Thursday, November 19, 2015
Republican presidential candidates wasted no time after the terrorist attacks in Paris to put forth their ideas for fighting the Islamic State. They’ve proposed bombing oil fields in the Middle East (Donald J. Trump), allowing only Christian refugees into the United States (Senator Ted Cruz of Texas) and sending 10,000 American troops to Iraq and Syria (Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina). The Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, have been less vocal in how they would respond to the attacks that shook the French capital last Friday.On Thursday, however, Hillary Rodham Clinton said that more should be done to empower Iraqi ground forces to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.“The ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight,” she said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has said that the internationally agreed upon 18-month timeline for political transition in Syria may only begin after Islamic State and other terror groups are defeated in the country.
Over 70% wants Assad to remain in power, Le Figaro poll shows http://on.rt.com/6v45
9:56 AM - 31 Oct 2015
“There will be no point in deciding any timetable, because you cannot achieve anything politically while you have the terrorists taking over many areas in Syria, and they’re going to be – they are already – the main obstacle of any real political advancement,” Assad said in an interview with Italy’s RAI UNO channel.
After the terrorists are defeated, the political transition in Syria won’t require a lot of time, the president stressed.
“One year and a half (18 months) to two years is enough for any transition. It’s enough. I mean if you want to talk about first of all having a new constitution, then a referendum, then parliamentarian elections, then any kind of other procedure, whether presidential or any other thing, doesn’t matter,” he explained.
However, Assad added that the timeline for a political settlement in the country would depend “on the agreement that we can reach as Syrians.”
“If we don’t reach it in 18 months, so what?” he wondered. “The most important part is that we’re going to sit with each other; then we’re going to set our schedule and our plan as Syrians.”
During a meeting in Vienna last week, foreign ministers of nearly 20 countries agreed on a transition plan for Syria that foresees the beginning of talks between the Syrian government and opposition before January 1 and holding a UN-supervised election within 18 months.
The Syrian leader stressed the importance of parliamentary elections in Syria as it’s “going to show which power of the political powers in Syria has real weight among the Syrian people, which one has real grassroots.”
“Now, anyone can say 'I’m opposition.' What does it mean, how do you translate it?.. Opposition could be defined not through your own opinion; it could be defined only through the elections, through the ballot box,” he explained.
The president reiterated his stance that those who are fighting the Syrian government with weapons in their hands can’t be regarded as opposition.
“Whoever holds a machinegun and terrorizes people and destroys private or public properties or kills innocents and whoever is a terrorist, he’s not opposition,” he said.
When asked about the possibility of holding a presidential vote, Assad replied that “if the Syrians, in their dialogue, they wanted to have presidential elections, there’s nothing called a red line, for example, regarding this. But it’s not my decision. It should be about what the consensus is among the Syrians.”
The president also disagreed with those who claim that Syria has become a breeding ground for Islamic State (IS, Daesh) terrorists.
“Till this moment, I can tell you Daesh doesn’t have the natural incubator, social incubator, within Syria. This is something very good and very assuring, but at the same time, if it’s becoming chronic, this kind of ideology can change the society,” he said.
According to Assad, Islamic State will have the ability to remain “strong as long as they have strong support from different states, whether Middle Eastern states or Western states.”
The Syrian leader also recalled his surprise visit to Moscow in mid-October, describing talks with Vladimir Putin and Russia’s defense and foreign ministers as productive.
“It was a trip to discuss the military situation, because it happened nearly two weeks after the Russians started the airstrikes, and to discuss the political process, because it was, again, a few days before Vienna 1. It was very fruitful, because the Russians understand very well this region, because they have historical relations, they have embassies, they have all kinds of necessary relations and means to play a role,” he said.
Russia has been bombing Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terror groups in Syria at Assad’s request since September 30.
Commenting on the refugee crisis in Europe, Assad called every person who was forced to leave the country “a loss to Syria.”
He named three reasons why people are becoming refuges, including a “direct threat by terrorists,” “the influence of terrorists in destroying much of the infrastructure and affecting the livelihood of those people,” as well as “the Western embargo on Syria.”
Assad also expressed condolences to France for the IS attacks in Paris on November 13, calling them “a horrible crime.”
“We understand in Syria the meaning of losing a dear member of the family or a dear friend, or anyone you know, in such a horrible crime. We’ve been suffering from that for the past five years. We feel for the French as we feel for the Lebanese a few days before that, and for the Russians regarding the airplane that’s been shot down over Sinai, and for the Yemenis,” he stressed.
Upon directives of Federal Government, local administration of Islamabad is making agreements with Lal Masjid’s cleric Molvi Abdul Aziz. According to sources, a temporary agreement has been finalized between Islamabad’s local administration and Molvi Abdul Aziz and he has presented conditions to the administration for a permanent settlement which includes the release of his son-in-law, arrested from Lahore, freedom to go to Lal Masjid, and provision of security. Sources told that negotiations took place at a secret location and the agreement was made for two weeks and during this time period, Molvi Abdul Aziz would not go to Lal Masjid even for the Friday sermon. According to local administration, the agreement subsided the increasing Lal Masjid's threat for two weeks.
When Pakistani leaders meet US officials, they express strong commitment to fighting Islamic extremism. Experts say it is usually a hollow exercise, and the Pakistani army chief's five-day US visit is a perfect example.
Pakistan's military chief, Raheel Sharif, who is touted by much of the Pakistani media as the "savior" of the Islamic country, is wrapping up his five-day visit to the United States. The military's supporters, including a number of journalists and analysts, claim Sharif's US trip is far more significant in terms of strategic and defense ties than Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's visit to Washington in October.
Their claim is not entirely wrong: General Sharif holds the real power in Pakistan, whereas PM Sharif, despite being the constitutional head of the government, has almost no say in matters related to foreign policy and defense.
The dichotomy of power in Pakistan has always put the US in a dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to strengthen civilian democracy in the country, on the other, it knows it has to deal with the powerful Pakistani army, if it wants to get the work done.
For Washington, there are too many things on the table regarding Islamabad: peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan; Pakistan's rapidly expanding nuclear stockpile, its continued support of Islamic militants in the region; and the Islamic nation's deteriorating ties with neighboring India.
The Obama administration, however, has been stricter with the Pakistani military than previous US governments have. This is why PM Sharif's visit not only preceded General Sharif's tour, but also why his arrival in Washington was given far more importance in comparison to General Sharif's low-key trip. Some reports even suggest that General Sharif went to the US on his own request.
"COAS Gen Raheel Sharif is travelling to Washington D.C. of his own volition and DoD (Department of Defense) officials are meeting (him) at his request," a US defense official told the media on November 12.
Islamabad-based journalist Abdul Agha says General Sharif should work on tackling and eradicating Islamist extremism in his country rather than wasting time in the US on a "futile trip."
"His boss, PM Sharif, must have told him (Raheel Sharif) about the US demands. Then why did the general feel the need to go to Washington?" Agha asked.
History of mistrust
Regardless of whether General Sharif's US visit was unsolicited or not, he has met with a number of high-ranking US officials in the past four days. On November 19, he held talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry and is expected to meet Vice-President Joe Biden before heading to Brazil and Ivory Coast.
"Secretary Kerry met with Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif to follow up on some of the security-related conversations that he had with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October," a State Department spokesperson told reporters.
"General Sharif's consultations in Washington are part of our regular, ongoing bilateral discussions with a broad range of Pakistani officials, and we appreciate the productive discussions we had regarding our bilateral defense and security relationship," the spokesperson added, without specifying issues that were discussed during the meeting.
The US is wary of Islamabad's reluctance to go after the militant Haqqani Network in the North Waziristan region close to the Afghan border. Some US officials believe the Pakistani army continues to back the Taliban to destabilize President Ashraf Ghani's government in Kabul.
But experts say the Obama administration is aware that it is unlikely that Raheel Sharif will address US concerns when he returns home. "The US knows the situation. But nothing will change on the ground as the Pakistani army will not give up its decades-old regional policies," Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistani researcher, told DW.
However, Ali K. Chishti, a security analyst in Karachi, says the assumption that Washington doesn't have faith in Pakistan's commitment to peace in Afghanistan is misplaced. "The US and Pakistan have been on the same page on this issue ever since the Qatar talks were initiated during President Hamid Karzai's tenure."
Pakistan's nuclear safety
Washington has also been worried about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration, therefore, wants to ensure better security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and limit the numbers of nuclear weapons.
A report by two US think tanks stated that Pakistan could have the world's third-largest nuclear stockpile within a decade. Pakistan has a history of nuclear proliferation, and despite public statements by US officials that the Islamic country's nuclear weapons are safe, there are growing fears that they could fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists.
"The Pakistani nukes have been on the US watch list ever since former President Pervez Musharaff set up a nuclear command and control authority in the country and introduced safeguards. Since then, Washington hasn't shown any serious concern," Chishti said.
"The US is only worried about smaller nuclear warheads and the speed of its production," he added.
Most analysts are of the view that General Sharif won't concede to the US on this issue either.
The military's obsession with Kashmir
Another major issue during General Sharif's talks with US officials was the increased tension between Pakistan and India. There have been border skirmishes between the two countries in the recent months, and their leaders have ratcheted up war rhetoric substantially.
The situation is worrisome for the US, which wants Islamabad to focus more on fighting home-grown Islamists rather than on scaling up tensions with New Delhi.
Security analyst Chishti believes General Sharif was justified in raising the issue with the US military leadership because Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not willing to cooperate with the Pakistani leadership.
But Arif Jamal, a US-based scholar on Islamic extremism, says the tensions are largely because of Pakistan's anti-India policies and support for jihadists. "The US has always pressed Pakistan to abandon the use of jihadists as an instrument of foreign policy. It needs to press Islamabad even harder," he told DW.
It is likely that US military officials pressed General Sharif "harder" this time. But will it be enough to pressure Pakistan to change its policies? Experts say this is highly unlikely.