Reporter NR

Saudi Arabia is planning to set up an air warfare center in the Eastern Province similar to the one at Nellis Air Base in the US, according to Commander of the Royal Saudi Air Forces Prince Lt. Gen. Turki Bin Bandar Bin Abdulaziz. In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV channel on Sunday, Prince Turki said the center will be supported with qualified staff and sophisticated systems.

Saudi Arabia with its Royal Air Force claims to be the third strongest air power in the region. But the foundation of the new center gives rise to a set of questions: What is the aim behind building such a center? And what role will it play in the Arab kingdom’s military strategy?

Saudi air power

The Saudi air force, officially Saudi Royal Air Forces, has under operation 10 air bases and some 20,000 personnel. The most important bases are two. The first is located in the Dhahran province airport in the southeast of the country. It gets its importance from its being close to the Persian Gulf coasts.

The second one is located in Jeddah resort city on the Red Sea coasts. This airbase is tasked with logistical support to the Eastern Province. There are also two other important airbases. One in the northeast and the other in the southeast. This one is close to the Red Sea and Yemen territories.

The oil-wealthy monarchy has a large number of US-made F-15 fighter jets that account for a majority of the nation’s air strength. The jets are maintained in the center of the country to be saved in case of surprise attacks. They are repaired and maintained in this spot by foreign technicians.

The country also has King Faisal airbase which is located in Tabuk province near the border with Jordan and is used as a training facility. Al-Jawf airbase is another air complex located in northern Saudi Arabia, next to the Iraqi borders. With a look at the location of the airbases, it is easy to understand that majority of them cover the east of the country. Despite that, the Saudi leaders are planning to set up a new warfare center in the Eastern Province, signaling changes in the country’s military and air strategy.

Strategic air force changes

According to the Global Firepower ranking, Saudi Arabia is the 25th largest military power in the world. Although this ranking does not represent the reality of a country’s military power— for example, Yemen ranks 73 but in the war against the two aggressive powers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE which are way stronger and more equipped than it has turned out victorious—, Riyadh has less power than the major regional countries. This drives it to create a balance of power by heavily investing in its air power due to its weakness in the ground force.

Both the US and Britain are key military suppliers of air weaponry to the kingdom over the past two decades. London has so far sold Riyadh over 70 Typhon fighter jets. The Saudis also are the main purchasers of the Brutish Tornadoes. The US, on the other side, provides the kingdom with a large number of F-15s.

Despite the costly purchases, Saudi Arabia remains weak and easily venerable in the air defense. Such understanding motivated Saudis since 2008 to boost their air force’s missile capabilities. On the other side, the facilities provided by Britain and Saudi Arabia require Riyadh to buy supplementary equipment for its air force. For instance, in 2008, it bought for its Tornadoes 1,000 anti-armor missiles. In 2013 it bought 650 anti-ship missiles for its F-15s. The Arab country over the past few years has bought laser-guided and sophisticated bombs to make up for its vulnerability in air defense and attack potentials. These purchases proved not enough in the eyes of the Saudis. So, in October 2017, they sealed a deal to buy 7 THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) from the US, for $15 billion. In fact, it is the over-supply of the air equipment that pushes the Saudis to design a new warfare center to transform their air defense and war strategy.

US-Britain role in Saudi air strategy

Creating false military needs for Saudi Arabia, the US and Britain traditionally sold serialized weapons to Saudi Arabia to make it the customer of the most expensive weapons in the world. Under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been ambitiously working to lead the Arab world through becoming the strongest country in the region.

In his regional military strategy, US President Donald Trump has said that he will strengthen his allies’ air defenses. He also seeks to found an Arab version of NATO in which Riyadh struggles to have a leading role. But Trump’s final aim is to sell as much military equipment as possible to Washington’s regional allies. He also wants to decrease the US military presence costs and make the regional partners pay for the American presence.

The Saudi officials have announced that the new air warfare center will take its model from the Nellis Airbase in Nevada. Two main missions of Nellis are training the air personnel and providing logistical support to the US air forces.

Saudi Arabia is short of technical abilities and expertise to use its modern military facilities. So, it feels a need to initiate a new center to train its personnel. the location is chosen Eastern Province because the Saudi rulers want to expand their air reach over the Persian Gulf region and also defend their oil facilities which are dominantly located in the country’s east.

The Eastern Province borders Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan. Establishing a new airbase, Saudi Arabia thinks, will give it air control and dominance over much of the Arab states. But the rulers should begin counting the costs of such a money-swallowing project, while the monarchy’s economy is already under a pressure that pushed it to consider selling oil giant Aramco shares or seize billions of dollars from the wealthy royals under a crackdown campaign led by bin Salman.

6 kill, 23 wounded in multiple explosions in Kabul

Published in Asia
Thursday, 21 March 2019 00:00

At least six people have been killed and 23 others wounded in multiple explosions in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul during celebrations to mark Nowruz, the start of the Persian New Year.

The blasts reportedly occurred near Kabul University and the Kart-e Sakhi shrine on Thursday.

Afghan Health Ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar announced the casualty figures, which were confirmed by the Afghan Interior Ministry as well.

The official accounts of what caused the explosions, however, were conflicting.

Police in Kabul said the blasts were caused by a total of three remote-controlled explosive devices. Police spokesman Basir Mujahid said a fourth device was defused near the university, and searches were underway for any other potential bombs. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said mortar shells had been fired. And the Defense Ministry said on Twitter that three rockets had been fired.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the perpetrators the “coward enemy,” without specifying who they were.

The Afghan Defense Ministry also said police had arrested one suspect and secured the area.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, AFP said the Taliban militant group had denied responsibly in a message to the news agency.

Last year on Nowruz, a bomb attack carried out by Daesh terrorists killed 33 people celebrating near the shrine.

The recent explosions came less than two weeks after the United States and the Taliban said they had made “meaningful progress” in talks that exclude the Afghan government.

US President Donald Trump confirmed that 400 US soldiers will remain in Syria indefinitely while once again promising a complete defeat of Islamic State terrorists in the war-torn country.

Trump had, apparently, been well-prepared to make the revelations, as he faced reporters on Wednesday, equipped with a printed map of Daesh defeat. The before/after picture shows what Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group used to control “on election day” back in 2016 and how it lost its territory since then, World News reported.

“When I took it over, it was a mess,” Trump said, pointing at the map, adding, today “there is no red. In fact, there’s actually a tiny spot which will be gone by tonight”.

The US president was referring to the Baghouz area in Eastern Syria where hundreds of IS terrorists and their families are holed up in a small camp under a siege laid by Washington-backed Kurdish-led militants. Notably, Trump did not give any credit to the Syrian Army, Russia and other allies for reducing the self-styled caliphate to its current miserable state.

The American president also confirmed the decision to leave 400 US troops in Syria – 200 in the North and 200 in the Al-Tanf area at the Jordan border. US troops have been occupying parts of Syria for years, citing the need to fight IS.

In December 2018, Trump declared the IS terror group defeated in Syria and announced American troop pullout from the country but gave no timeline. The surprise announcement resulted in the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, US anti-IS coalition envoy Brett McGurk and Pentagon Chief of staff Rear Admiral Kevin Sweeney who disapproved of the American president's decision.

Notably, the US troops have been operating in Syria as part of an international coalition for about five years without the permission of Syrian authorities or the UN Security Council. The United States has, in particular, supported the Kurdish-led militia controlling the territories to the East of the Euphrates and opposing the Syrian government.

A UN report seen by Reuters estimated there are up to 18,000 Daesh militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters. It warned the group was interested in attacking aviation and using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

Dozens of Nigerians held a rally in the capital Abuja on Wednesday to express support for prominent Shia cleric Shiekh Ibrahim Zakzaky.

The slogan-chanting protesters called on authorities to immediately release Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife.Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, has been held in detention since December 2015 and was charged just in April 2018 with murder, culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, disruption of public peace and other accusations. He has pleaded not guilty.

In 2016, Nigeria’s federal high court ordered his unconditional release from jail following a trial, but the government has so far refused to set him free.

The top cleric, who is in his mid-sixties, lost his left eyesight in a raid which was carried out by the Nigerian army on his residence in the northern town of Zaria in December 2015.

During the raid, Zakzaky’s wife sustained serious wounds too and more than 300 of his followers and three of his sons were killed. Zakzaky, his wife, and a large number of the cleric’s followers have since been in custody.

Israeli soldiers have attacked a civilian vehicle near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, killing a Palestinian man.

The Palestinian health ministry said Ahmed Manasara, 26, was shot dead on Wednesday near a checkpoint close to Bethlehem, without providing further details.

The Israeli military claimed that a soldier had "opened fire after identifying rocks being thrown at Israeli vehicles."

"The incident will be examined," the army said in a statement early Thursday.

Official Palestinian news agency Wafa said Manasara was in the car when he was shot dead, with another Palestinian in the car seriously wounded.

Tensions are high in the West Bank over ongoing Israeli aggression at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem al-Quds.

On Sunday, the Jerusalem al-Quds Magistrate's Court announced that it had accepted a request by Israeli officials to temporarily close Bab al-Rahma (Gate of Mercy) prayer area at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The prayer area of the al-Rahma Gate was closed on February 25 upon an order by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and reopened the following day.

Israel had closed the gate that leads to the prayer space in al-Aqsa Mosque since 2003 in the face of the Second Intifada (uprising) against the regime’s occupation.

On February 22, however, the Waqf Council, which oversees the holy sites at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, decided to re-open the prayer space at the Bab al-Rahma Gate in defiance of Israel’s 16-year-old ban. Hundreds of worshipers, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem al-Quds, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, entered the area for the first time since 2003 for Friday prayers.

Angered by the move, the Tel Aviv regime launched an arrest campaign against Palestinians. The arrests drew criticisms from Palestinians and Jordan. The Islamic Waqf organization and Palestinian institutions have insisted on keeping the Bab al-Rahma prayer area open for Muslim worship.

Palestinians have repeatedly warned of Israeli attempts to change the status quo of the al-Aqsa compound, the third holiest site in Islam.

Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has offered congratulations to Iranians on the occasion of Nowruz, and called on the government and the nation to boost production in the country.

In his televised message to the nation on the occasion of the Persian New Year early Thursday morning, the leader hailed the nation's "fortitude and prudence" against the enemies’ conspiracies.

Ayatollah Khamenei designated the new Iranian calendar year of 1398 as the year of "Pick-up in Production."

The following is the full text of the message:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Oh, Reformer of hearts and eyes,

Oh, Regulator of day and night,

Oh, Transformer of conditions,

Change ours to the best of conditions

I thank God Almighty that gave me the opportunity this year, like previous years, to congratulate the dear Iranian nation on the arrival of Norouz, which coincides with the anniversary of the auspicious birthday of Imam Ali, the Imam of the faithful. Happy New Year dear fellow countrymen.

I hope all of you will spend the New Year with prosperity, physical health, a heart full of joy, and ever-increasing material and spiritual achievements. My special thanks go to the respected families of martyrs and dear disabled war veterans as well as their families, and my utmost prayers go the pure soul of the late Imam Khomeini and the pure souls of martyrs.

We had an eventful year. In the past year, the Iranian nation shone in the true sense of the word. The enemies hatched many plots, and they had orchestrated schemes for the Iranian nation. The nation’s fortitude and prudence as well as the perseverance of the youth foiled the enemies’ conspiracies.

The Iranian nation also showed a strong and robust reaction to the severe and allegedly unprecedented sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe both in the political and economic domains.

The manifestation of this reaction on the political front was the mass turnout of people in the February 11th rallies as well as the position adopted by people during the months of the past year. The manifestation of people’s reaction on the economic front was an increase in scientific and technical initiatives, in the number of knowledge-based companies and in the number of domestic infrastructural and fundamental productions, including the inauguration of several phases of natural gas projects in the south of the country a few days ago, and earlier, the inauguration of the major Bandarabbas refinery, and similar other projects that had been implemented.

Therefore, the nation was able to show off its power, formidability and grandeur in the face of the enemies’ animosity and wickedness, and that increased the grace of our nation, of the Islamic Revolution and of the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

Economic woes remain the fundamental problem facing the country. People’s livelihood problems increased over the past few months, in particular. Part of those problems are due to inefficient management with regards to economic issues, which should be definitely redressed.

Plans have been set in motion and measures have been adopted, and God willing, these measures should come into force in the Persian New Year 1398, which starts at this moment today, and people should feel the effects of those measures.

What I am saying is that the most pressing and serious issue facing the country, and the priority of the country, is the economic issue at the moment. We are facing numerous issues on the economic front. The devaluation of the national currency is an important issue, and so is people’s purchasing power. Among other problems are the difficulties that factories are facing, dwindling production, and probably the closure of some factories.

Based on what I studied, including experts’ opinions, increasing national production holds the key to these problems.

I called the Last Persian New Year as the year of “support for Iranian goods.” I cannot say that this motto was completely realized. However, I can say that this motto received extensive attention, and in many cases, the motto was welcomed by the people and they acted on that, and this will definitely be effective.

This year, the issue of production is what matters. I want to make the issue of production the pivot of our activities. God willing, I will explain what I mean by “production” in my speech on the first day of the Persian New Year. I will explain what is meant by “production.” If production gains momentum, it will both solve people’s livelihood problems and make the country independent of foreigners and enemies. Moreover, it can solve the unemployment problem and, to a great extent, solve the problem of the devaluation of the national currency.

So, in my opinion, the issue of production is the pivotal issue this year. Therefore, I declare the following statement as the motto of this year: “A pick-up in production.” Everybody should make efforts to boost production in the country. God willing, this concept should be considerably tangible throughout the year. If that happens, I hope that, God willing, economic problems will being to be solved.

My heartfelt greetings go to Imam Mahdi, and may his prayers be with you dear people. And I ask God Almighty to bestow bliss upon the Iranian nation and all nations that celebrate Norouz.

May God Almighty bless you all

Iraq has announced plans to reopen a strategic border crossing with Syria in the coming days, a military official said.

The announcement came during a meeting with Iranian and Syrian military officials along with Lt. Gen. Othman Al Ghanimi, chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces.

During a press conference, Ghanimi said “the coming days will witness the opening of the border crossing and the continuation of visits and trade between the two countries.”

In 2013, Al-Qaim border was closed to support Iraqi security forces in combating Al Qaeda fighters and later ISIS. The border crossing is expected to increase the flow of goods from Iran to Syria.

According to the Iraqi Defense Ministry, the meeting in Damascus focused “on countering terrorism and sustaining stability in the region.”

According to observers, the meeting triggered US concerns of Iran’s growing influence in the region.

President of the Republic, General Michel Aoun, on Wednesday welcomed at Baabda Presidential Palace UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, who visited him with an accompanying delegation.

Talks between the pair touched on the repercussions of the Syrian war on Lebanon, especially the issue of Syrian refugees.

“Lebanon can no longer bear the consequences of the Syrian influx at the social and economic levels alike,” the President told Pedersen.

“We must work seriously to take refugees back to safe zones in Syria (…) If involved countries allocate 10 percent of the cost of the Syrian war to resolve the refugee issue, it would help resolve their humanitarian crisis and spare the world more crises,” Aoun said.

“During the years of the Syrian war, Lebanon did not reject any of the Syrian refugees for humanitarian reasons,” Aoun reminded.

He renewed calls on the United Nations and donor countries to provide assistance to Syrians returning to their country, especially as there were areas in Syria that have not been destroyed.

“More than 172,000 Syrians have returned from Lebanon, and we have not received any report indicating that they have been subjected to harassment or inhumane practices,” Aoun added.

For his part, Pedersen commended Lebanon’s “achievements and contributions to peace”.

He expressed the gratitude of the United Nations for the assistance provided by Lebanon to Syrian refugees.

“One of the tasks entrusted to me is working towards a political solution to the conflict in Syria,” he explained.

Pedersen briefed Aoun on the contacts he had made with Syrian officials in Damascus and the Syrian opposition in Riyadh, hoping to achieve positive results that restore security and stability to Syria.

“The United Nations supports Lebanon in all areas to face the current challenges,” he concluded.

The United States granted Iraq a 90-day waiver exempting it from sanctions to buy energy from Iran, a State Department official said on Wednesday, the latest extension allowing Baghdad to keep purchasing electricity from its neighbor.The official said the waiver was granted on Tuesday. The last waiver for Iraq to be exempt from U.S. energy sanctions on Iran was granted on Dec. 21.

The Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran’s energy exports in November, citing its nuclear program and meddling in the Middle East, but has granted waivers to several buyers to meet consumer energy needs.

“While this waiver is intended to help Iraq mitigate energy shortages, we continue to discuss our Iran-related sanctions with our partners in Iraq,” the State Department official said on condition of anonymity.

Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to feed several power stations, importing roughly 1.5 billion standard cubic feet per day via pipelines in the south and east.

Washington has said it wants to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East, including in Iraq, where Iran holds broad sway over politics and trade.

Although Iraq has one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, it has moved slowly to develop them and relied on Iran to supply it with gas and electricity.

Iran last year stopped supplying electricity to Iraq due to unpaid bills. The power shortages in Iraq sparked protests in Basra and other cities as people blamed government corruption.

Saudi Arabia has also offered to sell electricity to Baghdad at a discount, part of an effort by the kingdom to curb the influence of its rival Iran in Iraq.

“We are also continuing to work with Iraq to end its dependence on Iranian natural gas and electricity and increase its energy independence,” the State Department official said.

Israeli media outlets reported that the an armed man on Wednesday fired at an Israeli bus in Salfit county in the occupied West Bank and that a number of shots hit the target.

It is worth noting that Salfit witnessed on Sunday a heroic operation carried out by the martyr Omar Abu Leila who stabbed a Zionist soldier and seized his gun before shooting at other soldiers and a number of settlers.

Martyr Omar who managed to kill three Israelis and injure a number of others, was shot dead by the Zionist occupation forces on Tuesday night near Ramallah, pushing the entire entity to a lethal quagmire.

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