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Fighting Rages Near Syria’s Chemical-Arms Transit Port

April 1, 2014

Fighting Rages Near Syria’s Chemical-Arms Transit Port – Global Security Newswire.

A Syrian opposition fighter checks a rocket launcher amid fighting last week in the country's disputed Latakia province. The Syrian government reported progress in efforts to retake territory near a seaport hosting the removal of its chemical weapons.

A Syrian opposition fighter checks a rocket launcher amid fighting last week in the country’s disputed Latakia province. The Syrian government reported progress in efforts to retake territory near a seaport hosting the removal of its chemical weapons. (Amr Radwan al-Homsi/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s regime is fighting to retake land near a critical seaport hosting the removal of chemical weapons from the divided country, the Associated Press reports.

Syrian state media said government loyalists seized Observatory 45, an elevated point overlooking the northern reaches of Syria’s Latakia province, AP said on Monday. However, the regime’s claims of progress in the area were disputed by some nearby observers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-rebel organization operating out of the United Kingdom, also said militants had beaten back government forces, the Daily Star reported.

President Bashar Assad’s government is shipping hundreds of tons of chemical-arms materials out of the provincial capital to the south under a plan to eliminate all of the warfare substances by June. The regime agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal last year, amid threats of a foreign military response to a nerve-gas attack on rebel territory in August.

Several jurisdictions and a checkpoint along the Turkish-Syrian border last month fell under the control of militant rebels, including members of the al-Nusra Front, an organization tied to al-Qaida. The March rebel push gave the opposition its first access to the Mediterranean Sea, where cargo vessels under armed escort are transporting Assad’s chemical weapons to international destruction points.

Regime forces employed ground-launched munitions and air-dropped bombs as they battled for northern sections of the province, which the British-based watchdog group said were seeing the heaviest fighting.

Meanwhile, a top Assad spokesman asserted that Turkey had deployed its own forces into Latakia, the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported on Monday.

Obama makes a pilgrimage to Riyadh

March 31, 2014

Obama makes a pilgrimage to Riyadh – Israel Hayom.

By Zalman Shoval

Toward the end of World War II, then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy, which was anchored at Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal, and forged the U.S.-Saudi Quincy Agreement, based on the idea of security in exchange for oil.

Now, 69 years later, the agreement is beginning to unravel, and U.S. President Barack Obama hurried to Riyadh on Friday to try to tighten it up once again.

Despite advances in independent energy production, the U.S. still imports 15 percent of the oil it consumes from Saudi Arabia.

However, it is doubtful that Obama succeeded in his efforts, as the “unraveling” is of his doing and the Saudis are increasingly losing their faith in his foreign policy in general, and his Middle East policy in particular. The Saudi elite resents what it sees as Washington’s negative role in the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and criticizes its chilly relationship with the new Egyptian leadership, headed by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The Saudis are angered by Washington’s refusal to provide weapons to the Syrian rebels and its reversal on Syria’s chemical weapons. They wonder about what they see as a complete misunderstanding on the part of the Americans of the implications of the Arab Spring, and, like Israel, they are skeptical and concerned about Obama’s decision to shrink the U.S. military and the consequences this will have on America’s allies in the Middle East.

This is only a partial list, but what bothers Riyadh more than anything, and what causes it to question the United States’ leadership abilities, is the Obama administration’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue, a policy it sees as mistaken and indecisive to the point of being at peace with a nuclear Iran. Obama seemingly tried to convince the Saudi leadership that his Iran policy works to Saudi Arabia’s benefit and to the benefit of its allies in the Gulf.

However, one can assume that his claim did not have much of an effect on King Abdullah and the Saudi elite, who see their rivalry with Iran as centering on regional hegemony and influence in the Middle East. They see Tehran’s standing in the region growing stronger, between achieving nuclear weapons and newfound harmony with the United States.

Riyadh is also worried that if America and its partners declare that negotiations with Iran have reached a favorable outcome (without waiting to see if Tehran has truly curbed its nuclear ambitions), Washington will have another argument to support transferring the focus of its foreign policy and security from the Middle East to the Far East, leaving Iran’s subversive activities in the region to continue unchecked.

The Saudi elite sees two conflict fronts around it that sometimes work together, and sometimes separately: Between the Sunni camp, under its own leadership, and the Shiite crescent under Iran’s leadership, and between the moderate Sunni camp under its leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood who represent a political Islam that endangers the long-standing Sunni regimes. The conflicts within the Sunni camp recently saw the return of Saudi, Egyptian and Gulf state ambassadors from Qatar, which adopted a policy in support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a stance expressed most notably in Doha-based Al Jazeera news reports.

We don’t know if the Abdullah-Obama meeting pushed some of the obstacles between the two countries out of the way, but according to the clues in statements released afterwards, it seems that despite the smiles, the disagreements persist, particularly regarding the Iranian issue.

So, what are the implications for Israel? Although there is no talk of any kind of official relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel emerging in the foreseeable future, and the former’s recent refusal to grant the Jerusalem Post’s Washington bureau chief a visa testifies to this, their parallel interests on issues including Iran, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood is creating a new reality with many possibilities. To add flourish to its new situation, Israel can consider re-examining the Saudi peace initiative, on the condition that they remove the clauses and definitions that made it seem like a diktat rather than a possible basis for negotiations.

Palestinians reject Israeli proposal as ‘blackmail’

March 31, 2014

Palestinians reject Israeli proposal as ‘blackmail’ – Ynet.

Proposal reportedly includes release of 420 additional prisoners chosen by Israel, and partial settlement freeze that doesn’t include East Jerusalem, existing tenders.

AFP
Latest Update: 03.31.14, 20:17 / Israel News

The Palestinians have rejected an Israeli proposal to extend the crumbling peace talks beyond April 29, saying it was akin to “blackmail,” an official in Ramallah told AFP on Monday.

“Israel is practicing a policy of blackmail and linking its agreement to releasing the fourth batch of prisoners with the Palestinians accepting to extend the negotiations,” the official said following a late-night meeting between the two sides and US envoy Martin Indyk.

The Israeli proposal, the Palestinian source said, “included the release of 420 other prisoners chosen by Israel, not including those convicted of serious crime, sick prisoners, women, children or leaders like Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat.”

This offer also included a partial settlement freeze, but not in East Jerusalem or for tenders already launched, the sources said.
A source close to the talks told Reuters that under the proposed arrangement to extend peace talks, Jonathan Pollard, a former US Navy analyst caught spying for Israel in the 1980s, could be released by mid-April.

But the White House said it had no new information to offer on Pollard.

“He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence, and I don’t have any update on his situation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters when asked whether Pollard’s release was something that could be offered as an incentive to Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry broke from his travel schedule for the second time in a week to return to the Middle East on Monday to discuss fragile peace talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region,” State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

He intends to meet with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Monday night, and return to Brussels for a NATO meeting.

Kerry had interrupted a visit to Rome last week to go to Amman for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to convince him to prolong the talks beyond an end-April deadline and to press Israel to release the prisoners.

Officials said he was expected to travel to both Israel and the Palestinian territories in the coming hours

The fate of the US-brokered peace process could be decided within days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week, warning that “either the matter will be resolved or it will blow up”.

Netanyahu’s remarks to ministers from his Likud party came as US officials were working around the clock to prevent a collapse of the negotiations over a dispute about Palestinian prisoners.

“In any case, there won’t be any deal without Israel knowing clearly what it will get in exchange,” Netanyahu said.

According to a Palestinian official who spoke with AFP, Israel presented Abbas with a draft agreement on Sunday to push forward with the talks. Abbas was to examine the proposal, he said.

Israel did not make good on its commitment to free 26 Palestinian prisoners on March 29, a key plank in the original US-brokered terms to relaunch the peace process, citing lack of progress in talks, which Israel claims was a condition for the release.

Under the deal that relaunched the peace talks, Israel agreed to release 104 prisoners, held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords, in exchange for the Palestinians freezing all efforts to seek further international recognition.

So far, Israel has freed 78 of them in three batches, and the last group – which the Palestinians insist includes 14 Arab Israelis jailed for nationalist attacks – was to have been released on March 29.
 
Israel, on Friday, informed the Palestinians it would not free the, with the US State Department confirming it was working “intensively” to resolve the dispute.

The Palestinians say they will not even consider extending the talks without the prisoners being freed, but Israel has refused to release them without a Palestinian commitment to continue the talks, prompting a fresh crisis of confidence.

“The ball is now in Israel’s court,” Issa Qaraqaa, the Palestinian prisoners’ minister, told Voice of Palestine radio, saying the leadership was expecting an answer from the Israeli government within 24 hours.

“We agreed to the fourth batch,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters on Sunday, while stressing it would not happen as long as Abbas was preparing to “blow up the negotiations” the very next day.

First Published:  03.31.14, 18:32

Report: Syria deploys anti-aircraft missile batteries along Turkish border

March 31, 2014

Report: Syria deploys anti-aircraft missile batteries along Turkish border – Jerusalem Post.

“Syria is ready to deal with any hostile Turkish plane that enters Syria’s airspace,” Syrian army sources say.

By ARIEL BEN SOLOMON 03/31/2014 16:30

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad.

Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Photo: REUTERS/George Ourfalian

Syria deployed anti-aircraft missile batteries along the Turkish border in what seems to be a response to an incident last week when a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Syrian plane, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

Syria deployed the anti-aircraft weapons and “is ready to deal with any hostile Turkish plane that enters Syria’s airspace,” sources from the Syrian army and Hezbollah told Al-Rai on Monday.

Meanwhile, Syria’s Minister of Information, Omran al-Zoubi, criticized Turkey in an interview on Syrian TV Sunday evening, saying that the country is facilitating the continual entry of armed terrorist groups into the Kassab area in Latakia, the Syrian Arab News Agency SANA reported on Monday.

Latakia is a stronghold of Bashar Assad’s regime.

Zoubi accused some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey of backing terrorism.

Syrian air defense systems have “harassed” Turkish F-16 fighter jets patrolling their own airspace by repeatedly putting them under “radar lock”, suggesting they were about to be fired at, the Turkish military said on Thursday.

The incident, which took place on Wednesday, comes only days after Turkey downed a Syrian warplane that Ankara said had violated its airspace, in an area where Syrian rebels have been battling President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Reuters contributed to this report.

PM: No new prisoner release without something of value in exchange

March 31, 2014

PM: No new prisoner release without something of value in exchange – The Times of Israel.

Netanyahu says any further deal would need government approval; issue likely to be resolved in days

March 30, 2014, 12:07 pm

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on February 23, 2014. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 23, 2014. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

Israel won’t release additional Palestinian prisoners without receiving something of value in return, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, addressing a weekend report that Jerusalem had offered to free up to 400 additional long-serving prisoners in exchange for Palestinians agreeing to continue talks past their April 29 deadline.
The prisoner issue will be resolved within a few days, when it “will be closed or it will blow up,” Netanyahu said, addressing a meeting of lawmakers, many of whom are opposed to releasing prisoners, held before the regular weekly cabinet meeting.
“In any case, there won’t be any deal without receiving something of clear value [in return],” the prime minister added.

Any deal involving a further prisoner release would be brought to the government for approval, Netanyahu added, and said the deliberations around the prisoners release could go on for several days.

President Shimon Peres said Sunday that in his estimation there would be developments in the peace talks by Sunday evening or Monday morning, and added that both sides were working hard to overcome the obstacles. Peres addressed the controversy from Vienna, where he was beginning a three-day state visit in Austria.

On Saturday, Jerusalem refused to release a batch of about 26 Palestinian inmates who were supposed to be set free at the end of March as per an original understanding between Jerusalem and Ramallah at the start of peace talks in August.

The release was to include 14 Israeli-Arab citizens, which has caused consternation among some members of the government. Israel has refused to release the 26 unless talks, which are due to end in April, are extended.

On Saturday, it was reported by The Times of Israel that Israel had offered to release up to 400 prisoners, to be chosen by Israel, in exchange for an extension of the talks and a pledge by the Palestinians not to take unilateral action at the UN.

With the talks teetering on the brink of collapse, Washington has been fighting an uphill battle to coax the two sides into accepting a framework proposal which would extend the negotiations beyond April to the end of the year.

But the matter has become tied up with the fate of the veteran Palestinian prisoners whom Israel was to have freed this weekend under terms of an agreement which brought about a resumption of talks.

Israel on Friday informed the Palestinians via a US mediator that it would not release the fourth and final batch of prisoners, with the US State Department confirming it was working “intensively” to resolve the dispute.

The Palestinians say they will not even consider extending the talks without the prisoners being freed, but Israel has refused to release them without a Palestinian commitment to continue the talks, prompting a fresh crisis of confidence between the parties.

Issa Karawe, the Palestinian prisoners minister, on Saturday told AFP that the crisis was likely to be resolved quickly.

“There are efforts to solve the crisis and I believe that in 24 hours everything will be clearer,” he said.

Under a deal that relaunched peace talks last July, Israel agreed to release 104 prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians freezing all efforts to seek further international recognition.

So far, Israel has freed 78 of them in three batches, and the last group was to have been released on March 29.

Obama tells Saudi king U.S. will not agree bad deal with Iran

March 31, 2014

Obama tells Saudi king U.S. will not agree bad deal with Iran – Chicago Tribune.

(More political comedy. – Artaxes)

March 28, 2014|Reuters
 

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah discussed “tactical differences” in their approach to some issues during a meeting in Riyadh on Friday, but agreed both sides remain strategically aligned, a senior U.S. official said.Obama also assured Abdullah that the United States would not accept a bad nuclear deal with Iran, the official said, adding that Washington remained concerned about providing some shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels.

In the run-up to his visit to the kingdom, officials had said Obama would aim to persuade the monarch that Saudi concerns that Washington was slowly disengaging from the Middle East and no longer listening to its old ally were unfounded.

Last year senior Saudi officials warned of a “major shift” away from Washington after bitter disagreements about its response to the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and policy towards Iran and Syria, where Riyadh wants more American support for rebels.

The official said the two leaders had spoken frankly about a number of issues and “what might be or might have been tactical differences or differences in approaching some of these issues, but President Obama made very clear he believes our strategic interests remain very much aligned,” the official said.

The official added that Obama had assured the king that “we won’t accept a bad deal” on Iran and that the king “listened very carefully” to what Obama said. The official said it was important for Obama to come and explain the U.S. position face-to-face with the king.

(Reporting By Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton,; Writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by Sami Aboudi and William Maclean)

Syrian Rebels Deny Bid to Thwart Chemical-Arms Removal

March 31, 2014

Syrian Rebels Deny Bid to Thwart Chemical-Arms Removal – Global Security Newswire.

A Syrian opposition fighter takes part in a training exercise in the city of Deir Ezzor last week. A Syrian rebel group reportedly denied a Russian assertion that opposition forces are seizing coastal territory in a bid to thwart the removal of warfare chemicals from the country.

A Syrian opposition fighter takes part in a training exercise in the city of Deir Ezzor last week. A Syrian rebel group reportedly denied a Russian assertion that opposition forces are seizing coastal territory in a bid to thwart the removal of warfare chemicals from the country. (Ahmad Aboud/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian rebels rejected a Russian claim that they are seizing coastal territory to disrupt their country’s chemical disarmament, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reports.

The Russian Foreign Ministry reportedly issued the accusation after Syrian opposition forces fought for control of areas in the embattled country’s Latakia province, the news service indicated on Saturday. Danish and Norwegian cargo vessels have been picking up government warfare chemicals arriving at the provincial capital — a port city of the same name — in an effort to remove and destroy the regime’s entire stockpile before July.

Hisham Marwah, legal committee head for the opposition’s Syrian National Council, said Moscow’s assertions are intended to excuse any failure by its Damascus ally to eliminate the “chemical weapons within the allotted deadline.”

Marwah asserted that Russia’s comments throw doubt on Moscow’s commitment to eliminating the lethal materials stockpiled by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

Meanwhile, a former British military officer said he believed that rebel forces have attacked “every single” chemical-arms shipment to the port city to date, ABC News reported on Saturday.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon added that Damascus “has put massive military resources into these convoys, supporting them with tanks and air protection. They also put forces down the road before the convoys, almost blasting through to Latakia.”

Faisal Mekdad, Assad’s deputy foreign minister, voiced concerns about rebel threats to the disarmament effort in a Sunday meeting with Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator of a U.N.-OPCW mission overseeing the project, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

The discussion of possible threats to the chemical-arms shipments came as President Obama considered whether to supply certain Syrian rebel groups with portable anti-air missiles, the Australian Associated Press reported.