ISIS Militants Cleared from Raqqa… Mystery Surrounds Their Destination

Smoke rises near the stadium where the Islamic State militants are holed up after an air strike by coalition forces at the frontline, in Raqqa, on Oct 12, 2017

Beirut- The Syrian Democratic Forces launched on Sunday their last attack on Raqqa after a convoy of ISIS armed militants left the city following a deal negotiated by local officials and tribesmen.

An SDF spokesperson said that 275 Syrian ISIS fighters left Raqqa, leaving behind between 200 and 300 foreign ISIS jihadists.

About 3,000 trapped civilians also left the city.

However, details related to the deal, which the Coalition denied being involved in, were kept unclear, especially concerning the destination of the convoy that left Raqqa Sunday evening with conflicting reports about whether it included foreign-born militants or only Syrian nationals.

After both AFP and Reuters had quoted Omar Alloush- a senior official of the Raqqa Civil Council- as saying that the evacuation would include foreign fighters, the official later told Asharq Al-Awsat that no foreigners had left Raqqa in the convoy.

Also, Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdel Rahman told Ahsarq Al-Awsat on Sunday: “We did not document any withdrawal of foreign militants from the city. Those fighters are still present in one pocket inside Raqqa.”

He said that the French intelligence was behind the delay of the foreign militants’ evacuation from Raqqa, due to confirmations on the presence of the Paris attacker inside the city.

However, Abdel Rahman said that if those fighters withdrew to the east of Deir Ezzor, there should be clarifications in this regard, especially how the convoy was capable of traveling hundreds of kilometers before reaching its final destination.

Meanwhile, French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly said on Sunday that it was necessary to neutralize a maximum number of ISIS militants in Raqqa, adding that it would be so much better if they were all killed in the fighting.

US Measures against Hezbollah Leaders Embarrass Lebanese Government

Beirut – The United States stepped up its measures against Lebanon’s Hezbollah group by offering multimillion-dollar rewards for the arrest of two of its officials.

Washington has offered up to $7 million for information leading to the detention of Talal Hamiyah, head of Hezbollah’s foreign operations, and up to $5 million for Fouad Shukr, a top Hezbollah military operative.

The new escalatory steps put further pressure on the Lebanese government, especially in the wake of recent warnings by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said: “The next war in the north will not only be the Lebanese front, but rather a united front made up of Syria and Lebanon.”

“The Lebanese army has lost its independence and has become an integral part of Hezbollah,” he added.

While no official stance was issued by Lebanon in response to the new US measures, Speaker Nabih Berri said on Wednesday that foreign threats affect all the Lebanese people, underlining the importance of preserving unity to face challenges ahead.

In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, sources from Hezbollah said the US rewards and the Israeli threats would not affect the “resistance work against Israeli and extremist groups.”

The sources noted that the new measures were part of a political media campaign with well-known objectives, which came in parallel with the new financial sanctions imposed on the group.

Director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs Sami Nader said that the new steps against Hezbollah would embarrass the Lebanese government, which would soon have to give an official stance on the matter.

Nader told Asharq Al-Awsat that the most dangerous part of the US escalatory steps was its call on its European allies to stop separating between Hezbollah’s military and political wings, an approach that European countries have used so far in their relation with Lebanon and its government.

Nathan Sales, the US counterterrorism coordinator, said in a press conference that the rewards were the first offered by the United States for Hezbollah operatives in a decade.

Hamiyah has been on the department’s foreign terrorist list since 2015 and Shukr was added in 2013. The United States named Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.

Nicholas Rasmussen, the head of the National Counter Terrorism Center, blamed the group for a list of attacks around the world, and said it maintains a presence in “nearly every corner of the globe.”

He added that US intelligence agencies warned that the group was seeking an ability to strike inside “the homeland.”

Hariri-Berri-Jumblatt Meeting Highlights Conciliatory Slogans, Paves the Way for Electoral Alliances

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri and MP Walid Jumblatt during their meeting in Beirut on Sunday evening

Beirut- A number of questions surrounded the meeting between Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri and the head of the Democratic Gathering Bloc MP Walid Jumblatt at the latter’s residence in Beirut on Sunday evening. Some even went on to talk about a new political alliance or a “coup” that could leave its repercussions in the upcoming parliamentary elections or could be directed against certain parties, especially President Michel Aoun.

Analyses or expectations that encircled the meeting were quickly rejected by the concerned parties, who stressed that the main objective was to immunize Lebanon on the internal and external levels by emphasizing the need to prioritize national interests in light of latest developments and rapid change in the region.

On the other hand, sources close to the matter pointed out that the issue of Hezbollah was discussed during the meeting, especially with regards to the tightening of US sanctions against the movement.

Sources close to Hariri told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that the tripartite meeting focused on three main headlines, including the government’s work and continuity, holding parliamentary elections on time and prioritizing Lebanon’s interests in light of the situation in the region.

MP Michel Moussa, for his part, said that the meeting was the “culmination of efforts that began a while ago, especially since President Berri is a friend of both parties and can play a positive role in this rapprochement.”

He also stressed that the meeting was not directed against any particular party, nor did it represent the foundation of a new alliance.

“It is no more than necessary and important political communication,” he stated.

Member of the Change and Reform Bloc, MP Amal Abu Zeid, ruled out that the tripartite meeting was directed against the president or any other party.

In a political talk, he said that the meeting aimed at “consolidating stability in the face of conflicts taking place in the region, especially as the situation in Lebanon is fragile, and the volcano is close to our borders.”

Berri Proposes Holding Early Elections for Fears of Parliament Term Extension

Lebanon

Beirut– Lebanon’s parliamentary Development and Liberation Bloc, which is headed by Speaker Nabih Berri, submitted on Monday an urgent draft law to end Parliament’s term this year and to hold early elections before the end of 2017.

In a news conference, Berri said that holding elections before the scheduled date in May would prevent another extension of the legislature’s mandate.

The draft-law, if adopted, would shorten Parliament’s term from the original end date of May 21, 2018, to Dec. 31, 2017.

Berri justified his proposal based on fears of any emergency extension due to the adoption of the biometric card (also known as the magnetic card, an electronic card containing personal information for the voter), which is very difficult to complete before the elections in May.

The head of the Phalanges Party, MP Sami Gemayel, warned against extending parliament’s term “under different excuses”.

Addressing reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, Gemayel said: “We began to hear about the postponement of the elections under various excuses,” describing the biometric card as “scandal added to the scandals of the ruling power.”

Gemayel underlined the need to hold by-elections to fill the vacant seats in Keserouan and Tripoli and to adhere to the scheduled dates of parliamentary elections by abandoning the idea of the magnetic card and allowing the voter to use any card showing his identity.

In remarks to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, senior researcher at Information International, Mohammed Shamseddine, ruled out the possibility of delaying the elections, noting that actions taken by the government, especially those related to the supervision of elections and the magnetic card, were mere political deals.

“It was possible to rely on the current law for the adoption of the identity card or the passport and give time to complete the biometric cards,” he added.

Lebanese Forces Leader Samir Geagea, for his part, underlined the importance of the upcoming parliamentary elections, calling on citizens to assume their responsibilities and to vote for people capable of effecting truthful change.

“They [citizens] must realize that the key is in their hands,” Geagea said on Monday.

Panic, Fear among Lebanese after Embassies’ Security Warnings

Lebanon

Beirut – Western embassies in Lebanon issued security warnings during the past two days, causing panic and fear among the Lebanese people.

The security forces assured however that the situation is under control, even if it was delicate in wake of the battles in the northeastern border area of Arsal to expel ISIS terrorists. The expulsion had promoted fears of attacks by sleeper cells in the country.

The US Embassy in Beirut was the first to issue a warning two days ago. It was then followed by embassies of Canada and France within less than 24 hours. France limited the security threat to the upcoming 48 hours before the Lebanese army announced the arrest of a security cell that was planning to carry out terrorist attacks.

The army clarified that the military had taken necessary preemptive measures. It had received information that an ISIS cell, headed by Egyptian Fadi Ibrahim Ahmad, was planning to carry out an attack. It consequently carried out a number of raids, arresting 19 suspects linked to the cell. Ahmed is hiding in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh near the southern city of Sidon.

While the French embassy pointed out that its warning was linked to previous warnings by western embassies, the US Embassy refused to give more details.

“These warnings are based on information from a foreign intelligence agency,” the Interior Ministry said.

“Lebanese security services are following up to check their authenticity and accuracy… There is no cause for fear or overreacting,” added the ministry.

Further, the Ministry Foreign Affairs called on embassies to take into consideration the panic such statements cause on residents, Lebanese and foreigners.

Deir al-Zour-Damascus Highway in Regime’s Grip

Deir

Beirut – Syrian regime forces were able on Sunday to completely lift the siege of Deir al-Zour after controlling the international highway linking the city to Damascus.

“Regime forces were able to achieve a strategic advancement today (Sunday) by breaking the siege of neighborhoods inside Deir al-Zour,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Observatory added that regime forces arrived to the western entrance of the city, controlled the Deir al-Zour-Damascus road and crossed the Maqabir area to the Deir al-Zour military airport, only a few days after lifting the Brigade 137 siege.

The military achievement against ISIS came amid reports that at least 34 civilians were killed and several others injured when Russian warplanes attacked buses carrying civilians, who were traveling to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River near Deir al-Zour city.

The Observatory said that residents in the area were now using buses to move between the western and the eastern banks of the Euphrates River after most of the bridges over the river had been shelled during the past months.

Meanwhile, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reached on Sunday a hilltop that lies seven kilometers from the eastern bank of the Euphrates across from Deir al-Zour city, the Observatory said.

The SDF announced on Saturday it had begun clearing ISIS militants from areas east of the Euphrates.

On Sunday, their forces surprised ISIS militants in the industrial city of Deir al-Zour and were able to reach its first streets.

Director of the Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman told Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday that the real battle between ISIS and SDF forces has not yet started.

“The advancement that was achieved until now is limited to the desert areas and the hilltops in the absence of any clashes,” Abdel Rahman added.

Raed Khoury: Lebanon’s Government Stands Despite Divisions

Beirut- Economy Minister Raed Khoury said on Friday that the Lebanese government would not fall despite divisions among its members.

“The government will stand due to an agreement reached between all Lebanese sides to keep disputes aside and work on what unites us in the benefit of Lebanon and the people,” he said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat.

The minister rejected accusations against “Hezbollah” of trying to harvest the fruits of the Lebanese army’s victory in the Jurud battle. Khoury spoke about the continuous Israeli threats against Lebanon and the need to remain attached to the “Army, People, Resistance” formula to protect the country.

Last week, the Lebanese army ended its “Jurud Dawn” battle against ISIS after a first of its kind agreement was reached between “Hezbollah” and the extremist organization and later blessed by the Syrian regime to allow a safe passage for ISIS militants to Syria’s Deir Ezzor after the terrorist group uncovered the fate of the captured Lebanese soldiers, who had been missing for the past three years.

However, the agreement led to large scale criticism by the Lebanese people who rejected a deal with the militants.

Commenting on the issue, Khoury, who represents the Free Patriotic Movement, said: “The Lebanese should be proud of the army that did not announce the end of the battle before achieving all its targets.”

According to the minister, the Jurud battle mainly aimed to “liberate the land and uncover the fate of the captured Lebanese soldiers with the least damages, and not to kill the terrorists.”

He said that Hezbollah’s agreement with the ISIS militants came at the last phase of the battle, after the terrorists had almost surrendered.

Khoury said that Hezbollah had no say in the Jurud Dawn battle, although the party had claimed the opposite.

Commenting on calls that Hezbollah hands over its arms particularly after the Lebanese army proved being capable of engaging in difficult battles, Khoury said: “Such a request is currently irrational. We live in region that is constantly threatened by Israel and terrorists, a situation which requires cooperation among all parties.”

Lebanon’s Eastern Borders Free of ISIS… Army Deployed in the Area

Lebanon’s

Beirut – The Lebanese Army began deploying in the last liberated areas on the eastern Lebanese border with Syria, while Hezbollah completed its control of the Syrian western borders as a result of an agreement with ISIS.

The agreement stipulated that ISIS militants withdraw from Qalamoun towards Deir al-Zour, so the borders are completely liberated and the control is divided between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army on the Lebanese side and Hezbollah and the Syrian regime forces on the Syrian side.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Army units have completed their deployment in the area of Wadi Martbaya and its surroundings, which were cleared out of ISIS militants, the Army Command Directorate General said in a statement.

The army raised the Lebanese flag over the hilltops Halima Qara, Oqabat Martbaya and Halima al-Qabou, which are considered the highest in the area.

Army engineering regiment’s specialized teams have conducted a survey on these lands to detect bombs, mines and suspicious objects left behind by the terrorists.

Military sources told Asharq al-Awsat that the army would be deployed alone in strategic positions along the border.

“The army’s main target was to reach the border, and since the target was achieved, the army would be stationed at fixed points. This does not require any coordination with the Syrian side. Border protection does not require coordination with any party and the army will do its job alone,” the sources said.

On the Syrian side, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, noted that Hezbollah and the regime forces were deployed along the border strip in Qalamoun and Al-Zabadani Plain, reaching the southern Homs countryside in the Qusayr area.

Military Expert and retired Brigadier Khalil Helou told Asharq al-Aswat that before the beginning of the battle, the Lebanese Army was present along the eastern borders, which extend from Wadi Khaled to Qaa, and from Qaa to Brital.

“It is the first time the army has established outposts since the Independence in 1943 as a result of a military operation, specifically along a distance estimated at 160 km, which includes eastern Labweh, Fakiha, Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa, the highest point of which is known as the hills of Halima,” Helou said.

He explained that the absence of the army was the result of “the lack of interest in this arid region; which allowed the gunmen to control it”, adding: “Today, the Army’s presence is inevitable”.

‘Juroud Dawn’ Ends by Handing over Bodies of Lebanese Soldiers

Beirut- The Lebanese army ended on Sunday its “Juroud Dawn” operation against ISIS after an unprecedented agreement between “Hezbollah” and the extremist organization received the blessing of the Syrian regime to allow a safe passage for ISIS militants to Syria’s Deir Ezzor following the group’s decision to uncover the fate of the Lebanese soldiers who had been taken captive in 2014.

General Security Chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim said that the remains of six bodies believed to belong to the abducted soldiers have been recovered, adding that the Lebanese state had been informed about their killing in Feb. 2015 but had no evidence.

Later on Sunday, Ibrahim said the bodies of two other soldiers were also found while the whereabouts of the ninth servicemen remains unknown.

Also on Sunday, Hezbollah received the bodies of five of the party’s fighters.

The Lebanese army had repeatedly confirmed its rejection to negotiate with the terrorists or accept a ceasefire before uncovering the fate of the Lebanese soldiers.

“We can now say that the army’s battle against ISIS has ended in the Jurud, pending the execution of the last item (in the deal) on the departure of the rest of the terrorists to Syria’s Deir Ezzor in the next hours,” a military source told Asharq Al-Awsat following the agreement.

When the families were informed about the sad news on the death of the servicemen, angry voices of crying mothers reverberated across the tents of the kidnapped soldiers’ relatives at Riad El-Solh Square in downtown Beirut.

For their part, the families of five people who were killed last year in four suicide bombings in al-Qaa village in northeastern Lebanon near the border with Syria, refused the principle of negotiating with ISIS, and asked the Lebanese state to punish those militants instead of allowing them to leave the country.

Lebanese Army Rejects Negotiation with ISIS before Revealing Captives’ Fate

Beirut- Lebanese Army continued its logistic and combat preparations for the fourth phase of Jroud Dawn operation in outskirts of al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek. The army has reiterated its rejection to any settlement or negotiation before getting information on the destiny of the soldiers captivated by ISIS since three years.

Military sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that until this moment there isn’t any proposal on the exit of ISIS from the mountains and the priority remains to the destiny of military captives.

They described this period as the toughest. Military expert retired general Khalil al-Helou told Asharq Al-Awsat that the difficulty of this stage lies in the technical side and not the military one.

“Wadi Martabya – where ISIS existence has been curbed – is a deep valley that the group managed to seize its surrounding heights. So the difficulty is basically to reach this region whose roads need to be opened to facilitate vesicles’ passage,” he added.

“Terrorists have left behind mines planted in various sites and it is burdensome to remove them quickly. We are dealing with a terrorist organization that doesn’t recognize any rules or ethics of war,” a military source reported to Central News Agency.

Helou saw that what has been accomplished by the army in a couple of days is an unprecedented achievement in the history of countries’ battle against ISIS whether in regards to the accuracy in operations or the limited losses.

During the past 48 hours, no action was taken by ISIS members in Wadi Martabya – they have probably fled to Syria, according to Helou.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri informed the cabinet of the outcome of his tour at Lebanese Army positions on the Eastern border, lauding the high spirits of the army and its achievements. He also stressed that the Lebanese Army will position in all areas liberated from terrorists and there will be monitoring centers and fortifications.