Russian army patrol rebel enclave in Syria to avert offensive, sources say

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Russian forces moved into an opposition enclave in the Syrian city of Deraa on Tuesday to try to avert an army assault on a stronghold that has defied state authority since it was retaken three years ago, witnesses, residents, and army sources said.

Their entry brought a halt to shelling by pro-Iranian army units who have encircled the enclave, where protests first erupted in 2011, and had attempted to storm the area on Monday in the latest drive to force former rebels to surrender.

The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, in 2018 retook control of the province of which Deraa is the capital and which borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights.

Local officials and army sources say the Iranian-backed army units have been pushing for a major new offensive.

However, Moscow gave guarantees to Israel and Washington in 2018 that it would hold back Iranian-backed militias from expanding their influence in the strategic region.

That deal forced thousands of mainstream Western-backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons but kept the army from entering Deraa al Balaad.

On Tuesday, dozens of Russian military police were seen patrolling neighborhoods of Deraa al Balaad – the center of the first peaceful protests against the Assad family rule, which were met by force before spreading across the country.

Russian generals presented local leaders and the army with a road map on Aug. 14 to head off any showdown and have been trying to win over the opposition, some of whom fear the plan reneges on the 2018 deal.

Moscow’s plan, seen by Reuters, offers ex-rebels a pardon but allows the army to gradually take over the enclave, while offering safe passage to former rebels who oppose the deal to leave for opposition areas in northwest Syria.

Russian troops were accompanied by a group of former Western backed mainstream rebels now integrated in a division of the army known as the Eighth Brigade under Russian command, residents said.

The enclave and other towns in southern Syria have continued to hold sporadic protests against President Bashar al Assad’s rule that are rare in areas under state control.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Israel to sell Jordan additional water this year, minister says

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will this year double its supply of water to Jordan, Israeli officials said on Thursday after a meeting between the countries’ foreign ministers, adding that Amman’s exports to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank could also increase.

Jordan is a key security partner for Israel but relations have suffered in recent years over Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Yair Lapid, foreign minister in a cross-partisan coalition that ousted conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government a month ago, said Israel would sell Jordan 50 million cubic meters of water this year.

An Israeli official said that would effectively double the supply for the year – measured between May 2021 and May 2022 – as around 50 million cubic meters was already being sold or given to Jordan. A Jordanian official said Israel gives the kingdom 30 million cubic meters annually under their 1994 peace treaty.

In a statement issued after he held a first meeting in Jordan with its foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, Lapid said the countries also agreed to explore increasing Jordan’s exports to the West Bank to $700 million a year, from $160 million now.

“The Kingdom of Jordan is an important neighbor and partner,” Lapid said. “We will broaden economic cooperation for the good of the two countries.”

(Writing by Dan Williams and Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Qatar FM: Normalization with Israel undermines Palestinian statehood efforts

DUBAI (Reuters) – Qatar’s foreign minister said on Monday Arab states that establish ties with Israel undermine efforts for Palestinian statehood, but it was in their own sovereign right to do so.

Three Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – set aside hostilities with Israel in recent months to agree to formal relations in deals brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Palestinian leaders have accused them of betrayal, while U.S. and Israeli officials have said more Arab states could soon follow.

“I think it’s better to have a united (Arab) front to put the interests of the Palestinians (first) to end the (Israeli) occupation,” Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the online Global Security Forum.

He said division was not in the interest of concerted Arab efforts to get the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians and resolve the decades-long conflict between the sides.

However, for the states who established ties, “it is up to them at the end of the day to decide what is best for their countries”, he said.

The UAE, Bahrain and Sudan broke with decades of Arab policy that had demanded Israel first cede land to the Palestinians to form their own state before establishing relations.

UAE officials have said the Gulf state remains committed to Palestinian statehood, and that its deal with Israel had stopped further annexation of lands Palestinians seek for a state.

Until this year, Israel had only current formal relations with just two Arab states – its neighbors Egypt and Jordan – established under peace deals reached decades ago.

Qatar has been tipped by Israeli officials as among Arab and other Muslim-majority countries that could establish formal ties with Israel.

Sheikh Mohammed said Doha maintains some relations with Israel, though only on matters concerning the Palestinians such as humanitarian needs or development projects.

Qatar, which also has relations with two of Israel’s bitter enemies, Iran and Palestinian militant group Hamas, supports a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, a stance the foreign minister reiterated.

(Writing by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Kushner hopes another Arab state normalizes Israel ties within ‘months’

DUBAI (Reuters) – White House adviser Jared Kushner hopes another Arab country normalizes ties with Israel within months, he said, after arriving in the United Arab Emirates accompanied by Israeli officials on the first commercial flight between the countries.

No other Arab state has said so far it is considering following the UAE, which agreed to normalize ties with Israel in a U.S.-brokered deal announced on Aug. 13. Several have ruled out normalization under current conditions.

Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Jordan reached peace deals with it decades ago, but other Arab states have long held the position that Israel must agree to give more land to the Palestinians for a state before ties can be normalized.

Israel and the United States have said they are pushing more Arab countries to follow the UAE’s path. Israel’s intelligence minister has mentioned Bahrain and Oman. Kushner will next visit Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on his Gulf tour.

Asked by UAE state news agency WAM when the next Arab state could normalize ties, Kushner, son-in-law to President Donald Trump, was quoted as saying: “Let’s hope it’s months.”

The UAE-Israel deal was welcomed by some Gulf countries but has been met by overwhelming Palestinian opposition.

(Writing by Alexander Cornwell and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Peter Graff)

Pandemic pace slows worldwide except for southeast Asia, eastern Mediterranean: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic is still expanding, but the rise in cases and deaths has slowed globally, except for southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In its latest epidemiological update, issued on Monday night, it said that the Americas remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for half of newly reported cases and 62% of the 39,240 deaths worldwide in the past week.

More than 23.65 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 811,895​ have died, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday.

“Over 1.7 million new COVID-19 cases and 39,000 new deaths were reported to WHO for the week ending 23 August, a 4% decrease in the number of cases and (a 12% decrease) in the number of deaths compared to the previous week,” the WHO said.

Southeast Asia, the second most affected region, reported a jump accounting for 28% of new cases and 15% of deaths, it said. India continues to report the majority of cases, but the virus is also spreading rapidly in Nepal.

In WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, the number of reported cases rose by 4%, but the number of reported deaths has consistently dropped over the last six weeks, the WHO said. Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan reported the highest increase in cases compared to the previous week.

The number of cases and deaths reported across Africa decreased by 8% and 11% respectively in the past week, “primarily due to a decrease in cases reported in Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa”, it said.

“In the European region, the number of cases reported has consistently increased over the last three weeks,” it said. “However, only a slight decrease (1%) was reported in the most recent week, and the number of deaths have continued to decrease across the region.”

In WHO’s western Pacific region, the number of new cases dropped by 5%, driven by less spread in Japan, Australia, Singapore, China and Vietnam. South Korea reported an 180% jump in cases, “mainly due to an increase in cases associated with religious gatherings”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan warn Israel on annexation

BERLIN (Reuters) – Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan warned Israel on Tuesday against annexing parts of the Palestinian territories, saying that doing so could have consequences for bilateral relations.

In a statement distributed by the German Foreign Ministry, the countries, which include two of Israel’s leading partners in the Middle East, said their foreign ministers had discussed how to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

They, along with most other European countries, oppose Israeli plans that envisage annexing parts of the occupied West Bank as part of a deal being promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Palestinian Authority, which wants the West Bank for a future Palestinian state, opposes the move. The United States has yet to give its approval to the annexation plans.

“We concur that any annexation of Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 would be a violation of international law and imperil the foundations of the peace process,” the European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers said after their video conference.

“We would not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders that are not agreed by both parties in the conflict,” they added. “It could also have consequences for the relationship with Israel.”

Israel declined to comment. But in a separate statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he had told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday that he was committed to Trump’s “realistic” plan for the region.

“Israel is prepared to conduct negotiations on the basis of President Trump’s peace plan, which is both creative and realistic, and will not return to the failed formulas of the past,” Netanyahu’s statement said.

(Reporting by Michelle Martin; additional reporting by Dan Williams; editing by Thomas Escritt and Gareth Jones)

U.S. halts sending bomb-sniffing dogs to Jordan, Egypt as seven die

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Monday it has stopped sending explosive-detecting dogs to Jordan and Egypt over concerns of deaths of deployed dogs from causes like heat stroke and poisoning.

The decision came after the State Department’s Office of Inspector General identified in September the deaths of two dogs sent to Jordan, the largest recipient of the dogs. A second report released last Friday put the total deaths at seven.

Some 135 dogs are in the Antiterrorism Assistance Program, which helps eight countries with border and aviation security. Dogs already working in Jordan and Egypt will remain there while U.S. authorities demand measures to improve the animals’ conditions and handling, a State Department official told reporters.

Prompted by a hotline complaint after the September report, the Inspector General found that two more dogs sent to Jordan had died, one of heat stroke and another of poisoning from insecticide sprayed in or near the kennel.

Three of the 10 dogs sent to Egypt under the program also died: one of lung cancer, one from a ruptured gall bladder and the other from heat stroke, the report found.

The September report said Zoe, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, had died in 2017 from heat stroke while working at the Syrian border. Mencey, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, was euthanized in the United States in 2018 after he had been returned from Jordan for treatment of a tick-borne disease.

According to the September report, a veterinarian told the Inspector General’s office that “heat injuries are cases of negligence and improper care and are not accidental” and that dogs who die of heat stroke “suffer a terrible death.”

The Inspector General found that dogs were sent to the foreign partners without signed written agreements outlining standards of care and that there were no adequate follow-up checks on dogs’ wellbeing.

“Improving health and welfare is something that’s continual and gradual. It will not happen overnight, and that’s why improving kennel conditions, improving how many times they check on the canines – those are all things we’re actively working on,” another State Department official said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says he will likely release Mideast peace plan after Israel elections

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag and a cane during a protest against the Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the village of Sur Baher which sits on either side of the Israeli barrier in East Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he would likely wait until after Israel’s Sept. 17 elections to release a peace plan for the region that was designed by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is the main architect of a proposed $50 billion economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon that is designed to create peace in the region.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Israeli spymaster sees ‘one-time’ chance for peace with Arabs sharing Iran worries

FILE PHOTO: Mossad director Joseph (Yossi) Cohen gestures as he addresses a budgeting conference hosted by Israel's Finance Ministry in Jerusalem October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Dan Williams

HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Israel and U.S.-aligned Arab countries have a unique chance to forge a regional peace deal given their shared worries about Iran, the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy service said on Monday.

In a rare public appearance, Joseph (Yossi) Cohen said his agency had formed a task force designed to spot peacemaking opportunities in a region where only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

“The Mossad today espies a rare opportunity, perhaps for the first time in Middle East history, to arrive at a regional understanding that would lead to a comprehensive peace accord,” he told the Herzliya Conference, an annual international security forum near Tel Aviv.

“Common interests, the fight against rivals such as Iran and jihadist terrorism, the close relations with the White House, and channels of communication with the Kremlin all combine to create what might be a one-time window of opportunity,” he said.

The United States convened Arab and other dignitaries in Bahrain last week to encourage investment in the Palestinian economy that might help renew peace talks with Israel. 

The Palestinians, seeing a pro-Israel bias in the Trump administration and a ruse to deny them their goal of full statehood, boycotted the Manama meeting. Israel, which sent only a non-official delegation, saw in the event a chance to bolster its wider ties to the Arab world.

Cohen, whose speech alluded to the Palestinians only in the context of threats against Israel from the armed factions, said many Arab countries “cannot stand Iran’s thuggish behavior”.

He cited Iran’s nuclear program, assistance for guerrillas in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and alleged responsibility for a recent spate of sabotage strikes on oil tankers in the Gulf. Iran denies any role in those incidents.

RAPPROCHEMENT PUSH

Cohen said Israel’s warming of relations with Oman, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited last October, followed “a lengthy covert effort by the Mossad” to seek out closer ties.

He pointed to what he termed “an expanding group of responsible, serious countries” – which he did not name – in the region that have channels of communication with Israel despite no formal relations, and cooperate with it in various ways.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz made a rare visit to Abu Dhabi, which does not have officials ties with Israel, for a two-day U.N. climate meeting on Sunday and Monday. While there, he met with an unnamed Emirati official to discuss bilateral ties as well as the Iranian threat, his office said.

Iran announced on Monday it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 deal with major powers, its first major step in violation of the deal since the United States pulled out of it more than a year ago.

Cohen reaffirmed Israel’s policy that it would not allow its arch-foe to get a bomb. ”The Mossad or the State of Israel did not sign the nuclear deal (and) will do everything to ensure that Iran will never have nuclear weaponry,” he said.

Iran denies ever seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb.

“Currently, it’s about uranium enrichment at a relatively low percentage, and in amounts that are not large. The threat is to step up enrichment and increase the amounts,” Cohen said, speaking before news of the enrichment breach.

“Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military-enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb. The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)