US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani posed a grave risk to US troops in the region and had to be dealt with.
Soleimani was assassinated in a US drone attack near Baghdad on January 3, prompting Iran to retaliate with a series of missile attacks on US facilities in Iraq several days later.
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Fears of imminent war between Iran and the United States have since subsided somewhat after US President Donald Trump appeared to shy away from a direct military response to the Iranian missile attack.
Here are all of the latest updates as of Friday, January 10:
Trump believes Iran was targeting four US embassies
President Donald Trump said Iran probably had targeted the US embassy in Baghdad and was aiming to attack four US embassies when its top general, Qassem Soleimani, was killed in a US drone strike.
“We will tell you probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump said in a clip of an interview on Fox News. “I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies.”
US imposes new sanctions on Iran following missile strikes
The US is imposing additional sanctions on Iran as a result of its attack on US troops in Iraq this week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday.
“We are announcing additional sanctions against the Iranian regime,” Mnuchin said at a White House news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The sanctions will target Iranian industries, including steel and iron manufacturers, as well as at least eight senior Iranian officials, Mnuchin added.
US says any delegation to Iraq won’t discuss troop withdrawal
Any delegation the US would send to Iraq would not discuss the withdrawal of US troops from the country, the US State Department said, saying the force presence there was “appropriate”.
“There does, however, need to be a conversation between the US and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
Germany’s Maas says Iran nuclear deal still makes sense
Germany’s foreign minister said he believed the Iran nuclear deal was still relevant and European ministers would reaffirm their commitment to the accord despite Tehran vowing to scrap uranium enrichment limits enshrined in the pact.
“We believe that this [nuclear] deal makes sense because it binds Iran into not developing any nuclear weapons. So we want this agreement to have a future, but it only has a future if it is adhered to and we expect this from Iran,” Heiko Maas told reporters on arrival in Brussels for a European Union foreign ministers meeting.
He added that a full investigation was needed into the causes of a Ukrainian airliner crash near Tehran, adding that the reasons for its plight could not be “hidden under the table.”
Pompeo: US didn’t know when, where Soleimani attacks would take place
Pompeo has acknowledged that the US did not know “precisely” when or where attacks allegedly being planned by Soleimani would take place.
“There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani,” Pompeo said in a Fox News interview that aired on Thursday.
“We don’t know precisely when, and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he added.
The Trump administration has come under fire for its decision to assassinate Soleimani without consulting Congress. The administration maintains it did not need to consult Congress before the strike because of the “imminent threat” US forces faced.
Iran could have a nuclear weapon within 1-2 years: French minister
Iran could have nuclear weapons in one to two years if the country carries on violating the 2015 nuclear accord, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
“If they continue with unravelling the Vienna agreement, then yes, within a fairly short period of time, between one and two years, they could have access to a nuclear weapon, which is not an option,” Le Drian said on RTL radio.
Saudi defends US attack, condemns Iran
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir condemned Wednesday’s missile attacks by Iran.
“We take issue with the violation of Iraq’s sovereignty by Iran,” al-Jubeir said on Friday during a news conference in Prague where he was on a routine diplomatic visit.
Al-Jubeir reiterated the Saudi position, supporting the US’s right to defend itself but called for calm in the region.
“We believe that there should be a way to avoid escalation because we believe escalation would be damaging to all parties and not just one or the other,” he added.
Al-Jubeir also made reference to the Iranian nuclear deal, saying it is flawed in its current form and that it should be amended.
Iraqi PM tells US to decide mechanism for troop withdrawal
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told the US secretary of state to send a delegation to Iraq tasked with formulating the mechanism for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, according to a statement.
In a phone call on Thursday night the Iraqi leader requested US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “send delegates to Iraq to prepare a mechanism to carry out the parliament’s resolution regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq,” the statement said.
“The prime minister said American forces had entered Iraq and drones are flying in its airspace without permission from Iraqi authorities and this was a violation of the bilateral agreements,” the statement added.
Iraqi legislators passed a non-binding resolution to remove US troops following the US strike last Friday.
European leaders to hold summit to save Iran deal
European Union foreign ministers are set for a rare emergency meeting on Friday afternoon, hoping to guide the US and Iran away from confrontation.
However, if it is proven that a Ukrainian airliner was this week downed by an Iranian missile, that will likely complicate matters again for the diplomats.
On Monday, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell tweeted his regret at Iran’s recent decision to step away from more aspects of the nuclear deal, which, he said, was “now more important than ever”.
Read more here.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the Iran nuclear deal was ‘now more important than ever’ [Francois Lenoir/Reuters]
Tensions escalate in Deraa, ‘cradle of the Syrian revolution’
Tensions escalated in southern Syria’s Deraa province after government troops and armed volunteers launched a raid against opposition fighters controlling parts of Al-Sanamayn town. On Monday, after a day of heavy shelling and fighting led by the Fourth Division of Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an agreement was brokered by Russia that saw two…
Tensions escalated in southern Syria’s Deraa province after government troops and armed volunteers launched a raid against opposition fighters controlling parts of Al-Sanamayn town.
On Monday, after a day of heavy shelling and fighting led by the Fourth Division of Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an agreement was brokered by Russia that saw two dozen opposition fighters leave the town for opposition-held areas in the country’s northwest, local residents told Al Jazeera.
At least seven civilians were killed in the clashes.
On Tuesday, Syria’s state news agency SANA said an operation conducted by security forces and police units “ended the state of chaos” in Al-Sanamayn, but did not report any casualties.
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Deraa province, where the Syrian uprising started nine years ago, was an opposition stronghold until 2018, when government forces backed by Russian and Iranian forces launched an operation to retake it. After months of heavy fighting that killed hundreds of people and displaced hundreds of thousands, opposition factions and the government reached a reconciliation agreement brokered by Moscow.
Under the deal, opposition fighters were allowed to remain in partial control of several areas, including Al-Sanamayn, as well as retain some light weapons. Despite the agreement, however, tensions in the province have simmered ever since, as government forces, militias and local armed volunteers have continued arrests, intimidation and killings of local residents and members of the opposition.
According to Adham al-Kirad, a former commander in the Free Syrian Army, the raid on Al-Sanamayn was preceded by intermittent clashes between opposition fighters and members of pro-Assad armed volunteer groups, known as popular committees.
“The regime forces joined the fighting on the side of the popular committees. Then the Russian side intervened,” said al-Kirad, who was also part of the 2018 reconciliation deal.
On Sunday, al-Kirad was among hundreds of protesters who took to the streets of Deraa city to call on the government to stop its attack on Al-Sanamayn.
The escalation in the south comes as government forces and their allies have been fighting opposition factions in the country’s northwest, prompting neighbouring Turkey to intervene militarily.
The government currently controls most of Syria’s territory, except for the opposition stronghold in Idlib province in the northwest; three small pockets in the north held by Turkish forces and their Syrian allies in the north; and the area east of the Euphrates River up to the border with Iraq controlled by the US-backed and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
Torture, death and revenge attacks
According to Ahmed Aba Zeid, an Istanbul-based researcher, Deraa is a special case compared with other territories seized by the Syrian government over the past two years because of the reconciliation deal.
“Deraa, the cradle of the Syrian revolution, did not have mass evacuation after the regime takeover, which meant that supporters of the revolution remained and so did opposition fighters, many of whom refused to join government forces and fight in the north,” he said.
In areas where there was the evacuation of both fighters and civilians, such as the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and Al-Rastan area in Homs province, the government has managed to retain tighter control.
Aba Zeid said the attack on Al-Sanamayn, seen by locals as a violation of the 2018 deal, is likely to further escalate tensions in Deraa.
It came amid an intensifying campaign of attacks against government troops, allied militias and even opposition fighters who had joined the ranks of the Syrian army. Since the agreement, local rights groups have reported an increasing number of targeted assassinations and roadside bombings as well as attacks on checkpoints, offices of the intelligence and different militias, among others.
A January report by the Syrians for Truth and Justice rights organisation said that in the second half of 2019, Deraa experienced its “most violent [period] since the settlement agreement”. The group documented at least 72 assassinations, most of which targeted individuals affiliated with Damascus, Iranian forces and members of the Lebanese armed group, Hezbollah.
Another local organisation, the Deraa Martyrs Documentation Office, which documents human rights violations in the province, reported 39 attacks and assassination attempts, which led to the death of 26 individuals in the month of February alone. Thirteen of the victims were former members of the opposition who had joined government units.
In November 2018, opposition Syrian media published reports of the formation of a “popular resistance” in Deraa which reportedly took responsibility for a number of attacks on government forces in the province in subsequent months. However, in most of the cases, there has been no claim of responsibility.
According to a former Free Syrian Army fighter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, most of the attacks are individual acts and are not carried out in an organised fashion.
“The regime just won’t leave people alone. And people are armed. So when something happens to someone, his neighbour responds. For every infraction there is a reaction,” he said.
The former fighter said many of the attacks on government forces and their allies have been motivated by the growing number of arrests, forced disappearances and killings faced by civilians in Deraa since 2018.
A 2019 report by Human Rights Watch said “Syrian intelligence branches are arbitrarily detaining, disappearing, and harassing people in areas retaken from anti-government groups” and that such measures have been taken even against people who have signed reconciliation agreements.
The Russian defence ministry, which helped broker the reconciliation deal in 2018, did not respond to a request for comment on these violations.
According to the Deraa Martyrs Documentation Office, 391 people were arrested or forcefully disappeared in the province in 2019, five of whom died under torture. The number does not include those arrested as part of forced conscription by the government, who, the organisation estimates, are in the thousands.
The arrests and killings have sparked sporadic protests across the province. In November, large demonstrations held in Deraa city and elsewhere pressured the government to release 33 detainees.
Apart from growing anger, there is also increasing fear among local residents, according to Abu Mahmoud al-Horani, spokesman of the Deraa-based citizen journalist group Tajamo Ahrar Horan. His organisation has estimated that some 2,500 have fled the province since the reconciliation with Damascus because of continuing oppression and the fear of arrest and torture.
“Members of our group have also received death threats and have had to flee Deraa by being smuggled outside the country,” he said.
Outside of Deraa, the protests and attacks have been perceived by some as an indication that there is “renewed momentum” in the anti-government uprising – but the former opposition fighter disagrees.
“We wish to say the revolution continues, but we are weak in organising,” he told Al Jazeera.
Al-Horani was also sceptical.
“As long as the violations of the regime and its militias continue, the situation will go towards escalation and increasing tension. There is a possibility that this could take the shape of another uprising, but I do not see this happening in the near future,” he said.
Al-Horani said the attack on Al-Sanamayn was meant as a demonstration of power by the government at a time when the advance of its forces in Idlib was halted and its grip on Deraa appeared shaky.
According to Heiko Wimmen, a researcher at the New York-based International Crisis Group, the government has struggled to control not just Deraa but other territories as well.
“In many areas that the regime recaptured, it is not so clear who actually holds control,” he said.
Given its limited capacity at the moment, the strategy of the government appears to be to cooperate with local actors to retain control in exchange of giving them “leeway” in local affairs, Wimmen said. Eventually, Damascus will seek to consolidate its power through “hierarchically controlled security services”, which would require rebuilding planning and strategic capacity at the centre, he added.
Establishing full control, however, may be challenging for the government.
“The war in the northwest is not over,” Wimmen said. “A ‘victory’ there may bring them a deadly insurgency, which already exists in the southeast. Then there is the problem of the Kurds and of course the deteriorating economic situation.”
Last year, the Syrian lira collapsed, losing more than 100 percent of its value against the US dollar amid skyrocketing inflation that saw the prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel surge. In January, small protests were held across the country, including in the southern Druze-majority province of Sweida, which remained loyal to Damascus throughout the Syrian uprising.
According to Aba Zeid, the government will be unable to establish full control over territories it has taken over even if it manages to capture Idlib.
“The rejection of the regime and its lack of capacity to establish stability, along with its continuing crimes against civilians, will continue to feed resistance against its rule across Syria,” he said.
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova
Amid tensions over Trump’s plan, Israeli rockets target Hamas
Jerusalem – At least three mortar shells have been fired from the besieged Gaza Strip enclave into southern Israel, the country’s military has said in a statement, amid tensions in the region over US President Donald Trump’s proposed Middle East plan. The Israeli army’s statement on Friday said its Iron Dome anti-missile air defence system intercepted…
Jerusalem – At least three mortar shells have been fired from the besieged Gaza Strip enclave into southern Israel, the country’s military has said in a statement, amid tensions in the region over US President Donald Trump’s proposed Middle East plan.
The Israeli army’s statement on Friday said its Iron Dome anti-missile air defence system intercepted a projectile midair as violence continued for a second day. No casualties were reported, it added.
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Earlier on Friday, Israel struck Hamas targets in Gaza after three rockets were fired from the Palestinian enclave, the Israeli army said.
Two of the rockets fired on Thursday night were also intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system, while the third landed in an open area, the statement said.
No casualties were reported in the earlier attack too and there was no claim of responsibility for it.
Israeli media said a mother and a newborn child in Serdot were slightly injured after the woman fell when running to a shelter following the sounding of sirens.
Hamas spokesman Abdellatif al-Qanoun told Al Jazeera that Israeli air raids targeted the Gaza Strip, but challenged that Hamas had launched an attack on Israel before that.
“Israel alleges that we launched rockets, but we cannot take their narrative,” said al-Qanoun, neither denying nor confirming Israel’s claim.
“Israel’s airstrikes early this morning are part of the occupation’s ongoing attacks and enmity towards our people in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
Israel said a mortar was fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel on Thursday. Israeli media reported an explosion near Kissufim in southern Israel and security forces scouring the area. No casualties were reported in that alleged attack.
The exchanges follow the announcement of Trump’s proposed Middle East plan, which promised a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and gave Israel an “undivided capital” in Jerusalem.
Tuesday’s announcement angered Palestinian leaders and people, who promised to “fight against the deal”.
Israel has since deployed additional troops near the Gaza separation barrier, which saw hundreds of people protesting against the plan on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Israeli military was also deployed to the occupied West Bank’s Jordan Valley, which under the plan would be annexed to Israel.
Trump’s plan seeks to disarm Hamas, the group which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007 and is designated a “terrorist” organisation by the US.
Al-Qanoun told Al Jazeera that the group rejected the plan.
“Hamas will not accept to be disarmed. It is not acceptable to talk about the disarmament of Hamas or any other Palestinian resistance faction.
“The Palestinian resistance arm is legitimate and our right to defend ourselves against this brutal occupation is legally guaranteed.”
Over the past year, Hamas has shaped an informal truce with Israel, under which Tel Aviv has slightly eased its crippling blockade of the enclave in exchange for calm.
But after Israel assassinated a senior leader of the Islamic Jihad armed group in Gaza in November, Israel launched attacks on Gaza, killing at least 36 Palestinians.
Political analyst Ellie Nissan said an exchange of rockets will continue over the next few months, but the situation was unlikely to escalate.
“Nothing will change on the ground until after the elections because [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has achieved what he wants in terms of garnering support ahead of the vote,” said Nissan referring to upcoming parliamentary elections on March 2, the third in less than a year.
“If an Israeli is killed in these attacks, however, Israel will have to respond,” he added.
But tensions between Israel and Gaza have been steadily rising over the past two weeks after several months of relative calm.
Additional reporting by Maram Humaid
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