‘US should mind its own business; it shouldn’t be in Syria’ – Ron Paul

‘US should mind its own business; it shouldn’t be in Syria’ – Ron Paul
The US has no right to fly into Syrian airspace where it shouldn’t be and set boundaries but should mind its own business. Otherwise, it is an act of aggression, says former US Congressman Ron Paul.

The US fighter jet downed an armed drone belonging to pro-Syrian government forces in southern Syria, near a base in the al-Tanf region, on June, 20 as the drone was advancing on US-backed forces, according to a coalition statement.

This is happening at a time of escalating tension between Moscow and Washington. Also on Tuesday, Australia said it is temporarily suspending air operations in Syria.

RT discussed the latest developments in Syria with former US Congressman Ron Paul.

RT: Australia halted its cooperation. How significant is this development? Why did they do it?

Ron Paul: I think that is good. Maybe wise enough, I wish we could do the same thing – just come home. It just makes no sense; there’s a mess over there. So many people are involved, the neighborhood ought to take care of it, and we have gone too far away from our home. It has been going on for too long, and it all started when Obama in 2011 said: “Assad has to go.” And now as the conditions deteriorate …it looks like Assad and his allies are winning, and the US don’t want them to take Raqqa. This just goes on and on. I think it is really still the same thing that Obama set up – “Get rid of Assad” and there is a lot of frustration because Assad is still around and now it is getting very dangerous, it is dangerous on both sides. One thing that I am concerned about – because I’ve seen it happen so often over the years are false flags. Some accidents happen. Even if it is an honest accident or it is deliberate by one side or the other to blame somebody. And before they stop and think about it, then there is more escalation. When our planes are flying over there and into airspace where we shouldn’t be, and we are setting up boundaries and say “don’t cross these lines or you will be crossing our territory.” We have no right to do this. We should mind our own business; we shouldn’t be over there, when we go over there and decide that we are going to take over, it is an act of aggression, and I am positively opposed to that. And I think most Americans are too if they get all the information they need.

RT: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier that he wanted to ask his American counterpart why the US-led coalition isn’t targeting Al-Nusra in Syria. What sort of answer do you think he’ll get?

RP: I think it will be wishy-washy. He’ll probably think it is in their interests not to do anything to damage the radicals, the extremists, the rebels because I think that our government thinks that they could be helpful in undermining Assad. I don’t think they are going to say “Yeah, they are our buddies now, we consult with them all the time.” It won’t be that. They’ll argue “We have to help the Kurds out” or something along those lines and make excuses. I think that there’s a net benefit to the radicals for us to get involved there and it is not helpful in the long run for our position which ought to try to bring about peace.

The propaganda the American people hear is such that they get them pretty excited about it, but I am very confident that if the American people had more information…because when I talk to them, they side with my arguments. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be doing what we are doing, and that’s why I persist in trying to get to the facts but trying to eliminate the danger, try to obey international law, try to do the things that are in our best interest. And if we are talking about America’s interest – it isn’t helped by our policy in the Middle East for the last 15-20 years, I think it has all been negative.

Richard Black, Republican member of Virginia State Senate, told RT that “the US and the coalition are in Syria without any permission, without any lawful authority to be present”.

“Some members of the coalition may say “We are in clear violation of international law, maybe this is not right.” Others bought into this coalition to be part of a group fighting ISIS, and now they are saying “Wait a minute. We didn’t go into Syria to fight the legitimate duly elected government of Syria; we went there to fight this terrorist organization.”…The coalition is certainly not there to help the Syrian people; it is there to help Saudi Arabia with its Wahhabi radical Islamic domination of the entire world beginning with the countries close to it”.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman names son as new crown prince

Mohammed bin Salman has been appointed Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince and next in line for the throne. Bin Salman is viewed as a keen reformer, set on building an economic future for the kingdom after oil.

Mohammed bin Salman (picture alliance/AP Photo/H. Ammar)

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman has replaced his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince – next in line to the throne – in a royal decree issued via the Saudi kingdom’s state media agency SPA on Wednesday.

While bin Salman’s promotion and bin Nayef’s ouster were reportedly widely expected within royal circles, the timing is surprising. Saudi Arabia finds itself in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Qatar and Iran, and locked in a two-year-long air war in Yemen.

Read more: Saudi Arabia and allies release Qatar ‘terror list’

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is King Salman’s nephew, was widely praised for his role as Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism chief and for suppressing an al-Qaida bombing campaign against the kingdom between 2003 and 2006. Nevertheless, he was relieved of all his roles.

Watch video01:52

Saudi Arabian issues

Bin Salman, meanwhile, will maintain his position as defense minister, holding responsibility for one of the world’s biggest arms budgets as well as the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen.

A public pledging of loyalty for him is scheduled to take place later on Wednesday.

New leader for a new generation

Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to being one step away from the throne was seen as symbolic recognition on behalf of the king to Saudi Arabia’s youthful population, more than half of which is under 25 years old.

The newly appointed 31-year-old crown prince will be the first of a new generation of Saudi royals to take power. He is the great-grandchild of the kingdom’s founder, the late King Abdul-Aziz.

Bin Salman was one of the most ardent proponents for the kingdom’s Vision 2030 program, a wide-ranging plan to introduce social and economic reforms to the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy. As part of the plan, Saudi Arabia cut back of many state lavish subsidies and proposed the partial privatization of the kingdom’s state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

Watch video02:17

Saudi Arabia reforms its economy amid oil price slump

While the proposals to rid Saudi Arabia of its “addiction” to oil have prompted unease many senior officials, they have been widely welcomed by younger Saudis.

Read more: Saudi Arabia to become ‘softer’ nation?

Bin Salman also chaired the country’s Council of Economic and Development Affairs, coordinating socio-economic policies in the kingdom such as education, housing, and women’s rights. However, it remains unclear where he stands on the Saudi kingdom’s harsh freedom of speech laws. He also heads the supreme board of Saudi Aramco.

However, his rise to power has been rapid since his father assumed the throne in January 2015. Many have scrutinized the king’s decision to brush aside many of his more well-known, and sometimes better qualified, cousins in favor of closer relatives.

Watch video01:29

Future billions for Saudi Arabia

dm/sms (AP, AFP, Rueters, dpa)

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Trump inks military deal on arrival in Saudi Arabia

The US has announced military deals worth $110 billion with Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump is at the start of an 8-day tour that takes in Jerusalem, the Vatican and European capitals.

Saudi Arabien US-Präsident Trump und König Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud unterzeichnen Verträge (Getty Images/AFP/M. Ngan)

The $110 billion (around 100 billion euros) deal for Saudi purchases of US defense equipment and services was one of several deals announced during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

The military sales deal is effective immediately, with another $350 billion set of deals to kick in over the next 10 years.

“This package of defense equipment and services support the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian threats,” a White House official said when announcing the deal.

The official said Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had signed a memorandum of intent “aimed to bolster the security of the kingdom and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian threats.”

US conglomerate General Electric also announced it had signed agreements and memorandums of understanding worth $15 billion with the oil-rich kingdom.

Trump was kept away from reporters during a busy day of meetings and ceremonies, but late in the day, he said, the deals reached would lead to “tremendous investments” in the US. He said the deals will also create “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Changing geopolitics

Russia and Iran – allies with Syria against the US-Saudi Arabia axis in the region – this year signed a large arms deal. The US-Saudi deal comes amid talk of a possible reconfiguration of Middle East alliances, and possibly global ties.

For Riyadh, the visit is an opportunity to rebuild ties with a key ally, strained under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who Sunni Arab Gulf states suspected of a tilt towards their Shiite regional rival Iran.

US First Lady Melania Trump chats with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.US First Lady Melania Trump chats with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.

No gaffes, so far

After a welcoming coffee ceremony, Trump and his entourage were brought to the royal court where the president was awarded the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honor.

The streets of Riyadh were lined with US and Saudi flags and billboards featuring Trump and King Salman.

Trump is meeting the kingdom’s two powerful crown princes on Saturday, before giving a speech on Islam to leaders of Muslim countries on Sunday.

No head scarves

US first lady Melania Trump did not cover her head when she arrived on Saturday along with her husband.

Two years ago, then-citizen Trump criticized former first lady Michelle Obama’s decision to go bare-headed on a January 2015 visit with her husband.

Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, a senior White House adviser who is accompanying her father, also left her head uncovered.

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Great to be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Looking forward to the afternoon and evening ahead.

Tel Aviv on the table

Trump is set to visit Israel on Monday and the occupied Palestinian territories on Tuesday. This next leg will be more complicated, despite the history of warm ties between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A key issue will be the fate of the US embassy, which Trump signaled he would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A senior Palestinian official said on Saturday this would be a deal-breaker for the Palestinians.

“We believe that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem would mean the end of the peace process,” Saeb Erekat, second-in-command of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said days ahead of Trump’s visit to the region.

Erekat added that a Palestinian state without east Jerusalem as its capital would have “no meaning.”

Watch video02:35

Will Trump move embassy to Jerusalem?

The new US ambassador to Israel David Friedman has also backed the move.

There has been no movement so far on the pledge.

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed the east of the city in a move never recognized by the international community.

Iran

Trump is expected to take a harder line on Iran, where it was announced Saturday that President Hassan Rouhani had won a resounding re-election victory as voters overwhelmingly backed his efforts to reach out to the world.

Syria

At talks between the two leaders, the king was overheard lamenting the Syrian war to Trump.

“Syria too used to be one of the most advanced countries. We used to get our professors from Syria. They served our kingdom. Unfortunately, they too brought destruction to their own country. You can destroy a country in mere seconds, but it takes a lot of effort,” he said.

Trump’s response could not be heard.

Watch video00:56

Trump has arrived in Saudi Arabia

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‘All We Could Find Were Body Parts’: America’s Role in Yemen’s Civilian Carnage

By Samuel Oakford

October 17, 2015 | 8:05 pm

On the morning of September 28, two families gathered in the southwestern Yemeni village of Wahija for the wedding of a young couple.

Dozens of women were inside a large wooden structure owned by the family of the groom, Merssal Mosaibas, helping to prepare for the festivities. A few male relatives and guests, both men and boys, were outside.

At about 9:30am, the familiar roar of Saudi-led coalition jets was heard overhead. Some people fled as the planes approached, fearing an attack, but many women and children remained inside. Bombs started falling shortly after 10am, the first striking near where the men had gathered. The structure, held up by tree branches and covered with a tarp, was obliterated minutes later. Mosaibas was nearby, but survived the attack; his bride, Hanen Makhrama, had not arrived yet from her nearby village.

The women and children inside the structure, however, were killed.

Wedding guest Shadi Taha told VICE News over the phone that the attack turned what had been a scene of joy and celebration into one of horror. Body parts were scattered all over, tree branches flecked with pieces of skin.

“There were only small, small pieces,” he recalled. “People were small, small pieces of meat.”

The site of the coalition airstrike that allegedly killed dozens of people at a wedding in Wahija, a village on the Red Sea coast in southwestern Yemen. (Photo via Human Rights Watch)

Among the dead were a mother and her five children. The body of an elderly woman who lived nearby was found on her bloodstained mattress. She had been resting when shrapnel tore through her home.

“It cut her into two or three parts,” Taha said. “We had to carry her out in a carton.”

The jets circled for half an hour, leaving residents fearful to help victims.

“Later, when we did try to rescue them, we could find [only] a single person alive,” a local community leader told United Nations investigators as part of their monitoring of abuses in Yemen. The UN’s Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights provided VICE News with his testimony and other witness accounts.

Initial reports put the death toll as high as 130, citing local health officials. Human rights workers and locals later clarified that at least several dozen people died, most likely between 30 and 50 people. Many of the bodies were too badly burned or mangled to identify immediately or at all. Because a large number of the wedding guests came from outside the town and others fled before and after the attack, those who survived did not know how many people were present when the bombs exploded.

Another woman told UN investigators that she called her 21-year-old daughter upon hearing planes nearby, urging her to leave. But the daughter stayed and was killed.

“Once we reached the site of the airstrike, all we could find were body parts,” the mother said. “We could not find part of her dress or clothing so that we could identify our daughter.”

After more than six months of Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen, incidents like this have become grimly familiar. According to UN figures, more than2,355 civilians have been killed since the hostilities began in late March.

The Houthis and allied forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh have beenimplicated in the deaths of hundreds of non-combatants, often killed by indiscriminate and retaliatory shelling or mines left behind as the Houthis retreat. But the UN says that airstrikes have killed the majority of civilians. The United States military has assisted this Saudi-led campaign with logistical support and billions of dollars in equipment and weaponry.

The Houthis, who hail from a northern Zaydi Shia community, control Wahija and the area around it. One resident said the groom’s uncle was associated with the Houthis, but there was no indication that the wedding in any way amounted to a military target.

Human rights monitors and the UN have heavily criticized the massive civilian toll from such strikes and the US military’s supporting role. They have also raised questions about Washington’s potential complicity in war crimes and violations of international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that the campaign must stop.

* * *
Last week, in its latest condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition and its backers, Amnesty International outlined what it called likely war crimes committed by the coalition in the northeast province of Sadaa, a Houthi stronghold. It called for a suspension of all arms transfers to the coalition by its backers, including the United States and United Kingdom.

Since October 2010, the US has sold Saudi Arabia more than $90 billion in aircraft, defense systems, bombs, missiles, and other weapons. When war broke out in Yemen, it began to expedite shipments. American arms manufacturers have also sold billions of dollars’ worth of material to other Gulf coalition members, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Both the Saudis and UAE have purchased controversial cluster munitions — banned by more than 100 countries — that have been used in the current conflict.

Since the airstrikes started on March 25, the US has provided the coalition with vital air-refueling sorties, search-and-rescue support, and help with logistics and intelligence — the centerpiece of which is a Saudi-based “Joint Combined Planning Cell” staffed with American personnel who interact daily with the Saudi military. This support involves what the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) terms “targeting assistance.”

“The Saudi-led coalition is equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and targeting technology, yet airstrikes have caused a tremendous number of civilian casualties,” said Claire Talon, Middle East and North Africa director at the International Federation for Human Rights. “It is clear that states providing intelligence and assistance to the coalition, including the US, may be accused of complicity in war crimes.”

‘The Saudis are using Yemen as an experiment lab for violence, and this will have an extensive impact in the long term.’

But proving that the US has abetted war crimes or violations of international humanitarian law — or even obtaining the information to make a judgment about potential American responsibility — is difficult. From the start, the US has insulated itself from the fallout of a bloody intervention that it has helped sustain. Behind the scenes and in select public statements, American officials have urged the Saudis to be more careful, but there is no indication that the Obama administration has in any way adjusted its assistance in light of the continuing civilian toll.

On October 2, alluding to the Wahija wedding strike, the White House’s National Security Council said that the administration was “deeply concerned” about civilian casualties and called on “all sides of the conflict in Yemen to do their utmost to avoid harm to civilians.”

“We call for an investigation into these reported civilian casualties and for the findings to be reported publicly,” said NSC spokesman Ned Price, though he emphasized that the US “has no role in targeting decisions made by the coalition in Yemen.”

But the language used in that statement is potentially misleading according to Sarah Knuckey, director of Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Clinic.

“When I saw the statement, it struck me as carefully crafted but opaque,” she said. “When you first read it, it seems to say that the US is not involved in strikes — and that’s how some people interpreted it — but reading it as a lawyer the statement is actually quite ambiguous. It leaves open that the US could be providing intelligence, even if it’s not ‘deciding’ on targets.”

For more than three months, VICE News has requested comment and information from multiple officials at the White House, CENTCOM, and the Pentagon about the extent of US involvement with the coalition, and what steps the US is taking to prevent civilian casualties.

“There is a clear distinction between logistical and intelligence support, which we have provided, and taking part in targeting decisions, which we do not,” said a senior White House official who did not wish to be identified when asked about the NSC’s statement. “We have provided logistical and intelligence support in part to facilitate accurate and precise coalition operations in an effort to minimize civilian casualties.”

But it is unclear how this support works to minimize casualties, if it does at all. The White House would not clarify what information the US provides to the Saudis in order to avoid such casualties, and referred VICE News to the Pentagon.

“Ultimately, it is the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] that makes the final decision on targeting,” said Major Roger Cabiness, a Pentagon spokesman. “We will continue to be vocal and adamant on the importance of precise targeting and the importance of thoroughly investigating all credible allegations of civilian casualties.”

https://embeds.vice.com/?embedCode=s4dWFvdDot5v2KwX5gACmcBWuerd2Hpz&playerId=YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5&aid=news.vice.com&autoplay=0&hide_embed=0&ad_rule=1&share_url=THE%20URL%20OF%20YOUR%20ARTICLE%20GOES%20HERE%20FOR%20SHARINGWatch VICE News’ ‘Yemen: A Failed State.’

Lieutenant Commander Kyle Rains, a spokesman for CENTCOM, which has authority over all US operations in the Middle East, responded similarly, instructing VICE News to “contact the Saudi government for information on the tracking of civilian casualties.” But the Saudi government has provided no reliable data.

Neither the Pentagon nor CENTCOM answered when asked if the US military is in any way reviewing the toll on civilians inflicted by coalition airstrikes that it is supporting, or crafting measures to mitigate such casualties. Other sources in the US government said that measures employed by the military in other conflicts to prevent such casualties, such as civilian harm tracking, have not been explicitly coupled with American assistance for the Gulf coalition.

“I think what we are seeing in Yemen makes clear that the US needs to be deliberate in its efforts on civilian harm mitigation,” said a US official with intimate knowledge of American support for the Saudi-led coalition. “To this point, it has not been part of the approach.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the program’s sensitive nature, added that the view within the Pentagon and among those who are coordinating support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen is that offering superior intelligence and targeting capabilities will decrease civilian casualties.

For their part, the Saudis often deny that airstrikes cited by human rights officials were even carried out by their coalition. With the exception of the longstanding US drone program targeting al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate — which is also believed to have killed dozens of civilians, some at wedding gatherings — the Saudi-led coalition is the only air power operating above Yemen. When asked, the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC would not say how the Saudi government is investigating civilian casualties or working to prevent them.

In September, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein called for an independent international inquiry into possible crimes committed in Yemen over the past year. Soon after, the Netherlands proposed a resolution at the UN’s Human Rights Council that would authorize a UN mission to gather evidence. Under intense pressure from the Saudis and other Gulf states, and with little support from the US, the Dutch folded. A Saudi-drafted text affirming UN assistance for the Riyadh-supported government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was passed instead.

Human rights officials say that the existing inquiry established by Hadi’s government, just like Saudi claims that they will investigate their own airstrikes, do not hold up to international standards of impartiality.

“One way to have settled who provided the targeting for the catastrophic attack on the wedding would have been an international inquiry, but sadly the US did not lift a finger to make that happen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

While CENTCOM officials insist that the American assistance program is “primarily an advisory one,” experts counter that the coalition would have immense difficulty operating politically and militarily in its absence.

‘The number of countries that are capable of aerial refueling is amazingly few. The US remains uniquely equipped to provide logistical support and a wide range of kinds and types of intelligence.’

“Without US in-air refueling, combat search-and-rescue, a steady and expedited flow of weapons and ammunition, and contractor logistical support, the air campaign couldn’t happen,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been closely studying the intervention.

Chis Jenks, a professor of international law at Southern Methodist University and a 20-year veteran of the US armed forces, said that while the US is not officially a member of the Saudi-led coalition, it is difficult to overestimate how essential it is to the campaign.

“The number of countries that are capable of aerial refueling is amazingly few,” he said. “Even among our NATO allies, they rely on the US. The US remains uniquely equipped to provide logistical support and a wide range of kinds and types of intelligence, including signals intelligence on radio, cell and other forms of communication, and satellite imagery products.”

Jenks, who helped train the Yemeni army during Saleh’s presidency, said coalitions like the one operating in Yemen are constructed in a way that protects members and countries like the US, which occupy a sort of grey area.

“The White House may well be able to claim that the US is not making targeting decisions or launching airstrikes, and that it doesn’t control the military forces of other countries which are — so as a matter of law, the US is not obligated to conduct an investigation into allegations of civilian casualties,” he said. “It seems now that there is a tendency within coalition operations to not acknowledge which countries in the coalition are taking what action. Coalition operations are providing an effective way to deflect media inquiries and concerns about civilian casualties.”

The dearth of information on coalition activities and the lack of an impartial investigation into civilian casualties has alarmed human rights monitors.

“If there were to be a proper investigation, first and foremost responsibility would have to be established as to who are the primary perpetrators of any attack,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response advisor. “And then who might have provided assistance of some sort, be it logistical or intelligence or supplying weapons, even if those weapons might have been supplied some time ago.”

* * *
On October 7, five days after the White House statement on casualties, coalition jets hit another wedding, this time in Sanaban village in Dhamar governorate. According to witnesses who spoke with UN investigators, one of three brothers who were to be married was killed.

The Saudi-led coalition claims that the Houthis are a proxy for Iran, and accuse Tehran of supporting the rebels. The extent of Iran’s backing is disputed, and support from forces loyal to Saleh, armed with his weapons stockpiles — including arms supplied by the US — have played an outsized role in the rebels’ advances. Still, in Washington, the fight in Yemen is often considered a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A Yemen-based human rights official said that the US is driven to provide support in order to placate the Saudis after their opposition to the nuclear deal that the US and other world powers reached with Tehran this summer.

“It comes down to the Iran nuclear deal, and this is the price to be paid, the pound of flesh,” said the official, who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity due to the official’s ongoing work in the country. “The Saudis get to do whatever they want to do in Yemen.”

Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar and expert on Yemen at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that the unconditional support that the US, the UK, and other Western countries provide to the coalition has “led the Saudis to be more destructive in their use of force.”

“Now the Saudis are using Yemen as an experiment lab for violence, and this will have an extensive impact in the long term,” he said.

For the people of Wahija, the geopolitical implications of the war in Yemen are the least of their worries. Jets continue to fly over the town and other villages like it, and civilians continue to live under a daily threat of attack. Residents in the area said recently that they were still finding the remains of friends and neighbors scattered around the town.

Many Wahija residents fled after the September 28 bombing to take shelter elsewhere. One of them, Abdullah Saleh Omar, returned on the afternoon of the bombing to check on his house.

“We found half the body of a woman in my house,” he said. “Between the trees all around my house people found body parts — arms and legs.”

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

TOPICS: middle east, yemen, saudi arabia, uae, united arab emirates, qatar, centcom, pentagon, us military, white house, human rights watch, amnesty international, war & conflict, barack obama,airstrikes, civilian casualities

Syria’s fractious opposition meets in Saudi capital to unify stance ahead of peace talks

Syria’s divided political opposition and rebels groups have met in Saudi Arabia for the first time to chart a unified position ahead of potential talks with the Assad regime. Syrian Kurds were notably uninvited.

Häuserruinen nach Bombardement in Aleppo Syrien

At least 100 delegates from the political opposition and rebel factions – including hard-line Islamist groups – met in Riyadh on Wednesday for two days of talks meant to unify the divided Syrian opposition as the international community pushes a political solution to end the Syrian conflict.

At least 16 rebel factions are participating in the closed-door talks, including the powerful Islamist groups Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which has ties to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra front.

The talks also include some 20 members of the Western-backed Syrian National Council and the Syrian-based National Coordination Body.

The Saudi effort aims to bridge the gap between Syrian opposition and rebels groups to develop a common platform and negotiating position, as well as form a negotiating team ahead of potential early January talks with representatives of the Assad regime.

The Riyadh talks come as the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and more than a dozen other countries that both support the opposition and regime agreed last month in Vienna to renewed a push for a political solution to the nearly 5-year-old war, which has killed at least 250,000 people and displaced some 12 million.

The renewed diplomacy gained urgency following the refugee crisis in Europe, the increasing threat of “Islamic State” and Russia’s military intervention in Syria – backed by Iranian and Hezbollah militias – to bolster regime forces, an event which marked a significant escalation of a conflict.

Watch video26:25

War on terror – How to combat IS?

None of the Syrian opposition and rebel factions was invited to Vienna, where the outline of peace talks was agreed upon that would see a transition government set up before elections being held in 18 months.

The talks left unresolved the role of Assad in a transition, a major sticking point among international powers and within the opposition.

Most of the Syrian opposition has called for Assad’s ouster, potentially putting it at odds with Russia and some Western countries that have softened their stance that he must leave before a political transition.

The West’s attention has been turned to fighting the Islamic State, and after five years of conflict even the US has come to the realization the Assad regime is likely to hold on to power and his sudden fall could usher in further chaos.

Role of Ahrar al-Sham

The US has approached the hardline Ahrar al-Sham with caution, neither discounting including the group in the future of Syria nor opening up to it.

US officials have indicated their position vis-à-vis the Salafist group would likely be determined by its relationship with al-Nusra and its ability to compromise and work with the broader Syrian opposition.

For its part, Russia has insisted international powers come up with a list of terrorist organizations – which would from Moscow’s view include groups such as Ahrar al-Sham – and legitimate opposition to negotiate with the Syrian regime.

In a sign Ahrar al-Sham would not soften its stance, the group issued a statement on Wednesday setting numerous preconditions that are likely to be unpalatable by other moderate rebel factions and the West.

“We came to stress that we want to liberate all the territories under Russian and Iranian hegemony, to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to preserve the sovereignty of our country,” the group said in the statement, adding “Islamic identity” should be preserved and regime figures brought to justice.

The Syrian army has made moderate gains since Russia's Intervention.

The group said it demanded the “overthrow of the Assad regime with all its pillars and symbols” including the military and security apparatus, as well as the “the complete cleansing of the Russian-Iranian occupation of Syrian land, and the sectarian militias which support it.”

World powers in Vienna have agreed to keep state structures intact, fearful of a repeat of what occurred in Iraq could empower the “Islamic State” or lead to complete state collapse.

Ahrar al-Sham also rejected some groups as “closer to the (Syrian) regime than they are to the revolution.”

Some Syrian opposition and rebels groups boycotted the Riyadh talks over Ahrar al-Sham’s inclusion.

Kurds go their own way

Meanwhile, notably left uninvited to the Riyadh talks were the main Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG recently formed a new US-backed group dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces consisting of some Free Syrian Army units, Arab tribes and Assyrian Christians.

The Syrian Kurds have carved out autonomous zones in northeast Syria and been some of the best fighters against IS. They have also clashed with al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist factions, who accuse the Kurds of cooperating with the regime.

Separate from Riyadh, the Syrian Democratic Forces held for the second day their own conference on Wednesday in the northern province of Hassaka.

The Syrian Kurds’ exclusion from the talks in Riyadh is widely seen as a concession to Turkey, which with its large Kurdish population has been concerned about Kurdish autonomy in Syria and the YPG’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

cw/jil (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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Saudi Arabia to build world’s tallest tower at one kilometer high

Jeddah Tower

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Jeddah Tower

Plans to build the world’s tallest tower in Saudi Arabia are forging ahead after funds for the final phase of the $2.2 billion project were secured earlier this week.

The Middle East is set, once more, to become home to another record-breaking feat of architecture and engineering with the completion of the Jeddah Tower (previously called the Kingdom Tower), which will soar a full one kilometer into the clouds (3,280 feet), dethroning the current title-holder, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai by 173 meters (568 feet).

Earlier this week the Saudi government announced that a financing deal between the developer, the Jeddah Economic Company, and Alinma Investment had been signed, giving the project the final green light.

Set to open in the port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the tower will be a mixed-use building and feature a seven-storey Four Seasons hotel with 200 rooms; seven storeys of office space; 121 serviced apartments; 318 different types of housing units; and the world’s highest observatory at 660 m above ground.

Inspired by its desert surroundings, the tower, designed by designers Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, is meant to evoke the “folded fronds of a young desert plant” shooting up from the ground.

The idea is to represent new life, and new development around the record-breaking project.

Servicing the 170 storeys, however, requires a sophisticated elevator system. A total of 59 elevators, five double-deck elevators, and 12 escalators will help visitors move about the monster building. Elevators that shuttle visitors to the observatory will travel at a rate of 10 meters per second.

And the sky terrace, which will open on the 157th floor, will open out into the clouds from the penthouse floor.

Construction of the first 26 floors is complete.

Meanwhile, the Jeddah Tower forms part of a larger project, Jeddah Economic City, a modern community that will span 5.3 million square meters and serve as a business and tourism hotspot.

The waterfront district will feature a luxury shopping mall, luxury hotels, open spaces, residential and business areas and a seaside promenade.

The Jeddah Tower is set for completion in 2020.

Iran hints at quitting Syria talks amid spat with Saudi Arabia

Iran has said it might opt out of Syria talks, citing the ‘negative’ role of its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also called on Riyadh to end ‘intrusions’ in Middle Eastern affairs.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian

The worsening relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are affecting the ongoing Syria talks aimed at finding a political solution to the protracted conflict in the Middle Eastern country.

For the first time, Tehran was invited to negotiations in Vienna on Friday, but the deputy foreign minister of the Shiite nation said Monday his country’s participation in the second round of talks was doubtful.

“In the first round of talks, some countries, especially Saudi Arabia, played a negative and unconstructive role. Iran will not participate if the talks are not fruitful,” Hossein Amir Abdollahian (photo) said.

Riyadh and Tehran are at loggerheads on the Syrian issue, with Iran supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and Saudi Arabia insisting that the embattled Syrian leader should have no role in the war-torn country’s future.

The two regional rivals with different brands of Islam are also locked in a conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been launching airstrikes against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels.

Trading accusations

Less than 24 hours after multinational diplomatic talks in Vienna on Friday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called a Gulf security conference in Bahrain and attacked Iranian policies.

“We have extended our hand in friendship to Iran,” Jubeir said. “It is up to the Iranians whether they want to have relations with us based on good neighborliness … or if they want to have relations that are filled with tension,” he added.

Responding to Jubeir, Abdollahian warned Saudi Arabia to “not test the limits of the Islamic Republic’s patience.”

“Instead of blaming others, Saudi Arabia’s minister of foreign affairs would do better to end his visible and hidden support for terrorists in Yemen, Iraq and Syria,” Abdollahian said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, too, criticized Riyadh for what he called the kingdom’s “intrusion” in the Middle East.

“If Saudi Arabia’s vision on the big regional questions confronts reality and it stops its intrusions, we can solve many problems, especially in our relations,” Rouhani told a meeting of Iranian ambassadors in Tehran on Monday.

shs/jm (Reuters, AFP)

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