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Russia, Turkey agree on need for decisive measures in Idlib

MOSCOW: Russia and Turkey’s defense ministers agreed on the need to take what they called decisive measures to stabilize the situation in Syria’s Idlib province during talks on Monday, Russia’s RIA news agency cited a joint statement as saying. Russia, an important Syrian regime ally, and Turkey brokered a deal in September to create a…

Russia, Turkey agree on need for decisive measures in Idlib

MOSCOW: Russia and Turkey’s defense ministers agreed on the need to take what they called decisive measures to stabilize the situation in Syria’s Idlib province during talks on Monday, Russia’s RIA news agency cited a joint statement as saying.

Russia, an important Syrian regime ally, and Turkey brokered a deal in September to create a demilitarized zone in the northwest Idlib region that would be evacuated of all heavy weapons and radical fighters.

However, the area has been the site of continued hostilities with Russia saying that militants who used to belong to the Nusra Front group are in control of large swaths of territory.

A joint statement published after the talks between the two defense ministers in Ankara spoke of “the need in particular to take decisive measures to ensure security in the Idlib demilitarized zone,” RIA reported. A UN report seen by Reuters last week estimated there are up to 18,000 Daesh militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters. 

It warned the group was interested in attacking aviation and using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

Some military analysts say Daesh still has enough leaders, fighters, facilitators and financial resources to fuel a menacing insurgency in Syria and Iraq.

The top American commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East earlier said the US was likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria.

US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, cautioned that the exact timing would depend on the situation in Syria, where DSF troops have launched a final assault against Daesh enclaves near the Iraqi border.

The US military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria. Asked whether the withdrawal of America’s more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Votel said: “Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.”

“In terms of the withdrawal … I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be,” Votel told reporters traveling with him during a trip to the Middle East.

“Moving people is easier than moving equipment and so what we’re trying to do right now is again (to) kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need.”

Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria helped trigger the resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and sent US military officials scrambling to construct a withdrawal plan that preserves as many gains as possible.

Hundreds of additional troops have been sent to Syria to facilitate the withdrawal.

US officials have long estimated that the Syria pullout could take until sometime in March or April to execute fully, but have been reluctant to set an exact timeline given hard-to-predict battlefield conditions.

Votel did not speculate about when the drawdown would be completed.

One big question has been whether some US forces in Syria might move to Iraq, where the US has more than 5,000 troops helping Baghdad fight Daesh and prevent the group’s resurgence.

Votel said he did not believe the US would broadly increase overall troop numbers in Iraq. 

He did leave open the possibility of changing the composition of forces to help the US keep pressure on the militant group.

Referring to future US troop levels in Iraq, Votel said: “I think it’s going to remain more or less steady.”

“This isn’t just wholesale — ‘Everybody in Syria move over to Iraq.’ That doesn’t make sense,” Votel said.

Votel is one of many current and former US officials who have warned of the risk of a resurgence by Daesh unless the US and its allies can keep pressure on the group following the US withdrawal. 

But a clear US plan on how to keep up the pressure has yet to be articulated. It is also unclear whether the United States will be able to satisfy the security concerns in Syria of its NATO ally Turkey without sacrificing the interests of US-backed Kurdish fighters there.

Ankara sees the Kurdish militia as terrorists.

Washington views the Kurdish militia as loyal partners in the fight against Islamic State, whose help will likely continue to be needed to prevent the group’s resurgence.

The Pentagon’s own internal watchdog released a report last week warning about the risks still posed by Islamic State. It cautioned that, absent sustained pressure, the group would likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and retake some limited territory.

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Middle East News

Israeli warplanes hit Gaza after Palestinian rocket attack

KHARTOUM: Sudan’s main opposition coalition and the ruling military council on Saturday signed a final agreement for a transitional government.The agreement was signed in the presence of regional and international dignitaries including Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. During a ceremony that was held at a hall by the Nile in…

Israeli warplanes hit Gaza after Palestinian rocket attack

KHARTOUM: Sudan’s main opposition coalition and the ruling military council on Saturday signed a final agreement for a transitional government.The agreement was signed in the presence of regional and international dignitaries including Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. During a ceremony that was held at a hall by the Nile in the capital Khartoum, members of the Transitional Military Council and protest leaders signed the documents that will govern the 39-month transition.“Today, the country begins its historic transition to democracy,” read the front page of the Tayar newspaper, a headline echoed by most other dailies.But the road to democracy remains fraught with obstacles, even if the mood was celebratory as foreign dignitaries as well as thousands of citizens from all over Sudan converged for the occasion.The deal reached on August 4 — the Constitutional Declaration — brought an end to nearly eight months of upheaval that saw masses mobilize against president Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted in April after 30 years in power.The agreement brokered by the African Union and Ethiopia was welcomed with relief by both sides — protesters celebrated what they see as the victory of their “revolution,” while the generals took credit for averting civil war.Hundreds of people boarded a train from the town of Atbara — the birthplace of the protests back in December — on Friday night, dancing and singing on their way to the celebrations in Khartoum, videos shared on social media showed.“Civilian rule, civilian rule,” they chanted, promising to avenge the estimated 250 allegedly killed by security forces during the protests.

The Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir led Saudi Arabia’s delegation at the ceremony in Khartoum, Saudi Press Agency reported.

Al-Jubeir is being accompanied by the Saudi Minister of State for African affairs Ahmed Abdul Aziz Kattan and the Saudi ambassador to Sudan Ali bin Hassan Jafar.

After Saturday’s signing, Sudan kicks off a process that includes important first steps.The composition of the civilian-majority transition ruling council is to be announced on Sunday.On Thursday, former senior UN official Abdalla Hamdok, a veteran economist, was designated as transitional prime minister.He is expected to focus on attempting to stabilize Sudan’s economy, which went into a tailspin when the oil-rich south seceded in 2011 and was the trigger that sparked the initial protests.At Khartoum’s central market early Saturday, shoppers and stallholders interviewed by AFP all said they hoped a civilian government would help them put food on the table.“Everybody is happy now,” said Ali Yusef, a 19-year-old university student who works in the market to get by.“We were under the control of the military for 30 years but today we are leaving this behind us and moving toward civilian rule,” he said, sitting next to tomatoes piled directly on the ground.“All these vegetables around are very expensive but now I’m sure they will become cheaper.”While it remains to be seen what changes the transition can bring to people’s daily lives, residents old and young were eager to exercise a newfound freedom of expression.“I’m 72 and for 30 years under Bashir, I had nothing to feel good about. Now, thanks to God, I am starting to breathe,” said Ali Issa Abdel Momen, sitting in front of his modest selection of vegetables at the market.But many Sudanese are already questioning the ability of the transitional institutions to rein in the military elite’s powers during the three-year period leading to planned elections.The country of 40 million people will be ruled by an 11-member sovereign council and a government, which will — the deal makes clear — be dominated by civilians.However, the interior and defense ministers are to be chosen by military members of the council.Observers have warned that the transitional government will have little leverage to counter any attempt by the military to roll back the uprising’s achievements and seize back power.Saturday’s official ceremony is to be attended by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and several other regional leaders.Security forces deployed across the city for the biggest international event to be held in a long time in Sudan, which had become something of a pariah country under Bashir’s rule.One of the most immediate diplomatic consequences of the compromise reached this month could be the lifting of a suspension slapped on Sudan by the African Union in June.Bashir, who took power in a 1989 coup and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in the Darfur region, had been slated to appear in court Saturday on corruption charges.But his trial has been postponed to an as yet undetermined date.

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Tears, anger as Lebanese man given hero’s farewell

BEIRUT: A young Lebanese man who drowned after rescuing two friends from a flooded river in Guinea, West Africa, was given a hero’s funeral on Friday after his body was returned to his hometown in northern Lebanon. Hussein Fsheikh, who moved to Guinea several years ago for work, drowned on the first day of Eid…

Tears, anger as Lebanese man given hero’s farewell

BEIRUT: A young Lebanese man who drowned after rescuing two friends from a flooded river in Guinea, West Africa, was given a hero’s funeral on Friday after his body was returned to his hometown in northern Lebanon.

Hussein Fsheikh, who moved to Guinea several years ago for work, drowned on the first day of Eid Al-Adha after saving a young couple who had been washed away by floodwaters in the Konkoure River.

Fsheikh, who was in his 20s, was buried in his hometown of Btermaz in Danniyeh,  northern Lebanon, after his body arrived at dawn from Guinea.

Tearful countrymen paid tribute to Fsheikh’s courage and the “Hussein Fsheikh” hashtag was the most trending in Lebanon on Friday.

Fsheikh’s village was shocked by his death. His last post on Facebook before his drowning read: “On the Day of Arafat, let us forgive each other and open a new page. I swear by God that this is the best occasion to forgive and to rethink life in all its details. Do not forget to pray for us.”

The tragic death of the young Lebanese, who worked in Guinea to support his family in Akkar, one of Lebanon’s poorest regions, sparked protests against “the impotent Lebanese political elite which is forcing young Lebanese to emigrate.”

After several parliamentarians in the region mourned Fsheikh’s death on Twitter, young activists condemned what they described as an act of political propaganda.

“We are used to thinking that the hero does not die in the end, but Hussein proved the opposite. He went abroad in search of a decent living and a better future,” Rayyan tweeted.

According to Ziad Itani, an artist, “It is a clear example of our youth who have been abandoned by the political authority and falsely called expatriates, as if immigration was a hobby.” 

He said: “Hussein is a young Lebanese who died away from his country. They praised him for his qualities, and we bid farewell to him as we bid farewell to many of our dreams.”

Activist Joseph Tawk said: “The hypocritical politicians rushing to social media to express sadness about your departure. Where were all these people before you traveled? Where was their patriotism and humanity as you were leaving your country in search of a decent living that you were unable to find in your own country?”

Tawk blamed Fsheikh’s death on “a corrupt political class that leaves no jobs except for their loyal people, and makes no effort to develop the industry, agriculture, trade or institutions in order to save Lebanese young women and men from need and hunger.

“It is a political elite that is short-sighted, and blinded by its sectarianism and militia mindset,” he said.

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Israel: Palestinian killed, 2 Israelis hurt in car ramming

BEIRUT: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday praised the commitment of the Lebanese government to protecting its country in the face of the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah.It came during his meeting in Washington with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. David Schenker, the assistant secretary of near eastern affairs, and David Hill,…

Israel: Palestinian killed, 2 Israelis hurt in car ramming

BEIRUT: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday praised the commitment of the Lebanese government to protecting its country in the face of the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah.It came during his meeting in Washington with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. David Schenker, the assistant secretary of near eastern affairs, and David Hill, undersecretary of state for political affairs, were also present.Pompeo also reassured Hariri of “the commitment of the United States to support Lebanon and its institutions, to preserve its security and stability, and to procure the needs of the Lebanese people.”He also praised “Lebanon’s commitment to providing support to more than one million Syrian refugees residing on its soil, who have fled the injustice of the Assad regime.”“We call for continuing the discussions related to the remaining points related to the Blue Line (the UN’s border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel) and the Lebanese maritime borders (with Israel). We are ready to mediate the maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel and hope to reach concrete results,” Pompeo added.After the meeting, Hariri said he hoped to “reach a conclusive decision in the upcoming months regarding the border demarcation negotiations.” He thanked the US for its “continuous support for the Lebanese Army,” and restated Lebanon’s commitment to fighting terrorism.He also noted Lebanon’s “continuous support for the Cedar Conference (of international investors) and its investment plan, which is highly necessary to the Lebanese economy.” During a Cedar conference in Paris in April 2018, Lebanon secured pledges of $10.2 billion in loans and $860 million in grants, which are dependent on economic reforms.Earlier, Hariri spent more than an hour with David Malpas, president of the World Bank, during which he assured the financier: “Lebanon’s relationship with the World Bank is very important and we continue to cooperate in various sectors, especially electricity, telecommunications and waste management.”The prime minister said that he also explained to Malbas “the challenges that we face in Lebanon on the economic and political levels.”Regarding the IMF’s reluctance to cooperate with Lebanon, Hariri said: “The IMF focuses mainly on the financial situation, while the World Bank is our partner and we are executing many projects with them.”Asked whether or not his meetings in Washington made him optimistic that Lebanon’s credit rating will improve, Hariri said: “I know that Lebanon’s financial figures are critical and we have a great challenge with (credit rating agency) Standard & Poor’s, and we are working on improving our rating. However, this does not mean that our situation is not good; on the contrary, we are taking all necessary steps that would lead us to safety. The most important thing is not to respond to bad news by not performing our duties, and to reach safety.”Lebanese authorities are awaiting the latest Standard & Poor’s report, which is due to be released on Aug. 23. They fear the nation’s credit rating will be downgraded to CCC, which would have negative repercussions on its economy, the banking sector and on the value of the Lebanese pound, especially given the strained political situation in the country at a time when it needs to begin implementing reforms required by Cedar investors.Hariri was concluding a visit to Washington that comes less than a week after the Lebanese government reconvened following 40 days of inactivity in the wake of an incident in Mount Lebanon on June 30, during which two bodyguards working for Minister for Refugee Affairs Saleh Al-Gharib were shot and killed. This led to a political standoff between Druze leaders Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, and Talal Arslan, leader of the Democratic Party and an ally of Al-Gharib, who each blamed the other’s supporters for the violence. A reconciliation agreement was reached on Aug. 9.During his visit, Hariri also met Undersecretary of Defense John Rudd. They discussed “ways to support the Lebanese army and the security forces,” according to the prime minister’s office. He also met with Treasury officials, including Marshall Billingslea, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, in light of the announcement by the US of fresh sanctions on Hezbollah officials. On July 9, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on Hezbollah MPs Amin Sherri and Mohammad Raad, and on Wafiq Safa, Hezbollah’s security chief.The US accuses Hezbollah of “using its members in the Lebanese Parliament to manipulate institutions to support the financial and security interests of the terrorist group and to promote malicious activities of Iran.” It also accuses Hezbollah of “threatening economic stability and security in Lebanon and the region as a whole, at the expense of the Lebanese people.”

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