Stop funding for Kerry’s climate office over alleged intel-sharing with Iran, GOP senators say

Stop funding for Kerry’s climate office over alleged intel-sharing with Iran, GOP senators say

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Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry listens during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, May 10, 2021

Four Republican senators on Monday called for a freeze on funding for State Department official John Kerry‘s new climate-change initiative until the former secretary of state answers questions about his alleged intelligence-sharing with Iran.

In a letter to Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the GOP lawmakers said Mr. Menendez should hold up $2.5 million in taxpayer money to establish Mr. Kerry‘s “office of the special presidential envoy for climate” inside the State Department.

The money should be frozen, they said, until Mr. Kerry provides a detailed accounting of his interactions with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said in a recent leaked audiotape that Mr. Kerry shared with him secret information about Israeli military activity.

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“Several Republican senators have called for an investigation into the veracity and context of the allegations against Kerry, and for his resignation or firing if the allegations are confirmed. However, Congress has limited leverage to ensure that these legitimate requests are addressed by the Biden administration,” wrote Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Marco Rubio of Florida and Todd Young of Indiana, all members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The senators said the $2.5 million should be held up until Mr. Kerry provides a list of all meetings, phone calls, and other interactions with Mr. Zarif from January 2017 to January of this year, along with copies of all digital communications related to Israeli military activity. They also said Mr. Kerry must provide a sworn statement “that he did not divulge classified information to Foreign Minister Zarif.”

Mr. Menendez and his colleagues in the Democrat-controlled Senate are unlikely to agree to the request, but the Republican senators’ letter puts renewed public pressure on Mr. Kerry for his seemingly close working relationship with Mr. Zarif, a key figure in the Iranian regime.

Last month, the London-based Iran International media outlet and the New York Times released leaked audio of Mr. Zarif discussing the power of Iranian military officials in his country.

As an example of how he’s often kept in the dark by the military, Mr. Zarif said that he learned from Mr. Kerry the true extent of Israel’s air campaign against Iran-backed militias in Syria. Mr. Zarif said that Mr. Kerry told him Israel had conducted more than 200 covert airstrikes against Iranian targets.

Mr. Kerry has denied ever having such a conversation.

“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was secretary of state or since,” he said in a Twitter post last month.

State Department officials also have sought to downplay the charges of intelligence-sharing and have pointed to a September 2018 public acknowledgment of the 200 airstrikes by the Israeli government.

But there are major unanswered questions about the timing of the alleged Kerry-Zarif conversation.

Mr. Kerry has admitted to meeting with Mr. Zarif at least twice after leaving his post as secretary of state in January 2017 and prior to former President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The first public disclosure of Israel’s 200 airstrikes in Syria appears to have come in September 2018.

The four Republican senators said neither Mr. Kerry nor the State Department have adequately explained the matter.

“Those defenses are not tenable,” they wrote in their letter to Mr. Menendez.

19 GOP senators call for investigation into John Kerry’s alleged intel-sharing with Iran

GOP senators call for probe of Kerry’s alleged intel-sharing with Iran

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Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry listens during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Claims that John Kerry fed secrets about Israeli military strikes to top Iranian officials must be investigated and, if proven true, should lead to the immediate dismissal of Mr. Kerry from his post as the State Department’s climate envoy, 19 Republican senators said Thursday.

In a letter to President Biden, the group of GOP lawmakers said the White House should begin an investigation immediately. And in the interim, they said that Mr. Kerry — who served as secretary of state under former President Obama — should temporarily lose access to all sensitive government information.

“Secretary Kerry has a long history of employing transactional diplomacy against the best interests of the United States or our allies — often trading long-term national security for a flawed short-term political agenda — which has ultimately endangered our allies and emboldened our enemies,” the senators said.

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“The most recent egregious allegation … is reason alone to remove Secretary Kerry from your administration,” they wrote in the letter.

The firestorm facing Mr. Kerry stems from his relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an English-speaking diplomat who worked closely with Mr. Kerry in crafting the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal put limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

In a recently leaked audiotape, Mr. Zarif said that Mr. Kerry once told him that Israel had conducted more than 200 covert airstrikes against Iran-backed militias stationed in Syria.

Mr. Kerry denied ever having such a conversation.

“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was secretary of state or since,” he said in a Twitter post earlier this week.

The timing of the alleged Kerry-Zarif conversation is important. Israeli officials acknowledged in September 2018 that they had carried out 200 airstrikes in Syria.

Mr. Kerry has admitted to meeting with Mr. Zarif at least twice after leaving his post as secretary of state in January 2017. Mr. Zarif did not provide a date of when the conversation supposedly occurred.

Republican lawmakers have called for congressional hearings to get answers to that question and a host of others.

They’re also cautioning the Biden administration to exercise caution as it pursues new diplomatic talks with Tehran about resurrecting the JCPOA, which former President Trump exited in 2018. If Mr. Zarif is lying about his conversation with Mr. Kerry, they said, the administration should not trust the Iranian regime to honor its commitments.

“If proven false, this narrative is yet further proof that Iranian officials are dishonest brokers and we ask that your administration be mindful of this as you continue discussions on the future of U.S. posture towards Iran, the 19 senators wrote.

John Kerry denies sharing secret intelligence with Iran as calls for resignation grow

John Kerry denies sharing secret intelligence with Iran as calls for resignation grow

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Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) ** FILE ** more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

State Department climate envoy John Kerry late Monday denied reports that he shared information about covert Israeli military strikes with top Iranian officials, with the former secretary of state trying to blunt growing calls for his resignation from leading Republicans.

In a brief Twitter post Monday evening, Mr. Kerry pushed back on claims that he told Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about at least 200 Israeli strikes against Iran-backed militia targets inside Syria. 

“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was secretary of state or since,” Mr. Kerry said. 

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The reports originated with leaked audio of Mr. Zarif speaking with an Iranian journalist for a government-sponsored Iran history project. Mr. Zarif expressed “astonishment” at the revelation of hundreds of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, according to The New York Times, which reviewed the audiotape that was first released by the London-based Iran International media outlet.

Iranian officials have not denied the authenticity of the recordings but have said they were selectively edited. 

Republicans say that the revelations, if true, should lead to Mr. Kerry’s resignation.

“If this is true, I certainly hope other members of this body, Democrats and Republicans, will join me in calling for the resignation of John Kerry. Enough is enough,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said on the Senate floor. “The red line that was crossed, if this is true, revealing secret information to one of America’s most sworn enemies, with the blood of thousands of American military members on its hands, undermining the interests of one of our most important allies, the state of Israel, if this is true, John Kerry needs to go.”

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif appear to have had a working relationship for years. The two men worked closely together crafting the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Even after Mr. Kerry left the State Department and former President Trump came to power in January 2017, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif remained in contact. By Mr. Kerry’s own admission, they met in person several times, though Mr. Kerry has denied that there was anything inappropriate about their discussions.

But that’s not enough for Republicans who say it’s clear the former Massachusetts senator is far too close with top Iranian officials.

“This is disgusting on many levels,” tweeted Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration. 

President Biden “and Kerry have to answer for why Kerry would be tipping off Iran, the number one sponsor of terror, while stabbing one of our greatest partners, Israel, in the back,” she said. 

Syria rights group urges world to reject presidential vote

Syria rights group urges world to reject presidential vote

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FILE – In this May 12, 2014 file photo, campaign posters for the upcoming presidential election adorn a street in Damascus, Syria. On Monday April 26, 2021, the Paris-based Syrian Network for Human Rights called on the international community to … more >

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By SARAH EL DEEB

Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) – A leading Syrian rights group Monday called on the international community to reject next month’s presidential elections because they will take place under the rule of President Bashar Assad, who is implicated in war crimes.

Paris-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, describing the elections as a sham, said the vote was scheduled by Assad’s government in violation of a U.N.-charted path toward a political resolution to the decade-old war.

According to the 2015 resolution, presidential elections should take place only after drafting a new constitution that allows for a free and competitive vote.

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“What is the point then of a (U.N.-backed) political track?” said the rights group’s director, Fadel Abdul-Ghany. “The regime has totally torpedoed the U.N. Security Council resolution. The world must stress these elections are illegitimate.”

The election will be the second since the country’s civil war broke out 10 years ago. It is to be held May 26 with Syrians abroad voting May 20.

The rights group noted that international investigators have found that Assad and his forces have committed war crimes against civilians, including the use of chemical weapons on several occasions.

The findings by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have been contested by Assad and his allies, who deny his government has used them against civilians.

Meanwhile, U.N. talks have been bogged down because Assad enjoys the support of veto-yielding nations Russia and China in the Security Council, as well as Iran.

Syrian Network for Human Rights said crimes against Syrians continue.

Since Assad was elected to his last 7-year term in 2014, nearly 48,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the conflict, including more than 8,000 children. More than 44,000 are still forcibly disappeared, according to SNHR, which shares its data with the U.N.

So far, over two dozen candidates have applied to compete in next month’s elections. Abdul-Ghany said none of them represents real competition for Assad. According to the 2012 constitution, candidates must have lived in Syria for the last 10 years, which effectively bars any opposition candidate from running against him. It also requires that parliament – stacked with members of Assad’s ruling party – approve those eligible to run.

The armed conflict has subsided but Syria remains torn. Thousands of foreign troops are based in different parts of the country and over 30% of the territory, with at least 7 million people, is outside of Assad’s control.

Elections are not going to take place in at least four provinces, said Abdul-Ghany, because they are under control of the opposition and Kurdish forces.

“Is he going to be president of (only) parts of Syria?” he said, referring to Assad.

A gift to Damascus: 150,000 COVID-19 Chinese vaccines

A gift to Damascus: 150,000 COVID-19 Chinese vaccines

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By ALBERT AJI

Associated Press

Saturday, April 24, 2021

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – The Syrian government received the first batch of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines on Saturday, a gift of 150,000 jabs to Damascus, Syrian and Chinese officials said.

The Chinese vaccines arrived in Damascus airport where they were received by Syria’s Health Minister Hassan Ghabbash and China’s ambassador to Damascus.

The Chinese batch comes a few days after more than 200,000 jabs were delivered to Syria through the United Nations-led platform which provides vaccines to the needy.

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The new jabs are likely to speed up the inoculation campaign in the war-torn country where a battered health sector has been overwhelmed by the pandemic, and where infections have been on the rise.

Syria was the last country in the Middle East and North Africa to receive the UN-supported jabs, the first batch arriving this week.

UN officials say the quantities are limited and have appealed for more funding and vaccines to help stem the spread of the virus in the country reeling from years of conflict and growing economic hardships.

The UN-provided AstraZeneca vaccines arrived on Wednesday and Thursday. They were part of the UN-led campaign aiming to vaccinate 20% of the country’s population before the end of the year. Frontline workers, the elderly and those with chronic diseases were priority.

The Syrian government has registered nearly 22,000 infection cases, including over 1,500 deaths in areas under its control.

Ghabbash said China has been supporting Syria in the face of the pandemic, first with medical and technical expertise and now with the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm.

“We appreciate this support that will enable the health ministry to fight the spread of this pandemic and to limit its health, social and economic impacts specially in those difficult times that Syria is going through,” Ghabbash said at a press conference.

It is not clear how the Chinese vaccines will be distributed. A second batch of 150,000 Chinese vaccines are expected to arrive soon in Syria, said Chinese Ambassador Feng Biao.

A small batch of vaccines, whose source was unknown, arrived in Damascus in February and was used to vaccinate health care workers mostly who operate in government-controlled areas. The United Arab Emirates has also donated an undetermined batch of vaccines to the Syrian government last week.

In war-torn Syria, the government controls about two-thirds of the territory, with the rest held by opposition fighters and Kurdish factions. Millions have fled the country or been displaced, and the war has killed some half a million people from the pre-war population of 23 million.

Another batch of UN-provided vaccines- some 53,800 jabs- arrived in Syria’s last rebel-held enclave from neighboring Turkey on Wednesday. The first inoculation campaign is due to begin in that territory, home to some 4 million people, on May 1.

Over 21,000 infections and over 640 deaths have been recorded in rebel-held northwestern Syria, while the Kurdish areas in the northeast registered 14,400 cases including 477 deaths.

Denmark tells some Syrians to leave, separating families

Denmark tells some Syrians to leave, separating families

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Faeza Satouf, a Syrian refugee who was granted asylum in Denmark in 2015, talks to The Associated Press during an interview in Nivaa, Denmark, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Ten years after the start of the Syrian civil war, Denmark has … more >

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By DAVID KEYTON

Associated Press

Friday, April 23, 2021

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) – An email brought Faeza Satouf’s world to a standstill.

The 25-year-old Syrian refugee had fled the civil war with her family in an all-too-familiar journey across the sea to Europe, where they finally arrived in Denmark and were granted asylum in 2015. Yet six years later, she was being told she had to go back – alone, and soon.

Ten years after the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Denmark has become the first European country to start revoking the residency permits of some Syrian refugees, arguing that the Syrian capital, Damascus, and neighboring regions are safe. Yet few experts agree with Denmark’s assessment.

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“There are no laws in Syria that can protect me like here in Denmark,” Satouf said with palpable anxiety. “My father is sought after in Syria, so of course I will be arrested upon my return.”

In the past six years, Satouf has learned Danish, graduated from high school with flying colors and is now studying to be a nurse while working in a supermarket. She can’t understand why a country that encouraged integration and which needs nurses amid a pandemic would expel her and others, mainly women.

For now, the decision affects only people from certain areas of Syria who got their initial asylum because they were fleeing civil war. It doesn’t include those who can prove a specific threat to their lives, such as men who could face conscription into Assad’s army.

“This is very much down the line of gender,” said Satouf’s lawyer, Niels-Erik Hansen. “When I have a male client, I will send him right away to the Immigration Service and he will get asylum within three weeks. A female client will get rejected … and we will have to take this case to the refugee board. So when I look into the pile of cases that I’m representing at the board, it’s like 90% women and 10% male.”

Because Denmark has no diplomatic relations with Syria, those who refuse to leave the country cannot be sent to Syria. Instead, they are sent to deportation centers, separated from family, unable to work and withdrawn from education programs.

Single women are likely to be sent to the Kaershovedgaard deportation center, a remote complex of buildings about 300 kilometers (185 miles) west of Copenhagen. Access is strictly limited, but Red Cross photos show rudimentary infrastructure where cooking is banned and activities are restricted. Even Danish language lessons are not allowed.

“It is like a prison, but they are allowed to go out in the daytime,” said Gerda Abildgaard, who has visited the center for several years for the Red Cross.

The policy is the product of a left-wing Social Democratic-led government, whose immigration stance has come to resemble that of far-right parties after years of large migrations peaked in 2015 with 1 million new arrivals in Europe. The large numbers of people coming from Africa and the Middle East energized populist movements across the continent, pushing parties that had a more welcoming position to embrace stricter policies.

It’s a dilemma that Democrats are facing in the U.S., as a surge of young migrants at the Southern border tests President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to accept more refugees than in the Trump era.

Though the numbers of asylum-seekers in Denmark have since plummeted, particularly during the pandemic, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reiterated in January a vision of having “zero asylum-seekers.”

The Danish government argues that it made clear to the Syrians from the beginning that they were being offered only temporary protection.

“It’s a cornerstone of our legislation … that you get temporary protection, and as soon as you don’t need protection anymore, you will have to leave Denmark,” said Rasmus Storklund, a Social Democratic lawmaker and member of Parliament’s Immigration and Integration Committee.

Standing in front of the deportation center’s heavy gates, Abildgaard pleads: “But is Syria safe again? It’s only Denmark who says that. All the other European countries don’t say that. Only Denmark.”

This week, experts who contributed to reports on which the Danish authorities based their assessment condemned that conclusion, warning in a joint statement published by Human Rights Watch that “conditions do not presently exist anywhere in Syria for safe returns.”

In government-controlled areas, including in the suburbs of Damascus and many parts of central Syria previously held by opposition rebels, the security situation has stabilized, but entire neighborhoods are destroyed, and many people have no houses to return to. Basic services such as water and electricity are poor to nonexistent.

Moreover, forced conscription, indiscriminate detentions and forced disappearances continue.

In a borderless European Union, Denmark tightening migration regulations means that people facing deportation may flee to neighboring Sweden or to Germany, which welcomed refugees in past years but where there is little political will now to take more.

“This is also a lack of solidarity with the rest of Europe,” said Hansen, Satouf’s lawyer. “As the first country that starts to withdraw residence permits for these refugees, we are, in fact, pushing people to go to other European countries.”

Denmark‘s approach marks a dramatic transformation of a nation that was the first to sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, and which was long seen as a paragon of openness and tolerance.

“We used to be known as one of the most humanitarian countries in Europe, with a lot of freedom, a lot of respect for human rights,” says Michala Bendixen, the head of Refugees Welcome Denmark, a non-governmental group. Now, she notes, Denmark’s policies look much more like those of countries with hard-line immigration policies, like Hungary.

The ultimate goal, Bendixen believes, is “making it less attractive for refugees and foreigners to arrive in Denmark.”

On Wednesday, hundreds of people gathered in front of parliament to protest the deportation orders, surrounded by Danish friends, classmates and work colleagues.

Addressing the crowd, a nervous Satouf told her story.

Others also spoke: A brother and sister facing separation, siblings whose residence permits were expiring the next day, a high school student surrounded by her Danish classmates, a single woman who couldn’t comprehend how Denmark, with its claim to uphold and defend women’s rights, could be doing this.

“They say I should marry someone who has political asylum to stay here,” said Nevien Alrahal who traveled to Denmark with her elderly father and who faces her final appeal on Friday. “That’s a choice I don’t want to make.”

___

Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.

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This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons … more >

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By

Associated Press

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says that a missile was fired into Israel from neighboring Syria early Thursday and that it has struck targets in Syria in response.

There were no immediate details on whether the missile landed in Israel or was intercepted.

Earlier, air raid sirens sounded in Dimona, home to Israel‘s secretive nuclear reactor, indicating a possible incoming attack.

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President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, walk out of the White House to board Marine One at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then … more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

President Biden said Friday he authorized air strikes against Iranian-backed militia in Syria to send a message that Tehran “can’t act with impunity.”

“You can’t act with impunity,” Mr. Biden told reporters on a trip to Texas. “Be careful.”

U.S. forces on Thursday struck a location in Syria used by Iranian-backed militia groups, in response to recent rocket attacks on American forces in the region.

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U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

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F-15E Strike Eagle from Seymour Johnson AFB N.C., demonstrates its maneuverability at the Charleston Air Expo, Joint Base Charleston S.C., April 9, 2011. The F-15E is a multirole fighter capable of air to surface and air to air combat. (U.S. … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets dropped seven precision-guided munitions Thursday during airstrikes on a remote compound in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militias.

The strikes destroyed nine buildings in a compound along the border and damaged two others, Pentagon officials confirmed on Friday. The mission was in response to recent rocket attacks targeting American and allied forces in Iraq and to defend against ongoing threats from the Kait’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) militant groups.

“This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. 

SEE ALSO: Russia, ally of Syria, fumes at U.S. airstrike against militia group

Mr. Kirby said he couldn’t confirm how many people on the ground were killed or wounded because the battle-damage assessment was still ongoing.

While some lawmakers have complained they didn’t know about the mission until afterwards, Pentagon officials said congressional leadership was notified before the strikes. Individual senators and U.S. representatives along with their staff were being briefed on Friday.

“There will be a full classified briefing early next week,” Mr. Kirby said.

Pentagon officials wouldn’t say where the U.S. mission originated. 

“The targets were chosen carefully — very deliberately — and struck in exactly the same manner,” Mr. Kirby said.

The Biden administration cited Article II of the Constitution — which identifies the president as commander-in-chief of the military — and Article 15 of the U.N. Charter in defending the mission’s legality under domestic and international law. 

“International law gives nations involved in operations the right to self defense,” Mr. Kirby said. “This really was a defensive strike meant to help protect in the future American forces and coalition partners given what we knew about what those structures were used for.”

The compound was a way station for militant groups like KH and KSS traveling from Syria into Iraq, officials said.

“We’re confident that these were legitimate targets that were utilized by groups associated with these recent attacks,” Mr. Kirby said.

The airstrikes were the end result of an investigation conducted by Iraqi military officials that began following a Feb. 13, 2021, barrage that landed three rockets in and around Erbil International Airport. The blast killed a civilian U.S. contractor — not an American citizen — and wounded a U.S. service member.

“It was very much a team effort. (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) was very sincere when he praised our Iraqi partners for the investigative and intelligence work that they did. There was some very good work done on the intelligence side that helped lead to this successful strike,” Mr. Kirby said. “We offered support and assistance. We were able to provide some information to their investigative process that helped.”

While U.S. officials say they’re confident Iran has been supporting the militia groups targeting American troops in Iraq, they said Thursday’s strike also was meant to send a broader message.

“We will defend ourselves. We will protect our interests and certainly act to protect our people and the forces of our allies and partners,” Mr. Kirby said. “That is an unambiguous and clear message to anyone in the region about what the stakes are if you’re going to continue to conduct attacks on our people and the Iraqi people,”

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

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FILE – In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to … more >

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By ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) – A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to Tehran delivered by a new American administration still figuring out its approach to the Middle East.

The strike was seemingly a response to stepped-up rocket attacks by such militias that have targeted U.S. interests in Iraq, where the armed groups are based. It comes even as Washington and Tehran consider a return to the 2015 accord meant to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. appears to have chosen the target, just across the border in Syria rather than in Iraq, carefully. It’s a way for President Joe Biden to signal he will be tough on Iran while avoiding a response that could offset the delicate balance in Iraq itself or trigger a wider confrontation.

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And it’s yet another example of how Syria, mired in civil war for the past decade, has often served as a proxy battlefield for world powers.

WHO ARE THE FORCES TARGETED BY THE US?

The U.S. airstrike – which took place Friday in Syria – targeted one of the most powerful Iran-backed militias in the Middle East known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or the Hezbollah Brigades. The group is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes an array of Iraqi militias.

The group was founded after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It is different from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but the two groups are strong allies. In recent years, Kataeb Hezbollah has played a major role in the fight against the Islamic State group as well as helping President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria’s conflict.

The group was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi militant who was closely allied with Iran and killed in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020 along with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The U.S. has hit the group before: In December 2019, an American strike along the SyriaIraq border killed 25 of its fighters and wounded dozens. Washington called it retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack that it blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah.

___

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR RELATIONS WITH IRAN?

The attack is likely aimed at sending a message to Tehran that the U.S. will not tolerate attacks against American interests in the region, while leaving the door open for talks.

It comes as the Biden administration faces an uncertain road in its attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which gave Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program and that the Trump administration pulled out of.

In the meantime, relations with Iran have been further strained as the country’s proxies become more assertive, with Iran-backed militias increasingly targeting U.S. interests and allies. That has rekindled worries that the standoff relations between the U.S. and Iran could end up being fought out in Iraq.

Already there are signs that Iraq is being used to fight a proxy war. Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched from inside Iraq, a senior Iran-backed militia official in Baghdad and a U.S. official told The Associated Press this week.

___

WILL THIS TRIGGER A WIDER ESCALATION?

That is unlikely at this point.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria does not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region, but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq while also avoiding embarrassing the Iraqi government, a U.S. ally, by striking on its territory.

Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said the operation in Boukamal, Syria, sends an unambiguous message: “President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

A Syrian commentator based in Turkey, Abdulkader Dwehe, said the choice of Syria was a wise one.

“Responding in Iraq could open a front that may be hard to close,” he tweeted following the attack. “With the Boukamal strike, a valuable point, and a political message rather than a military one, have been made.”

___

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF OTHER US PRESIDENTS

In its first weeks, the new Biden administration has emphasized its intent to put its focus on the challenges posed by China – even as volatility and threats to U.S. interests persist in the Middle East.

But the operation proved the region is never far from a U.S. president’s agenda.

By striking Syria, Biden joins every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.

ISIS bride loses bid to return to U.K. to fight for citizenship

ISIS bride loses bid to return to U.K. to fight for citizenship

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This undated photo shows Shamima Begum, one of three east London schoolgirls who traveled to Syria in 2015 to join the Islamic State group. (PA via AP) ** FILE ** more >

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By Danica Kirka

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

LONDON (AP) — A woman who ran away from London as a teenager to join the Islamic State group lost her bid Friday to return to the U.K. to fight for the restoration of her citizenship, which was revoked on national security grounds.

Shamima Begum was one of three east London schoolgirls who traveled to Syria in 2015. She resurfaced at a refugee camp in Syria and told reporters she wanted to come home, but was denied the chance after former Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked her citizenship.

Begum‘s lawyers appealed, saying her right to a fair hearing was harmed by the obstacles of pursuing her case from the camp. The U.K. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Friday that the right to a fair hearing does not trump all other considerations, such as public safety.

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“The appropriate response to the problem in the present case is for the deprivation hearing to be stayed — or postponed — until Ms. Begum is in a position to play an effective part in it without the safety of the public being compromised,” said Justice Robert Reed, the president of the Supreme Court. “That is not a perfect solution, as it is not known how long it may be before that is possible. But there is no perfect solution to a dilemma of the present kind.” 

Javid argued that Begum was Bangladeshi by descent and could go there.

She challenged the decision, arguing she is not a citizen of another country and that Javid’s decision left her stateless.

The human rights group Liberty said the court’s ruling sets “an extremely dangerous precedent.”

“The right to a fair trial is not something democratic governments should take away on a whim, and nor is someone’s British citizenship,” said Rosie Brighouse, a lawyer with Liberty. “If a government is allowed to wield extreme powers like banishment without the basic safeguards of a fair trial, it sets an extremely dangerous precedent.”

UN: Bring home kids from Syria with possible extremist links

UN: Bring home kids from Syria with possible extremist links

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. counter-terrorism chief on Wednesday urged the repatriation of tens of thousands of women and children suspected of links to the Islamic State extremist group, warning that many are being radicalized in deteriorating detention camps in Syria and Iraq.

Vladimir Voronkov told the U.N. Security Council that nearly two years after the defeat of the militant extremists on the ground “some 27,500 foreign children are still in harms way” in camps in northeastern Syria, including about 8,000 from some 60 countries other than Iraq. He said 90% of them are under age 12.

Tragically, Voronkov said, the international community has made “hardly any progress” in addressing the issue of these children and women even though the “challenges and risks are growing more serious with neglect, and could have a long-term impact not just in the region but globally.”

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His call for action was echoed by Jeffrey DeLaurentis, an acting U.S. deputy ambassador who spoke on behalf of President Joe Biden’s new administration. He said Biden is committed to working with the international coalition that the U.S. established in 2014 to rout the Islamic State group from Iraq and Syria, “to ensure this terrorist group is defeated on a lasting and comprehensive basis.”

“We watch with concern as women and children languish in camps in dire conditions with little access to education, increasing the potential for their radicalization,” DeLaurentis said.

He warned that the global threat from Islamic State extremists “will grow if the international community does not repatriate their citizens.”

Voronkov said that “the already dire humanitarian and security situation in the detention facilities and displacement camps is deteriorating even further, especially in Al-Hol camp” in northeastern Syria.

“The most basic of human rights are undermined,” he said. “Many instances of terrorist radicalization, fund-raising training and incitement have been reported.”

According to a report last week from U.N. experts monitoring sanctions against the Islamic State group, there are approximately 65,000 residents in Al-Hol, vastly more than its intended capacity, but the number of guards fell from 1,500 in mid-2019 to 400 in late 2020.

The panel of experts said some 10,000 foreign women and children are in an Al-Hol annex, where some minors “are reportedly being indoctrinated and prepared to become future … operatives” for the Islamic State group.

At another camp in northeastern Syria called Roj, where the conditions are more comfortable but security is “more intrusive and effective,” the panel said the cost of being smuggled out “to a safe destination has been reported at approximately $14,000 compared with between $2,500 and $3,000 from Hol.”

Voronkov told the Security Council that in October the Islamic State group reiterated “that orchestrating jailbreaks and assisting escapees was a priority.”

He commended Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan for bringing home hundreds of children from Syria. He urged other countries, especially in Europe, that have carried out fewer repatriations, to “actively step up their efforts.”

Voronkov also warned that some 10,000 Islamic State fighters, “including foreign terrorist fighters in the low thousands, remain active in the region, the majority of them in Iraq, pursuing a protracted insurgency.”

The panel of experts said an unidentified country estimated in November that there were approximately 11,000 male IS fighters detained in northeastern Syria, including 1,700 from foreign countries, 1,600 Iraqis, 5,000 Syrians and 2,500 “of unknown nationality.” They said 100 male minors were held at the Houri camp.

DHS grants new deportation amnesty to Syrians

DHS grants new deportation amnesty to Syrians

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Syrian refugees walk through a camp for displaced muddied by recent rains near the village of Kafr Aruq , in Idlib province, Syria, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed) more >

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By Stephen Dinan

The Washington Times

Friday, January 29, 2021

Homeland Security announced a new deportation amnesty Friday for Syrians living in the U.S., renewing the status of about 6,700 people already protected, and extending it to cover about 1,800 more Syrians who have become illegal immigrants in recent years.

Acting Secretary David Pekoske announced the move, which flexes what’s known as Temporary Protected Status.

TPS grants a halt of deportations, and allows people to get work permits and some taxpayer benefits, during the duration of the designation. Syria has been designated since 2012, and Mr. Pekoske’s move grants another 18-month window.

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But the key decision was to re-designate the country, which opens the program to Syrians who have arrived and become illegal immigrants since the last open enrollment window.

“The Syrian civil war continues to demonstrate deliberate targeting of civilians, the use of chemical weapons and irregular warfare tactics, and use of child soldiers. The war has also caused sustained need for humanitarian assistance, an increase in refugees and displaced people, food insecurity, limited access to water and medical care, and large-scale destruction of Syria’s infrastructure. These conditions prevent Syrian nationals from safely returning,” Homeland Security said in justifying the move.

TPS has long been controversial, with more than 400,000 people currently protected from 10 countries. Some have been here more than two decades under TPS.

The Trump administration tried to put an end to some of those longest-running designations, such as the 200,000 people from El Salvador. That move was delayed in the courts, and the Biden team is expected to reverse the president’s decision.

Biden officials are also expected to grant new designations to other countries.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Democrats are fighting to grant permanent legal status to most of the 400,000 TPS holders.

President Trump had opposed that effort, and in one now-infamous reported incident referred to some of those nations as “s—-hole” countries.

That comment was cited by courts in several cases halting some of his immigration moves.

Both Republicans and Democrats have called for Venezuela to be designated with TPS to allow people who fled the regime there a chance to remain in the U.S.

Mr. Trump, in his final days, announced another type of short-term deportation amnesty, but not TPS.

Trump efforts to end ‘forever wars’ fall short

Trump’s efforts to end ‘forever wars’ only reshuffles deployed troops

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On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that more than 5,000 sailors and Marines with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group are headed home after a 10-month deployment. They had been in Somalia. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ruano/Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, December 31, 2020

President Trump in early December ordered the withdrawal of the roughly 700 U.S. troops stationed in Somalia to battle the al-Shabaab terror network, a key milestone in his drive to end American military involvement in what he dubbed foreign “endless wars.”

Less than three weeks later, however, the Pentagon dispatched 5,000 fresh sailors and Marines off the coast of the Horn of Africa to act as a deterrent and to provide logistical support while the original 700 troops moved to their ultimate destinations: other military bases in East Africa, where officials say they will continue waging war against extremist groups.

The entire episode — a “withdrawal” that brings virtually no troops home and even spurs a temporary surge of forces in the region — serves as perhaps the clearest example of how Mr. Trump‘s quest to drastically reduce U.S. entanglement in foreign conflicts he inherited has been, at best, a disappointment.

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Most of the troops in question, critics contend, are not coming home but are simply being moved to other locations, often in the same dangerous corners of the world and sometimes with the same mission. The Trump administration has had little if any measurable success in cutting the overall amount of American military commitments around the world, and the president’s expectation that waves of battle-weary, victorious troops would finally return home to their families has simply not materialized.

Mr. Trump gets credit, analysts say, for asking tough questions about the purpose and expense of U.S. overseas military missions, many dating to World War II. But a look at the hard numbers finds that Mr. Trump‘s rhetoric — and even his direct orders — haven’t always produced the results he wanted.

Trump‘s reputation for ending endless wars, as the slogan goes, is not well earned. He frequently employs these themes in his rhetoric, but it never really showed up in policy,” said John Glaser, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “He tends to make a big public stink about withdrawals, and then hopes the public doesn’t do the homework it actually takes to discover these withdrawals aren’t really happening. … The troops are just being shuffled around the region to continue the endless war from a different location.”

Mr. Trump can point to at least some operations that are pulling back in his final weeks in office.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that more than 5,000 sailors and Marines with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, which most recently had been providing operational support for forces in Somalia, are now headed home after a 10-month deployment.

“The sacrifices and services of the sailors, Marines, and their families is greatly appreciated by the entire Department of Defense and were in the finest traditions of the U.S. naval service. We are glad that we can conclude 2020 by announcing these warriors are headed home,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

While Somalia is the most recent and glaring instance, a similar situation has unfolded in the Middle East, where American forces have been fighting nonstop for nearly two decades. The overall number of U.S. troops in the region appears larger today than it was when the president came into office.

New approach

The administration has had some successes.

Mr. Trump pushed through plans to reduce the number of combat forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite some strong reservations from some of his military commanders. Further cuts are expected before President-elect Joseph R. Biden assumes office in January. Defense Department officials say the number of troops in each country will be down to 2,500 by Jan. 15.

In Afghanistan, a diplomatic deal between Mr. Trump and the Taliban paves the way for all American forces to eventually leave the country, though there are questions about whether that agreement will hold in light of continued Taliban violence. Just last February, there were more than 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, making the nation the clearest example of the president at least partially fulfilling his promise.

Over the objections of Pentagon leaders, the president also has decreased the number of American forces in Syria from 2,000 to about 500. His personnel moves in Syria led to the resignation of former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, who has gone on to become one of Mr. Trump‘s harshest critics.

For Mr. Trump, reducing America’s military role abroad formed a central pillar in his unconventional political platform, and his policy served as a clear break with the neoconservative thinking that had dominated the Republican Party in the post-9/11 era.

In 2016 and again in 2020, Mr. Trump campaigned hard on the issue. He seemed to never waver in his conviction that the U.S. should have fewer troops overseas, and he routinely clashed with powerful members of his own party who warned his approach would embolden al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups that could threaten national security.

When Mr. Trump sensed that he was running into institutionalized resistance in the Pentagon or in Congress, or suspected that military leadership may be slow-walking his orders, he even resorted to unexpected declarations on Twitter in a brute-force effort to turn his goals into reality.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Mr. Trump tweeted in October, which caught the Pentagon leadership by surprise, though ultimately his promise was only partially realized.

Shortly after the November election, the president fired then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who was privately opposed to many of Mr. Trump‘s plans for troop drawdowns. In his place, Mr. Trump installed Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who quickly made clear he supported the president’s proposals.

“We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought,” Mr. Miller said in his inaugural message to the military. “All wars must end. Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

‘Completely pointless’

But Mr. Trump‘s passion and Mr. Miller’s commitment to the big-picture policy won’t tangibly shrink America’s footprint in the Middle East, which actually appears greater now than it was in January 2017.

Over the past several years, Mr. Trump has deployed or redeployed thousands of troops to American military bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere, framing those deployments as a warning to an increasingly aggressive Iran and its regional allies. Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been high throughout Mr. Trump‘s tenure and the Pentagon has repeatedly sent more troops to the region whenever it appeared that conflict might erupt.

The result: a surge of American troops in the Middle East under Mr. Trump‘s watch. The U.S. now has at least 42,000 troops in the region, according to a recent analysis by Defense Priorities, a Washington based think tank that advocates a more restrained foreign policy. Thousands more are aboard U.S. warships in the same tense theater.

The Pentagon has stopped releasing official troop counts in war zones, so nailing down specific figures is difficult. But all evidence seems to show that the number of new troops sent to the Middle East during Mr. Trump‘s tenure has greatly outweighed the number of men and women brought home, raising questions about both the intent and effectiveness of the president’s approach.

“You can’t come to any other honest assessment than to say it’s been completely pointless,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, now a Defense Priorities senior fellow.

“We’ve actually increased [troop presence] in the region,” Lt. Col. Davis said. “I actually thought that what President Trump would do would be to make a final push to make good on his campaign promise and actually end some of these forever wars. I thought he would press hard and get it done, and be out of Afghanistan, be out of Iraq, be out of Syria. Instead he just reduced — or didn’t do anything.”

Mr. Trump‘s tenure has seen the reshuffling of troops elsewhere around the world. The Pentagon in 2020 rolled out a long-awaited repositioning of troops in Europe, moving more than 10,000 service members from Germany to other locations — though the majority of those troops remain stationed overseas and have not returned home.

The White House also reportedly considered rethinking the U.S. military commitment along the demilitarized zone separating North Korea and South Korea. While Washington and Seoul have had heated disagreements over how much South Korea should pay to support those deployments, the American military presence has remained and a revised cost-sharing agreement remains in diplomatic limbo.

Specialists say that neither Mr. Trump nor any other president will be capable of changing the broader dynamic until there’s a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. role in the world.

“What needs to change is the well-established policy — virtually uncontested in Washington, D.C. — of maintaining a permanent global military presence. It is that presence, the associated treaty obligations, and the political establishment’s commitment to constant interventionism that get us into these endless wars in the first place,” Mr. Glaser said. “I don’t think Trump‘s motivation to actually alter American foreign policy in this direction was ever that deep, or even genuine. I think it probably helped him politically to employ these themes in his rhetoric, but that’s a separate issue.”

Chemical weapons watchdog criticizes Syria over 19 issues

Chemical weapons watchdog criticizes Syria over 19 issues

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FILE – This Wednesday, March 21, 2018 file photo shows the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, Netherlands. The global chemical weapons watchdog says that two investigations into alleged attacks in Syria … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Saturday, December 12, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The global chemical weapons watchdog criticized Syria for failing to declare a chemical weapons production facility and respond to 18 other issues, while Russia accused the watchdog of conducting a “political crusade” against its close ally, the Syrian government.

The clash Friday came at the U.N. Security Council’s monthly meeting on Syria’s chemical weapons, where the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Fernando Arias, briefed members for the first time since May and was pummeled with questions from Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia.

Arias said seven years after Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, its initial chemical declaration has unresolved “gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies” and “still cannot be considered accurate and complete.”

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He told the virtual meeting that one of the 19 outstanding issues is a chemical weapons production facility that President Bashar Assad’s government said was never used to produce weapons, but where the OPCW gathered material and samples indicating “that production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents took place.”

Arias said the OPCW had requested Syria to declare the exact types and quantities of chemical agents at the site, but got no response.

Britain’s new U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward, said another unresolved issue in Syria’s declaration is the thousands of munitions and hundreds of tons of chemical agents that Syria has not accounted for.

A joint U.N.OPCW investigative mechanism accused Syria of using chlorine and the nerve agent sarin during its civil war, while the Islamic State group was accused of using mustard gas twice in 2015 and 2016.

In April this year, an OPCW investigation blamed the Syrian air force for a series of chemical attacks using sarin and chlorine in late March 2017 on the central town of Latamneh. Arias said in late October that Syria failed to meet a 90-day deadline set in July to declare the weapons used in the attacks on Latamneh and to disclose its chemical stocks.

France, backed by over 40 countries, has proposed that the OPCW suspend Syria’s “rights and privileges,” which would include its voting rights in the OPCW, for failing to meet the July deadline. The OPCW’s 193 member states are expected to take up the proposal at their spring 2021 meeting.

Russia’s Nebenzia accused the OPCW of backing Western nations who tried “in vain” to topple Assad’s government with the help of opposition groups. “And they maintain this anti-Syrian narrative despite all the discrepancies or counter evidence presented by Syria, Russia and independent experts and exploit these allegations in their political crusade against Assad government,” he said.

Nebenzia posed eight detailed questions to Arias, alleging the OPCW used double standards, didn’t maintain the “chain of custody” of evidence, and attempted “to turn a blind eye” to 200 tons of chemical weapons precursors missing in Libya “while in parallel pressuring Syria to explain the `disappearance’ of even tiny amounts o chemical substances.” He also questioned why concerns by inspectors allegedly weren’t considered by the OPCW.

Arias responded in a closed session after the open meeting, so his answers were not made public.

Before the meeting, council members Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia along with Ireland and Norway, which are joining the council on Jan. 1, issued a joint statement expressing “full support to the OPCW” and to Arias.

The seven European nations backed action against Syria for the attacks on Latamneh and stressed their support for efforts to collect evidence of violations of human rights, international humanitarian law and abuses “with a view to future legal action.”

Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen accused Russia of “undermining the OPCW” but he told the council it has failed because the organization remains strong and respected.

U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills supported the OPCW’s “impartial and independent work” and urged “the Assad regime’s enablers, particularly Russia, to encourage Syria to come clear about its chemical weapons use and current chemical weapons stocks.”

UN hosts latest round of talks on Syria’s constitution

UN hosts latest round of talks on Syria’s constitution

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Associated Press

Monday, November 30, 2020

GENEVA (AP) – Delegations from Syria’s government, opposition and civil society are meeting in Geneva for the latest round of talks toward revising the war-battered country’s constitution.

The U.N. envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, was hosting the various sides Monday a day after saying Swiss health officials signed off on hygiene measures in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Several cases cropped up among the Syrian envoys during a previous round of talks.

Nearly a decade into Syria’s war, Pedersen acknowledged Sunday “challenges” in moving forward talks on the constitution, which notably do not include extremist factions that control some parts of Syria — notably much of northwestern Idlib province.

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He said overcoming “deep mistrust” would take a long time, but hoped that work toward possible exchanges of detainees and the establishment of common “principles” in the discussions could help to overcome it.

“I hope that what we have achieved is actually the beginning of starting to build trust between the parties and that this building of trust could then be a door opener to a broader political process,” he told reporters on Sunday.

The meeting, involving 15 people from each delegation, is the fourth among the so-called Constitutional Committee. Another meeting is planned for January.

Trial in France for extremist foiled by 3 Americans on train

Trial in France for extremist foiled by 3 Americans on train

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Lawyer of Islamic State operative Ayoub El Khazzaniin, Sarah Mauger-Poliak, arrives on the opening day of the Thalys attack trial, at the Paris courthouse, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. El Khazzani goes on trial Monday Nov. 16, 2020, in France on … more >

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By Elaine Ganley and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny

Associated Press

Monday, November 16, 2020

PARIS (AP) — An Islamic State operative went on trial Monday in Paris on terror charges for swaggering bare-chested through a train in 2015 with an arsenal of weapons and shooting one passenger. He was brought down by three American vacationers in an electrifying capture that Clint Eastwood turned into a Hollywood thriller.

The scene five years ago on the fast train from Amsterdam to Paris is the focus of the month-long trial of Ayoub El Khazzani, with testimony expected from the two U.S. servicemen and their friend, who have been hailed as heroes.

With El Khazzani in court and watched by security officers, the trial opening Monday was largely taken up with procedural issues including whether Eastwood’s presence is needed. That question was not immediately resolved. The actor-director has so far not responded to a summons. Eastwood turned Aug. 21, 2015, drama in car No. 12 into a movie “The 15:17 to Paris.”

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El Khazzani, a 31-year-old Moroccan, spent several months in Syria and boarded the train in Brussels armed to the hilt, authorities say. He is charged with attempted terrorist murder for the foiled attack. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Three others, who weren’t on the train, also are being tried for their roles as alleged accomplices.

Bilal Chatra, 24, an Algerian member of the Islamic State group, would have been the second man on the train but dropped out of the plot a week earlier. He had left Syria for Europe a week before to set up the exit route.

Mohamed Bakkali allegedly took in the Europe-bound attackers in Budapest, Hungary, which he denies. The two were arrested in Germany in 2016. A third man, Redouane El Amrani Ezzerrifi, allegedly piloted a boat to help in their return to Europe.

The trial serves as a bridge to the massacre of 130 people in Paris three months later, on Nov. 13, 2015, at the Bataclan music hall and restaurants and cafes. The man considered the likely mastermind of those attacks, Abdel Hamid Abaaoud, was the behind-the-scenes force in the train attack, planned in Syria, according to the prosecution.

Abaaoud traveled from Syria to Belgium with El Khazzani to organize attacks in Europe, and was holed up with him and Chatra in a Brussels apartment, according to the prosecution. Abaaoud was killed by French special forces days after the Bataclan attack. But before his death, his macabre organizational skills were at work in a failed plan to attack a church south of Paris in April 2015 that left a young woman dead. Sid Ahmed Ghlam was convicted earlier this month and sentenced to life in prison.

The train attacker, El Khazzani, “knowingly followed Abaaoud, but it’s been years since he was in a jihadi mindset,” his lawyer, Sarah Mauger-Poliak, said in a phone interview. “He is very affected and regrets having allowed himself to become indoctrinated in propaganda.”

The propaganda evolved into a plot to allegedly kill trapped passengers.

El Khazzani bought a train ticket at the Brussels station on Aug. 21, 2015 for a 5:13 p.m. departure. He was armed with a Kalashnikov, nine clips with 30 rounds each, an automatic pistol and a cutter, according to investigators.

Once on the train, he lingered in a restroom between cars and emerged bare-chested with a Kalashnikov. One waiting passenger struggled with the attacker, then a French-American, Mark Magoolian, wrestled the Kalashnikov away – before being shot himself by a pistol as he headed to car No. 12 to warn his wife. Magoolian said in interviews later that the attacker recovered the Kalashnikov.

Spencer Stone, a then-23-year-old U.S. airman, said days after the attack that he was coming out of a deep sleep when the gunman appeared. Alek Skarlatos, then a 22-year-old U.S. National Guardsman recently back from Afghanistan, “just hit me on the shoulder and said ‘Let’s go.’”

The three men, all from California, snapped into action out of what Skarlatos said at a news conference days later was “gut instinct.” Stone and Skarlatos moved in to tackle the gunman and take his gun. The third friend, Anthony Sadler, 23, then a student, helped subdue the assailant. Stone said he choked El Khazzani unconscious. A British businessman then joined in the fray.

Stone, whose hand was injured by the cutter, is also credited with saving the French-American teacher whose neck was squirting blood. Stone said he “just stuck two of my fingers in his hole and found what I thought to be the artery, pushed down and the bleeding stopped.”

The train rerouted to Arras, in northern France, where El Khazzani was arrested.

El-Khazzani had left Morocco at age 18 to join his family in Spain. In 2012, he established links with radicals. He went to Brussels before heading to Turkey, a gateway to Syria. A watch list signal “sounded” on May 10, 2015, in Berlin, where El-Khazzani was flying to Turkey, then-French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve had said.

El Khazzani told investigators that Abaaoud wanted him to kill only the American military men, a line he was likely to maintain during the trial. The investigating judges consider it a dubious claim, in part because their presence in the train couldn’t be known in advance and they were in civilian clothes.

That defense also fails to jibe with Abaaoud’s goal of killing a maximum number of people during attacks.

___

Nicolas Vaux-Montagny reported from Lyon, France.

Austrian minister: No indication of second attacker

Austrian minister: No indication of second attacker

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Police officers stay in position at stairs named ‘Theodor Herzl Stiege’ near a synagogue after gunshots were heard, in Vienna, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Austrian police say several people have been injured and officers are out in force following gunfire … more >

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By Philipp Jenne and Frank Jordans

Associated Press

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

VIENNA (AP) — Austria’s top security official said Tuesday that evidence gathered so far shows no indication that there was a second assailant in the attack in Vienna.

Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said video material offered no evidence of another attacker though it isn’t the final word.

A 20-year-old Austrian-North Macedonian dual citizen, who was shot and killed by police minutes after the attack started on Monday evening, has been identified as the assailant in what authorities say was an Islamic extremist attack. Four people died in the shooting.

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Nehammer said that the number of wounded has risen to 22. And he said that 14 people associated with the assailant have been detained for questioning in searches on 18 properties in and near Vienna.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

VIENNA (AP) — At least one Islamic extremist — a 20-year-old armed with an automatic rifle and a fake explosive vest — rampaged through a crowded Vienna nightlife district hours ahead of a coronavirus lockdown, leaving four people dead before he was killed by police, Austrian authorities said Tuesday.

The suspect in Monday night’s attack was identified as a young Austrian-North Macedonian dual citizen with a previous terror conviction for attempting to join the Islamic State extremist group in Syria.

Unverified video showed the suspect, dressed in white coveralls, firing off bursts apparently at random as he ran down the Austrian capital’s cobblestone streets.

Police have arrested several other people and searched 15 houses and apartments, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer told the Austrian news agency APA.

Two men and two women died from their injuries in the attack, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said. He said a police officer who tried to get in the way of the attacker was shot and wounded, and another 14 people were hurt.

Vienna’s hospital service said seven people were in life-threatening condition Tuesday after the attack, APA reported.

“Yesterday’s attack was clearly an Islamist terror attack,” Kurz said. “It was an attack out of hatred — hatred for our fundamental values, hatred for our way of life, hatred for our democracy in which all people have equal rights and dignity.”

The attacker, identified as Kujtim Fejzulai, was sentenced to 22 months in prison in April 2019 because he had tried to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group. He was granted early release in December under juvenile law.

Nehammer told APA that Fejzulai had posted a photo on his Instagram account before the attack that showed him with two of the weapons he apparently used.

“(The suspect) was equipped with a fake explosive vest and an automatic rifle, a handgun and a machete to carry out this repugnant attack on innocent citizens,” Nehammer said.

Authorities were still trying to determine whether further attackers may be on the run. People in Vienna were urged to stay at home if possible on Tuesday and children did not have to go to school. Some 1,000 police officers were on duty in the city on Tuesday morning.

The shooting began shortly after 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) Monday near Vienna’s main synagogue as many people were enjoying a last night of open restaurants and bars before a month-long coronavirus lockdown, which started at midnight.

Vienna police chief Gerhard Puerstl said the attacker was killed at 8:09 p.m. But authorities continued to look for potential further assailants.

“We will unearth and chase down the perpetrators, those behind them and like-minded people and give them the punishment they deserve,” Kurz said. “We will pursue all those who have anything to do with this outrage by all available means.”

His government on Tuesday ordered three days of official mourning, with flags on public buildings to be flown at half-staff until Thursday.

Austria held a minute of silence at midday Tuesday, accompanied by the tolling of bells in the capital. Kurz, President Alexander Van der Bellen and other leading politicians laid wreaths and candles where the attack took place.

Alois Schroll, an Austrian lawmaker and the mayor of the town of Ybbs, said he had just arrived at a nearby restaurant when the attack started. He said he “saw many, many people running with their hands up high, they were in a panic and screaming.”

Police “sealed off the entire restaurant,” Schroll, 52, told The Associated Press. “People started getting phone calls … so finally we understood what was going on.”

“People inside the restaurant were in shock, there were several women who were crying. And it wasn’t until shortly before 1 a.m., that police finally let us out of the restaurant.”

Schroll said he wasn’t allowed back to his apartment because the area was still blocked off — “instead, we had to go across a bridge, also with our hands raised up. We couldn’t find a hotel, so we were just wandering around for hours.”

Fejzulai’s lawyer in the 2019 case, Nikolaus Rast, told public broadcaster ORF that his client had seemed “completely harmless” at the time.

“He was a young man who was searching for his place in society, who apparently went to the wrong mosque, ended up in the wrong circles,” Rast said. “I can’t say exactly what happened.”

Fejzulai’s family “wasn’t strictly religious at all; the family wasn’t radical — it was a completely normal family,” Rast said. “I still remember that the family couldn’t believe what had happened with their son.”

The attack drew swift condemnation and assurances of support from leaders around Europe, including from French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country has experienced three Islamist attacks in recent weeks, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Monday night as he prepared for his final rally ahead of Election Day: “Our prayers are with the people of Vienna after yet another vile act of terrorism in Europe.”

“These evil attacks against innocent people must stop,” Trump added. “The U.S. stands with Austria, France, and all of Europe in the fight against terrorists, including radical Islamic terrorists.”

Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution, condemned the “terrorist attacks” in Vienna. It called on international institutions “to stand united” against terrorism and reject violence and hatred.

___

Frank Jordans reported from Berlin. Kirsten Grieshaber and Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin.

Presidential election winner faces complex geopolitical puzzle

‘Rebalancing of power’: Presidential race winner to face increasing complex geopolitical puzzle

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In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, leads other Chinese leaders attending the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, November 2, 2020

North Korea and its nuclear ambitions were the greatest threat to world stability and must be atop the new commander in chief’s priority list, President Trump recalls being told during a closed-door White House transition meeting with then-President Barack Obama in late 2016.

Four years later, analysts and foreign policy insiders say danger on the Korean Peninsula remains high but is now even more of a geopolitical tripwire because growing U.S.-Chinese tensions hang over every aspect of American foreign policy in the region and underscore how individual global hot spots must be viewed as pieces of a much bigger, more complex puzzle.

Whether Democrat Joseph R. Biden wins the White House or Mr. Trump secures a second term, specialists say, the president will face an international landscape that is shifting rapidly during an escalating 21st-century power competition with China and Russia. A full inbox of challenges — an unpredictable Iran, a chaotic Afghanistan, the fallout from a failed U.S.-led regime change effort in Venezuela, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, civil war in Syria and the continued threat of Islamic extremism across the Middle East and Africa — await the U.S. leader. In each case, his decisions may create aftershocks around the world that help shape a new international order.

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Some specialists warn that a new global power ranking is already taking shape and that America’s traditional post-Cold War ability to cajole allies, intimidate foes and craft multinational policy on its own is in jeopardy.

“There has been a rebalancing of power, and the United States is not simply head and shoulders above everyone,” said Mark Simakovsky, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Europe/NATO chief of staff for the secretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.

“The world is growing more complicated and challenging, and the U.S. as a global power is facing much more difficulty in managing, essentially, a rise of instability around the world,” he told The Washington Times. “You have regional powers like Russia, Turkey, China as a global power itself, India, Pakistan. We’re at a moment where U.S. confidence in its ability to lead and navigate these challenges is waning all while these challenges are accelerating.”

Pacific strategy

Perhaps nowhere is the evolving dynamic more apparent than in Asia, where Chinese military and economic influences are growing at exponential rates, changing the calculation for virtually every nation on its periphery. Countries such as Pakistan, which has had a tenuous yet strategically vital partnership with the U.S. throughout the post-9/11 era, are now increasingly locked in economic partnerships with Beijing, giving China’s Communist Party leaders much greater leverage.

In North Korea, the U.S. president in January will still be confronted by unpredictable dictator Kim Jong-un as he develops dangerous new weapons programs, as evidenced by Pyongyang’s display of a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile during a military parade last month.

At the same time, the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China continues to deteriorate during Beijing’s authoritarian crackdown on Hong Kong, its military expansion into the South and East China seas, its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term strategy for China to supplant the U.S. as the world’s top economic power. Past administrations have tried to approach China and North Korea as mostly separate issues, but analysts say the commander in chief will not have that luxury and must be keenly aware that each decision on one front likely will affect the other.

“They treat them as isolated challenges when they may not be,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading Washington think tank.

“If you have a conflict with China, it is not necessarily safe to assume Kim Jong-un sits on his hands,” he said. “We cannot assume that our adversaries and enemies will be kind enough to challenge us one at a time.”

Indeed, it’s unclear how China would react to hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing may use the chance to unilaterally claim more territory in the South China Sea or even to take control of Taiwan.

On the other hand, Mr. Kim may view any dust-up between the U.S. and China as a window of opportunity to resume nuclear testing or to take other provocative steps while Washington is distracted.

Mr. Trump has taken a confrontational, transactional approach toward China. He launched a bilateral trade war, increased U.S. military presence in the Pacific and repeatedly accused Beijing of failing to stop the COVID-19 “China virus” from spreading. Administration officials also have criticized Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, the Communist Party’s suspected use of technology such as 5G networks to spy on other nations, Beijing’s claims in the Arctic and other policies.

By contrast, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric toward North Korea has been much softer. Although the president began his tenure by threatening “fire and fury” in response to any military aggression by the reclusive state, he subsequently met with Mr. Kim on three occasions, including a 2018 Singapore summit that marked the first-ever meeting between leaders of the two countries. The administration credits Mr. Trump’s approach for the absence of North Korean nuclear tests since September 2017, though the unprecedented diplomatic push has not secured a firm, long-term denuclearization commitment from Pyongyang.

“I have a very good relationship with him. Different kind of a guy, but he probably thinks the same thing about me,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Kim during the final presidential debate. “We have a different kind of a relationship. We have a very good relationship, and there’s no war.”

As for Mr. Biden, he stressed that he would ensure China was part of any discussion involving North Korea, and he criticized Mr. Trump for his willingness to meet with dictators.

“What has he done? He’s legitimized North Korea. He’s talked about his good buddy, who’s a thug,” the former vice president said of Mr. Trump.

In exchange for Mr. Trump’s diplomacy, specialists say, the U.S. gave up a lot, including shelving key joint military operations with South Korea as an olive branch to Pyongyang.

“I see little to no indication that [the situation] is any better now than when President Trump took office,” Mr. Bowman said. “In some ways, it may be less well off. … We made military concessions in terms of military exercises that the North Koreans did not make.”

Pentagon officials have said U.S. military readiness did not suffer as a result of canceling some exercises on the peninsula.

Middle East approach

The Trump administration’s embrace of diplomacy also has been on full display over the past two years in Afghanistan, where top State Department officials engaged in direct talks with the Taliban in the hopes of securing a permanent peace deal. The campaign in Afghanistan is the longest in U.S. history and one that Mr. Trump has pledged to end. He said it is an “endless war” that no longer serves a major strategic American interest.

The administration in February struck a deal with the Taliban that will steadily cut U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees that the Taliban will negotiate with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and that terrorist groups will never be allowed again use the country as a base of operations.

While Afghanistan remains besieged by violence between Taliban and government fighters, the American withdrawal is moving ahead. Mr. Trump also has cut the number of U.S. forces in Iraq and, over the objections of many Republicans and military officials, removed a substantial number of U.S. troops from Syria.

Across the Middle East and Africa, specialists say, the U.S. must continue to reassess the amount of resources it is willing to commit to counterterrorism efforts. The commander in chief come January will need to decide how much American money, manpower and resources he is willing to allocate to battle stubborn groups such as the Taliban, al-Shabab in Somalia, the Islamic State and other organizations that survive despite intensive U.S. military campaigns lasting a decade or longer.

“Reducing the U.S. government’s counterterrorism bloat will better enable the U.S. to advance its varied strategic interests and is necessary, especially in light of global power competition and in responding to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic,” Katherine Zimmerman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies terrorist groups, wrote in a recent analysis.

“Yet, it should also call into question whether the U.S. is prepared to carry the cost of counterterrorism — particularly against such transnational Salafi-jihadi groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State — indefinitely as they persist despite significant U.S. pressure against them,” she said.

At the same time, American troop reductions in the Middle East carry consequences. Roughly 500 U.S. troops remain stationed in Syria to train U.S.-backed rebel groups and to conduct limited special operations missions against Islamic State targets.

Removing all of those troops, some analysts argue, would provide an opening for Russia, which also operates in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad’s government. It also would present an opportunity for Iran, which has proxy forces operating inside Syria alongside the Russians and remains at odds with the U.S. after Mr. Trump withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.

“Great power competition doesn’t just happen in the Baltics,” Mr. Bowman said. “Great power competition increasingly is happening in the Middle East, too.”

Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan ambassador, denies Syria sends militants to Armenia fight

‘Propaganda’: Azerbaijani ambassador denies reports of Syrian militants in Armenia fight

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Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.S., said he is familiar with Russian propaganda. “What you have here is a very strong virtual effort to produce a narrative designed to provide Armenia with an excuse to invite Russian forces into … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Azerbaijan’s top diplomat in Washington rejects reports saying Turkey has sent Syrian militants to aid his country’s fight against Armenia, calling them Russian propaganda meant to dupe Western news outlets.

Fighting between the two former Soviet states over the Armenian-controlled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh shows no signs of easing, raising fears that Turkey and other powers may be drawn into a broader regional war.

“I went to school in Moscow. I know propaganda very well, and this is basic Soviet propaganda,” Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.S., told The Washington Times in an interview.

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“What you have here is a very strong virtual effort to produce a narrative designed to provide Armenia with an excuse to invite Russian forces into the conflict to carry out an anti-terrorism operation against Azerbaijan,” Mr. Suleymanov said.

Armenia’s ambassador to Russia said a month ago that Turkey had sent some 4,000 fighters from Turkish-controlled northern Syria to Azerbaijan. Western press reports have since said Syrian mercenaries are aiding Azerbaijan, a Muslim majority nation, against largely Christian Armenia.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported in late September that Syrian rebel fighters had signed up to work for a “private Turkish security company” as border guards in Azerbaijan. The report, which cited interviews with volunteers in Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold, did not identify the security company.

American sources say in private that The Guardian and other reports are plausible and fit within a pattern in which Turkey is employing Syrian militants as mercenaries in a proxy war with Russia, which also relies on mercenaries in foreign conflicts.

Top Turkish officials have said in recent days that they are willing to send troops to help Azerbaijan if requested but that no request had been made.

U.S. intelligence sources said both Turkey and Russia are employing mercenaries and proxies in Libya. Ankara has sent former Syrian militants, including some with jihadi ties, to battle mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, they said.

But Mr. Suleymanov insisted that reports about Syrians being deployed to fight Armenians were bogus and that “lazy journalism” allowed misinformation to spread through Western media.

He denied a Washington Post report in mid-October that said a refrigerated truck had arrived at the Syria-Turkey border carrying the bodies of 52 Syrian men killed some 600 miles away in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“There’s no proof,” Mr. Suleymanov said. “Not a single body of a Syrian fighter has been found in Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan’s military forces don’t need the help of such fighters, he said, particularly if they have ties to Sunni Muslim jihadi groups. Azerbaijan is a Shiite Muslim majority country.

The reports have added to unease over the violence around Nagorno-Karabakh, a heavily ethnic Armenian enclave surrounded by Azerbaijani territory.

Concerns about the prospect of a widening regional war are high. Although Turkey is backing predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan and Russia is backing Christian Armenia, Turkish officials have sharply denied that they are sending Syrian militants into the fight.

France reacts after Erdogan questions Macron’s mental health

France reacts after Erdogan questions Macron’s mental health

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, wearing a mask to help protect against the spread of coronavirus, greets his ruling party members gathered in a stadium, in Kayseri, Turkey, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said Friday … more >

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By SYLVIE CORBET

Associated Press

Saturday, October 24, 2020

PARIS (AP) – France recalled its ambassador to Turkey for consultations after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said President Emmanuel Macron needed mental health treatment and made other comments that the French government described as unacceptably rude.

Erdogan questioned his French counterpart’s mental condition while criticizing Macron’s attitude toward Islam and Muslims. His remarks at a local party congress were an apparent response to statements Macron made this month about problems created by radical Muslims in France who practice what the French leader termed “Islamist separatism.”

“What is the problem of this person called Macron with Islam and Muslims?” Erdogan asked rhetorically during his Justice and Development party meeting in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri.

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“What else can be said to a head of state who does not understand freedom of belief and who behaves in this way to millions of people living in his country who are members of a different faith?” the Turkish leader continued.

The French presidency reacted hours later with a statement that said, “Excess and rudeness are not a method” and “We are not accepting insults.”

Using unusually strong language, the French presidency said, “We demand Erdogan to change his policy, which is dangerous in all aspects.”

The presidency point out that Erdogan, a devout Muslim, did not offer condolences following the beheading near Paris last week of a teacher who had shown in class some caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. French judicial authorities are investigating the killing as an Islamist terror attack.

Tensions between NATO allies France and Turkey have intensified in recent months over issues that include the fighting in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, a region within Azerbaijan that is controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists.

Macron has notably accused Turkey of flouting its commitments by ramping up its military presence in Libya and bringing in jihadi fighters from Syria.

France also has sided with Greece and Cyprus in tensions with Turkey over offshore oil and gas drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, prompting criticism from Ankara.

______________

Andrew Wilks contributed to the story from Ankara, Turkey

Varuzhan Nersesyan, Armenian ambassador, Pressure Turkey to rein in Azerbaijan

Armenian ambassador: Pressure Turkey to rein in Azerbaijan

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Armenian Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan. more >

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By Lauren Toms

The Washington Times

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Second of two stories.

A cold, uneasy peace flared into a hot war when Azerbaijani and Armenian forces clashed once again late last month over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijani territory that has been a source of constant tension since the two countries were formed with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov answered questions from The Washington Times’ Lauren Toms on conflict and the U.S. role in Thursday’s edition. Today, Armenian Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan offers the point of view from Yerevan.

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Question: How did both sides arrive at this point of escalation?

Answer: This war broke out on Sept. 27, 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military offensive against Artsakh [Editor’s note: Armenia’s name for the region of Nagorno-Karabakh], violating a cease-fire agreement that had been in place since 1994. That is the last time when the region saw clashes on the scale and magnitude that we see today. However, smaller but still violent breaches of the cease-fire did occur over the past several years, for example in April 2016 and most recently in July 2020.

Azerbaijan has never made a secret of its intention to seize Artsakh by force and drive its people out. Despite years of negotiations under an international mediation framework co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France, Azerbaijan has continuously rejected attempts to resolve the conflict through negotiated compromise. Instead, it has used its oil proceeds and dubious international deals to fund a multibillion-dollar military buildup, which it wants to use to turn the tide in this conflict in its favor.

In the present fragile state of international relations, further exacerbated by COVID-19, Azerbaijan appears to have sensed an opportunity to apply maximum and deadly force, when in its view the world may not be paying attention. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, having already engaged in civil wars in Syria and Libya, and meddled in Lebanon and the Aegean, now has his eyes on the Caucasus, where he views Armenia and Artsakh as obstacles to this grand plan. Therefore, he encourages Azerbaijan to attack and provides it with diplomatic, political and military support, including deploying Islamist mercenaries from Syria to fight against the Armenians.

So far, however, Armenia and Artsakh have held strong. As in any war, there is tragic cost to pay. There are casualties on both sides, including among civilians, and heavy destruction of property and infrastructure. Azerbaijan has also massively used banned cluster munitions to shell Artsakh’s towns and villages — another sign of its brutal, scorched-earth method to inflict pain, suffering and destruction on the people of Artsakh.

Q: Where do the two sides go from here?

A: There should be no doubt that the use of force is not a helpful method to achieve any solution in Artsakh. Armenia calls for the immediate and unconditional halt of hostilities and a return to negotiations without preconditions. Azerbaijan, however, emboldened with Turkey’s support, continues to reject that and demands concessions before the sides sit down to negotiate.

Armenia hopes that the international community will bring pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkey to stop fighting and come to the negotiating table. Until then, Armenia will continue to support the people of Artsakh in exercising its inalienable right to self-defense. Artsakh fights for its survival. The continuing brutal aggression against the people of Artsakh by Azerbaijan and Turkey in order to subdue it by force demonstrates just how well-founded our concerns are and how high the stakes. In this existential struggle, Armenia stands with Artsakh.

Q: Calls have been growing for a cease-fire. What would be required for that outcome, and would both sides adhere to the terms?

A: There must be an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities for the parties to start negotiating. No peace talks can occur when the war is raging.

We urge Artsakh’s return to the negotiating table, as one of the three original signatories of the 1994 cease-fire agreement and a party to the conflict whose commitment to and assurance in the irreversibility of the peace process are perhaps most vital for that process to succeed.

As a matter of urgency, we also want to have [an] investigative mechanism in place between Artsakh and Azerbaijan, with proper monitoring and verification of the cease-fire, to minimize the likelihood of resumption of military activities in the future. The primary obstacle to this is Azerbaijan’s intransigence, bolstered by Turkey’s support.

Q: Russia and Turkey both have unique interests in this conflict. What are you expecting to see from the Russian government backing Armenian forces?

A: Armenia has not put forward any formal request to Russia for military assistance to Armenian forces. We do welcome Russia’s diplomatic engagement and hope that its pressure, alongside that of the international community, on Turkey and Azerbaijan to stop the aggression will be effective.

We expect the same especially from the other OSCE mediators, the United States and France. Other than that, Russia does have mutual defense treaty obligations towards Armenia should Armenia come under direct military attack by a third party.

Q: Do you believe the U.S. should play a greater role in the crisis, and are you satisfied with the U.S. response thus far?

A: The United States is indispensable to the cause of a peaceful and lasting negotiated resolution in Artsakh. As a key mediator and a global power, the United States can be decisive in keeping Turkey out of the conflict to prevent the inevitable drawing of others into it.

Turkey is key to bringing this war to an end. Its actions are crucial to Azerbaijan’s ability to continue fighting: unconditional support for Azerbaijan’s military aggression; supply of weapons, officers and other military aid; supply of Islamist militant mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan to fight against the Armenians. Turkey is expanding the geography of its proxy wars it has now been fighting for quite some time, both along its borders and beyond. Turkey has become a serious threat to global security and must be stopped.

We hope that the United States brings its authority, weight and influence to halt Turkey’s unbridled meddling in this and other conflicts. There are many mechanisms that can be used to discourage Turkey from threatening global security, and we are hopeful that the United States will consider applying them.

More broadly, an active U.S. political, diplomatic and economic engagement can help bring stability, economic development and security in our region. We look forward to working with the United States and others in all these areas and hope that peace will prevail.

UN approves aid to Syria’s rebel area through 1 crossing

UN approves aid to Syria’s rebel area through 1 crossing

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FILE – In this Aug. 15, 2018 file photo, local residents receive humanitarian aid from the Russian military in the town of Al-Rastan, Syria. Over the last two days, members of the UN Security Council have been haggling over cross-border … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Saturday, July 11, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Russia scored a victory for its ally Syria on Saturday by forcing the Security Council to limit humanitarian aid deliveries to the country’s mainly rebel-held northwest to just one crossing point from Turkey, a move that Western nations say will cut a lifeline for 1.3 million people.

Russia argues that aid should be delivered from within the country across conflict lines, and says only one crossing point is needed.

U.N. officials and humanitarian groups argued unsuccessfully – along with the vast majority of the U.N. Security Council – that the two crossing points in operation until their mandate expired Friday were essential for getting help to millions of needy people in Syria’s northwest, especially with the first case of COVID-19 recently reported in the region.

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The Security Council vote approving a single crossing from Turkey was 12-0, with Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstaining.

The vote capped a week of high-stakes rivalry pitting Russia and China against the 13 other council members. An overwhelming majority voted twice to maintain the two crossings from Turkey, but Russia and China vetoed both resolutions – the 15th and 16th veto by Russia of a Syria resolution since the conflict began in 2011 and the ninth and 10th by China.

Germany and Belgium, which had sponsored the widely supported resolutions for two crossing points, finally had to back down to the threat of another Russian veto. The resolution they put forward Saturday authorized only a single crossing point from Turkey for a year.

In January, Russia also scored a victory for Syria, using its veto threat to force the Security Council to adopt a resolution reducing the number of crossing points for aid deliveries from four to two, from Turkey to the northwest. It also cut in half the yearlong mandate that had been in place since cross-border deliveries began in 2014 to six months.

Before adopting the resolution Saturday, the council rejected two amendments proposed by Russia, including one suggesting that U.S. and European Union sanctions on Syria were impeding humanitarian aid. That contention was vehemently rejected by the Trump administration and the EU, which noted their sanctions include exemptions for humanitarian deliveries. It also rejected an amendment from China.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, said after the vote that from the beginning Moscow had proposed one crossing – from Bab al-Hawa to Idlib – and that Saturday’s resolution could have been adopted weeks ago. He said Russia abstained in the vote because negotiations over the resolution were marred by “clumsiness, disrespect.”

Polyansky accused Western nations on the council of “unprecedented heights” of hypocrisy, saying they were ready to jeopardize cross-border aid over the references to unilateral sanctions.

He said cross-border aid to Syria’s northwest doesn’t comply with international law because the U.N. has no presence in the region, which he described as being controlled “by international terrorists and fighters” that make it impossible to control and monitor who gets aid.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen retorted that while Russia talks about delivery of aid across conflict lines, “in practice it doesn’t” happen.

He said his side fought to maintain multiple crossing points for aid, including the Al-Yaroubiya crossing point from Iraq in the northeast that was closed in January, because that is what is needed for efficient delivery of aid to millions in need – and he asked Polyansky “this is clumsy?”

“This is what we tried to do over these past weeks, to get the optimum to the population,” Heusgen said.

U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft told the council: “Today’s outcome leaves us sickened and outraged at the loss of the Bab al-Salaam and Al Yarubiyah border crossings.”

“Behind those locked gates are millions of women, children, and men who believed that the world had heard their pleas. Their health and welfare are now at great risk,” she said.

Still, Craft called the authorization of access through Bab al-Hawa for 12 months “a victory” in light of Russia and China’s “willingness to use their veto to compel a dramatic reduction in humanitarian assistance.”

“This solemn victory must not end our struggle to address the mounting human needs in Syria – that fight is far from over,” Craft said.

Belgium and Germany said in a joint statement that 1.3 million people, including 800 000 displaced Syrians, live in the Aleppo area, including 500,000 children who received humanitarian aid through the Bab al-Salam crossing – and now have that aid cut off.

“Today is yet another sad day. It is a sad day for this council, but mostly, it is a sad day for the Syrian people of that region.,” they said. “Both Yarubiyah and Bab al-Salam were vital crossings to deliver, in the most efficient way possible, the humanitarian help, those people deserve.”

In a later statement, they added: “One border crossing is not enough, but no border crossings would have left the fate of an entire region in question.”

Donors: $7.7 billion to tackle Syria humanitarian crisis

Donors: $7.7 billion to tackle Syria humanitarian crisis

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European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell waits for the start of a meeting, Supporting the future of Syria and the Region, in videoconference format at the European Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool) more >

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By LORNE COOK and MIKE CORDER

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union and dozens of donor nations pledged a total of $7.7 billion Tuesday to help tackle the humanitarian crisis deepening in Syria and neighboring countries hosting millions of Syrian refugees as the coronavirus pandemic and economic crises compound the misery of nearly a decade of civil war.

EU Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic announced the total at the end of a day-long online pledging conference organized by the EU and United Nations.

“We have today expressed solidarity with the Syrian people, not only with words, but with concrete pledges of support that will make a difference for millions of people,” Lenarcic said.

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The war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked a refugee exodus that has destabilized neighboring countries and impacted Europe. Around 11 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and some 9 million don’t have enough to eat. More than half of the population have no jobs.

International anti-poverty organization Oxfam said the amount pledged fell short of what is needed.

“The pledges made by donor governments are simply not enough to address the Syrian crisis with 1 million people at risk of starvation inside the country, and COVID-19 and an economic downturn hitting refugees and host communities in neighboring countries hard,” said Marta Lorenzo, Oxfam’s Middle East and North Africa regional director.

U.N. Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Imran Riza, speaking from Qamishli in northern Syria, underscored the problems.

“We are on the cusp of all these multiple crises,” Riza said. “You see kids that are clearly now getting malnourished. You are seeing levels of malnutrition that we have never seen in the last nine years and this gets worse and worse if you don’t take action right now.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pledged 1.584 billion euros ($1.8 billion) on Germany’s behalf as he, too, warned that the global pandemic was exacerbating the grim realities of life in war-shattered Syria.

“Access to humanitarian assistance is even further restricted,” he said during the virtual donor conference. “And health facilities that lie in ruins cannot attend to the enormous needs. Today, we can demonstrate that the world cares, that the people of Syria are not forgotten.”

Britain’s International Development Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, pledged 300 million pounds to support areas including education, food and fighting the coronavirus.

“We cannot and will not ignore the scale of the coronavirus threat in Syria, which has already been ravaged by almost a decade of conflict,” Trevelyan said.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced that EU institutions would donate 2.3 billion euros ($2.6 billion) for this year and next.

Perhaps wary of the state of coronavirus-ravaged national coffers, the EU and the U.N. – joint chairs of the conference – underlined that they did not set a fixed pledging target. U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said about $10 billion is needed and that raising $5.5 billion “would not be a bad outcome.”

Lenarcic said at the end of the conference that $5.5 billion of the money pledged Tuesday would be available this year and $2.2 billion for next year and beyond.

The EU has reported that in 2019 donors contributed 8.9 billion euros ($10 billion) in grants to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The United Nations currently requires about $3.8 billion for its Syria-related work. Speakers at Tuesday’s fundraising meeting repeatedly expressed support for Syria’s neighbors housing refugees.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the cost to his country of hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees has exceeded $40 billion since the conflict began in March 2011 and he warned that the situation is getting worse amid an economic crisis.

Diab called on the U.N., the EU and friendly nations to “shield Lebanon from the negative repercussions” of sanctions, such as those imposed on Syria by the Trump administration in mid-June.

Lowcock acknowledged that holding the donor conference at a time when economies around the world have been slammed by the coronavirus was tough.

“We recognize that circumstances are a bit unusual,” he said. “It’s a difficult moment in every country to find the resources necessary to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people, but it’s essential that we do go on doing that work.”

Oxfam’s Lorenzo said: “It’s shocking that the international community has failed to recognize the urgency of the situation despite clear calls from Syrian civil society.”

____

Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. AP writers Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.

Russian jets now operating in Libya

Russian jets now operating in Libya

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In this photo taken from Russian Defense Ministry official website on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, a Russian SU-24M jet fighter prepares to take off from an airbase Hmeimim in Syria. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service) **FILE** more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 18, 2020

At least 15 Russian combat aircraft are now operating in Libya to support Moscow-backed mercenary groups, U.S. military officials confirmed Thursday.

U.S. Africa Command said it has photographs of Russian jets taking off and operating near at least two locations in Libya — an airfield at al-Jufra near the country’s center and Sirte on the Libyan coast.

“Russia’s sustained involvement in Libya increases the violence and delays a political solution,” said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Bradford Gering, Africa Command’s operations director. “Russia continues to push for a strategic foothold on NATO’s southern flank and this is at the expense of innocent LIbyan lives.”

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In a briefing with defense writers, the head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe said he’s also concerned Russia is attempting to gain a permanent presence in Libya, similar to what they’ve done in Syria.

“That’s going to be a significant security concern,” Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigan told reporters in Washington.

The Russian aircraft confirmed to be flying in Libya are the MiG-29, MiG-24 and Su-24, Gen. Harrigan said.

They’ve been unable to confirm whether the Russian jets have conducted any airstrikes while in Libya. U.S. officials also have a concern about the abilities of the mercenary pilots. Some may be retired pilots forced to learn new systems in a short time.

“They’re working on their basic flying skills,” Gen. Harrigan said.

They may not have the flying skills to distinguish ally from foe and that could be devastating in an environment where innocents are near a military target, Gen. Harrigan said.

“We train significantly to ensure we put the weapon where we need to,” he said.

U.S. presses allies to keep up Islamic State fight

U.S. presses allies to keep up Islamic State fight

Financial plea comes with global budgets strained

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pleaded Thursday for allies to pledge toward a goal of over $700 million in the fight against the Islamic State. (ASSOCIATED PRESS) more >

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By Guy Taylor and Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Trump administration is pressing U.S. allies to boost funding for the global fight against Islamic State, saying Iraq still needs help in battling the terror group’s still-potent remnants even as U.S. forces pull back from front-line positions.

The plea from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — during a virtual summit of the counter-Islamic State coalition that the U.S. and Italy co-hosted Thursday — came as the world economy grapples with financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 6.5 million people and killed nearly 387,000 around the world.

“It’s true that the pandemic is putting enormous pressure on all of our budgets, but we urge your nations to pledge toward our goal of more than $700 million for 2020,” Mr. Pompeo told representatives of 31 other nations attending the virtual gathering.

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Amid reports Islamic State has been able to regroup in the sparse lands along the Syria-Iraq border, Mr. Pompeo said Iraq and its allies still must root out the terror group’s surviving cells and network and “provide stabilization assistance to liberated areas in Iraq and Syria.”

A joint communique from the summit noted that, “while [Islamic State] no longer controls territory and nearly eight million people have been freed from its control in Iraq and Syria, the threat remains and thus calls for stronger vigilance and coordinated action.”

“This includes allocating adequate resources to sustain Coalition and legitimate partner forces’ efforts against [Islamic State] in Iraq and Syria, including stabilization support to liberated areas, to safeguard our collective security interests,” the communique said.

While Mr. Pompeo told the gathering that the Trump administration will provide the $100 million it pledged to support Iraq against a potential Islamic State resurgence last year, his remarks Thursday came roughly two months after American troops began pulling back from and handing over several key bases in Iraq to Iraqi security forces.

President Trump has also markedly reduced the size of the anti-Islamic State U.S. special forces contingent posted in Syria.

In late March, U.S. commanders in Iraq said coalition forces in Iraq, including about 5,000 U.S. troops, were being consolidated in and around Baghdad as part of pre-planned movements set in motion by what they said was the coalition’s success in breaking the Islamic State’s hold on territory.

The statement denied claims that had swirled in some media at the time that the troops were being pulled back in response to increasing threats posed by Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militia groups.

With Mr. Trump pushing to come through on a major campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from “forever wars,” the overall status of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq has come under question since the October 2019 death in Iraq of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Al-Baghdadi was killed after detonating a suicide vest while being pursued by U.S. forces. The Trump administration has since repeatedly declared the Islamic State caliphate defeated, despite warnings from analysts and former officials that the terror group remains a threat in the Middle East and globally, with offshoots and affiliates still carrying out attacks from Africa to Asia.

Several violent attacks claimed by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan during recent months have threatened to undermine the Trump administration’s push for a historic peace deal and U.S. troop withdrawal there.

Analysts have also warned that jihadists and other militant extremists have sought to exploit the coronavirus world health crisis. Islamic State propaganda has surfaced in recent months calling on followers to increase attacks as world governments and militaries focus on combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Department unveils new global maritime advisory for shippers to avoid sanctions

State Department unveils new global maritime advisory for shippers to avoid sanctions

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U.S. Navy patrol boats carrying journalists to see damaged oil tankers leave a U.S. Navy 5th Fleet base near Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili) ** FILE ** more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The State Department on Thursday issued a new advisory to the global maritime industry that highlights shipping practices that Iran, North Korea and Syria use to avoid sanctions.

The guidance, known as a Global Maritime Advisory, provides a set of “best practices” that private ships and insurers in the energy and metals sector can reference to avoid sanctions risk.

“The United States remains committed to disrupting shipping activities by malign actors worldwide — including sanctions evasion and smuggling — which may facilitate criminal activity and threatens international peace and security,” the department said in a statement announcing the advisory.

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The advisory includes guidance to not store Iranian oil and warnings to ships to not turn off their transponders, Reuters reported.

The department said the advisory is “intended to provide actors that utilize the maritime industry for trade with information on and tools to counter current and emerging trends in sanctions evasion related to shipping and associated services.”

Iran has repeatedly attempted to impede the flow of oil through the Middle East as a direct response to the Trump administration’s global embargo on all exports of Iranian oil.

The embargo is a key piece of a broader set of economic sanctions designed to drive Iran back to the negotiating table, but key U.S. allies have hesitated to fully join the pressure campaign. The U.S. has placed similar restrictions on Syria and North Korea, among other international actors.

Federal commission: Add India, Russia, Syria to list of countries violating religious freedom

Federal commission: Add India, Russia, Syria to list of countries violating religious freedom

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A woman lights a candle during a religion service celebrating Orthodox Easter at the Rogozhsky spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church in Moscow, Russia, late Saturday, April 18, 2020. For Orthodox Christians, this is normally a time of … more >

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By Ryan Lovelace

The Washington Times

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Tuesday recommended the federal government add India, Russia and Syria to its list of countries egregiously violating religious freedom.

The USCIRF, a bipartisan commission of the federal government, requested five countries be designated as “countries of particular concern” by the State Department under the International Religious Freedom Act: India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. Countries already on this list include China, Iran and North Korea.

“[W]e also urge the administration to discontinue the repeated imposition of preexisting sanctions or waivers for CPC-designated countries, and instead, take a unique action for each country to provide accountability for religious freedom abuses,” Gayle Manchin, USCIRF vice chair, said in a statement.

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The commission’s 2020 annual report called for “targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human-rights related financial and visa authorities, citing specific freedom violations.”

The report said India’s national party used its greater parliamentary majority to enact policies violating religious freedom, notably for Muslims.

Mrs. Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, praised the Trump administration’s addition of a senior staff position at the White House to examine international religious freedom and for routing funding toward protecting places of worship around the world.

The commission’s annual report showed Sudan and Uzbekistan making improvements in the realm of religious freedom, but India taking a sharp downward turn.

“Sudan stands out, demonstrating that new leadership with the will to change can quickly bring tangible improvements,” said USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins in a statement. “Uzbekistan also made important progress in 2019 toward fulfilling the commitments it made to allow religious groups greater freedom. Though other countries deteriorated, particularly India, we see international religious freedom on an upward trajectory overall.”

Iraqi on genocide charges in Germany for IS killing of child

Iraqi on genocide charges in Germany for IS killing of child

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At the opening of the trial, the defendant covers his face with a folder as he arrives in the courtroom at the Higher Regional Court (OLG) in Frankfurt, Germany, Friday, April 24, 2020. The 37-year-old Iraqi defendant on suspicion of … more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Friday, April 24, 2020

BERLIN (AP) – An Iraqi man went on trial in Frankfurt on Friday for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, on allegations that as an Islamic State member he was part of an effort to exterminate the Yazidi religious minority, and killed a five-year-old girl he purchased as a slave by chaining her in the hot sun to die of thirst.

Taha Al-J., 27, whose full last name wasn’t given in line with German privacy laws, faces a possible life in prison if convicted of the charges, and others including murder for the death of the Yazidi girl and membership in a terrorist organization.

No pleas are entered in the German system and Al-J. declined to give any opening comment to the panel of judges hearing the case other than to confirm his identity as the trial opened, according to the court.

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Al-J.’s wife, a German convert to Islam identified only as 28-year-old Jennifer W., has been on trial separately in Munich since last April on charges of murder, war crimes and membership in a terrorist organization.

Al-J. was still at large when his wife went on trial, but was arrested a month later in Greece and extradited to Germany in October.

According to the indictment, he was an active member of the Islamic State group from 2013 to 2019 in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

In 2015, Al-J. bought a Yazidi woman and her 5-year-old daughter as slaves at an IS base in Syria, prosecutors allege. The two had been taken as prisoners by the militants in northern Iraq at the beginning of August, 2014, and had been “sold and resold several times as slaves” by the group already.

“Taha Al-J. intended, according to the charges, to exterminate the religious minority of the Yazidis by his acquisition of the two Yazidi females, and to have personal benefits from their services in his household,” the Frankfurt state court said as the trial opened.

The United Nations has called the IS assault on the Yazidis’ ancestral homeland in northern Iraq in 2014 a genocide, saying the Yazidis’ 400,000-strong community “had all been displaced, captured or killed.” Of the thousands captured by IS, boys were forced to fight for the extremists, men were executed if they didn’t convert to Islam – and often executed in any case – and women and girls were sold into slavery.

After purchasing the woman and her daughter, Al-J. took the two to his household in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and forced them to “keep house and to live according to strict Islamic rules,” while giving them insufficient food and beating them regularly to punish them, according to the indictment.

Near the end of 2015, Al-J. chained the girl to the bars of a window in the open sun on a day where it reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and she died from the punishment, according to the indictment. Prosecutors in the case against Al-J.’s wife said the punishment was carried out because the 5-year-old had wet the bed.

The charges against Jennifer W. are based partially on the allegation that she did nothing to help the girl.

The Yazidi girl’s mother, who survived captivity, testified at W.’s trial and is also expected to appear as a witness at the trial of Al-J., according to the court.

W. , who quit school after completing eighth grade, grew up in Lower Saxony as a Protestant but converted to Islam in 2013.

She’s alleged to have made her way to Iraq through Turkey and Syria in 2014 to join the IS. In 2015, as a member of the extremist group’s “morality police,” she patrolled parks in Fallujah and Mosul, armed with an assault rifle and a pistol as well as an explosive vest and looking for women who did not conform with its strict codes of behavior and dress, prosecutors said.

She taken into custody when trying to renew her identity papers at the German embassy in Ankara in 2016, and deported back to Germany.

The trial against her husband is scheduled to resume April 27.

Hussain Manawer – I’m Ashamed lyrics

I’m ashamed

I’m ashamed to be citizen of this world
Where we breed corruption, deceit, and inequality between boys and girls
I’m ashamed of myself
Indulged in temptation, desire and wealth

I’m so ashamed I don’t cry I laugh
I’m ashamed my grandparents fought for my education whilst I bunked in
The park
I’m ashamed at my work rate, the generation before us kept it together
And worked hard
I’m ashamed we let the smallest things get
Political and tear us apart

I’m ashamed we value success via likes and shares
I’m ashamed we spend our pay cheques dancing to techno sounds, drums and
Snares
House parties, raves, west end bottles and flares
I’m so ashamed that I don’t even care

I’m ashamed we are so connected and equally disconnected similuationaly
I’m ashamed we watch polar ice caps melt and think it’s happened
Spontaneously

I’m ashamed that when I look up to the sky and think of my contribution
Its halfhearted prayers from my attic window and bags full of pollution

I’m ashamed my footprint is made of carbon
I’m ashamed I find more peace and solace with eesa watching in the night
Garden

I’m ashamed I burden my friendships with Ahmed and Sajid
And then send messages in the morning saying sorry about that its cool now
I can manage

I’m ashamed we are looked at by color
I’m ashamed our phones connect quicker to the Internet in someone’s
Home then our hearts do with each other

I’m ashamed the media has become a weapon of mass distraction
I’m ashamed the greatest hero of us all was a man made out of plastic but
We called him action

I’m ashamed that the people of Rohingya are dissolving within our eyes
I’m ashamed to be alive in a time were we are still using words like the
Holocaust and genocide
I’m ashamed it’s even a debate that Sandra Bland committed suicide

I’m ashamed freedom doesn’t come freely
I’m ashamed we don’t know the story of aafia sadiqee

I’m ashamed, that in my throat I feel a lump
And ashamed till the death of me that hundreds of years of slavery is only
Taught in a single month

I’m ashamed we did the mannequin challenge whilst the orphans were
Calling
I’m ashamed that Syria has lost its children and Aleppo has fallen

Im ashamed we didn’t focus in history and ran through our corridors
When we should have been learning about kunte kente, anne frank and how
Much heart it took to escape from sobibor

I’m ashamed our intelligence is artificial and cannot breathe
I’m ashamed we created a virtual world because we destroyed the world we
Can really see,
I’m ashamed we elected world’s leaders that cannot lead

I’m ashamed terror has depressed the planet
I’m ashamed anxiety is imbedding itself in the granite

I’m ashamed we will take this moment for what it is
And in a few hours be even more ashamed because I’ll continue like it
Didn’t exist

We travelled fast
But we moved slow,
We developed quick,
We didn’t grow

I learnt it all on Wanstead Park Bridge, in valentine’s park and belgrave
Road,
One thing I’m not ashamed to say is this, is home sweet home,