King Abdullah tells Putin Moscow needed for progress in Middle East
ordan’s king told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow plays a pivotal role in efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during a meeting between the two in Moscow Wednesday.
“The world should realize that without Russia, it is nearly impossible to make serious progress in the region,” King Abdullah II said, in a meeting that highlighted security and economic cooperation between the two nations, according to the Russian news agency TASS. “Of course, we are very grateful to Russia for the role it plays in the Mideast region.”
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has died, royal officials have announced, weeks after he was admitted to hospital.
Abdullah, who had ruled since 2005 and was said to be aged about 90, had been suffering from a lung infection.
His 79-year-old half-brother, Salman, has been confirmed as the new king.
Within hours of his accession to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom, King Salman vowed to maintain the same policies as his predecessors.
“We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television.
Abdullah had suffered frequent bouts of ill health in recent years, and King Salman had recently taken on the ailing monarch’s responsibilities.
Prior to announcing Abdullah’s death, Saudi television cut to Koranic verses, which often signifies the passing of a senior royal.
A statement said Abdullah had died at 01:00 (22:00 GMT Thursday).
Analysis: Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent
Saudi Arabia under King Salman faces a number of challenges. The first is ensuring the succession passes smoothly without any divisive jockeying for power within the ruling family. Then there is the ongoing threat from jihadists, both at home and across its borders.
Saudi Arabia is now sandwiched between an aggressive Islamic State (IS) to the north and al-Qaeda in Yemen to the south. Saudi warplanes have joined the US-led coalition in air strikes against IS, but this is deeply unpopular with many Saudis.
The government has yet to find a way to cope with mild calls for reforms and is abusing anti-terror laws to silence reformers and punish its critics. Longer term, it faces a growing unemployment problem.
About half the population is under 25 and there are nowhere near enough meaningful jobs for young Saudis.
But the country does at least have oil in its favour. At below $45 a barrel Saudi Arabia is one of the very few exporting countries to still make big margins on production and exploration. That puts it in a powerful position on the world stage.
Another of the late king’s half-brothers, Muqrin, who is in his late 60s, has been named the new crown prince, according to an official statement.
Abdullah, Salman and Muqrin are all sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz, usually referred to as Ibn Saud, who died in 1953.
King Salman called on the royal family’s Allegiance Council to recognise Muqrin as his heir.
In line with traditions of Wahhabism – the ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam followed by the kingdom – Abdullah will be buried in an unmarked grave immediately after Friday prayers.
US President Barack Obama expressed his personal sympathies, and those of the American people, on Abdullah’s death.
“As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the US-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond,” he said.
Vice-President Joe Biden tweeted that he would lead a delegation to Riyadh to pay respects.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron said King Abdullah would be remembered for his “commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths”.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II cut short a visit to Davos, Switzerland, to travel to Saudi Arabia, as Jordan’s royal court declared 40 days of mourning.
King Abdullah: Key events
Abdullah was the 13th of the 45 sons of King Abdulaziz. He is believed to have been born in August 1924 in Riyadh, although there is some dispute about his actual birth date.
In 1962 he was appointed commander of the Saudi National Guard, where he earned the respect and loyalty of the desert tribes.
When he came to the throne in 2005 he succeeded another half-brother, Fahd.
However, he had already been Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader for 10 years because his predecessor had been debilitated by a stroke.
Correspondents say King Abdullah was seen as a reformer at home, albeit a slow and steady one.
He allowed mild criticism of his government in the press, and hinted that more women should be allowed to work.
King Salman spent 48 years as governor of Riyadh Province before becoming crown prince and defence minister.
BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says it is thought unlikely that he will embark on any great changes.
In a recent meeting with the BBC in Jeddah, he appeared alert and well-briefed but walked with the aid of a stick, our correspondent adds.
Ten Arab nations have announced they are to join a US-led coalition against Isis (known as Islamic State) militants.
In a joint statement, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, said they “will do their share” to fight against the jihadist group that has taken control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
The development marks a major diplomatic success for Washington and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who had embarked on a Middle East tour to lobby for a greater Arab role in the fight against extremists.
In fact, some of the ten states have tense diplomatic relations due to their rivalry on other regional issues.
Qatar and Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has put the two countries at odds with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt.
The announcement came after Kerry met delegates from the ten countries in the Saudi government’s summer seat of Jeddah.
The group of states said they assessed plans to eradicate IS “wherever it is, including in both Iraq and Syria” and pledged to join in “many aspects of a coordinated military campaign” against the militant organisation.
They also promised to support the new Iraqi government and stop the flow of funds and fighters that have boosted IS power.
Representatives from Turkey attended the meeting but did not sign the agreement and refused to let the coalition use its bases to launch air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
“Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations,” a government spokesperson speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP.
Earlier, Russia condemned Washington plan to target IS militants in Syria, saying it would consider air strikes an “act of aggression” if carried out without a UN mandate and the assent of the regime of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad.
The US has already launched limited air strikes against IS in Iraq at the request of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
IS launched its offensive on Iraq from its heartland of north-eastern Syria, capturing key Sunni towns and cities such as Mosul and Tikrit.
It has now declared a “caliphate” that straddles the Iraqi-Syrian border and represents a greater landmass than that of the United Kingdom.
According to the UN, over 1.6 million people have been displaced by conflict in Iraq this year while 850,000 people fled their homes in August alone.
A group of 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have arrived in Turkey from where they plan to cross into Syria to battle Islamic State (IS) militants besieging the town of Kobane.
One contingent flew from Iraq to a south-eastern Turkish airport.
Another contingent, carrying weapons including artillery, is travelling separately by land through Turkey.
Turkey agreed to the deployment last week after refusing to allow Turkish Kurds to cross the border to fight.
Thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters gathered to see off the first batch of Peshmerga forces as they left the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil by plane.
The group of 90-100 fighters landed in the early hours of Wednesday at Sanliurfa airport in south-eastern Turkey.
They were then reported to have left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces.
A few hours later, just after dawn, a convoy of 80 lorries carrying weapons and more fighters crossed by land into south-eastern Turkey through the Habur border crossing.
Turkish police fired into the air to disperse a large crowd of Kurds who had come to welcome their arrival. Some in the crowd threw stones at the police.
The two groups of fighters are expected to meet later on Wednesday in Suruc, some 10 miles (16km) from Kobane, before crossing the border into Syria.
Turkey has come under considerable international pressure to do more to prevent Kobane falling into IS hands but has refused to allow Turkish Kurds from the militant PKK to cross the border.
The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, although a ceasefire was declared last year. The government in Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters across the border in Kobane as linked to the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organisation.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has rejected claims that not enough was being done to end the jihadist assault.
He told the BBC that Turkey would only take part once the US-led coalition against IS had an “integrated strategy” that included action against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Kurdistan Parliament authorised sending 150 Peshmerga to help defend the predominantly Kurdish Syrian town last week. It was unclear why their deployment was delayed.
The Kurdish population in both Iraq and Syria is under significant threat because of the rapid advance by IS.
US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that America would “certainly encourage” the deployment of Iraqi Peshmerga forces to Kobane.
The battle for Kobane has emerged as a major test of whether the coalition’s air campaign can push back IS.
Weeks of air strikes in and around Kobane have allowed Kurdish fighters to prevent it from falling, but clashes continued on Tuesday and a local Kurdish commander said IS still controlled 40% of the town.
More than 800 people have been killed since the jihadist group launched an offensive on Kobane six weeks ago.
The fighting has also forced more than 200,000 people to flee across the Turkish border.
IS has declared the formation of a caliphate in the large swathes of Syria and Iraq it has seized since 2013.
The UN says that millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict have had an “enormous” impact on neighbouring countries in terms of “economics, public services, the social fabric of communities and the welfare of families”.
More than three million Syrians have fled their country since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011, with most of them now sheltering in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
When the Free Syrian Army pushed Assad’s soldiers out of a town south of Damascus, the last thing they expected to find was a Russian spy post, a few miles from the Golan Heights.
Syrian rebels have overtaken a joint Russian-Syrian secret facility that they claim was a covert intelligence collection base.
Opposition fighters say the post was used to snoop in on the communications of opposition groups — and perhaps even the nearby Israelis.
Free Syrian Army officials, U.S. officials, and independent experts told The Daily Beast that the evidence of Russian involvement in the facility, just a few miles from Syria’s border with Israel, if verified, would show a level of Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war that was not previously known.
Free Syrian Army officials posted several videos on YouTube showing both the outside and the inside of the facility, which the FSA captured over the weekend during a battle near Al Harah, south of Damascus, next to the Golan Heights.
The videos and accompanying photos show insignias representing a branch of Syrian intelligence and the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency.
The FSA found photos and lists of senior Russian intelligence and military officials who visited the facility, pictures of Russian personnel running the base, and maps showing the location of Israeli military units.
Israeli news reports earlier this year said the Russian government had upgraded an advanced surveillance and intelligence gathering station in that area which could snoop on Israel, large parts of Jordan, and western Iraq, potentially to warn Iran in advance of an Israeli strike. Initial reports said documents from the facility suggested the Russian equipment was used to spy on Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast the photos of the Russian
insignia first shared on blogs were legitimate. But that evidence, at the same time, may not necessarily mean the facility captured by the opposition was controlled by Russia’s military; it could just mean that Russians were working there, as advisors or partners to Syrian troops.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s military and intelligence services at New York University said the term “Osnaz” on the insignia just meant a special unit of any kind. “It’s the kind of unit that the Russians would have had there because Syria is not the easiest area to operate in, they are an element of the radio-technical intelligence boys who do this.”
Firas Al Hawrani, the official spokesman for the FSA in southern Syria, told The Daily Beast Monday that FSA forces had seen about 15 Russian personnel operating in the Al Harah area before the FSA took the facility, but they left before the area fell out of regime control.
“The Russians who were at the Al Harah mountain, the regime took them to Damascus by plane two weeks ago,” he said.
Galeotti said these Russian advisers would specifically be working on intercepting radio communications of opposition figures.
“They would be running an operation for detailed radio technical intelligence, we are not talking about intercepting telemetry and aircraft,” he said.
“This is for eavesdropping on rebel radio communications. Cell communications are easier identified through other means. And this is also for identifying the presence of these units, which leads directly into targeting.”
Russia has been one of Syria’s most important allies for years. The port of Tartus is Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean, for example. And since the civil war in the country broke out in 2011, Russia has provided the country with advisers and billions of dollars’ worth of heavy military equipment.
Galeotti said Syria’s security services are good as “traditional secret police skills,” such as interrogation and bugging telephones. The facility taken over by the Syrian opposition, however, suggests the Russians gave the regime “a whole new capability,” Galeotti said. “A lot of the Syrians are very clumsy. Some of the more precise attacks in the last year have suggested a new sophistication.”
The facility taken over by the Syrian opposition suggests the Russians gave the regime a whole new capability. A lot of the Syrians are very clumsy. Some of the more precise attacks in the last year have suggested a new sophistication.
Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast Monday that the apparent Russian involvement in the base, which was also reportedly tasked with collecting signals intelligence and communications of rebel groups, showed of the depth of Moscow’s collusion with Damascus in the Syrian civil war.
“If what they’ve recovered is true and I have no reason to believe it’s not, it really is very indicative of the significant involvement of Russia in this conflict,” he said. “It shows significant coordination, establishment of a facility they could use for coordination and intelligence capabilities including intercepts. It’s a pretty sophisticated operation there that they’ve uncovered.”
Meanwhile, in Northern Syria, ISIS continued a major assault on the city of Kobani near the Turkish border as Kurdish and tribal forces tried to repel them.
Dr. Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, was in Washington last week asking U.S. officials to expand the airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria and to increase aid to the Kurdish forces in both countries.
Not only is ISIS advancing in Northern Syria, they are digging in their positions in several Iraqi cities, including Mosul and Ramadi, Karim told The Daily Beast in an interview.
Gen. John Allen, whom President Obama appointed to coordinate the international coalition against ISIS, said in Baghdad that the drive to free key cities like Mosul may take as long as a year.
“A lot of the front lines are basically frozen,” said Karim. “The worst thing would be for the United States, the region, and for Iraq, would be if the situation stays like this and festers. These guys have been there since June. If it goes further, it becomes a way of life. It will become like Somalia.”
Isis (now known as the Islamic State) are now less than 10km (6.3 miles) from Baghdad as clashes with the Iraqi army continue, according to the vicar of the only Anglican church in Iraq.
Fighting with the terror group is taking place on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital with Iraqi forces attempting to halt their advance on the city.
Conflicting reports have emerged of the proximity of the radical Islamist group to Iraq’s economic and political centre.
Fighting has taken place in the key strategic town of Amariya al-Falluja, 40km (25 miles) west of Baghdad but Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Iraq’s only Anglican church, has claimed that the militants are now less than 10km (6.3 miles) from the capital.
“The Islamic State are on the verge of entering Baghdad. The Islamic State are now within 10km of entering Baghdad. Over a 1,000 Iraqi troops were killed by them yesterday, things are so bad.
“As I said all the military air strikes are doing nothing. If we ever needed your prayer it is now,” he said.
“President Obama is saying that he overestimated the ability of the Iraqi Army. It is so clear they have no ability. A hard thing to say but it’s true.”
An organisation supporting the work of White, the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, has claimed that the group are even closer to Baghdad – less than 2km away.
“The Islamic State are now less than 2km away from entering Baghdad. They said it could never happen and now it almost has. Obama says he overestimated what the Iraqi Army could do. Well you only need to be hear [sic] a very short while to know they can do very very little,” the statement read.
The IS advance on the city comes despite the US-led coalition’s air strike campaign on the group’s positions across Iraq, most recently in Anbar province 80km from Baghdad.
US President Barack Obama has conceded that American intelligence did not take the growing threat from the group seriously enough.
“Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” he said in a televised interview.
The United States has conducted over 200 air strikes on the group’s positions in Iraq since August 2014, while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar have joined or supported the strikes in Syria.