• Protests Put Spotlight on Iran’s Vast and Shadowy Syria War

    BEIRUT In demonstrations across Iran, chants are going up against the military’s vast and shadowy war in Syria, one of Tehran’s closest allies and a frontline state in its confrontation with its archenemy, Israel.

    Although the protests have focused on economic issues, demonstrators have also voiced strong opposition to the government’s policy of sending young Iranians to fight and die in Syria while spending billions of dollars on the military when they say the priority should be working to provide jobs in Iran and control the rising cost of living.

    Their slogans include, “Leave Syria, think about us!” and “Death to Hezbollah!” the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group that has been a key instrument of Tehran in Syria’s war.

    Syria saw its own domestic demonstrations morph into anti-government protests in 2011. They were met with a brutal crackdown by President Bashar Assad’s security services, sending the country into civil war.

    But as cracks appeared in Assad’s military, with soldiers refusing to fire on protesters and defecting to the opposition, Iran and later Russia stepped in to support their ally.

    ran’s theocratic leadership has cast the effort as a religious war for Shiite Islam, an epochal struggle to defend the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter in Damascus from Sunni jihadis, and to deal a crippling blow to what it says is a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy to destroy Syria. But it is motivated by geopolitical concerns, too. Syria, bordering both Israel and Lebanon, is a key node to Iran’s network of deterrence against Israel.

    Tehran needs Damascus as both a conduit to and sponsor of Hezbollah, Iran’s vanguard force in the region.

    Today, Iran’s military and an array of regional militias under its command operate with wide latitude in the war against rebels and Islamic State militants in both Syria and Iraq. It is also invested in the Gaza Strip and is accused of supporting Shiite rebels in Yemen.

    Military sacrifice

    Across Iran, banners honoring the young men who have died fighting in Syria hang over public spaces as a reminder of the sacrifice that has been paid.

    Imams memorialize the dead at Friday prayers, and media outlets pay tribute to the “martyrs” who have died “defending the holy shrine” of Muhammad’s daughter, Sayyida Zeinab, in the Syrian capital.

    In September, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, prayed over the casket of 25-year-old Mohsen Hojaji at a funeral broadcast nationwide, followed by a large rally in Tehran � moves crafted to stir patriotism in a country growing weary of the military venture in Syria. An image of Hojaji depicted him being welcomed into heaven by the third Shiite saint, Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson.

    Iran has not disclosed how many of its soldiers have been lost in Syria, but Mohammad Ali Shahidi, the head of the Martyr’s Foundation of the Islamic Revolution, which supports veterans and families of the dead, says more than 2,000 men have been killed, though roughly half of those are foreigners from Afghanistan and other nations fighting under militias organized by Tehran.

    In November, the semi-official Fars news agency reported the death of an Iranian brigadier general in Boukamal, a Syrian town overlooking one of the country’s main crossings into Iran. Fars said the general was killed by a mortar shell in a battle with Islamic State militants.

    That same battle was directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ own Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was shown in videos published on social media addressing fighters in Farsi. He had under his command Shiite fighters from Hezbollah and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces’ militias, as well as Syrian army forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

    Syrian rebels say the Revolutionary Guard has directed several major battles on behalf of Assad’s forces and has bases from the south of the country to the north.

    Iran spends more than $12 billion annually on its military, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It is understood to spend millions more on subsidies and exports to Syria, which has seen its economy shattered by the war.

    The protests now shaking Iran erupted after President Hassan Rouhani’s latest budget proposal disclosed cuts to local subsidies while preserving privileges for the military and religious institutions.

    Hezbollah and others

    Iran and Assad have depended on Hezbollah to do some of the toughest, special forces assignments in the Syrian war. But Tehran has also organized militias from Afghanistan, called the Fatimiyoun, and Pakistan, called the Zeynabiyoun, to fight in Syria. It promises Afghan refugees living in Iran wages and citizenship in exchange for a tour of duty in Syria.

    Syrian rebels say they are battling not just Syrian government soldiers, but Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghani fighters, too. And Associated Press reporters have seen the flags of Afghan and Lebanese militias flying over military points outside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

    Syria’s rebels, boosted by calls for global jihad, are supported by scores of foreign fighters of their own.

    Human Rights Watch says Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has recruited Afghan refugee children as young as 14 to fight in Syria, identifiable by their tombstones in Iran. It says Iranian media memorialized child soldiers and hailed Iranian fighters as young as 13 in the Syria battle.

    Iran also leans heavily on the battle-hardened fighters of Iraq’s state-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Forces, which has been instrumental to defeating Islamic State militants on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border and opening a corridor of Iranian influence that runs from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut.

    As in Iran, there is a risk in Lebanon and Iraq of popular blowback against a grinding military effort in Syria that has stretched on for nearly seven years.

    When Lebanese authorities pulled down illegal vendor stalls in a Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut in October, residents took to the streets to excoriate Hezbollah’s leadership for failing to stand up for them, despite their sacrifices over Syria.

    “They should be planting a tree on each martyr’s grave,” a woman shouted to the cameras. “Every home has a martyr. Every home has a wounded veteran.”

    Source: Voice of America

  • War of Words Rattles Pakistan’s Ties With US

    ISLAMABAD Pakistan’s military said Friday the suspension of U.S. assistance will undermine bilateral security cooperation and regional peace efforts but will not deter the Pakistan’s counterterrorism resolve.

    Pakistan never fought for money but for peace, army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor told VOA.

    The Trump administration announced Thursday it was suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Pakistan until the latter takes “decisive action” against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.

    The militant groups allegedly operate out of Pakistani territory and conduct attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

    Suspension of security assistance will not affect Pakistan’s resolve to fight terrorism; however, it for sure will have an impact on Pakistan-U.S. security cooperation and efforts towards regional peace, noted General Ghafoor.

    Military-led counterterrorism operations, he added, have targeted terrorists indiscriminately, including Haqqanis at a heavy cost of blood and treasure. There are no more organized terrorist sanctuaries inside Pakistan, Ghafoor maintained.

    Casting doubts on our will is not good to our common objective of moving toward enduring peace and stability. Pakistan shall continue its sincere efforts in best interest of Pakistan and peace, the army spokesman said.

    In a separate statement Friday, the Foreign Ministry criticized and dismissed the U.S. move as arbitrary deadlines and unilateral pronouncements. It asserted that Islamabad has fought the anti-terrorism war largely from its financial resources.

    The ministry defended Pakistan’s successes in countering regional terrorism and underscored mutual respect and trust along with patience and persistence for working toward enduring peace.

    Emergence of new and more deadly groups such as Daesh in Afghanistan call for enhancing international cooperation. Arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goalposts are counterproductive in addressing common threats, the Pakistani statement said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

    The war of words between the two countries was triggered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet on Monday in which he threatened to slash funding for Pakistan, accusing it of providing a haven to terrorists and playing U.S. leaders for fools.

    In his Twitter comments, Trump said Washington has received nothing but lies and deceits in return for giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in the last 15 years.

    Islamabad denounced the comments as “completely incomprehensible” and reiterated its pledge to work with Washington to fight terrorism and stabilize neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders say the United States is scapegoating their country for the U.S.’s Afghan failures.

    A leading opposition politician, Imran Khan, Friday demanded the government categorically refuse to accept any future U.S. assistance in the wake of Trump’s remarks.

    Former cricket legend Khan heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which has emerged as a major force on the national political scene in recent years.

    While addressing a news conference in Islamabad, the opposition leader praised Pakistani forces for cleansing and securing traditionally volatile tribal areas, including North Waziristan, on the Afghan border. The tribal belt has for years harbored local and foreign militants involved in deadly terrorist attacks on both sides of the border.

    Despite Pakistan clearing up North Waziristan, still half of Afghanistan is in Taliban hands. So, who is responsible for this? To make Pakistan the scapegoat of a failed strategy in Afghanistan is not just a travesty of justice, it is deeply insulting and humiliating for people of Pakistan, Khan said.

    It’s something which is deliberately being done to fool the people of the United States. We stand to lose the most if Afghanistan is destabilized, he added.

    Pakistan’s reluctance to undertake counterterrorism operations in the Waziristan region had been a major irritant in relations with the U.S. The area was believed to be a training ground for Taliban and Haqqani militants.

    Army officials, however, say a major ground and air offensive in North Waziristan in June 2014 has since uprooted all terrorism infrastructure and secured more than 95 percent of the territory.

    Pakistani officials maintain they have received $14 billion in funding allocated to undertake security operations in support of coalition actions in Afghanistan. Islamabad says Washington still owes it $9 billion.

    Even critics in the United States are questioning the Trump administration’s move to cut security assistance to Pakistan. Former State Department official Shamila Chaudhry notes the security assistance to Pakistan directly pays for sales of U.S. military equipment, training of the Pakistani military and indirectly for moving material for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan through Pakistani air and ground routes.

    Does US still need Pakistani routes for war in Afghanistan? Chaudhry asked in comments she posted on her official Twitter account.

    She went on to recall that when Pakistan closed the communication lines in the past, the U.S. used routes known as the Northern Distribution Network � but ultimately it was too expensive & involved dealing with a difficult Russia.

    Chaudhry apparently was referring to the months-long closure by Pakistan of NATO supply lines in 2011 in reaction to U.S. airstrikes that mistakenly hit and killed 24 Pakistani border forces.

    Islamabad restored the supply lines only after Washington submitted a formal apology.

    Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, in an interview with the local Geo News television, said the U.S. was “now neither a friend nor ally but a friend who always betrays.” He went on to say that Islamabad will have to review its ties to Washington and to strengthen relations with key regional patterns, including China, Iran and Russia.

    Source: Voice of America

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