Posts Tagged Syria
Speaking at his office in Damascus, hours before a new ceasefire plan was announced early Friday by world powers in Munich, Assad said he backed peace talks but that negotiations do “not mean that we stop fighting terrorism”.
Regime forces backed by Russian air strikes have registered major advances in recent days, particularly in northern Aleppo province, where Assad said the army was seeking to sever the opposition’s supply route from Turkey.
The push is one of the most significant regime advances since the conflict began in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s government, before spiralling into a bloody war that has killed more than 260,000 people.
The advances have prompted consternation from opposition backers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Assad said he saw a risk that the two countries would intervene militarily in Syria, pledging that his forces would “certainly confront” them.
He also addressed the massive flow of refugees from his country, saying it was up to Europe to stop “giving cover to terrorists” so Syrians could return home.
Over the past week, Syrian regime forces backed by pro-government fighters and Russian air strikes have encircled Aleppo, Syria’s second city.
The advance is one of several for the government since Russia began an aerial campaign on September 30 after a string of regime losses to rebel forces and the Islamic State group.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, Assad appeared bolstered by his recent military gains, and said his eventual goal was to retake all of Syria.
“Regardless of whether we can do that or not, this is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation,” he said.
“It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part.”
Assad said it would be possible to “put an end to this problem in less than a year” if opposition supply routes from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq were cut.
But if not, he said, “the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price”.
The interview with Assad is the first he has given since the effective collapse of a new round of peace talks in Geneva earlier this month.
The talks are officially “paused” until February 25, and 17 nations agreed early Friday on an ambitious plan intended to bolster efforts for new negotiations.
The plan would see a cessation of hostilities implemented in as little as a week, and also demands humanitarian aid access to all of Syria.
Assad said his government has “fully believed in negotiations and in political action since the beginning of the crisis”.
“However, if we negotiate, it does not mean that we stop fighting terrorism. The two tracks are inevitable in Syria.”
The Aleppo offensive has been the main focus of Syrian government forces in recent weeks.
The regime has virtually encircled rebels in eastern parts of Aleppo city after severing their main supply line to the Turkish border.
“The main battle is about cutting the road between Aleppo and Turkey, for Turkey is the main conduit of supplies for the terrorists,” Assad said.
The operation has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis, with some 300,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo facing the prospect of a government siege.
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes already, mostly from northern Aleppo province, with many flocking to the border with Turkey seeking entry.
The displaced could join a wave of more than four million Syrian refugees who have left the country since the conflict began in March 2011.
Last year, many of those refugees began seeking asylum in Europe in a major crisis that has failed to slow throughout the winter.
Assad said “any scene of suffering is painful to all of us as Syrians”, but he said blame for the influx lay at Europe’s feet.
“I would like to ask every person who left Syria to come back,” he said.
“They would ask ‘why should I come back? Has terrorism stopped?'”
Instead, he urged Europe’s governments “which have been a direct cause for the emigration of these people, by giving cover to terrorists in the beginning and through sanctions imposed on Syria, to help in making the Syrians return to their country”.
A suicide bomber thought to have crossed recently from Syria killed at least 10 people, most of them German tourists, in Istanbul’s historic heart on Tuesday, in an attack Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed on Islamic State.
All of those killed in Sultanahmet square, near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – major tourist sites in the center of one of the world’s most visited cities – were foreigners, Davutoglu said. A senior Turkish official said nine were German, while Peru’s foreign ministry said a Peruvian man also died.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said the bomber was believed to have recently entered Turkey from Syria but was not on Turkey’s watch list of suspected militants. He said earlier that the bomber had been identified from body parts at the scene and was thought to be a Syrian born in 1988.
Davutoglu said he had spoken by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to offer condolences and vowed Turkey’s fight against Islamic State, at home and as part of the U.S.-led coalition, would continue.
“Until we wipe out Daesh, Turkey will continue its fight at home and with coalition forces,” he said in comments broadcast live on television, using an Arabic name for Islamic State. He vowed to hunt down and punish those linked to the bomber.
Merkel similarly vowed no respite in the fight against international terrorism, telling a news conference in Berlin: “The terrorists are the enemies of all free people … of all humanity, be it in Syria, Turkey, France or Germany.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Islamist, leftist and Kurdish militants, who are battling Ankara in southeast Turkey, have all carried out attacks in the past.
Several bodies lay on the ground in the square, also known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, in the immediate aftermath of the blast. It was not densely packed at the time of the explosion, according to a police officer working there, but small groups of tourists had been wandering around.
“This incident has once again shown that as a nation we should act as one heart, one body in the fight against terror. Turkey’s determined and principled stance in the fight against terrorism will continue to the end,” President Tayyip Erdogan told a lunch for Turkish ambassadors in Ankara.
Norway’s foreign ministry said one Norwegian man was injured and was being treated in hospital.
The White House condemned the “heinous attack” and pledged solidarity with NATO ally Turkey against terrorism. U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon said he hoped those responsible for “this despicable crime” were swiftly brought to justice.
Turkey, a candidate for accession to the European Union, is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State fighters who have seized territory in neighboring Syria and Iraq, some of it directly abutting Turkey.
The dull thud of Tuesday’s blast was heard in districts of Istanbul several kilometers away, residents said. Television footage showed a police car which appeared to have been overturned by the force of the blast.
Tourist sites including the Hagia Sophia and nearby Basilica Cistern were closed on the governor’s orders, officials said.
Turkey has become a target for Islamic State, with two bombings last year blamed on the radical Sunni Muslim group, in the town of Suruc near the Syrian border and in the capital Ankara, the latter killing more than 100 people.
Violence has also escalated in the mainly Kurdish southeast since a two-year ceasefire collapsed in July between the state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has been fighting for three decades for Kurdish autonomy.
The PKK has however generally avoided attacking civilian targets in urban centers outside the southeast in recent years.
Turkey also sees a threat from the PYD and YPG, Kurdish groups in Syria which are fighting Islamic State with U.S. backing, but which Ankara says have close links to the PKK.
Davutoglu’s office imposed a broadcasting ban on the blast, invoking a law which allows for such steps when there is the potential for serious harm to national security or public order.
The attack raised fears of further damage to Turkey’s vital tourism industry, already hit by a diplomatic row with Moscow which has seen Russian tour operators cancel trips.
Jeremy Corbyn has been warned against carrying out a “punishment” purge of critics from his shadow cabinet amid speculation high-profile figures could be ousted from his top team.
The Labour leader is expected to attempt to bolster his position by moving or sacking key members of the shadow cabinet, but veteran frontbencher Pat McFadden said Mr Corbyn risked looking “petty and divisive” if he carried out his so-called revenge reshuffle.
Shadow cabinet minister Michael Dugher, whose own place is reported to be in jeopardy, warned the leader would end up with a “politburo of seven” at the top of the party if he attempted to surround himself with allies from the Labour left.
Shadow Europe minister Mr McFadden defended his boss, shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, whose support for bombing Islamic State (IS) in Syria put him at odds with Mr Corbyn.
Other senior Labour figures thought to be under threat include shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle, who has clashed with the leader over the retention of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
Mr McFadden said: “One thing I would say about … Hilary Benn and Maria Eagle is there is no question about their competence to be shadow ministers.”
He pointed out that the Syria decision was a free vote among Labour MPs and Mr Benn should not pay the price for his views particularly as Mr Corbyn had a long history of disagreement with Labour leaders.
Mr McFadden told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “If it’s about political disagreement, I think you have to pause here, especially if it’s about the Syria vote that took place last month because this was on a one-line whip, it was not on a three-line whip.
“Also if you look at Jeremy Corbyn’s own record, his whole career is based on disagreeing with party leaders so I think there is a danger for him in this, in carrying out a reshuffle as a punishment for shadow minister who disagree with him.
“He has talked of an open, pluralist kind of politics but a reshuffle for that reason could end looking more petty and divisive than open and pluralist politics. I think that is a risk for him if he proceeds for that reason.”
Mr Dugher, whose job as shadow culture secretary is also viewed as unsafe, also highlighted Mr Corbyn’s declarations of support for different points of view to be heard within the party.
The shadow cabinet minister insisted Labour is a “broad church not a religious cult” and warned Mr Corbyn that a big reshuffle would be inconsistent with his calls for open debate in the party.
While a shadow cabinet reshuffle would reduce the risk of the leader and his frontbenchers speaking from opposing positions, it could trigger a wave of resignations.
Sacking Mr Dugher, who also voted for bombing in Syria, could anger his senior allies such as deputy leader Tom Watson and shadow home secretary Andy Burnham.
Mr Dugher told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio Five Live: “Reshuffles are a matter for the leadership.
“In my experience having worked closely with previous leaders, there’s a reason why they tend to be a bit reluctant to go down the path of big reshuffles and that’s because they do try and hold the party together, they do recognise that the Labour Party is a broad church not a religious cult, that you need people of different backgrounds and try and get the best possible talents.
“Ultimately that will be a decision for Jeremy.”
Mr Dugher added: “In truth, I don’t see it happening and the reason why I don’t see it happening is because I think it would be inconsistent with what Jeremy has talked about since he got the leadership, which is about room for a little dissent, about having debates.”
Meanwhile, Labour former minister Kim Howells described Mr Corbyn and his team as “superannuated Trotskyite oppositionists” who have brought the party to its knees.
Asked about the state of the party on Pienaar’s Politics, he said: “It keeps me awake at night.
“I’ve never seen the party in such a deplorable state.
“It isn’t an opposition in a democracy you’ve got to have an opposition and we haven’t got one at the moment.
“These are superannuated Trotskyite oppositionists, they are not real politicians and I’m afraid it’s a disaster as far as I’m concerned.”
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Wednesday morning he is moving toward a major shake-up of his struggling campaign, with less than six weeks to go until early voting begins to select party nominees.
Yet by Wednesday evening, he tried to steer away from that message, announcing that all is well in the Carson camp
In a Wednesday morning interview at his Maryland home, conducted without the knowledge of his own campaign manager, Carson said “personnel changes” could be coming, suggesting he would consider sidelining his top aides.
“Everything. Everything is on the table,” he said of potential changes. “Every single thing is on the table. I’m looking carefully.”
Carson’s longtime business adviser Armstrong Williams put it more bluntly: “Dr. Carson is back in charge, and I’m so happy to see that,” he said. Williams himself has publicly feuded with the paid political professionals brought in to run Carson’s campaign.
Following an afternoon meeting with some of his paid advisers Wednesday – a group that did not include Williams – Carson said in a statement that while he has 100 percent confidence in his campaign team, “we are refining some operational practices and streamlining some staff assignments to more aptly match the tasks ahead.”
The statement added that his senior team “remains in place with my full confidence, and they will continue to execute our campaign plan.”
Campaign manager Barry Bennett was not aware of Carson’s statements about potential changes until later. He later texted: “No staff shake-up.”
The apparent rift between Carson, Williams and the paid campaign staff comes after his weeks-long slide in polls. The political newcomer – a celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon – briefly surged to the top of the GOP field in October, riding public appeal for more anti-establishment candidates, while making headway with Christian and conservative voters.
With the spotlight came scrutiny. Carson publicly lashed out at media reports questioning details of his celebrated autobiography.
Terrorist attacks in Paris and California shifted the focus of the race to foreign policy and national security, sometimes highlighting Carson’s lack of experience. Another challenge: He is soft-spoken in a race dominated by media-savvy, tough-talking figures including real estate mogul Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I certainly don’t expect to get through a campaign without some scratches and bruises,” Carson said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
Then came the internal disarray.
Carson had raised $31 million by the end of September, more than any other Republican in the race, but he’s outpaced the competition on spending – mostly on fundraising costs rather than critical political infrastructure.
“I recognize that nothing is perfect,” Carson said. “And, yes, we’ve had enormous fundraising, but that requires that you be efficient in the way you utilize the funds. And, yes, we are looking at all those things.”
Carson acknowledged that some of his difficulties were of his making.
He said he must prove to voters that he is up to the challenge to be commander-in-chief.
“I think I have to directly address the issue,” he said, sitting in his basement game room, where the walls around him are covered in decades’ worth of accolades.
People think that “because you are soft-spoken and nice, you can’t possibly be tough, you can’t have the strength to deal with the incredible security problems we now face,” Carson said. That “is not true, but I’m now talking about it.”
In recent campaign stops, Carson has started offering more specifics on foreign policy, such as detailing how U.S-led coalition forces can work to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate.
Carson said he plans to put emphasis on his strategy for Libya when he returns to the trail after Christmas. He maintains that too many U.S. leaders, including some of his GOP rivals, have zeroed in on the Islamic State group’s activities in Iraq and Syria, while failing to acknowledge that they pose a threat beyond those borders.
“They have a global strategy,” Carson said of the militant group, arguing that the U.S. must counter it.
Carson said the rough-and-tumble nature of the 2016 race has not outweighed his favorite campaign moments. “The patients,” he said with a smile, explaining that he often meets former patients on the campaign trail who are eager to share their stories with him.
He recalled meeting one patient to whom he’d given a hemispherectomy – removing half the brain – as an infant. “He had graduated from college number one in his class – with half a brain,” Carson said. “These are incredible stories.”
Carson said a retooled campaign will not involve personal attacks on his Republican rivals, though he said he will look to place greater emphasis on their differences in policy and experience. He repeated his pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee if he does not win the nomination, explaining he’d respect the voters’ wishes.
Besides, Carson said, he likes his opponents – including bombastic Trump.
“There isn’t anybody there who is unpleasant,” Carson said. As an example, he noted that Trump had complimented him during the most recent GOP debate in Las Vegas.
“Then he came up to me during the break,” Carson recalled, “and said, ‘I really meant it.'”
The two first-term senators – one from Texas and the other from Florida, both the 44-year-old sons of Cuban fathers and both rising conservative stars in the party, made it evidently clear that they see the other as the primary obstacle to securing the nomination if Trump, the current front-runner, falters.
As such, they engaged in an arm-wrestling contest for most of the evening, sparring on Middle Eastern policy, national security and immigration.
Both largely left Trump alone and in fact, when Cruz was invited by debate moderators to attack the real estate mogul, he demurred.
But Cruz had no such restraint when it came to Rubio. Among other criticisms, he accused him of being soft on immigration policy because he helped craft a comprehensive reform measure in the Senate.
“He was fighting to grant amnesty and not to secure the border. I was fighting to secure the border,” Cruz said.
For his part, Rubio charged that Cruz had helped make the United States more vulnerable to a terror attack by supporting a bill that scaled back the reach of U.S. surveillance programs.
“The next time there is attack on an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, why didn’t we know about it and why didn’t we stop it?” Rubio said. “And the answer better not be because we didn’t have access to records or information that would have allowed us to identify these killers before they attacked.”
The public spat has been brewing for weeks, with each campaign regularly criticizing the other in the media as Cruz has surged. A recent opinion poll by the Des Moines Register had Cruz leading Trump in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first nominating contest on Feb. 1, 2016. Trump, however, still leads in national polls.
A win by Cruz in Iowa could severely damage Trump’s bid, as the real estate mogul’s political message is largely grounded in his current dominance of opinion polls. It could also hand Cruz the kind of momentum that could derail Rubio’s bid to be the candidate around whom anti-Trump voters rally.
In Las Vegas on Tuesday evening, Rubio articulated a muscular national security outlook, both abroad and at home, defending his support for U.S intervention in Libya in 2011, calling for an increase in the number of U.S. ground troops in Syria and Iraq in the struggle against Islamic State, ramping up military spending, and intensifying .
Cruz, conversely, advocated a more restrained foreign policy, arguing that a bombing campaign against Islamic State would suffice. He contended that the U.S. government had been allowed to collect too much data on Americans in the name of foiling terror attacks.
But both men’s gambits on Tuesday may have had an unintended consequence.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush went after each other again. After Bush called Trump a “Chaos candidate” earlier in the debate, another back-and-forth began with a question for Trump about his statement that he would go after the families of ISIS terrorists.
Trump reaffirmed his previous statement, saying: “I would be very, very firm with families, and frankly, that will make people think because they might not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”
Bush then jumped in, saying: “This is another example of the lack of seriousness” of Trump’s candidacy.
He then said that ISIS has declared war on the US, emphasizing the need to have a “serious strategy” to destroy ISIS.
“The idea that that is a solution to this is just crazy,” Bush said. “It makes no sense to suggest this.”
Bush then pointed out that two months ago, Trump said that ISIS was “not our fight.” Trump then cut in to say he never said that.
“He gets his foreign policy experience from the shows,” Bush said.
“Aw, come on,” Trump responded, shaking his head.
Bush continued: “That’s not a serious kind of candidate. We need someone that thinks this through, that can lead our country.”
Trump then implied that Bush is weak.
“We need toughness,” Trump said. “I think that Jeb is a very nice person … but we need tough people. We need toughness.”
Bush cut back in, and then the two talked over each other.
“Am I talking or are you talking, Jeb?” Trump said, to which Bush replied, “I’m talking right now.”
“I know you’re trying to build up your energy, Jeb, but it’s not working very well,” Trump fired back.
“We need a toughness, we need strength,” Trump added. “We’re not respected as a nation anymore, we don’t have that level of respect that we need, and if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker, and just disintegrate. … We need strength; we don’t have it.”
But Bush didn’t back down.
“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. That’s not going to happen,” he said. “And I do have the strength. Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people.”
Trump closed the back-and-forth with this zinger: “With Jeb’s attitude, we will never be great again, that I can tell you. We will never be great again.”
“I believe Germany is fulfilling its part and we don’t need to talk about new issues related to this question at the moment,” Merkel told the ZDF broadcaster when asked about the Der Spiegel magazine report of the U.S. request.
Der Spiegel reported on Saturday that U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had sent a letter asking for a bigger military contribution from Germany, a week after parliament approved a plan to join the campaign in Syria.
A German Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed a letter had been received from the United States and its content was under consideration, giving no further details.
Der Spiegel said the letter did not make specific demands and was similar to requests sent to other U.S. partners.
Germany’s mission includes six Tornado reconnaissance jets, a frigate to protect the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, refueling aircraft and up to 1,200 troops.
The deployment is a direct response to a French appeal for solidarity after militant attacks in Paris killed 130 people. Germany does not plan to carry out air strikes in Syria.
Germany has over the past two years shown a growing readiness to commit troops to foreign missions.
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said last week Germany might need bigger armed forces to cope with the more assertive role.
More than 3,000 personnel are currently deployed overseas and the Syria mission will raise that by up to 1,200. Von der Leyen also wants to send 650 troops to Mali to help the French campaign against Islamist militants there.
Germany last year started arming Iraqi Kurds fighting Islamic State.