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Islamic State kills over 220 in attacks in southern Syria

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Ramallah :A string of suicide blasts and raids claimed by the Islamic State group killed more than 220 people in southern Syria, in one of the jihadists’ deadliest ever assaults in the country.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacks hit several areas of the largely government-held southern province of Sweida, where IS retains a presence in a northeastern desert region.
The bloodshed came almost a week into a Russia-backed regime campaign to oust IS fighters from a holdout in a neighbouring province of the country’s south.
IS claimed responsibility for the violence, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” attacked Syrian government positions and security outposts in Sweida city, then detonated explosive belts.
The Britain-based Observatory said four suicide bombers targeted Sweida city while others hit small villages to the north and east and shot residents in their homes.
At least 221 people were killed, including 127 civilians, the Observatory said.
The remaining 94 dead were pro-regime fighters, mostly residents who took up arms to defend their homes, it said.
The overwhelming majority of the dead “were in (Sweida’s) northern countryside, where the bodies of civilians executed inside their homes were found,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Sweida, whose residents are mostly from the Druze minority, has been relatively insulated from the war that has ravaged the rest of the country since 2011.
“It’s the bloodiest death toll in Sweida province since the start of the war” and one of the deadliest ever IS attacks in Syria, the Observatory chief said.
He said regime forces eventually ousted IS from several villages its fighters had seized and put an end to the attacks.
“Some residents who fled the attacks on their villages are returning and finding people dead in their homes,” Abdel Rahman said.
At least 38 IS fighters were also killed, including the suicide attackers.
State media confirmed the attacks had killed and wounded people in Sweida city and villages to the north and east but did not give a specific toll.
“Today’s crime shows that countries supporting terrorism are trying to breathe life back into the terrorist organisation to keep it as a card in their hand that they will use to achieve political gains,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he received Russia’s envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev.
“These attempts will only succeed in… shedding more innocent blood,” he added, in comments carried on his social media accounts.
Omar, a resident of Sweida city, told AFP explosions began rocking the city around 5:30 am local time (0230 GMT).
“The blast was sudden and unexpected. Never in its history has Sweida seen such a tough day,” he told AFP.
State news agency SANA published images from the city of the attack’s aftermath, showing a victim’s remains sprawled on a staircase near a damaged wall.
Abandoned shoes lay in the middle of the road among fruit that had spilt out of cartons.
An eyewitness said Sweida’s national hospital was “packed”.
He said he saw “people bringing in a lot of wounded in their own private cars.. Others were coming to the hospital to ask if loved ones they had lost track of were there”.


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US withdrawal to drag neighbours back into Afghan war, warns report

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WASHINGTON: The Taliban will lose interest in negotiating peace and Afghanistan’s neighbours will get even more involved in war if the United States withdrew its forces, a US report warns.

But a Republican senator, Rand Paul, said after a recent meeting with Donald Trump that the US president was ready to end America’s 17-year involvement in Afghanistan.

The report — co-authored by two former US special envoys for Afghanistan and two former defence officials — highlights the consequences of a possible withdrawal of half of the 14,000 US from Afghanistan that President Trump suggested last month.

 

The report — written for the RAND Corporation, a US think-tank that specialises in defence affairs — argues that Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India and Uzbekistan, have a history of backing various ethnic groups, such as the Pashtuns, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara.

“These relationships will likely be reinforced as the central government’s financial base collapses, its writ weakens, and its cohesion erodes,” the report warns, adding that a US withdrawal will do both — undermine the Kabul government and weaken the Afghan economy.

“Pakistan has long tolerated and facilitated use of its territory by the Taliban. In the event of a precipitous US withdrawal, Pak­istan will likely become more open in its backing,” the report claims.

Pakistan has long rejected such claims as “negative speculations”, insisting instead that it no longer allows any terrorist group to use its territories for carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan.

The authors also note that since 2001, Russia and Iran have generally supported the Kabul government but, in recent years, they have also “provided limited aid to the Taliban as a hedge”.

They point out that the Taliban’s main goal in “recently energised” talks with the US “is a negotiated timetable for a US military withdrawal”. An early withdrawal, they argue, will cause the insurgents to “lose interest in negotiating peace with the United States”.

The authors also underline US expectations from the talks: Taliban forswearing ties with extremist groups, denying such groups access to Afghan territory, and becoming part of a new Afghan political and security architecture that is agreed upon among Afghans.

“If Taliban leaders receive or come to expect a cost-free US withdrawal, they will have little incentive to bargain with the United States or with the US-backed Afghan government,” the authors warn.

The report also highlights other consequences of an early US withdrawal, such as: Other North Atlantic Treaty Organi­sation (Nato) forces also leave Afghanistan. The US and other international civilian presence is sharply reduced. External economic and security assistance diminishes. Power moves from the centre to the periphery. Responsibility for security increasingly devolves to regional militias and local warlords.

The Taliban extend their control over territory and population but encounters resistance. Afghanistan descends into a wider civil war.

Civilian deaths rise sharply and refugee flows increase. Extremist groups, including Al Qaeda and Daesh, gain additional scope to organise, recruit and initiate terrorist attacks against US regional and homeland targets.

Senator Paul, however, says that he returned with his White House meeting with President Trump with the impression that he believes “we’ve been at war too long and in too many places”.

In general, “the idea is that we’re going to do things differently. We’re not going to stay forever. The Afghans will have to step up”, he added.

The report’s authors include James Dobbins, a former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Jason H. Campbell, former country director for the US Secretary of Defence, Sean Mann, a former analyst for the US Special Operations Joint Task Force, Laurel E. Miller, an acting special representative from 2016 to 2017.

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Trump says no amnesty for ‘Dreamers’, bashes Democrats for offer rejection

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Washington: President Donald Trump said that his proposed immigration deal to end a 30-day partial government shutdown would not lead to amnesty for “Dreamers,” but appeared to signal support for amnesty as part of a broader immigration agreement.

In a morning Twitter storm, Trump also said he would not seek the removal of millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States, while bashing House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats for turning down an offer he made on Saturday, including for Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

“No, Amnesty is not a part of my offer. It is a 3-year extension of DACA. Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal, whether on immigration or something else,” Trump said on Twitter.

 

“Likewise there will be no big push to remove the 11,000,000 plus people who are here illegally-but be careful Nancy!”

The Dreamers are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

DACA was put in place under former President Barack Obama. The Trump administration said in September 2017 it would rescind DACA but it remains in effect under court order.

Trump did not make clear what he was referring to regarding the 11 million people mentioned in his tweet. About 12 million people are living in the United States illegally, according to US Department of Homeland Security estimates.

Speech from the White House, Trump offered three years of protections for Dreamers and for holders of temporary protected status (TPS), another class of immigrants from designated countries affected by armed conflict, natural disaster, or other strife.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the plan as a “bold solution”, while a spokesman said McConnell would seek Senate passage of the proposal this week.

The legislation will include bills to fund government departments that have been closed during the shutdown, as well as some disaster aid and the president’s immigration proposal, a McConnell aide said.

But Trump’s amnesty tweet caught some Republicans off guard.

“I don’t know what the president’s calling amnesty,” Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, told ABC’s “This Week” program. “That’s a longer debate and obviously not something we can solve quickly.”

Trump appeared to be responding to conservative critics who accused him of proposing amnesty and reneging on a campaign promise, which could alienate his right-wing base.

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Turkey is ready to take over Syria’s Manbij: Erdogan

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WASHINGTON: Turkey is ready to take over security in Syria`s Manbij, where four U.S. citizens died in an Islamic State-claimed bombing last week, President Tayyip Erdogan told U.S. President Donald Trump in a telephone call on Sunday, the Turkish presidency said.

Erdogan told Trump that the suicide bombing in Manbij, a town in northeast Syria controlled by a militia allied to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, was a provocative act aimed at affecting Trump`s decision last month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision on December 19 to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring the Islamic State militant group had been defeated there, a view not shared by many experts.

 

Manbij, which U.S.-backed forces captured from Islamic State in 2016, has emerged as a focal point of tensions after Trump`s decision to withdraw U.S. forces whose presence has effectively deterred Turkey from attacking Kurdish forces.

Manbij is controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia allied to the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has for decades waged a separatist insurgency in Turkey.

In its description of the call, the White House made no mention of Erdogan`s offer to take over security in Manbij but said the two men agreed to keep pursuing a negotiated settlement for northeastern Syria that meets both nations` security needs.

“President Trump underscored the importance of defeating terrorist elements that remain in Syria,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a description of the call.

“The two leaders agreed to continue to pursue a negotiated solution for northeast Syria that achieves our respective security concerns. They also discussed their mutual interest in expanding the trade relationship between the United States and Turkey,” the spokeswoman added.

Trump has previously warned Turkey not to attack the Kurds in Syria and appeared to threaten Turkey`s economy if it did.

In its statement, the Turkish presidency also said that the two leaders had agreed to accelerate discussions between their chiefs of staff about a safe zone in northeastern Syria.

Last week, Trump suggested creating a safe zone, without elaborating. The SDF said on Wednesday it was ready to help create a safe zone, as fears grow that the U.S. withdrawal will give Turkey the opportunity to mount a new assault.

Turkey wants the zone to be cleared of the Kurdish group.

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