Middle East Updates U.S. Officials: Islamic State Poses No Specific Threat to Homeland

UN: Syria refugees top 3 million mark; U.S. delivers first emergency arms shipment to Lebanese army; Turkish PM announces new cabinet.

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Image published August 27, 2014 by Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State shows IS fighter waving flag from inside a captured government jet.
Image published August 27, 2014 by Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State shows IS fighter waving flag from inside a captured government jet.Credit: AP

Haaretz's latest analyses on the Middle East: New enemies across Syrian border (Amos Harel)

See Thursday's Middle East Updates

8:57 P.M. The spokesman for the UN secretary-general says the situation with dozens of peacekeepers detained or restricted in movement in Syria remains "very, very fluid" as talks aimed at their release stretched into a second day.

Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Friday that some radio contact has been made with the 72 peacekeepers from the Philippines who have been restricted in movement. Another 44 peacekeepers from Fiji remain detained.

The UN has not said exactly who is holding the peacekeepers, whose mission monitors a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel. Dujarric says the peacekeepers are being held by "non-state armed actors" who identify as the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. He says talks continue "with a wide range of parties within Syria" and UN member states who may have influence with them.

7:52 P.M. The United States is not aware of any specific threat to the U.S. homeland from Islamic State militants, the Department of Homeland Security said on Friday after Britain raised its international terrorism threat level.

Islamic State militants and their supporters, however, "have demonstrated the intent and capability to target American citizens overseas," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. He noted DHS has taken steps over the summer to strengthen security at overseas airports with direct flights to the United States.

Johnson said he has spoken to U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May about Britain's decision to raise its terrorism alert to the second-highest level. It is the first time since mid-2011 that Britain has been placed on this high of an alert level. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was no plan to raise the U.S. threat assessment level. (Reuters)

7:35 P.M. U.S. military operations against Islamic State in Iraq have cost an average of $7.5 million per day since they began in mid-June, the Pentagon said on Friday, a figure that means the department may have spent about $500 million since it became involved.

"(The cost) has varied since the beginning in mid-June but on average it's costing about $7.5 million per day," said Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. "That's based on a snapshot of the operations that have occurred as of the 26th of this month." Click here for the full story. (Reuters)

6:56 P.M. The civil war in Syria has forced 3 million people out of the country, including more than a million people who fled in the past year, creating a crisis that the U.N. refugee agency said requires the biggest operation in its 64-year history.

The tragic milestone means that about one of every eight Syrians has fled across the borders, and 6.5 million others have been displaced within Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, the Geneva-based agency said. More than half of all those uprooted are children, it said. Syria had a prewar population of 23 million. Full article

"The Syria crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.The agency had described the 3 million as a record, but later qualified that the Syrian crisis was record-breaking in terms of the unprecedented size and scope of the $3.74 billion operation needed to care for the refugees. (AP)

6:55 P.M. Suriname President Desi Bouterse's son pleaded guilty on Friday to charges of attempting to aid Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, and conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

Dino Bouterse, who once held a senior counter-terrorism post in the South American country, admitted in a New York federal court that he had tried to provide material support to the Lebanese paramilitary group. "In 2013, I knowingly provided a false Surinamese passport to a person I believed to be associated with Hezbollah, an organization I knew to be designated a terrorist organization by the United States," Bouterse, 41, said in court.

He also pleaded guilty to conspiring to import narcotics and carrying a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime. Bouterse, who faces a sentence of between 15 years and life in prison, was accused of inviting people he believed to be from Hezbollah to establish a base in the former Dutch colony to attack Americans, in exchange for an initial $2 million payment. His plea came a year after his arrest by Panamanian authorities to face U.S. charges that he conspired to import cocaine into the United States. The charge relating to Hezbollah was added in November. Click here for the full story (Reuters)

5:58 P.M. The United States has delivered its first emergency shipment of weapons to Lebanon, officials said Friday, to help bolster military forces as part of a broader regional response to combat the growing threat posed by Islamic extremists.

The delivery is in response to a request by the Lebanese government after a sudden cross-border attack by militants from Syria into the Lebanese town of Arsal earlier this month, where soldiers were killed and kidnapped in the most serious spillover of violence into the tiny country from the neighboring civil war.

The new weapons were displayed at the Beirut military air base on Friday after arriving overnight. A sample of the weapons — mortars, M16-A4 assault rifles and anti-tank missiles — were placed on a white satin-covered table with camouflage netting.

"This is just the latest in a series of deliveries that have arrived in the last 36 hours," said U.S. ambassador David Hale at the air base. Hale said the U.S. had so far delivered 480 anti-tank guided missiles, over 1,500 M16-A4 rifles, and mortars. "More mortars, grenade launchers, machine guns, and anti-tank weapons will be arriving," he said.

After Hale spoke, a U.S. military aircraft that landed at the air base was opened to reveal wooden boxes full of weaponry. "This aircraft is full, chock-full!" said Antonio Banchs, defense attache to the U.S. embassy, as he surveyed the goods.

While the cross-border attack into the Lebanese town of Arsal was the impetus for the sudden infusion of U.S. weapons, it comes as part of a still-forming regional response to combatting the Islamic State group, whose militants have carved out a territory sweeping from the Turkish border across northern Syria into Iraq. (AP)

1:18 P.M. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced a new cabinet on Friday keeping key members of the economic management team in place and appointing the man who has managed Ankara's affairs with Europe as foreign minister.

Outgoing EU Affairs Minister and career diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu becomes foreign minister, replacing Davutoglu. Yalcin Akdogan, an aide to new President Tayyip Erdogan, was named as a deputy prime minister, as was Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of the ruling AK Party.

Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who had responsibility for economic affairs in the last cabinet, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek and Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci all kept their posts, as did Energy Minister Taner Yildiz.

The new government assumes power at a challenging time for Turkey, with economic growth - one of the pillars on which the popularity of the AK Party is based - slowing and the map of the Middle East being rapidly redrawn around it.

The advance of Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria, on Turkey's southern border, poses a major security threat. Turkey, a NATO member, is seen by Washington as a potential partner in an international campaign against the jihadists but its hands are tied by 49 Turkish hostages being held by the insurgents since June.

Erdogan, who had been prime minister since 2003, was sworn in as president on Thursday, cementing his position as Turkey's most powerful leader of recent times, in a step opponents fear heralds more authoritarian rule. (Reuters)

12:15 P.M. The chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard navy has confirmed that a U.S. Coast Guard vessel fired on an Iranian fishing boat in the Persian Gulf but insists the incident was not a "clash."

The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said that personnel on a small boat dispatched from the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat Monomoy fired a single shot on Tuesday when they saw crew on a nearby Iranian dhow training a .50-caliber machine gun on them and preparing to fire. No one was hurt.

Iranian Adm. Ali Fadavi was quoted on Friday by the Tasnim News Agency as saying the shot was fired "in the air about three miles away" from the Iranian boat.

Fadavi says that "Americans feared and felt danger from a fishing dhow." (Reuters)

8:20 A.M. The United Nations refugee agency says the civil war in Syria has forced a record 3 million people out of the country, an increase of 1 million from almost exactly a year ago.

With about one of every eight Syrians fleeing across the border, and 6.5 million others displaced with the country's borders, the Geneva-based agency says over half of all those uprooted are children.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Friday that the Syrian crisis has become "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era" with almost half of all Syrians forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives since the conflict began in March 2011.

Syria had a prewar population of 23 million.

5:30 A.M. Fiji's military has confirmed that 43 of its soldiers, working as UN peacekeepers, have been captured by a militant group on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Fijian Commander Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said Friday the soldiers are alive and unharmed. He said talks between the UN and the unidentified rebel group had begun and negotiations would be pursued further at daybreak. Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels had converged on the soldiers' post at about 7:30 A.M.Thursday.

He said the rebels demanded the soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they go in rebel vehicles. He said they were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location. He said he's been told they were later transported back to their original post. (AP)

3:34 A.M. The Islamic State group is taking violence against civilians in Syria "to a new level," threatening the cross-border humanitarian aid operations recently approved by the Security Council, a top UN aid official said Thursday.

The UN's deputy humanitarian chief, Kyung-wha Kang, told the council that both the extremists and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front are advancing on border crossings with Turkey "and could hinder additional cross-border operations."

The threat comes as UN humanitarian officials reported the first bit of improvement on getting aid to hard-to-reach people inside Syria, where more than 190,000 people have been killed in the conflict and almost one in two Syrians is either internally displaced or a refugee.

Kang said the death toll is likely "much higher." (AP)


11:49 P.M. The Syrian army announced on Thursday that it had begun a wide-scale operation in the Quneitra region, by the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, in order to regain control of the area lost to rebel forces. According to reports in Syria, forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have taken control of several towns in the region. The force plans to continue its activities in the area and retake the border crossing with Israel over the next few days. Early on Thursday morning the Syrian air force attacked rebel strongholds in the area.

6:57 P.M. The Islamic State group killed more than 150 troops captured in recent fighting for a string of military bases in northeastern Syria, shooting some and slashing others with knives in the past 24 hours in the latest mass killing attributed to the extremists, activists said Thursday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that many of the soldiers killed were rounded up Wednesday in the arid countryside near the Tabqa airfield, three days after Islamic State fighters seized the base. The government troops were among a large group of soldiers from the base who were stuck behind the front lines after the airfield fell to the jihadi fighters. (AP) Read the full article here.

Syrians walk past tents in Turkish refugee camp.Credit: AFP



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