PHOTO: Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on anti-aircraft missiles to rebels “This is not our decision”



Russian Nightmare in Opposition-Held Aleppo

Despite tough rhetoric over the Assad regime and its allies, Saudi Arabia has maintained a cautious line on arms supplies to Syria’s rebels.

Speaking with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir supported provision of anti-aircraft weapons to rebels in principle, but stood back from any implementation:

We believe that introducing surface-to-air missiles in Syria is going to change the balance of power on the ground. It will allow the moderate opposition to be able to neutralize the helicopters and aircraft that are dropping chemicals and have been carpet-bombing them, just like surface-to-air missiles in Afghanistan were able to change the balance of power there.

This has to be studied very carefully, however, because you don’t want such weapons to fall into the wrong hands. This is a decision that the international coalition will have to make. This is not Saudi Arabia’s decision.

Saudi Arabia has been a leading backer of the Syrian rebellion since 2011, supplying heavy weaponry such as anti-tank missiles and rockets. However, it has always refrained from the supply of anti-aircraft weaponry — essential to counter the regime’s main advantage of bombing — because of objections by the US.

The Saudis have been angered by American indecision since 2013, and recently by Washington’s shift of support from rebels to Kurdish-led forces — some of whom are now attacking the rebel units whom the US had previously backed. However, Jubeir’s statement indicates that Riyadh will not defy the Obama Administration.

The Foreign Minister said that President Assad must leave power at “the beginning, not at the end of the process” for a political transition, ensuring that it will “happen with less death and destruction”. However, he continued to back the path laid by the US and Russia for talks, even though these have shown little prospect of advance: “We are at a very delicate juncture, and it may not work, but we have to try it.”

Jubeir did hint at an escalation of military attempts to remove Assad once Riyadh decided there was no value in the pursuit of negotiations: “Should the political process not work, there is always the other approach.”

Asked if the Obama Administration’s approach to the Middle East was a mistake, Jubeir sidestepped any challenge to the Americans:

I don’t believe in the theory that the United States is reducing its presence in the Middle East. Quite the contrary, in the Gulf, we see an increase in American military presence, as well as an increase in American investments. The argument is more accurate when one says America is focusing more attention to the Far East. But I don’t believe it comes at the expense of the Middle East.

But the Foreign Minister did sustain Riyadh’s hostile rhetoric towards Iran, a key backer along with Russia of the Assad regime:

We have no issue with seeking to develop the best terms we can with Iran. But after the revolution of 1979, Iran embarked on a policy of sectarianism. Iran began a policy of expanding its revolution, of interfering with the affairs of its neighbors, a policy of assassinating diplomats and of attacking embassies. Iran is responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in the Kingdom, it is responsible for smuggling explosives and drugs into Saudi Arabia. And Iran is responsible for setting up sectarian militias in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, whose objective is to destabilize those countries.

Assad’s Vision: “In 10 Years I Will Be the Person Who Saved the Country”

In his latest interview, President Assad has told the Spanish newspaper El Pais of his vision for the future: “After 10 years…Syria will be fine and I will be the person who has saved his country.”

However, Assad admitted that Russian and Iranian assistance had been “essential” to the Syrian military’s “breakthrough” against rebels.

The President pulled back on his opposition to negotiations, set out in a speech earlier this week, but set conditions for a “cessation of hostilities”. These included an end of support to “terrorists” by outside actors, “especially Turkey”, and a guarantee that rebels would not try to improve their positions.

After Assad’s statement calling for total defeat of “terrorists” before any discussions, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin chided the President: “If [Syrian authorities] follow the leadership of Russia in regulating this crisis, then they will have a chance to get out of it with dignity.”

Opposition-Rebel Bloc Calls for Temporary Ceasefire, Detainee Releases

The opposition-rebel High Negotiations Committee has called for a temporary ceasefire with release of detainees from regime prisoners.

A statement from the HNC on Saturday said representatives “expressed agreement on the possibility of reaching a temporary truce deal, to be reached through international mediation”.

It said the UN must guarantee “holding Russia and Iran and sectarian militias…to a halt to fighting”. All sides should ceasefire simultaneously and detainees should be freed.

Earlier on Saturday, an opposition source said a pause of two to three weeks in fighting was being sought. The source said the ceasefire must also cover the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra, who are present in opposition-controlled areas, but would not include the Islamic State.

Video: Syrian Army Captures Thermal Power Plant, East of Aleppo, From ISIS

Footage of the Syrian Army moving into the thermal power plant east of Aleppo, following the reported withdrawal of Islamic State fighters:

The plant was heavily damaged by fighting and was knocked out of service in mid-2013. The complex has been held by the Islamic State since November 2013.

The Syrian military has been advancing on the area since breaking the ISIS siege of the Kweiris airbase in mid-November 2015. In recent days, it has taken nearby villages, threatening to trap hundreds of militants in the area.

The Aleppo power plant began operations in 1998 and has a maximum capacity of 1065 megawatts. Since it was damaged, regime-held areas of Aleppo have depended on power from a line in Hama Province; however, that has been out of service since November.

Putin Praises Russian Military for “Saving Civilians”

Speaking at a reception in the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised the Russian military for saving Syrian civilians in its intervention since September 30.

The Violations Documentation Center has documented the killing of almost 2,000 civilians from Russian bombing in less than five months. Moscow’s airstrikes were the leading cause of civilian deaths by violence in January, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

However, Putin insisted, “In difficult conditions, [Russian forces] are helping the Syrian government army, other participants in anti-terror efforts to defeat terrorists and save civilians from violence, barbarianism and outrage.”

The President also asserted that Russia was acting as a peacemaker:

We have always tried to settle all disputable problems exclusively by political and diplomatic means. We have always done our best to stabilize situation in different countries, to help settle acute conflict,” the Russian leader underscored. “Let us do it now as well.


Assad Senior Adviser: Kurdish Militia YPG Is Unit of Syrian Army

A senior advisor to President Assad has said that the Kurdish militia YPG should be considered as units of the Syrian Army, according to Kurdish outlets.

ARA News said Bouthaina Shaaban made the comment to media on Friday. She claimed co-operation between the YPG and the Syrian military as both seek territorial gains against rebels, and declared, “What is important is the unity of the Syrian land and its people.”

Turkey: Obama Promised Support in Phone Call With Erdoğan

The office of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday that Barack Obama promised American support during an 80-minute phone call, after increasing tension over US backing of Kurdish militias in northern Syria.

A White House statement said Obama emphasized to Erdoğan that the YPG militia, the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), should not seize more territory from rebels.

The YPG has been advancing in northern Aleppo Province, as rebels have also been pushed back by a regime-Hezbollah-Iranian offensive enabled by intense Russian bombing.

Obama called for Turkey to “show reciprocal restraint” by stopping artillery strikes on Kurdish positions.

Earlier on Friday, Erdoğan had called on the US to choose between alliance with Ankara and support of the PYD and YPG, whom Turkey believes is led by the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.

The Turkish President claimed weapons given by the US to the YPG had been used against civilians.

Video: Kurdish-Led Forces Capture as-Shaddadi in Eastern Syria

Footage of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces moving into as-Shaddadi in eastern Syria:

The capture of as-Shaddadi, south of Hasakah city, is the latest advance by the US-supported SDF against the Islamic State. Since its creation last October, the SDF — led by the Kurdish militia YPG — has taken territory throughout northeastern Syria and moved west across the Euphrates River.

An SDF spokesman said more than 50 Islamic State fighters were killed on Friday. He said eight SDF troops were killed and 11 injured.

The SDF also claimed that a main supply route for ISIS, from the militants’ center in Mosul in Iraq, was cut near as-Shaddadi.