As ISIS retreats in Syria and attacks Tehran, the U.S. and Iran scramble for control

The Washington Post reports: U.S. and Iran-backed forces are locked in a race to take Islamic State strongholds in southeastern Syria and seize a stretch of land that will either cement Tehran’s regional ambitions, or stifle them.

The scramble for pole position in Deir al-Zour province is likely to be one of the most consequential fights against the extremist group in Syria, posing a regional test for President Trump as his administration turns up the rhetoric against Iran.

While the battle for the Islamic State’s most famous Syrian stronghold of Raqqa is heating up, there are signs that an offensive to seize Deir al-Zour will be tougher, and have greater consequences for the group’s long-term survival as a force holding significant territory.

On the Euphrates River between Raqqa and the Iraqi border, the city of Deir al-Zour is the largest urban center in eastern Syria. Victory for Syrian and Iran-backed forces there would give Tehran control of a large swath of the Syrian-Iraqi border, securing a land route through Iraq and southeast Syria to Damascus in the southwest, and on to its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: At least 12 people were killed and 42 others wounded Wednesday morning in a pair of devastating attacks on two of Iran’s most potent symbols: the national Parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility; if that is found to be true, the attacks would be the terrorist group’s first major assault within Iran’s borders. Suspicions in Tehran were also directed at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis in the region, which has been newly emboldened by a supportive visit from President Trump last month.

In the view of many in Iran, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia. Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst with ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “ISIS ideologically, financially and logistically is fully supported and sponsored by Saudi Arabia.”

“They are one and the same,” he added.

The attacks on Wednesday followed a familiar pattern of Islamic State assaults hitting more than one location. Assailants armed with assault rifles and suicide vests descended on the Parliament and on the Khomeini mausoleum. Six attackers were killed: four at the Parliament, and two at the mausoleum. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s proxy war in Syria, explained

 

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Israeli intelligence furious over Trump’s loose lips

Foreign Policy reports: Just days before President Donald Trump’s arrival in Tel Aviv, Israeli intelligence officials were shouting at their American counterparts in meetings, furious over news that the U.S. commander in chief may have compromised a vital source of information on the Islamic State and possibly Iran, according to a U.S. defense official in military planning.

“To them, it’s horrifying,” the official, who attended the meetings, told Foreign Policy. “Their first question was: ‘What is going on? What is this?’”

White House officials are touting Trump’s visit to Israel next week as a chance to show U.S. solidarity with its closest Middle East ally after eight years of friction between former President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But behind the public display of harmony, Israeli intelligence officers are angry and alarmed over the U.S. president revealing sensitive information in a May 10 meeting in the White House with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.

Trump divulged classified information gathered by Israel about specific terrorist plotting by the Islamic State. The information reportedly revealed Islamic State advances in bomb-making that could be used to mask an explosive device inside a laptop, and also referenced the city where the unfolding plot was being hatched.

The details Trump spilled likely came from a source that was also useful on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Hezbollah proxies in Syria and Lebanon, which are much higher priorities for Israel, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“To the Israelis, ISIS is not that big of a concern,” the defense official said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State. “We have a partner that has done us a favor. They went out of their way to support us in a campaign against ISIS, that they have no real skin in.”

In the first 48 hours after the news broke, the Israelis saw little engagement from the Trump administration on the issue. Instead, the administration remained focused on planning for the president’s visit next week.

“There’s been no collaboration on this issue or any outreach. But it’s like a [public relations] circus,” the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Russia reaches deal for Syria safe zones, but some rebels scoff

The New York Times reports: Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum on Thursday to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, to reduce bloodshed in a war now in its seventh year, but many questions remained about the plan.

Presented at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, the memorandum was the most ambitious of recent proposals, but it was not signed by the Syrian rebels or government. Rebel representatives said it left too many loopholes for the Syrian military to continue what the rebels called indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.

The memorandum calls for a pause in fighting, including government airstrikes, and for unhindered aid deliveries in and around the four main zones still held by rebels unaffiliated with the Islamic State. It also calls for all parties to fight jihadists like the Islamic State and the Qaeda-linked group once known as the Nusra Front.

The top United Nations envoy dealing with Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called the memorandum an “important, promising, positive step in the right direction.”

But some rebels, in rejecting the deal, said they would not accept Iran as a guarantor and reiterated their demands for the ouster of Iran-backed militias like Hezbollah, an end to arbitrary detentions, and other concessions the government is unlikely to grant. [Continue reading…]

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Israel strikes Iran-supplied arms depot near Damascus airport

Reuters reports: Israel struck an arms supply hub operated by the Lebanese group Hezbollah near Damascus airport on Thursday, Syrian rebel and regional intelligence sources said, targeting weapons sent from Iran via commercial and military cargo planes.

Video carried on Lebanese TV and shared on social media showed the pre-dawn airstrikes caused a fire around the airport east of the Syrian capital, suggesting fuel sources or weapons containing explosives were hit.

Syrian state media said Israeli missiles hit a military position southwest of the airport, but did not mention arms or fuel. It said “Israeli aggression” had caused explosions and some material losses, but did not expand on the damage.

Israel does not usually comment on action it takes in Syria. But Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, speaking to Army Radio from the United States, appeared to confirm involvement.

“The incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel’s policy to act to prevent Iran’s smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hezbollah,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “said that whenever we receive intelligence that indicates an intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act”, he added. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: The hidden power of Iran

Joost Hiltermann writes: Despite his largely symbolic strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack by the Assad regime, President Donald Trump has given no serious indication that he wants to make a broader intervention in Syria. As a candidate, and even as a president, Trump has pledged to leave the region to sort out its own troubles, apart from a stepped-up effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). He may quickly learn, though, that one-off military actions driven by domestic politics have a way of turning into something far more substantial.

Already, tensions with Syria’s close ally, Russia, have been escalating, with little sign that the US administration can bring about a change toward Damascus. Bashar al-Assad long ago learned he can operate with impunity. But even larger questions surround another Assad ally, Iran, which, though less conspicuous, has had a crucial part in the changing course of the war and in the overall balance of power in the region. While the Trump administration regards Iran as enemy, it has yet to articulate a clear policy toward it—or even to take account of its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.

If the Syrian leader ignores the warning conveyed by the Tomahawk missile strike, what will be Trump’s next move? Will he be able to resist the temptation to deepen US involvement in Syria to counter a resurgent Iran? How might this affect the battle against the Islamic State—a battle that has already created an intricate power struggle between the many parties hoping to enjoy the spoils?

Consider the array of forces now in play: in Syria, the war on ISIS has been led by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK, the militant Kurdish party in Turkey, which has been in conflict with the Turkish state for the past 33 years—another US ally. In Iraq, there are the peshmerga, the fighters of a rival Kurdish party, who are competing both with the PKK and with Iraqi Shia militias for control over former ISIS territory. There is Turkey, an avowed enemy of Assad that is currently at war with the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, and has moved troops into both northern Syria and northern Iraq in order to thwart the PKK. There is Russia, which, in intervening on behalf of Assad, has created a major shift in the conflict.

And finally, there is Iran, which has made various alliances with Assad, Shia militias, and Kurdish groups in an effort to expand its control of Iraq and, together with Hezbollah, re-establish a dominant position in the Levant. Moreover, Iran has also benefited from another tactical, if unofficial, alliance—with the United States itself, in their efforts to defeat ISIS in neighboring Iraq.

Given all this, the US strike does nothing so much as complicate an already explosive situation. The loudest cheerleader of Trump’s action last week was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been especially concerned as Iran and its ally Hezbollah benefit from their tactical military alliance with Russia to prop up the Syrian regime. But whatever advantages some may see in the recent US stand against Assad, it makes it even less likely that a stable postwar order can be achieved.

As my own trip to northern Iraq and northern Syria last month revealed, even as the international coalition makes major gains against the Islamic State, the region’s crises are multiplying. Worse, they are also, increasingly, intersecting, sucking in outside powers with a centripetal force that has proved impossible to withstand. [Continue reading…]

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How the Syrian civil war has transformed Hezbollah

Jesse Rosenfeld writes:  The rattle of tracer fire jolts a cellphone camera resting in the gun hole of an upper-level apartment on a shelled-out east Aleppo street. Moments after the Hezbollah fighter has fired incendiary ammunition into the neighborhood below, it’s enveloped in flames.

In another fighter’s video from the battle of Aleppo last fall, a burst of machine-gun fire erupts as Hezbollah militiamen charge forward and take up positions behind pockmarked walls. They shoot indiscriminately at an unseen enemy, which they say is the rebel force Jaysh al-Islam.

In stills taken by a Hezbollah fighter on the front lines of the Aleppo countryside just before the cease-fire was declared on December 30, fighters from Hezbollah (the Party of God) operate tanks flying the flag of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The images provide a glimpse at how the most consequential battle of the Syrian war looked through the eyes of the conquering forces—and they indicate how crucial Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has been in defending the Assad regime.

The destruction the Syrian government and its allies brought to east Aleppo changed the course of the nearly six-year civil war. Indeed, it could mark the beginning of the end of what started in 2011 as a popular revolution against an authoritarian regime. By laying siege to the unofficial capital of the revolution—indiscriminately bombarding it into rubble, starving and displacing its residents, and committing massacres—Assad’s counter-revolution seems to have ensured the government’s future.

Abu Hussein has been on the front lines of Assad’s strategy and features prominently in the footage and photos from Aleppo that he flips through on his phone. He is a Hezbollah commander in charge of a rapid-intervention unit of 200 fighters. They participated in the regime’s retaking of Aleppo last year as well as the ongoing fighting around Palmyra. The boisterous militant, who uses a nom de guerre because he is not authorized to speak to the media, contends that Hezbollah has been the Assad regime’s backbone, changing the course of the war on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian UN envoy: Putin sent message to Israel that its freedom to act in Syria is over

Haaretz reports: Russia has sent a clear message to Israel that the rules of the game have changed in Syria and its freedom to act in Syrian skies is over, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said on Sunday night.

“Putin sent a clear message,” said Bashar Jaafari, speaking on Syrian television. “The fact is that the Israeli ambassador [to Russia] was summoned for a conversation only a day after he submitted his credentials [to the Russian Foreign Ministry last Thursday], and was told categorically that this game is over.”

Syria’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel last Thursday night has changed the rules of the game, too, Jaafari said, adding that Syria will not stand idly by in the face of an Israeli threat.

He also claimed that when the civil war began in Syria in 2011, opposition militia groups sabotaged the anti-aircraft defense systems belonging to President Bashar Assad’s regime, giving Israel freedom to operate.

In a separate incident, Syrian media reported Sunday that the commander of a militia fighting alongside the regime was killed in an Israeli airstrike around Quneitra, in the Golan Heights.

The Lebanese TV channel Al Mayadeen, which is associated with Hezbollah, identified the casualty as Yasser Assayed, a member of the national defense militia. A source associated with the Assad regime said Assayad was a commander in the Golan brigade, a militia of Druze fighters (from villages in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights) who are fighting with the regime.

Between Thursday night and Friday morning, Israeli fighter jets attacked several targets in Syria, triggering the most serious clash between Israel and Syria since the civil war erupted six years ago. In response to the airstrikes, the Assad regime’s aerial defense system fired several missiles at the jets. Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense system was launched, shooting down one of the missiles north of Jerusalem. The incident forced Israel to admit for the first time that it had launched an aerial attack in Syria.

Following that, Israel’s ambassador to Moscow, Gary Koren, was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry for talks with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov – again, an unusual development. Since Russian forces began operating in Syria in 2015, there have been a number of airstrikes that foreign media have attributed to Israel. But the Israeli ambassador had never previously been called in to clarify Israel’s actions. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Fierce clashes broke out in the Syrian capital on Sunday after insurgents infiltrated government-held parts of the city through tunnels overnight in a rare advance after months of steady losses elsewhere in the country.

It was a surprising breach of the security perimeter in Damascus, where the government has effectively walled itself off from opposition forces encamped in two enclaves in the eastern parts of the city.

Bashar al-Assad’s government has endeavoured to maintain a veneer of normality in the capital as his forces bomb opposition areas on the edges and suburbs of the city.

Residents said artillery shells and rockets had landed in the heart of the city. Damascus Today, a Facebook group run by activists, reported government airstrikes in the area where the clashes took place.

Government infantry and tank reinforcements arrived to repel the attackers in the afternoon, the group said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S., Hezbollah and Russia operate in de facto alliance as Assad’s forces retake Palmyra

The Washington Post reports: Syrian government forces recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State on Thursday, aided by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Russian military and, indirectly, U.S. airstrikes.

The government victory came nearly three months after the Islamic State marched back into the town in a surprise assault that appeared to have taken the Syrian army unawares.

The Syrian army announced in a statement read on state television Thursday evening that its forces were in complete control of Palmyra after a push on the town in recent days that saw Islamic State defenses rapidly collapse. [Continue reading…]

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Syria is on the brink of partition – here’s how it got there

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

After nearly six years of uprising, conflict and chaos, the partition of Syria is imminent. President Bashar al-Assad will of course rail against it; his crucial ally Iran will probably resist too, and the marginalised US won’t even acknowledge the prospect. But the lines are nonetheless being drawn.

With pro-Assad forces back in control of Aleppo city, a newly co-operative Turkey and Russia are ready to pursue partition as a short-term resolution. The Syrian opposition and many rebels will embrace it as their best immediate option, and the leading Kurdish political and military groups will settle for whatever autonomy they can get. If things continue shaping up this way, by the end of 2017, Syria will quite probably become a country of four parts.

The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime is set to hold much of the south and west, and most of Syria’s cities. There’ll most likely be a Turkish/rebel area, effectively a “safe zone”, in parts of northern Syria; the Syrian opposition will probably control Idlib province and possibly other pockets of territory in the northwest; while the Kurds will have some form of autonomy in the northeast.

A settlement like this has been a long time coming. Neither the Assad regime nor its enemies will settle for just a part of Syria, and both have survived years of intense conflict. The opposition and rebels still control territory from the north to the south; Assad clings on with the help of Russian aerial bombardments and Iranian-led ground forces. All the while, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia are still defending territory against both IS and the Assad regime.

If the lines of a potential partition were clear some time ago, what stood in the way of recognising them was the challenge of Aleppo city. Without recapturing it, the Assad regime had no hope of claiming an economic recovery (however disingenousouly) in the areas it controlled, let alone in the entire country. But the city was surrounded by opposition-controlled territory; Assad’s military was far too depleted to change the game, and even with outside support, its campaign would be protracted.

[Read more…]

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Assad vows to retake Raqa and ‘every inch’ of Syria

AFP reports: President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday said Raqa is not a priority target for his forces, saying his goal is to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory.

“Raqa is a symbol,” Assad said in an interview with French media, while asserting that jihadist attacks carried out in France were “not necessarily prepared” in the Islamic State group (IS) stronghold in Syria.

“You have ISIS close to Damascus, you have them everywhere,” Assad said, using another acronym for IS.

“Everywhere is a priority depending on the development of the battle,” he said, as a new round of peace talks was set to kick off in the Kazakh capital Astana.

“They are in Palmyra now and in the eastern part of Syria,” he said in the interview in Damascus with Europe 1 radio and the TF1 and LCI television channels.

“For us it is all the same, Raqa, Palmyra, Idlib, it’s all the same.”

The Syrian leader said it was the “duty of any government” to regain control of “every inch” of its territory. [Continue reading…]

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How Trump may help Hezbollah

The Times of Israel reports: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he was “optimistic” now that the “fool” US President Donald Trump is in the White House, presenting what Nasrallah described as new opportunities for the Lebanon-based terror group.

Nasrallah made the comments during a televised speech broadcast on the Hezbollah terror group’s affiliate satellite channel, al-Manar.

“Neither Trump nor any other of these racists will damage the faith of children and our elders,” he said. “We are very optimistic that when a fool settles in the White House and boasts about his foolishness, this is the beginning of relief for the oppressed around the world.”

“Trump revealed the true face of the ugly, racist and unjust US administration, and we thank him for that,” Nasrallah added. [Continue reading…]

VOA reports: Hezbollah hopes that Trump is so busy pursuing his “America first” policy that he will leave a lighter U.S. footprint in the Middle East, perhaps even setting the stage for a withdrawal from the region.

“The more the U.S. policy turns toward isolationism, the more relieved the world would be from its troubles,” Nawwaf Moussawi, a member of Hezbollah in the Lebanese parliament, said last month.

Some analysts believe Hezbollah has reasons for optimism and that Trump’s possible policy in the region could, by default, strengthen the militant group.

“Trump’s reluctance toward the fight in Syria will practically provide more room for Hezbollah, a major player in Syria, to grow and flourish,” said U.K.-based Middle East scholar Scott Lucas, an editor at the EA Worldview research organization.

Others argue that Hezbollah doesn’t have the resources to create further instability in the region. [Continue reading…]

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Russia, Turkey, Iran eye dicing Syria into zones of influence

Reuters reports: Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence and Bashar al-Assad would remain president for at least a few years under an outline deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, sources say.

Such a deal, which would allow regional autonomy within a federal structure controlled by Assad’s Alawite sect, is in its infancy, subject to change and would need the buy-in of Assad and the rebels and, eventually, the Gulf states and the United States, sources familiar with Russia’s thinking say.

“There has been a move toward a compromise,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

“A final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted.”

Assad’s powers would be cut under a deal between the three nations, say several sources. Russia and Turkey would allow him to stay until the next presidential election when he would quit in favor of a less polarizing Alawite candidate.

Iran has yet to be persuaded of that, say the sources. But either way Assad would eventually go, in a face-saving way, with guarantees for him and his family.

“A couple of names in the leadership have been mentioned (as potential successors),” said Kortunov, declining to name names.

Nobody thinks a wider Syrian peace deal, something that has eluded the international community for years, will be easy, quick or certain of success. What is clear is that President Vladimir Putin wants to play the lead role in trying to broker a settlement, initially with Turkey and Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Iran and Russia stand to gain immensely following the fall of Aleppo

Nabeel Khoury writes: Aleppo has fallen to Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, battered by unrelenting Russian bombardment and surrounded by Shiite militias from Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq. The Syrian regime is poised to reap the rewards of this regional and international onslaught. The rebels’ goal of ousting President Al-Assad has now become virtually impossible, at least in the near term. To be sure, there are further battles to be fought in Syrian territory still beyond the reach of the regime. Idlib is likely the next battlefront, but one can already project an empowered Syria-Iran-Russia axis planning the next steps ahead.

Toward the end of 2012, when Syrian rebel resistance to Al-Assad was gaining in strength and pressing hard against the regime’s bastions in Damascus and Latakia, the regime’s military strategy, no doubt recommended by Iran and Hezbollah, was to secure a line of defense around Syria’s major urban centers that would stretch from the Turkish border in the north to the Jordanian border in the south. Hezbollah started the process by besieging and taking the town of Qusayr in the summer of 2013.

This was a strategic turnaround for the regime, the significance of which the Barack Obama administration completely missed. By not intervening or helping the opposition hold on to Qusayr, the United States allowed the regime to stop arms smuggling to the rebels via Tripoli and the Lebanese border. Qusayr also helped consolidate a defensive line between Latakia and Damascus, allowing the regime to protect its core areas. The three years that followed saw the regime further strengthening its defenses along the Lebanese borders guaranteeing free movement for Hezbollah in and out of Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Pro-regime forces in Syria are stretched thin  – and fighting among themselves

Tom Cooper writes: Five years into Syria’s apocalyptic civil war, there is no more Syrian Arab Army on the country’s battlefields. So who’s fighting for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad?

The answer is a shocking one. Today the forces fighting for the Syrian regime represent a hodgepodge of sectarian local militias, most of which do not fall under the regime’s direct control.

In other words, Al Assad is waging a war with virtually no troops of his own.

The exceptions to this rule are few  — only around a dozen of company-sized formations that survived the collapse of the Syrian army’s Republican Guards Division and 4th Armored Division. And those companies were never within the normal army chain of command, instead personally answering to Al Assad.

The majority of the remaining “regime forces” — some 70,000 combatants  —  belong to the Syrian militias, all of which were established by either the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or Hezbollah, and the majority of which now fall under Iranian control. [Continue reading…]

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Iran hails victory in Aleppo as Shia militias boost Syria’s Bashar al-Assad

The Guardian reports: Iranian leaders have claimed a military victory in Aleppo, with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s chief military aide boasting that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces would have been unable to retake the besieged city without support from Tehran.

“Aleppo was liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon’s Hizbollah,” said Seyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi. “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength. The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran.”

Iran’s defence minister called his Syrian counterpart to congratulate him and Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, wrote on Instagram that Iran’s aim was to cleanse “terrorists and Takfiris [apostates]” from Syria and Iraq.

The parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, also congratulated Assad’s government, saying that US and British policies had hit a dead end in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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