Saturday, May 26, 2018

US threatens “firm action” for a Russian-led Assad-Hizballah offensive against Daraa

The Trump administration delivered an unmistakable military warning to Moscow and the Assad regime on Saturday, May 26, to hold off from their big offensive to capture the southeastern Daraa region. The US would respond to such “ceasefire violations” with “firm and appropriate measures,” the State Department said, after Assad government leaflets were dropped on Deraa urging US- and Jordanian-trained and armed rebel fighters to disarm. Washington saw the leaflets to mean that Assad and Hizballah forces were ready to launch their offensive, after gaining a promise of Russian air and other support. US intelligence informants had also reported the arrival of Russian officers and mercenaries to take the lead of the Syrian-Hizballah operation.
 
Last Tuesday, May 22, DEBKAfile was first to report Syrian and Hizballah forces massing for the Daraa offensive at the southern town of Izra, where also the Iranian command cener for eastern Syria is located. Its objective is to cut south through to the Syrian-Jordanian crossing of Nasib, and so posing an immediate threat to Jordan and reach a jumping-off point for its next operation against Quneitra opposite Israel’s Golan border. Amman and Jerusalem notified Washington that unless this offensive was prevented, both armies would have to intervene.

Citing concern about an impending operation inside a “US-enforced de-escalation zone,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called on Russia to “exercise its diplomatic and military advantage over the Assad regime to stop attacks and compel the Assad regime to cease further military offensives” for “broadening the conflict.” Otherwise, the US would respond with “firm and appropriate measures.”

 
To make sure the message was understood, a timely reminder of a past incident, which ended badly for the Russian-led Syrian-Hizballah force last February, was dropped onto the pages of the New York Times on Friday. It described the four-hour battle between “Russian mercenaries and US commandos” in the eastern Syria province of Deir ez-Zour. When a Russian-led Syrian government-Hizballah force tried to cross over to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and overrun the US outpost there, it was thrown back by US marines under heavy air cover and forced to retreat after losing an estimated 200 to 300 dead.

Nasrallah: If war breaks out with Israel, we'll win

Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said Friday that if war breaks out with Israel, Hizbullah will prevail.
 
In a speech to mark the 18th anniversary of the Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon, Nasrallah said that "From 1982 to 2000, [Hizbullah's] abilities were rather modest."
 
"We are not interested in war with Israel," said Nasrallah, "but if such a war breaks out, we will win."
 
"Israel violates our airspace every day," he complained. "Yesterday, it bombed Syria from Lebanese airspace. Where is the sovereignty?"
 
Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin announced on Tuesday that Israel was the first country to use the F-35 stealth fighter on attack missions in the Middle East and that it has "already attacked twice on different fronts.”
 
He made the comments during the IAF Senior Air Force Conference in Herzliya, while showing a picture of an Israeli F-35 flying over the Lebanese capital of Beirut in daytime.

Iran wants 'concrete guarantees' in order to stay in deal

Iran will pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal unless it receives concrete guarantees that the economic incentives of the pact will be protected by the other parties following the U.S. decision to withdraw, a senior Iranian official said Friday.
 
"We are still complying but we have not decided whether to yet to stay in the deal or not," the official told a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity, according to The Associated Press.
 
"It depends on the remaining JCPOA participants, if they can actually compensate for the absence of the United States in the deal," said the official, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as the deal is known.
 
The other signatories to the deal met on Friday for the first time without the U.S. after Iran called for an urgent meeting of the body in Vienna, reported AP. Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia reaffirmed their commitment to the deal, and the Iranian delegation emerged saying they were more confident than before, and made no mention of timelines.
President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that he would pull out of the Iran deal and would reimpose sanctions on the Islamic Republic that were frozen as part of the agreement.
 
While Trump withdrew from the Iran deal and announced he would reimpose sanctions on Iran, the European Union did not follow suit, and said it would remain in the agreement and will do so “as long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear related commitments, as it is doing so far.”
 
Speaking ahead of the Vienna talks, the Iranian official said that for his country to stay in the deal, the sanctions relief that it was granted would have to be guaranteed by the other parties involved and that Tehran needs specifics on how that will happen by the end of May.
Tehran will make its final decision in a "few weeks", said the official, who added that in theory the deal can survive without the U.S., but acknowledged "in practice I'm not sure."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said recently that the European signatories to the agreement are talking about solutions to keep the deal alive but also indicated that the EU cannot provide legal and economic guarantees to Iran.

IRGC: Pompeo ‘Has Been Sleeping’ if He Thinks Iran Will Withdraw from Syria

A senior official in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) said Friday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been asleep for the past 40 years if he thinks Iran will bend to America’s demand that they withdraw from Syria.
“The US secretary of state’s remarks indicate that he has been sleeping over the past 40 years and is unaware of what has happened during these years in the world and the region,” Lieutenant Commander of the IRGC for Political Affairs Brigadier General Yadollah Javani told Iran’s state-run and operated Tasnim News Agency.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Pompeo said, “Iran must withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria.”
In response to this, Javani said, “Iran has been present in Iraq and Syria at the invitation of the legitimate governments of these countries and sided with the regional nations based on the common interests of the countries. If anyone should leave the region, it would be the meddlesome US, which has done nothing but damaging the region during these years.”
Last week, Breitbart reported that “Iran reportedly rejected Russia’s demands that foreign troops, including Iranian troops, leave Syria when the ongoing civil war there ends, saying on Monday that Iranian soldiers will maintain its presence there for “as long as necessary.”
Last month, Iran Front Page said Javani was quoted as saying in Farsi that joint strikes carried out by the United States, England, and France on Syria were an attempt to prevent the completion of a fact-finding mission to determine the source of the chemical attacks in Syria.
“The US was worried that the final report of the mission would stand in stark contradiction with its claim about Syria chemical attack, depriving it of a good pretext to attack Syria,” Javani reportedly said. “Damascus had already prepared the ground for the visit of the fact-finding mission to Syria. The strikes disprove the false claim by the US about Syria’s chemical attack.”
He also said, “The move by the US and its allies- the UK and France- to carry out air strikes on Syria is illegitimate and a flagrant violation [of Syria’s sovereignty].”

Ireland set to repeal abortion ban by a landslide

Dublin (AFP) - Ireland looks set to "make history" by liberalising some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said as votes in the hard-fought referendum were counted Saturday.
The proposal to repeal the constitutional ban on terminations was predicted to win by a more than two-thirds majority, according to both exit polls.
A survey of 4,000 voters for The Irish Times newspaper put the pro-choice camp ahead by 68 percent to 32 percent, while a second exit poll of 3,800 voters by national broadcaster RTE put the margin at 69 percent to 31 percent.
"Democracy in action. It's looking like we will make history," Varadkar wrote on Twitter following a divisive and often emotional campaign.
The result looks set to be another hammer blow to the Roman Catholic Church's authority in Ireland, coming three years after referendum voters backed legalising same-sex marriage by 62 percent.
In what was traditionally one of the most religious countries in Europe, the Church's influence has waned in recent years following a series of child sex abuse scandals.
The referendum comes three months before a visit by Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families.
The Irish Times survey suggested women voted by 70 percent in favour of the proposal and men by 65 percent. READ MORE

Friday, May 25, 2018

Are US, Russia, Assad lining up against Iran in Syria?

The Trump-Pompeo steps against Iran, widely criticized as unrealistic, are a calculated strategy partnered by Israel, with Moscow’s partial hush hush support. DEBKA Weekly in its coming issue out next Friday, May 25, uncovers these under-the-radar steps in exclusive detail and outlines the respective roles, never before published, that Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Binyamin Netanyahu and Bashar Assad are playing in the evolving drive to evict Iran from Syria.

U.S. targets airlines in latest Iran sanctions

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on several Iranian and Turkish companies and a number of aircraft in a move targeting four Iranian airlines, Reuters reported.
 
The companies targeted were linked to Mahan Air and Meraj Air, the Treasury Department said in a statement. It also said it was targeting a number of their aircraft, as well as aircraft from Caspian Airlines and Pouya Air.
 
The United States said the airlines had ferried weapons, fighters and money to proxies in Syria and Lebanon. Washington also threatened sanctions against those granting landing rights and providing services to the aircraft.
 
“The deceptive practices these airlines employ to illegally obtain services and U.S. goods is yet another example of the duplicitous ways in which the Iranian regime has operated,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
 
Washington also targeted three individuals, one from Turkey and two from Iran, who it said were linked to the airlines and aviation firms, according to Reuters.
 
The sanctions are the latest in a series of sanctions imposed by the U.S. in recent weeks, since it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers.
Earlier this week, the United States imposed sanctions on five Iranians with links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
 
Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s central bank governor and an Iraq-based bank for “moving millions of dollars” for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard.
 
Before that, the Treasury imposed sanctions against six individuals and three companies it said were funneling millions of dollars to the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.

'Respond to terror by eliminating Hamas leaders'

Gaza rioters flying firebombs attached to kites into Israeli territory sparked three fires in Israel.
 
Firefighters succeeded in gaining control of two of the fires - in the Kissufim Forest and in Be'eri - at approximately 3:00p.m. The third fire, however, is still blazing.
 
Ten firefighting teams are working to gain control of the blazes. No injuries have been reported, but there is significant damage.
 
The kites are intended to "to burn the farm
land," "destabilize, creating confusion," and cause "burned crops."
 
Earlier this week, the Israeli government offered farmers financial incentives to harvest their grains early, in order to reduce the risk of kite terror damaging the crops. However, early harvesting means the grains will have to undergo additional procedures to wick the moisture out.
 
Meanwhile, the IDF is experimenting with using drones to stop some of the firebomb-carrying kites before they reach the Israeli border.
 
MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home), who serves as a member of Israel's Diplomatic-Security Cabinet, called on the government to respond to the kite terror by eliminating Hamas leaders.
 
"To respond to this kite terror, we need to hit the head. We need to hit the heads of Hamas, with targeted eliminations," he said. "They said there's someone responsible in Gaza? So he can pay the price."
 
"In addition to the suffering and the enormous agricultural damage, these fires also endanger lives. In order to prevent them, we need to attack and deter, just like we would respond to shootings or any other terror attack. We are responsible for the security of the citizens living in Israeli towns near Gaza, and in every other area."

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Monitor: Strike on Syrian air base targets Hezbollah weapons depot

A military air base in western Syria was hit in an airstrikes Thursday night, sparking large explosions, which were heard throughout the area, state media reported.
The targets of the strike were munitions depots belonging to the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group, located on an air base south of the city of Homs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, which also said the strikes were most likely carried out by Israel.
“Six missiles were fired at the Daba’a military airport and surrounding area in the western sector of Homs province, targeting Lebanese Hezbollah weapons warehouses,” Rami Abd el-Rahman, director of the Observatory, told AFP. The Observatory identified Israel as the likely perpetrator. “The missiles would have been fired by Israel,” el-Rahman said.
Conflicting accounts emerged about the exact number of missiles fired at the Syrian air base. Various Syrian and Lebanese outlets reported that it was between two and eight.
The military source did not identify who Syria believed had carried out the attack, though some Syrian media outlets assumed it was Israel, which has been conducting regular airstrikes in the country in recent years, more in the past few months. Earlier on Thursday night, Lebanese media outlets reported that Israeli jets were flying through the country’s airspace. (Read More)

If Iran resumes enrichment, the US and Israel poised to attack its facilities

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: If Europe fails to back Iran against the US, Tehran will resume uranium enrichment. He is asking for trouble. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei tried Wednesday, May 23, to counter Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ultimatum with one of his own for the European powers, the UK, France and Germany, which are trying to save the 2015 nuclear deal after the US walkout. The dictates he put before them included: European banks must safeguard trade with Iran and stop seeking new negotiations on Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional Middle East activities to gratify the US president. The Europeans must further guarantee Iran’s oil sales and compensate Tehran for losses incurred from US sanctions. If Europe fails to meet Khamenei’s demands, Iran will go back to enriching uranium, effectively turning its back on the 2015 nuclear deal, he warned.
This was Tehran’s first authoritative response to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from that deal and Pompeo’s threat of tough sanctions unless Tehran changed its ways. Iran’s leaders will not have forgotten that in late April, President Trump threatened “severe consequences” for their resumption of uranium enrichment and will have taken into account that these consequences could run to a US and/or Israel military strike on their enrichment facilities. Iran has accordingly accelerated the deployment of advanced Bavar-373 surface to air missile (SAM) defense systems around those facilities.

Iranian strategists are also aware that American and Israeli air force planes are armed with weapons capable of destroying the Bavar-373 batteries. On April 24, Israeli warplanes bombed those systems during an air strike on the Syrian army’s 47th Division’s weapons depots and command centers outside Homs. But the Iranian missiles had just been delivered and were still unpacked in crates and not operational.
Amid these beating war drums, Israel’s air force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Nurkin showed the image of an F-35 stealth plane over Beirut to a meeting on Wednesday of 20 air force chiefs who are spending the week in Israel. He was conveying the message that if the F-35 stealth plane could reach the sky over Beirut, it was equally capable of flying over Tehran and reaching the Natanz enrichment center.
Israel is now back to square one, i.e. 2012, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, then defense minister, and Eliezer Shekedi, air force chief at the time, had girded Israel up for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, only to be held back by the Obama administration’s push for nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

Report: International coalition hits Syrian army positions

Warplanes from the U.S.-led international coalition targeted two Syrian army positions in the eastern Syrian desert overnight Wednesday, Reuters reported, citing a military media unit run by the Hezbollah group.
 
The unit, a Damascus ally, said the strikes took place near T2, an energy installation located near the border with Iraq and about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the Euphrates river where the coalition is backing ground forces against Islamic State (ISIS).
 
A spokesman for the coalition could not be immediately reached by phone and Syrian state media did not immediately report the strikes.
 
In April, the United States, Britain, and France attacked eight pre-selected targets in Syria. The strikes came in response to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians in Douma.
 
Later in April, seven Iranian personnel were killed in an early morning strike on the T-4 airbase in Homs. Iran accused Israel of being behind that air strike, as did the Syrian regime and Russia.
 
Eastern Syria was mostly held by ISIS until last year, when two rival campaigns, one by the Syrian army backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the other by Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the U.S. coalition, took most of its land.
 
Communication between Russia and the United States averted most clashes between them. However, the coalition has struck Syrian pro-government forces that it said were attempting to attack coalition positions, noted Reuters.
 
One such incident came last June, when the coalition brought down a Syrian army aircraftin southern Raqa.
 
The U.S. military later confirmed that the coalition had shot down a Syrian military aircraft, saying the plane was downed "in collective self-defense of Coalition-partnered forces.”

Iran: If U.S. attacks, it'll be defeated like Saddam

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned on Wednesday that the U.S. government would be defeated like former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein if it attacks Iran, Reuters reported, citing Iranian state TV.
 
“The American leaders ... have got this message that if they attack Iran, they will encounter a fate similar to that of Saddam Hussein,” the elite Guards said in a statement.
 
Iran has upped its rhetoric against the United States in recent days, after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal.
 
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington would impose unprecedented sanctions against the Islamic Republic, further raising the ire of Iranian officials.
 
A senior Iranian military commander threatened Pompeo on Tuesday, saying Iran would “deliver a strong punch to the mouth” of the Secretary of State.
 
On Wednesday, Iranian commander Mohammad Bagheri issued a response to Pompeo’s announcement, declaring that Iran would not “wait for the permission” of foreign powers to develop “defense capabilities” and warned that his country’s military was “more prepared than ever” for a conflict.
 
“Iranian armed forces are now, thanks to God, more prepared than ever and will not wait for the permission or approval of any power to develop defense capabilities,” Bagheri said, according to the IRNA news agency.

'Iran continues to carry out ballistic missile tests'

Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, informed the Security Council that Iran had conducted two additional ballistic missile tests in January 2018 in violation of Resolution 2231.
 
“On 2 January 2018, Iran launched a SHAHAB 3 variant at the CHA-BAHAR (South East Iran) firing range. On 5 January 2018, Iran launched a Scud variant from a firing range 110 km North East of Kerman. Both the SHAHAB 3 and Scud missiles are Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) category one ballistic missiles, capable of delivering a nuclear payload of 500 kilograms for a range of over 300 kilometers."
 
Danon stressed that Iran's activities violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and that these launches were "part of a series" of Iranian violations over the past year, including rocket fire into Israel from Syrian territory and the infiltration of a drone into Israel's airspace.
 
“Iran continues to ignore its obligations to the international community and further destabilize the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. Its activities pose a direct threat to Israel and the entire region. The Security Council must remain vigilant in the face of Iranian aggression,” Ambassador Danon concluded.

NY Cardinal: Pope’s Affirming Comments to Gay Man Were ‘Conservative, Traditional, Catholic’

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has defended reported comments by Pope Francis to a gay Chilean man that “being gay doesn’t matter,” saying they represent “conservative” Catholic teaching.
In a reconstruction of his conversation with the pope, Juan Carlos Cruz, an alleged victim of clerical sex abuse, said that Francis told him, “Juan Carlos, you being gay doesn’t matter” during their meeting in April.
“God made you like this and loves you like this and it doesn’t matter to me. The pope loves you like this, you have to be happy with who you are,” he reportedly said.
Cruz is one of three victims of Father Fernando Karadima who were in Rome in late April for three days of meetings with Francis. His comments came in an interview published on Saturday with the Spanish daily El País.
Commenting on the news during his weekly radio show Tuesday, Cardinal Dolan said that it is hard to know with certainty exactly what was said, and that one would want “a little bit of ‘wait and see’ here, let’s see exactly what the Holy Father said.”
While noting he had no intention of questioning the young man’s sincerity, he did say it would be wise to “keep in mind we got it third-hand, so what the pope said to him, he said to the press, so one would want to get a clarification.”
It is of course possible that the pope used those very words but it is also possible that Mr. Cruz walked away with that message, but that the pope’s words were somewhat different, he suggested. READ MORE