Barcelona and Cambrils attacks: What we know so far

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BBC)

 

Barcelona and Cambrils attacks: What we know so far

People wait to enter the area after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain August 17, 2017Image copyright REUTERS
Image caption Barcelona is one of Europe’s most popular cities for tourists

There have been two attacks in Spain’s Catalonia region involving people driving cars at crowds at high-speeds.

Here is what we know so far.

What happened?

On Thursday afternoon at 16:50 local time (14:50 GMT) a white van smashed into people on Las Ramblas, a famous boulevard in central Barcelona that runs 1.2km (0.75 miles) and was packed with tourists.

The van driver is said to have zig-zagged to try and hit as many people as possible along the pedestrianised area, knocking many to the floor and sending others fleeing for cover in shops and cafes.

He killed 13 people and injured more than 100, and managed to flee the scene.

Spanish police have described it as a terror attack.

Barcelona map

What was the second attack?

About eight hours later, an Audi A3 car ploughed into pedestrians in the popular seaside resort town of Cambrils, 110km (68 miles) south-west of Barcelona.

Six civilians were injured, one critically, and a police officer was hurt too.

Five attackers, some of whom appeared to be wearing suicide belts, were then shot by police. Four died at the scene and one later died of his injuries.

Controlled explosions were carried out and authorities later said the explosive belts were fake.

Both the Las Ramblas and Cambrils attacks are believed to be linked.

Who has been arrested?

On Thursday, one person from Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla was arrested in Alcanar and a Moroccan was arrested in Ripoll. Both are towns in Catalonia – the same region as Barcelona.

Police say neither of the pair arrested was the driver.

Documents belonging to the Moroccan, 28-year-old Driss Oubakir, were allegedly used to rent the van used in the Las Ramblas attack but local media report he says his papers were stolen and used without his knowledge.

He arrived in Barcelona from Morocco on 13 August, the El Pais newspaper reports, citing police sources.

On Friday, police announced another arrest in Ripoll. It remains unclear how many people were involved in the plots.

Weren’t there other incidents too?

On Thursday evening at 19:30 local time, a car was driven into officers at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Barcelona.

The car was later found with a dead man inside it, but the interior ministry has denied earlier reports he was killed by police gunfire. He is not believed to be linked to the Las Ramblas attack, officials say, but investigations are ongoing

On Wednesday night, an explosion completely destroyed a house in Alcanar, 200km south of Barcelona, killing one person and wounding seven.

Media caption What was it like to be caught up in the Barcelona attack?

The house was filled with bottles of propane and butane, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported (in Spanish).

That incident is believed to be connected to Thursday’s events.

Who are the victims?

They come from all over the world, with at least 24 nationalities represented.

People from Ireland, France, Australia, China, Pakistan, Venezuela, Algeria, Peru, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines are all reported to be among the victims.

Aftermath of Barcelona attack in pictures

Belgium said one of its citizens was killed and France said 26 of its nationals were injured, 11 seriously. The Australian government said at least four citizens were injured.

Who is responsible?

So-called Islamic State (IS) has said it was behind the Las Ramblas attack and that IS “soldiers” carried it out. But it did not provide any evidence or details to back up the claim.

Why Spain?

The country is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations but in recent years has not seen the kind of jihadist violence that has rocked France, the UK, Belgium and Germany.

Still, Spain has been targeted before – several trains in Madrid, the capital, were bombed by al-Qaeda inspired militants in 2004, killing 191 people.

The IS news agency, Amaq, said the attack was carried out as part of efforts to target states fighting in the US-led anti-IS coalition.

A few hundred Spanish soldiers are in Iraq, training local forces fighting the Sunni militant group.

How much jihadist activity is there in the country?

The number of operations carried out against jihadists has increased significantly since Spain raised its terror alert level to four out of five in June 2015, meaning there was “high risk” of a terror attack.

Before these attacks, 51 suspected jihadists had already been detained in the country this year, while 69 were detained last year, and 75 were detained in 2015, according to El Pais.

Security and surveillance was stepped up in the wake of truck attacks in the French city of Nice in July 2016 and the German capital Berlin in December.

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Why a Referendum Won’t Solve Iraqi Kurdistan’s Problems

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

Opinion

Why a Referendum Won’t Solve Iraqi Kurdistan’s Problems

There’s a lingering impression in Washington that Iraqi Kurdistan is what it was five years ago, before the rise of ISIS: a peaceful, prospering, emerging pro-Western democracy whose aspirations for full independence from Iraq are increasingly hard to ignore.

Unfortunately, a great deal has changed since then, thanks to war, the US retreat from the region and the Kurds’ own dysfunctions. As the ISIS slowly crumbles to its south and west, Kurdistan is politically and economically broken. President Masoud Barzani remains in office four years after his term ended, and parliament has not met in almost two years. The government is deeply in debt and can scarcely afford to pay the three-quarters of the workforce who are state employees. The army and security services are divided into rival factions.

Barzani’s reaction to this distress has been to schedule a referendum on Kurdish independence for Sept. 25. The initiative has been rejected not just by the Iraqi federal government, but also by Kurdistan’s powerful neighbors Iran and Turkey, as well as the United States. More significantly, it is being viewed even by staunchly pro-independence Kurds as evidence that the region’s politics have reached a dangerous dead end.

The referendum is “an excuse by Kurdish leaders to remain in power,” says Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir, the owner of Kurdistan’s independent NRT television network. “The younger generation doesn’t know anything about their fight in the mountains against Saddam Hussein. So the old leaders need another excuse to run the country for another 26 years.”

Those bitter words reflect Qadir’s perspective as one of a rising generation of Kurds — and Iraqis — struggling over how to create stable political institutions and a working economy amid the mess of sectarian conflicts, extremist movements and corrupt establishments littered across the post-ISIS landscape.

An independent television network is, at least, a place to start. While most Iraqi media are controlled by the government or political parties, Qadir is one of Kurdistan’s few self-made magnates: Born in the city of Sulaymaniyah, he started peddling electronic games as a teenager and became one of Kurdistan’s largest real estate developers before founding NRT in 2011, at the age of 32.

Launched under the slogan “courage, balance, truth,” the network saw its first office attacked and burned within a week of opening; Qadir blames militants from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the region’s two historical political forces. Two years later he survived an assassination attempt. Kurdish authorities have closed NRT’s offices and arrested its journalists on multiple occasions. Yet it has persisted and flourished: It now has two Kurdish channels, an Arabic channel covering all of Iraq, and an English-language website.

A referendum, Qadir says, might prompt Turkey to shut down that pipeline, through which Kurdistan exports the relative trickle of petroleum that is its only reliable revenue. It also might cause the Turks and Iran to back opposing factions of the army, which is divided between the PUK and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, triggering a resumption of the civil war they fought in the 1990s.

“What kind of Kurdistan would we have?” Qadir asked. “Would we have South Korea or South Sudan?”


The Washington Post

Martial Law Will Be Extended in the Philippines

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME WORLD)

Martial Law Will Be Extended in the Philippines

9:24 AM ET

(MANILA, Philippines) — The Philippine Congress on Saturday overwhelmingly approved the president’s appeal for martial law in the south to be extended to the end of the year to help troops quell a two-month siege by Islamic State group-linked militants and stamp out similar extremist plots in the volatile region.

House of Representatives Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez announced that senators and House members voted 261-18 in favor of granting President Rodrigo Duterte’s request in a special joint session. The 60-day martial law was to expire late Saturday.

The military chief of staff, Gen. Eduardo Ano, warned during the session that aside from the uprising in Marawi, extremist groups have plotted similar insurrections in other southern cities and that martial law has helped troops stop attacks, including bombings, elsewhere.

“There was an order for them to do their own version of Marawi in other areas, but we were able to stop this because of martial law,” Ano told the legislators.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana played down concerns of military abuses, saying no major human rights violations have been reported since Duterte declared martial law to deal with the Marawi violence, the worst crisis in his yearlong presidency.

Some opponents argued that government forces could deal with the attack in lakeside Marawi, a center of Islamic faith in the southern third of the largely Roman Catholic nation, without resorting to martial law. Others worried that the extension was too long and that the rest of the country may eventually be placed under martial rule.

Left-wing activists opposed to Duterte’s declaration rallied outside Congress. Some unfurled protest posters in the plenary hall but were forced out by security officers.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros recalled how civil liberties were curtailed and Congress was padlocked when dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in the Philippines in 1972. Marcos was ousted in a “people power” revolt in 1986.

Since the Marawi fighting broke out on May 23, at least 428 militants, 105 soldiers and policemen, and 45 civilians have been killed. Half a million residents have been displaced, according to the military.

During the daylong special session of Congress, a wounded army officer, 1st Lt. Kent Fagyan, told how troops smashed concrete walls of houses and buildings with sledgehammers to advance slowly toward militant positions away from sniper fire. Troops dealt with booby traps and had to wrest back control of Marawi communities room by room, he said, adding that the militants had powerful machine guns, drones and “seemingly unlimited ammunition.”

“Inside, you can’t eat on time, you can’t sleep because you’ll be awakened by explosions here and there starting in the morning up to evening for almost 24 hours,” Fagyan said.

“On behalf of my colleagues, who are still fighting in Marawi, we thank you for your continued support,” he said. “We feel that we’re not alone fighting them with the clothes and water that you sent over.”

The siege on Marawi started when more than 600 heavily armed fighters, waving Islamic State group-style black flags, stormed into the city, occupying buildings, houses and mosques and taking hostages. Several foreign fighters, including 20 Indonesians and a Malaysian financier known as Mahmud bin Ahmad, joined the insurrection, Duterte said in a letter to Congress this past week.

Duterte wrote in his letter that the leadership of the Marawi siege “largely remains intact despite the considerable decline in the number of rebels fighting in the main battle area.” Other radical armed bands “are ready to reinforce Isnilon Hapilon’s group or launch diversionary attacks and similar uprisings elsewhere,” he said, referring to the leader of the attackers.

Intelligence reports that Hapilon sent funds and ordered allied militants to launch attacks in key cities across the south have been validated, Duterte said.

The attackers’ lasting power and large arsenal of weapons have surprised Duterte and his top security officials, who acknowledged they underestimated the combat strength of the militants and their preparations, including the stockpiling of assault firearms in Marawi. Troops long used to fighting insurgents in the jungles have struggled to rout the gunmen from Marawi’s dense urban sprawl.

The crisis has sparked alarm that the Islamic State group may be gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia through allied local militants, as it faces major setbacks in Syria and Iraq. The United States and Australia have deployed surveillance planes to Marawi, and China has provided weapons for Filipino troops, including those fighting in the besieged city.

Trump and Putin’s Syria Ceasefire Effectively Lets Assad Off the Hook

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM)

Trump and Putin’s Syria Ceasefire Effectively Lets Assad Off the Hook

12:55 PM ET

Two weeks after the White House threatened to impose a “heavy price” on Syrian President Bashar Assad if it launched a new chemical attack, President Donald Trump’s first attempt at peacemaking looks set to keep the autocrat in power for the foreseeable future.

A regional ceasefire took hold in Syria’s southwest [when], following negotiations with Russia and Jordan. It’s the newest curveball in the Trump administration’s evolving policy on Syria, which has gone from bombing Assad’s military in April and shooting a Syrian warplane from the sky in June, to the new ceasefire deal and renewed calls for cooperation with Assad’s chief outside supporter, Russia.

Observers and former U.S. officials say the ceasefire deal effectively guarantees Assad’s regime remains in place, in spite of Trump administration rhetoric to the contrary. Trump discussed the Syrian truce during his first face-to-face meeting as president with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany on Friday.

“My sense is that the Trump administration is resigned to the fact that the Assad regime has been secured by Iran and Russia for the indefinite future,” Fred Hof, a former U.S. special envoy on Syria under President Barack Obama, told TIME in an email. “They are forced – in large measure due to five plus years of Obama administration policy paralysis – to put Syrian political transition on the back burner.”

The ceasefire deal illustrates a new political reality as diplomatic attempts to resolve the six-year-old Syrian crisis as a whole give way to piecemeal efforts to deescalate the conflict in different parts of the country. Following more than a year of Russian-supported military gains by the government of President Bashar Assad, few now expect a broad national peace agreement between the regime and the rebel groups arrayed against it.

“There is no integrated solution for Syria anymore, at least for the time being in Washington,” says Joseph Bahout, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, speaking to TIME from Paris. “The core of the problem, the political question, the Assad aspect, the transition; today it’s off the hook. Today this is on the shelf,” he adds.

International diplomacy has focussed lately on containing, rather than resolving the conflict as a whole. In May, Russia, Iran, and Turkey (a key supporter of the Syrian opposition) agreed to a plan to establish a series of four “de-escalation zones” in sections of the country held by the opposition. It achieved limited success in calming fighting between rebels and the regime.

The new ceasefire calls for Jordan and Russia to restrain Syrian rebels and the regime, respectively, along the existing front line in Syria’s southwest, according to an senior State Department official who briefed reporters on Friday. Russia, the United States and Jordan released few other specifics of the agreement. No text of the deal was made public, and it was not clear how the truce would be enforced or monitored.

The new truce could yet provide relief to people living in three provinces in southwestern Syria, if it holds: Daraa, Suwayda, and Quneitra. The southwest has long been a redoubt of mainstream rebel groups who oppose both Assad and extremist groups, owing in part to support from the United States and Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south. Assad and allied forces have intensified attacks on rebel-held areas in the south since February. Past national ceasefires have unravelled within days or weeks. Human rights monitors and President Trump claimed that the ceasefire held, at least in its opening hours.

Syrian ceasefire seems to be holding. Many lives can be saved. Came out of meeting. Good!

Others weren’t certain it would be durable. “Is the ceasefire actually going to lead to a reduction in hostilities and violence in the south? That remains to be seen,” said Charmain Mohamed, a Jordan-based Advocacy Advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Past diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s civil war have sought to broker a peace deal between Assad and a spectrum of rebel groups who demand his removal from power. Those talks collapsed last year as Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, launched a ferocious offensive that reclaimed territory lost to the rebels, including the insurgent stronghold of Aleppo. The loss of the northwestern city was a historic blow to the rebellion that all but ended maximalist hopes of future military success against Assad.

More than six years on from the mass uprising against Assad that spawned Syria’s civil war, the contours of the conflict are shifting. After years in which the United States supported armed opposition groups but avoided direct conflict with Assad, the U.S. military struck Assad’s forces and allied troops at least four times since April, beginning with a cruise missile strike in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 70 people. In June, hostilities escalated again when American forces shot down a Syrian government warplane that attacked U.S.-allied militias on the ground eastern Syria.

The U.S. posture toward Assad is now difficult to gauge. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated a call for a “transition away from the Assad family,” but also acknowledged that there was no plan in place to replace the current regime. Speaking to reporters in Hamburg, Tillerson said of Russian policy in Syria, “Maybe they’ve got the right approach and we’ve got the wrong approach.”

Under Trump, the U.S. has focused its efforts in Syria on fighting ISIS, sending additional troops to support Kurdish-led militias now battling their way into the jihadists’ stronghold in the eastern city of Raqqa. The ISIS-focused approach has placed diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict as a whole on the backburner.

The ceasefire agreement overshadowed a new round of United Nations-brokered peace talks taking place in Geneva on Monday. Bahout, the analyst, said few expected any progress. “No one is betting one dollar on that,” he said.

U.S. Backed Rebels Have Broken Through Raqqa’s Old Cities Walls: ISIS Caliphate Is On It’s Way To Hell

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

US-backed rebels have breached a strategic wall surrounding the Old City of Raqqa in ISIS’s self-declared capital on Monday, US Central Command has said in a statement.

Breaching the Rafiqah Wall means the Syrian Democratic Forces will be able to penetrate Raqqa’s Old City, the last redoubt of ISIS defenders in the city. The ancient wall — first constructed in the 8th century by the Abbasid dynasty and stretching around the Old City on three sides — has provided important fortification for ISIS.
The operation was “a key milestone” in the campaign to “liberate the city,” Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, said on his official Twitter account.
In a CENTCOM statement, the US added: “Coalition forces supported the SDF advance into the most heavily fortified portion of Raqqa by opening two small gaps in the Rafiqah Wall that surrounds the Old City.”
The battle for Raqqa is not dissimilar to that of Mosul, where US-backed Iraqi forces are fighting to expel the last of ISIS fighters from Iraq’s second-largest city. But the fight to retake Raqqa has gone quicker, with attacking forces gradually forcing a diminishing number of ISIS fighters into a smaller area of narrow streets around the ancient mosque of Rafiqa, which has already been extensively damaged.
The Rafiqah Wall — which is 3 kilometers from the city center — is approximately 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) long, 3.8 meters (12.4 feet) high and 1 meter thick, Syrian state media reported in 2009.
ISIS fighters had planted mines and improvised explosive devices at several breaks in the wall, a US Central Command (CENTCOM) statement said.
“The portions targeted were 25-meter sections and will help preserve the remainder of the overall 2,500-meter wall,” CENTCOM said.
CENTCOM and the SDF did not specify which area of the wall was breached.
The SDF launched an offensive to seize Raqqa on June 6. For more than three years, ISIS has used Raqqa as a staging ground for its deadly attacks on the Middle East and further overseas.
The group is running out of places to go. If ISIS is evicted from Raqqa it will lose the last vestige of any “governance” of its so-called caliphate. But it’s not just losing control of territory, it will also lose the facility to move freely between Syria and Iraq — especially since Iraqi militia seized the key town of Baaj last month.
The coalition hopes that the loss of Raqqa and Mosul will dull ISIS’ appeal to potential recruits.
“It’s hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin ‘capitals’ in both Iraq and Syria,” General Steve Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, said.

This Is The Week President Trump Meets President Putin Face To Face In Germany At G-20 Summit

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ABC NEWS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin will demand the return of two diplomatic compounds seized by the United States when he meets in Germany this week with President Trump for the first time, the Kremlin said, as a senior Russian official warned that Moscow’s patience on the issue was running out.

Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said his government showed “unusual flexibility” by not retaliating in December when then-President Obama confiscated the two compounds, in New York state and Maryland, and expelled 35 Russian diplomats as punishment for Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Ushakov urged Washington to “free Russia from the need to take retaliatory moves,” according to The Associated Press.

The White House has reportedly been mulling returning the compounds in an effort to improve relations with Moscow, and in recent days Russian officials have warned that retaliatory measures have been drawn up if the compounds are not returned. They were nominally used by the Russian Embassy as recreational facilities, but U.S. intelligence has long argued they were bases for espionage.

In a separate statement released today, the Kremlin said Putin would raise the issue with Trump when the two meet in Hamburg, Germany, where the G-20 summit is being held Saturday. The statement said that the Kremlin expected Putin would convey the need to find the “most rapid resolution” on the issue, which it described as an “irritant” in Russian-U.S. relations.

The two leaders’ first meeting is highly anticipated, coming as investigations continue into possible collusion between members of Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian officials and as relations between Moscow and Washington are being described as at their worst since the Cold War.

There has been intense speculation for months over when the two presidents might come face to face. Since confirming the meeting

last week, the White House has been light on details about what they will discuss.

“There’s no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about,” Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters last week.

McMaster said administration officials had been tasked with drawing up options to confront Russia over “destabilizing behavior,” including cyber threats and political subversion, as well as looking for ways to cooperate on issues such as Syria and North Korea.

Today the Kremlin was more specific, issuing a broad list of areas where it said it believed it could cooperate with the United States. The top issues listed for discussion were Russia’s dissatisfaction with U.S. sanctions, its desire to cooperate on international terrorism, the Syria crisis and improving efforts around nuclear arms control.

Most of the issues resembled those the Kremlin frequently raised with the Obama administration, and the statement emphasized Moscow’s desire for a return to normal relations.

There is “significant potential for coordinating efforts,” the Kremlin statement said. “Our countries can do much together in resolving regional crises,” including Ukraine, Libya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The statement also said Russia was eager to restore business links with the United States.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday told the news agency Interfax he hoped the meeting would lend clarity to the relationship and warned that not seeking to normalize relations would be a “huge mistake.”

In reality, however, it’s unclear that, beyond the return of the diplomatic compounds, there is much Putin and Trump will be able to ask of each other. In many areas, U.S. and Russian interests have little overlap, and that has not appeared to change under Trump.

On Syria the two have clashed, and last month a U.S. fighter shot down a war plane belonging to Russia’s ally President Bashar al-Assad. The White House has said sanctions will not be lifted on Russia until it withdraws from Crimea, and in the Senate both parties are drawing up more sanctions to punish Russia for its alleged election meddling.

“I don’t think we should expect any kind of breakthrough,” said Maria Lipman, a veteran political analyst in Moscow. “I don’t think we should expect any significant results from this meeting. Not even the beginning of solutions to the major issues.”

During the presidential campaign and after the election, some Russian officials and state media expressed optimism that Trump would mean better relations with the United States. But such hopes have so far largely not materialized.

Lipman said she believes there is a growing realization in the Kremlin of Trump’s severely restricted ability to alter U.S. policy toward Moscow, given the intensity of the scandal around the Russia investigations.

Iraqi V.P. Ayad Allawi Says That The U.S. Is “Absent” From Being In A Leadership Role In Middle-East

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

The United States has no clear plan for dealing with the various crises it faces in the Middle East, according to one of the top US allies in the fight against ISIS.

The Iraqi Vice President, Ayad Allawi, said the US was “absent” from its traditional role in maintaining global stability.
“There is a vacuum in the overall leadership in the world,” Allawi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, in an interview airing Friday. “The Americans need to … get back to their role as an international power, an important international power.”
“To me, there is no international strategy — no strategy for the alliances that are fighting and have helped us in this part of the fight.”
Iraqi forces, supported by the US, are in pitched battleto retake the last blocks from ISIS control in Western Mosul, the extremist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.
Allawi said that the despite the imminent military victory, the US lacked a broader strategy for fighting extremism, saying it was “absent” and lacked “clear-cut policies.”
Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster insisted that US strategy in the region was working well. “We are being successful with our partners in Syria. We are being successful with our Iraqi partners,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
But Allawi said the US had abandoned its leadership role.

Iraqi troops closing in on ISIS in Mosul

Iraqi troops closing in on ISIS in Mosul
“There is no clear-cut policies where to go and what to do,” Allawi said. “Even for Iraq, it’s still premature. I think they are still deliberating on a kind of a strategy for Iraq. Nothing yet has materialized.”
A wide spectrum of international forces — including the US, the Kurds, Iran,and the governments of Syria and Iraq, — have succeeded in fighting ISIS back from the stunning territorial victories it gained in 2014.
Mosul is now almost back in Iraqi government hands; across the border, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters, launched the final phase of their battle to recapture Raqqa earlier this month.
But Iraq has intelligence that ISIS is attempting to “forge an alliance” with Al Qaeda, the Islamist group from which it was spawned in 2013, Allawi warned.
Discussions are taking place in both Iraq and Syria, he said — mediated by former al Qaeda members who never joined ISIS. “It is the unification of the evil forces,” he said.

Why Iran and Israel may be on the verge of conflict — in Syria

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK POST)

Why Iran and Israel may be on the verge of conflict — in Syria

TEL AVIV  — Some Israelis like to go to the Golan, where from the safety of a ramp overlooking the valley below, they can watch — no binoculars needed — the most consequential regional event of the age: the Syrian civil war.

This week, however, the Israel Defense Forces closed the area for visitors, letting in only the local farmers who worried about missing the cherry harvest.

That’s because for three days in a row, mortar shells flew across the border onto the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan, putting war gawkers at too much risk.

Most likely, the shells overflew their real target: one of the sides in the increasingly heated battle in an area around Quneitra, a town divided between Israel and Syria. Various Sunni militias are entrenched in the area, and Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are trying to clear them out.

Control of the road between Quneitra and Dara to the south (where the uprising against Assad started six years ago) is key for the Syrian army — and even more so for its patrons in Tehran. By capturing this road, and the area east of Israel and north of Jordan, they can establish a land corridor from Iran, through Iraq, to Damascus and Syria’s neighbor, Lebanon.

Throw in Yemen, and Iran’s dream of a “Shiite crescent” that would make it the Mideast’s dominant force comes true.

The Syria war is complex, involving many powers pulling in all directions. But Iran and its allied militias — Shiite Iraqis, foreigners from Afghanistan and elsewhere, Hezbollah, Assad’s army — have emerged as a chief worry for policymakers in Riyadh, Amman and Jerusalem.

True, Israel knows how to handle spillover from war on its border. IDF surgical strikes hit Syrian army targets over the past few days, which was enough to at least pause the cross-border seepage of fire into the Golan.

The larger concern for Israeli policymakers here is that Iran and its allied militias, already in control of south Lebanon, are trying to cement a beachhead in Syria.

And that’s exactly what’s happening. “Iran is attempting to use the civil war to establish air force and naval bases in Syria,” Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio this week.

It’s not just Syria. IDF intelligence chief Herzi Halevi said Iran is also building arms factories in Lebanon, a country now dominated by its local proxy, Hezbollah. The mullahs, he said, similarly use Yemeni proxies, the Houthis, to manufacture weapons in that strategically located country next door to Saudi Arabia.

So where’s America in all this?

The Obama administration considered Iran an ally in the fight against ISIS. That, and the nuclear deal that filled the mullahs’ coffers with cash, worried the Saudis so much that they quietly turned to Israel as an ally to confront Tehran.

And not only Saudis. Ha’aretz reports Jordan and Israel have tightened intelligence cooperation in recent weeks to better address the growing Iranian threat on Syrian territory near both countries’ borders.

US forces are reportedly also operating there in growing numbers. Better yet, President Trump has made clear his predecessor’s romance with Tehran was just a fling. The administration has been warning Iran to watch its step as it stomps around the Middle East.

That may have been behind the seemingly-out-of-the-blue White House announcement Monday, confirmed by the Pentagon Tuesday, that it’s detected signs Syria is preparing a new chemical attack. Trump officials warned Assad would pay a “heavy price” for using chemical weapons again.

Yet, widely reported internal fights among administration bigwigs over America’s involvement in the Syria war could hamstring the united anti-Iran front that Sunni allies are hoping for. Washington’s bickering over Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, an Iran ally, isn’t helping either.

According to a Fox News report, Trump is quietly organizing a regional conference, inviting Sunni allies and perhaps even Israel. If so, good — but administration officials will surely hear a lot about the need for America to take a clear stand against Iran’s expansion.

The region is on edge. A victory over ISIS seems close now, but if Iran emerges on top, a wider and more vicious war may ensue, with dire consequences for everyone, including America.

For Israelis, meanwhile, such an outcome could be much scarier than what happened this week to a few Golan tourists that temporarily lost a front-row seat for watching the war below.

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Security Clampdown in Far-Western China Exacts Toll on Businesses

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES AND REUTERS)

URUMQI, China — The economy of the vast Xinjiang region in far western China is officially growing at a robust pace, faster than the country as a whole. That is largely thanks to big investments in infrastructure from Beijing as the region – with its links to much of central Asia – is critical to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s new Silk Road initiative.

But traders, business owners and residents in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, are seeing little benefit from the central government’s cash injection, according to about 20 interviews with people in the city.

One major reason for that, they say, is due to tightened security as the Chinese government seeks to control one of its biggest domestic threats. Beijing accuses separatist extremists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of plotting attacks on the ethnic Han majority in Xinjiang and other parts of China, following a series of violent events in recent years.

As a result, there are roadblocks and stringent security checks across the region, including at restaurants, hotels and shops, making it slow and frustrating to move around.

The new Silk Road, officially known as the Belt and Road initiative, is Xi’s signature foreign and economic policy which aims to increase economic and political ties through roads, railways and other projects that link China to Central Asia and beyond. But the contrast between that ambition and the views at street level in Urumqi reflects the difficulty Beijing faces in trying to balance security against its other top priorities.

This is particularly the case as China is determined to avoid any trouble ahead of a critical Communist Party congress in the autumn at which Xi is expected to consolidate his power, and as it faces the threat from some Uighurs who have become battle-hardened Islamic State fighters in the war in Syria and Iraq and may return home.

DELIVERIES DIFFICULT

The impact of the clampdown is clear at the Frontier International Trade Centre in Urumqi,  where padlocked stores outnumber traders.

“Business became really bad last year. I’ve got nothing to do except a stock-take,” said Wei Chun, a shoe trader, surrounded by piles of high-heels.

She blames poor sales partly on the impact of sluggish economies in neighbours Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, among the eight countries with which Xinjiang has borders.  But she also says the Chinese authorities’ obsession with keeping Xinjiang secure at all costs is making it tough to do business here.

“It’s very difficult to send and receive deliveries because of the security crackdown,” she said, complaining that authorities will often shut down the delivery system for “security reasons”.

The Xinjiang government declined to make officials available for comment for this article. It also did not respond to a series of faxed questions.

Xu Bin, the head of the Xinjiang government’s statistics bureau,  told reporters in February that its growth – which was 7.6 percent last year – is mostly fuelled by fixed asset investment. But he then added: “Xinjiang faces slowing economic growth, falling industrial prices, companies are feeling the pain of falling profits and the growth rate of our tax revenue has dropped off.”

Xinjiang’s trade with other countries fell in the first quarter of this year, according to the customs bureau, and is still below the level it recorded in the first quarter of 2013, the year that Belt and Road launched.

Much of that drop was because a slump in the rouble in 2014-2015 hurt Xinjiang’s neighbours, and following the 2015 establishment of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). That aims to develop Central Asia and lessen its reliance on Chinese goods.

EVENTS CANCELLED

People here point to many disruptions in ordinary life as one reason the economy doesn’t feel buoyant at street level.

Group gatherings, whether for charity fun runs or trade expos, are often banned or cancelled at the last minute, they say. Phone lines sometimes go dead, and there’s no 4G internet because the authorities fear high-speed internet would help militants organize.

While Belt and Road has created opportunities, small businesses complain these projects often reward large state-owned enterprises.

“The Belt and Road Initiative doesn’t help small businessmen like me,” said Zhou Bangquan who sells men’s shoes in Urumqi.

“It helps big state-owned enterprises that do energy or have big infrastructure projects.”

Among the projects financed are a highway to Pakistan and a network of high-speed railroads connecting cities in Xinjiang and the rest of China, with 1.5 trillion yuan (171.69 billion pounds) in capital investment expected in the region this year alone.

But it is unclear how much of the money is used to buy materials from factories outside the region or ends up being sent to other provinces by workers brought in temporarily from elsewhere in China.

It’s not just heightened security measures that concern businesses. People are required to attend flag ceremonies and other patriotic education, instead of working, say locals. Such events are meant to encourage Uighurs to become patriotic Chinese citizens but can also be used to monitor their behaviour.

    PATRIOTIC EDUCATION

    “I’m losing my mind, I’ve already had six staff sent back to their home towns this past month for study,” said a restaurant manager in Urumqi who, like many people Reuters spoke to in Xinjiang, declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

His Uighur staff were required to return home to southern Xinjiang for one month’s study of Mandarin Chinese, another month learning about China’s legal system and a month of vocational training, he said.

“We all spend so much time doing things that aren’t our actual jobs. I have to take my staff to watch a flag-raising forty weeks of the year. If I don’t, I will be taken away for thirty days of study,” he said.

As well as the time spent on such matters, Uighurs – who represent just over 45 percent of the population – are being increasingly marginalized by the Han Chinese, undermining the overall economy.

Three Han Chinese entrepreneurs told Reuters local authorities had told them not to employ Uighurs. And a Han Chinese real estate agent in Urumqi said he had been told not to sell properties to Uighurs from southern Xinjiang.

There has been a change in attitude towards balancing stability and economic growth in Xinjiang since Chen Quanguo became its new Communist Party boss last August in what analysts say was an implicit endorsement of his previous hard-line management of ethnic strife in Tibet.

“Xinjiang used to have a policy of ‘with one hand we maintain stability, with the other hand we grow the economy’ but now it’s just ‘maintain stability with both hands, at all costs’,” said a local businessman and former government official.

Chen said in a speech last September that “all our work in Xinjiang revolves around maintaining a tight grip on stability.”

(Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong; Additional reporting by the Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Martin Howell)

Syrian Observatory: dozens killed in air strike in Islamic State-held town

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Syrian Observatory: dozens killed in air strike in Islamic State-held town

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday dozens of people were killed in an air strike believed to have been carried out by the U.S.-led coalition on an Islamic State prison in eastern Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition said it would look into the report.

The Observatory said the air strike took place on Monday at dawn, hitting a building in the town of al-Mayadeen that was being used as a prison. It said at least 42 people were killed, identifying them as prisoners of Islamic State.

Syrian state-run TV station al-Ikhbariya cited its correspondent in Deir al-Zor as saying coalition warplanes had destroyed a building in al-Mayadeen used as a prison by Islamic State. In a news bulletin flashed on screen, it said the building had been used as a prison for a “large number of civilians”.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said: “With every single allegation we will take it and look into it.

“If we are responsible for any civilian casualties we come forth and admit it,” he said. He said Observatory reporting had previously been exaggerated.

Islamic State is believed to have moved most of its leaders to al-Mayadeen in Syria’s Euphrates Valley, southeast of the group’s besieged capital Raqqa, two U.S. intelligence officials have said.

Among the operations moved to al-Mayadeen, about 80 km (50 miles) west of the Iraqi border, were its online propaganda operation and its limited command and control of attacks in Europe and elsewhere, they said.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)