Saturday, October 31, 2015

Russian Airliner Crashes in Sinai

Killing All 224 Passengers and Crew Aboard
A Russian Mertrojet Airbus A321-200 aircraft crashed today into a mountainous area of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 passengers and crew aboard. The Metrojet Flight 9268 was flying from the Sinai Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg in Russia when it went down in central Sinai soon after daybreak. (Reuters, 31 October)

The plane landed in a “vertical fashion,” a security source told Reuters, contributing to the scale of devastation and burning.

"The plane split into two, a small part on the tail end that burned and a larger part that crashed into a rock," a Sweden-based aviation tracking service said. (Reuters, 31 October)

Initial reports by the Egyptian authorities suggested the crash was probably caused by a technical default.  But a militant group affiliated with the Islamic State Sinai Province said in a statement carried by Aamaq, the semi-official new agency for ISIL, that it had brought down the plane “in response to Russian airstrikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land,” Reuters reported.

Russia’s Minister of Transportation, however, told Interfax that the claim by the Islamic State “can’t be considered accurate.”

UPDATE: The New York Times reports that the flight's pilot radioed he had technical problems, but France24 reports that the veteran captain never issued a distress call. Both reports, however, suggest the plane experienced a catastrophic event just before nose-diving into the ground, either a massive technical breakdown or a powerful explosion inside the plane.

Top photo: The Metrojet Airbus A321-200, registration number EI-ETJ, that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, seen in this picture taken in Turkey in September 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Bottom photos: First photos of the wreckage of Mertojet (Twitter/@AmichaiStein1)

U.S. to Deploy Special Operations Forces to Syria

The White House said on Friday it will deploy several dozen U.S. Special Operations troops in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria to advise and assist Kurdish security forces in an effort to break the military stalemate against the Islamic State. The special operators will also help gather battlefield intelligence and facilitate U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against Islamic State targets.

The U.S. will also deploy a dozen of A-10 attack aircraft and an equal number of F-15 fighter jets to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey near the Syrian border to support ground operations against ISIL. A key goal of the current plan is to help opposition and Kurdish security forces to cut supply lines and communications between Raqqa, Islamic State’s administrative capital in Syria, and Mosul, its self-declared capital in Iraq, as critical step to push ISIL out of both cities.

Meanwhile, farther south and west, Russian warplanes and Iran-led pro-regime forces under the command of Gen. Soleimani are engaged in a three-week-old offensive on multiple fronts against the opposition forces and ISIL around the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.

Photo credit: Fighting in the strategic town of Safira, 16 miles southeast of Aleppo, between Iran-led forces and ISIL; 31 October 2015 (Twitter)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Joint Statement on Syria Talks

The following is the final communiqué issued today by the 19 participants in Syria Talks in Vienna:

"Meeting in Vienna, on October 30, 2015, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States [“the participants”] came together to discuss the grave situation in Syria and how to bring about an end to the violence as soon as possible.

The participants had a frank and constructive discussion, covering major issues. While substantial differences remain among the participants, they reached a mutual understanding on the following:

  1. Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental.
  2. State institutions will remain intact.
  3. The rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination, must be protected.
  4. It is imperative to accelerate all diplomatic efforts to end the war.
  5. Humanitarian access will be ensured throughout the territory of Syria, and the participants will increase support for internally displaced persons, refugees, and their host countries. 
  6. Da'esh, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated.  
  7. Pursuant to the 2012 Geneva Communique and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118, the participants invited the U.N. to convene representatives of the Government of Syria and the Syrian opposition for a political process leading to credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections.  These elections must be administered under U.N. supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, free and fair, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.
  8. This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.  
  9. The participants together with the United Nations will explore modalities for, and implementation of, a nationwide ceasefire to be initiated on a date certain and in parallel with this renewed political process.

The participants will spend the coming days working to narrow remaining areas of disagreement, and build on areas of agreement.  Ministers will reconvene within two weeks to continue these discussions."

Top photo: Syria Talks; Vienna, 30 October 2015 (ndtv)
Bottom photo: Announcing the results of the Syria Talks; from left: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, and Secretary of State John Kerry (AFP)

Iran diplomatic team in Vienna for Syria talks - Photos

Iranian foreign ministry delegation arrives VIE from THR on 29OCT15 at 14:15 hrs, to engage in Syrian conflict resolution talks with relevant world and regional powers.

Aircraft is IRIG (Meraj Air) Airbus A321-231, reg. EP-AGB (cn 1202).

Note: Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appears to be wearing a pneumatic medical boot for foot or ankle injury.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif exiting VIP terminal on 29OCT15 at Vienna International Airport (VIE / LOWW).

United States Secretary of State John Kerry seated with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, engaged in informal talks preceding formal Syrian conflict resolution talks scheduled to commence 30OCT15.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shakes hands with Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seated with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs received by Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, seated with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Photos: Islamic Republic News Agency

Rear Admiral Shamkhani in Islamabad, Pakistan

Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan (L) with IRIN Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, on 28OCT15 at Islamabad, Pakistan.

According to PressTV:
Iran has praised the decision by the Pakistani government not to join Saudi Arabia’s deadly military aggression against its impoverished neighbor, Yemen.
Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani hailed the Pakistani government’s refusal to get militarily involved in Yemen during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan’s capital city on Thursday.
The Pakistani prime minister, for his part, appreciated Iran’s ‘active and constructive’ role in regional matters, especially in the campaign against terrorism.
COMMENTARY: The agenda for Shamkhani’s trip included border security, intelligence-sharing, security cooperation and exploring the prospects of bilateral cooperation after the nuclear-related sanctions are lifted.

Pakistani National Security Advisor Naseer Khan Janjua (L) with IRIN Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, on 29OCT15 at Islamabad, Pakistan.

Naseer Khan Janjua is a retired Pakistani Army Lieutenant General and former commander of XII Corps. He assumed the office of National Security Advisor the same day as his meeting with Shamkhani.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) with IRIN Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, on 29OCT15 at Islamabad, Pakistan.

Large portrait on wall bears likeness of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (“Quaid-i-Azam”, “Baba-i-Qaum”), founder of Pakistan.

Shamkhani appears to have arrived 28OCT15 at Islamabad - Benazir Bhutto International Airport (ISB / OPRN) aboard IRIG Dassault Falcon 50, reg. EP-TFI (cn 120).

Photos: Islamic Republic News Agency

Thursday, October 29, 2015

New Syria Talks to Begin on Friday

New international negotiations on Syria start on Friday. Iran and Saudi Arabia announced yesterday they would attend the talks in Vienna. However, neither Assad’s government nor the opposition, the two main parties to the conflict, has been invited to the gathering.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and three of his deputies have arrived Vienna today. Iran says it supports a political solution in Syria, but along with Russia has been the main supporter of Assad. Opposition groups, and their regional backers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, say Assad must leave. Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir said on Wednesday the intentions of Iran and Russia should be tested during the talks to see if a political solution acceptable to both sides could be reached in Vienna.

The Washington Post reported today that the future of Assad will not be on the table in the first round of meetings of the talks, which will be attended by a dozen countries, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, UAE as well as European countries including Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Not unlike nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, where Iran-U.S. bilateral talks played the key role in reaching a final agreement, within this expanded Syria talks trilateral negotiations between Russia, the U.S., and Iran, representing the Syrian government, could have the same effect. 

The Syrian civil war, which began more than four years ago, has killed a quarter-million people, contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and its ungoverned territories have become the preferred space for the Islamic State and other extremist groups.

Photo credit: Damaged buildings in Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, Syria; 28 October 2015 (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Iranian Newspaper Criticizes Iran’s Military Intervention in Syria

The Middle East Monitor today published excerpts from an editorial by the Iranian newspaper Bahar, which criticizes the country’s military intervention in Syria, a first in Iranian media.

“Iranian military leaders went to Syria for military consultations,” the newspaper said. “But we see the most of the Iranian military officers were killed in the battlefield in Aleppo.” (Bahar/, 29 October)

The Iranian military is leading major offensives around Aleppo in the past three weeks. More than 30 IRGC officers and servicemen have been killed in action during this period, including three general officers.

“If Iran needs to protect its interests in the region, and for this must protect the Syrian regime, Iran could support a new regime without Assad,” Bahar said.

File photo: Funeral procession for an IRGC serviceman killed in action in Syria (

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Syria: ISIL Cut Off Crucial Supply Line to Aleppo

The Islamic State militants have cut off a crucial supply line for Iran-led pro-government forces to the city of Aleppo late last week. The supply line through Safira, Khanaser and Anthriya was the only way to access regime-held neighborhoods in western Aleppo. The highway, however, remains highly contested, as it's the lifeline for the pro-regime forces. Sections of the main Damascus-Aleppo highway have been cut off for more than three years. (The Wall Street Journal, 27 October)

IRGC-led pro-government forces, under the command of Gen. Soleimani, and supported by Russian air force, launched offensives earlier this month against the opposition forces south of Aleppo and ISIL to the east of Syria’s largest city. The battles have been so fierce that so far the IRGC alone has lost more than 30 officers and servicemen, including three general officers.

In the past few days, the fighting between pro-government forces and ISIL has been under way around the town of Safira, 16 miles southeast of Aleppo, and farther south in Anthriya and Khanaser. Some opposition reports indicate that ISILis close to enter Safira proper. On Monday, ISIL captured a regime checkpoint on the stretch of the road between Anthriya and Khanaser.

It would be a major blow to pro-government forces if ISIL succeeds in holding on to its advances along the supply line and disrupts it or much longer. (The Wall Street Journal, 27 October)

Photo credit: Syria’s pro-government forces on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo; 24 October 2015 (George Ourfalian/APF/Getty Images/WSJ)

IRGC General and Airborne LT Killed in Aleppo

IRGC Brig. Gen. Majid Sanei and 2nd LT Moslem Nasr were killed in Aleppo in the past 24 hours. Sanei is the third IRGC general officer killed in action during the Aleppo offensives. LT Nasr was deployed with IRGC’s elite 33rd al-Mahdi Airborne Brigade, which already had another KIA in Aleppo operation last week.

Top photo: IRGC Brig. Gen. Majid Sanei, killed in action in Aleppo on 27 October

Bottom photo: IRGC 2nd LT Moslem Nasr, killed in action in Aleppo on 27 October