Government forces in Syria are not allowing a United Nations convoy to deliver humanitarian aid starving families in eastern Aleppo, and their unwillingness to withdraw are jeopardizing the ceasefire, according to UN officials.
Under the terms of the ceasefire deal worked out between Russia and the United States, the Syrian government was to issue documents allowing the UN vehicles to reach the besieged northern city. But on Thursday, forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad were still blocking the main artery into Aleppo, and refused to allow anyone to pass, including the UN convoy.
Moscow accused Washington of not living up to its agreements, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told international reporters at a briefing that “by and large” the truce was still holding up and that it had been extended to next Monday.
UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, however, said that while the Syrian regime troops were expected to withdraw from the “Castello Road” into Aleppo, they were refusing to budge because opposition forces still remained in the same area — and the regime forces would not leave before the rebel forces.
De Mistura said that 40 UN trucks were still sitting at the Syria-Turkey border, packed with aid for some 80,000 residents in eastern Aleppo. But, he said, “The clock is ticking.”
The news that MK Avigdor Liberman, chairman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteynu party, will be Israel’s next defense minister has rocked the political establishment on the right and left.
Liberman, a tough-talking former ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has sought the Defense Ministry portfolio for years – and appears set to receive it after a deal struck with Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Liberman’s rise followed a tumultuous day of negotiations and backroom deals in which both Liberman and MK Isaac Herzog, chairman of the historically left-wing Labor party, vied for the job of defense minister and the chance to enter Netanyahu’s government.
“I regret the prime minister’s decision. I did not imagine that he would make such a paradoxical and dangerous move,” said MK Benny Begin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Thursday morning. “The prime minister has been very proud of what he called ‘a reasonable, balanced and responsible’ defense policy, while Liberman’s statements give an opposite impression.”
Netanyahu received harsh criticism from opposition parties as well, including Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, who blasted Netanyahu for “bartering the most sensitive and important positions as if nothing mattered” in a Facebook post on Thursday.
Liberman was an ally of Netanyahu – the two ran together in a united party during the 2013 election after which Liberman became foreign minister – until they had a public falling out two years ago. The Yisrael Beiteynu party remained in the opposition after last year’s election, and as recently as March Liberman castigated Netanyahu as a “liar, cheat, and con man.”
Liberman has been a frequent advocate for a harsher military response toward Palestinian Authority terrorism, notably against the Hamas terror group that runs Gaza.
“The elimination of Hamas is the primary mission of the Israeli government and as defense minister I will carry it out,” Liberman said before last year’s elections. “We will not reach agreements and understandings with them. The only agreement that can be reached with Hamas is when they are buried in the ground,” he said, adding that such an Israeli policy cannot be implemented when the government is comprised of “a coalition of nerds.”
Meanwhile, reports have emerged that Tony Blair, the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East and a former British prime minister, colluded with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to push Herzog into the government – a move reportedly designed to facilitate a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. According to the report in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Blair even met with Herzog’s political partner, MK Tzipi Livni, in her Tel Aviv home this week, despite the fact that she is sitting shiva – the Jewish mourning ritual – for her brother.
Liberman is set to replace current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a senior Likud member who has recently clashed with Netanyahu over a series of issues related to the IDF’s independence from the political establishment.
Ya’alon, apparently alluding to the news of his ouster, said on Thursday that Israel is facing a crisis of leadership. “There is a loss of our moral compass on basic issues,” Ya’alon said. “If I had to give a golden tip, it would be to navigate with a compass rather than a weather vane. Navigation with a compass is tried and true, and it’s also a question of leadership.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed Tuesday that only the threat of Israel sending its own commandos to rescue its embassy staff in Cairo moved then-President Mohammed Morsi to send Egyptian forces to save them.
Speaking at a Foreign Ministry ceremony to commemorate Israeli diplomats killed abroad in the line of duty, Netanyahu recalled the night when a mob of Egyptians rampaged unchecked through Israel’s embassy offices.
The six remaining security guards at the time were holed up in a safe room behind a sturdy metal door, on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu that night in September 2011. “Yoni, the State of Israel will get you out of there,” the prime minister told the head of security on the phone at the time.
But Israel never publicly revealed its own intervention in the matter, instead giving the credit – and the subsequent kudos on television – to U.S. President Barack Obama.
On Tuesday, the facade came to an end and for the first time, Netanyahu revealed that it was through the threat of sending Israeli commandos the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian president was persuaded to send in his own crack troops to resolve the problem.
“A mob came to slaughter our people, and we used all the tools at our disposal that night, including the threat of rescue operation by the IDF, which finally tipped the balance and led the Egyptian forces — then under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, together with careful coordination from here — that ultimately led to the successful conclusion of this event,” Netanyahu told Foreign Ministry staff.
He acknowledged that the service is no picnic for its staff, noting that 16 foreign service officers have been killed abroad since 1948.
“Our representatives are there to deflect political and propaganda attacks, and precisely because of this they are liable to turn into targets for physical attacks,” he said.
Netanyahu is currently serving both as prime minister and as foreign minister in Israel. He also served as foreign minister from 2002 to 2003 under then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and from 2012 to 2013. He served as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations between 1984 and 1988, and as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC from 1982 to 1984.
Update: Defusing a potential international crisis, the Prime Minister’s office has issued a clarification stating that Israel’s intention at the time was to run a “coordinated” operation with the Egyptian army, and not to take unilateral action. The Prime Minister thanked the Egyptian army for handling the matter responsibly leading to a resolution to the problem.
Both Israel and the United States are warning their citizens to leave Turkey immediately in the face of “credible” terror threats.
The warning from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara followed Israel’s “high concrete threat” barely a day later.
“Following a situational assessment, we are reiterating and sharpening the high level of threat in Turkey,” read the warning posted by the National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau (NSCCTB).
A Da’esh suicide bomber in Istanbul targeted a group of Israelis and other tourists in an attack on March 19, 2016 that left four people dead, three of them Israeli, and wounded 39 others, including 11 Israelis.
This weekend, the bureau repeated and sharpened its warning, saying that it recommends that Israelis “avoid traveling to the country and those who are there, leave as soon as possible…Israeli tourists currently in Turkey are asked to refrain from going to crowded tourist sites. Follow the instructions of local security officials and the media, and leave the country as soon as possible. To the families of Israeli tourists, please update your relatives about this warning,” the advisory adds.
“There are immediate risks of attacks being carried out in the country, and we stress the threat applies to all tourism sites in Turkey.”
The U.S. warned its citizens in an emergency travel warning published on the website of the embassy in Turkey Saturday night. The warning advised citizens of “credible threats to tourist areas, in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya. Please exercise extreme caution if you are in the vicinity of such areas,” the American travel warning stated.
Antalya is a major tourist attraction on Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline. Millions of people are drawn to the site every year, making it a perfect target for terrorists.
Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting against Da’esh (ISIS) terrorists in Syria and Iraq.
Coalition aircraft use an air base located in Turkey, at the southeastern city of Incirlik, to bomb Da’esh targets.
In addition, Turkish citizens have been targeted by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization, based in southeastern Turkey as well.
Citing unnamed sources, the UK-based Al-Hayat publication reported Thursday that the United States and Russia have come to an agreement over the thorny issue of what to do about Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the report, the two world leaders have agreed on a way to end the years-long civil war with a political solution that allows Assad to find refuge in another country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has allegedly already informed his Arab counterparts about the deal, which was welcomed by members of the UN Security Council.
However, the source stressed, “the timing of the move and its political context are still not clear.”
The news follows by one day a statement by the embattled Syrian president in which he opined that it would not be difficult to agree on a new Syrian government with opposition figures. That was a statement roundly denounced by the said opposition figures, who responded bluntly that no administration would be legitimate while Assad remained in office.
“What Bashar al-Assad is talking about has no relation to the political process,” said George Sabra of the UN High Negotiations Committee.
White House spokesperson Josh Earnest also rejected the idea. “I don’t know whether he envisioned himself being a part of that national unity government. Obviously that would be a nonstarter for us,” Earnest told media.
At a conference in Geneva, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on countries Wednesday to increase global solidarity and resettle nearly half a million refugees in the next three years. Only three countries responded to the appeal: Italy, Sweden and the United States.
Physical damage to infrastructure in Syria has been estimated by the UN at $90 billion, with an additional $169 billion in accumulated losses due to a collapse in the GDP, reaching less than half of its level in 2011.
As the gunshots and sounds of mortarfire grow closer to Israeli communities in the Golan Heights, the Syrian regime has signed a truce with representatives of the rebel forces.
The truce, however, excludes Da’esh (ISIS), Al Qaeda and the Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Nusra Front) terrorist organizations, according to a statement released Tuesday afternoon by the state-run SANA news agency, which raises the issue of how long it will actually last, and how relevant it really is.
“The Syrian Arab Republic accepts the cessation of fighting actions on the basis of continuing the military efforts for combating terrorism against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations according to the Russian-U.S. agreement,” said an official source at the Syrian Expatriates and Foreign Ministry.
The military picture in Syria is far from simple.
Both Russia and the U.S.-led coalition are still claiming to be bombing ISIS terror targets in Syria, but one can hardly separate those out from the general population, let alone from other combatants.
The Syrian regime forces include the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist guerrilla fighters and Russian military personnel on the ground and in the air.
The U.S.-led coalition forces in the air have been bombing targets on behalf of the more moderate Syrian opposition forces. But there have been overlaps and on more than one occasion the “moderate” rebels have united with radical Islamists when they deemed necessary to overcome an enemy target. In this way, weapons, ammunition and other foreign ordnance changes hands, and Da’esh (ISIS) and/or Al Qaeda-linked terrorists end up possessing American arms and military technology.
Moreover, Ankara — also a member of NATO along with the United States — has been bombing Kurdish sites in northern Syria, claiming the PYD and YPG groups are related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group. Turkey alleges the PKK perpetrated last week’s horrific suicide car bombing in the capital city, Ankara, together with a PYD-linked Syrian national.
Regardless of who is dropping the bombs, after five years of one of the most savage civil wars in the Middle East very little is left of the “Syrian Arab Republic” that the world — or President Bashar al-Assad himself — once knew. At present, even the outlying districts of Damascus have been bombed into rubble in many areas, as seen in the video below, filmed by RussiaWorks.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry source noted that the cease-fire is set to begin on Saturday Feb. 27. In order to ensure the success of the cease-fire, “the Syrian government affirms readiness to continue to coordinate with the Russian side for identifying the areas and the armed groups that are to be included in the cessation along the period it is in effect,” the source said.
“The Syrian government stresses the importance of border curbing, halting support provided by some countries to the armed groups, and preventing these organizations from boosting their capabilities or changing their positions so as to avoid anything that may undermine this agreement,” the source warned.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that he and U.S. President Barack Obama had agreed on a joint statement announcing their plans to stop military operations in Syria. The U.S. State Department announced the agreement, which it said includes “plans to stop the military operations in Syria, [but] which exclude the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist organizations.”
US military leaders say Syrian oil revenues to ISIS have been drastically cut by US-led coalition air strikes.
The Da’esh (ISIS) oil infrastructure in Syria has been crippled as a result of the attacks, according to a briefing by U.S. military spokesperson Col. Steve Warren Tuesday in Baghdad.
And yet, those oil facilities are only crippled — they’re still not out for the count, Warren acknowledged. “It’s not a knockout,” he said. “It’s a body blow.”
A month of air strikes has largely shut down the oil facilities at Deir ez-Zor, which provides about two-thirds of the oil revenue for Da’esh, Warren said.
But the goal is not really to destroy the structures anyway.
According to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the aim is to prevent Da’esh from producing and shipping oil while keeping the infrastructure relatively intact so it can be restored once the war in Syria is over, USA Today reported.
The black gold once provided billions of dollars to the Syrian government, which charged fees to companies from Russia, Britain, China, and the Netherlands. Syria also owned and operated its own oil wells as well, most of which were located in Deir ez-Zor, in the eastern part of the country.
That region is now controlled by Da’esh, which the Treasury estimated sells discounted oil on the black market for half a billion dollars a year. At least half of the terror group’s revenue is raised from the sale of oil, according to the Pentagon. Da’esh also controls oil-producing regions in Iraq.