How are Syrian peace talks holding up?

Mohammad Alloush (C), the head of the Syrian opposition delegation, attends the Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, Jan. 23, 2017

The first day of long-awaited negotiations between the Syrian regime and opposition groups began with recriminations and wrapped up with conflicting progress reports. The good news is all parties returned to the negotiations on Tuesday.

As this story was being written, the negotiations were still underway. The information coming from Astana, Kazakhstan, was scarce and at times contradictory. The Syrian opposition demanded the discussions be held behind closed doors without media access, except for occasional leaks and briefs from the delegates.

But even though there was no obvious breakthrough after the first day, if preparation is half the battle, the talks have a good foundation.

Astana, the capital of Central Asia’s largest country, was chosen for the talks for a good reason. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev is a rare leader who over the years has been able to build good working relations with all of the players involved — Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Arab world. Kazakhstan has long wanted to establish itself as a champion of “mediation diplomacy” and has a short but successful record of doing that work.

In preparing for the talks, Moscow reported strong communication among all parties. The amount of effort invested in bringing them to the negotiating table set high hopes that the talks would succeed. The mood carried through to the opening day of negotiations despite the predictably tense atmosphere between representatives of the Syrian government and the militant opposition groups hours into the negotiations.

Holding the event in Astana was seen as an attempt — particularly on Russia’s part — not to replace Geneva, but to “rebrand” the Syria talks. Unlike previous efforts in Geneva, this time the opposition is represented by the leaders of the militant groups fighting on the ground, and not just political opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “sitting in comfy offices in Europe or the Gulf,” as a Russian diplomat described them to Al-Monitor.

Russia’s primary go-to mediators were also different this time: Moscow changed the “cease-fire guarantors” from Europeans and Americans to Turks and Iranians.

The Geneva meetings had been largely viewed in Moscow as “the talks for talks,” while Astana is to be the place of “the talks for results.”

The seating preferences at the talks are quite telling. Opposition forces preferred to be seated between the Turkish delegation and the US ambassador to Kazakhstan; representatives of the Syrian government sidled up to the Iranians.

Moscow came with the belief that the war fatigue suffered by key stakeholders would translate into a principled political will to seek a serious conversation over the future of Syria, although the process would be wearisome and time-consuming. The key objective at Astana was then to proceed with the transformation and turn the small yet operationally important agreements on the ground into a real platform for engaging the interests of the chief warring parties with those of the Syrian government. From the very start, however, the opposition set the precondition that the cease-fire must be maintained for any forward movement to be achieved during the talks. It soon became clear the militant groups weren’t prepared to go any farther at this stage and expected other serious matters to be discussed at other venues.

Russia has been working to assume a power-broker role. In the months prior to the talks, it made a U-turn in its attitude regarding some of the militant groups and pooled its efforts with Turkey to broker a cease-fire effective Dec. 30. As if this weren’t enough, on Jan. 12, Moscow and Ankara signed a memorandum “ensuring aviation safety during military operations in Syria” that stipulated joint military actions by Russia and Turkey in the country — something that was barely conceivable six months ago. On Jan. 18, Sergey Rudskoy, the head of the Chief Operational Department of the Russian General Staff, announced that nine Russian and eight Turkish attack aircraft had started hitting 36 Islamic State targets at al-Bab.

Moscow had also been actively involved in reconciling the Iranian and Turkish positions on Syria, though it has never been easy to soften the three states’ differences. The day before the Syria negotiations, the three held more than five hours of talks that a Russian diplomat described as “viscous,” underlying their sticky, uneasy course.

On the bilateral level, Moscow’s own conflict with Tehran over US participation in the peace talks popped up at a bad time. Commenting on Iran’s reluctance to invite Americans to Astana, the Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, made no attempt to conceal the sensitivity of the matter in the bilateral contacts.

“The situation is very complicated. … So it is a very complicated issue for a very careful play,” Peskov said. Iranian concerns apparently spread a little wider, with some expressing uneasiness over the prospect of a potential rapprochement between Moscow and Washington, as US President Donald Trump is now in office.

Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and President Vladimir Putin’s top official on Middle Eastern affairs, met with the US ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, last week to discuss the Astana talks. Bogdanov passed along an invitation for the United States to join. Yet the new US administration decided not to send a delegation but its ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, as an “observer.” Iranians got what they initially insisted on. Russians were relieved of the need to show extra flexibility maneuvering in the same room between the new US team and Iranian partners, and the United States saved itself some awkwardness, as its diplomats wouldn’t yet have clear directions on their stances.

Iran’s role as a mediator has apparently evolved under pressure from the opposition, according to Maya Gebeily of Agence France-Presse. Gebeily saw a draft summary of the preparations that said, “A rebel negotiator told his team [he] would agree to Russia as the truce guarantor, but not Iran.” This development puts additional pressure on Russia, as the role of a mediator demands impartiality in the conflict. Russia’s first public expression of concern over “violations to the cease-fire by the Syrian government” is indeed an interesting development. So are the allegations that Russia and Iran split on the idea of a “power transition,” with Moscow being more flexible on the issue.

A major concern the Kremlin should have — and probably does — is whether this empowerment of Russia by the rebel groups is an intentional move to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, to weaken the pro-government faction at the negotiations. That Moscow voiced its criticism of the Syrian army’s lax truce observation may be a sign Russia is prepared to apply additional pressure on Assad if it will move the talks in the right direction.

However, if Russia spots signs that the talks are played out or headed for derailment, Moscow might return to square one with its full-fledged support for Assad bombing the opposition. That obviously would be a far less preferable scenario for everyone.

So far the Astana process has made “modest progress” so far. Whether the key word is “modest” or “progress” will be seen between now and the next round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, scheduled for Feb. 8.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

Green light for 153 East Jersualem settler homes

Authorities also plan to provide permits for 11,000 settler homes in East Jerusalem amid surge in settlement action.

The UN has joined the EU in condemning Israel’s settlement expansion plans

Israeli authorities have given the final approval to the building of 153 settler homes in the occupied East Jerusalem and plan to provide permits for thousands more in the upcoming months, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor said.

The Israeli government has boosted plans for settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, which are illegal under international law, since US President Donald Trump, whose administration does not oppose the settlement activity, took office last week.

Thursday’s approvals were for the settlement neighbourhood of Gilo.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman told the AFP news agency that the approvals by a city planning committee were among those held up due to pressure from former US president Barack Obama’s administration.

READ MORE: PA threatens to withdraw recognition of Israel

Turgeman also spoke of plans for about 11,000 homes in process for East Jerusalem.

“I’m going to deliver permits for thousands of homes in Jerusalem in the coming months,” Turgeman said.

Israel has announced a major settlement expansion in the days following Trump’s January 20 inauguration.

On Sunday, the city planning committee approved building permits for 566 settler homes in east Jerusalem.

Two days later, the defence ministry announced plans for 2,500 settler homes in the occupied West Bank.

READ MORE: UN condemns huge Israeli settlement plan

The United Nations on Wednesday joined the European Union in condemning Israel’s accelerated settlement expansion initiatives.

Trump has pledged strong support for Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has moved quickly to take advantage.

The settlement expansion plans, which are major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state. have deeply concerned those seeking to salvage a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama’s administration, like much of the world, has warned that settlement expansion was gradually eating away at prospects for a two-state solution.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

U.N. Report: Iran Smuggles Thermal, Anti-Tanks Missiles


An armed man loyal to the Houthi movement holds his weapon. August 25, 2016

Riyadh – A recent U.N. report revealed that Houthis robbed 68% of the Yemeni Army weapons — they also received arms shipments from Iran.

The experts’ panel of the Security Council committee entrusted with imposing sanctions on restrainers of Yemen’s peaceful transition showed that there is a high possibility that Iran provided Houthis with arms that the guided missiles are proven to be Iranian products.

In a letter to the Security Council, the experts’ panel affirmed that the coalition of Abdulmalek al-Houthi and ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh has got involved in a strategic action to use the missiles against Saudi Arabia since June 16 2015.

Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces succeeded in resisting and destroying Yemen-sourced missiles, an estimate of 60 missiles since the mentioned date.

The usage of these missiles is a violation of the International Humanitarian Law because missiles lack accuracy and fail to differentiate between military and civil targets.

Money laundering operations were also monitored by the report. These operations were conducted by Khaled, the son of Saleh, who also transferred funds to his father even after his name was added to the sanctions’ lists on November 7 2014.

The panel visited the Yemeni-Saudi border and sent an official request to Oman to visit the frontier district of Yemen but didn’t receive a response until the moment the report was issued.

The panel also visited 11 countries: Bahrain, Colombia, Djibouti, France, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, UAE, Britain and U.S.

Five shipments of arms were captured by the Australian, France and U.S. navy operating in the region – Also, the Saudi navy has seized two sailing ships loaded with Iranian manufactured weapons that include: Rocket-propelled grenades, sniping riffles and thermal rockets.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

Israel’s latest settlement approval, provocative: Analyst

Nederzetting illegaal.PNG

The Israeli regime has approved the construction of 2,500 new settler units in the West Bank in defiance of international calls to end such unauthorized activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. There have been harsh reactions to Israel’s continued settlement activities, but short of any action, at least as of yet. Press TV has spoken to Alison Weir, executive director of If Americans knew, as well as Richard Millet, journalist and political commentator, to discuss this issue.

Weir says the Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.

“They are illegal under The Hague Convention of 1907, Convention (IV), they are illegal under the Geneva Conventions, Protection of Civilians of Article 47, of 1947, they are illegal under Security Council Resolution 242 and most recently under the latest Security Council resolution,” she said.

The analyst also emphasized that the Security Council resolutions have the force of international law and they are legally binding. Therefore, she said, these Israeli settlements are “a flagrant violation of international law” as mentioned in Resolution 2339.

She also denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest settlement approval as “provocative” and “foolish,” noting that it has been criticized not only by the European Union but also by many Israelis.

She went on to say even the American Jewish Committee (AJC) which is extremely pro-Israel has condemned this move as “not helpful.”

Weir further stated this policy by Netanyahu which is pandering to certain portions of the Israeli right-wing “will not go over well,” arguing that it will provoke more distrust and hostility towards Israel.

She also said there is a great deal of “information, awareness and knowledge” of what the Tel Aviv regime is doing.  Thus, the Americans are waking up and they are “extremely unhappy” and “upset” about US military aid to Israel.

The analyst also maintained that Israel has a “very powerful lobby” around the world, especially in the United States and Britain, which as a result Washington has had “very questionable” policies towards Tel Aviv.

She also ruled out the allegation that former US President Barack Obama was opposed to Israel, arguing that his administration’s plan to give Israel 38 billion dollars over the next 10 years proves his supportiveness, not hostility.

Elsewhere in her remarks, Weir said the reason why the Obama administration did not veto the recent anti-Israeli settlement resolution at the UN Security Council was to preserve the “two-state solution.”

She explained that Israel would get about 85 percent of Palestine and the Palestinians only 15 percent under the so-called two-state solution.

Therefore, she said, the ones who understand strategy realize that the policy would be wonderful for Israel but the ones who are “greedier” or have less understanding of the situation are pushing for more settlements.

The analyst further opined that US President Donald Trump will not relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds despite pressure from the Israel lobby.

She concluded by saying that Trump will see the transfer of US embassy in Israel as “an inappropriate move” and will not be in favor of it just like all his predecessors.

Meanwhile, the other panelist on the program, Richard Millet, said there is nothing wrong with Israel’s settlement activities, adding that they are not illegal and there have not been any court decisions related to them.

“As everyone knows one and a half million Israeli Arabs or Israeli Palestinians are living in Israel.  Almost 20 percent or say about 15 percent of Israel is non-Jewish, it is Arab, it is Muslim, many Arab Muslims, some Arab Christians, so what on earth is a problem with Jews living on the West Bank? This is how Israel would argue it. This is how Israel sees it. It is doing nothing wrong,” he said.

He also criticized the United Nations for passing Resolution 2334 (2016), saying the international organization is just a “hypocritical talking shop” where everyone votes for their own interests.

The commentator also stated it was not surprising that Obama did not veto this resolution given the “hostility” he had towards Israel during his eight-year tenure.

Millet further dismissed the fact that there is a strong pro-Israel lobby in the United States and Britain, arguing that if that was the case, Obama would have vetoed the resolution and London would not voted in favor of it.

With regard to the two-state solution, he claimed that many Israelis are “fearful” of a Palestinian state alongside Israel because it would possibly lead to “horrendous war and bloodshed on both sides.”

According to the commentator, there is no problem with moving the US embassy in the occupied territories. However, he said, because there is concern about incitement and violence taking place at this stage, Trump will not do it.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

Abu Marzouk: Differences with Egypt are over


Member of the Hamas political bureau, Mousa Abu Marzouk, said on Wednesday that Hamas “turned the page of disputes” with Egypt.

Abu Marzouk affirmed in an interview with al-Ahram Gate website that Hamas “doesn’t interfere in any of the Egyptian internal affairs and this is what the Movement confirmed in all dialogue sessions”, adding that the Hamas-Egypt relations have improved remarkably.

A delegation of Hamas Movement, including Ismail Haneyya, deputy chairman of the Hamas political bureau, as well as Hamas leaders Rawhi Mushtaha and Mousa Abu Marzouk, arrived in Cairo last Sunday to conduct talks with the Egyptian intelligence on important files regarding the Gaza Strip and the relations between the two sides.

Abu Marzouk said that the Egyptian judiciary couldn’t prove any of the accusations against Hamas, emphasizing that all the similar pending issues were settled.

He pointed out, “It is not in our interest to violate the Egyptian national security, and we are affected by what is happening in Sinai more than Egypt.”

On the internal situation, he said, “The Palestinian cause is facing a big crisis and we have to surpass the division by achieving national unity.” However, he added, one of the major obstacles to this goal is the US position which rejects Hamas’s presence in any Palestinian government.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

Russian Forces Have Used Incendiary Weapons 78 Times at least since They Intervened in Syria

Rain of Fire

Used Incendiary Weapons

SNHR has published the report “Rain of Fire” which documents no less than 78 attacks that involved the use of incendiary weapons by Russian forces since they intervened in Syria on September 30, 2015.
The 28 page report notes that while incendiary weapons are used for the purpose of concealing land forces’ movements, as the smoke that comes out can disable infrared-based weapon tracing systems, all the incidents included in this report targeted residential or agricultural areas, where no movements towards these areas were made by land forces whether they were Syrian, Iranian, or Russian. Furthermore, the report asserts that incendiary weapons were used to cause human and materials damages, and absolutely not for military benefits. Incendiary weapons are excessively indiscriminate weapons, and are similar to cluster munitions to a large extent. In that, they scatter over large areas, and it is high possibility they might light up again later.

Fadel Abdul Ghani, chairman of SNHR, adds: “This huge number of incidents exhibits a pattern and carelessness, and sometimes deliberateness, by Russian forces to cause damages to the Syrian citizen and Syrian lands. Apparently, this is a methodology and policy by Russian forces rather than an indiscriminate individual use. Political Russian leaderships have to launch investigations to follow-up on these incidents, hold those who are responsible accountable, and compensate those who were affected. Otherwise, they are partners in these widespread violations.”

The report mainly draws upon survivors’ and eyewitnesses’ accounts, where the report highlights ten accounts in addition to pictures of remnants and fires that resulted from these attacks after we verified their authenticity. We have disregarded many incidents for which we couldn’t find any visual evidence or pictures of weapon remnants.

The report documents no less than 78 attacks using incendiary weapons by fixed-wing warplanes believed to be Russian between September 30, 2015 – the date on which Russian airstrikes commenced in Syria- and December 31, 2016. Most of these attacks happened in June, July, and August of 2016, where Aleppo saw the largest number of these attacks with 51 attacks, followed by Idlib with 19 attacks, Homs with six attacks, and lastly Damascus suburbs with two attacks. These attacks resulted in the killing of four children. Additionally, 15 vital civil facilities were damaged.

The report stresses that Russian forces and their political leaderships have violated the international humanitarian law through the use of incendiary weapons against civilian-populated residential neighborhoods. These forces didn’t incorporate any measures to minimize the damages caused to civilians and civil facilities and buildings, and didn’t target n any military trenches or military facilities. These attacks resulted in the killing and injuring of civilians, which constitute war crimes.

The report calls on the Russian government to take every step possible to prevent the reoccurrence of these crimes and punish those who were responsible. Also, an independent committee should be formed to investigate these violations, and other serious violations of the international humanitarian law that were included in past reports. The findings of these investigations must be made public, and those who were responsible must be held judicially accountable.

Moreover, the report calls on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to Investigate the incidents included in this report, and add it to the upcoming report that will address the violations in Aleppo governorate once they are verified in accordance with the Commission’s methodology, and include the rest of the governorates in upcoming reports, and call on the Russian government to uphold its responsibility, compensate the victims, and hold the perpetrators accountable.

The report calls on the international community, and especially the European Union, to impose higher forms of punishments on Russia given the enormity of the crimes and violations that are being perpetrated by Russian forces in Syria. Because the economic and political sanctions are weak, Russia continues to commit more crimes as it is not paying for the crimes and interference in Syria even in the slightest.

The report stresses that the Security Council should adopt a Resolution condemning the excessive use of incendiary weapons in Syria that would address irreversible mechanisms, and serious political and economic sanctions that are to be imposed on anyone who would breach the Resolution.

View full Report

(Source / 26.01.2017)

Israeli parliament rejects demand for inquiry into Umm Al-Hiran killing

Image of Israeli parliament Knesset in session [Itzik Edri/Wikipedia]

Image of Israeli parliament Knesset in session

The Israeli Knesset rejected two requests on Wednesday calling for an inquiry into the incidents in the Bedouin village of Umm Al-Hiran, including the killing of a 47-year-old teacher, Safa news agency has reported. The requests were submitted by Taleb Abu-Arar MK, of the Joint List, and Tamar Zandberg MK of Meretz.

The Knesset rejected the inquiry demands, with 42 MKs voting against, 22 in favour and three abstentions, said the Times of Israel.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told the Knesset that while there are unanswered questions over the incidents, he remains certain that what Yakub Abul-Qi’an did was a “terror attack”.

The Arab-Israeli citizen was shot and killed by Israeli police and six others were wounded, including an Arab MK, in the incidents last week. Despite claims by the police that Abul-Qi’an drove his vehicle at a police officer and killed him before police opened fire on the car, a video on social media suggests that the 47 year-old was shot first, then lost control of the vehicle, hitting the officer in the process.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

Israeli court approves demolition of Palestinian villages in occupied West Bank

Demolitions by Israeli forces leave Palestinian families homeless in Jerusalem [file photo]

Demolitions by Israeli forces leave Palestinian families homeless in Jerusalem [file photo]

Israel’s High Court of Justice has decided to allow the Civil Administration in the occupied West Bank to demolish eight Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills because the land is “needed” for military training purposes, Haaretz reported on Thursday. Around 1,500 Palestinians will be affected by the destruction of their homes.

The eight villages in question are among 12 that the Israeli defence ministry wants to be demolished as they are located within the range of Firing Zone 918. The government plans to move the residents to the town of Yatta, where, it claims, most of them have permanent homes. The Palestinians, added the ministry, will be allowed to work on their land and graze their flocks when exercises are not taking place.

Four of the 12 villages and their 300 residents will be allowed to remain. The military said that it would be obliged to reduce the dimensions of the training area and prevent the use of live fire.

The Israeli occupation government and its Civil Administration regard all of the residents of these Palestinian villages as squatters, even though the villages date from the 1830s, at least; that’s well over a century before the occupation of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

President Morsi’s message to the people of Egypt

ousted President, Mohamed Morsi

Former President Mohamed Morsi. [File photo]

On the sixth anniversary of the 2011 January 25 Revolution, ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sent a message to the Egyptian people from prison. The words of the democratically-elected president were relayed by his son Omar on Facebook. The following is the translated text:

O free revolutionaries, continue on the path of your peaceful revolution with the strength of mountains and the determination of thunder. Your revolution will be victorious very soon, and behind you is an overwhelming majority of the people waiting on you to pave the way for a revolutionary atmosphere.

May God be my witness, I have spared no effort in fighting corruption and criminality, once through law and another through revolutionary actions. Sometimes I got it right, and other times I missed, but I have never betrayed your trust, nor will I ever do so.

You have astonished the world by maintaining your revolution; you are today and tomorrow, the present and the future and you are the homeland. The revolution is in your hands, and I trust that you will raise its banner and attain its glory.

Last but not least, I would say to my people: Keep your eyes on your revolution and its honourable goals. The blood of the martyrs, the groans of the wounded and the sacrifices of the detainees will not go in vain, as long as the revolution wields men who raise its banner, believe in its principles and rally around it until all of its goals are fulfilled.

I know that it is a difficult path, but I believe in your honour and the fairness of your cause, and I am confident that God Almighty will grant you victory. May God bless you for your cause and your nation, and may you remain revolutionaries.

(Source / 26.01.2017)

Anti-occupation shooting attack east of Qalqilya


Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) at noon on Thursday alleged that an Israeli patrol came under an anti-occupation shooting attack close to Azzoun town east of Qalqilya city.

Israeli 0404 Hebrew website revealed that the shooting attack took place on Road 55 with no injuries reported. The IOF soldiers were intensively deployed in the area searching for the shooter who was able to flee the scene, it added.

(Source / 26.01.2017)