Jerusalem, Jan 13 (AP/UNB) — Israel's prime minister says the country struck an Iranian weapons storage facility over the weekend at the Damascus International Airport.
Benjamin Netanyahu's comments on Sunday at his weekly Cabinet meeting mark a rare public acknowledgement of Israeli activity in Syria.
Israel is believed to have carried out hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets throughout the Syrian civil war but has generally refrained from commenting about them for fear of being drawn into the fighting.
Only recently has it begun to speak publicly about thwarting the weapons smuggling from Iran through Styria into Lebanon. Israel's outgoing military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, did so over the weekend in various interviews.
Netanyahu says Israel says the recent strikes prove "we are committed more than ever to act against Iran in Syria."
Israel's military says its troops have found the sixth and the last tunnel dug by Hezbollah militants for cross-border attacks and that its operation at the Lebanese border is now over.
Military spokesman Jonathan Conricus says the final tunnel is the largest one discovered so far, running hundreds of meters (yards) from under a Lebanese home and deep into Israeli territory.
Israel launched the "Operation Northern Shield" last month to detect and destroy what it called a vast network of Hezbollah tunnels aimed for militants to sneak across the border and carry out attacks.
Israel and the United Nations say the tunnels violate a cease-fire resolution that ended a devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Conricus says the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, has been updated.
Tehran, Jan 13 (AP/UNB) — Angered by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's announcement that Poland will host an international conference on Iran in mid-February, Iranian authorities on Sunday summoned Warsaw's top diplomat in the country and called off a Polish film festival.
The moves followed a tweet by Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who denounced the upcoming summit as America's anti-Iran "circus."
Pompeo is currently on a Mideast tour, bringing the Trump administration's anti-Iran message to the region. He told Fox News before departing from Cairo on Friday that an international conference on Iran and the Middle East will take place in Poland on Feb. 13-14.
The official IRNA news agency said Iran conveyed its protest over this to Poland's Chargé d'Affaires Wojciech Unolt, demanding that Poland not side with this "hostile move" by the United States against Tehran.
The statement quoted an unnamed Iranian official as saying that if the summit goes ahead, Iran will resort to unspecified "counter-action" toward Poland, without elaborating.
Separately, Iran's culture ministry in a statement said it was suspending "Poland's Film Week," supposed to be held in Tehran in late January, until Warsaw mends its ways and starts applying "appropriate behavior" toward Tehran.
Poland's Foreign Ministry in Warsaw could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday morning. However, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said Saturday he hoped the conference will provide a new platform for international dialogue and allow the U.S. and European Union to find a closer position on Iran.
Czaputowicz said Poland supported the EU's efforts to preserve its nuclear agreement with Iran, but warned the deal alone would not keep Iran from "destabilizing" the region.
After Pompeo's announcement, Zarif said Friday on Twitter that the conference would bring shame on the Polish government and invoked how during World War II Iran saved Polish lives.
Iran hosted tens of thousands of Polish war refugees who were brought to the country after surviving work camps in the Soviet Union and before they migrated to then-emerging Israel, New Zealand and some African countries. Scores stayed on after the war, choosing to reside in Iran.
Zarif tweeted: "Polish Govt can't wash the shame: while Iran saved Poles in WWII, it now hosts desperate anti-Iran circus."
Tehran and Warsaw have had good relations. The balance of trade between the two nations was $230 million in 2017, up from 80 million in 2015 when Iran and world powers agreed to a landmark nuclear deal that curbed Tehran's nuclear program in return for lifting harsh economic sanctions.
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S pulled out of that accord in May 2018 and imposed new and tougher sanctions on Iran last fall.
On Sunday, Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional archrival, where he is expected to call for increasing pressure on Tehran and promote a U.S.-backed initiative to form what some have termed an "Arab NATO" that would bring the region together in a military alliance to counter threats from Iran.
Beirut, Jan 13 (AP/UNB) — Syrian President Bashar Assad is poised to be readmitted to the fold of Arab nations, a feat deemed unthinkable eight years ago as he forcefully crushed the uprising against his family's rule.
Gulf Arab nations, once the main backers of rebels fighting Assad, are lining up to reopen their embassies in Syria, worried about leaving the country to regional rivals Iran and Turkey and missing out on lucrative post-war reconstructive projects.
Key border crossings with neighbors, shuttered for years by the war, have reopened, and Arab commercial airlines are reportedly considering resuming flights to Damascus.
And as President Donald Trump plans to pull out America's 2,000 soldiers from northeastern Syria, government troops are primed to retake the area they abandoned in 2012 at the height of the war.
Tehran, Jan 13 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Iran's Foreign Ministry denied that Tehran considers withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear deal, Tasnim news agency reported on Sunday.
The Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi strongly denied recent "rumors" inside the country about the country's plan to pull out of the landmark deal as "untrue."
It seems that certain groups are "systematically" fomenting mental chaos in the society and disrupting the market to favor the profiteers, Qasemi was quoted as saying.
"They are attempting to spread biased and false news to create negative psychological atmosphere in the market," he said, adding that any decision about the nuclear deal comes within the purview of the Iranian high council monitoring the accord.
Qasemi also ruled out any disagreement between the Iranian foreign minister and President Hassan Rouhani over the ongoing political affairs of the Islamic republic.
He dismissed the idea that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is going to resign or that there is a division between the foreign ministry and the administration, saying that "certain elements inside the country are insanely spreading false news to weaken the foreign ministry and its hardworking personnel."
Iran has stressed that the country will remain in the nuclear deal as long as the nuclear deal serves its interests.
Washington, Jan 12 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. military said Friday it has started pulling equipment, but not troops, out of Syria as a first step in meeting President Donald Trump's demand for a complete military withdrawal. The announcement fueled concern about how quickly the U.S. will abandon its Kurdish allies, amid contradictory statements recently by administration officials on an exit timetable.
The withdrawal began with shipments of military equipment, U.S. defense officials said. But in coming weeks, the contingent of about 2,000 troops is expected to depart even as the White House vows to keep pressure on the Islamic State group. Once the troops are gone, the U.S. will have ended three years of organizing, arming, advising and providing air cover for Syrian, Kurdish and Arab fighters in an open-ended campaign devised by the Obama administration to deal the IS group a lasting defeat.
Uncertainty over the timing and terms of the Syria pullout have raised questions about the Trump administration's broader strategy for fighting Islamic extremism, including Trump's stated intention to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan this summer.
U.S. airstrikes against IS in Syria began in September 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year in small numbers.
The U.S. military has a limited network of bases inside Syria. Troops work mostly out of small camps in remote parts of the country's northeast. Also, U.S. troops are among 200 to 300 coalition troops at a garrison in southern Syria known as al-Tanf, where they train and accompany local Syrian opposition forces on patrols to counter the IS group. Al-Tanf is on a vital road linking Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon — and Israel's doorstep.
Trump's decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies and angered the Kurds in Syria, who are vulnerable to attack by Turkey. It also prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and drew criticism in Congress. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called the decision a "betrayal of our Kurdish partners."
The U.S. military command in Baghdad, which is managing the counter-IS campaign in Iraq and Syria, said Friday that it "has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria," adding that, for security reasons, it would not reveal timetables, locations or troop movements. Other U.S. officials later made clear that the pullout did not yet include troops.
The withdrawal plan, whose details are classified, includes bringing hundreds of additional troops into Syria temporarily to facilitate the pullout. These include troops to provide extra security for those who are preparing to leave. The full withdrawal is expected to take several months.
The USS Kearsarge amphibious assault ship is now in the region and could provide troops and equipment to support the withdrawal.
U.S. troops are still working with a partner known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to stamp out the last IS holdouts in the Middle Euphrates River Valley near the Iraqi border. Trump has asserted that the IS group in Syria is defeated, but others have said a continued U.S. military presence is necessary to prevent a resurgence of the group. Two weeks before Trump announced he was ordering a pullout, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still had a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to stabilize areas ridden of the IS group. He said it would take 35,000 to 40,000 local forces in northeastern Syria to maintain security, but only about 20 percent had been trained.
Another complication is the fate of hundreds of foreign IS fighters being held in Syria. The U.S. doesn't want these prisoners to be released once U.S. forces are gone, since they could rejoin the militant cause in Syria or elsewhere.
There has been confusion over plans to implement Trump's pullout order amid threats from Turkey to attack the Kurdish fighters, who are seen by Ankara as terrorists because of their ties to insurgents within Turkey.
On a visit to Turkish troops stationed near the Syrian border Friday, Turkey's defense minister, Hulusi Akar, reiterated that Ankara is "determined" to fight Kurdish militias it considers terrorists and said military preparations were ongoing.
"When the time and place comes, the terrorists here will also be buried in the ditches and trenches they have dug," he said.
Earlier this week, Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until the IS group is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, signaling a slowdown in Trump's initial order for a rapid withdrawal.
In Cairo on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that although Trump has decided to bring troops home, he will keep up the fight against the IS group more broadly.
"Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," Pompeo said.
The distinctive feature of the U.S. military campaign in Syria is its partnership with the Kurds and Arabs who were willing to act as American proxies by fighting the Islamic State group without U.S. troops having to take the lead combat role. U.S. forces took a similar approach in neighboring Iraq, starting in 2014, but in that case, they had a willing partner in the Iraqi government, whereas in Syria, the U.S. is present without the blessing of President Bashar Assad.
Syria also is complicated by the presence of Russian troops who are, in effect, propping up the Assad government, and by Iranian support for Assad. American and Russian warplanes have shared the skies over Syria, carrying out separate— and in some cases, conflicting — missions against the IS group and other targets.
The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to assist its security forces, and Trump has given no indication he intends to withdraw them any time soon. He has, however, asserted that the U.S. must bring an end to the Mideast wars that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He has questioned the wisdom of continuing the 17-year war in Afghanistan and recently demanded that about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops there be sent home.