Speculation mounts on Iran’s involvement in Aramco attacks, Trump orders more sanctions

'Iran almost certainly behind the Aramco attacks' Saudi envoy said. (AFP)
Updated 18 September 2019

Speculation mounts on Iran’s involvement in Aramco attacks, Trump orders more sanctions

  • Saudi envoy says Iran almost certainly behind Aramco attacks
  • World leaders continue to condemn the attacks which took place on Saturday

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to London said on Wednesday that Iran was almost certainly behind attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

“Almost certainly it’s Iranian-backed,” Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud told the BBC.

“We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”

“We’re investigating the issue. We’re working with our partners in the United States, the UN, the UK, and anyone else who wants to get involved, to help us resolve what happened, figure out what happened, where they came from, the attack.”

However Saudi Arabia has promised it will present evidence on Wednesday evening that it says will link Iran to the attacks.

The press conference will show evidence of Iran’s involvement in the Aramco attacks, state TV added.

It will also show Iranian weapons that were used in the attacks.

Iran denies any involvement in the attacks, but has threatened retaliatory action against any country that attacks it.

Late Wednesday the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash took to Twitter, praising Aramco for its handling of the crisis, saying the firm deserved medals for its professional and political reaction.

Late Wednesday US President Donald Trump said he had ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to “substantially increase sanctions” imposed on Iran.

He did not give additional details on the move.

Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi deputy defense minister, tweeted about the US sanction increases saying Saudi Arabia thanked the US for its stance against Iran and appreciated its position.

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the attacks by phone with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also on Wednesday, the Kremlin said.

Putin and the crown prince expressed their commitment to bilateral cooperation on stabilizing global oil prices and the Russian leader called for a thorough and impartial investigation into the attacks in Saudi Arabia, the Kremlin said.

Putin is expected later this year to travel to Saudi Arabia.

The head of Russia's Direct Investment Fund on Wednesday praised Saudi Aramco's quick recovery of oil production after attacks on its facilities, and said Russian companies had offered to help fix the damage.

The Saudi Aramco facilities were hit in drone strikes on Saturday, causing fires to break out.

The Houthis claimed responsibility, but an investigation is underway involving representatives from various nations.

Meanwhile US broadcaster NBC reported that President Trump had received a security briefing on possible actions against Iran – including military.

However it is understood that Trump sent the advisors away asking for further options.

The United States believes the attacks that crippled Saudi Arabian oil facilities last weekend originated in southwestern Iran, a US official told Reuters, an assessment that further increases tension in the Middle East.

But Iran issued a denial on Wednesday with a stern warning to the world that it would respond to any attacks.

In a diplomatic note sent to the United States, Iran denied any role in the attacks on Saudi oil installations and warned of a response to any action, state media said Wednesday.

The formal memo sent on Monday through the Swiss embassy, which represents US interests in Tehran, “emphasized that Iran has not played any role in this attack and denies and condemns” the US claims to the contrary, the official IRNA news agency said.

Iran’s security minister warned that any attempt to attack them would be met with an “overwhelming response.”

Meanwhile the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on Wednesday to discuss the attacks and coordinate efforts against “Iranian aggression.”

Mike Pompeo “will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the recent attack on the Kingdom’s oil facilities and coordinate efforts to counter Iranian aggression in the region,” a Twitter posting said.

Pompeo will then travel to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi to meet with its crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and discuss regional and bilateral issues, it said.

(With AFP and Reuters)


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 27 min 55 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.