Author Archives: Kristine L Ming

15 dead in food aid stampede in Morocco

RABAT – Fifteen people were killed and five more injured when a stampede broke out in the southwestern Moroccan town of Sidi Boulaalam on Sunday as food aid was being distributed in a market, the Interior Ministry said.

King Mohammed ordered that the victims’ families be given any assistance they needed, the ministry said in a statement, adding that a criminal investigation had been opened.

No more details were immediately available.

Last month, the king dismissed the ministers of education, planning and housing, and health after an economic agency found “imbalances” in implementing a development plan to fight poverty in the northerly Rif region.

The Rif saw numerous protests after a fishmonger was accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck in October 2016 after a confrontation with police, and he became a symbol of the effects of corruption and official abuse.

In July, the king pardoned dozens of people arrested in the protests and accused local officials of stoking public anger by being too slow to implement development projects.

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Hariri’s office: Lebanon’s Hariri to visit Egypt on Tuesday

Saad Hariri, who announced his resignation as Lebanese prime minister in a televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia on November 4, will visit Egypt on Tuesday to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Hariri’s office said on Sunday.

Hariri has since Saturday been in Paris, where he met French President Emmanuel Macron, and has said he will return to Lebanon by Wednesday for its Independence Day celebrations.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has said he will not accept Hariri’s resignation until it is delivered in person and all sides in Beirut have called for his speedy return.

A leader in Hariri’s Future Movement had earlier told Reuters Hariri would visit Egypt on Monday.

The resignation sparked a political crisis in Lebanon and put it on the front line of a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Hariri criticized Iran and its ally Hezbollah, which is in Lebanon’s coalition government, in his resignation statement, and said he feared assassination. Apart from a brief trip to Abu Dhabi, he remained in Saudi Arabia until he flew to France.

His stay in the kingdom led to accusations from Lebanese officials and politicians that Saudi Arabia had coerced him to resign, which he and Riyadh denied.

On Friday, Hariri tweeted that his presence there was for “consultations on the future of the situation in Lebanon and its relations with the surrounding Arab region.”

On Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Cairo, requested by Saudi Arabia, to discuss ways to confront Iran and Hezbollah over their role in the region.

In a statement afterwards, the ministers accused Hezbollah of supporting terrorism in Arab countries.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil did not attend.

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It’s a new world — where Israel shares intelligence with the Saudis

You could sense mouths dropping across the world on Thursday.

Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, the head of the Israeli army, had just said publicly in an interview with a Saudi journalist that he is ready to share (read: probably already has shared) intelligence with Saudi Arabia.

Shock, that a country that not so long ago was a mortal enemy of Israel’s – and still in many conversations, such as regarding the Palestinians, is ready to condemn Israel – could be on the receiving end of some of the Mossad’s and the IDF’s greatest secrets.

Maybe we are all still sleeping and dreaming?

No, it is very real. And according to two top intelligence and national security experts, Ram Ben-Barak and Yaakov Amidror, this bombshell is far more a confirmation of a clear and continuous trend than might appear to the untrained eye.

Ben-Barak is former deputy chief of the Mossad and former director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

Amidror is a former national security adviser, major general and currently at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Ben-Barak said Eisenkot’s announcement was “not a surprise. The Saudis are struggling against terror, Islamic extremism and Iran’s extending itself throughout the region. This worries us and them. When you have unity of enough interests, it is natural to work together more on a partnering basis than just on one isolated interest.”

He said that “If we can stop someone or if we can give intelligence to them to stop” a common adversary and “also to collect intelligence and work together on bigger things related to the Shi’ites and to processes related to Judea and Samaria,” these were all worthwhile endeavors.

Asked about reciprocation, the former deputy Mossad chief said, “cooperation is always a two-way street,” explaining that Eisenkot’s statement should be taken to mean Israel is “ready to both give and receive – this is how it works with all intelligence organizations.”

Of course, this still leaves open what the intelligence sharing parameters will be. Even with its closest allies, a country usually does not share every piece of intelligence.

Ben-Barak said that the “system for setting parameters of sharing is very organized and exact about what can be shared and how it can be shared. It is not at the discretion of a lower level agent. There are decisions about what is important and what is not. When information is shared it relates to something happening,” and to a goal that the state focuses on achieving.

In terms of how information is shared, he said that “sensitive information is usually given over orally,” as opposed to large amounts of less sensitive intelligence which the US and Israel share on an automated, electronic basis. Still, Ben-Barak did not think that one could assume that the new level of publicly endorsed intelligence cooperation meant that Israel would necessarily, for example, get the green light from the Saudis to fly through their airspace to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

He did not discount such a possibility if “relations get warmer over time,” but said that overflights were a “very advanced level” of cooperation.

Amidror echoed some similar messages, but also emphasized key points of his own.

He said what was important about the event, was not so much that Eisenkot said he was ready to share intelligence with the Saudis, but more importantly that Saudi Arabia had permitted or even sent one of its journalists to publicly travel to Tel Aviv to meet with the current IDF chief.

The former National Security Council chief said Saudis had met with other former top Israeli officials like Amos Yadlin, Dore Gold and himself (he met with former head of Saudi intelligence Turki bin-Faisal al-Saud in Washington, DC, last year), but not with current ones, at least in public. “Someone in Saudi Arabia understands that relations with Israel need to change… they have crossed the rubicon,” he said.

He added that, “the IDF has never had a problem with giving intelligence to actors [who] are fighting with Iran or ISIS. Any actor in the world who comes to fight Iran and says I need something to fight them,” Israel would be likely to cooperate “to fight such a common enemy.”

Amidror agreed that Israel giving intelligence to the Saudis does not mean it has gotten something back, like the right to fly through Saudi airspace toward Iran. But he went even further, saying that “there could be a condition of exchanging intelligence, but not necessarily.” Meaning, Israel helping another country fight Iran is its own reward for Israeli interests, possibly even without immediate reciprocity.

Neither Ben-Barak nor Amidror said that Eisenkot’s statement was directly connected to the current proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon, although the timing coincided closely with the conflict over former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri.

Iran and the Saudis are putting pressure on Hariri to either officially resign as prime minister (the Saudis) or remain in office to help legitimize Hezbollah (Iran).

Amidror said Hezbollah had used Hariri to make Lebanon “appear to be a normal state when really there is an organization there called Hezbollah without whom you can do nothing.”

He said Hariri’s move “had shown there is not really a state of Lebanon separate from Hezbollah… they have lost their camouflage.”

This was a view which Israel had long expressed and which he said the Saudis and Hariri’s move had now proven correct.
He added with some flare that if Hariri goes back to Lebanon, “he should have good life insurance.”

Likewise, Ben-Barak said he thought that Hariri faced “a serious threat” from Iran and Hezbollah and that the Saudis had not held him hostage, even if “there was Saudi pressure on him to do what he did.”

He said, “Hezbollah wants to be a legitimate part of the political process in Lebanon. In fact, Hariri’s father [Rafic Al-Hariri, one of Lebanon’s previous prime ministers] disturbed them, and now the son has revealed their true selves – that they are not part of Lebanon. It is very embarrassing” for Hezbollah.

Ben-Barak was also unsure whether Hariri would really return to Lebanon.

He said that the Saudis’ actions in the affair show “they are ready for conflict and not compromise” with Iran.

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Bosnia’s silent killer: The coal industry

After the US decision to quit the Paris climate agreement, the European Union set its sights on becoming a global leader in curbing fossil fuel emissions.

But some of its eastern neighbours that seek to join the bloc have severe levels of air pollution.

Many people are switching back to coal as a cheaper alternative to imported gas from Russia.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the high level of air pollution has become a cause for alarm for the locals.

Produced by Camelia Sadeghzadeh; filmed by Marek Polaszewski

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Iran puts finishing touches on its ‘bridge’ to the Golan

In the east of Syria, the so-called race to Abu Kamal between the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the forces of Iran, the Assad regime and Russia appears to be close to conclusion – in the latter’s favor.

Regime forces moved into the town earlier this month. They were then expelled by an unexpected Islamic State counterattack this week, and have retreated to positions about two kilometers outside of Abu Kamal.

The Islamic State move, however, has the flavor of a last roll of the dice. Clearly, the Sunni jihadis will lose the strategic border town in the days ahead.

The US-supported SDF are covering ground rapidly to the north. But the forward units of the mainly Kurdish force remain about 25 kilometers north of Abu Kamal, in the area of the Kishma oil field.

Abu Kamal is the last link in the much-discussed Iranian “land bridge” from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Israel.

Control of the border crossing at al-Qaim/Abu Kamal and of the roads leading west from it will enable the Iran-led regional alliance to transport fighters and weaponry in both directions, according to choice. It will mean that in a future confrontation with Hezbollah, Israel could see its enemies reinforced by supplies and volunteers from among other Iranian clients, in precisely the way that took place with such effect in the Syrian war.

Of course, such efforts would not be invulnerable to Israeli attentions from the air, and would not confer an irreversible advantage on the Iranian side.

But given the Iranian weakness in aviation, the land bridge would vastly increase the options and abilities of the Iranian side.

It is worth noting that in recent days Iraqi Shi’a militias crossed the border by land for the first time in the Syrian war, to join the battle against Islamic State in the Abu Kamal area.

The land bridge would convey economic advantages as well as strategic ones. It would allow for the transport of Iraqi oil to regime-controlled Syria, bypassing the area currently controlled by the SDF.

This will be important in the reconstruction period ahead, regardless of the precise lines of control within Syria.

The imminent conclusion of conventional operations against the last remnants of Islamic State in eastern Syria will in turn bring with it a moment of crucial decision for the United States. A central facet of events in recent months in Syria has been the absence of a clear US strategy.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say Islamic State can be defeated in Syria, November 11, 2017. (Reuters)

The de facto relationship between US air power and special forces and the Kurdish YPG has proved to be a successful military partnership. This force, not the Assad/Iran/Russia side, is responsible for the greater part of the victory against Islamic State in Syria. Indeed, the regime side’s belated push east came precisely to limit the territorial gains of the US-backed SDF.

But throughout, there has been a clear discrepancy between the military support afforded to the SDF and the complete absence of recognition by the US or any other Western power of the broader Kurdish-led political project in northern Syria.

The Federation of Northern Syria, declared by the Syrian Kurdish leadership on March 17, 2016, indeed lacks the recognition of any other country.

Officially speaking, the reason for US involvement in eastern Syria has been the war against Islamic State. Neither more nor less. At the same time, there is evidence of extensive US military construction in Kurdish-controlled eastern Syria. Airstrips and bases have been built in Rumeilan, Manbij and Kobani.

The powerful Saudi official Thamer al-Sabhan visited SDF-controlled eastern Syria in late October, accompanied by Brett McGurk, US special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State. The purpose of the visit, according to a Reuters report, was to discuss the reconstruction of Raqqa city.

All these snippets might suggest that the US has longer-term intentions in eastern Syria and does not mean to merely abandon its erstwhile allies, once the task of destroying the Islamic State “caliphate” is done. A statement by US Defense Secretary James Mattis this week supported this impression. He noted that the US does not intend to “walk away right now before the Geneva process has traction,” and would fight Islamic State “for as long as they want to fight,” in order to prevent the emergence of “ISIS 2.0.”

If the US does decide to stay in eastern Syria, it will need to consider the logistics of how to supply this area, against the wishes of all neighboring entities.

The Assad regime has already made clear that once Islamic State is defeated, it intends to reunify the entire area of Syria.

Turkey is opposed to the Syrian Kurdish enclave because of its links to the PKK. And the Abadi government in Baghdad, while happy to receive US weaponry and training, is in fact the ally of Assad and Iran, and as such also opposes the US-aligned Syrian Kurds.

Up until last month, the pro-US Iraqi Kurds controlled two border crossings to their Syrian brethren.

But these were lost to the Iraqis and the Shi’a militias in the military action that followed the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum of September 25.

So a difficult decision awaits the US. Much will depend on the choice made. But in any event, since the conquest of Abu Kamal by Iran and its allies looks inevitable, even if the US chooses to stick with its current allies in eastern Syria, this will not prevent the Iranian land bridge from coming into being. It is already a fait accompli.

From an Israeli point of view, this is a cause for concern. Israel’s focus is not related mainly to the Syria-Iraqi border, of course, but to the southwestern- most part of the corridor – where it is set to nudge up against the Quneitra crossing and the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights.

The joint statement by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin released on November 10 fails, in Jerusalem’s view, to adequately address the issue of Iranian and Iran-supported forces close to Israel’s border. The statement issues no timetable for the withdrawal of these forces. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted on Tuesday as dismissing any notion that Russia had promised the withdrawal of Iranian groups from Syria.

It is unlikely, in any case, that Russia could bring about the unilateral withdrawal of its Iranian ally from its hard-won corridor. Iran is not dependent on Russia and pursues its own agenda in Syria.

Israel has stated clearly that it will continue to act to ensure its security.

What this means, in practice, is that as the Iranians continue to solidify and extend their gains in Syria, so the likelihood of direct friction between this project and Israel’s enforcement of redlines will grow.

Tehran is presently pressing forward. The key issue of the extent to which the US will continue to be a player in this arena is set to be resolved in the weeks ahead. But whatever the US decision, the taking of the dusty, al-Qaim/Abu Kamal crossing is set to turn Iran’s land bridge, from Tehran to Quneitra, from an objective into an established fact.

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Analysis: Russia-Iran-Turkey meeting is message to US

Turkish, Russian and Iranian diplomats will meet in Antalya on Sunday in the run-up to a major get-together in Sochi on November 22. The meeting is supposed to focus on Syria, but its real purpose is part of a larger effort by Moscow to illustrate its influence in the region.

Moscow, Turkey and Iran are all sending symbolic messages to Washington that the Americans are out in the cold and the post-ISIS era may well be dictated by regional powers.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the meeting was intended to find out “how we can restore stability and peace in Syria.”

According to Hurriyet Daily News, the foreign ministers from Moscow, Ankara and Tehran will meet in Antalya, followed a few days later by a meeting in Sochi between Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani that is being billed as a “trilateral summit.”

Turkish officials, this year, have been increasingly critical of US policy.

Erdogan accused the US of not keeping its promises regarding the withdrawal of its partnered forces, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from areas liberated from Islamic State.

“Unfortunately, the current administration also tells us it is in cooperation with the SDF, the new name of the YPG. They shouldn’t do this.

We were here before them and we know perfectly well who is who in this region,” Erdogan said.

In comments that reflect the official Turkish view, Ibrahim Kalin, a special adviser to the Turkish president, wrote in the Daily Sabah: “There is growing assessment that the US is using both Daesh and the YPG as an excuse to remain in eastern Syria as a potential counter-weighing force against the Russian-Iranian presence.”

Turkey sees the YPG as the “Syrian branch” of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and, thus, a terrorist organization. In his piece, Kalin referenced claims that the US-led coalition and SDF allowed hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families to leave Raqqa in October.

“[This shows] once again the utter poverty of the policy of having one terrorist organization fight another,” he wrote.

Kalin says Turkey demands that “Syria’s territorial integrity must be maintained” and that foreign fighters for the regime and the YPG must leave Syria: “A transitional government should be established to include all Syrian stakeholders and prepare the ground for free and fair elections.”

He argues that the YPG “cannot be part of any political solution,” and that Assad “is not the person to lead Syria to a democratic and all-inclusive rule.” The meeting in Sochi is supposed to address these issues, alongside the talks that have taken place in Astana and Geneva.

The Russians, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, see the summit as including the “guarantors of the process of political settlement and stability and security that we see now in Syria.”

The Sochi meeting comes just a week and a half after Putin met US President Donald Trump in Danang, Vietnam.

“The presidents agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria,” a joint statement read on November 11. The statement called for the implementation of UNSCR 2254, which would involve constitutional reform and “free and fair elections under UN supervision.”

The statement emphasized the importance of communication in eastern Syria between US and Russian forces and “deconfliction” efforts. It also mentioned the southwest Syrian cease-fire agreed to with Jordan.

It was a practical statement, whereas the Sochi meeting is seen to be an important diplomatic step with wider regional implications.

Russia, Iran and Turkey all differ on the Syrian conflict, but over the last year it appears their relationship has trended toward a more harmonious one and the Americans have been left out in the cold.

Turkey and Iran grew closer over the Qatar crisis in July and over the Kurdistan independence referendum in northern Iraq in September. Turkey and Russia also surmounted the crises of the 2015 shooting down of a Russian Su-24 by Turkey.

The Trump administration faces political problems at home over the relations his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had with Turkey and his former campaign chair Paul Manafort had with pro-Russian elements in Ukraine. This, to some extent, ties his hands on relations with Moscow and Ankara.

In addition, Ankara is outraged at the increasing presence of the US in eastern Syria and inferences that it intends to stay for the long term.

Trump already has rolled out a robust policy to confront Iran in the region, a policy that, as yet, has no practical elements to it but is thought to have empowered the Saudis in their moves in Lebanon and the Gulf.

What the Americans don’t have is a post-ISIS strategy for Iraq, Syria and the region.

The trilateral summit enshrines the inability of US strategy to make headway. Iran, an enemy of the US is sitting with Turkey, a NATO ally, alongside Russia. Washington’s allies in eastern Syria should be concerned.

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Saudi Arabia, Arab allies to hold Cairo talks on Iran, Hezbollah

CAIRO – Saudi Arabia and other Arab foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on Sunday to discuss confronting Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally Hezbollah, who the Arab allies say are interfering in their internal affairs.

Regional tensions have risen between Sunni monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Islamist Iran over Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s surprise resignation and after an escalation in Yemen’s conflict.

Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally, resigned on November 4 in an announcement made from Riyadh. Hariri cited fear of assassination and accused Iran and Hezbollah of spreading strife in the Arab world.

Hezbollah, both a military force and a political movement, is part of a Lebanese government made up of rival factions, and an ally of Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Aoun has accused Saudi Arabia of holding Hariri hostage. Senior Lebanese politicians close to Hariri also said he was coerced into resigning. Saudi Arabia and Hariri both deny those accusations.

The emergency Arab foreign ministers meeting was convened at the request of Saudi Arabia with support from the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait to discuss means of confronting Iranian intervention, Egypt’s state news agency MENA said.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told Reuters last week the kingdom’s actions in the Middle East were only a response to what he called the “aggression” of Iran.

“What Iran is doing against some Arab countries calls for taking more than one measure to stop these violations, interferences and threats, which are carried out through many various means,” Hossam Zaki, Arab League Assistant Secretary, told Asharq al Awsat newspaper in an interview.

“Stopping them requires a joint Arab policy.”

He said the meeting would send a “strong message” for Iran to step back from its current policies.

Egypt’s state-owned newspaper Al Ahram cited an Arab diplomatic source saying the meeting may refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

Saudi Arabia accuses Hezbollah of a role in the launching of a missile at Riyadh from Yemen this month. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iran’s supply of rockets to Houthi militias was an act of “direct military aggression.”

Yemen’s civil war pits the internationally recognized government, backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, against the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Iran denies charges it supplies Houthi forces.

Anticipating confrontation at the Cairo meeting, Lebanon’s foreign minister may not attend, though a final decision will be taken on Sunday morning, a senior Lebanese official told Reuters on Saturday.

After French intervention, Hariri flew to France and met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Saturday.

Speaking in Paris, Hariri said he would clarify his position when he returns to Beirut in the coming days. He said he would take part in Lebanese independence day celebrations, which are scheduled for Wednesday.

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