European MP Resigns over Talks with Assad

Strasbourg (France), London- Spanish politician Pedro Agramunt announced on Friday his resignation as president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), just three days before the assembly was due to vote on his dismissal.

Agramunt, the 66-year-old president of PACE since January 2016, wrote on Twitter: “Today, for personal reasons, I have decided to no longer chair the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.”

All of the assembly’s blocs have been demanding his dismissal since he went on a trip to Syria to meet with the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad, in March.

Agramunt was stripped of his leadership powers at a session in April after the motion received 158 votes of the 324-member Assembly, which decided to vote in favor of his dismissal in October if by then he didn’t resign.

PACE is made up of 324 parliamentarians from the national parliaments of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states, and generally meets four times a year in Strasbourg to discuss upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

ISIS, ‘Hezbollah’ Deal Reveals Hidden Agendas

ISIS

Dubai – Recent developments have seen opposing extremist groups, both Sunni and Shi’ite, set aside their differences in order to achieve their interests. Survival instincts and Machiavellian schemes run deeper than ideological victories that only the people kill themselves for.

We saw this when al-Qaeda members involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks sought refuge in Iran where they were eventually trained at the hands of “Hezbollah” and its late commander Imad Moghnieh, as proven in a report on the attacks.

It is strange that ISIS, with its Zarqawi creed, would come together with “Hezbollah,” its historic enemy, most prominent arm of Iran’s Wilayat al-Faqih and most important backer of the survival of the Syrian regime. Through the latter’s sponsorship, we witnessed in late August an agreement – or deal – between “Hezbollah” and ISIS.

Such a deal is not strange when one notices the history that binds al-Qaeda and Iran together. Zarqawi himself had fled Afghanistan’s Herat to Iran, where he resided for two years. Ousama bin Laden had in his last years and for various reasons called against targeting Iran. Among these reasons is its role as a safe haven for dozens of Qaeda fugitives as proven in documents obtained from his Abbottabad residence.

The possibility of ISIS and Iranian groups coming together is always possible when interests demand it. This was seen in “Hezbollah’s” agreement with ISIS through Syrian regime chief Bashar Assad’s blessing. ISIS is in a position of weakness after its defeats in Syria and Iraq, but Assad chose to leave the Tabaqa military base open for the taking by the terror group as he did various cities and weapons caches. He did this with total disregard of the danger ISIS poses to neighboring countries.

After liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the Syrian borders became a main passage for extremists from all over the world heading to Iraq, prompting many Shi’ite cities to call for the overthrow of terrorism and the Syrian regime that supports it.

Dangerous deal and angry reactions

Several questions were raised and uncertainties were voiced after the August 26 “Hezbollah”-ISIS agreement that saw two opposing fundamentalist groups come together. The deal caught the attention of the allies of either group, especially “Hezbollah”, which is the more powerful side of the equation.

“Hezbollah” and its media announced on August 27 that an ISIS convoy will depart the Lebanese-Syrian border to Syria’s Albou Kamal city in Deir al-Zour. Some sides questioned the silence of the Najaf authority over the deal and its failure to condemn it even though it would see ISIS members return close to the Iraqi border, which would undermine the recent victories achieved by the US-led international coalition and Iraqi army in Nineveh, Talafar and other areas. The Najaf authority appears to be aware of the Iranian goal, which serves the interests of Assad, and it appears to have disregarded Iraqi interest.

Iraqi officials have however voiced their condemnation of the agreement. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and various political blocs rejected the Syrian regime-sponsored “Hezbollah”-ISIS deal. Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabbouri expressed his rejection of any agreement that would restore ISIS to Iraq or bring it close to its borders. He added that Iraq will not pay the price of deals that harm its stability and security, calling on the government to take all necessary measures to counter the repercussions of this agreement.

The return of ISIS to Deir al-Zour will allow the terrorist organization to regroup in a strategic area that would allow it to carry out attacks against Iraq from Syrian territory, especially since it is only about a 100 kilometers away from Iraq.

Contradictory stances

“Hezbollah” leader Hassan Nasrallah’s approval of the deal with ISIS stands in stark contrast to his rejection of the Iraqi forces’ operation to liberate Mosul. He feared at the time that ISIS members would flee Mosul and seek refuge in Syria’s eastern regions. At the time of the announcement of the operation in October 2016, Nasrallah addressed the Iraqi people, urging them to reject what he called the “American deal” to expel ISIS into Syria, which would harm Iraqis and Syrians alike.

He declared that the “real Iraqi victory against ISIS lies in arresting its leaders and fighters, jailing them, and later putting on a fair trial. This victory does not lie in opening a route for them in Syria, because their presence there will pose a major danger to Iraq above anything else.”

It appears that these warning evaporated when it came to the “Hezbollah”-ISIS deal because it ensured that its interests and those of Assad were achieved.

In justifying his warning, Nasrallah claimed that ISIS’ return close to the Iraqi border would lead Iraqi forces into Syria to expel them He also claimed that in returning to Syria, ISIS will pave the way to its return to Iraq where the Anbar, Salaheddine, Nineveh and Mosul areas were under government control. So how did ISIS originally enter them? They entered from Syria’s Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, alleged Nasrallah.

This is historically incorrect because ISIS had initially emerged in Iraq after a demonstration was suppressed by force by Nouri al-Maliki’s forces. The group then seized the weapons left behind by Maliki’s forces and headed to Syria. It appears however that Nasrallah has forgotten or claims to have forgotten his own statements. He instead fell back on old allegations of combating the “Great devil” or “American deception” to justify his actions.

The “Hezbollah”-ISIS agreement reveals that the interest of the Syrian regime in the Iranian agenda is more important that the Iraqi regime and people, who have made great sacrifices in recent months in their war against ISIS. The deal also reveals that Iran, a nation that harbors dozens of violent extremist groups and many “Hezbollahs” that defend its identity and role, will not hesitate in striking deals with ISIS and al-Qaeda and their ilk whenever its interest and need demand it.

Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement Renews Call for ‘Direct Dialogue’ with Damascus

Bassil

Beirut – Lebanese Foreign Minister and head of the Free Patriotic Movement Jebran Bassil reiterated on Saturday that there can be no resolution to Lebanon’s Syrian refugee crisis “without dialogue with the Syrian regime.”

He therefore urged the Lebanese government to launch direct dialogue with the regime in order to return the refugees to their homeland.

“We support their safe return to their country, whether in communication of the regime or not,” he added.

“This is not a condition for their return. Some of them may return without contacting the regime. Syria will not mind that. The return of others may require contacting Syria…. This can be arranged during a time and through a mechanism that ensures Lebanon’s interest and unity,” he continued.

“The remaining refugees require a longer time and better circumstances for them to return,” said the minister.

“The return can be organized in phases, but it is important that this process begin,” stressed Bassil.

“If the gunmen can return, why can’t the regular people?” he wondered.

“Should we wait for an international green light? This will not happen any time soon,” he noted, saying that the refugee file “is a national, urgent and existential issue in Lebanon.”

“Can such a pressing matter be linked to something that will not happen any time soon, such as the departure of regime head Bashar Assad?” Bassil asked.

Iran, Turkey and Russia Seek a New Triangle for the Region

Baqeri

A high-level Turkish military-diplomatic delegation is expected to visit Tehran soon to “put final touches” to a strategic accord between Ankara and Tehran to help stabilize the Middle East, Iran’s Chief of Staff General Muhamad Hussein Baqeri revealed on Monday.

Speaking at the end of a visit to the Iran Border Force headquarters, Baqeri said the Turkish team, to be headed by Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, will be a follow-up to Baqeri’s “historic” visit to Ankara last week.

Almost at the same time, a spokesman for the Turkish military announced that Russia’s Army Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov would soon lead a high-level delegation to Ankara to discuss tripartite cooperation with Iran, among other things.

Tehran sources said Baqeri may later visit Moscow to prepare the ground for a more formal level of military-security cooperation by the three nations.

Details of the preliminary accord reached between Iran and Turkey during Baqeri’s Ankara visit have not been revealed, ostensibly at the demand of the Turkish side which may want to first inform its NATO allies.

Nevertheless, based on statements made by Baqeri on Monday, the Ankara accords cover three domains.

The first concerns the security of the sensitive triangle that forms the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran in a plateau were ethnic Kurds form a majority of the population.

At different times and on different levels all three nations have had to face the challenge of the Kurdish quest for identity, autonomy and, in some cases, even secession.

With brief periods of ceasefire, Turkey has been engaged in a war of attrition against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) for almost three decades, a war that has claimed some 40,000 lives.

Iraq is currently facing the challenge of an independence referendum that the Kurdish autonomous government in Irbil wants to organize next month. For its part, Iran has experienced a rise in armed attacks by Kurdish groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan on Iranian security forces along the border.

Concern about Kurdish “hostile action” has risen in Iran as a result of a recent decision by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, to publicly commit itself to fighting for regime change in Tehran. Hitherto, only smaller Kurdish groups such as Komalah, a Marxist outfit and PJAK, the Iranian branch of PKK, had pursued a policy of warmed struggle against the Islamic Republic.

Turkey is trying to apply three plans to deal with its Kurdish problem.

The first is the building of a 65-kilometer long wall along its borders in the Kurdish triangle with Iran and Iraq. Tehran strongly supports this because it also makes it more difficult for Iranians fleeing into exile to reach Turkey.

The second plan is to carve out a glacis inside Syrian and Iraqi territories to deprive the PKK from a fallback position in those countries. That plan, tacitly backed by the Iraqi autonomous Kurdish authorities and the remnants of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, is opposed by the Syrian Kurds backed by the United States.

The third Turkish plan is to promote a regional alliance that could eventually include Iran, Russia and Iraq. The idea is that such an alliance, though limited in scope, would leave little space for the US-led Western powers and their regional Arab allies to regain the influence they had enjoyed in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire over a century ago.

That, in turn, would give Turkey a big voice in the Levant as a springboard for a greater projection of power across the Middle East.

It is not clear whether Ankara is seeking a formal alliance with Tehran or would only work for a more dynamic application of the existing accords.

Under the Shah of Iran and Turkey enjoyed close military relations that included joint staff conversations at a strategic level. Those relations were severed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini who accused Turkey of acting as “a lackey of the Americans.” It now seems that the current “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants to revive at least part of those relations in a new context.

At a meeting in Ankara in 2014, Iran and Turkey reached a border security cooperation accord signed by the governors of Chaldaran and Maku in Iran and of Agri and Igdir provinces in Turkey. The accord envisaged three joint security meetings each year, plus a mechanism for exchange of information on the movements of terrorist groups and smuggling networks.

What the accord did not permit, reportedly to Turkey’s chagrin, was the right of hot pursuit of armed terrorists, something that Turkey had obtained from Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Judging by the composition of the high-level team that accompanied Baqeri to Ankara, it is possible that the issue was part of the broader discussions. Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia and Oceania Affairs Ebrahim Rahimpour, chief of IRGC’s Ground Forces Mohammad Khakpour, Deputy Chief of Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier General Gholam Reza Mehrabi, Deputy Minister of Defense for Education and Research of the Armed Forces Mohammed Hassan Bagheri, and several other high-ranking officials accompany Baqeri in the visit to Turkey.

The second domain covered during the Baqeri visit concerns the future of Syria which Tehran believes must be determined by Iran, Turkey and Russia to the exclusion of the US and its Arab allies.

According to Tehran sources the issue is still causing “some friction” with Turkey because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still insists that Assad must at some point be scripted out of the equation to allow the “new Syria” to emerge.

A sign that Tehran may be flexible regarding Assad’s future came on Monday when general Qassem Soleimani, the man in charge of running Iranian policy in Syria and Iraq, said in a speech in Tehran that Iran’s interventions linked to “our own interests, and not any support for any particular person.”

Don’t be surprised if Iran presents the new informal alliance as Russia and Turkey joining “The Resistance Front” led from Tehran.

Baqeri’s historic visit evoked a third plank of what Tehran hopes would be a credible plan to stabilize the Levant and exclude the US and its allies. That plank consists of “regional economic cooperation” to give the Iran-Turkey-Russia alliance some tangible moorings.

Last week, the Iranian Ghadir Investment Holding, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) signed a $7 billion deal with the Russian state-owned Zarubezhneft and the Turkish holding Unit International, controlled by people close to Erdogan, to develop new oil and gas fields in Iran for export to global markets.

Iran and Turkey are also engaged in talks to double transit by Turkey through Iran and aimed at markets in the GCC area, notably Qatar and the UAE.

Turkey which has the biggest construction firms in the region also hopes to secure the lion’s share in future contracts to rebuild Syria and Iraq with the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia conglomerate in tow. Turkish construction firms have sustained heavy losses, especially in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, as a result of the Arab Spring and regard the rebuilding of Syria and Iraq as a second life.

Preliminary talks have also taken place between Russia and Turkey to develop supply lines for the Caspian basin energy exports through Turkish ports.

Is an Iran-Turkey-Russia triangle really taking shape? Judging by noises made in Tehran, Ankara and Moscow the answer must be yes. However, the trio remains strange bedfellows with contradictory positions and conflicting interests. In other words, between the cup and the lip there may be many a slip.

Carla del Ponte: Enough Evidence to Convict Assad of War Crimes

Vienna- The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has gathered enough evidence for Bashar al-Assad to be convicted of war crimes, a prominent member of the commission, Carla del Ponte, said in remarks published on Sunday.

Del Ponte, 70, who prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, announced last week that she was stepping down from her role in frustration at the UN Security Council’s to continue the commission’s work by setting up a special tribunal for Syria that could try alleged war criminals.

According to Reuters, she has not said when she will leave her post.

Asked in an interview with Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung whether there was enough evidence for Assad to be convicted of war crimes, she said: “Yes, I am convinced that is the case.

That is why the situation is so frustrating. The preparatory work has been done. Despite that, there is no prosecutor and no court.”

The Syrian regime led by Assad denies reports by the commission documenting widespread war crimes committed by
regime-backed forces and Syria’s security services.

Del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney general, joined the three-member Syria inquiry in September 2012, chronicling
incidents such as chemical weapons attacks, a genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi population, siege tactics, and the bombing of aid convoys.

The commission was set up in August 2011 and has regularly reported on human rights violations, but its pleas to observe international law have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Although the United Nations is setting up a new body to prepare prosecutions, there is no sign of any court being
established to try war crimes committed in the six-and-a-half year-old war. Nor is there any intention by the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

“For six years, the commission has investigated. Now a prosecutor should continue our work and bring the war criminals before a special court. But that is exactly what Russia is blocking with its veto in the UN Security Council,” del Ponte was quoted as saying.

Syrian Opposition Coalition Arrives in Riyadh

al-Bahra

Riyadh – The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition (SNC), chaired by Riad Seif, arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for talks with Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on various issues related to the Syrian crisis.

A few days earlier, Saudi Arabia reiterated its position on the Syrian war and its commitment to the Geneva 1 outcomes as a basis for a solution that ensures regime head Bashar al-Assad does not remain in power.

Member of the political committee of the SNC Hadi al-Bahra said that the meeting with Jubeir was scheduled a while ago, hinting that it had nothing to do with the minister’s recent statements, which were later denied by the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

Bahra told Asharq Al-Awsat that the agenda of the meeting will cover recent political developments in Syria, including the issue of the de-escalation zones.

He added that the meeting with Jubeir is not linked to the expanded meeting scheduled in mid-August between Syria’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Moscow and Cairo and hosted by Riyadh.

So far, it has not been confirmed whether representatives of the Syrian opposition who participated in Cairo and Moscow conferences will attend the Riyadh talks.

Bahra said that HNC sent separate invitations to Cairo and Moscow, but he did not confirm if they received official responses.

The HNC hopes that the anticipated Riyadh meeting will unite positions on Assad leaving power.

Bahra admitted that Syrian opposition has a lot to achieve, especially regarding the Geneva talks, adding that there are serious attempts to come out with united positions.

“The foundation of the cause is to have united positions on all issues that ensure the success of the Geneva conference,” he added.

Bahra reiterated that the HNC intends to continue with the political negotiations dealing with the core of the Syrian crisis, which is the political transition. He stressed that it does not want to repeat the mistakes committed in Yemen and other areas.

“Everyone knows the foundations of a successful political transition and how to proceed. So, we must deal with all international changes, while making sure no more time is wasted,” he explained.

Bahra stressed that Assad’s departure is one of the main conditions of the political transition.

Trump: Syrian Rebel Aid Program was Dangerous, Wasteful

Trump

Washington – US President Donald Trump justified on Monday his decision to end the US program of aiding Syria’s rebel factions, saying that it was “massive, dangerous and wasteful,” reported Agence France Presse.

His statements came three days after General Tony Thomas, the head of US special operations, announced that Washington had halted the four-year program that had supported rebels fighting Syrian regime head Bashar Assad.

The Washington Post reported that Trump had made his decision a month ago.

Thomas said that the decision was not taken to placate regime ally Russia in order to reach a settlement with it over the conflict that has been raging for over six years.

Trump echoed these denials, tweeting: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad…..”

The missive appeared to be a response to an article by the newspaper published hours earlier and titled “Cooperation with Russia becomes central to Trump strategy in Syria.”

It quoted anonymous officials as saying “the United States and its proxies would concede Assad’s control of most of central and southern Syria” in return for Moscow and its allies steering clear of US coalition operations against the ISIS terrorist group.

Former president Barack Obama approved the rebel aid program in 2013 as various insurgent groups sought external support in a general uprising against the Assad regime.

Thousands of Syrian anti-regime fighters were trained and armed. But the US commitment remained ambiguous amid doubts in some quarters that the rebels could actually manage to depose Assad and as attention turned to the rising power of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Support for the program further eroded last year after the rebels lost the areas they held in the Syrian city of Aleppo under a brutal Russian-backed regime assault.

CIA Director Calls Assad ‘Puppet of the Iranians’

London- CIA Director Mike Pompeo has launched a scathing attack on Iran, accusing it of adopting an expansionist policy to pursue regional hegemony and dubbing the head of the Syrian regime a “puppet of the Iranians.”

The defeat of ISIS is America’s top priority at the moment, Pompeo said Thursday but he mentioned Iran as one of the US enemies in Syria.

“Today you have Iran extending its boundary, extending its reach, now making an effort to cross the borders and link up from Iraq,” Pompeo said. “It’s a very dangerous threat to the United States. Just yesterday, one more time we learned that Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, and they now have a significant foothold in Syria.”

He said the Trump administration is working on ways to push back against Iran, which wants to be a “kingpin” in the Middle East.

The CIA director spoke in a wide-ranging conversation at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual gathering of intelligence and national security officials and experts in Aspen, Colorado.

Lebanon’s “Hezbollah is but one of example of Iranians” using proxies, he said, adding that Tehran has proxies in Yemen and Iraq.

All these elements constitute a threat to Gulf states, Israel and American’s interest, he said.

He said it’s difficult to imagine a stable Syria with the head of the regime, Bashar Assad, still in power. He called Assad a “puppet of the Iranians.”

Russia will stay in Syria, he said, because it loves its naval port in Tartus. “They have an intention to remain there.”

Asked if there was any evidence Russia has pursued a serious strategy against ISIS, instead of concentrating its fire on the more “moderate” opponents of the Assad regime, Pompeo bluntly answered “No.”

Turning to the nuclear deal with Iran, Pompeo said that although the State Department has certified continued Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, the Trump administration remains committed to pushing back against Tehran in many areas.

The deal “was designed to foster stability and have Iran become a re-entrant to the Western world, and the agreement simply hasn’t achieved that,” he added.

Lebanon’s Geagea Calls for Settling Syrian Regime Crisis to Resolve Terrorism

Geagea

Beirut – Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea stressed the need to resolve the dispute over Syrian regime head Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in order to reach a solution to terrorism.

“We have heard from the international community that it is not interested in whether Assad stays in power or not, but if we are acting in a comprehensive manner to reach a comprehensive solution to terrorism, we must not keep silent over Assad’s presence in power,” Geagea said.

“If we want a solution to terrorism, we must find one to the regime crisis in Syria,” he added during a joint conference on Monday with Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Maarab.

Regarding the Syrian refugees issue, Geagea said that it was time for the Lebanese government to conceive a plan for their return to Syria, in collaboration with international organizations.

“The most important thing is to not politicize this issue to avoid any political decision that we are not in need of,” the LF leader said.

“Any proposal to engage in ties with the Syrian regime only hinders the refugees’ return,” he added, hinting at calls by Assad supporters in Lebanon to hold direct talks with the regime over the refugee return process.

Russia Sees ‘Correction’ in Syrian Opposition’s Approach towards Assad

Syria

Moscow, Beirut – Russian Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Alexei Borodavkin said on Saturday that the UN-led Syria talks have a chance to make progress because demands for the overthrow of regime leader Bashar Assad have receded.

Borodavkin told reporters that the seventh round of talks, which ended in Geneva on Friday, produced positive results, especially a “correction” in the approach of the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition delegation.

“The essence of this correction is that during this round, the opposition never once demanded the immediate resignation of Assad and the legitimate Syrian regime,” the Russian envoy said.

Borodavkin said that the HNC has realized that peace should be first reached and then discussions could be launched regarding political reforms.

“If they again slide into… ultimatums and preconditions that are not realistic, then this will not fly. This will lead the negotiations, be it direct or indirect, into a deadlock,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime violated on Saturday the US-Russian truce in southern Syria by shelling the city of Daraa al-Balad.

However, despite the violations, the truce held in the area.

The regime is seeking to isolate the Damascus eastern suburbs of Jobar from eastern Ghouta. Regime warplanes launched on Saturday five airstrikes in Jobar and the town of Ain Tarma and its surroundings at the western outskirts of eastern Ghouta.

Fierce battles also erupted at the frontlines of Arafa in Jobar and other frontlines in Wadi Tarma and its surrounding.

Also on Saturday, there were attempts to contain a near confrontation between Ahrar Al-Sahm and Jabhat Tahrir al-Sham in Sarakib in the Idlib countryside where the two forces have called for military reinforcements.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a decrease in the frequency of violations in the three southern provinces of Souweida, Queintra and Daraa, following the southern truce, which began on July 9 following a US-Russian-Jordanian agreement.