News & Current Affairs

July 26, 2009

US urges Syria on Mid-East peace

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US urges Syria on Mid-East peace

The United States has called for Syria’s “full co-operation” in trying to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.

Speaking after talks in Damascus, Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell said discussions with Syria’s president had been “candid and positive”.

Mr Mitchell said restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel was a “near-term goal”.

He later arrived in Israel, to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Mr Mitchell’s visit to Damascus was his second since June, amid a renewed US push for peace since President Obama took office earlier this year.

The envoy’s trip comes ahead of a string of visits to Israel this week by leading Obama administration officials, at a time when US-Israel relations are unusually strained.

‘Historic endeavour’

Mr Mitchell said he had told Syrian President Bashar Assad that Barack Obama was “determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace”.

Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points
Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister

“If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full co-operation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavour,” he said.

Correspondents say the visit was not expected to bring a breakthrough, but Syrian officials have been encouraged by Washington’s new willingness to listen.

Damascus is a major player in the region, because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its close links with Iran.

In the past, this made Syria a pariah in the eyes of the Bush administration, which cut virtually all ties with Syria, the BBC’s Natalia Antelava reports from Beirut.

Washington is a long way away from getting Damascus on its side, but for now at least, the atmosphere of hostility which dominated during the Bush administration seems to be a thing of the past, our correspondent says.

Syria was expected to lobby Mr Mitchell on the issue of the Golan Heights, a strategic mountainous area seized by Israel in 1967 which Syria wants back.

Syria’s official news agency quoted President Assad as stressing to Mr Mitchell “the Arab right to recover occupied lands through achieving a just and comprehensive peace.”

Direct talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the scale of a potential Israeli pull-back on the Golan Heights.

Sticking points

The diplomatic flurry comes at a time of strained relations between the US and Israel.

The BBC’s Middle East correspondent Katya Adler says Mr Obama has been leaning on Israel’s government unusually hard for an American president.

Washington has called on Israel to stop all Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, but Israel says it will not curb what it calls “natural growth” there.

Mr Mitchell arrived in Israel later on Sunday and met defence minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.

In an effort to kick-start stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, the envoy is due to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

Shortly before Mr Mitchell’s arrival in Israel, Mr Netanyahu said he hoped to reach an agreement with the US.

“This relationship is important and strong. Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach understanding,” he said.

As well as Mr Mitchell, US defence secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones are also due to hold talks in Israel.

Our correspondent says Iran and its nuclear programme will certainly be discussed.

Israelis say that is their top priority but arguably the focus of the visits will be the possibilities for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and also the wider Arab world, she notes.

November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

September 7, 2008

Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

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Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Thousands of Armenians lined the streets of the capital Yerevan Saturday, protesting the Turkish president who drove past in the first ever visit by a Turkish leader. Many held placards demanding justice for massacres that took place nearly 100 years ago.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Abdullah Gul arrived in Armenia to watch a Turkey vs. Armenia football World Cup qualifier game with President Serge Sarkisian that many hope will help the two countries overcome decades of antagonism rooted in Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians.

Gul is the first Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia since the ex-Soviet nation declared independence in 1991. The two neighbors have no diplomatic ties and their border has been closed since 1993.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Ties have also suffered from Turkey’s opposition to Armenia‘s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

As Gul left the airport, the presidential motorcade drove along streets lined with thousands of people holding up placards, mostly in English and Armenian, that read: “We want justice,” “Turk admit your guilt,” and “1915 never again.”

Others held up names of places in Turkey from which their ancestors were forced to leave as the Ottoman Empire uprooted Armenian communities between 1915 and 1922.

Little progress is expected on the genocide issue or on Nagorno-Karabakh when Gul meets Sarkisian for talks just before the game — which Turkey is favored to win.

Still, the visit is a sign of a diplomatic thaw.

“I hope that (the visit) will help lift the obstacles that stand in the way of rapprochement between the two peoples and contribute to regional friendship and peace,” Gul said before his departure.

Gul’s decision to accept Armenia’s invitation to the match is linked to Turkey’s desire to carve out a regional peacemaker role amid tensions sparked by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia.

Turkey, a NATO member, has cause for alarm about how Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia might inspire its own separatist Kurds, or provoke Armenia to boost support for separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the wake of the Georgia conflict, Turkey proposed a regional grouping for stability in the Caucasus that would include Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“About a month ago, we all saw how conflicts that have remained unresolved threatened regional stability and peace in the Caucasus,” Gul said in reference to the Georgia crisis.

Armenia is the last of Turkey‘s neighbors with whom Ankara has failed to mend ties since the end of the Cold War. Turkey has gradually improved relations with old foes such as Greece, Bulgaria and Syria.

Improved ties with Armenia are likely to help lift strains on Turkey’s relations with other countries that have or plan to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.

In October, a measure that would have declared the Armenian deaths as genocide in the U.S. Congress was stopped after President George W. Bush’s administration warned relations with strategic ally Turkey would be damaged.

On the plane, Gul paid tribute to the Armenian president.

“President Sarkisian was brave in taking the opportunity of inviting me to this game,” he said.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara, in order to pressure Yerevan into ending the conflict. he move has hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia.

Armenia’s bitter ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have resulted in the tiny country being excluded from strategic energy pipelines that connect Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia.

Armenians, supported by numerous scholars, claim an organized genocide was carried out in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and are pushing for the killings to be recognized as among history’s worst atrocities.

Turkey contends the 1.5 million death toll is wildly inflated. It also says the Armenians were killed or displaced in civil unrest during the chaos that surrounded the empire’s collapse.

Turkey has called for the establishment of a committee of scholars to study the WWI events in a bid to improve ties, but Armenia has declined to consider this until relations are forged.

August 14, 2008

Lebanon-Syria to demarcate border

Lebanon-Syria to demarcate border

Syrian and Lebanese presidents and first ladies

Suleiman’s visit assures progress in badly strained bilateral ties since 2005

Lebanon and Syria have agreed to resume work on formally demarcating their common border as part of efforts to repair years of strained relations.

However, Syria said the work on borders would not cover one of the most contentious areas, the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, until Israel withdrew.

Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman is currently in Damascus for talks with his counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

They also confirmed the setting up of diplomatic ties for the first time.

If the Syrians will go ahead and demarcate the border between Lebanon and Syria, and respect its sovereignty in other ways, then this will have proved to be a very good step
Condoleezza Rice
US Secretary of State

The leaders also agreed to make further efforts to discover what happened to hundreds of Lebanese people who disappeared during the civil war.

Some Lebanese groups accuse Syria of holding them as detainees.

Bi-lateral treaties, which some Lebanese believe are too favourable to Syria, will also be reviewed.

Assad to Beirut

The outcome of the negotiations was announced at news conference by the two foreign ministers, Syria’s Walid Muallem and Lebanon’s Fawzi Salukh.

Other items agreed between the two sides included tackling corruption, economic co-operation and commitment to Arab initiatives in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In addition, President Assad accepted an invitation to visit Lebanon at a date to be decided soon, the foreign ministers said.

Lebanon and Syria have had badly strained relations since the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005. Many Lebanese blame Syria for the killing, but it has repeatedly and adamantly denied involvement.

Syria kept a large military and intelligence presence in Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1990, but it was forced to withdraw after the Hariri assassination because of massive public pressure in Lebanon with strong international support.

Settling relations with Syria is a top priority for the new government in Lebanon.

The US cautiously welcomed developments saying the opening of embassies was “one of the steps that has long been required”.

“Now, if the Syrians will go ahead and demarcate the border between Lebanon and Syria, and respect its sovereignty in other ways, then this will have proved to be a very good step,” US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said.

Lebanon chief mends ties in Syria

Lebanon chief mends ties in Syria

The Lebanese and Syrian presidents have been holding talks in Damascus, where they formally confirmed a move to establish full diplomatic relations.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman was given a red-carpet welcome by President Bashar al-Assad, the first such visit after a turbulent three years.

Tension has been high since the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Many Lebanese blame Damascus for the killing, but it denies involvement.

The two leaders were meeting in the Syrian capital a month after a summit in Paris, where they agreed to establish diplomatic ties and open embassies.

“The two presidents… have instructed their foreign ministers to take the necessary steps in this regard, starting from today,” said Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Assad.

The Arab neighbours are set to normalise relations for the first time since the Arab neighbours gained independence from France in the 1940s.

Hours before Mr Suleiman flew to Damascus for the two-day visit, a bomb exploded in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, the scene of fierce street fighting between pro- and anti-Syria supporters since May.

Lebanon’s pro-Syrian parliament speaker Nabih Berri said the timing of the attack was meant “to prevent the improvement of Lebanese-Syrian relations”.

Syria’s foreign ministry called the attack a “criminal act” and voiced support for Lebanon “in the face of all those who are manipulating its security and stability”.

Tough issues

The BBC’s Bethany Bell in Damascus says despite progress in relations between the two nations, potential stumbling blocks remain – not least over the international tribunal into the death of Mr Hariri.

Past international investigators said Syrian intelligence and its Lebanese associates had played a role, although the report of the latest prosecutor – Daniel Bellemare of Canada – spoke of a criminal network without saying whether it had political motives.

Syrian officials have consistently and strenuously denied any Syrian role.

Syria kept a large military and intelligence presence in Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1990, but it was forced to withdraw after the Hariri assassination because of massive public pressure in Lebanon with strong international support.

Settling relations with Syria is a top priority for the new government in Lebanon.

The unity coalition was formed after the Qatari-mediated Doha accord which ended months of deadlock and bouts of violence between pro-Syria factions and supporters of the Western-backed government.

The Doha accord also allowed the installation of former army chief Mr Suleiman as president, a candidate deemed acceptable on both sides of the political divide.

Other issues for discussion in Damascus are likely to be demarcating the mountainous Lebanon-Syria border and determining the fate of Lebanese detainees in Syria.

August 13, 2008

Lebanese city rocked by bus bomb

Lebanese city rocked by bus bomb

At least 11 people have been killed by a blast in the center of the Lebanese city of Tripoli, the military says.

Security officials said a bomb went off close to a bus whose passengers included a number of off-duty soldiers.

The port city has been the scene of sectarian fighting in recent months in which more than 20 people have died.

The attack comes a day after the new national unity government won a vote of confidence and as President Michel Suleiman was due to travel to Syria.

The hands of the criminals have hit in Tripoli against innocent soldiers and civilians
Tareq Mitri, Information Minister

No-one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which also wounded at least 30 people.Some reports put the number of dead at 18.

Nine of those killed were reported to be soldiers who had been travelling on the bus. The army has said it believes it was directly targeted by the attack.

Mr Suleiman described the explosion as “a terrorist act”.

“The army and security forces will not be terrorised by attacks and crimes that target it and civil society, and the history of the army attests to that”, he said in a statement.

Syria’s foreign ministry said it “staunchly denounced the criminal attack that killed many innocent civilians”.

‘Many interpretations’

Lebanese Red Cross volunteers help a wounded man in Tripoli (13/08/2008)

Reports say at least 30 people were injured by the blast

Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri told reporters in Beirut that an investigation was taking place but he did not speculate on who had been behind the attack.”The investigation has begun and there are many interpretations, political interpretations”

Mr Mitri said the government would “make every effort” to support the people of Tripoli.

“The hands of the criminals have hit in Tripoli against innocent soldiers and civilians”, he said.

“Once again, they want our country to be an arena for settling scores and battling for influence.”

Correspondents said it appeared the bomb was intended to disrupt the groundbreaking presidential visit, which was hoped to patch up years of stormy relations between the two neighbours.

The bomb went off in Masarif Street in Tripoli’s busy commercial district.

TV footage showed the surrounding area spattered with blood and covered in broken glass. The strength of the explosion blew debris and body parts onto nearby roofs.

Troubled city

Lebanon

In recent months, Tripoli has seen a series of clashes between the city’s majority Sunni Muslim community, who mainly support the anti-Syrian movement, and members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, linked to the powerful political and militant group Hezbollah.Mr Suleiman, the president, was due to travel to Syria on Wednesday for talks with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad.

The BBC’s Bethany Bell, in Damascus, says his visit marks a gradual thaw in relations between the two countries, which have been strained since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

They planned to discuss demarcating their shared border and setting up diplomatic relations for the first time since independence in the 1940s.

Many Lebanese blame Syria for the Hariri killing, but Damascus has consistently denied any involvement.

Tuesday’s vote gave the formal go-ahead for a government which brings together the anti-Syrian bloc, backed by Western powers and Sunni-led Arab governments, and former opposition groups led by Hezbollah and backed by Syria and Iran.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the bombing “will not affect the launching of our government”.


Are you in Tripoli? Have you been affected by the blast? Send your comments

August 7, 2008

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

JERUSALEM – Israel is building up its strike capabilities amid growing anxiety over Iran‘s nuclear ambitions and appears confident that a military attack would cripple Tehran’s atomic program, even if it can’t destroy it.

Such talk could be more threat than reality. However, Iran’s refusal to accept Western conditions is worrying Israel as is the perception that Washington now prefers diplomacy over confrontation with Tehran.

The Jewish state has purchased 90 F-16I fighter planes that can carry enough fuel to reach Iran, and will receive 11 more by the end of next year. It has bought two new Dolphin submarines from Germany reportedly capable of firing nuclear-armed warheads — in addition to the three it already has.

And this summer it carried out air maneuvers in the Mediterranean that touched off an international debate over whether they were a “dress rehearsal” for an imminent attack, a stern warning to Iran or a just a way to get allies to step up the pressure on Tehran to stop building nukes.

According to foreign media reports, Israeli intelligence is active inside Iranian territory. Israel’s military censor, who can impose a range of legal sanctions against journalists operating in the country, does not permit publication of details of such information in news reports written from Israel.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear program took on new urgency this week after U.S. officials rejected Tehran’s response to an incentives package aimed at getting it to stop sensitive nuclear activity — setting the stage for a fourth round of international sanctions against the country.

Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear power, sees an atomic bomb in Iranian hands as a direct threat to its existence.

Israel believes Tehran will have enriched enough uranium for a nuclear bomb by next year or 2010 at the latest. The United States has trimmed its estimate that Iran is several years or as much as a decade away from being able to field a bomb, but has not been precise about a timetable. In general U.S. officials think Iran isn’t as close to a bomb as Israel claims, but are concerned that Iran is working faster than anticipated to add centrifuges, the workhorses of uranium enrichment.

“If Israeli, U.S., or European intelligence gets proof that Iran has succeeded in developing nuclear weapons technology, then Israel will respond in a manner reflecting the existential threat posed by such a weapon,” said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking at a policy forum in Washington last week.

“Israel takes (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding its destruction seriously. Israel cannot risk another Holocaust,” Mofaz said.

The Iranian leader has in the past called for Israel’s elimination, though his exact remarks have been disputed. Some translators say he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” while others say a better translation would be “vanish from the pages of time” — implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment is meant only for electricity generation, not a bomb — an assertion that most Western nations see as disingenuous.

Israeli policymakers and experts have been debating for quite some time whether it would even be possible for Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear program. The mission would be far more complicated than a 1981 Israeli raid that destroyed Iraq’s partially built Osirak nuclear reactor, or an Israeli raid last year on what U.S. intelligence officials said was another unfinished nuclear facility in Syria.

In Iran, multiple atomic installations are scattered throughout the country, some underground or bored into mountains — unlike the Iraqi and Syrian installations, which were single aboveground complexes.

Still, the Syria action seemed to indicate that Israel would also be willing to use force preemptively against Iran.

“For Israel this is not a target that cannot be achieved,” said Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, former head of Israel’s army intelligence.

However, it’s unlikely Israel would carry out an attack without approval from the United States.

Recent signs that Washington may be moving away from a military option — including a proposal to open a low-level U.S. diplomatic office in Tehran and a recent decision to allow a senior U.S. diplomat to participate alongside Iran in international talks in Geneva — are not sitting very well with Israel.

That may help explain recent visits to Jerusalem by Mike McConnell, the U.S. director of national intelligence, and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each of whom delivered a message to Israel that it does not have a green light to attack Iran at this time.

Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they do not wish to appear at odds with their most important ally, said they were concerned about a possible softening of the U.S. stance toward Iran.

Apparently to allay Israeli concerns, Bush administration officials last week assured visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the U.S. has not ruled out the possibility of a military strike on Iran. And the U.S., aware of Israel’s high anxiety over Iran’s nukes, is also hooking Israel up to an advanced missile detection system known as X-Band to guard against any future attack by Iran, said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions over the issue have not been made public.

With sanctions and diplomacy still the international community’s preferred method to get Iran to stop building the bomb, an Israeli strike does not appear imminent.

If it did attack, however, Israel would have to contend with upgraded Iranian defense capabilities, including 29 new Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile systems Iran purchased from Russia last year in a $700 million deal.

Russia has so far not gone through with a proposed sale to Iran of S-300 surface-to-air missiles, an even more powerful air defense system than the Tor-M1. An Israeli defense official said the deal is still on the table, however. This is a big source of consternation for Israel because the system could significantly complicate a pre-emptive Israeli assault on Iran.

Military experts say an Israeli strike would require manned aircraft to bombard multiple targets and heavy precision bombs that can blast through underground bunkers — something Israel failed to do in its 2006 war against Hezbollah. It’s widely assumed that Israel is seeking to obtain bunker buster bombs, if it hasn’t already done so.

Elite ground troops could also be necessary to penetrate the most difficult sites, though Israeli military planners say they see that option as perhaps too risky.

America’s ability to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities is far superior to Israel’s.

Unlike Israel, the United States has cruise missiles that can deliver high-explosive bombs to precise locations and B-2 bombers capable of dropping 85 500-pound bombs in a single run.

Yet the cost of an attack — by the U.S., Israel or both — is likely to be enormous.

Iran could halt oil production and shut down tanker traffic in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which could send the price of crude skyrocketing and wreck Western economies.

It could stir up trouble for the U.S. in Iraq by revving up Shiite militias there just as Washington is showing some important gains in reining in Iraqi chaos.

It could activate its militant proxies in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, from where Israel could come under heavy rocket attack. And it could strike Israel with its arsenal of Shahab-3 long-range missiles — something Israel is hoping to guard against through its Arrow missile defense system.

Perhaps most importantly, any strike on Iran — especially if it’s done without having exhausted all diplomatic channels — could have the opposite of the desired effect, “actually increasing the nationalist fervor to build a nuclear weapon,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli and expert on Iranian affairs.

Whether an attack on Iran would be worth its cost would depend on how long the nuclear program could be delayed, said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“A two, three-year delay is not worth it. For a five to 10-year delay I would say yes,” he said.

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