Posts Tagged ‘United States’

Turkey begins assault on Kurdish-held Afrin

January 20, 2018


A Turkish army tank moves toward the Syrian border. (AP)

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Saturday that Turkey’s ground assault on the Kurdish-held city of Afrin in northern Syria has begun.

Erdogan also said an operation in Kurdish-held Manbij, a town to the east, would follow.
Both towns are controlled by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terror group that threatens Turkey’s security due to its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than three decades.
Mete Sohtaoglu, a prominent Middle East commentator, thinks that Turkey has gone ahead with its Afrin operation without the full support of Russia — the main sponsor of the Astana peace talks which also involve Turkey and Iran — and he expects the Syrian regime will take over the region if Turkey succeeds in ousting the Kurdish militias.
“Regime forces are also expected to enter Afrin,” Sohtaoglu told Arab News. “Under the Astana deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, Turkish military and regime forces agreed to not enter into direct conflict. Afrin will be put under the management of the Syrian regime at the end of the day.”
Since late Thursday, thousands of fighters from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, who were expected to assist Turkey in its military offensive, have been bussed to the border, where military vehicles, equipment, and hundreds of troops were already massed.
Late on Friday, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon allayed fears that the offensive could jeopardize relations between Turkey and the US, which sees the YPG as a key local partner in its fight against Daesh.
“One action does not typically result in chaos or a breakdown. We have regular communication with our ally Turkey. Allies do not always see eye-to-eye, but they are willing to work together,” Pahon told Andalou Agency.
Turkey has also reportedly constructed its fourth observation post in the Idlib de-escalation zone, as part of its commitments under the Astana deal. Turkey is tasked with establishing 10 more observation posts in the area as soon as possible.
Enes Ayasli, a research assistant at Sakarya University in Turkey, thinks that Turkey’s deployment along the western line of Idlib is a long-term strategic move by Russia. He pointed out that it will make Turkey “responsible” for militant group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham — also known as Al-Qaeda in Syria — and “their possible actions against regime forces and Russian air bases in Hmeimim and Tartus.”
In this way, he said, “Russia will secure its own existence in Latakia. It is clear that the last attack on Russian air bases increased the threat perception toward radical groups in Idlib.”
According to Ayasli, it is important that the Russian-backed regime forces prepare for possible confrontations with radical groups at the junction of Idlib and Aleppo.
“In the last three weeks, Daesh almost quadrupled its area of control,” he told Arab News. “In addition to that, some other radical groups are being targeted by regime forces. So Turkey’s securing western Idlib is a kind of warrant for Russia in its support of regime forces (in that area).”
Russia remains reluctant to comment on Turkey’s Afrin operation, although that region’s airspace is under Moscow’s control, while Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad recently warned that any Turkish planes attacking Afrin would be destroyed.
At a news conference on Friday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied claims that Russia had withdrawn its observers in Afrin ahead of a Turkish offensive.
Oytun Orhan, a researcher on Syria at the Ankara-based think tank Orsam, said that although the US does not consider Afrin as part of its operational area, it nevertheless feels a responsibility to protect the YPG.
“The latest contradictory statements coming from Washington are the result of a need to take a politically balanced position on this issue,” Orhan told Arab News. “But the US doesn’t have the tools to prevent a Turkish operation in the region, and it knows that it cannot deter Ankara merely with political statements.”
However, Orhan pointed out, the US is aware that if Turkey conducts an operation in Afrin without Russia’s consent, this may undermine the regional partnership between Ankara and Moscow and create an opportunity for the US to mend ties with Turkey, its longtime ally.
Orhan added that he does not believe the establishment of the fourth observation post in Idlib is part of Turkey’s operational preparations for Afrin.
“The first three posts provided Turkey with strategic superiority, as they were overlooking the Kurdish canton of Afrin,” he said. “According to the initial agreement between Turkey and Russia, both countries can cooperate on the Afrin issue only after Turkey establishes all 14 observation posts. So Turkey may want to accelerate this process to get a green light from Moscow.”

Turkey Says It Has Afrin, In Syria, “Under Assault”

January 20, 2018

The Turkish operation against U.S. backed forces comes as Turkey’s relations with Washington are at breaking point

Plumes of smoke rise on the air from inside Syria, as seen from the outskirts of the border town of Kilis, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018.
Plumes of smoke rise on the air from inside Syria, as seen from the outskirts of the border town of Kilis, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Turkish warplanes struck positions of a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Syria’s Afrin province on Saturday, a senior Turkish official said, in a move likely to drive a deeper wedge between Ankara and the United States.

The operation opens a new front in Syria’s war and sees Ankara confronting Kurds allied to the United States at a time when Turkey’s relations with Washington are reaching breaking point.

The bombing raids targeted the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia, the Turkish official said, adding that a Turkey-backed rebel group in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, was also providing assistance to the Turkish military’s operation in Afrin.

The YPG said a number of people had been wounded in the air strikes.

The attacks follow weeks of warnings against the YPG in Syria from President Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers. Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out a deadly, three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

The YPG’s growing strength across a swath of northern Syria has alarmed Ankara, which fears the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its southern border.

In a statement, the Turkish military confirmed it had started an operation in Afrin, saying this was to provide safety for Turkey’s border and to “eliminate terrorists… and save friends and brothers, the people of the region, from their cruelty.”

Earlier on Saturday, the military said it hit shelters and hideouts used by the YPG and other Kurdish fighters, saying Kurdish militants had fired on Turkish positions inside Turkey.

But the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces – of which the YPG is a major component – accused Turkey on Saturday of using cross-border shelling as a false pretext to launch an offensive in Syria.

Differences over Syria policy have further complicated Turkey’s already difficult relationship with NATO ally the United States. Washington has backed the YPG, seeing it as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State.

A U.S. State Department official on Friday said military intervention by Turkey in Syria would undermine regional stability and would not help protect Turkey’s border security.

Instead, the United States has called on Turkey to focus on the fight against Islamic State. Ankara accuses Washington of using one terrorist group to fight another in Syria.

Turkish jets hammer Syrian town of Afrin

January 20, 2018

Updated 12:30 PM ET, Sat January 20, 2018

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(CNN)Turkish jets pounded Kurdish militia targets Saturday in the Syrian town of Afrin in an attempt to oust the fighters, Turkey’s state-run news reported.

The move is likely to sharpen tensions between Turkey and the United States, which supports and openly arms Kurdish militias fighting ISIS. A new operation targeting Kurdish fighters could open up a new frontier in the Syrian conflict, which has gone on for nearly seven years.
Ankara has long fought Kurdish unrest in southeastern Turkey. It’s determined to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state across the border in Syria and has used military force in the past against Kurds and ISIS in the northern part of the neighboring country.
Afrin is under the control of the People’s Protection Units — the largely Kurdish militia known as the YPG that Turkey regards as a terror group.
In Saturday’s assault, explosions were heard as jets swooped over Afrin, and Turkish-backed rebels from the Free Syrian Army began entering the town, according to Anadolu Agency, Turkey’s state-run outlet.
Residents and activists also reported airstrikes in the region. The Turkish armed forces said that 108 out of 113 targets had been hit and that all of the dead and wounded brought to hospitals are Kurdish militia members.
Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a tweet that the operation isn’t targeting civilians and “innocent Syrians” — just terrorists.
Earlier Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the military offensive is in its early phase. He said forces will next move on the Syrian town of Manbij farther east on the Turkish border.
“We know that without security in Syria, there cannot be security in Turkey,” Erdogan told members of his ruling party in Kutahya.

Report: Russia to back Syria at UN


Washington has been concerned about a Turkish military incursion and called on Ankara to refrain from launching one. “The focus needs to be on ISIS,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this week.
Turkish forces said they are targeting ISIS as well as Kurdish militia in Afrin in an undertaking called Operation Olive Branch.
“The operation is being carried out within the right of self-defense and with respect to Syrian territorial integrity,” the armed forces said in a statement.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry is briefing the heads of missions of the United States, Russia and Iran in Turkey on the latest developments in Afrin, Anadolu reported.
Russia will back the Syrian government diplomatically and support a demand at the United Nations for Turkey to stop its military operation, state-run RIA Novosti quoted a senior lawmaker as saying.
“At the United Nations, not only Syria will demand the termination of this operation, Russia will support these demands and will provide Syria with diplomatic assistance,” said the lawmaker, Franz Klintsevich.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called for restraint Saturday. Its Defense Ministry said it had relocated some troops out of the Afrin area “to prevent possible provocations and to exclude the possibility of the threat to the life and health of Russian servicemen.”

Turkish incursion had been expected in Afrin


Turkish-backed fighters from the Free Syrian Army were battling Kurdish militia members recently in Afrin, and a full cross-border Turkish military incursion had been expected.
More than 50 Turkish vehicles, including artillery, tanks, rocket launchers and heavy equipment transporters, had been observed on the Turkish-Syrian border, a US defense official said Friday.
Turkish state-run media suggested that the new operation would involve airstrikes from warplanes and drones, and that Turkish-trained militia from the Free Syrian Army alliance would be first on the ground in any land offensives.

US-trained border force in Manbij


Manbij is in an area where a 30,000-strong US-trained border force from the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by YPG fighters, is to be trained. Turkish-backed rebels and US forces have been trading fire there, US defense officials said.
The announcement of a border force infuriated Turkey’s leaders, and Erdogan has accused the United States, its most powerful NATO ally, of “building an army of terror” on his border and threatened to “drown” the US-backed force.
Turkey regards the YPG as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, despite the group’s help in battling ISIS.
The PKK is an outlawed Kurdish group responsible for major terror attacks in Turkey as part of its bid for national ethnic autonomy. The European Union and United States have both named the PKK as a terrorist outfit.
“By changing the name of a terrorist organization that is playing games in Syria, they think (they) are being smart. Who do you think you are fooling? The name of this organization is PKK, PYD, YPG,” Erdogan said Saturday.
“No matter what they say, we don’t care anymore because we look at what is happening in the field.”

ISIS’ shadow grows over Pakistan

January 20, 2018

Cut in US security aid will make it harder to take on the terrorist group

Late last year, a black-and-white flag was detected fluttering in the breeze near a highway in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. It bore the emblem of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), and at its base were three words: “Khilafat is coming”.

“The caliphate is coming” is an apt warning as Pakistan struggles in its campaign against terrorism and religious extremism.

A report published this month by the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (Pips) flagged an “alarming” increase in ISIS’ footprint in the country even though the Pakistan Taleban and its affiliates remain the most potent threat, being responsible for nearly 60 per cent of the 370 terrorist attacks last year.

“What has been quite alarming is the increasing footprint of Daesh, especially in Balochistan and Sindh,” said the annual security report, using the Arabic term for ISIS.

ISIS was responsible for at least six major attacks last year that left 153 people dead, mostly civilians, it noted. Its victims included two Chinese nationals who were abducted and killed. Other targets included a Sufi shrine in Sindh in which scores were killed, a Methodist church in Quetta and a Pakistani military convoy.

“There is a need to take the matter more seriously because there is a possibility that foreign fighters would come to Pakistan in the near future as things are continuously changing in the Middle East,” Pips official Muhammad Ismail Khan told The Dawn.

ISIS has grown, in part, because of its ability to appeal to and forge alliances with other militant groups. For instance, several nationalist groups in Balochistan that have for a long time waged an insurgency against the Pakistani security forces are reportedly seeking an alliance with ISIS to expand their anti-state resistance.

A policeman standing guard on the roof of a Methodist church in Quetta last December, a day after it was attacked by the ISIS group.

A policeman standing guard on the roof of a Methodist church in Quetta last December, a day after it was attacked by the ISIS group. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSENorthern Sindh, which is mired in choking poverty and underdevelopment, is a fertile recruiting ground for various radical groups.

ISIS has grown, in part, because of its ability to appeal to and forge alliances with other militant groups… For the small-scale hardline and sectarian groups, being associated with a “global brand name” terrorist group like ISIS has its appeal.

For the small-scale hardline and sectarian groups, being associated with a “global brand name” terrorist group like ISIS has its appeal.

And then, there is the complex relationship with the Pakistan Taleban, a heavy hitter otherwise known as Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP).

While the TTP may at one level be in competition with ISIS for recruits, the fact remains that they share a common hostility towards the state apparatus and minority communities. Various TTP factions are believed to have collaborated with ISIS in attacks on security forces.

A concern also is that ISIS will find it easy to leverage on the networks of existing hardline groups such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan to grow and carry out its activities given their common worldview and goals.

Where it does not have a physical presence, ISIS could decide to “outsource” attacks to its associates.

While the ISIS presence is strongest in Balochistan and Sindh, its cells have been busted in various Pakistani cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad.

And the people drawn to ISIS are not necessarily the ultra-conservative men from tribal regions of popular imagination.

In April last year, a security-forces raid on a hideout in Lahore yielded a stash of hand grenades and suicide vests, as well as a 20-year-old medical student who had disappeared from her home town of Hyderabad to join ISIS.

Had she not been arrested, Noreen Leghari was to have blown herself up two days later at an Easter church service.

In a separate case, the ISIS assailants who massacred Shi’ite Muslims packed in a bus were well-educated young men from top universities in Pakistan.

It is hard to ascertain when ISIS planted its roots in Pakistan and the size of its membership.

But four years ago, it came to public attention when a crackdown on the Taleban prompted an appeal for help from women students at an Islamabad madrasah to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The British defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, estimated last year that there were 2,000 to 3,000 ISIS members in Pakistan, according to a Washington Post report.

Several hundred Pakistanis are believed to have made their way to the Middle East. The worry is that as ISIS is being pushed out of Syria and Iraq, more and more of these fighters will return to carry out their caliphate-building mission on home ground.

The rise of ISIS comes at an unfortunate juncture in Pakistan’s relations with the United States.

The Trump administration blames Pakistan for failing to help it rein in the Taleban in Afghanistan – which has grown increasingly powerful – and recently announced it would cut US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in security assistance.

Pakistan, in turn, sees US policy as tilting increasingly in favour of its enemy, India, and is loath to cut ties with some militant groups which are seen as useful assets.

For some time now, the Pakistan army has been fencing its largely porous border with Afghanistan, and establishing new forts as well as outposts on mountain peaks. The US aid cut is certainly going to hamper these efforts to curb cross-border infiltration and counter-terrorism operations in Balochistan and northern Sindh.

With both the US and Pakistan at loggerheads, the ones that will benefit are the terrorists.

As the highway banner warned: The caliphate is coming. Expect more trouble ahead. •The writer is a lecturer with the Forman Christian College University in Pakistan and a correspondent for The Diplomat magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline ‘ISIS’ shadow grows over Pakistan’.

Syria Is Now Mr. Trump’s War

January 20, 2018

The New York Times
January 19, 2018

Credit Shannon Freshwater

As a candidate, Donald Trump warned against foreign wars, not least in Syria. A year into his presidency, he is adding Syria to a list of open-ended conflicts that already includes Afghanistan and Iraq.

We know President Trump’s plan not because he asked Congress for authorization and funding for a continuing troop presence in Syria. We know because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained it in a speech on Wednesday at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” he said. “Our military mission in Syria will remain conditions-based.” In other words, without any end date or public benchmarks for success.

As of last month, there were about 2,000 American troops in Syria — up from 500 a year ago — a mix of engineering units and Special Operations units that fight and train with local militias in the battle against the Islamic State. Now that we know they will be there indefinitely, who can say the number won’t go higher and the mission won’t creep more?

Syria is a complex problem. But this plan seems poorly conceived, too dependent on military action and fueled by wishful thinking.

The United States initiated military action in Syria to confront ISIS, which overran huge areas of Syria and Iraq in 2014. Military operations under President Barack Obama and the Trump administration liberated more than 98 percent of the territory previously controlled by the Islamic State and freed over 7.5 million people from brutal rule.

While that progress is significant, ISIS and Al Qaeda remain major threats, David Satterfield, a senior State Department official, told a Senate committee last week. The administration says it wants to avoid what it considers mistakes by Mr. Obama, who withdrew troops from Iraq only to see extremists re-emerge, and who failed, with European allies, to stabilize Libya after NATO airstrikes led to the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

But the goals in Syria are so sweeping they may be unattainable, thus leaving American troops there in perpetuity. As outlined by Mr. Tillerson, the administration intends that ISIS and Al Qaeda “suffer an enduring defeat” and that Syria “never again” be a terrorist haven. It also wants the Syrian civil war resolved through a political process that produces a stable Syria with President Bashar al-Assad gone.

A comprehensive political agreement ending the conflict between Mr. Assad and Syrian rebels is crucial. It’s also what Mr. Obama tried and failed to achieve, largely because of resistance from Mr. Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers. It’s hard to see what will be different now.

Mr. Tillerson called for more diplomacy, but he wants the United Nations, not the United States, to lead. He hopes to prevent Iran, whose forces helped save Mr. Assad’s embattled regime, from strengthening its foothold in Syria and threatening Israel and other countries. Defeating ISIS used to be the priority. Now Washington also aims to ensure that Iranian influence on the region is diminished, he said.

There is no question that the United States should work to curb Iran’s malignant activities. But Mr. Tillerson described an agenda that suggests an alarming eagerness to confront Iran, perhaps even militarily.

The Americans are also sending mixed messages about reports that they will use their 2,000 troops to train their allies in the anti-ISIS campaign, Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, who are the majority of a 30,000-member border force that will be tasked with protecting the emerging semiautonomous Kurdish enclave. Turkey, which views the Kurds as an enemy, has threatened a cross-border assault. All of this raises the grim possibility that American troops will clash with Turkey, a NATO ally.

“How does this not become an unending war?” Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, asked Mr. Satterfield, who replied with some political buzzwords. The American people deserve a real answer.

Pakistan and China’s debt trap diplomacy

January 19, 2018

By Ronak D. Desai For The Straits Times

US President Donald Trump’s tough new approach towards Pakistan and suspension of over US$1 billion (S$1.32 billion) worth of security assistance may or may not get it to move meaningfully against religious extremists but there is little doubt over who the real winner will be of this bilateral bust-up: China.

The estrangement in ties will inevitably push Pakistan into China’s orbit, allowing Beijing even more leverage as it goes about practising what has been called “debt trap diplomacy” for strategic gains in the region.

China’s swift public declaration of support for Pakistan as its “all-weather partner” is an implicit rebuke of the United States. It comes as China is pushing ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a grand Eurasian project of which Pakistan is considered a key entry point.

As outlined by Chinese President Xi Jinping, this ambitious modern-day Silk Road calls for the creation of a network of railways, roads, pipelines and ports that would link China with its neighbours in Asia and beyond. Besides putting in place infrastructure critical for development, the aim is to create a platform for greater trade flows, economic cooperation and social exchanges.

But critics say there is a dark side to this mega-infrastructural endeavour : the BRI also functions as a major vehicle for China’s debt trap diplomacy, which, in South Asia, has already ensnared Sri Lanka.

They point to a disturbing formula: Beijing extends massive loans to cash-strapped states with terms disproportionately favourable to China, including access to lucrative national resources or market entry for cheap Chinese goods.

Once constructed by Chinese-run firms, the projects oftentimes bleed money. As a result, the borrowing country is saddled with onerous debts that it cannot repay on time, or at all, rendering it more vulnerable to China’s influence and control. Critics assert that the ultimate cost of the loan is nothing short of the borrower’s economic sovereignty.

By making foreign countries financially dependent on China, debt trap diplomacy has proven effective in allowing Beijing to achieve multiple objectives simultaneously through purely economic means. These include creating markets for its cheap exports, gaining access to invaluable natural resources, ensuring support for its geostrategic interests from borrower nations, and garnering a competitive advantage over its rivals, chief among them, India and the US.

Viewed against this backdrop, President Trump’s tweets blasting Pakistan could not come at a more fortuitous time for China.

Beijing had been confronting unexpected resistance from Islamabad over its US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in recent weeks. Part of the BRI, the corridor runs from the deep-water Pakistani port of Gwadar to China’s Xinjiang province over the Arabian Sea.

Just last month, Pakistan withdrew from a US$14 billion mega-dam project under CPEC citing the stringent financing conditions China attached to the proposal. Officials worried that the debt servicing terms lacked adequate transparency and risked making Pakistan too dependent upon Beijing’s largesse.

But now, Pakistan’s increasing diplomatic and financial isolation from the US makes the consummation of Chinese plans under CPEC more likely. In fact, shortly after the US announced the suspension of aid to Islamabad, Pakistan’s central bank announced it would finally begin using Chinese yuan for bilateral trade and investment between the two countries. More significantly, China’s ambassador to Pakistan proclaimed that the country would expedite the timetable of CPEC’s construction.

In this way, Pakistan risks becoming the latest victim of what has also been labelled China’s “creditor imperialism”. Just last month, Sri Lanka was forced to turn over control of its Hambantota port to a Chinese state-owned company under a 99-year lease deal after it was unable to repay the crushing debt the country incurred from Beijing to have it built in the first place.

Hambantota’s strategic value is difficult to overstate, sitting at the intersection of several Indian Ocean trading routes connecting Europe, Africa and the Middle East to South Asia. Even after the US$1.1 billion lease agreement with Beijing, Colombo still owes more than US$7 billion in debt to China.

But Sri Lanka’s experience with China should not be construed as a state-sponsored conspiracy by Beijing. Rather, it is a cautionary tale for other countries such as Pakistan about the danger of being ensnared by debt trap diplomacy and the importance of evaluating the true cost of doing business with China.

Across South Asia, the debate over the real cost of Chinese foreign investment rages on. Last November, Nepal abruptly cancelled a US$2.5 billion deal with China for the construction of a sorely needed hydroelectric dam.

Critics point to a disturbing formula: Beijing extends massive loans to cash-strapped states with terms disproportionately favourable to China, including access to lucrative national resources or market entry for cheap Chinese goods.

Nepalese officials were worried that the deal would align the country too closely with Beijing. And yet, recent reports have suggested that China finalised an agreement for one of its state-owned companies to build a different dam in the Himalayan kingdom, but not before first securing a 75 per cent ownership stake upfront.

The recent turbulence in US-Pakistani relations poses a complex set of questions for New Delhi. On the one hand, it has enthusiastically welcomed Washington’s tough line on Islamabad, hailing the suspension of aid as a long overdue step. On the other hand, Indian officials are certainly aware that Beijing will inevitably exploit the US-Pakistani rift. India will not support any policy that could potentially destabilise Pakistan, and there is little it can do to prevent Beijing and Islamabad from further consolidating ties.

At the same time, India finds itself woefully unprepared to meeting the formidable challenges China’s debt trap diplomacy has created for New Delhi. It has yet to formulate an effective strategy of its own that effectively confronts Beijing’s steadily expanding influence both in the region and in the Indian Ocean.

 •The writer is an Affiliate at the South Asia Institute at Harvard University and a Law & Security Fellow at the New America think-tank.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2018, with the headline ‘Pakistan and China’s debt trap diplomacy’.
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U.S. Freezes More Than Half of Aid Funds to UN Palestinian Refugee Agency

January 16, 2018

‘There is a need to undertake a fundamental reexamination of UNRWA, both in the way it operates and the way it is funded,’ U.S. official says

A Palestinian man rides his horse past the UNRWA relief and social program office in Gaza City on January 8, 2018.
A Palestinian man rides his horse past the UNRWA relief and social program office in Gaza City on January 8, 2018.MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

The United States will withhold $65 million from a payment it was scheduled to send this month to the UN agency responsible for assisting Palestinian refugees and their descendents in the Middle East. The U.S. will provide $60 million in aid, amounting to roughly half the planned sum of $125 million.

This payment is the first in a number of sums the U.S. is expected to give United Nations Relief and Works Agency in 2018.

A U.S. Official told Haaretz that, “Without the funds we are providing today, UNRWA operations were at risk of running out of funds and closing down. The funds provided by the United States will prevent that from happening for the immediate future.”

The $65 million held by the United States awaits “future consideration” by the administration, the official added. “There is a need to undertake a fundamental reexamination of UNRWA, both in the way it operates and the way it is funded,” he explained.

Earlier this month, President Trump said the U.S. may withhold future aid payments to the agency over what he called the Palestinians’ unwillingness to talk peace with Israel.

The U.S. pledged $370 million to the agency in 2016, a third of the agency’s budget, according to UNRWA’s website.

“The United States has been UNRWA’s single largest donor for decades. In years past, we contributed some thirty percent of UNRWA’s total income,” the official noted. “It is time for a change.”

“The United States remains committed to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable, as it is demonstrating today by assuring that funds are available to keep schools and health systems operating,” he said. “If there are additional urgent needs, we call on others to also do their part and respond as needed – not only the more than 50 countries that have contributed in the past, but also those other countries that have the means but have not yet lent their support.”

The decision was made following a lengthy internal debate within the Trump administration. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley pushed for a complete freeze of funding to UNRWA, unless the Palestinians commit to U.S.-mediated peace talks with Israel, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other State Department officials warned that such a move would create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Jordan and the West Bank.

A senior Israeli official said earlier this month that Netanyahu supports a gradual cutback of American funding to UNRWA.

The Palestinians claim that the administration is biased toward Israel’s positions and has therefore refused to accept it as a mediator, calling instead for the international community to lead renewed negotiations.

Syrian opposition calls on Trump and EU to put pressure on Russia and Iran

January 16, 2018

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and European Union leaders should increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran to return to talks to end Syria’s civil war, Syria’s chief opposition negotiator said on Monday.

Image result for Nasr Hariri, photos, january 16, 2018

Nasr Hariri, chief negotiator for Syria’s main opposition, poses for a photograph in central London, Britain January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Nasr Hariri said that unless the West forced Assad and his big power allies to seek peace then Syrian civilians would continue to be killed.

“I would like to ask all those countries that promised they would support the Syrian people and their aspirations for democracy and peace: why didn’t they fulfil their promises?” Hariri, speaking in English, told Reuters in London.

The chief negotiator for Syria’s main opposition grouping, Hariri called for Trump and EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May to get tougher with Assad.

All diplomatic initiatives have so far failed to yield progress in ending the war, which is now entering its eighth year having killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes.

The map of Syria’s conflict has been decisively redrawn in favor of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies during the past two years. They have recaptured major population centres in western Syria from rebels seeking to overthrow him and pushed back Islamic State in the east.

In the face of the collapse of rebel-held territory, most Western countries have quietly softened their positions that Assad must leave power as part of any peace deal. But the opposition entered the last formal talks last month without softening its demand Assad go, prompting the government to declare the talks pointless.

Nevertheless, Hariri suggested Western powers still had enough influence to push the government to negotiate.

“It is time for President Trump, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister May to say: ‘Stop’,” the former cardiologist said.

“It is time for Trump, Merkel and May to increase pressure and bring the international community together to get a genuine and just political situation in Syria.”

Hariri represents the Saudi-backed umbrella group of Syrian opposition groups which are opposed to Assad and supported by the West. He said the next round of the so-called “Geneva talks” on the fate of Syria would take place in late January, probably around Jan. 24-26 in Vienna.

A spokesman for Hariri said the opposition would attend those talks.


Hariri said discussions in Washington, including with White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had been positive and that the Trump administration understood the situation.

”Iran and Russia are trying to deprioritise the transition,“ he said. ”We need the international community’s help to put pressure on the regime and their backers, Russia and Iran.

“The Americans want to test the Russians and the regime in the next round of talks. They want to move the Geneva process forward,” Hariri said.

When asked about U.S. plans to help support a 30,000-strong force dominated by the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), he said it could lead to Syria’s partition.

“What are the benefits of establishing such an army?” he asked. “It will open the door wide for a future struggle in the region. It could open the door to the future partition of Syria.”

Assad has responded to the plan by vowing to drive U.S. troops from Syria. Turkey has called the force a terrorist army and vowed to crush it. Iran said on Tuesday creation of the SDF force would “fan the flames of war”, echoing the vehement response of Syria, Turkey and Russia.

Hariri said it was very unlikely that the Syrian opposition would attend a meeting on Syria organized by Russia in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The opposition had received no invitation so far, and no final decision on attendance had been made.

“We have not been invited yet,” he said. “The general mood is not to go to Sochi. My personal view is that in its current shape, it is unacceptable to attend Sochi.”

Military Quietly Prepares for a Last Resort: War With North Korea

January 15, 2018

The New York Times

January 14, 2018

WASHINGTON — Across the military, officers and troops are quietly preparing for a war they hope will not come.

At Fort Bragg in North Carolina last month, a mix of 48 Apache gunships and Chinook cargo helicopters took off in an exercise that practiced moving troops and equipment under live artillery fire to assault targets. Two days later, in the skies above Nevada, 119 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division parachuted out of C-17 military cargo planes under cover of darkness in an exercise that simulated a foreign invasion.

Next month, at Army posts across the United States, more than 1,000 reserve soldiers will practice how to set up so-called mobilization centers that move military forces overseas in a hurry. And beginning next month with the Winter Olympics in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang, the Pentagon plans to send more Special Operations troops to the Korean Peninsula, an initial step toward what some officials said ultimately could be the formation of a Korea-based task force similar to the types that are fighting in Iraq and Syria. Others said the plan was strictly related to counterterrorism efforts.

In the world of the American military, where contingency planning is a mantra drummed into the psyche of every officer, the moves are ostensibly part of standard Defense Department training and troop rotations. But the scope and timing of the exercises suggest a renewed focus on getting the country’s military prepared for what could be on the horizon with North Korea.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both argue forcefully for using diplomacy to address Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. A war with North Korea, Mr. Mattis said in August, would be “catastrophic.” Still, about two dozen current and former Pentagon officials and senior commanders said in interviews that the exercises largely reflected the military’s response to orders from Mr. Mattis and service chiefs to be ready for any possible military action on the Korean Peninsula.

President Trump’s own words have left senior military leaders and rank-and-file troops convinced that they need to accelerate their contingency planning.

During the 82nd Airborne exercise in Nevada last month, Army soldiers practiced moving paratroopers on helicopters and flew artillery, fuel and ammunition deep behind what was designated as enemy lines. CreditU.S. Army

In perhaps the most incendiary exchange, in a September speech at the United Nations, Mr. Trump vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the United States, and derided the rogue nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as “Rocket Man.” In response, Mr. Kim said he would deploy the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history” against the United States, and described Mr. Trump as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has since cooled, following a fresh attempt at détente between Pyongyang and Seoul. In an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump was quoted as saying, “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un,” despite their mutual public insults. But the president said on Sunday that The Journal had misquoted him, and that he had actually said “I’d probably have” a good relationship if he wanted one.

A false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday that set off about 40 minutes of panic after a state emergency response employee mistakenly sent out a text alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack underscored Americans’ anxiety about North Korea.

A Conventional Mission

After 16 years of fighting insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, American commanding generals worry that the military is better prepared for going after stateless groups of militants than it is for its own conventional mission of facing down heavily fortified land powers that have their own formidable militaries and air defenses.

The exercise at Fort Bragg was part of one of the largest air assault exercises in recent years. The practice run at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada used double the number of cargo planes for paratroopers as was used in past exercises.

The Army Reserve exercise planned for next month will breathe new life into mobilization centers that have been largely dormant as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down. And while the military has deployed Special Operations reaction forces to previous large global events, like the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, those units usually numbered around 100 — far fewer than some officials said could be sent for the Olympics in South Korea. Others discounted that possibility.

At a wide-ranging meeting at his headquarters on Jan. 2, Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., warned the 200 civilians and service members in the audience that more Special Forces personnel might have to shift to the Korea theater from the Middle East in May or June, if tensions escalate on the peninsula. The general’s spokesman, Capt. Jason Salata, confirmed the account provided to The New York Times by someone in the audience, but said General Thomas made it clear that no decisions had been made.

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Jeremy Corbyn suggests that there is no such thing as the Special Relationship with the US

January 14, 2018


Jeremy Corbyn has suggested that the Special Relationship with the US does not exist and said that links with the EU, India, and China are just as important.

The Labour leader said he is “not sure that anyone has succeeded in defining the special relationship” as he denied that the US is Britain’s most important partner.

He criticised the “endless offensive remarks” by Donald Trump about women, minorities and different faiths as Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, called the US President a “racist”.

Mr Corbyn told ITV’s Peston on Sunday:  “I think there are many important relationships. The US one is obviously culturally and economically significant and important.

“Also the trading relationships we have around the world with obviously the EU, but also with India and China and the rest of the world are very important.

“Also our relationship with international institutions such…

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