Bahrain/Iran – Bahrain security forces have arrested a terror cell that plotted to assassinate important senior government and community figures. The suspects were arrested on the 26 Mar 17 a statement from Bahrain’s interior ministry has confirmed. During security operations in several cities across the small Gulf island kingdom, investigations revealed that the extremist group worked under direct supervision in terms of financing, planning and implementation of attacks by two known extremists; Mortadha Majeed al-Sindi and Qassim Abdullah Ali. Several of those identified and arrested were proven to have received military training in camps under the supervision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Others arrested on the 26 Mar 17 were also responsible for a bomb attack that struck a bus carrying Bahrain police on the 26 Feb 17 that left four officers injured.
Iran/Presidential Elections in May – Iranian MPs have criticised the arrests of journalists and social media organisers ahead of the presidential election in May, with one directly accusing the elite Revolutionary Guards in a letter published on the 18 Mar 17. The arrests in recent days are alleged to have targeted unnamed people who run channels on the popular messaging site Telegram supporting reformists and the moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani. Two prominent journalists -- Ehsan Mazandarani and Morad Saghafi -- have also been detained. Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist MP, wrote an open letter to Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad-Ali Jafari, calling on the organisation to stay out of politics. "Some incidents in recent days, including the simultaneous arrests of managers of Telegram channels with close associations to reformists and supporters of the government, which has apparently been done by the intelligence arm of the Sepah (Revolutionary Guards), has raised a wave of concern in society," Sadeghi wrote in the letter published by the ILNA news agency. Several other MPs have also criticised the arrests in open letters this week. Outspoken moderate-conservative MP Ali Motahari threatened to seek the impeachment of the intelligence minister if he did not provide details of the arrests. The Revolutionary Guards operate their own intelligence wing independently of the government and answerable only to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani, who will seek re-election on the 19 May 17 has united moderates and reformists with his efforts to improve relations with the West, despite largely failing to win the release of jailed opposition leaders or improve civil rights as he promised during the 2013 campaign. Telegram, which has an estimated 20 million users in Iran, has become the leading site for political and cultural discussions in a country where Facebook and Twitter are banned. The authorities have tried to control the site, demanding that channels with more than 5,000 followers register with the government. A reformist newspaper also reported on the 18 Mar 17 that Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of revolutionary founder Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had again been sentenced to six months for "spreading falsehoods" after she accused the judiciary of corruption. Hashemi, a vocal supporter of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi during the mass protests that followed the disputed 2009 election, previously served six months in jail for "disrupting public opinion" in 2012-13.
Iran/Nuclear Deal – Iran has challenged the need for it to ship sensitive material abroad if its stock exceeds a limit set by its nuclear deal with major powers it was reported on the 18 Mar 17. The challenge raises the prospect of a confrontation with the new US administration of President Donald Trump because diplomats say Iran is only months away from reaching that cap. The 2015 deal restricts Iran’s atomic activities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against Tehran. One restriction is on its stock of heavy water, a moderator used in a type of reactor that can produce plutonium, like an unfinished one at Arak that had its core removed under the accord. Iran has already exceeded the 130-tonne limit on its heavy water stock twice. The latest standoff with Washington over the issue was only defused in Dec 16 when Iran shipped the excess amount to Oman, where the heavy water is being stored until a buyer can be found. In a letter to the UN nuclear watchdog circulated to member states on the 17 Mar 17 and posted on the agency’s website, however, Iran argued that the deal does not require it to ship excess heavy water out of the country. “Nothing in the (agreement) requires Iran to ship out the excess heavy water which is made available to the international market but has not yet found an actual buyer to which the heavy water needs to be delivered,” Iran said. The deal says all excess heavy water “will be made available for export to the international market based on international prices and delivered to the international buyer”. Trump is a vocal critic of the deal who has said he wants to “police that contract so tough they (the Iranians) don’t have a chance”. His administration has stuck to the previous U.S. position. “Any excess heavy water in excess of the firm cap of 130 metric tons cannot remain in Iran,” the United States said in a statement to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting last week. Western officials say they are concerned that Tehran continues to produce heavy water far more quickly than it is consuming or selling it. It had 124.2 tonnes of heavy water on its territory a month ago. The IAEA, which is policing the deal, told member states at a meeting on the 28 Feb 17 that if Iran kept producing heavy water at the current rate, it would reach the 130-tonne limit by May 17 several diplomats who attended the meeting said. A possible maintenance shutdown at its production plant might delay the timing slightly, some added. One diplomat said Jun 17 was a more likely time for Iran to hit the cap.
Iran – While an agreement allowing Iranian pilgrims to join this year’s hajj is good news, this is no leap forward to future success for the regime in Tehran. Quite obvious is the fact that this regime is facing a new balance of power in the Middle East and across the globe as the Trump administration has begun overhauling his predecessor’s disastrous Iran appeasement policy that allowed Tehran ignite the entire region in flames.
The visit by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the US and meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House has been described as a turning point in Saudi-US relations. The Deputy Crown Prince, also the kingdom’s Defence Minister, has described Iran’s destabilizing nature across the globe and support for terrorism as a dangerous challenge for the Middle and the world over. Saudi Arabia is at the front lines of these dilemmas, he said in his recent meeting with his American predecessor James Mattis. Continuing the fight against ISIS
, confronting Iran’s lethal activities in the region and military cooperation between the two countries were amongst the main subjects in these talks. Unprecedented tough language. Iran’s support for the Lebanese Hezbollah has become a part of Middle East reality, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah admitting receiving money and other support from Tehran. While this relationship has been constantly condemned over the years, a new voice has recently raised quite a few eyebrows. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in his first report to the Security Council, referred to the necessity of disarming the Lebanese Hezbollah, a known offspring of Iran. Guterres went on to call on all other Lebanese groups to bring an end to their participation in Syria’s war. The UN Secretary-General, in unprecedented tough language, condemned Hezbollah crossing its forces into Syria as a violation of UNSC Resolution 1701. The report also condones Hezbollah’s continuing possession of weapons as a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty and this country’s obligations in the face of UNSC resolutions 1559 (2004) and 1701 (2006).
Iran is also sensing how its Yemen campaign has suffered major setbacks and Saudi-backed coalition taking the initiative in making major advances towards Sanaa, the capital. In a sign of desperate times calling for desperate measures, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen targeted a gathering of coalition forces east of Sanaa by launching Iran-made “Zelzal-1” missiles. This hideous attack resulted in the destruction of a local mosque in the targeted area and leaving at least 26 coalition fighters killed. As Tehran sees its measures failing in the strategic company of Yemen, strategically aimed to send messages to Riyadh, we will unfortunately have to brace for further episodes of heinous crimes against Yemen’s liberating forces and its innocent people.
A welcome turn of events
Unfortunately, Iran enjoyed a passive approach from the Obama administration on Syria, allowing it to plunge the country into flames. However, when asked about Washington’s current view on Syria’s Bashar Assad, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner made remarks that certain caught Iran, as the main supporter of Damascus, off guard to say the least. “We view him as a brutal man who has led his country into this morass. We believe that will be a transition away from Assad, because we don’t believe he can ever be an acceptable leader to all of the Syrian people,” Toner emphasized. “…it’s our opinion, given what he’s wrought, the devastation he’s wrought on his own people. But it needs to be a decision by the Syrian people, and that includes moderate Syrian opposition, on how to transition to a new government. We think one that doesn’t include Assad, obviously, but that’s where we’re at on this. So it’s up to the Syrian people to decide. Our opinion is that he’s not a credible leader.”
A frantic call
To add insult to injury for Iran, the regime is experiencing serious troubles with a high number of casualties in the proxy militias trained and dispatched by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to Syria. A senior Iranian official has desperately pleaded on the government to issue citizenship for Afghan nationals currently fighting under the so-called “Fatemioun Division” flag in Syria. During the past 12 months alone another 2,000 IRGC foot-soldiers from Afghanistan and Pakistan have been killed in Syria and Iraq, according to Mohammad Ali Shahidi Mahalati, head of so-called “Martyrs Foundation”. It is worth noting the Iranian opposition, National Council of Resistance of Iran in July 2016 declared around 15,000 to 20,000 Afghan nationals had been dispatched by the IRGC to Syria. In January Brigadier General Hossein Yekta said 18,000 such Afghan nationals are fighting in Syria under IRGC command.
A quick glance at the above developments brings us to a conclusion of how Iran’s IRGC has a disturbing role in all aspects of the regime’s belligerence across the region. And as the tides are changing against Tehran’s interests, the mullahs are weighing to up the ante on such provocative measures, or wind down the tone. The end result will especially be crucial as the regime finds itself in an extremely weak position before highly sensitive presidential elections in May. This is exactly the right time to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization to impose the utmost pressure on Iran and force it to succumb to the demands of the international community and the Iranian people in bringing an end to its regional warmongering domestic crackdown.
Heshmat Alavi is a political and rights activist. His writing focuses on Iran, ranging from human rights violations, social crackdown, the regime’s support for terrorism and meddling in foreign countries, and the controversial nuclear program. He tweets at @HeshmatAlavi & blogs at IranCommentary.
Iran/United States – Iran said on the 26 Mar 17 it will impose sanctions on 15 US companies for supporting Israel's "terrorist actions" as part of reprisals for the increasing pressure being announced by Washington lawmakers. The decision, which is largely symbolic since the firms do not do business with Iran, come two days after the US announced new sanctions against groups and individuals that it accuses of collaborating with Iran's weapons programme. The sanctions target firms that provide arms and equipment to Israel "for use against the Palestinians", IRNA said. "All transactions with these firms are forbidden, their assets will be seized and their officials will not be able to obtain a visa," it added. The list included defence firms such as United Technologies, Military Armament Corporation and Bushmaster Firearms International, as well as Re/Max Real Estate, which Tehran accuses of "buying and selling homes in settlements located in the occupied territories". In another tit-for-tat move, Iran's parliamentary foreign affairs committee said it would propose a new law labelling the US army and CIA as terrorist groups. The announcement was a response to a new bill put forward by US lawmakers that would see Iran's Revolutionary Guards listed as a terrorist organisation. "The American army is present in numerous regional crises such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen and provides vast support to terrorist groups," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, president of the committee, according to a state television report. Tensions have mounted between Tehran and Washington since US President Donald Trump took office in January. Trump has repeatedly criticised a July 2015 deal between Iran and world powers that saw the Islamic republic curb its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. Washington last month imposed new sanctions on individuals and companies supporting Iran's ballistic missile programme and on its elite Revolutionary Guards. On Friday, it announced the latest sanctions against entities accused of collaborating with the weapons programmes of Iran and North Korea.
Iran/United States – Iran's central bank said on the 26 Mar 17 it will appeal Luxembourg's decision to freeze $1.6 billion of its assets, which the US is claiming as compensation for victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The bank also said it would take steps to curb its remaining transactions in dollars, which it still receives particularly for oil sales. In response to fresh US sanctions announced since last month, "Iran has sought to limit its dependence on the dollar... this policy will continue," the bank said in a statement published by state media. A Luxembourg court last week denied Tehran's request to retrieve the $1.6 billion frozen in the country during an earlier raft of sanctions targeting Iran's nuclear programme. US lawyers are hoping to seize the money to pay off the families and estates of victims from the 2001 attacks, after a New York judge ruled Iran was partially responsible because it allowed Al-Qaeda members to travel through its territory. Iran rejects the accusation and demands the return of the money, which is frozen in the Clearstream clearing house, a financial company based in Luxembourg. A separate case is being heard in Luxembourg to decide whether the money will be released to the US. Billions of dollars in Iranian assets were frozen in the US and Europe as part of efforts to push Tehran into a nuclear deal with world powers, which was finally signed in July 2015. Some Iranian assets remain frozen despite the deal, in part due to ongoing compensation cases -- not just for the 2001 attacks but also the bombing of a US Marines barracks in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 Americans. The US Supreme Court ruled last year that $2.1 billion frozen in a Citibank account in New York should be given to the US victims of the 1983 bombing -- a verdict Iran is contesting at the International Court of Justice.
Iran/United States/Yemen – United States President Donald Trump’s administration has warned Iran again over its financial and material support of Houthis in Yemen and reiterated the danger the militias are posing to international waters over the control of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The warnings came Army General Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee on the 29 Mar 17 that the US does not want Yemen to be used as a sanctuary for attacks against the US. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, a strategic passage for world trade. "I am extraordinarily concerned about another contested maritime chokepoint in the region," Votel said, referring to tensions with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz. His warnings to Congress comes just days after White House officials confirmed that the Trump administration are mulling US actions in Yemen, specifically against Houthi militias to liberate the strategic al-Hudaydah port. Reports in recent weeks also pointed out the Iranian intelligences sources who have helped Houthi militias recalibrate their missiles to reach further distances, increasing the chances of attacks on Saudi soil from the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
Iran/United States – Iran is continuing to behave as an exporter of terrorism and still sponsors militant activity, U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis said in London on the 31 Mar 17. Asked about comments Mattis made in 2012 that the three primary threats the United States faced were “Iran, Iran, Iran,” Mattis told reporters that Iran’s behaviour had not changed in the years since. “At the time when I spoke about Iran I was a commander of US central command and that (Iran) was the primary exporter of terrorism, frankly, it was the primary state sponsor of terrorism and it continues that kind of behaviour today,” Mattis said. Mattis’ statement comes just days after US President Donald Trump’s administration warned Iran again over its financial and material support of Houthis in Yemen and reiterated the danger the militias are posing to international waters over the control of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Reports in recent weeks suggested Iranian sources have helped Houthi militias recalibrate their missiles to reach further distances, increasing the chances of attacks on Saudi soil from the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
Iraq – A car bomb blast killed at least 23 people and wounded more than 45 others in a mainly Shiite district in southern Baghdad on the 20 Mar 17 police and medical sources said. The explosion occurred on a busy commercial street, the sources said. The blast happened at around 1600 hrs local (1600 hrs GMT) in the busy business district of in the Amil neighbourhood west of the city, sources said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the explosion, which bore all the hallmarks of a suicide attack by Da’esh.
Iraq/United States/Post Da’esh – Iraq is calling for more economic help to ensure areas where ISIS has been defeated can be stabilised it was reported on the 26 Mar 17. The United States and its allies say military victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) is close, but have not come up with a concrete plan to deal with the aftermath. This week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted a meeting with the 68 member states of the global coalition against ISIS. After the meeting, he made a statement praising military advances against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria and underlining the need to prepare for the day after the group has been defeated on the battlefield. “Soon, our efforts in Iraq and Syria will enter a new phase defined by transition from major military operations to stabilisation,” Tillerson said at the gathering in Washington, his first major international conference since taking office last month. “We will pursue regional diplomatic solutions for the underlying political and sectarian disputes that helped ISIS to flourish,” he said. But there were no details of how such solutions might be achieved. Three major players — Syria, Russia and Iran — were not represented at the conference in Washington. Tillerson called for “interim zones of stability” to shelter civilians but did not spell out where those protection areas could be set up. Both the Syrian and the Russian governments have said they are against the creation of safe zones on Syrian territory. The conference came as ISIS was on the defensive in the Iraqi city of Mosul and in northern Syria, where American-backed fighters have been training for an attack on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS’s caliphate. According to the conference statement, jihadists have lost 60% of the Iraqi territory they conquered when their fighters stormed through eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014. Iraq, a crucial US partner in the fight against ISIS, is calling for more economic help to ensure areas where ISIS has been defeated can be stabilised. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who met US President Donald Trump before the ISIS conference, said the new US administration was ready to step up support for Baghdad’s fight against the militants, but warned that long-term economic and financial assistance to rebuild shattered Iraqi cities was key to a stable future. “I think they’re prepared to do more to fight terrorism and be more engaged,” Abadi said after meeting Trump in the White House. The meeting was the first the Iraqi leader had with the new US president, who promised to swiftly defeat ISIS during the election campaign last year. Abadi made it clear that he did not think there was a quick fix to the problem. “Committing troops is one thing,” the prime minister said in a speech after his meeting with Trump at the United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan Washington think-tank created by the US Congress. “Fighting terrorism is another thing. You don’t defeat terrorism by fighting it militarily. There are better ways,” Abadi said. He said he would like “more funds” to bring services and stable conditions to people in areas from which ISIS had been driven out. This strategy was crucial to winning over Sunni Iraqis after ISIS was gone, Abadi said. Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programmes at the Institute of Peace, said Abadi was hoping for US assistance in training Iraqi troops and for US military help in logistical and intelligence support. “Abadi thinks American troops on the ground are not necessary,” Hamasaeed said. Economic help was also on Abadi’s mind in Washington. Given that Iraq’s economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports and is suffering in an era of low oil prices, the prime minister is hoping that the US and its Western allies will step up their financial efforts. Some participants in the Washington conference voiced disappointment about the absence of a strategy that they had hoped would be presented by the Trump administration. “I was hoping for more specifics,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, according to news reports. CNN quoted a senior Arab diplomat as saying that “right now it’s about short-term tactical moves”. The diplomat added that a comprehensive strategy would have to also take into account Iran, which is seen as a major threat by Sunni Arab countries. One of the difficulties in arriving at a major strategy is that conditions in the region do not allow for a one-size-fits-all solution. “There’s the need, there’s what the US and its allies are able and willing to do, and then there’s reality,” Hamasaeed said. In Iraq, the United States and its allies can build on an internationally recognised government and the UN-administered Funding Facility for Immediate Stabilisation to channel money into projects such as restoring basic services to people in areas where ISIS has been defeated. But in Syria, the ongoing fighting, the widespread international rejection of the government in Damascus and a lack of consensus among allies mean that talk of stabilisation is premature at best. In northern Syria, Turkey is competing for control with Syrian Kurds, another important US partner. Those difficulties are becoming more pronounced as the anti- ISIS alliance is preparing an attack on Raqqa. “If you push ISIS out of Raqqa, then what happens?” Hamasaeed asked. “This is a big problem.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul. This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly
Iraq/Da’esh – Suicide bomber detonates explosives-rigged vehicle at Baghdad checkpoint killing at least 14, injuring more than 36. At least 14 people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle at an entrance to Baghdad, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group, officials said on the 30 Mar 17. The blast, which hit the checkpoint at the main southern entrance to the city on the night of the 29 Mar 17 also wounded at least 36 people, the officials said. IS issued a statement claiming the attack, saying it was carried out by a suicide bomber driving a truck "carrying several tonnes of explosive material."
Iraq – A suicide bomber blew up a car killing one and wounding four in Iraq’s Rutbah province, west of Anbar on the 31 Mar 17. Security sources revealed that the suicide bomber detonated the explosives-rigged car at an Iraqi army search checkpoint AlSakar district north of Rutbah province which led to the death of one soldier and wounding of 4 others.
Israel/Hamas – A high-ranking member of the Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas, has strongly condemned the assassination of military commander Mazen Fuqahaa in the southern part of Gaza City, stating that there seems to be a strong possibility of a new military confrontation with the Tel Aviv regime. “The Israeli enemy operates a number of spies and mercenaries in the Gaza Strip, whom we will hopefully get rid of. A major operation must get underway in order to identify all those responsible for the recent criminal act,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas, said as thousands of people attended Fuqahaa’s funeral on the 25 Mar 17 and called for “revenge.” He said Hamas enjoys a vast array of means and mechanisms to give Israel a befitting response over the targeted killing of Fuqahaa, stressing that the resistance movement will not take a knee-jerk decision. “There is no ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, meaning that the two sides are technically at war. The flames of a confrontation could ignite anytime,” Zahar said. Israel has launched several wars on the Palestinian sliver, the last of which began in early July 2014. The Israeli military aggression, which ended on August 26 the same year, killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians. Over 11,100 others were also wounded in the war. Ismail Haniyeh, a senior leader of Hamas, also vowed that the Palestinians will continue the spirited resistance against the Israeli regime.Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, denounced Fuqahaa’s assassination in a statement, holding Israeli authorities fully responsible for the 38-year-old’s death. “The Israeli regime is the architect of the latest criminal act. The Israeli enemy seeks to impose its equation of terror through targeted killing of our brave resistance fighters. We will abort such attempts though. The occupier regime of al-Quds will eventually regret its conduct. They should know that if you play with fire, you get burned,” the statement read. Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, promised retaliation for Fuqahaa’s assassination. “If the enemy thinks that this assassination will change the power balance, then it should know the minds of Qassam will be able to retaliate in kind,” he said. Unknown assailants opened fire at Fuqahaa at the entrance to a residence in the Tal al-Hawa neighbourhood of Gaza City on the night of the 24 Mar 17. They shot four bullets into the man’s head before they fled the area. Izzat al-Rishq, a member of Hamas' political bureau, said the assassination was carried out with a gun equipped with a silencer. Hezbollah condemns assassination of Hamas commander. The Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah also condemned the assassination of Fuqahaa. Hezbollah said the despicable act of terror bears the hallmarks of those carried out by the Israeli regime. Fuqahaa, who descended from the northern occupied West Bank district of Tubas, was released in 2011 along with more than 1,000 other Palestinians in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas had held captive in Gaza for five years.
Lebanon/Hezbollah/United States – US authorities arrested a long-wanted alleged Hezbollah financier 24 Mar 17 on charges of violating US terror-related sanctions, after he was apparently deported to the United States from Morocco. Kassim Tajideen was formally charged in US federal court in Washington nearly eight years after the United States named him a “specially designated global terrorist” for allegedly proving tens of millions of dollars to the Lebanese Shiite movement. He was charged with multiple counts of violating US terrorism sanctions regulations as well as money laundering. According to multiple media reports, Tajideen was arrested on arrival in Casablanca on the 12 Mar 17 on a request by US authorities. He arrived in the United States early on the 24 Mar 17 but the Justice Department would not confirm that he had been handed over to the United States by Morocco. Tajideen, 62, pleaded innocent to the charges, according to a Justice Department statement. A commodities trader across the Middle East and Africa, Tajideen was given the terror finance designation in May 2009, which carries sanctions that largely locked him out of global financial networks. The designation named him an “important financial contributor” to Hezbollah. “Because of his support for Hezbollah, a major international terrorist group, the US government imposed sanctions on Kassim Tajideen in 2009 that barred him from doing business with US individuals and companies,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco said in a statement. But the charges unveiled did not accuse him of any recent provision of financial support to Hezbollah. Instead, he was accused of restructuring his business organization after the 2009 designation in order to evade the sanctions and continue doing business with US companies. That included buying commodities from US exporters and making wire transfers payments for them worth a total of $27 million. The US firms involved in those transactions were unaware they were involved with him, the charges said. Writing about Tajideen on the 23 Mar 17 Hanin Ghaddar and Sarah Feuer of the Washington Institute think tank said Tajideen remained an important backer of Hezbollah. “In addition to the revenues he secured for Hezbollah, his company Tajco has been involved in a number of residential projects located in strategic areas of Lebanon,” they said. Ghaddar and Feuer said that although Morocco would not confirm that Washington had asked for his arrest, “such cooperation would be in keeping with Morocco’s emergence as a key counterterrorism partner in recent years.”
Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the 16 Mar 17 met with US Defence Secretary James Mattis and discussed US-Saudi military cooperation in the fight against ISIS, the Pentagon said in a statement. Mohammed bin Salman, who is also Saudi Arabia’s defence minister, also discussed with Secretary Mattis the challenge of “confronting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities,” the statement said. According to reports, the two sides discussed several strategic issues, ranging from the Iranian interference in the region and other challenges facing the Middle East. According to reports the meeting lasted over three hours and that an atmosphere of consensus developed between the two parties. The meeting was held in the presence of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, the National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, the President’s senior counsellor for economic initiatives Dina Powel, the White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and senior defence and foreign ministry officials. From the Saudi side, the meeting was attended by Dr. Moussaed al-Aiban, Minister of State and Member of the Cabinet, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Intelligence Chief Khalid al-Humaidan, Assistant Defence Minister Gen. Mohammed al-Ayesh, advisors at the Royal Court Saud al-Qahtani and Fahd Tunissi, Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs at the Foreign Ministry Thamer al-Sabhan and advisor to the Saudi defence minister Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri. When asked by the journalists, Prince Mohammed said that Saudi Arabia is ready to send its troops to Syria as the country would do all it takes to eradicate terrorism. He also stressed on the historic ties between Saudi Arabia and the United Stated, adding that the collaboration between the two countries was very positive. Prince Mohammed said that Saudi Arabia is in the front row in terms of combating terrorism, adding that his country is the most to suffer from extremists. He added that they are very optimistic about Trump’s presidency, saying that he is confident that challenges will be well-managed with the Trump administration. 361 COMMENT: Although the Kingdom has stated that it would be in a position to send troops to Syria this could end up in another proxy war between Iran who supports Assad and the Shias who live there and the Kingdoms Sunni Government. The end of the war in Syria would then be a long way off and would involve others. There appears to be sufficient nations and military assistance already in the area without adding more and starting a fresh bout of fighting. There are already problems on the horizon with the Kurds and the Iranians in Iraq to fuel more problems. COMMENT ENDS
Syrian Kurds/Russia – Russia's military will train Kurdish forces in Syria, a spokesman said on the 20 Mar 17 in the first agreement of its kind with the militia that controls large parts of the country's north. The move by Russia, a long-time ally of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, is likely to anger Turkey, which considers the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to be a "terrorist" group. "An agreement was signed between our units and Russian forces operating in Syria that will train us in modern military tactics," YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said. "This is the first agreement of its kind, although we have had previous cooperation (with the Russians) in Aleppo city," he said. Russian forces were already present at the training camp in the Afrin region, one of the three "autonomous" cantons that Kurdish authorities manage in northern Syria, Xelil said. The deal, which Xelil said was part "of the framework of the fight against terrorism," was signed on the 19 Mar 17 and came into force on the 20 Mar 17. The YPG makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters that has seized swathes of territory from the Islamic State group in northern Syria. The SDF receives equipment, weapons and air support from the US-led coalition, and is backed by several hundred Western special operations forces in an advisory role. Russia, meanwhile, is a long-term backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but had recently worked closely with rebel supporter Turkey to try to end the six-year war in Syria.
Syria/Da’esh – Fighting at a dam held by the Islamic State jihadist group in northern Syria put it out of service on the 26 Mar 17 risking dangerous rising water levels, a technical source said. A Kurdish-Arab alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is battling to take Tabqa dam and nearby Tabqa town from IS before advancing on the jihadist group's de facto Syrian capital Raqa. But a source at the dam said that the fighting had damaged its power station, forcing a halt to operations on the 26 Mar 17. "Shelling on the area that supplies that dam with electricity has put it out of service," the source said. "The work needed to fix the problem is not possible because there is not sufficient staff available as a result of the intensive shelling in the area of the dam," he added. "If the problem is not fixed, it will begin to pose a danger to the dam." The source could not confirm what kind of shelling damaged the power station, but there has been heavy fighting nearby as well as air raids by the US-led coalition against IS in support of SDF fighters in the area. SDF spokesman Talal Sello insisted there was no imminent danger to the dam, which is Syria's largest and sits on the Euphrates river. "There have been no air strikes on the dam," he said. SDF forces were helicoptered behind IS lines last week by US forces to begin their assault on the dam, which is around 35 miles (55 kilometres) west of Raqa. "We carried out this operation to land there to avoid shelling or damage to the dam," Sello said. SDF fighters reached one of the entrances of the dam on the 24 Mar 17 battling IS in clashes in which jihadists had been killed and wounded. But the dam remains under IS control, with SDF progress being hampered by the exposed nature of the terrain, which is also heavily mined, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said. IS issued warnings through its propaganda agency Amaq warning the dam "is threatened with collapse at any moment because of American strikes and a large rise in water levels." But the source at the dam said there had not yet been significant water level increases, though he acknowledged levels would rise if the facility remained out of service. Earlier this month, the UN's humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said water levels in the Euphrates had risen 10 metres (33 feet) since late January, in part from heavy rainfall and snow. But it warned that damage to the dam "could lead to massive scale flooding across Raqa and as far away as Deir Ezzor" province to the southeast. Any further rises in the water level or damage to the Tabqa dam "would have catastrophic humanitarian implications in all areas downstream", the UN warned. More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since its conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
Syria/al-Qaeda – Some analysts believe that a reconstituted al-Qaeda is now stronger than it has ever been. Syrian rebel forces led by a swelling jihadist alliance built around al-Qaeda’s increasingly powerful affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, are pressing the Damascus regime in an offensive that triggered fierce fighting in the capital and in strategic Hama province. The high-profile assaults by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, an alliance stitched together by al-Qaeda, began in Damascus on March 11th, took the government by surprise and demonstrated to President Bashar Assad that even though his Russian and Iranian allies have saved his 45-year-old dynasty from collapse, the rebels can still strike at the heart of his regime. Some analysts, most prominenty Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, believe that a reconstituted al-Qaeda is now stronger than it has ever been. This is largely due to the upheaval wrought by the Syrian war, which allowed the organisation to recover from the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and from being usurped by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 and then embed itself with the anti-Assad opposition. “Al-Qaeda’s Syrian representatives have been relentless and patient in pursuing their long-term objective: A merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella,” Lister observed in a March analysis published by Foreign Policy. “With a majority of armed opposition groups holding back on the battlefield due to ongoing attempts to reach a political settlement, HTS’s insistence on remaining militarily active and in striking back hard at the heart of the regime is buying it invaluable popular credibility. “Given the very real possibility that substantive international support for anti-Assad operations may soon be a thing of the past, HTS is presenting itself as the only sustainable model for continuing the fight that so many Syrians began in March 2011. “Barring a major geopolitical shift, it is hard to see a future that does not give HTS more opportunities to exploit its advantages,” Lister noted. The offensive by HTS, which was put together by al-Qaeda in Jan 17 to challenge the regime after its battlefield success courtesy of Russia and Iran, began on February 25th with an assault in war-devastated Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Teams of attackers burst into two security buildings where suicide bombers detonated their explosive belts – one of them killing Major- General Hassan Daabul, a senior security chief close to Assad. Independent press reports said more than 40 people were killed and 50 wounded. On March 11th, two bombings in a Shia district of the Old City of Damascus killed another 74 people and wounded 120 more, one of the bloodiest attacks inside the heart of the capital. Four days later, as the Syrian war entered its seventh year, 31 people were killed in a suicide bombing of the Palace of Justice, the main courthouse in the capital. Another 28 people, mostly women and children, were wounded when a bomber struck a popular restaurant. The jihadists struck again in east Damascus on March 19th, when two suicide bombers driving explosive-packed vehicles led an assault on the Jobar district in what was seen as the rebels’ boldest assault on the city for several years. The attackers used tunnels under the city to infiltrate into government-held districts and advance into the neighbouring Abbasid Square in the heart of a city where Assad has striven to maintain a veneer of normality. The rebels were driven back under a ferocious aerial bombardment. They responded on March 22nd by attacking in Hama province in central Syria, a critical sector for Assad because it separates rebel forces in jihadist-controlled Idlib province from Damascus to the south. HTS was joined by other groups, including the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman, part of the western-backed Free Syrian Army whose affiliates have been increasingly allying themselves with al-Qaeda. These assaults were a far cry from an all-out offensive aimed at securing territory. But the attacks concentrated on targets that symbolise the regime’s authority and presumably intended to show that al-Qaeda, in whatever guise it cloaks itself, is still a power to be reckoned with and can mount major operations to exploit the inherent weakness of Assad’s military. By attacking high-profile targets, such as state security facilities in Homs and the Palace of Justice in the capital, HTS, with its emphasis on Syrian nationalism rather than jihadist ideology, is also seeking to appeal to ordinary citizens to join it in toppling a long-discredited regime. The recent attacks spearheaded by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have badly jolted the minority regime just as it was starting to feel secure after its foreign allies reconquered Syria’s major population centres and other strategic territory. Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor. This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.
Syria – A bomb blast hit a passenger bus in the government-held city of Homs at noon on the 29 Mar 17 killing five people and wounding six, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, also said that at least five people were killed in the attack. SANA’s correspondent in Homs said the bombing, which it said was carried out by terrorists, targeted a small passenger bus which was in a street in al-Zahra neighbourhood. The agency quoted the Homs health director as saying the bombing killed 5 people and wounded 6. Government-held cities have been hit by a series of bombings in recent weeks, including in Homs, where an attack that included blasts and shooting killed dozens of people in Feb 17 including a senior security official. After some of the attacks in recent weeks the militant group Tahrir al-Sham, whose main component is al Qaeda’s former Syrian branch Nusra Front, said it had been behind the blasts. Analysts have predicted that as rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad suffer military reverses, they will increasingly turn to guerrilla-style attacks in territory controlled by the government.
Syria/United States – The United States has said that it is no longer focused on ousting President Bashar al-Assad as it seeks a new strategy to end Syria's civil war. American officials have been shifting away from their former insistence that he must go for some time, but now they have made it explicit. In New York on the 30 Mar 17 the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley condemned Assad's history of human rights abuses against his own people. But she said Washington would focus on working with powers like Turkey and Russia to seek a political settlement, rather than focusing on Assad. "You pick and choose your battles," Haley told reporters. "And when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out." Shortly after Haley briefed a small group of journalists, US officials tried to clarify her comments. A US mission said that while the US does not believe that Assad is a legitimate leader of Syria, his future is not the country's only concern. The official said the US is also very interested in trying to create the conditions so that the Syrian people themselves can pick their new government, one without Assad. Other objectives of the US in Syria are to get rid of the threat from ISIL and to curb Iranian influence, the official said. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also addressed the future of Assad at a news conference in Turkey. "I think the... longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people," Tillerson said, standing alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The comment reflected language long used by Assad's ally Russia, whose assistance Washington is courting. The Syrian opposition, whose cooperation will be needed in any negotiated solution, reacted furiously to the US shift in stance. "The opposition will never accept any role for Bashar al-Assad at any phase," said Monzer Makhos, a spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, which represents the opposition in negotiations over Syria's war. "There will be no change in our position," he warned. Under Barack Obama's administration, the US made Assad's departure a key goal, but new president Donald Trump has put the accent on defeating the Islamic State of Iraq of the Levant group. "Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done? Who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria," Haley said. "We can't necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he's a hindrance? Yes," she said. "Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No." Previously, the United States has stuck by a UN-backed peace plan that would see Assad "transition" from office while an interim government is formed. Tillerson is due in Moscow next month for talks with Russian leaders, and Trump has long argued the powers should work together against ISIL. US-backed forces are closing in on the group's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, laying the groundwork for an assault on the city.
Yemen/al-Qaeda – A drone strike killed four suspected members of Al Qaeda in south Yemen on the 29 Mar 17 a security official said, as the United States intensifies air raids on jihadists in the war-torn country. Two missiles hit a vehicle on the outskirts of the town of Mudiyah in Abyan province, killing all four people inside, the official said. The raid comes two weeks after US President Donald Trump's administration reportedly gave the CIA new powers to conduct drone strikes against extremist targets in the Middle East. Since the 2 Mar 17 the US has launched dozens of strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula targets in Abyan and the neighbouring provinces of Shabwa and Baida. In the first three days of the strikes at least 22 suspected AQAP fighters were killed, security officials and tribal sources have said. More than two years of civil war in Yemen between government forces and Shiite rebels who control the capital have created a power vacuum which AQAP has exploited to consolidate its presence in the south and east. Washington regards AQAP as the jihadist network's most dangerous arm and says that in recent months it has been plotting attacks on the West.