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Turkey appears to snub US; no assurances on Syrian Kurds

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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A senior U.S. official trying to negotiate the safety of Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria was apparently rebuffed by Turkey’s president who said Tuesday there would be “no concession” in Ankara’s push against terror groups in the war-torn country.

White House national security adviser John Bolton met for roughly two hours with his Turkish counterpart Ibrahim Kalin and other senior officials at Ankara’s presidency complex but got no assurances on the safety Syrian Kurdish allies — a condition for President Donald Trump’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria.

Bolton relayed Trump’s insistence that Turkey refrain from attacking Kurdish forces that fought alongside U.S. troops against the Islamic State group, a guarantee Turkey appeared unwilling to grant.

“They had a productive discussion of the President’s decision to withdraw at a proper pace from Northeast Syria,” spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement, adding that direct military to military talks would continue Tuesday.

Shortly after Bolton’s meetings and in an apparent snub to the U.S. diplomatic push, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara’s preparations for a new military offensive against terror groups in Syria are “to a large extent” complete.

“We cannot make any concessions,” Erdogan said, and also slammed Bolton over comments suggesting the United States would prevent attacks on Kurds.

Turkey insists its military actions are aimed at Kurdish fighters in Syria — the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, or YPG — whom it regards as terrorists, and not against the Kurdish people. That has been Ankara longtime position and Turkey rejected any role for Kurdish fighters in restoring peace to the war-torn region.

Bolton is to depart Turkey without meeting with Erdogan, which U.S. officials said Saturday was expected. Marquis said U.S. officials were told Erdogan cited the local election season and a speech to parliament for not meeting with Bolton.

Trump’s shifting timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria has left allies and other players in the region confused and jockeying for influence over a withdrawal strategy that appeared to be a work in progress.

National Security Adviser John Bolton attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and senior military leadership at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

National Security Adviser John Bolton attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and senior military leadership at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

After Bolton announced this week the U.S. pullout would not be as immediate as Trump had initially declared, U.S. allies were still seeking clarification from American diplomats. The Kurds, who have fought alongside U.S. forces against IS and fear an assault by Turkey if the U.S. withdraws, publicly said they awaited explanation from Washington.

Bolton said the U.S. would seek assurances from Turkey before withdrawing that it would not harm the Kurds — for the first time adding a “condition” to the withdrawal.

However, Erdogan’s remarks Tuesday to his ruling party lawmakers in parliament underscored the destabilizing impact of Trump’s spur-of-the-moment withdrawal announcement, with no details, leaving allies scrambling for answers and aides crafting a strategy that can satisfy all the players, including Trump.

Trump discussed Syria during a phone call Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who had warned Trump’s decision could have dangerous consequences. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said they discussed the commitment of their two countries “to the destruction of ISIS as well as plans for a strong, deliberate, and coordinated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”

“We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States,” Bolton said Sunday, adding that Trump has made clear he would not allow Turkey to kill Kurds.

Bolton had said the protection of U.S. allies in Syria, including the YPG, was among “the objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal” of U.S. forces.

Speaking to The Associated Press from northern Syria on Monday, a Syrian Kurdish official said the Kurds have not been informed of any change in the U.S. position and were in the dark about Bolton’s latest comments.

“We have not been formally or directly notified, all what we heard were media statements,” Badran Ciya Kurd said.

Kurdish officials have held conversations with Moscow and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government about protection, but Bolton called on them to “stand fast now.”

Bolton’s pronouncements were the first public confirmation from the administration that the pace of the drawdown had changed since Trump’s announcement in mid-December that U.S. troops are “coming back now.” Trump faced widespread criticism from allies about his decision, including that he was abandoning the Kurds in the face of Turkish threats. Officials said at the time that although many details of the withdrawal had not yet been finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.

At the time, Trump had also said that Turkey would step up the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, but Bolton said Sunday U.S. troops will eliminate what remains of IS as another “condition” to northeastern Syria.

Trump on Monday struck back at the perception that his intentions in Syria had changed. “No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!…..” he said in a tweet.

While Sanders said last month the administration had “started returning United States troops home,” the Pentagon said Monday no U.S. troops have withdrawn from Syria yet, but added that there is an “approved framework” for withdrawal.

Bolton maintained there is no fixed timetable for completing the drawdown, but insisted it was not an indefinite commitment to the region. Still, some 200 U.S. troops will remain in the vicinity of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region, he said.

In meetings with Turkish officials Tuesday, Bolton was joined by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who will remain in Turkey for additional meetings with Turkish military officials, as well as Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition. Jeffrey will travel from Turkey into Syria to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Washington on Monday for an eight-nation trip of the Middle East. Both he and Bolton are seeking input and support for the specifics of the withdrawal plan, according to one official, who said U.S. partners were eager for details.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks to reporters on his plane on his way to the Middle East, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks to reporters on his plane on his way to the Middle East, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

___

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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Culture and Religion

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s excuses attacking Israel by saying she attacks Saudi Arabia, too

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Rep Ilhan Omars excuses attacking Israel by saying she attacks Saudi Arabia too

New Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been outspoken against the Israeli government for years. Some of her public condemnations including calling Israel evil and claiming they’ve “hypnotized the world.” But Israel is an ally to the United States and her role in the House of Representatives will put her position to affect change on our relationship.

Her excuse for attacking Israel is that she also attacks Saudi Arabia.

“I say the same things if not worse when it comes to the Saudi government,” she said. “I’ve called for boycotts of hajj, and boycotts of Saudi Arabia, because to me it is important when you see oppression taking place – when you see regression – when you see our values being attacked as humans, you must stand up, and it doesn’t matter who the inhabiters of that particular region might be.”

My Take

It wasn’t just Omar that is concerning. The narrative being formed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was equally discouraging. How she framed the relationship between AIPAC and the U.S. government was thinly veiled spite towards the Jewish group.

“There’s generally sort of a rite of passage for politicians in the United States, and that is to sort of profess sort of fealty or at least pay homage to AIPAC, the pro-Israel PAC that is very, very prominent,” she said.

I won’t even try to deconstruct that silly statement.

As our EIC pointed out, Omar’s perspectives are a real concern on the foreign relations front:

There is no room for bigotry of any kind in the House of Representatives. We need to watch closely as she toes the line between calling out the nation of Israel for what she perceives as offenses and actual antisemitism, which often follows.


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Iran and the Taliban: A tactical alliance?

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Iran and the Taliban A tactical alliance

However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. In 1998, the two sides nearly came to a direct clash when Taliban forces killed Iranian diplomats, though the incident ended without a major conflict. However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran has had covert contacts with the Taliban, the most dangerous terror group in Afghanistan, for many years. But recently, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), went public with the relationship, claiming that contacts had been made with the aim of “curbing the security problems in Afghanistan.”

The announcement came as a surprise not because the public was unaware of Iran’s secret relations with the Taliban, but because Tehran has always tried to keep its ties to terror groups an “open secret” in an attempt to maintain plausible deniability. Why did Tehran decide to go public about the Taliban connection now?

A review of the relationship’s history may help to explain the mullahs’ thinking. Relations between Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. During the period of Taliban rule, Iran saw the group as a threat to its interests. The two sides almost came to a direct clash in September 1998, when Taliban forces kidnapped and killed nine Iranian diplomats and one journalist in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) vowed revenge and prepared to launch an all-out attack. But the crisis ended without a major clash, perhaps due to the fear that Islamabad would retaliate in support of the Taliban or that Afghanistan might become a quagmire for Iranian forces similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union in 1979-89.

The 2001 US-led military operation that led to the collapse of Taliban rule prompted the Iranian leadership to reconsider its original calculation and recalibrate its approach. It welcomed high-level Taliban figures who escaped to Iran (e.g., Abdul Qayum Zakir and Mullah Naim Barich) and began extending support to Taliban fighters.

While the two sides are on different ends of the religious spectrum, Tehran views the Taliban as a useful point of leverage against the US. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO force composed of American, British, Canadian, and other troops, was created by the UN in 2002 and tasked with training the fledgling Afghan army and protecting the government of Hamid Karzai and his successor, Ashraf Ghani. The Iranian regime viewed the ISAF with concern, as it feared the US might use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch a kinetic attack on Iran. The Taliban insurgency thus became viewed by Tehran as a tool with which to keep American forces preoccupied.

To assist in the Taliban’s fighting of the ISAF, Iran allowed the Afghan terror group to open an office in Tehran and invited its leaders to attend a two-day International Islamic Unity Conference held by the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought in Tehran.

Iran’s support for the Taliban did not terminate even when President Barack Obama assured the mullahs that the military option was no longer official US policy towards Iran. Intelligence reports indicate that Tehran’s military and financial support for the Taliban has in fact escalated ever since. Afghan military officials have accused the Revolutionary Guards of providing military, financial, and logistical support to the terror group, to the extent that Tehran’s support enabled the Taliban to capture districts in western Afghanistan, including the provinces of Farah and Ghor, and the Taywara district. There are also reports indicating that Quds Force operatives had a “physical presence” in Ghor assisting Taliban fighters in their offensive against the central government.

Fighting ISAF was only one of the goals of the Quds Force in Afghanistan. Drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Iran has been a profitable business for the Quds Force, which is known for its extensive ties to drug cartels in South America. In 2012, the US Department of the Treasury (DOT) designated Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani, the chief of the Quds Force in the Zahedan office, a narcotics trafficker. The DOT document noted that in return for Iranian business, Afghan traffickers moved weapons to the Taliban.

Financial incentives aside, the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan – especially in provinces that border Iran, such as Herat, Farah, and Nimruz – rattled the Iranian regime, prompting the leadership to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. Unlike al Qaeda and the more malleable Taliban, the radical anti-Shiite ISIS poses a real threat to Iran’s interests in Afghanistan. Providing better training for the Taliban was thus not only a way to undermine the American-led ISAF, but a barrier to a new ISIS caliphate across the Afghan border.

Various reports indicate that the IRGC created a training camp in South Khorasan province (Khorasan Jonobi) to train Taliban fighters, providing them with weapons and explosives. The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (Komite Emdad Imam Khomeini) in the same province is said to be donating untold amounts of capital to the terror group in addition to calling for volunteers to fight alongside Taliban forces.

Some observers have directly linked improvements in the Taliban’s performance, and ISIS’s consequent inability to establish a strong foothold in Afghanistan, to Iranian support. Since mid-2017, Taliban and ISIS forces have regularly clashed in eastern Nangarhar province, with the Taliban easily defeating ISIS thanks to the military support it has received from the Quds Force. As one commentator put it, the “scale, quality, and length of training is unprecedented and marks not only a shift in the proxy war between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan but also a potential change in Iran’s ability and will to affect the outcome of the Afghan war.”

Other commentators have noted that Iran’s backing of the Taliban’s assaults on government forces were linked to water issues. Iran has been attempting to enable the Taliban to derail energy projects that are currently under construction, namely the Poze Lich Hydropower plant in Ghor, and the Bakhshabad and Salma dams in the neighboring province of Farah and Herat, respectively. The construction of these dams, which would massively boost local energy and water supplies, is not acceptable to Iran. On July 5, 2017, President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran “cannot remain indifferent to the issue [water dams], which will damage our environment.” According to Rouhani, “construction of several dams in Afghanistan would affect Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces,” and Tehran “is not going to stand idly by.”

It is worthy of note that the publicizing by Iran of its ties to the Taliban came days after reports appeared on talks between the US and the Taliban over proposals for a ceasefire in Afghanistan. Iran is sending a message to Washington and Kabul that if its concerns are not addressed, it can sabotage any attempt at a permanent peace in Afghanistan. Certainly, given Iran’s ties to the Taliban and the new regional arrangements (i.e., Trump’s decision to withdraw half of US forces from Afghanistan), Iran will be able to further expand its political, economic, and sectarian influence in that country.

Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a member of the  Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) in Washington, DC and the co-author of Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counter-Proliferation Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, NY). @Farhadrezaeii


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New IDF chief Kochavi: The army is ready for any mission

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New IDF chief Kochavi The army is ready for any mission

• Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi becomes 22nd chief of staff in ceremony at Kirya military headquarters

• IDF “expresses what is best in the people,” he says

• PM: “You are carrying a heavy responsibility. The goal is clear – to retain superiority over our enemies.”

 The leadership of the Israel Defense Forces passed from former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot to Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in a formal ceremony at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kochavi’s wife, Yael, pinned his new insignia on his uniform.

In his first speech as IDF chief, Kochavi said, “I am taking on this role with awe, and see it as a privilege.”

“I am making a commitment to put all my energy into a lethal, efficient, and innovative army that can meet its goals. The army expresses what is best in the people. It is ready for every mission and is all about victory. The IDF has used its long arm to eradicate threats,” Kochavi said.

Netanyahu said, “Our mission for the security of Israel must not encounter obstacles. We have worked to keep those who want to kill us from getting stronger … The stronger we are, the bigger our chances for peace.

“Muslim countries understand that we aren’t the enemy, but rather a source of support,” he said.

The prime minister wished Eizenkot success in civilian life.

Addressing Kochavi directly, Netanyahu said, “You are carrying the heavy responsibility of making sure that the IDF fulfills its missions. The goal is clear – to ensure that we retain our superiority over our enemies. We will guarantee an iron fist against our enemies, near and far.

“In the next decade, we will complete an active [defense system] that will cover the entire country. We need to add more to the defense budget to protect what we have achieved with the economy. There is no substitute for our sons’ and daughters’ determination to stand up for their country. We aren’t seeking needless wars, but in necessary ones, we will be forced to make sacrifices,” Netanyahu said.

Eisenkot also spoke at the ceremony, calling his own 40 years of IDF service a “mission.”

“I saw it as a responsibility to bring every soldier home alive. Every day, we are tested in fighting our enemies. I am leaving a trained, prepared, and powerful army that has bolstered its power through insight and determination, and which has proved that victory is a foremost value,” Eizenkot said.

“As an army of the people, we must do everything to protect the IDF’s place as a central point of national consensus,” he added.

Following the ceremony at the Kirya, the Kochavis were due to visit the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for a lunch with President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama. While in Jerusalem, there were also set to visit the Western Wall and the Mt. Herzl National Hall of Remembrance. Later Tuesday, Kochavi was scheduled to return to Tel Aviv for an honor guard for the outgoing chief of staff at the Kirya military headquarters and a toast in his new office.

Kochavi was born in Kiryat Bialik, outside Haifa. His mother was a phys ed instructor and his father owned a shop. In 1982, Kochavi volunteered for the IDF Paratroops Brigade, and he was made commander of the paratroopers in 2001, a position he held during Operation Defensive Shield in 2003.

Kochavi adopted the tactic of using sledgehammers to break the walls of homes during house-to-house raids so troops could avoid getting trapped in terrorist ambushes.

Later, Kochavi was made commander of the Gaza Division, which he oversaw during Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit on the Gaza border in 2006. An investigative committee convened to probe Schalit’s abduction found no fault with the chain of command at the time of the incident.

In 2010, Kochavi became head of Military Intelligence. Kochavi was head of Military Intelligence during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, after which he came under harsh criticism over the state of the IDF’s intelligence before the operation was launched. Kochavi was also accused of having failed to detect and address the terror tunnels dug by Hamas beneath the Gaza border.

In November 2014, Kochavi was made GOC Northern Command. One of the important initiatives he introduced was the IDF’s “good neighbor” policy, in which Israel provided humanitarian aid and emergency medical care to Syrians near the border. During his tenure at the Northern Command, the IDF also began tracking tunnels that Hezbollah was digging underneath the Israel-Lebanon border.

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