US remains committed to engagement in the Middle East, says top official

US Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf met with Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis as part of her recent trip to the Middle East. (Photo courtesy of US Embassy in Tunisia)
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Updated 15 September 2022

US remains committed to engagement in the Middle East, says top official

  • Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said reaffirming this message was a main focus of her recent tour of the region
  • She said that during visits to Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Palestine she talked with leading officials about a range of local, regional and global issues

WASHINGTON: Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said on Wednesday that a main focus of her recent trip to several Arab countries was to reaffirm American engagement in the Middle East and North Africa.

She added that the aim was to reinforce the regional diplomacy efforts of President Joe Biden and his administration, including the sharing of US priorities, assistance for Washington’s regional partners to resolve conflicts, and a push for economic and political reforms.

Leaf said during a briefing in Washington, attended by the Arab News, that during her tour of Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank in late August and early September she held talks with leading officials about the deescalation of conflicts and other local, regional and global issues.

In Tunisia, she said she discussed with President Kais Saied the political and economic challenges his country is facing. She stressed to him the US commitment to its partnership with Tunisia in support of democratic values and human rights, and the importance of an inclusive process for political and economic reforms.

Also in Tunisia, Leaf held talks with Mohammed Al-Menfi, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, and Saddek El-Kaber, governor of Libya’s Central Bank. She said she urged them to support a clear path to democratic national elections, along with economic reforms and transparency.

During her visits to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Leaf said she reiterated Biden’s message during his own trip to the region in July that the “US remains unwavering in its ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and that the US will work … to strengthen the US-Israeli partnership.”

Washington also remains committed to “keeping alive the vision of a two-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis can live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, security and prosperity,” she added. “This means working together collaboratively on economic and security issues and reducing unilateral action.”

Leaf said she also followed up on projects Biden has proposed with the aim of improving the Palestinian economic situation. These include Israeli permission for a 4G cellular service for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and an extension of the opening hours for the Allenby Bridge, which connects the Occupied Territories with Jordan and is the only option for international travel for three million Palestinians living in the West Bank.

In addition, Leaf discussed Biden’s proposal for $100 million in US aid to Palestinian hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem, which is awaiting approval by the US Congress.

It remains unclear, however, how the US will reconcile its vision for two-state solution amid ongoing illegal Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian areas, and Israeli military raids targeting Palestinians. Since its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel has built numerous illegal settlements and is in control of Palestinian land, water resources and airwaves.

During her visit to Amman, Leaf met Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister. She said they discussed bilateral relations and the upcoming signing of a seven-year memorandum of understating that will be largest and longest agreement between the two countries.

Jordan currently receives about $1.6 billion in annual economic and military aid from the US, which makes it the second-largest recipient after Israel.

“The US is committed to economic reform in Jordan while strengthening its resilience and stability and security,” Leaf said

She added that the human rights situation in the country, in particular the arrest of journalists and civil rights activists, forms part of continuing bilateral discussions.

Leaf said that in Iraq she met a number of senior officials, academics, civil society activists and entrepreneurs for discussions about the country’s stability, economic progress and political process.

The US considers Iraq a vital partner, she added, and a strategic framework agreement remains key to relations.

“All of our activities, programs and policies are framed to support Iraq’s sovereignty stability and security,” she said.


Lebanon hopes UNESCO danger listing could save crumbling modernist fairground

Updated 15 sec ago

Lebanon hopes UNESCO danger listing could save crumbling modernist fairground

TRIPOLI: Its arch is cracking and its vast pavilions lie empty, but the crumbling Rachid Karami International Fair in Lebanon’s port city Tripoli now has hope of revival, having been added to the United Nations’ list of world heritage sites in danger.
Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1962, the collection of structures on the 70-hectare plot is considered one of the key works of 20th century modernism in the Middle East.
But the fair park has slowly decayed due to repeated rounds of fighting over the last 60 years, poor maintenance and most recently Lebanon’s crippling, three-year-old financial crisis.
“It was placed on the World Heritage List exceptionally, quickly and urgently – and on the list of heritage in danger because it’s in a critical situation,” said Joseph Kreidi, UNESCO’s national program officer for culture in Beirut.
Its elegant arch is missing concrete in some parts, exposing the rebar underneath. Rainwater has pooled at the locked entrances. One section is sealed off by a sign that reads, “Unsafe building entry.”
“Placing it on the World Heritage Danger List is an appeal to all countries of the world, as if to say: this site needs some care,” said Kreidi.
He said it was up to the Lebanese authorities to draw together a plan for the site’s protection and rehabilitation but that UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, could help search for funding and provide technical expertise.
Lebanon has five other sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, most of them citadels and ancient temples.
Niemeyer is recognized as one of the fathers of modern architecture and the site in Tripoli was an early foray into the Middle East.
Construction of the fairground began in the 1960s but was delayed when civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975. Fighters used the site to stage operations and stored weapons underneath its concrete dome.
Mira Minkara, a freelance tour guide from Tripoli and a member of the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation’s Tripoli chapter, has fond – but rare – memories of the fairground as a child.
For the most part, it was off-limits to Tripoli’s residents given safety concerns. But Minkara remembered her first visit during a festival of pan-African culture and crafts.
She hopes that UNESCO’s recognition could bring new festivals, exhibitions and economic benefits to Tripoli – already one of the poorest cities on the Mediterranean before Lebanon’s financial meltdown began.
Lebanon’s cultural heritage has been hit hard in recent years. The 2020 Beirut port blast tore through 19th-century homes in historic neighborhoods and power outages caused by the financial crisis have cut supplies to the national museum.
“We hope things change a little,” Minkara said. “It’s high time for this fairground to emerge from this long sleep, this almost-death.”

Sokhna port welcomes first cruise ships amid ongoing development

Updated 05 February 2023

Sokhna port welcomes first cruise ships amid ongoing development

  • Movement of vessels ‘working perfectly’ alongside construction, official says
  • More than 3,000 tourists arrived by ship on Saturday

CAIRO: Development work at the Suez Canal Economic Zone is progressing well, a senior official said, with the new berth at Sokhna port recently welcoming its first cruise ships.

Walid Youssef, deputy chairman of the southern part of the zone, said that the circulation and reception of vessels was “working perfectly” alongside the construction work, which was nearing completion.

The development included four new basins and 18 km of marine berths, as well as commercial and logistical areas covering 5.3 sq. km, he said.

The area is served by a rail network stretching 33 km, which also connects to the Sokhna-El Alamein electric train service.

Youssef said there was constant coordination with the relevant authorities to ensure the smooth operation of the port as the work progressed.

On Saturday, the port welcomed the cruise ship Splendida MSC with 2,826 passengers aboard. It was en route from Yanbu to Safaga.

It also received the Emerald Azzurra, carrying 75 tourists from Sharm El-Sheikh, and the Clio, which had traveled from Hurghada with 85 passengers.


Iran ex-president, former PM call for political change

Updated 05 February 2023

Iran ex-president, former PM call for political change

  • Khatami hopes the use of ‘non-violent civil methods’ can ‘force the governing system to change its approach and accept reforms’

TEHRAN: Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami and former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi have both called for political changes amid the protests triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.
As the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution approaches, one of the country’s main opposition figures, Mousavi, called on Saturday for the “fundamental transformation” of a political system he said was facing a crisis of legitimacy.
And on Sunday Khatami, the leader of the reformist movement, in a statement said: “What is evident today is widespread discontent.”
Khatami said he hoped that the use of “non-violent civil methods” can “force the governing system to change its approach and accept reforms.”
In a statement carried by local media, Mousavi said: “Iran and Iranians need and are ready for a fundamental transformation whose outline is drawn by the pure ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement.”
He was referring to the main slogan chanted in demonstrations sparked by the death on September 16 of Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd.
She had been arrested three days earlier by the morality police in Tehran for an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s dress code for women.
Mousavi, 80, said the protest movement began in the context of “interdependent crises” and proposed holding a “free and healthy referendum on the need to change or draft a new constitution.”
He called the current system’s structure “unsustainable.”
An unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2009, Mousavi alleged large-scale fraud in favor of populist incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, leading to mass protests.
He has been under house arrest without charge in Tehran for 12 years, along with his wife Zahra Rahnavard.
A close confidant of the Islamic republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mousavi was prime minister from 1981 to 1989.
“People have the right to make fundamental revisions in order to overcome crises and pave the way for freedom, justice, democracy and development,” Mousavi said in his statement.
“The refusal to take the smallest step toward realizing the rights of citizens as defined in the constitution... has discouraged the community from carrying out reforms.”
Khatami, 79, made similar remarks, warning that “there is no sign of the ruling system’s desire for reform and avoiding the mistakes of the past and present.”
President from 1997 to 2005 before being forced into silence, Khatami said he regretted that Iran’s population was “disappointed with Reformism as well as with the ruling system.”


Turkiye increases counterterrorism operations against Daesh

Updated 05 February 2023

Turkiye increases counterterrorism operations against Daesh

  • Authorities announce arrests of 15 suspects with links to terror group
  • But police find “no concrete proof” of plan to attack foreign consulates

ANKARA: Turkish authorities on Saturday announced the arrests of 15 suspects with connections to Daesh and conflict zones in Syria, as counterterrorism teams from the Istanbul police department continue to flush out cells.

Following the Qur’an-burning protest in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm last month, intelligence reports claimed that the leaders of the Khorasan branch of Daesh had instructed members to conduct terror acts against Swedish and Dutch consulates in Istanbul, as well as places of Christian and Jewish worship.

Despite the arrests, the police department said it had found “no concrete proof” of plans to attack foreign missions or places of worship.

Several Western countries, including the US, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, the UK and France, closed their consulates in Istanbul last week as a precaution against possible terror attacks.

All of the missions are located in Beyoglu district, which is a popular tourist area in Istanbul. A French high school in the district also closed its doors.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office also warned its citizens of the possible risk of traveling to Turkiye.

“There is a potential that citizens from Western countries may be targets or caught up in attacks, particularly in the major cities,” it said.

The German Consulate advised expats and visitors to avoid Istanbul’s tourism hot spots and “international crowds” in general.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired major and security analyst at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, said the rapprochement between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Turkish government should be taken into consideration when evaluating the terror threat.

“The beginning of negotiations between Turkiye and Syria, with the support of Russia, has triggered anger among radical groups in some Turkish-controlled regions in Syria, which makes Turkiye open to the terror provocations,” he told Arab News.

In November, six people were killed and dozens injured in a bombing close to the consulates in Beyoglu that is thought to have been carried out by a woman with links to the Syrian Kurdish YPG.

However, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on Thursday rejected the international terror-threat notices, saying they were part of a psychological war against his country.

“We all know very well that they are trying to outshine Turkiye’s stability and peace,” he said, adding that the closure of the embassies coincided with the day Turkiye announced its target to attract 60 million tourists annually.

He accused the US ambassador in Turkiye of trying to undermine national stability.

“I know which journalists you made write articles. Keep your dirty hands off Turkiye,” he said.

The US was the first country to issue a terror-threat notice, warning its citizens in a note on Jan. 30 of possible “retaliatory attacks by terrorists against churches, synagogues and diplomatic missions in Istanbul or other places Westerners frequent.”

Since the start of the year, Turkiye has carried out about 60 operations against Daesh and detained 95 suspects. Last year, it conducted more than 1,000 such operations and arrested about 2,000 suspects.

The Turkish Interior Ministry said last week that authorities had “detained a number of suspects following a warning from a friendly country, but did not find any weapons, ammunition, or signs of a planned act of violence.”

Observers told Arab News that the unnamed “friendly country” was most probably Israel, which had provided significant amounts of intelligence to Turkiye in recent years that had helped to foil several major terror attacks against prominent figures and tourists.

Turkiye responded to the consulate closures by warning its citizens to avoid traveling to European countries over “possible Islamophobic, xenophobic and racist attacks.”

With Turkiye’s presidential election less than four months away there are fears of an escalation in terror attacks as was seen ahead of the 2015 poll.

Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center in New York, told Arab News that the security threat in Turkiye was high and likely to remain so for several reasons.

“First, geographic proximity to Syria. Daesh has been attenuated significantly, but still remains a potent threat. Daesh maintains logistical networks that stretch into Turkiye and also maintains the ability to conduct attacks there,” he said.

“These networks are long-standing and some likely date back many years. Some of these networks could be operating in plain sight.”

Also, as Turkish authorities were mostly focused on combating Kurdish groups, some Daesh activity was happening under the radar, Clarke said.

“Lastly, countering Daesh will be a generational challenge for the security forces in Turkiye. Dismantling these networks will require sustained, well-resourced and persistent intelligence operations,” he said.

Clarke also said that Daesh’s Khorasan branch was of greatest concern to counterterrorism authorities due to its potential to launch external operations and high-profile attacks elsewhere in the world.

“The security situation in Afghanistan is so unstable that there is a major concern that the group will recruit new members and grow in strength over the coming year,” he said.


Russia’s Lavrov visits Baghdad to discuss bilateral relations, energy cooperation: Iraqi statement

Updated 05 February 2023

Russia’s Lavrov visits Baghdad to discuss bilateral relations, energy cooperation: Iraqi statement

  • Visit will focus on encouraging investment opportunities between two countries, particularly energy sector

BAGHDAD: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will arrive in Baghdad on Sunday to discuss boosting bilateral relations and energy cooperation, Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement.
Lavrov, who is leading a delegation that includes oil and gas companies’ representatives, is scheduled to meet his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein on Monday, Ahmed Al-Sahhaf said in a statement.
Sahhaf said the visit will focus on “strategic relations with Russia and to encourage investment opportunities, especially in relating to energy sectors.”
The Russian foreign minister will also meet on Monday Iraqi top officials, including Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani, President Abdul Latif Rashid and parliament speaker, Sahhaf said.