US anti-Daesh office gets reprieve as Syria pullout accelerates

Government forces head toward militant positions in the Hajjar Al-Aswad district on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Since mid-April, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have pounded Daesh in its last Damascus bastion. Retaking the area, which includes Hajjar Al-Aswad and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, would place the regime in full control of the capital and its surroundings for the first time since 2012. (AFP Photo / HO / SANA)
Updated 21 May 2018
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US anti-Daesh office gets reprieve as Syria pullout accelerates

  • Daesh fighters begin evacuating their final stronghold in southern Damascus
  • US State Department says anti-Daesh office in Syria will stay in business for at least six more months

LONDON: Daesh fighters began evacuating their final stronghold in southern Damascus on Sunday, a monitor said, bringing Syria’s government closer than ever to flushing out the last threat to the capital.
After weeks of combat and heavy casualties, an apparent deal was reached for remaining Daesh fighters to leave Yarmuk and the adjacent district of Tadamun, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Daesh militants burned their headquarters in Yarmuk before boarding buses with their relatives to leave the area, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
“The six buses left at dawn, heading east for the Syrian desert,” he added.
Abdel Rahman could not specify how many had left, but said a majority were relatives of militants and not armed. More than two dozen buses remained in Yarmuk for additional evacuations, he said.
Syrian state media and a Palestinian official have denied a deal was reached or that evacuations were taking place.
Yarmuk in particular has been devastated by Syria’s conflict, suffering a crippling government siege since 2012 and ruined by years of fighting.
It was once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, as well as Syrians, but just a few hundred remain.
Meanwhile, the State Department unit overseeing the fight against the Daesh will stay in business for at least six more months, reserving an administration plan for the unit’s imminent downgrade even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with a speedy US exit from Syria.
A plan initiated by Rex Tillerson before he was fired as secretary of state in March would have folded the office of the special envoy to the global coalition into the department’s counterterrorism bureau as early as spring, officials said. Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, canceled the plan this month, and the office will stay an independent entity until at least December, when there will be a new review, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the plan publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The office reports directly to the secretary of state and the president, and the planned shift would have undercut its status and the priority of its mission. It could have led to staffing and budget cuts as well as the departure of the special envoy, Brett McGurk. He is now expected to remain in his job at least through the end of the year.
Still, the officials said Trump’s intent to reduce the US military and civilian stabilization presence in Syria has not changed and is, in fact, accelerating. The State Department has ended all funding for stabilization programs in Syria’s northwest. Daesh militants have been almost entirely eliminated from the region, which is controlled by a hodgepodge of other extremist groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government forces.
At least some of the US money for those projects is expected to be redirected Syria’s northeast where Daesh fighters remain, the officials said.
The conflicting moves of retaining McGurk’s office while pulling out of the northwest illustrate how the administration is being pulled in different directions by Trump’s two competing interests: extricating the US from messy Mideast conflicts and delivering a permanent defeat to Daesh.
Trump has said the United States will be withdrawing from Syria “like very soon.” In late March, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies tried to dissuade him from pulling troops out immediately, warning there was a risk Daesh would manage to regroup. Trump relented slightly, but told aides they could have only five months or six months to finish off Daesh and get out.
The US announced in September 2014 that it was forming a coalition of nations to defeat the nascent extremist group that had taken over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Days later, President Barack Obama named retired Marine Gen. John Allen the first special presidential envoy for the coalition. McGurk, his deputy, replaced him in 2015.
Almost four years later, Daesh no longer controls territory in Iraq, though US officials say its ideology remains a threat there. The final vestiges of the self-proclaimed caliphate are in Syria, where civil war has made it far trickier to wrest the militants from the few pockets of territory they still control.
Yet, as Trump’s administration eyes an exit as soon as Daesh is vanquished, the broader situation in Syria is not getting any better as far as American interests are concerned.
Assad’s forces are making inroads against the opposition and now control roads between Syria’s three main cities for the first time since the war broke out in 2011. Moscow is solidifying its influence, even hosting Assad for a surprise visit Thursday to Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. And an outbreak of direct fighting between Israel and Iranian forces based in Syria has catalyzed concerns about Tehran’s involvement in Syria and the potential for a broader regional conflict.
“Hopefully, Syria will start to stabilize,” Trump said last week as he met with NATO’s secretary-general at the White House. “You see what’s been happening. It’s been a horror show.”
Nevertheless, there are no signs that Trump is backing away from his determination to limit US involvement to the narrow task of defeating Daesh, leaving to others the longer-term challenges of stabilizing the country, restoring basic services and resolving the civil war.
A $200-million pledge that Tillerson made in February for stabilization programs in Syria remains on hold on Trump’s orders and is under review. Tillerson, who had advocated for maintaining the US presence, was fired shortly after he made the pledge at a conference in Kuwait.
Then the administration this month decided to halt funding US military and reconstruction programs in the Syrian northwest, the officials said. Pending the results of the overall review, the canceled money is expected to be shifted to programs in northeast Syria, where US troops are still battling Daesh, and civilian teams from the State Department and US Agency for International Development are working in newly liberated areas.


Arab women are on the march … straight into the heart of government

The appointment of the women ministers may help to assuage disappointment about the make-up of the rest of the — all male — Cabinet.
Updated 13 min 44 sec ago
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Arab women are on the march … straight into the heart of government

  • Recent appointments in Egypt are the latest example of the rise of women to high political office in the region
  • “The men’s monopoly has been broken,” the Jordanian National Commission for Women declared in a celebratory statement which also praised the prime minister’s “clear position”

CAIRO, LONDON: The appointment of two more female ministers this month to the new Egyptian Cabinet means women now fill eight out of 34 positions, the highest number in the modern history of Egypt.

Hala Zayed is the new health minister while Yasmine Fouad takes over as environment minister. Both women replaced men and join culture minister Inas Abdel-Dayem, tourism minister Rania Al-Mashat, Nabila Makram (immigration minister) Ghada Wali (social solidarity minister), Hala El-Saeed (planning minister) and Sahar Nasr (minister of investment and international cooperation).
The appointments by Egypt’s new Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly have been welcomed as forward thinking by social and political commentators.
Dr. Magda Bagnied, a writer and professor of communication, told Arab News: “I believe whoever planned for those eight effective ministries was looking forward for the future of Egypt since they are all interconnected in some way, and having females leading them is a leap forward.
“A country’s rank and status is measured by the role of women. The higher the number of leadership roles for women, the further the country is considered to be on the road to development.”
Four out of 15 new deputy ministers are also women and women now hold 15 percent of the seats in Parliament.
The rise of women to high political office in the Arab world is by no means restricted to Egypt.
Jordan also has a record number of women ministers after Prime Minister-designate Omar Razzaz appointed seven women to the 29-member Cabinet sworn in last week.
“The men’s monopoly has been broken,” the Jordanian National Commission for Women declared in a celebratory statement which also praised the prime minister’s “clear position.”
The appointment of the women ministers may help to assuage disappointment about the make-up of the rest of the — all male — Cabinet.
Twenty-three members of the new Jordanian Cabinet have been ministers before and 13 were members of the outgoing government that was brought down by popular protest.
Rawan Joyoussi, whose posters became one of the defining images of the protests, said: “I was hoping that women would be empowered and I am happy with that. But as far as the composition of the rest of the government is concerned, I think we have to play our part to create the mechanisms that will hold the government accountable.”
In the UAE, women hold nine out of 31 ministerial positions, and one of them, Minister for Youth Shamma Al-Mazrui, is also the world’s youngest minister, appointed in 2016 when she was only 22.
This makes the UAE Cabinet nearly 30 percent female, which is higher than India, almost equal to the UK and far ahead of the US, where Donald Trump has just four women in his Cabinet.
The general election in Morocco in October 2016 produced 81 women members of Parliament, accounting for 21 percent of the total 395 seats. The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which won the most votes, also ended up with the highest number of women MPs, 18.
Though elections in Saudi Arabia were open to women only in 2015, it ranks 100th out of 193rd in the world league table of women in national governing bodies, slightly above the US at 102nd place.
A policy briefing from the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington says that one of the best ways for a country to ease economic pressure and boost productivity is to increase female participation in the workplace and in political life.
“Introducing diversity through gender parity will benefit economic growth and can help Arab countries to generate prosperity as well as the normative and social imperative of change,” wrote analyst Bessma Momani.
Yet in some parts of the Middle East, female representation seems to be going backward.
In 2009, four of Kuwait’s 65 MPs were women. In 2012 there were three and in 2013 only one. In 2016, 15 women stood for election to the 50 open parliamentary seats (the other 15 are appointed). Only one, Safa Al-Hashem, who was already an MP, was successful.
Qatar has no women MPs or ministers at all.
Egypt’s appointment of two more women ministers does not have the appearance of tokenism. The new Health Minister, Hala Zayed, 51, has a solid background in the field as a former president of the Academy of Health Sciences, a hospital specializing in cancer treatment for children.
She was also government adviser on health, chairwoman of a committee for combating corruption at the ministry she now heads and also has a Ph.d. in project management.
Similarly, Yasmeen Fouad, 43, the new environment minister, has four years’ experience as a former assistant minister in the same department, where she was known as “the lady for difficult missions,” and liaised with the UN. She is also an assistant professor of economics and political science at Cairo University.
Egypt’s first female minister was Hikmat Abu Zaid, appointed minister of social affairs in 1962 by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who dubbed her “the merciful heart of revolution.”
Now there are eight like her, demonstrating that in the Middle East, “girl power” is on the rise.