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US, Russia agree on ceasefire in south Syria from Sunday, Lavrov says

The US and Russia have reached an agreement for a ceasefire in south-west Syria, according to officials.

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ceasefire in south Syria

Word of the ceasefire emerged as US President Donald Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit.

The deal marks a new level of involvement for the US in trying to resolve Syria’s civil war.

A separate deal to create “de-escalation zones” was brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, but not the US.

Follow-up talks this week in Kazakhstan to finalise a ceasefire in those zones failed to reach a deal.

The US and Russia have been backing opposing sides in Syria’s war.

Jordan and Israel also are part of the agreement, one official said.

The two US allies both share a border with the southern part of Syria and have been concerned about violence from the civil war spilling over the frontier.

Moscow has been supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and Washington is backing rebels who have been fighting Assad. Both the US and Russia oppose the Islamic State group in Syria.

Previous ceasefires in Syria have collapsed or failed to reduce violence for long, and it is unclear whether this deal will be any better.

Earlier in the week, Syria’s military said it was halting combat operations in the south of Syria for four days, in advance of a new round of Russia-sponsored talks in Astana. That move covered the southern provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida.

Syria’s government briefly extended that unilateral ceasefire, which is now set to expire on Saturday – a day before the US-Russian deal would take effect.

The new agreement will be open-ended, one US official said, describing it as part of broader discussions with Russia on trying to lower violence in the war-ravaged country.

Officials said the US and Russia were still working out the details as Mr Trump and Mr Putin concluded their more than two-hour meeting on Friday.

The US has been wary of letting Iran gain influence in Syria – a concern shared by Israel and Jordan, neither of which wants Iranian-aligned troops massing near their territories.

A US-brokered deal could help the Trump administration retain more of a say over who fills the power vacuum left behind as Islamic State is routed from additional territory in Syria.

Though US and Russian officials had been discussing a potential deal for some time, it did not reach fruition until the run-up to Mr Trump’s meeting with Mr Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit, officials said.

– AP

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Refugees found frozen in Lebanon near Syria border

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Refugees found frozen

The bodies of nine Syrian refugees who crossed into Lebanon have been found frozen in a mountainous area near the border with Syria, according to the Lebanese army.

The military said in a statement that the bodies were found on a people-smuggling route in the early hours of Friday after a snowstorm hit the Masnaa area, where Lebanon’s largest official border crossing with Syria is located.

“The army saved six other displaced Syrians, one of whom died later in a hospital from frostbite,” the statement added, raising the death toll to 10.

“The bodies were taken to the hospitals in the area, and the army continues to search for other displaced people trapped in the snow, in order to evacuate them and provide medical treatment for them.”

The identities of the Syrian refugees were not immediately known. According to some reports, at least one child was among the bodies found.

Two other Syrian nationals were arrested and charged with people-smuggling, the army added.

‘We are deprived of everything’

Temperatures dropped on Friday as winter storms battered the Lebanon-Syria border, making the lives of the more than 357,000 Syrian refugees living in makeshift tents in the Bekaa Valley, some 60km north of Masnaa, even more difficult.

Reporting from the region, Al Jazeera’s correspondent Zeina Khodr said that Syrian refugees “face many challenges during the winter months”.

“They live in tents that are made out of plastic sheeting, which does little to protect them from the cold and the rain,” she said.

Hammadi Chelbi, a Syrian refugee who has been living in Bekaa Valley after he fled the Syrian conflict in its first year, told Al Jazeera that he and his family are living in misery.

“We have nothing but pain, sickness and suffering,” he said. “We are deprived of everything.”

There are one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, although government officials estimate that the number is closer to 1.5 million.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is not getting the money it needs to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon through another harsh winter.

Last year, it requested $228m but received less than 60 percent of that, prompting it to warn that life in the camps was getting worse.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

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India

Israeli PM arrives to Modi’s warm hug on six-day India trip

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Netanyahu Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday set aside protocol to personally receive his Israeli counterpart and “friend” Benjamin Netanyahu with a warm hug as he arrived here on a six-day visit to step up growing trade as well as military and strategic ties between the two countries.

As Netanyahu and his wife Sara stepped on the red carpet at the airport here, a smiling Modi embraced the Israeli leader and then shook hands with the couple.

“Welcome to India, my friend Netanyahu! Your visit to India is historic and special. It will further cement the close friendship between our nations,” Modi tweeted in English and Hebrew.

Netanyahu quickly responded. “Thank you to my good friend Narendra Modi for the warm welcome.”
“Very much appreciate the gesture,” the Jerusalem Post quoted Netanyahu as saying.

Modi and Netanyahu, who have developed a close friendship, exchanging greetings on social media on various occasions and hugging each other heartily, will hold talks on a range of issues on Monday after President Ram Nath Kovind formally welcomes the Israeli leader at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The visit, which marks 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, comes six months after Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the Jewish state in July last year.

Before embarking on the flight to India, Netanyahu said his trip was intended to strengthen bilateral relations “even more”.

“This visit is an opportunity to enhance cooperation with a global economic, security, technology and tourism power,” he said. “Modi is a close friend of Israel and of mine and I appreciate the fact that he will accompany me on extensive parts of my visit.”

He said strengthening relationship between Israel and “this important world power… helps us with security, the economy, trade, tourism and many other aspects”.

The Congress criticised Modi for what it called “hugplomacy”. It posted a video hashtagged “hugplomacy” on its official Twitter handle, capturing a few “awkward” moments in Modi’s meetings with world leaders including US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and also Netanyahu.

The Bharatiya Janata Party condemned the meme video, alleging that the opposition party had “lost its sense and balance” which “does not behove a mature political party”.

Union Minister and senior BJP leader Prakash Javadekar said: “Modiji’s influence as world leader is increasing. Today only, a survey found him at No 3 in popularity as a world leader.”

In a sign of growing importance to the ties with Israel, the government on Sunday renamed Delhi’s Teen Murti Chowk as Teen Murti-Haifa Chowk after the Israeli city.

Modi and Netanyahu laid a wreath at the iconic Teen Murti war memorial where they were received by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar.

The two leaders paid homage to Indian soldiers who fell in the battle of Haifa during World War I.

Netanyahu’s entourage includes the largest-ever delegation of Israeli business people of some 130.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, these businessmen include senior executives of Aeronautics Defense Systems — an Israeli drone maker currently under criminal investigation by the police’s international crimes division.

At least nine commercial agreements are expected be signed during the visit. These include memoranda of understanding on gas and oil, renewable energy, aviation, industrial research and development, cybersecurity, reciprocal investments, supplementary medicine, space research and joint movie productions, Haaretz said.

This is the first visit to India by an Israeli Prime Minister since Ariel Sharon came in 2003.

On Monday morning, Netanyahu will lay a wreath at Rajghat to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi. On Tuesday, he will fly to Agra to view the iconic Taj Mahal.

Netanyahu and Modi will open the Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual geopolitical conference to be attended by people from around the world, including former US nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman, in Delhi.

Netanyahu and Modi will also visit the Indian Prime Minister’s home state Gujarat where they will go to the Centre of Excellence in Agriculture at Vadrad.

Netanyahu will interact with business leaders in Mumbai and meet representatives of Bollywood. He will return to Israel on Friday afternoon from Mumbai.

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Analysis

Saudi Arabia: Transforming the face of a Kingdom

The plan involves changing the education curriculum, increasing women’s participation in the workforce and investing in the entertainment and tourism sectors to create jobs for young people.

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Mohammed bin Salman

There is a huge buzz throughout Saudi Arabia as the hitherto conservative Kingdom — seen as the religious font of Islam and home to its holiest shrines — gets ready to welcome women into its sports stadiums Friday.

The women of Saudi Arabia have entered 2018 with hope unlike ever before, for now they will be allowed greater freedom and perhaps play select sports — and drive. These efforts to bring gender parity are among a series of sweeping social and economic changes being orchestrated by the young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to bring Saudi Arabia into a global leadership role in the 21st century.

The year 2017 was transformational for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a series of initiatives designed to improve gender equality, promote economic diversification, root out corruption and make it more open and attractive to visitors.

Behind a vast majority of these path-breaking initiatives was Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the world’s youngest defence minister, who, at 32, was elevated to the position of Crown Prince last June. Initiatives he has taken form part of the “National Transformation Programme 2020” and the Kingdom’s “Vision 2030”, guidelines of which he outlined last year.

The most momentous of these have been on gender equality. For the first time, girls in public schools will be allowed to play sports and get physical education. The women of Saudi Arabia will be allowed to enter some of the country’s sports stadiums, earlier an all-male preserve, while a royal decree issued last September will allow women the right to drive in the country, beginning June.

In further social transformations, the municipality of the holy city of Madinah will be run by women. The women-only branch of the municipality will provide all the regular services offered by municipalities, including issuance of licences for commercial activities and construction permits, inspection campaigns and investment opportunities, among others.

These measures gained international recognition and Saudi Arabia was elected in 2017 to the UN Women’s Rights Commission for a four-year term.

Other than the major social impact, shrewd economic thoughts are behind these measures, as increasing women’s participation in the workplace will boost the economy and combat corruption.

The “National Transformation Programme 2020” aims to capitalise on the Kingdom’s youth dividend by opening up the country to more employment opportunities through sports and entertainment and to empower women. Opening the country to more entertainment, allowing musical concerts and even a Comic-Con event (a three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events last year) was part of a wide-ranging push to reform the economy and society and restore what Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the “moderate” face of Islam.

The plan involves changing the education curriculum, increasing women’s participation in the workforce and investing in the entertainment and tourism sectors to create jobs for young people.

Equally far-reaching are efforts to open up the Kingdom to outsiders, by offering tourist visas for foreigners, from this year, and creating facilities to promote the country as a tourist destination. The Red Sea project, which aims to offer an unparalleled tourist destination, will be developed along with leading global hospitality firms and will not be subject to the Kingdom’s conservative rules.

Over 18 million foreigners visited Saudi Arabia last year, almost all on pilgrimage to Mecca. As tourism is the country’s second-most important sector, the Red Sea project will spearhead the diversification of the Saudi leisure industry.

Meanwhile, an ongoing nationwide anti-corruption drive culminated last November with the detention of four ministers, high-profile entrepreneurs and 11 princes, including a son of former King Abdullah and multi-billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal.

This not only consolidated the Crown Prince’s authority, but clearly sent out a message that the royal family was not immune from facing the law, hitherto unthinkable in the Kingdom where the descendants of Ibn Saud were seen as a law unto themselves. That members of the royal family could no longer take their privileges for granted became more apparent when princes, protesting a cut in their water and electricity consumption payments, were taken into custody in the first week of 2018.

“Vision 2030” outlines the Crown Prince’s intent to make the country the centre of the Islamic and Arab world, a hub connecting three continents and an economic and investment powerhouse.

That Prince Mohammed bin Salman is King Salman’s chosen successor and heads the Council for Economic Affairs and Development, which oversees the Kingdom’s economic affairs and also shapes its political and security policies, indicates that manifold measures he has initiated will be carried through.

After taking over as Crown Prince in June 2017, Mohammed signalled his intent to fight radicalisation and combat terrorism, spearheading a boycott of Qatar over its alleged support to terrorism. In October, the prince said the return of “moderate Islam” was central to his plans to modernise the Kingdom.

After a horrific terrorist attack killed over 300 people in Egypt, Mohammed declared a “war against terrorism” at the inaugural meeting of the 41-member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) in Riyadh in November saying, “We will not allow such elements to tarnish the image of Islam.”

With global climate change measures intensifying moves towards less dependence on fossil fuels, the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 aims to drastically reduce the Kingdom’s reliance on oil while reforming, diversifying and privatising the economy.

The Crown Prince plans this year to sell about five per cent government stake in Aramco, the national oil company. He intends to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth up to $3 trillion, with money generated by partially privatising Saudi Aramco.

He also plans to create a $500 billion business and industrial zone extending to Jordan and Egypt. The 26,500 sq km city, known as NEOM, will focus on industries including advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, energy, entertainment, food and water. It will be powered entirely with wind power and solar energy.

The country has also announced plans to build a massive entertainment city in Riyadh. The 334 sq km city, almost the size of Las Vegas when ready, will offer cultural, entertainment and sporting activities. The Al-Qiddiya project will be part of Saudi Arabia’s diversification drive and boost economic development by creating major job opportunities for local men and women.

The project perhaps best captures Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s intent to radically transform the face of the Kingdom.

(Nilova Roy Chaudhury is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at [email protected])

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