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Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out, says US ambassador to UN Nikki Haley

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Thursday that Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”

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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is interviewed Feb. 10, 2017, in Syria. With a changing reality on the ground Assad's ouster is no longer the focus of many Western and Arab governments, VOA

Syria, April 1, 2017: The battle to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be over — at least as far as the Trump administration is concerned.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Thursday that Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”

Haley’s remarks drew the ire of American lawmakers who have argued for a more robust U.S. effort to topple Assad. Republican Senator John McCain warned the Trump administration against making a “Faustian bargain” (a deal with the devil) with the Syrian government’s ally Russia.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warned that taking the focus off Assad would be “the biggest mistake since President [Barack] Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”

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Later Friday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that the United States must accept the political reality that the future of Assad is up to the Syrian people.

“With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now,” he said. Spicer added that the Untied States lost “a lot of opportunity” during the last administration to change the situation with Assad. He did not elaborate.

Spicer would not comment on whether Assad should step down, saying it is a decision for the Syrian people alone. He said the foremost priority for the United States in Syria right now is the defeat of Islamic State militants.

Some Middle East analysts say similar comments by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week in Ankara also signal regime change is off the table. These analysts argue the recent remarks merely reflect the reality on the ground — that Assad’s survival after a brutal six-year-long conflict appears assured.

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Expected move

Many analysts had been expecting President Donald Trump’s administration to inch closer to a much more explicit shift in U.S. policy in Syria — one exclusively focused on the war against the Islamic State. Some analysts say the administration has little alternative now. They trace the policy reversal to the Obama administration, which in its last months also was signaling an acceptance of Assad staying in power, if only in the short-term during a political transition.

In a roundtable discussion this week on the future of the conflict on Syria, analyst Sam Heller of The Century Foundation, a U.S. policy research institute, argued that not much is left of the revolutionary opposition.

“When we say that the Assad regime has ‘won the war,’ we mean it’s achieved a strategic victory in Syria’s central civil conflict: the war between, in approximate terms, the regime and its mixed revolutionary-Islamist opposition in western Syria,” he said.

According to Heller, much of the main armed opposition to Assad has been neutralized and diverted away from the insurgency against the government by regional powers who are using rebel militias for their own security projects in war-torn Syria. That includes the Turks, who have carved out a sweep of territory in northern Syria to keep Islamic State militants away from its border and block Syrian Kurds from uniting Kurdish-majority cantons.

The U.S. has persuaded other Arab Sunni and Turkmen militias to throw in their lot with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and to focus on battling the Islamic State. The U.S. is generally working with splinter groups or rejects from the main anti-Assad rebel force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Rebel militias not participating in the Turkish intervention or who are not aligned with the fight against the Islamic State have seen foreign backers cut their arms supplies.

Heller says the future for FSA militias is bleak.

“The choice they now seem to face is between being reincorporated into the extant Syrian state [Assad’s state], serving in a Turkish or Jordanian cross-border protectorate, or indefinite exile. Or they can die with the jihadists, which is also an option. They can and will continue to fight, but they’ll likely be doing so alone, against insurmountable odds, and at a terrible cost to their civilian families and communities.”

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Tahrir al-Sham group takes lead

Most recent breakout assaults by rebel militias have been led by a former al-Qaida affiliate. It has joined with other Islamist rebel militias in a group called Tahrir al-Sham, and last week assaulted the Syrian town of Hama, managing to advance to within 10 kilometers of its center. Other insurgents also recently launched an offensive on government-held areas in the Damascus suburb of Jobar.

But there’s little prospect the Hama and Jobar offensives can be translated into major threats to the government, which was bolstered when Russia’s military intervened to back Assad more than a year ago. In December, the government, backed by Iranian and Shi’ite militias, recaptured the rebel redoubt in the eastern half of Aleppo.

Since December, Syrian government forces and foreign fighters have been pressing their military edge, slowly winning back rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital and squeezing Tahrir al-Sham and other Islamist militias in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, to the west of Aleppo.

Several military observers from European governments told VOA in recent weeks that they see no way that opposition forces can threaten Assad’s hold over the main western and coastal cities of Syria.

They do expect fighting to continue, though, led by Tahrir al-Sham.

Aron Lund, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research institute in Washington, agrees with those assessments. At The Century Foundation’s roundtable, he predicted: “There will be fighting for a long time and Syria may remain a failed state in many respects, and, of course, some unscripted event could still turn all assumptions upside down. But as things stand, Assad is definitely over some sort of threshold.”

Lund says Western and Arab governments that had sought regime change in Syria have now mostly accepted that their side has no path to victory.

“They are coming to terms with the fact that Assad is staying, while deciding to what extent they want to play spoilers. They’re not willing to say it publicly, but it’s happening,” Lund said. (VOA)

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White House: Judge’s Decision Halting Travel Ban ‘Dangerously Flawed’

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Travel Ban
A sign for International Arrivals is shown at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.VOA

The White House is reacting furiously to a federal judge blocking President Donald Trump’s latest executive Travel Ban order that would have banned entry to travelers from several countries beginning Wednesday.

“Today’s dangerously flawed district court order undercuts the president’s efforts to keep the American people safe and enforce minimum security standards for entry into the United States,” said a White House statement issued Tuesday shortly after Judge Derrick Watson ruled against restrictions on travelers from six countries the Trump administration said could not provide enough information to meet U.S. security standards.

The travel ban order would have barred to various degrees travelers from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

Watson’s temporary restraining order does not interfere with restrictions on North Korea and Venezuela.

Justice Department defends White House

The Justice Department “will vigorously defend the president’s lawful action,” the White House said, contending its proclamation restricting travel was issued after an extensive worldwide security review.

The Justice Department called the ruling incorrect and said it will appeal the decision “in an expeditious manner.”

Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke said: “While we will comply with any lawful judicial order, we look forward to prevailing in this matter upon appeal.”

Acting Director of Homeland Security Elaine Duke
Acting Director of Homeland Security Elaine Duke testifies before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

No change for North Korea, Venezuela

The new travel order “suffers from precisely the same maladies as its predecessor: it lacks sufficient findings that the entry of more than 150 million nationals from six specified countries would be ‘detrimental to the United States,'” Judge Watson wrote in his opinion.

The White House argues that its restrictions “are vital to ensuring that foreign nations comply with the minimum security standards required for the integrity of our immigration system and the security of our nation.”

Officials in the White House are expressing confidence that further judicial review will uphold the president’s action.

Hawaii involved for third time

Consular officials have been told to resume “regular processing of visas” for people from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, according to a State Department official.

The suit on which Judge Watson ruled on Tuesday was filed by the state of Hawaii, the Muslim Association of Hawaii and various individuals.

“This is the third time Hawaii has gone to court to stop President Trump from issuing a travel ban that discriminates against people based on their nation of origin or religion,” said Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin. “Today is another victory for the rule of law.”(VOA)

 

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Kurdish Red Crescent: IS Attacks Kill at Least 50 in East Syria

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Syrian Democratic Forces
A female fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces stands near a military tank in the village of Abu Fas, Hasaka province, Syria. voa

Islamic State suicide attackers killed at least 50 people in a triple car bomb attack on Thursday among a group of refugees in northeast Syria, a medical source in the Kurdish Red Crescent said.

A large number of people were also injured by the three car bombs, the source said.

The attack took place at Abu Fas, near the border of Deir el-Zour and Hasaka provinces, said a war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said earlier that at least 18 people had been killed.

The dead included refugees fleeing the fighting in Deir el-Zour as well as members of the Kurdish Asayish security force, the observatory reported. Syrian state television said dozens had been killed in the attack.

The jihadist group has lost swaths of its territory in both Syria and Iraq this year and is falling back on the towns and villages of the Euphrates valley southeast of Deir el-Zour.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias is pressing it from the north, and a rival offensive by the Syrian army, supported by allies including Iran and Russia, is attacking it from the west.

On Wednesday, Islamic State said it had carried out an attack in the capital, Damascus, where three suicide bombers detonated their devices near a police headquarters, killing two people and wounding six.

Aid agencies have warned that the fighting in eastern Syria is the worst in the country this year and that airstrikes have caused hundreds of civilian casualties.(VOA)

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Will Pakistan listen to USA and Stop Harboring Taliban and other terrorist groups?

Pakistan said that Afghan Terror groups don't need hideouts or sanctuaries in Pakistan

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A Pakistani border security guard stands alert at Pakistan-Afghanistan border post
A Pakistani border security guard stands alert at Pakistan-Afghanistan border post. VOA
  • America have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time Pakistan is housing the very terrorists they are fighting
  • Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye on the issue of safe havens to Afghan Taliban and the notorious Haqqani network
  • Top leaders of both groups-Taliban and the Haqqani network enjoy the ability to live freely in certain parts of Pakistan

Washington, USA, September 2, 2017: In his South Asia strategy speech last week, President Donald Trump publicly puts Pakistan on notice that it must stop providing sanctuaries to armed groups that are fighting in Afghanistan.

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” said Trump, laying out his “condition-based approach” to defeating terrorism in Afghanistan.

“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting. But that will have to change and that will change immediately,” he vowed.

Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye on the issue of safe havens to Afghan Taliban and the notorious Haqqani network, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

Analysts charge that sanctuaries in Pakistan have helped the militants sustain a bloody insurgency in Afghanistan against the Western-backed Afghan government.

“Top leaders of both groups [Taliban and the Haqqani network] enjoy the ability to live freely in certain parts of Pakistan — mainly Baluchistan province, but also some of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” Michel Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, told VOA.

“It is not just the leaderships of these groups that enjoy Pakistani largesse; it’s the fighters, too,” he added.

Also Read: The US Designates Hizbul Mujahideen as Foreign Terrorist Organization

Where are the sanctuaries?

Afghan Taliban’s leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura, is reportedly based in the Pakistani southwestern city of Quetta, which shares a border with Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, the traditional stronghold of the Afghan Taliban.

The Haqqani network, one of the most notorious terror groups in the region, is reportedly based in Miram Shah, a town in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northern Pakistan. The group, which has been blamed for numerous deadly attacks inside Afghanistan against U.S.-led NATO forces and the Afghan government, is reportedly operating with impunity from across the border.

The Afghan government charges that militant sanctuaries are the main reason behind the country’s instability.

“Neighbor countries have been a major part of the problem in Afghanistan. Terrorists’ safe havens and sanctuaries are out of Afghanistan, where they get support, training, and equipment,” Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a defense liaison at the Afghan embassy in Washington, told VOA.

Pakistan’s response

Pakistan maintains that the Afghan Taliban controls large swaths of territory inside Afghanistan and does not need to have sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

“They don’t need hideouts or sanctuaries in Pakistan. They have vast territory [under their control], which is beyond Kabul’s writ, at their disposal. Why would they come to Pakistan for sanctuaries?” Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said over the weekend.

Following Trump’s speech, Pakistan denied the allegations that it harbors militants and cited its sacrifices in the ongoing war against terror as an example of how the country itself has been a victim of terrorism.

In an effort to illustrate its displeasure at the U.S president’s speech, Pakistan postponed Asif’s planned trip to Washington and also delayed a planned visit to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells to Islamabad.

Could the U.S. take unilateral action?

As the administration is weighing its options to deal with the issue of sanctuaries in Pakistan, some analysts doubt Pakistan will take action against militants operating from its soil unless more rigorous pressure is applied on the country.

“The Trump administration will need to deploy new forms of pressure. Previous forms of pressure — threats, aid conditionalities and aid cuts — have not worked. The administration will need to step up its actions and make them much more draconian — and this is clearly already under consideration,” Kugelman, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told VOA.

Meanwhile, David Des Roches, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, believes that while it is unlikely that the Pakistanis would back down publicly, it “is quite possible that they will facilitate enhanced American action against militants in Pakistan.”

What seems unclear so far is to what lengths the U.S. is willing to go as far as tackling the issue of safe havens in Pakistan.

While talking to reporters at the State Department last week, U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that the U.S. would target terrorists “wherever they live” without elaborating further.

“There’s been an erosion of trust because we have witnessed terrorist organizations being given safe haven inside of Pakistan to plan and carry out attacks against U.S. servicemen, U.S. officials, disrupting peace efforts inside of Afghanistan,” Tillerson said.

Also Read: ‘Blood Stained Hands’ Plan to Take Over Pakistan’s Political Reigns as Terrorist Organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Prepares to Enter Politics

Sanctions

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, told VOA that the U.S. should target Taliban and Haqqani network sanctuaries inside Pakistan and push Islamabad “out of its comfort zone.”

“Pakistan has become comfortable with its dual policy; receives U.S. assistance and works to defeat the U.S. in Afghanistan,” Khalilzad said.

He advocated for sanctions against senior military and intelligence officers who support extremist groups.

“Take Pakistan off the list of the major non-NATO ally, which provides the opportunity to receive significant security assistance; suspend assistance program; push IMF, World Bank, and Asian and European allies to suspend assistance programs,” Khalilzad added.

“If America imposes sanctions, Pakistan will probably be unable to receive assistance from IMF and the World Bank, and international companies will not be willing to invest in Pakistan,” Saad Mohammad Khan, a retired Pakistani military leader, told VOA. (VOA)