Iranian Militias Enter Deir Ezzor, Expand Control on Borders with Iraq

Beirut- Syrian regime forces and Iranian-backed militias have entered the administrative borders of Deir Ezzor for the first time since the launch of the largest military operation to control the Syrian desert and expand on the borders with Iraq.

Members of Iraqi resistance movement “Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba” and pro-regime Syrian, Lebanese, Iranian, Afghani gunmen and regime forces entered the administrative borders of Deir Ezzor on Friday from its southeastern countryside near Iraq after clashes with ISIS militants in the desert few kilometers from the borders.

Pro-regime forces managed to cross the administrative border of Deir Ezzor after controlling the areas of al-Waer, al-Washash and several other areas that were within the control areas of ISIS eastern Syria.

This strategic advance by the regime forces allowed them to expand their control and presence on the Syrian-Iraqi border, reaching about 85 kilometers of control and presence on the border, about 12 kilometers from the T2 station southeast Deir Ezzor.

This progress comes as the regime forces seek to force ISIS militants to withdraw from the largest area of the desert and the Syrian territories.

Meanwhile, violent clashes broke out between the regime forces and ISIS in several areas in the eastern countryside of Homs and the vicinity of Umm al-Tababir while the helicopters bombed areas on the road between the cities of Palmyra and al-Sakhana, amid heavy shelling by the regime forces on several areas in the eastern countryside of Homs.

On the battle line of Raqqa, clashes continued between the US-backed “Syrian Democratic Forces” on one hand, and ISIS on the other hand in several directions in Raqqa and its outskirts, in preparation for drawing a straight line that links the north of the city to the east in order to start the second phase of Raqqa battle soon.

Coalition Forces in Direct Confrontation with ISIS Militants in Raqqa Countryside

Beirut- A Kurdish leader said the international coalition, whose mission was to provide logistic and advisory support to the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has been fighting face to face against ISIS with Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia (YPG).

The leader noted that U.S. and European soldiers are also fighting ISIS militants in the field.

Adviser to the SDF general command Nasser Mansour told Asharq Al-Awsat that U.S. soldiers and others affiliated with the international coalition are fighting ISIS for the first time in the battlefield.

Mansour said that in previous battles there used to be advisors and commanders in the operations room in addition to foreigners who fight under the banner of YPG.

However, since the beginning of the Raqqa battle, soldiers working for the coalition have started fighting ISIS on land, noting that the American who died in a landmine explosion in Tal al-Samn was a soldier in the U.S. army, added Mansour.

Washington announced on Friday the death of the first American soldier in Syria, precisely in the vicinity of Ayn Issa in northern Raqqa by an improvised explosive device.

“The entire counter-ISIS coalition sends its condolences to this hero’s, family, friends and teammates,” said Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

However, Director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdel Rahman told Asharq Al-Awsat that two other American soldiers were killed earlier in June in Syria although Washington claimed this was the first casualty for U.S. forces in the country’s fighting.

According to several reports, “massive quantities of mines,” planted by the extremist organization in villages its militants withdrew or were expelled from in Raqqa, are hindering the movement of Kurdish fighters.

Kurds expressed their fear that the campaign launched on November 5 to fight ISIS in Raqqa with the support of the U.S.-led coalition will take much more time than expected to achieve its target.

Aden Forces Regain Control over Mansoura

Members of the police force inside Mansoura , A.F.P
Members of the police force inside Mansoura , A.F.P

Aden- Pro-legitimacy forces, comprising security forces, the National Army, and the southern Popular Resistance, were capable of regaining complete control over the city of Mansoura, located at the center of Aden.

Mansoura was recovered after launching a security and military campaign backed by the Arab coalition, which enabled pro-legitimacy forces to successfully access and secure several governmental facilities and public markets in the city.

Tens of soldiers dispersed across the city’s vicinity and security forces later on –after securing the region- established checkpoints across city streets and junctions.

Given that security forces were capable of arriving to Mansoura’s central prison, taking control of it, and reviving a whole city, proves that the recovery operation represents a pioneering approach to the ongoing war in Yemen. The operation reached completion after executing restricted frequent offensives.

Sources belonging to the southern Popular Resistance in Mansoura told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the campaign staged by the resistance was supported by military shields and equipment and under maximum coordination with Arab coalition forces.

Security bodies confirmed that 21 suspects were captured after raids over militia hideouts and the confiscation of arms and motorbikes.

Sources added that the arrested suspects, which have perpetrated several assassinations, have been sent for detention at the city’s central prison, which has recently been restored by the authority.

Security forces spread throughout the city, on Wednesday dawn, and erected several checkpoints at which one suspect was arrested. Later on forces raided several militant lairs inside the city, sources added.

Rounds of bullets were exchanged in fierce clashes between pro-legitimacy forces and militant insurgents before authority regained control over the prison.

Security forces warned youngsters of the consequences they will face for driving motorbikes while packing arms and concealing their faces. Those riding bikes armed and/or covering their faces will be arrested.

Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, who is also the vice president, had already asserted the importance of effectively employing special security forces in the governorates of Aden, Lahij and others for rehabilitation and appropriate restructuring.

Sources in Bahah’s administration told Asharq Al-Awsat that the vast security campaign includes primary presidential instructions for the security forces’ revitalization process.

Vice President Bahah has already met with several Yemeni political and military officials to discuss developments and the progress in restoring liberated areas.

Al-Agha: Tehran Supports Division through Beirut Offices

Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bassem al-Agha

Riyadh- Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bassem al-Agha fiercely criticized the Iranian government, accusing it of provoking division inside Palestine.

Al-Agha condemned Iranian funds backing pro-segregation movements within Palestinian interior.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iran, throughout history, had not helped with building a single school or hospital anywhere in Palestine. Iranian support was always focused on widening the rift among people and dominating political resolutions.

“Al-Sabireen Movement” is the newest Iranian staged armed proxy in Gaza district. The movement will be employed according to Iranian agenda, which will also compromise Egyptian security.

The majority of Iranian revolution management and leadership, which overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi former Shahanshah of Iran (Iranian monarchy), have been trained in Palestinian military bases in Syria and Lebanon.

Palestinians have held high hopes on the Iranian regime to later on play well to their cause. “They (referring to the Iranian revolutionaries) have failed us, and have failed legitimacy,” Al-Agha added.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was always within Iranian target range. According to al-Agha – at a time- Iranian religious scholars issued a fatwa (an undisputed scholarly opinion on Islamic law) which permitted killing the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Iranians have never provided any funding or support to the PLO budget; instead, they were inclined towards establishing factions devoted to subversive activities in the West Bank, yet failed, al-Agha added.

He later emphasized the falsehood of Tehran’s announcement on supporting families of Palestinian “martyrs” or those whose homes were leveled by Israeli occupation.

Iran, however, is still bent on funding Palestinians through Lebanon branch offices for the Iranian-based Al-Quds Foundation. Financial aid is being given within the terms of fulfilling a propaganda which goes beyond Palestine.

Iran does not care for “martyrs” or injured victims, al-Agha adds. The Palestinian Authority is counteracting Iranian financial transactions, which are prohibited, he said.

Ambassador al-Agha praised efforts spent by his Highness the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz who he regarded an honest leader that never failed his people. His Highness has taken a righteous stance for Islam, the whole nation, and the Palestinian cause, al-Agha added.

Palestine had never received but absolute support for its legitimacy from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, al-Agha said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed his support for the “Decisive Storm” operation.

Palestinian President Meets Mashal in Doha to Solve Disputes

Palestnians planting olive trees in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip celebrating Earth Day
Palestnians planting olive trees in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip celebrating Earth Day

Ramallah- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazen is expected to meet with Hamas Political Chief Khaled Mashal in Qatari capital Doha next month, according to a senior Palestinian official.

According to the official, the meeting aims at overcoming reconciliation obstacles between the delegations of the two movements.

Amin Maqboul, secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, attributed the decision to the “remarkable progress” made in recent meetings in Doha between representatives of the two movements.

Maqboul told Asharq Al-Awsat that Qatar’s invitation was mainly directed to President Abbas to meet Mashal in Doha and announce their reconciliation agreement. That was before the two factions agreed to let their delegations meet ahead of Doha’s meeting in order to overcome conflicts and pave the way for the talks between the two leaders.

Mousa Abu Marzook, a member of the group’s political bureau, led Hamas delegation while Fatah delegation was led by Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of Fatah’s central committee.

At the upcoming meeting, Abbas and Mashal will discuss means of implementing a 2014 reconciliation agreement, along with other unresolved issues concerning security and a shaky Palestinian unity government, Maqboul said.

In April of 2014, Hamas and Fatah signed a long-awaited reconciliation agreement in Cairo that called for the formation of a Palestinian unity government tasked with overseeing Palestinian legislative and presidential polls.

Although the unity government was unveiled two months later in Ramallah, it has yet to take on a governing role in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, while the relationship between the two factions remains beset by a host of unsettled differences, both practical and ideological.

Leading members of the two movements met last month in Doha to discuss mechanisms for implementing the reconciliation agreement and address the obstacles that have continued to hinder its application.

In an earlier statement, Hamas said that it and Fatah had reached a “common view on the practical implementation” of the 2014 reconciliation deal with a view to ending long-running differences between the two factions. The group did not, however, disclose any further details.

Raqqa Battle Anticipating Operation Countdown

A man sitting in front of debris in northern Aleppo Syria, Reuters
A man sitting in front of debris in northern Aleppo Syria, Reuters

Beirut- Co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim Muhammad told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that preparations for launching an ISIS exterminating operation in Aleppo has begun.

The ISIS strongholds which will be within operational range are those located in rural areas of eastern Aleppo and in Raqqa city, situated in northern Syria.

PYD co-leader Muhammad said that the political coverage has been provided to launch an attack and look into military preparations.

Preparations of the Kurdish-based PYD forces coincide with U.S.-Russian arrangements-which were recently uncovered by Russian Interfax news agency.

Interfax reported Deputy Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service Oleg Syromolotov saying on Wednesday that Russia and the U.S. are considering palpable cooperation on military operations for liberating Raqqa from ISIS.

PYD measures taken for a military act against the terrorist organization, according to Syromolotov, are also among the topics being studied by the alleged U.S.-Russian future coordination.

“Preparations are finished, we now await aerial shield to be provided by international U.S.-led coalition aircrafts to initiate confrontation,” PYD official Ahmed abu Omar said.

Abu Omar is the commander of “Jaysh al-Thowar” (Army of Rebels), a division within the PYD armed forces,

A Syrian Opposition source close to the nearing operation told Asharq Al-Awsat that the upcoming offensive will not be conducted by a solo military party.

Incoming information indicate, under U.S.-Russian coordination, that each of the Syrian regime forces and the PYD armed divisions will participate in the attack.

PYD factions include both Kurdish and Arab groups.

The source added that regime forces are incapable of handling the operation alone, which in turn renders PYD participation a necessity. The attack zone will be divided; each side will hold operational responsibility of an assigned sector, the source said.

The attack plan involves all ISIS strongholds, which will be struck simultaneously. According to sources, rural eastern Aleppo areas and Palmyra will first be subject to the ISIS termination operation, the second stage will be closing down Raqqa zone for sequential attacks.

The Syrian Opposition source revealed that coordination among regime factions and the PYD – in addition to mission assignment- “will be via U.S. and Russian means aimed at cracking down on the extremist organization.”

“The attack was probably discussed at the Russian and U.S. official’s meeting yesterday. Such topic also includes airstrikes, military supplies and backing operation action forces,” the source added.

PYD sources have been circulating information on the principal ISIS backing route for Raqqa which passes through areas in the rural northwest, and east of Aleppo. Military attack cannot launch before cutting off ISIS supply lines.

“Supplies come in through the course extending from the ISIS stronghold in Jarabulus –located on near Turkish borders- all the way to Manbij, situated in the eastern countryside of Aleppo. The route spreads east through Euphrates river banks into Raqqa,” PYD sources said.

Libya’s UN-Backed Presidential Council Reaches Tripoli amidst Welcome

Libyan Prime Minister-designate Fayez Seraj (R) is greeted upon arrival in Tripoli, Libya March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Hani Amara
Libyan Prime Minister-designate Fayez Seraj (R) is greeted upon arrival in Tripoli, Libya March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Hani Amara

Seven members of the U.N.-backed Presidential Council including Fayez Seraj, its head and the new government’s prime minister, reached Tripoli by ship on Wednesday, announced Seraj’s media office and a military official in the main naval base in the capital.

The members arrived from Tunisia at Tripoli’s Abusita naval base after a 12-hour journey amid tight security, defying attempts to keep them out of the city and prevent them from installing a unity government.

UN special envoy Martin Kobler hailed the arrival of prime minister-designate Fayez al-Seraj, urging a “peaceful and orderly handover of power” and praising his “exceptional personal courage”

Speaking in Tripoli, Seraj said he would make “reconciliation and the settlement of security and economic crises” his top priority.

The situation in Tripoli remains volatile, and hours after their arrival clashes erupted between the Nawasi brigade, which supports the Council, and armed opponents, said Abdulrahman Taweel, a brigadier general in charge of the Council’s security. A key TV channel that backs a separate, self-declared government in Tripoli was taken off air.

Once the channel stopped broadcasting a screen caption could be seen saying: “A number of youths and revolutionaries shut down the channel because it incited killing and sedition in Libya. Anyone who reopens the channel will face prosecution.”

A self-declared government and armed groups that back it had warned the Council and the unity government not to travel to the capital.

Tripoli’s airspace was closed for several hours on Sunday and Monday, a move the Council said was designed to prevent it from reaching Libya.

“There are challenges ahead of us, including uniting Libyans and healing divisions,” Seraj said after arriving. He later made a brief statement saying the government would release a program in the coming days.

“We will work for a ceasefire across Libya, for national reconciliation and the return of displaced people, and we will seek to confront Islamic State,” he said.

The government of national accord (GNA) emerged from a UN-brokered power-sharing deal signed in December aimed at ending the country’s political impasse, resolving its armed conflict and tackling a growing threat from ISIS jihadists.

Western powers have recognized it as Libya’s sole legitimate government, but it has faced opposition in both eastern and western Libya.

Since 2014 Libya has had two competing pairs of parliaments and governments, both backed by loose alliances of armed brigades. The government in Tripoli was brought to power by armed factions that won a battle for control of the capital in 2014.

Ahead of its arrival, the Council said it had negotiated a security plan with police and military forces in Tripoli, and with some armed groups.

The road outside the naval base was heavily secured with checkpoints and armored vehicles on Wednesday.

The Council has called for an immediate transfer of power to the unity government, though both the Tripoli and eastern-based governments oppose this.

The unity government’s 18 members have so far failed to secure a vote of approval from Libya’s eastern, internationally-recognized parliament, as required under the U.N.-mediated deal, and Fathi al-Mrimi, a spokesman for eastern parliament’s president, said its arrival was “premature”.

“They have entered by force under foreign protection, and Libyans won’t accept anything imposed on them by force,” he told Reuters.

U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler welcomed the Council’s arrival, saying the international community was “ready to provide the required support and assistance”, and that all Libyan security actors had a responsibility to ensure its safety.

The EU, as well as the French, British and Italian foreign ministers also greeted the move.

“We stand ready to respond positively to requests for support and assistance from the GNA to help them restore stability to Libya, rebuild the economy, fight Daesh (ISIS) and tackle the criminal gangs that threaten the security of Libyans and exploit illegal migrants,” said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

Egyptian Man Hijacks a Plane with a Fake Explosive Belt

A man believed to be a crew member of the hijacked plane jumps out of the cockpit window at Larnaca Airport yesterday (EPA)
A man believed to be a crew member of the hijacked plane jumps out of the cockpit window at Larnaca Airport yesterday (EPA)

The crisis of the hijacked Egyptian plane that was forced to divert to Larnaca Airport in Cyprus yesterday ended with the hijacker surrendering and the release of all those on board. The hijacker, who claimed to be in possession of an explosive belt took control of the EgyptAir flight before it became clear in the end that the belt was fake, and that the Cypriot authorities had not found any explosives on board.

There were conflicting reports about the motives for the kidnapping and security sources said that the hijacker Seif Al-Din Mustafa “wanted to send a letter to his Cypriot ex-wife”. An official at the Foreign Ministry of Cyprus said the Egyptian hijacker, who is believed to be mentally unstable, handed over a hand written letter consisting of four pages addressed to his ex-wife who arrived at Larnaca Airport and collected the letter from a flight attendant.

Seif Al-Din Mustafa, who is accused of several fraud related crimes in Egypt, persuaded the cabin crew and passengers that he was wearing an explosive belt and forced them to comply with his demands. The Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Egyptian police announced the hijacking of EgyptAir flight 181 yesterday morning. They said that 81 passengers were on board the Airbus 320, in addition to its crew consisting of seven people and a security guard. The plane was supposed to fly from Alexandria to Cairo but was forced to divert and landed at Larnaca Airport, Cyprus.

Saudi Arabia Calls for International Protection System to Palestine

Saudi Cabinet Session chaired by HRH King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Monday
Saudi Cabinet Session chaired by HRH King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Monday

Riyadh- The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reiterated its calls on the United Nations’ Security Council to develop a special international protection system for Palestine, including the Holy Al-Quds; in accordance with Fourth Geneva Convention and relevant international legitimacy resolutions to develop a timetable for ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and achieving a just and comprehensive peace according to international legitimacy resolutions and the Arab peace initiative.

Saudi Cabinet denounced Israeli authorities constructing Jewish settlements in the occupied Arab territories and expressed its regret regarding the resignation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories due to the lack of cooperation from the Israeli occupation authorities; stressing Israel’s indifference to international legitimacy resolutions and its determination to keep on violating human rights and international humanitarian laws.

This came during a Saudi Cabinet session chaired by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Monday in Riyadh.

At the outset of the session, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques briefed the Cabinet on the outcomes of his talks with President Jacob Zuma of South Africa during which they reviewed the fields of cooperation and ways of enhancing them to serve the common interests, the latest regional and international developments of common concern, and signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on bilateral political consultations.

King Salman praised the close relations between the two countries and their people in all fields, the status of the two countries at the global arena economically and politically, and their keenness to enhance relations and develop them to serve their mutual interests.

The King also briefed the Cabinet on the outcomes of his meeting with the Speaker of the House in the Parliament of Georgia Davit Usupashvili.

Following the session, the Minister of Culture and Information Dr. Adel bin Zaid Altoraifi told Saudi Press Agency that the Cabinet commended the inauguration of projectile factory by the President of South Africa and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Second Deputy Premier, Minister of Defense, and Chairman of Board of Directors of General Organization for Military Industries.

The projectiles factory was licensed and supported by an ammunition manufacturers company in South Africa.

According to Altoraifi, it will act as a backbone to Saudi Arabia’s military forces in the field of military projectiles, including all types. It is also considered as one of the outcomes of implementing the wise leadership’s strategies in the Kingdom represented in the transfer and localization of military manufacturing technologies.

UN Seeks to Resettle One-Tenth of 4.8 Mln Syrian Refugees amid Fear

A woman giving the bottle to her baby, waits along with other migrants and refugees to board buses taking them to the registration hotspot of Moria, from the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on March 29, 2016, after being rescued by Frontex and Greek coast guards. / AFP PHOTO
A woman giving the bottle to her baby, waits along with other migrants and refugees to board buses taking them to the registration hotspot of Moria, from the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on March 29, 2016, after being rescued by Frontex and Greek coast guards. / AFP PHOTO

The United Nations said on Tuesday it was seeking to re-settle 1 in 10 Syrian; i.e. more than 450,000 Syrian refugees now in neighboring countries, by the end of 2018, but agreed that it was fighting against prevalent fear and politicization of the issue.

A ministerial-level conference is being held in Geneva on Wednesday with the participation of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

“Refugees fleeing conflict and violence and arriving in Europe carry an important message: addressing their plight cannot only be the task of countries and communities that are close to wars. It is a global responsibility that must be widely shared until peace prevails again,” Grandi said.

“Giving at least some Syrian refugees an opportunity to move on to better lives, and relieving the burden on countries hosting millions of refugees are important gestures of solidarity. Let us not miss this opportunity,” Grandi added.

The conference is one of several main events in 2016 to do with Syria’s refugees. It follows February’s London Conference on Syria which focused on the financial dimensions of the humanitarian challenge posed by the more than 13.5 million people in need inside Syria and the 4.8 million refugees in the surrounding region along with the needs of communities in countries hosting them. And it comes in the run up to September’s summit on refugees to be held at the General Assembly meeting.

“The international context we are in – and nobody is naive about that – we know very well we’re dealing with a complex situation, increasing fear in many countries, increasing politicization of refugee, displacement and asylum issues. This is a difficult thing,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in response to a question.