U.S. priority on Syria no longer focused on ‘getting Assad out’: Ambassador Haley

The United States’ diplomatic policy on Syria for now is no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Thursday, in a departure from the Obama administration’s initial and public stance on Assad’s fate.

The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators. “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters. “Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.” “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did,” said Haley, a former governor of South Carolina. “Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.” On Wednesday, Haley accused Russia, Iran and the “Assad regime” of committing war crimes. She has also said the United States supports the U.N.-led Syria peace talks, that Syria could no longer be a “safe haven for terrorists” and that it was important “we get Iran and their proxies out.”

In Ankara on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters that Haley’s remarks reflected “a measure of just realism, accepting the facts on the ground. … Assad is never going to have sufficient force to reassert control over the whole country. … Our focus is on defeating ISIS and al Qaeda and preventing Syria from being used as a terrorist safe haven.” But Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in separate, strongly worded statements, denounced the shift in the U.S. stance. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tillerson’s statement “overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered” by Assad’s military, Russia’s air force and Iranian-backed militias. “I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path,” McCain said, adding that U.S. allies could fear a bargain with Assad and Russia “sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.”

Graham, who like McCain is a foreign policy hawk and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it would be a “grave mistake” to drop the removal of Assad as an objective, and would be crushing news to the Syrian opposition and U.S. allies in the region. In addition, leaving Assad in power is “a great reward for Russia and Iran,” Graham said.

Contradictory messages

Syrian opposition member Farah al-Attasi said the State Department and the White House were sending contradictory messages on Syria and should start leading and not focus exclusively on fighting Islamic State.

Britain and France reinforced their stance on Assad earlier on Thursday. French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters: “Assad is not and cannot be the future of his country.”

Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as U.S. ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements, said the U.S. government’s policy since late 2014 had been to focus more specifically on the fight against Islamic State as well as al Qaeda, “even if it never acknowledged that its focus on Syria had shifted.” “Ambassador Haley’s remarks just confirm that the Trump administration is following the same path,” said Ford, who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute and senior fellow at Yale.

Iraqi forces retake Mosul’s main government building and museum

Iraqi forces said Tuesday they had seized the main government offices in Mosul and its famed museum as they made steady progress in their battle to retake the city’s west from jihadists.

News of the advances came on the third day of a renewed offensive against Daesh in west Mosul — the largest remaining urban stronghold in the “caliphate” declared by the jihadists in 2014. Supported by the US-led coalition bombing Daesh in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces began their push against west Mosul on February 19. The advance slowed during several days of bad weather but was renewed on Sunday. Recent advances have brought government troops and police closer to Mosul’s densely populated Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under Daesh rule.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement that federal police and the elite Rapid Response unit had been able to “liberate” the headquarters for the Nineveh provincial government. They also seized control of the Al-Hurriyah bridgehead, it said, in a step towards potentially relinking west Mosul with the city’s east, which government forces seized from the jihadists earlier in the offensive.

Iraqi security forces advance during fighting against Daesh jihadists in western Mosul. [Photo by Khalid Mohammed/AP]

Site of artifact destruction

All the bridges crossing the Tigris in Mosul have been damaged or destroyed, and Iraqi forces would either have to repair them or install floating bridges to reconnect the two banks of the river, which divides the city.

Officers said Tuesday that security forces had also managed to recapture the Mosul museum, where the jihadists destroyed priceless artifacts, releasing a video of their rampage in February 2015. The video showed militants at the museum knocking statues off their plinths and smashing them to pieces. In another scene a jackhammer was used to deface a large Assyrian winged bull at an archaeological site in the city.

The jihadists’ attacks on ancient heritage in Iraq and Syria have sparked widespread international outrage and fears for some of the world’s most important archaeological sites. The museum was on a police list released Tuesday of sites recently recaptured from Daesh, which also included Mosul’s central bank building, which the jihadists looted along with other banks in 2014, seizing tens of millions of dollars.

Other sites recaptured during the last few days include the provincial police headquarters, the courts complex and the water and electricity directorates. The recent fighting in west Mosul has forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. But the number who have fled is still just a fraction of the 750,000 people who are believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under Daesh rule.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/AFP

Iraqi forces fight their way into Mosul old city center

Iraqi forces launched on Sunday a new push toward the Daesh-held old city center of Mosul, on the western bank of the Tigris river, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Iraqi forces are fighting their way toward the old center of the city, advancing from the south and the southwest, Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state-run television.

According to a Syria & Iraq News source, the Iraqi forces are in close proximity to Mosul’s main government buildings.

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Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19. Their advance in western Mosul paused over the past 48 hours because of bad weather.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Car bomb kills at least 60 in Azaz

At least 60 people were killed and 50 others wounded in a car bomb explosion in rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria, according to medical sources. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor had reported, earlier, the death toll of 43 people.

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SOHR said six rebels were among the dead, but most were believed to be civilians, adding that dozens of people had also been injured in the blast in the town near the Turkish border. Dozens were also wounded in the attack which struck in front of an Islamic courthouse where a market is located, the  Observatory said. The group said the toll was likely to rise in the attack, which was the latest in a string of bombings to hit Azaz.

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Daesh likely behind the attack

Daesh is suspected of being behind the attack but no statement has been released yet.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/SOHR/AFP

Iraq PM al-Abadi says deal reached over withdrawal of Turkish forces from Bashiqa

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday an agreement had been reached with Turkey over an Iraqi demand that Turkish forces withdraw from a town near Mosul in the north of the country, Iraqi state TV reported.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi are seen during a welcoming ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, January 7, 2017. Hakan Goktepe/Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi are seen during a welcoming ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, January 7, 2017. Hakan Goktepe/Prime Minister’s Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

Abadi met his Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim who is visiting Baghdad Saturday. No further details were provided by the Iraqi state television.

Russian fleet departs from Syrian shores: Russia’s Defense Ministry

The Russian General Staff announced today that its ‘aircraft-carrier strike group’ will leave Syria soon, as “group has fulfilled its tasks”, the Russian Defense Ministry and the chief of the Russian General Staff announced on Friday.

Archive photo of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
Archive photo of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov first to leave

The chief of Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov said that the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the battlecruiser Pyotr Veliky and their escort ships will be the first to leave Syria.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said that a “unified air defense system has been created in Syria based on S-300 and S-400 missile systems to ensure reliable protection for [Russia’s] assets on [Syrian] land and at sea. The spokesman added that during the “two months of the Russian aircraft carrier group’s participation [in Syria] saw 420 combat sorties and destruction of 1,252 terrorist targets”.

Update 1 – 6/1/2016 15:00 GMT | Russian aircraft carrier group leaves Syrian shores

The Russian aircraft carrier group has departed from Syrian shores and has set sail for the harbor of Severomosk, said Russian admiral Popov and added that the group “will remain in high readiness for possible return to Syrian shores”. Duma’s defense committee deputy chairman said on Saturday that the aircraft carrier group “may return to Mediterranean Sea if necessary”.

Source: Interfax/Syria & Iraq News

Four Daesh suicide attacks in Baghdad kill at least 45, dozens injured

Three Daesh suicide attacks struck Baghdad on Monday killing at least 45 people and injuring dozens.

The most devastating attack happened Baghdad’s Sadr City as a suicide bomber driving a pickup loaded with explosives struck a bustling market in Sadr City, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens. The bomb went off in a fruit and vegetable market that was packed with day laborers, a police officer said, adding that another 52 people were wounded. Sadr City is a vast Shiite district in eastern Baghdad that has been repeatedly targeted by Sunni extremists since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

On-lookers at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Sadr City, Baghdad on January 2, 2017 [photo by Karim Kadim/Associated Press]
On-lookers at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Sadr City, Baghdad on January 2, 2017 [photo by Karim Kadim/Associated Press]

During a press conference with French President Hollande, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the bomber pretended to be a man seeking to hire day laborers. Once the workers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle.

Daesh claimed the attack in a statement circulated on a militant website often used by the jihadists. Daesh claims the attacks are “a revenge for coalition-Iraqi targeting of health services in Mosul ”. It was the third Daesh-claimed attack in as many days in and around Baghdad, underscoring the lingering threat posed by the group despite a string of setbacks elsewhere in the country over the past year, including in and around the northern city of Mosul.

Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric for whose family the neighborhood is named, were seen evacuating bodies in their trucks before ambulances arrived. Dead bodies were scattered across the bloody pavement alongside fruit, vegetables and laborers’ shovels and axes. A minibus filled with dead passengers was on fire.

Asaad Hashim, an owner of a mobile phone store nearby, described how the laborers pushed and shoved around the bomber’s vehicle, trying to get hired. “Then a big boom came, sending them up into the air,” said the 28-year old, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his right hand. He blamed “the most ineffective security forces in the world” for failing to prevent the attack. An angry crowd cursed the government, even after a representative of al-Sadr tried to calm them. Late last month, Iraqi authorities started removing some of the security checkpoints in Baghdad in a bid to ease traffic for the capital’s 6 million residents. “We have no idea who will kill at any moment and who’s supposed to protect us,” said Ali Abbas, a 40-year old father of four who was hurled over his vegetable stand by the blast. “If the securities forces can’t protect us, then allow us to do the job,” he added.

Three other attacks claim at least seven dead

Three other bombings elsewhere in the city on Monday killed another seven civilians and wounded at least 30, according to medics and police officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Two blasts struck central Baghdad on the same day, killing at least five and wounding five others, while another blast near a hospital in Sadr City killed two and wounded four others.

Daesh took responsibility for all four bomb attacks.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Associated Press/Reuters/Tomorrow Channel