Trump says US won’t leave Syria until ISIS is gone
The BBC, Financial Times and Independent report that US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has announced that the withdrawal of US troops from Syria is dependent on certain conditions. The BBC reports that on a trip to Israel and Turkey, Bolton said he would seek Turkish assurances that Kurds in northern Syria would be safe adding that the US also wants to ensure that the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group are defeated. “We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that is not fully co-ordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered,” Mr Bolton said in Israel ahead of talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He told reporters there was no timetable for a US withdrawal from Syria but that there was not an unlimited commitment. President Donald Trump has faced strong criticism over the planned US pullout. After the president made his announcement on 19 December, US officials said American forces had been given 30 days to leave Syria. In his announcement, Mr Trump had also declared that IS had been “defeated”. However, speaking on Sunday before leaving for his Camp David retreat, he told reporters: “We’re going to be removing our troops. I never said we were doing it that quickly. “We’re pulling out of Syria… and we won’t be finally pulled out until Isis [IS] is gone.” The Financial Times reports that, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkey’s President Erdogan, responded to Bolton’s remarks on Sunday, restating Turkey’s view that Kurdish militias in Syria were terrorists and made clear that Ankara still planned to target them. He said the aim of fighting armed Kurdish groups in Turkey and in Syria was “to rescue Kurds from the tyranny and oppression of this terror group and to ensure their safety of life and property”.
The Times reports that US officials vowed to stand by the Syrian Kurds but Kurdish leaders were planning a deal with the Assad regime in light of the expected withdrawal of western troops. The Kurdish militia, the YPG, has established an autonomous region in eastern Syria after repelling Islamic State with support from the West. The fate of the region has become a key test of foreign policy after Mr Trump announced the withdrawal of troops last month. YPG leaders say that if the US withdraws they will have no option but to negotiate a deal with the regime to protect Kurdish areas from Turkish attack. The Turkish army, along with Free Syrian Army rebel groups allied to Ankara, have already driven the YPG out of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin. Syrian journalists reported on Saturday that Sipan Hemo, the military chief of the YPG, had been shuttling between Damascus, Moscow and the Russian airbase in Hmeimim, northwestern Syria, as he discussed a deal with the Assad regime. He was offering to hand over border posts in return for a guarantee of internal autonomy for the Kurdish region, known as Rojava. It remains unclear whether the regime side, represented at the talks by Ali Mamlouk, President Assad’s security chief, and the defence minister, General Ali Abdullah Ayoub, accepted the offer. They are said to accept that they will have to grant the Kurds some degree of independence, but will be keen for the area not to follow the example of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq after the first Gulf War and become a forward base for western or other hostile interests. Russian military advisers were said to have been present at the meetings, with a view to Moscow becoming the guarantor of any deal.
Reuters reports that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offered a rare acknowledgement of his close security cooperation with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula during a US television interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” news programme broadcast on Sunday. The programme said Cairo had asked the network not to air the interview but did not give further details. Asked whether the cooperation was the closest and deepest that he has had with Israel, Sisi responded: “That is correct… the Air Force sometimes needs to cross to the Israeli side. And that’s why we have a wide range of coordination with the Israelis,” Sisi said, according to a transcript provided by CBS.
The Independent reports that the trial of 11 men accused of murdering Jamal Khashoggi, which started in the kingdom on Thursday, has been slammed by the United Nations. The UN’s human rights office said it had no way of assessing the fairness of the trial – in which five of the suspects are facing the death penalty. Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani called for an independent investigation into the killing and demanded “international involvement”.
Reuters reports that Syria’s chief opposition negotiator said on Sunday he was surprised by countries rebuilding ties with the Syrian government and urged them to reverse their decision. Arab states, including some that once backed rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, are seeking to reconcile with him after decisive gains by his forces in the war, aiming to expand their influence in Syria at the expense of non-Arab Turkey and Iran. “We do not have the power to stop this reconciliation,” Nasr Hariri told reporters in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, where he is based. “We still hope there is a possibility for (these countries) to revisit their decisions and realise that the real and solid relation should be with their brothers of the Syrian people not with the regime that has committed all these crimes,” he said. “Bashar al-Assad will remain a war criminal even if thousands of leaders had a handshake with him.”
The Times reports that courts in Saudi Arabia will send women a text message if their husbands are seeking to divorce them, in another change to the country’s conservative social practices. Divorce is generally easier for men in traditional Muslim societies than in western ones but in Saudi Arabia the practice has been taken to extremes. Until now, men could apply for a divorce without informing their wives, thus avoiding any court oversight of compensation or alimony payments. The change takes place with immediate effect, the justice ministry announced on Saturday. The text message will include a code giving online access to court papers.
Reuters reports that all countries that were granted waivers from the United States to continue buying a certain amount of Iranian oil imports are complying with US sanctions, a senior Iranian energy official said, noting that Tehran was hopeful to find new buyers. “China, India, Japan, South Korea and other countries that were granted waivers from America to import Iranian oil are not willing to buy even one barrel more from Iran,” Amir Hossein Zamaninia, Iran’s deputy oil minister for trade and international affairs, was quoted as saying by the Oil Ministry’s news agency SHANA. However, without giving details, Zamaninia said: “Despite US pressures on Iranian oil market, the number of potential buyers of Iranian oil has significantly increased due to a competitive market, greed and pursuit of more profit.” The 180-day exemptions were also granted to Italy, Greece, Taiwan and Turkey.
The Guardian reports that according to US President Donald Trump on Sunday, the US military has killed Jamal al-Badawi, an al-Qaida militant wanted in connection with the attack on the USS Cole. It was reported on Friday that US defence officials were trying to confirm reports an airstrike on 1 January had killed Badawi. On Sunday, via Twitter, the president confirmed it. “Our GREAT MILITARY has delivered justice for the heroes lost and wounded in the cowardly attack on the USS Cole,” the president wrote, while en route from the White House to Camp David. “We have just killed the leader of that attack, Jamal al-Badawi. Our work against [al-Qaida] continues. We will never stop in our fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism!” Two hours later, US Central Command issued a tweet of its own, saying it had “confirmed that Jamal al-Badawi was killed in a precision strike in Marib governate [on 1 January].
Reuters reports that the Palestinian Authority said on Sunday it had ordered its employees to pull out from the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, effectively closing the main exit point from the impoverished Gaza Strip. Re-opening the Rafah crossing, which according to human rights groups is the sole exit point from Gaza for an estimated 95 percent of its 2 million population, will require Egypt to agree on a new operator. It is unclear whether it will allow Hamas to run the passage. Cairo has not so far commented on the situation. PA employees were deployed to Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt in 2017 under Egyptian mediation in what was seen as the first concrete step towards ending the dispute. The PA said Sunday’s decision to pull out from the crossing was a response to Hamas undermining its operations and detaining some of its workers. “After Hamas’s insistence on bolstering division … and the questioning, detention and suppression of our employees, we have become convinced it is useless to maintain our presence there,” it said. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters the closure of the border amounted to “additional sanctions by Abbas against the people of Gaza. This is a blow to… Egypt, which had overseen the handover of the crossings as part of the implementation of the reconciliation deal that Abbas has destroyed,” he said.
In the Israeli media, Israel Hayom and Haaretz report US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit to Israel. Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu will accompany him on a trip to the Golan Heights. Last night Netanyahu told him, “The Golan Heights is tremendously important for our security. I think that when you’re there you will be able to understand perfectly why we will never leave the Golan Heights and why it’s important that all countries recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. I’ve discussed this with the President and I hope that I have a chance to show this directly to you tomorrow on our visit.”
Haaretz reports that former Defence Minister Moshe Arens, one of Likud’s veteran members, died this morning aged 93. “Arens was esteemed by many as the “gentleman” of Israeli politics and was one of the top representatives of national, liberal and democratic Zionism. Arens, an opinion columnist for Haaretz, lived in Savion with his wife Muriel. He is survived by four children and grandchildren. Between his election to the Knesset in 1974 and his retirement from politics in 1999, Arens served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, defence minister and foreign minister.”
Maariv and Haaretz report the case of Jewish minors suspected of killing a Palestinian woman by throwing stones at her car in the West Bank. They report that an Israeli flag with a swastika drawn on it and “death to Zionists” written on it was found in the possession of the teens who are suspected of the murder of Aisha Rabi. They were also in possession of a video clip showing them burning the Israeli flag. In addition, the security officer for the Rehelim settlement, where the Pri Haaretz Yeshiva is located and which the suspects attended, was questioned on suspicion of deleting footage from the security cameras, which could have identified the suspects leaving the settlement. The Shin Bet denied allegations of abusing and humiliating the teens in their interrogation and issued a statement saying that it would continue to take action, using all the methods at their disposal, by law. Yediot Ahronot says: “Our wish to uphold the rights of people being questioned must not be interpreted as a semi-acceptance in light of the grave allegations….Stone-throwing terror attacks (yes, a stone-throwing terror attack is the correct term in this case, both when Arabs do it and when Jews do it) are not youthful indiscretions—they are acts of attempted murder, which usually fail, happily, but sometimes succeed. Anyone who tries to commit murder for nationalist reasons is a terrorist.” Ben Caspit in Maariv writes, “Let it be explicitly said: the religious Zionists are not the enemy of the people or the state. Quite the contrary. They send their best sons to the IDF units that face the greatest dangers, they contribute to the country and they bring glory to society. The majority of religious Zionists are wonderful, law-abiding Israelis. That’s also true for a majority of settlers. The problem is with the minority, which is growing in size, becoming more extreme, casting off all restraints and challenging our very existence as a democratic country. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Ultra-orthodox, the majority of them are peaceful and uphold the law too – a minority of them are disturbed and unhinged zealots.” Caspit also criticises Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for failing to publicly back the Shin Bet and draws a connection between the criticism of the Shin Bet and what he calls the “attack on the gatekeepers and the state institutions” being led by the prime minister and his allies.
Yediot Ahronot reports on a rare fault in an F-15 plane that could have led to a disaster if not for the cool headedness of the pilots. The paper reveals that during a routine training flight at night, the canopy broke off at 30,000 feet. In the freezing cold harsh conditions, the young pilots managed to land the plane at a different base.
Kan Radio quotes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who said that security cooperation with Israel was the closest and most in-depth it had ever been. He explained in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes that sometimes the Egyptian air force had to enter Israeli airspace to operate in the Sinai and said that bilateral security cooperation was excellent. Walla News adds that over the last few years 15,000 military grade rockets destined for Gaza were destroyed in Israeli strikes in the Sinai.