Russia warns US after downing of Syrian jet

Two Russian S-400 Triumf missile systems are seen at the Russian military base in Latakia province in the northwest of Syria. (AFP)
Updated 20 June 2017
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Russia warns US after downing of Syrian jet

BEIRUT: Russia has warned it would track US-led coalition aircraft in central Syria as “targets” and halted an incident-prevention hotline with Washington after US forces downed a Syrian jet.
Moscow has only once before suspended the hotline, which was established in October 2015 to prevent conflict between the different forces operating in Syrian airspace.
The shootdown incident and Russia’s response further complicate Syria’s six-year war and come as the US-led coalition and allied fighters battle to oust Daesh from its Syrian bastion Raqqa.
Analysts say neither Washington nor Bashar Assad’s regime appear to be seeking further confrontation, but warn that the risks are high in Syria’s increasingly crowded battlefields.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Washington of failing to use the hotline before downing the plane near Raqqa, and called for a “careful investigation by the US command” into the incident.
“Any flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, discovered west of the Euphrates river will be tracked as aerial targets by Russia’s air defenses on and above ground,” it warned.
The Syrian jet was shot down on Sunday evening after regime forces engaged fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance battling with US support against Daesh, in an area close to Raqqa.
The American F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down the Syrian SU-22 around 7:00 p.m. as it “dropped bombs near SDF fighters” south of the town of Tabqa, the coalition said in a statement.
It said that several hours earlier, regime forces had attacked the SDF in another town near Tabqa, wounding several and driving the SDF from the town.
The coalition said the Syrian warplane had been shot down “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.”
Syria’s army disputed the account, saying its plane was hit while “conducting a mission against the Daesh terrorist group.” It warned of “the grave consequences of this flagrant aggression.”
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, called it a “continuation of America’s line to disregard the norms of international law,” adding: “What is this if not an act of aggression?”
The incident was the latest skirmish between the US-led coalition and regime forces in the increasingly tense and crowded space in Syria’s north and east.
The coalition has for months backed SDF forces in their bid to capture Raqqa, an operation in which the regime has not been involved.
The SDF entered Raqqa for the first time earlier this month and now holds four neighborhoods in the east and west of the city.
Damascus has instead turned its focus further east, to the largely Daesh-held oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor, where government forces are besieged in part of the provincial capital.
It is advancing toward the region on three fronts, south of Raqqa, through the Badia desert region in central Syria, and along Syria’s eastern border.
But the advances have created conflict with the US-led coalition, particularly along the Syrian border, where US and other foreign forces are training an anti-Daesh force at the Tanf garrison.
In recent weeks, the coalition has fired on pro-regime ground forces approaching the garrison and shot down a pro-regime armed drone.
The coalition describes these incidents as “force protection” measures and says its primary focus remains targeting Daesh.
Outside of coalition operations, US forces have only once directly targeted the regime, when Washington launched a barrage of strikes in April against an air base it said was the launchpad for an alleged chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.
Sam Heller, a Syria expert at The Century Foundation think-tank, said the regime was provoking confrontations, but neither side appeared to want a major escalation.
“I think that it was just that the regime engaged in a provocation and then a lower-rung US commander responded in self-defense,” he said of Sunday’s incident.
“The regime got too close and it got burned.”
He said the provocations by Syria’s government and its allies were a potentially risky strategy.
Government forces, meanwhile, seized the town of Rusafa, south of Raqqa, a key stop on its path to Deir Ezzor and located near provincial oil and gas fields, the monitor said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Monday that the next round of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana will be held on July 10.
The meeting is set to coincide with a fresh round of UN-sponsored Syria peace talks that will also begin in Geneva the same day.


Longtime Lebanese Parliament Speaker Berri re-elected to post

The 128-seat assembly voted 98 in favor of Nabih Berri, with 29 blank ballots and one that was annulled. (AP)
Updated 45 min 7 sec ago
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Longtime Lebanese Parliament Speaker Berri re-elected to post

  • The 128-seat assembly voted 98 in favor of Berri, with 29 blank ballots and one that was annulled.
  • The re-election of Nabih Berri, a Shiite ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group who has held the post since 1992, reflects Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian-based political system, which has held despite rising discontent.

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers overwhelmingly re-elected the country’s longtime Parliament speaker to the post on Wednesday, giving the 80-year-old monopoly of the office for three decades now.

The re-election of Nabih Berri, a Shiite ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group who has held the post since 1992, reflects Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian-based political system, which has held despite rising discontent.

The 128-seat assembly voted 98 in favor of Berri, with 29 blank ballots and one that was annulled. The newly elected Parliament convened Wednesday for the first time after May 6 nationwide balloting. It’s Berri’s sixth consecutive term; he ran unchallenged.

The country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years ended years of political stalemate over a new election law and repeated extension of the Parliament’s terms. Hezbollah and its political allies scored significant gains in those elections.

Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri called Berri a “national symbol.” The oldest member of Parliament, 86-year-old Michel Murr commended Berri for successfully managing the country’s sectarian politics over the years, preventing conflict.

“I extend my sincere thanks, for the sixth time, to the members of Parliament for their confidence in renewing my responsibilities as Parliament speaker,” Berri said, addressing the assembly following the vote.

Keeping on Berri as Parliament speaker is expected to smooth the way for the formation of a new government in the coming weeks. Like the outgoing Cabinet, it’s also likely to be a unity government that incorporates Hezbollah members.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a Christian, is now expected to begin consultations with lawmakers about a prime minister-designate and Parliament majority leader Hariri, a Sunni, is tipped to yet again head the government.

That Berri faced no challengers, and rarely has over the years, owes much to Lebanon’s sectarian-based and elite-dominated political system, which has mostly kept the peace since the 1975-1990 civil war, but has also spawned political paralysis and endemic corruption.

Berri is seen by some as an embodiment of that system, which shows no signs of changing despite rising discontent. But the Parliament speaker, who is one of Lebanon’s most influential and enduring politicians, is also seen as a moderate, unifying figure who lifted his Shiite community’s profile and role in the country’s postwar politics, often acting as mediator among feuding Lebanese factions.

Celebratory gunfire and firecrackers erupted across southern Beirut after Berri was approved. A pro-Syrian member of Parliament, Elie Firzli, was re-elected as his deputy.

Lebanon’s political system, built to distribute power among its various sects, mandates a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite Parliament speaker, while the Cabinet and Parliament seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christians.

As leader of the Shiite Amal movement, which is closely allied with the powerful Hezbollah, Berri is virtually untouchable. The two parties hold all but one of the 27 seats allotted to Shiites in Parliament.

A lawyer by training, Berri won power as a militia leader during the 1975-1990 civil war and transitioned to politics as the war ended.

His career since has mirrored the Shiite community’s steadily rising clout in a country where it had long been marginalized both economically and politically.

He has nimbly navigated shifting tides over the past three decades to seal both his popularity in the Shiite community and his grip on the post of speaker.

Even as he fashioned himself into a mediator among Lebanon’s deeply divided political factions, he has remained firmly allied to Hezbollah.

That partnership is likely to remain intact. In an AFP interview shortly after this month’s election, Berri said the triumvirate of “the army, the people, the resistance (Hezbollah)” was key to keeping Lebanon safe.

Like many Lebanese from the south, Berri’s parents moved to Africa to make a better living. He was born on Jan. 28, 1938, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He earned a law degree from the state-run Lebanese University in 1963 before completing post-graduate law studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

During Lebanon’s war, he rose to prominence by taking over the leadership of the Amal movement in 1980, two years after the mysterious disappearance in Libya of its founder, Imam Mussa Sadr.

In 1984, he led his militiamen in an uprising against the US- and Israeli-backed regime of President Amin Gemayel. Between 1985 and 1988, he helped crush supporters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the so-called “war of the camps.”

In 1988, his militia fought a deadly power struggle with Hezbollah, which took control of almost all the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut and swathes of Lebanon’s Shiite-dominated south.

Amal continued to fight against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon until the latter withdrew in 2000.

 

 

“I am proud of my participation in the resistance against Israel,” Berri told AFP in an earlier interview. “But the rest (of the war) could have been avoided.”

Like many of Lebanon’s war-time chiefs, Berri transitioned to politics when the frontlines calmed, making himself an indispensable ally to Syria, which kept its troops in Lebanon.

Berri was named minister several times between 1984 and 1992. That year, in the first elections after the war ended, Berri was simultaneously elected a member and speaker of Parliament — the highest post for a Shiite in the country’s sectarian political system.