Ms. Suu Kyi’s government accuses Western leaders of falling for what they say are biased reports.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar take shelter in Teknaf, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Monday.Photo: navesh chitrakar/Reuters

Ms. Suu Kyi’s aides said she wouldn’t change course in response to U.S. or European sanctions. “We are used to being under pressure—first it was the military, now it’s the West,” said Win Htein, a senior party leader close to Ms. Suu Kyi.

Mr. Win Htein said he has told Western diplomats that if such pressure continues, “it’s inevitable” that Myanmar will move closer to its neighbor China.

Beijing has been Myanmar’s most vocal defender, last week blocking Western efforts for a resolution in the U.N. Security Council, which settled for a nonbinding statement that demanded an end to violent treatment of Rohingya and access for humanitarian agencies. Ms. Suu Kyi’s office later thanked those “who upheld the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.”

Western officials said they had tried but failed in dozens of meetings to push Ms. Suu Kyi’s government to take concrete steps that would help ease the global outcry. A Western diplomat said the U.S. and Europe had little leverage because China, Japan, India and other Asian nations had indicated they would remain engaged with Myanmar.

Advisers to Ms. Suu Kyi said they expect the U.S. will reimpose some of the restrictions former President Barack Obama lifted last year after Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in Myanmar’s first free election in half a century.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain has called for such action to punish Myanmar’s military leaders.

The previous sanctions were removed to encourage Myanmar’s democratic transition. Some U.S. officials said they worry that reinstating any sanctions would undermine that process and deter Western investment that they say could dilute the influence of the military.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s aides are also sending the message that sanctions could worsen her relationship with the army and cause the generals to tighten their grip. Ms. Suu Kyi doesn’t control the military, which still runs many of the most important government agencies, including the Defense Ministry.

Aides said Ms. Suu Kyi’s priority is to be able to work with the military to achieve her longer-term goals, which include constitutional change toward a fuller democracy. They said they worry that pushing too hard will damage any cooperation with the military or prompt it to take back civilian powers.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s party is operating on the belief that military leaders expect her to shield them and would see renewed sanctions as a sign of her intent to undercut them, according to a party official and a Suu Kyi adviser.

Aides also said Ms. Suu Kyi feels betrayed by the West and has sunk into siege mentality, reflecting the shifting attitudes of many citizens who increasingly view the U.S. as a preaching foreign power unjustly targeting their leader.

“Nationalism is going up because our small country is under so much pressure,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a longtime democracy activist. “We are watching who is with us in this tough time.”

Humanitarian agencies and nonprofit groups wouldn’t be allowed to work independently or freely access border areas within Myanmar because of security risks, said Minister for Social Welfare Win Myat Aye. He said local Buddhists see the United Nations and others as biased, and could turn hostile.

He said the government would allow Rohingya refugees to return after thorough verification and build houses for them, dismissing concerns that those who return would be unsafe.

Some policy debates in the West on a tougher response to the Rohingya crisis have touched on concerns about ceding a geopolitical advantage to China, according to people familiar with the discussions.

For China, Myanmar is a strategic prize. Gas and oil pipelines run through the country to China’s Yunnan province. A Chinese-led consortium is in final-stage negotiations for a deep-water port—a key piece of Beijing’s expansive Belt and Road infrastructure project.

Related

  • Behind the Silence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi
  • Myanmar Refugees Tell of Atrocities; ‘A Soldier Cut His Throat’
  • The Muslim Militant at the Heart of Myanmar’s Rohingya Exodus

The port would give China access to the Indian Ocean, where it wants to project power, and reduce its dependence on the narrow and easily blockaded Strait of Malacca for its oil supplies.

During its years of international isolation, Myanmar depended on its giant neighbor, but mining and infrastructure projects stoked widespread anti-China sentiment.

In 2011, Myanmar stepped away from China when a new Myanmar government suspended a Chinese dam project and began opening to the West. Myanmar emerged as a U.S. foreign-policy success story and Mr. Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country.

Last year, a Chinese official said to a Western diplomat: “When things go wrong, you will go, we will stay,” according to a person familiar with the conversation.

“In a few years, the U.S. and Europe might be asking: Who won and then lost Myanmar?” said Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “Myanmar wants to diversify, but if they have no choice, they will turn to China.”

Write to Niharika Mandhana at niharika.mandhana@wsj.com

Russia In Media Blitz to Save Bashar al-Assad, Discredit Any Reports of Chemical Weapons Use and Other “War Crimes”

November 2, 2017

Russia dismisses UN report on Syria sarin attack

© AFP/File / by Maria PANINA | This Syrian child was among the victims of a suspected sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun on April 4, which a UN report has blamed on the regime of Bashar al-Assad

MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia dismissed Thursday a report by a UN-led panel that blamed the Syrian regime for a sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun and said the use of the substance was part of a “theatrical performance” by rebels.

A panel including diplomats and military officers presented Moscow’s version of events complete with diagrams and satellite imagery, saying the Syrian regime did not carry the blame for the April attack which killed over 80 people.

“We believe that the report turned out to be superficial, unprofessional and amateurish,” said Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the foreign ministry’s security and disarmament department.

“The mission did their research from a distance, that in itself is a scandal.”

He said “the use of sarin has been confirmed” but insisted it was not delivered by an aerial bomb but rather used “as a theatrical performance, a provocation” by the rebels.

At least 87 people died on April 4 this year when sarin nerve agent projectiles were fired into Khan Sheikhun, a town in the Idlib province of northwestern Syria.

Images of dead and dying victims, including young children, in the aftermath of the attack provoked global outrage and a US cruise missile strike on a regime air base.

A joint panel by the United Nations and the world’s chemical watchdog Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that the Syrian regime was responsible, and that the air force had dropped a bomb on the town, releasing the deadly nerve agent.

Russia and Syria have however presented an alternative theory that an explosive device was set off on the ground. Ulyanov on Thursday suggested the sarin gas was poured inside the crater in the ground left by the bomb.

– ‘Baseless verdict’ –

Ulyanov spoke as part of a panel of foreign ministry, air force and other Russian officials presenting slides that showed elaborate diagrams of regime war planes’ trajectories and satellite images in an effort to cast doubt on the UN report.

The Russian officials also showed video footage of rescue personnel working in the crater wearing “only respirators and cotton gloves.”

Ulyanov claimed the video had been filmed after rebels detonated the bomb on the asphalt and before the sarin gas was poured into the crater.

“If it were an aerial bomb, the bomb’s tail would be in the crater, but there are no traces of an aerial bomb,” he said.

Ulyanov also said witnesses cited in the UN report were not confirmed to have been in the town on April 4 and “could have been sunning themselves on a beach in the United Arab Emirates.”

“The verdict against Damascus that has been issued so confidently turned out to be baseless,” he said. “You cannot issue a verdict against Damascus based on newspaper publications.”

Despite criticising the work of the UN-OPCW on the report, Ulyanov said Russia would on Thursday present a draft resolution extending its mission in Syria, following a veto on a similar US proposal in the Security Council last week.

Russia previously opposed renewing the mandate of the panel, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, prior to the release of the Khan Sheikhun report.

by Maria PANINA
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India’s New Afghan Trade Route Via Iran, Bypasses Pakistan

November 2, 2017

By Anjana Pasricha

FILE - A speed boat passes by oil docks at the port of Kalantari in the city of Chabahar, 300km (186 miles) east of the Strait of Hormuz, Jan. 17, 2012.

FILE – A speed boat passes by oil docks at the port of Kalantari in the city of Chabahar, 300km (186 miles) east of the Strait of Hormuz, Jan. 17, 2012.

Opening a new trade route to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan, India has dispatched its first consignment of wheat to the war torn country via the Iranian port of Chabahar.

The strategic sea route is a significant step in bolstering trade with Kabul that has been hampered because rival Pakistan does not allow India to transport goods to Afghanistan through its territory.

After the shipment was seen off by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani via a joint video conference Sunday, the Indian government called it a “landmark moment.”

In the coming months, six more consignments of wheat totaling 1.1. million tons will be sent from India’s western port of Kandla to Chabahar. From the Iranian port it will be taken by road to Kabul.

The shipment comes days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on a visit to New Delhi, allayed concerns that the Trump administration’s tough stand on Iran could pose a fresh stumbling block to India’s plans to develop the strategic Iranian port as a regional transit hub.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, right, shakes hand with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in New Delhi, India, Oct. 25, 2017.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, right, shakes hand with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in New Delhi, India, Oct. 25, 2017.

Easier connectivity to Afghanistan is key for India to step up its economic engagement with Kabul, which Washington has called for as part of its new policy to stabilize the war torn country.

And Chabahar port, in which India is investing $500 million to build new terminals, cargo berths and connecting road and rail lines, is the centerpiece of the strategy to improve linkages not just with Afghanistan, but also to resource-rich Central Asian republics.

“This is the first time that we are getting into Afghanistan through a route different than what traditional routes have been,” said South Asia expert Sukh Deo Muni at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses.

Indian leaders expressed optimism about the project, which is still a work in progress. Minister Swaraj called it the starting point of a journey that would spur the unhindered flow of commerce and trade throughout the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted the launch of the trade route, “marks a new chapter in regional cooperation & connectivity.”

I congratulate Afghanistan & Iran on Indian wheat shipment being flagged off from Kandla to Afghanistan through Chabahar.

This development marks a new chapter in regional cooperation & connectivity.

The sea route via the Iranian port is the second step taken by India to increase connectivity with Kabul. In June it opened an air freight corridor to provide greater access for Afghan goods to the Indian market.

The Chabahar port is seen as India’s answer to the Gwadar port in Pakistan being developed by China.

FILE - A Pakistan soldier stands guard while a loaded Chinese ship prepares to depart Gwadar port, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of Karachi. Pakistan, Nov. 13, 2016.

FILE – A Pakistan soldier stands guard while a loaded Chinese ship prepares to depart Gwadar port, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of Karachi. Pakistan, Nov. 13, 2016.

The project was conceived almost 15 years ago, but the plans were stalled for years due to U.S. led international sanctions on Iran. Their easing prompted India to sign a trilateral pact with Iran and Afghanistan last year to develop the port.

U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson indicated in New Delhi last week that fresh sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration would not pose a stumbling block to those plans.

“It is not our objective to harm the Iranian people, nor is it our objective to interfere with legitimate business activities that are going on with other businesses, whether they be from Europe, India or agreements that are in place that promote economic development and activity to the benefit of our friends and allies as well. We think there is no contradiction within that policy,” he told reporters in India.

Those words have been welcomed in New Delhi said analyst Muni. “I think there is a far more reassuring feeling in India vis-a-vis the Trump administration than what the initial thought was,” he said.

The shortest and most cost effective land routes between India and Afghanistan lie through Pakistan. However, due to longstanding rivalries between the two countries, India is not allowed to send any exports through Pakistani territory and Afghanistan is only allowed to send a limited amount of perishable goods through Pakistani territory to India.

https://www.voanews.com/a/india-opens-new-afghan-trade-route-via-iran/4091915.html

Syrian opposition: Russia, Iran trying to rehabilitate Assad, break with US and UN intentions, make the world forget about murders, destruction, chemical weapons

November 2, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The main Syrian opposition body said on Thursday a Russian-sponsored Syrian peace conference later this month represented a deviation from U.N.-led diplomacy and an attempt to rehabilitate President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“We, in the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), insist on rejecting discussion of Syria’s future outside the legal, U.N. framework,” the HNC said in a statement sent to Reuters.

Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Gareth Jones

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Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (file photo)

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Syrian opposition rejects Russia talks as west frets over influence

Western diplomats hope reconstruction costs could prevent Russia or even Iran taking control of Syria’s future

A Syrian woman and her daughter in Al-Nashabiyah in the besieged rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus.
 A Syrian woman and her daughter in Al-Nashabiyah in the besieged rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus. Photograph: Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images 

Russia’s efforts to broker a Syrian peace deal outside the UN’s Geneva process stumbled on Wednesday after the official Syrian opposition said it would not attend talks planned for later this month.

Turkey also said it opposed an invitation to Syrian Kurds to attend Moscow’s “congress of Syrian national dialogue”, which aims to bring together 33 delegations in the Russian city of Sochi on 18 November. Moscow has said any groups that do not attend the conference will suffer as a consequence.

The initiative, at which discussion about a future constitution for Syria is on the agenda, appears to be a clear attempt to bypass the UN-brokered peace talks due to recommence in Geneva 10 days later.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, met Iran’s leaders in Tehran on Wednesday to push his Syrian plan.

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has accepted the process, believing the new constitution, likely to be based on an existing Russian draft, will entrench him in power ahead of any elections.

The Geneva process has been bogged down for over a year, largely over whether Assad’s departure should be a precondition for any talks on a political transition.

The military might of Moscow and Tehran in Syria has helped prop up Assad’s forces and turn the protracted conflict in his favour with a string of key battlefield victories.

Mohammad Alloush, a member of the Syrian opposition’s high negotiations committee (HNC), dismissed the Sochi conference as a “meeting between the regime and the regime”.

The HNC was surprised it had been mentioned in a list of groups invited to the Sochi and would “issue a statement with other parties setting out the general position rejecting this conference”, he said.

The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, which is linked to the HNC, also said the Russian initiative was an attempt to circumvent “the international desire for political transition” in Syria.

“The coalition will not participate in any negotiations with the regime outside Geneva or without UN sponsorship,” an SNC spokesman said.

Vladimir Putin, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in Tehran on Wednesday.
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 Vladimir Putin, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev in Tehran on Wednesday. Photograph: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

In a further sign of Russian attempts to marginalise the role of the United Nationsin Syria, there were reports that Moscow would block the renewal of a UN resolution permitting cross-border aid to enter Syria, arguing all aid must be administered from Damascus.

Cross-border aid is seen as a lifeline for tens of thousands of people still trapped and starving inside Syria. The resolution needs to be renewed by the end of the year.

Western diplomats argue they have one last card left to play to prevent total Russian, or indeed Iranian control, over Syria’s future, and that is the cost of the country’s reconstruction.

“There are no spoils of victory in Syria, only rubble,” said one diplomat. The IMF has put the cost of rebuilding Syria at $200bn (£150bn) but no one knows who will fund reconstruction on this scale and on what terms.

The EU is due to stage a second Syria reconstruction conference early next year in Brussels, and still hopes to mesh western aid into the UN talks.

Read the rest:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/01/syrian-opposition-refuses-to-attend-russian-peace-talks

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Syrian opposition: We still believe in the revolution

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Representatives of some of Syria’s armed opposition groups attending talks in Kazakhstan say they are hopeful of achieving a lasting ceasefire agreement in eight of the country’s 14 war-ravaged provinces.

Ayman al-Asemi, a member of the Free Syrian Army’s military council attending the talks in Astana, said while the meetings would not produce a final settlement to the war, they could see a final agreement to the set-up of four so-called “de-escalation zones”.

The Astana talks are aimed at finalising a plan for the four zones, which will include certain areas of Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, Deraa and al-Quneitra.

The closed-door meetings are also seeing discussions on the release of detainees held by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as about the delivery of food and aid to besieged areas.

“This war is far from over,” al-Asemi told Al Jazeera.

He said while the situation on the ground did not bode well for Syrians, regional and international powers were to blame having exposed themselves as spectators to the violence being perpetrated.

“We will not compromise our freedom and our ultimate goal of removing Assad and his regime from power,” al-Asemi said.

He added that the opposition had submitted several “secret files” to the UN delegation in Astana, with “solid evidence” of crimes committed by the regime.

According to al-Asemi, the crimes include the use of chemical weapons, the torture of detainees inside Homs central prison, forced expulsion of residents based on their ethnic and religious affiliations and war crimes committed by Iranian revolution guards against civilians.

‘Astana eclipses Geneva’

The seventh round of negotiations on the war in Syria was brokered by Russia and Iran, who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Turkey, which backs the opposition.

Joshua Landis, a professor at Oklahoma University and editor of the Syria Comment blog, told Al Jazeera that although there have been several international initiatives aimed at bringing the war to an end, “Astana has turned into the real venue for Syria negotiations.

He added the talks in Afghanistan had eclipsed “Geneva in importance”, referring to the separate UN-sponsored negotiations held in the Swiss city.

READ MORE

Syrian war: All you need to know about the Astana talks

Landis said Astana has practically replaced “years of fruitless grandstanding in Geneva” achieving tangible results on the ground in the form of “de-escalation zones”, which brought about some reprieve to the affected population.

Talks in Geneva had failed to put an end to more than six years of war that left much of Syria in ruins, killed nearly half a million people, and displaced half of the population.

Landis said that backers of the Syrian opposition – mostly Gulf Arab states, the US and Turkey – had come to terms with the end of the “revolution”.

On Monday, former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani said that “Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia and the US, had jointly coordinated the arming and funding Syrian opposition groups”.

Landis said Saudi Arabia and the UAE were now preoccupied with the conflicts in Yemen and Libya and their diplomatic dispute with Qatar.

Colonel Fateh Hassoun, who heads the opposition military delegation to the Astana talks, said that he still had faith in the “Syrian revolution.”

“The aim of the Syrian opposition is still to reach a political solution to the war and lead to a transition period without the regime of Assad.”

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter @ali_reports

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

No role for Assad in Syria’s future: Tillerson

October 26, 2017

Reuters

GENEVA (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad and his family have no role in the future Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday.

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Syria: Russia vetoes extension of chemical weapons inquiry

  • 24 October 2017

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Abo Rabeea says he is still suffering from the suspected chemical weapons strike in Khan Sheikhoun

Russia has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution extending the mandate of the only official mission investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was set up in 2015 to identify perpetrators of chemical attacks.

It is due to report later this week on a deadly nerve agent attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April.

Russia has rejected a separate report from UN human rights investigators blaming the Syrian government.

The JIM’s mandate expires next month and Russia had been pushing to postpone a vote on its extension until after the report on Khan Sheikhoun was considered.

But Russia could not get enough support and instead used its veto to block adoption. Russia, along with the UK, China, France and the US, have veto powers at the Security Council.

It is the ninth time Russia has blocked action against its ally Syria, something rights group Amnesty called “a green light for war crimes”.

The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, was also scathing, accusing Russia of siding with “dictators and terrorists”.

But Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzia accused the US and others of trying to embarrass Russia.

Men receive treatment after a gas attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun
More than 80 people died in a nerve gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun this year. Reuters photo

“What is taking place today is not very pleasant, it stinks in fact,” he said, adding that Russia was prepared to discuss the JIM after the report’s publication.

The JIM, which involves the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is the only formal means of investigating chemical weapons attacks in Syria. At its founding it was hoped it could help lead to prosecutions.

The attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April left more than 80 people dead and prompted the US to launch missile strikes on a Syrian airbase.

Last month a UN Human Rights Council inquiry concluded a Syrian air force jet was responsible, dismissing statements from Russia that the jet had dropped conventional munitions that struck a rebel chemical weapons depot.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the incident in Khan Sheikhoun was a “fabrication”.

He has insisted Syria destroyed its chemical stockpiles under a deal brokered after another deadly attack near Damascus in 2013 although this year the US defence secretary said there was “no doubt” it had retained some.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39500947

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More than 80 people, including at least 30 children and 20 women, were killed in the chemical attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun
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Iranian protesters burn representations of US and Israeli flags in their annual pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 23, 2017. AP photo

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© AFP | Syrian children play as they sit on the tip of an abandoned missile at the Ash’ari camp for the displaced in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta area outside the capital Damascus on October 25, 2017

US worried about Pakistan government stability: Tillerson — “Trump’s strategy for the region hinges on Pakistan eradicating militant havens”

October 25, 2017

AFP

© POOL/AFP | US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a press briefing with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj after their meeting at the Indian Foreign Ministry in New Delhi on October 25, 2017

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday the United States is concerned that extremist groups are threatening the “stability and security” of the Pakistan government.

Tillerson, who arrived in New Delhi late Tuesday after a brief and tense stop in Islamabad, said too many extremists were finding sanctuary inside Pakistan to launch attacks on other nations.

He said Pakistan had an interest “in not just containing these organizations but ultimately eliminating” the groups.

“Quite frankly my view — and I expressed this to the leadership of Pakistan — is we also are concerned about the stability and security of Pakistan’s government as well,” he told reporters in New Delhi.

“This could lead to a threat to Pakistan’s own stability. It is not in anyone’s interests that the government of Pakistan be destabilised.”

Tillerson’s visit — the first to the nuclear-armed nation by a senior official from President Donald Trump’s administration — follows months of pressure from Washington on Pakistan over its alleged support for Taliban militants.

It follows an unannounced stop in Kabul Monday, where Tillerson reiterated America’s commitment to Afghanistan and warned that Washington has made “very specific requests” of Pakistan over militancy.

Trump has angrily accused Islamabad of harbouring “agents of chaos” who could attack US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of supporting Afghan militants including the Taliban. They are believed to have links to Pakistan’s military establishment, which aims to use them as a regional bulwark against arch-nemesis India.

Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charge, insisting it maintains contacts only to try to bring the militants to peace talks.

Tillerson did express his appreciation to Pakistan officials for the sacrifices it has made in fighting militancy, and for its help in securing the release of a US-Canadian family held captive by the Taliban for five years.

— Closer ties —

But America’s top diplomat — whose frosty visit to Islamabad lasted just four hours — said the United States would not tolerate extremist safe havens. He thanked India for its support combating extremism.

“In the fight against terrorism the United States will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with India,” he said.

New Delhi has welcomed US overtures for closer ties, saying it shares Washington’s optimism about their burgeoning relationship.

Speaking ahead of his visit, Tillerson called for deeper cooperation with India in the face of growing Chinese influence in Asia, and said Washington wanted to promote a “free and open” region led by prosperous democracies.

Trump’s top diplomat also said Beijing sometimes acted outside international conventions, citing the South China Sea dispute as an example.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said that Trump’s strategy for the region hinged on Pakistan eradicating militant havens on its territory.

“We believe that President Trump’s new policy can succeed only if Pakistan effectively acts against all terror organisations without any discrimination,” she told the press conference with Tillerson.

India has historically avoided alliances, preferring to maintain cautious relations with both Washington and Beijing, but Trump has developed a warm relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Tillerson, who was to meet Modi later Wednesday, started the day by meeting national security adviser Ajit Doval.

He also laid a wreath at a memorial to India’s independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi, removing his shoes to approach a pillar marking the spot where Gandhi was shot dead on January 30, 1948.

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Secretary Tillerson Urges Pakistan Crackdown on Militant Havens

October 25, 2017

Islamabad pledges commitment to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in war against terror

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, shaking hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi Tuesday in Islamabad.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, shaking hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi Tuesday in Islamabad.PHOTO: ALEX BRANDON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—The U.S. pressed Pakistan for the elimination of havens for militants within its territory, according to American and Pakistani officials, in a meeting Tuesday between Pakistani leadership and the visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

However, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi insisted to Mr. Tillerson that there are no terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, according to Pakistani officials, and Mr. Abbasi pledged to cooperate with the U.S. to stabilize Afghanistan.

The secretary of state is the most senior U.S. official to make a trip to Pakistan since President Donald Trump outlined a new Afghanistan policy in August. That policy depends on ending havens for Afghan militants in Pakistan, the U.S. said.

“The Secretary reiterated President Trump’s message that Pakistan must increase its efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within the country,” according to a statement from the U.S. embassy.

“We are committed in the war against terror. We have produced results,” Mr. Abbasi told Mr. Tillerson during a televised photo opportunity ahead of their meeting. “The U.S. can rest assured that we are strategic partners in the war against terror and that today Pakistan is fighting the largest war in the world against terror.”

The meeting was positive, not confrontational, according to Pakistani officials, with the U.S. seeking Islamabad’s assistance in bringing to an end its longest-running war, in neighboring Afghanistan.

The U.S. believes the Taliban has a haven in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan while the allied Haqqani network is present in northwest Pakistan. Both areas are close to the Afghan border.

The meeting followed the recovery by Pakistani forces this month of an American-Canadian family that had been held captive by the Haqqani network for five years. That rescue won praise from Mr. Trump for Pakistan. U.S. officials say that the family was kept in Pakistan for much of that time, while Pakistan says that they were brought across the border from Afghanistan just before the rescue.

In an interview with The Toronto Star on Monday, Caitlan Coleman, the American wife, said that they had been moved between Pakistan and Afghanistan several times, and they were kept in Pakistan for a year before being freed—pointing to a continued haven for Haqqani network fighters in Pakistan.

On Monday, in Kabul, Mr. Tillerson had said: “Pakistan needs to, I think, take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan.”

Washington wants Pakistan to eliminate militant sanctuaries and help bring the Taliban into peace negotiations. U.S. officials have indicated that the talks can’t happen until the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan breaks what they call a stalemate on the battlefield, showing the Taliban that they can’t win. Islamabad believes the talks should happen now.

Islamabad says that it is already stretched fighting militants that target Pakistan and it can’t start a war on any Afghan insurgents on its soil, but it is prepared to push them across the border into Afghanistan. Islamabad says, however, that with some 40% of Afghan territory in Taliban control, the insurgents don’t need havens in Pakistan. Islamabad also thinks the U.S. is blaming Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has carried out extensive counterterrorism operations over the last three years, including in the North Waziristan tribal area, previously the headquarters of the Haqqani network, which Islamabad says has ended militant infrastructure in the country.

However, the U.S. believes that many Haqqani network fighters relocated to other parts of Pakistan, including the Kurram tribal area. Last week, Kurram was subject to drone strikes against Haqqani operatives, according to local residents. Pakistan denied the strikes took place. The American-Canadian couple were recovered in or around Kurram.

Mr. Tillerson’s multistop trip will next take him to India.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com

Appeared in the October 25, 2017, print edition as ‘U.S. Presses Pakistan on Terror Havens.’

https://www.wsj.com/articles/secretary-tillerson-urges-pakistan-crackdown-on-militant-havens-1508869399

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Tillerson vows Taliban ‘will never win,’ urges Pakistan to meet US ‘conditions’ for support

October 24, 2017

RT

24 Oct, 2017 07:59

Tillerson vows Taliban ‘will never win,’ urges Pakistan to meet US ‘conditions’ for support

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Kevin Lamarque | REUTERS
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In a secretive trip to Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doubted Pakistan’s ability to fight the Taliban. But he also denied the Taliban has any path to victory, despite the Pentagon chief saying they were “surging.”
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Tillerson arrived at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul on Monday, following an earlier trip in the day to the Qatari capital, Doha.
FILE PHOTO. A Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan. © Faisal MahmoodPakistan’s key intelligence ‘connected to terrorists’ – US top general
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Discussing US strategy in the region, Tillerson said the Taliban, and others, “will never win” a military victory against the US.
But earlier this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis addressed the US’s involvement in the country’s longest running conflict. He said the US was engaged in “a strategy-free time”in Afghanistan, and US forces were not winning the war.“I think the Taliban had a good year last year,” Mattis said. “Right now, I believe the enemy is surging.”

Tillerson’s unannounced arrival in Afghanistan follows an assassination attempt on Mattis’s life last month, when rockets landed in and around his plane as he arrived in Kabul.

The top US diplomat’s concerns on stability in the region extended not only to Afghanistan, but ostensible US ally Pakistan as well. Tillerson said terrorist organizations find safe havens in both countries. He added that the US’s relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan is rooted in a “conditions-based approach.”

Earlier this month, Mattis railed against Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which serves as Pakistan’s main intelligence agency.

“They have lost probably more troops than any other single country in the fight against terrorism – at the same time we’ve seen havens left to the terrorists’ own devices,” he said. “We’ve seen the government of Pakistan come down on terrorists, when the ISI appears to run its own policy.”

In late September, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told RT that US actions in Afghanistan dating back to the 1980s have left the region less secure. She also said that Pakistan supporting the US in the fight against terrorism following 9/11 was a “mistake.”

READ MORE: Assisting US in Afghanistan was wrong choice – Pakistani FM to RT

On Monday, Tillerson noted that Afghanistan has come a long way in terms of creating a “much more vibrant government” and a “larger economy” in the last few years. He also said there are opportunities to strengthen the foundation of a “prosperous Afghanistan society.”

However, Tillerson also reminded Afghan officials of when President Donald Trump said “we are here to stay” in the country until the US can “secure a process of reconciliation and peace.”

The secretary of state was scheduled to travel to Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad on Tuesday to meet with the country’s civil and military leadership, according to the Express Tribune.

On October 30, both Tillerson and Mattis are scheduled to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

 

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https://www.rt.com/usa/407589-tillerson-afghanistan-pakistan-taliban/

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Tillerson heads to Pakistan as US warns over Taliban havens

 

© POOL/AFP/File | US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Pakistan on Tuesday following a trip to Afghanistan, where the US top diplomat reiterated America’s commitment to the country

ISLAMABAD (AFP) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was to arrive in Islamabad Tuesday as Washington turns up the heat on Pakistan for allegedy providing “safe havens” for Taliban militants.

Tillerson’s visit, his first to Pakistan since becoming secretary of state, comes weeks after US President Donald Trump angrily accused the nuclear-armed country of harbouring “agents of chaos” who can attack NATO-led forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

It follows on the heels of an unannounced stop in Afghanistan, where the US top diplomat reiterated America’s commitment to the country and warned Washington has made “very specific requests” of Pakistan seeking to “undermine the support that the Taliban receives”.

Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of supporting militant groups including the Taliban, believed to have links to Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment who aim to use them as a regional bulwark against arch-nemesis India.

Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charge, insisting it maintains contacts only with the militants as it seeks to bring them to the table for peace talks.

During his brief trip to Bagram air base Monday, Tillerson told reporters Pakistan needs to “take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organisations that find safe haven inside” the country.

His visit to Islamabad, where he will meet with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and the powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, marks the first by a member of the administration.

US and Pakistani sources say he will be followed later in the year by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as Trump seeks to send a tough message to the wayward ally.

The US-Pakistan relationship has waxed and waned dramatically since Trump took office in January.

Pakistan said the President had praised its then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif as “terrific” in an effusive phone call when Trump took office in January.

But Trump’s blistering speech in August accusing Pakistan of harbouring militants saw Islamabad angrily hit back at the claims, insisting they discount the thousands of lives lost and billions spent in fighting extremism.

Following the speech Tillerson cautioned Pakistan that it could lose its status as a privileged military ally if it continued providing support to Afghan militant groups.

As one of 16 “Non-NATO Major Allies”, Pakistan benefits from billions of dollars in aid and has access to advanced US military technology banned from other countries.

Earlier this month Pakistani forces acting on American intelligence rescued a US-Canadian family that had been in Taliban captivity for five years, sparking hopes that ties were on the mend.

The rescue was followed by a series of drone strikes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border targeting long-time foes to both Washington and Islamabad.

The US has vowed to send more than 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 11,000 already deployed there, to train and advise Afghan security forces as part of a new strategy outlined by the administration.