Beirut, Jan 30 (AP/UNB) — It only took a few days for al-Qaida-linked militants to seize more than two dozen towns and villages in northern Syria from rival insurgents earlier this month, expanding and cementing their control over an area the size of neighboring Lebanon.
The advance by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or the Levant Liberation Committee, was the most serious blow yet to a September cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that averted a major government offensive in Idlib province, the last main stronghold of the Syrian opposition.
It highlighted the growing threat posed by al-Qaida at a time when its rival, the Islamic State group, is on the verge of defeat and the U.S. is preparing to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria. Although HTS has formally severed ties with al-Qaida, experts say it is still closely linked to the global network founded by Osama bin Laden and could use its base in Syria to launch attacks in the West.
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says there is a "real danger" that the group's advance "will not only worsen the humanitarian crisis for the 3 million inhabitants there, but also give (President Bashar) Assad and his allies the justification to assault the province."
"Such a scenario would be as devastatingly bloody as the battle for Aleppo," he said, referring to the months of heavy fighting over Syria's largest city in 2016, which killed thousands of people and ended with government forces and their allies capturing the rebel-held east.
HTS includes large numbers of battle-hardened al-Qaida fighters, and its capture of most of rebel-held Syria could force aid agencies to withdraw, leaving tens of thousands of civilians to fend for themselves. The opposition's Free Aleppo Medical Directorate said that some 250,000 people will lose medical support after 43 facilities it runs cease operations due to a drop in aid from Western agencies after the latest HTS offensive.
The government has meanwhile stepped up its bombardment of Idlib and neighboring rebel-held areas. Pro-government media say Defense Minister Gen. Ali Ayoub and Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, who commands the elite Tiger Force, have recently visited the front lines with Idlib, raising fears of a new government offensive.
HTS now controls an area of about 9,000 square kilometers (3,475 square miles) or about 5 percent of Syria's territory. The area is home to some 3 million people, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
Turkey has nearly a dozen observation posts in Idlib, but has shifted its focus further east, where it is preparing to launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara, which supports the opposition, fears the Syrian government is trying to undermine the September agreement. Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, has urged Turkey to act more resolutely in reining in militants in Idlib, who have launched attacks on Syrian government forces and the Russian military. Russia said last week that the escalation of hostilities in Idlib threatens the Russian air base in the neighboring coastal province of Latakia.
The first 10 days of January turned rebel-held parts of northern Syria upside down.
The powerful Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group dissolved itself after days of fighting with HTS during which it lost more than two dozen villages. The ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest groups in northern Syria, also surrendered following attacks by HTS.
Two other groups, Thuwar al-Sham and Bayareq al-Islam, handed over Atareb, an important stronghold in Aleppo province, to HTS and withdrew north toward a region held by Turkish troops. Jaysh al-Ahrar handed over its checkpoints and said it would recognize the HTS-run civil authority.
A week after HTS crushed its opponents, a bomb targeted one of the al-Qaida-linked group's checkpoints at the southern entrance to Idlib, the provincial capital. The blast killed 11 people, including militants, and wounded several others.
Days later, HTS claimed that it captured 12 members of the Islamic State group who were allegedly behind the bombing. The group then released a graphic video like those produced by IS that showed the men being led to the scene of the blast and forced to kneel, blindfolded, before a line of gunmen. The video cuts out before they are shot in the back of their heads.
After the advance by HTS, which now controls a border crossing with Turkey and major highways, some international aid agencies suspended their work for fear of reprisals. HTS has been known to crack down on independent groups and civil society in areas under its control.
Mohammed Haj Omar, who heads the opposition's health department in Aleppo province, said 250,000 people will be immediately affected and more than 3 million at a later stage.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said earlier this month that the United Nations was still providing aid to the region.
He added that while the "full implications" of the HTS takeover were not yet clear, the U.N. and its partners "are closely following developments to ensure that independent, impartial and principled humanitarian action continues."
The Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank, said the HTS takeover "alters the trajectory of the next phase in the civil war, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Assad regime."
"From the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Assad has consistently sought to transform the narrative by making the fight about supporting his government or supporting terrorists, defined as any group fighting against the regime," it said.
Baghdad, Jan 28 (AP/UNB) — The leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias which also fought pitched battles in neighboring Syria said Monday that he expects a vote by Iraq's parliament calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country within the next few months.
Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, said there's no longer a justification for thousands of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after IS has been defeated. He suggested American forces may eventually be driven out by force if they do not yield to the will of the Iraqi parliament and people.
He spoke with The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview at his office in Baghdad. Al-Khizali said he is confident that more than half the new Iraqi parliament rejects the continued presence of American troops.
"I think more than half the members of parliament reject the presence of American military forces as a matter of principle," he said.
"If the United States wants to impose its presence by force, and to ignore the Iraqi constitution and parliament, Iraq can treat it the same way and drive it out by force, this is for sure. But the first phase is political," al-Khazali said.
U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq as part of the coalition against the Islamic State group. American forces withdrew in 2011 after invading in 2003 when they toppled dictator Saddam Hussein but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the of the country's then pro-US government to help fight the extremist group.
Now, after defeating IS militants in their last urban bastions last year, curbing foreign influence in Iraqi affairs has become a hot-button political issue and Iraqi politicians and militia leaders are increasingly speaking out against the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil.
A visit by President Donald Trump with U.S. troops at an air base in Iraq late last month particularly infuriated Iraqi politicians who demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Trump has said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in the country and that Iraq could be used could be used for U.S. air strikes inside Syria after the U.S. withdraws its troops from that country.
Al-Khizali said he was "certain and confident" there will be an Iraqi parliament vote calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. He said there was absolutely no need for troops and special forces anymore but said a small contingent of advisers and trainers could stay on as determined by a joint committee that would specify their numbers and locations.
"Anything other than that will be considered an infringement on sovereignty that the Iraqi parliament, the Iraqi people and political factions including ours and we will not allow it," he said.
Al-Khazali was jailed by British and U.S. forces from 2007 to 2010 for managing sections of the Shia insurgency against the U.S. occupation. His group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia fought key battles against IS in northern Iraq and have also fought in neighboring Syria's civil war.
His group made significant gains in parliament elections that were held in May and he is now represented by a 15-member bloc in parliament.
Dubai, Jan 28 (AP/UNB) — Bahrain's highest court has upheld life sentences for a prominent Shiite cleric who led a now-shuttered opposition party and two of his colleagues.
The ruling on Monday targeted Sheikh Ali Salman, who headed the Al-Wefaq political party and was a central figure in Bahrain's 2011 Arab Spring protests.
A court in June previously acquitted Salman and his two colleagues of spying charges. Bahrain's Supreme Court of Appeals later overturned that verdict and found them guilty in November.
Both state-aligned media and activists reported the ruling by the Court of Cassation.
Bahrain is an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia that's home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The kingdom has been in the midst of a yearslong crackdown on all dissent and opposition.
Dubai, Jan 26 (AP/UNB) — A military base deep inside Saudi Arabia appears to be testing and possibly manufacturing ballistic missiles, experts and satellite images suggest, evidence of the type of weapons program it has long criticized its archrival Iran for possessing.
Further raising the stakes for any such program are comments by Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said last year the kingdom wouldn't hesitate to develop nuclear weapons if Iran does. Ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads to targets thousands of kilometers (miles) away.
Officials in Riyadh and the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Having such a program could further strain relations with the U.S., the kingdom's longtime security partner, at a time when ties already are being tested by the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, said heavy investment in missiles often correlates with an interest in nuclear weapons. "I would be a little worried that we're underestimating the Saudis' ambitions here," said Lewis, who has studied the satellite images.
The images, first reported by The Washington Post, focus on a military base near the town of al-Dawadmi, some 230 kilometers (145 miles) west of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Jane's Defence Weekly first identified the base in 2013, suggesting its two launch pads appear oriented to target Israel and Iran with ballistic missiles the kingdom previously bought from China.
The November satellite images show what appear to be structures big enough to build and fuel ballistic missiles. An apparent rocket-engine test stand can be seen in a corner of the base — the type on which a rocket is positioned on its side and test-fired in place. Such testing is key for countries attempting to manufacture working missiles, experts say.
Michael Elleman, the senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, also reviewed the satellite photos and said they appear to show a ballistic missile program.
The question remains where Saudi Arabia gained the technical know-how to build such a facility. Lewis said the Saudi stand closely resembles a design used by China, though it is smaller.
Chinese military support to the kingdom would not come as a surprise. The Chinese have increasingly sold armed drones to Saudi Arabia and other Mideast nations, even as the U.S. blocks sales of its own to allies over proliferation concerns. Beijing also sold Riyadh variants of its Dongfeng ballistic missiles, the only ones the kingdom was previously believed to have in its arsenal.
Asked by The Associated Press on Friday about the base, China's Defense Ministry declined immediately to comment.
"I have never heard of such a thing as China helping Saudi Arabia to build a missile base," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor China are members of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 30-year-old agreement aimed at limiting the proliferation of rockets capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear bombs.
Saudi Arabia, along with Israel and the United States, have long criticized Iran's ballistic missile program, viewing it as a regional threat.
Iran, whose nuclear program for now remains limited by its 2015 deal with world powers, insists its atomic program is peaceful. But Western powers have long feared it was pursuing nuclear weapons in the guise of a civilian program, allegations denied by Tehran.
Iran has relied on its ballistic missiles as its own air force is largely made up of pre-1979 fighter jets. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has a fleet of modern F-15s, Typhoons and Tornadoes — which raises the question of why the Saudis would choose to develop the missiles.
Elleman, the defense expert, said that while Saudi pilots are skilled, the kingdom still needs American help with logistics.
"Today, they rely heavily on direct American support. There is no absolute guarantee that U.S. forces and supporting functions will aid a Saudi attack on Iranian targets," Elleman told the AP. "Ballistic missiles are a reasonable hedge against those concerns."
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been targeted by ballistic missiles fired from neighboring Yemen by the Houthi rebels, some of which have reached Riyadh. Researchers, Western nations and U.N. experts say Iran supplied those missiles to the rebels, something Tehran and the rebels deny.
Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own nuclear program, and Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old son of King Salman who is next in line for the throne, said it would race for an atomic weapon if Iran were to develop one.
"Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," Prince Mohammed told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview aired last March.
A Saudi program would only complicate efforts by the U.S. and its Western allies to limit Iran's ballistic missile program, said STRATFOR, the Austin, Texas-based private intelligence firm.
STRATFOR said that "should Saudi Arabia move into a test-launch phase, the United States will be pressured to take action with sanctions," as it has done with Iran.
Congress has grown increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 assassination of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, allegedly carried out by members of Prince Mohammed's entourage. The kingdom's yearslong war in Yemen also has angered lawmakers.
If the Saudis produce "medium-range systems inherently capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the response will be much more robust, though likely out of public view," Elleman said. "Congress, on the other hand, may lash out, as this will be seen as another affront to the U.S. and regional stability."
Cairo, Jan 25 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of people were out on the streets Thursday at several locations in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, calling on the country's longtime ruler to step down, according to videos circulating online. Activists said at least two protesters were killed and seven injured.
The demonstrations are the latest in a wave of unrest that began Dec. 19 across most of Sudan, first to protest worsening economic conditions but soon to demand an end to Omar al-Bashir's 29-year, autocratic rule.
Thursday's demonstrations began in more than a dozen of the capital's residential neighborhoods and in at least six cities across the country, with numbers in each protest varying from scores to the low hundreds.
In response, security forces in Khartoum sealed off main roads to keep protesters on side streets and used tear gas to disperse them, said the activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
They chanted "Just leave!" — which is fast becoming the uprising's definitive slogan and already is a Twitter hashtag used by activists — and "Freedom, peace and justice. "
Activists late Thursday said at least two protesters were killed and seven injured, including five from gunshot wounds, in clashes with police.
There was no word from authorities on Thursday's casualties, but the government announced that 29 people have been killed so far in the unrest, five more than the last tally it gave.
Al-Bashir, who led a 1989 military rule that toppled a freely elected but ineffective government, has repeatedly said that any change of leadership could only come through the ballot box. Already one of the region's longest serving leaders, he is expected to run for another term in office next year.
Thursday's protests came one day after al-Bashir met in Doha with the ruler of the tiny but energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, likely looking for financial support. The Sudanese leader and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did not speak to the press after their meeting and there was no word in the official Qatari media on what they agreed on to help al-Bashir ride out the ongoing crisis.
Sudan's official news agency said last month that Sheikh Tamim promised in a telephone call with al-Bashir that Qatar will "provide all that is needed" to help Sudan get through its crisis. Qatar at the time only acknowledged the phone call took place.
If Qatar were to help al-Bashir, whose position is becoming increasingly precarious after a month of continuing protests, it would likely in part be to spite Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who, together with Bahrain, are boycotting the Gulf nation for its alleged support of militant groups and its close ties with non-Arab, mainly Shiite Iran.
Bahrain, another Gulf Arab monarchy, stated its support for al-Bashir in the early days of the unrest. Bahrain's more powerful Gulf allies — the Saudis and the Emiratis — have not followed suit, while Egypt, Sudan's powerful neighbor to the north, has expressed its support for Sudan's stability and security, but made no mention of the 74-year-old Sudanese leader.
Egypt's interest in a stable Sudan is rooted in its aversion to chaos at its doorsteps, much the same way lawlessness in Libya, its neighbor to the west, has been a major irritant to Cairo since a 2011 uprising there metamorphosed into civil war and the North African nation turning into a haven for jihadist groups. Al-Bashir, however, has not been a reliable ally, stoking a largely dormant border dispute, siding with Ethiopia in its dispute with Cairo over sharing the Nile's waters and offering refuge to Islamists wanted in Egypt.
Al-Bashir, in an apparent bid to secure the goodwill of the oil-rich Saudis and Emiratis, has dispatched troops to Yemen to fight on the side of a Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite, Iran-aligned rebels there. But al-Bashir's flirtations with their rivals — Turkey, Qatar and Iran before that — may have impacted on the financial windfall he expected from Sudan's participation in the Yemen war.