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Obama Provides Assurances to Saudi Arabia on Iran Deal

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Saudi Arabia is happy with US president Barack Obama’s assurances that the recent nuclear deal with Iran will not imperil the Gulf states and believes the agreement will contribute to security and stability in the Middle East.

Saudi King Salman met with Obama at the White House on Friday to seek more support in countering Iran, as the Obama administration aimed to use the visit to shore up relations after a period of tensions.

The visit is the king’s first to the United States since ascending to the throne in January 2015, and comes after the United States agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran in July.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has suffered strain because of what Riyadh sees as Obama’s withdrawal from the region, a lack of direct U.S. action against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and a perceived U.S. tilt towards Iran since the 2011 Arab uprisings.

But the countries share many strategic objectives and depend on each other on a number of core security, economic, and political issues.

Gulf Arab states had previously expressed their support for the Iran nuclear deal, but fear that the lifting of sanctions on Iran would enable it to pursue destabilizing policies in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is supporting Syrian rebels fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Salman is likely to press Obama on the US’ stated goal of achieving a managed political transition in Syria.

So far, Obama’s military engagement in Syria has been limited to targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), stopping short of challenging Assad who has Iran’s backing.

High on King Salman’s agenda was winning increased US logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, the success of which will be vital to cementing the new king’s position in the region and base of support at home.

The Saudis have called for an end to the rebellion in Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthis and have led a major campaign of intervention with backing from Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and Bahrain. Saudi-backed forces are preparing to recapture the rebel-held capital of Sanaa, a city of two million.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are opposed on a number of regional issues, especially the 4 1/2-year-long Syrian civil war and unrest in Yemen, where a coalition of Arab states led by Riyadh, assisted by the United States, are targeting Iran-allied Houthi forces.

A Saudi-led coalition has been conducting air strikes across Yemen against Iranian-allied Houthi forces since March, pushing back Houthi forces but drawing criticism from international aid and rights groups for a mounting civilian death toll.

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UN Urges European Union to relocate 200,000 refugees

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Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has urged the European Union to develop a common mass relocation plan for 200,000 refugees.

His call comes ahead of a meeting later today (4 September) of EU foreign ministers to discuss the continent’s refugee crisis, after a photo of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was found face down in the surf on a Turkish beach on Wednesday, grasped the world’s attention.

Guterres’ appeal comes as France and Germany called for binding EU quotas to share the burden of the influx of migrants and refugees, which has hit transit countries in south-eastern and central Europe the hardest.

EU leaders, split over sharing the refugee burden, are scrambling to agree a response in meetings on Friday.

However, countries in EU have been reluctant to accept refugees and others have even implemented policies that would prevent the refugees, mostly from Syria and other war zones fleeing the violence in their countries, from reaching safety.

Hungary, for instance, vowed to go ahead with building a border fence along its Serbian border to block the refugees from crossing the border. In fact, conservative Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other right-wing governments in the EU have been using the term “economic migrants” to refer to those fleeing from wars and conflicts in their countries.

Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis has escalated over the summer, leaving the continent divided over how to deal with a flood of people led by Syrians fleeing war in their homeland.

A record surge in numbers, and the opening up of new routes over the Balkans in addition to the Mediterranean sea route, have prompted the EU to call a special meeting on the issue in two weeks.

More than 347,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea so far this year and more than 2,770 have not survived the dangerous crossing.

The situation in Syria, the origin of the largest number of refugees, has worsened because of the rise of the Islamic State extremist group and continuing civil war, so more people are fleeing.

Greece had the most landings with nearly 200,000 this year, the UN says. Greece sees so many because of people getting boats from Turkey for the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Kos.

Italy has seen 110,000 landings this year, with people taking the central Mediterranean route on rickety boats from Libya. But numbers have slowed due to the breakdown of order in Libya and the danger of the route.

The Western Balkans have seen a huge surge in arrivals of mostly asylum seekers fleeing Middle East wars, who cross the region after crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece.

 

 

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Obama Garners Enough Support for Iran Nuclear Deal

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The Obama administration has secured enough support in the Senate to ensure that the Iran nuclear deal will survive a congressional vote.

Democrat Barbara Mikulski became the 34th senator to support the deal, ensuring a landmark victory for the Obama administration’s efforts to prevent it being derailed.

Mikulski’s support for the agreement means that Obama has enough votes in the Senate to uphold his veto if Congress rejects the July deal as expected. But the administration is still hoping to amass 41 votes, which would spare Obama from having to use his veto and spend political capital.

Only two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer, of New York, and Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, have announced their opposition to the deal, even as opponents spent millions of dollars lobbying Democrats in Congress.

The 34-senator milestone represents a resounding defeat for efforts by the Republicans and the Israeli government to derail the agreement, but it is by no means the end of the political struggle.

The threshold means that Obama’s supporters could stop his veto being overridden if he needed to use it against a congressional vote of disapproval on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed with Iran, the US and five other world powers in July. Democrats are now trying to reach 41 votes, enough to block the disapproval vote in the Senate by filibuster, and spare Obama from having to spend political capital on a veto.

The result is already a stinging blow for the deal’s principal opponents, the Republican leadership, the American Israel Political Affairs Committee lobby group – which spent tens of millions of dollars campaigning against the JCPOA – and the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who waded into US politics to an extraordinary degree in an attempt to block it.

Diplomats say Wednesday’s milestone removes the more significant near-term threat to the survival of the agreement, which has already been endorsed by a UN Security Council vote. It is likely to accelerate preparatory steps on all sides to implement the deal, particularly in Iran, which has a long list of tasks to carry out under the JCPOA to limit the capacity of its nuclear programme before it can benefit from sanctions relief.

The spectacle of the furious US political battle has also helped convince some sceptics in the Iranian leadership of the Obama administration’s determination to honour its side of the deal.

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Islamic State Fighters Move Closer to the Syrian Capital

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The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group has battled Syrian rebel forces in a southern district of Damascus, bringing ISIL fighters within about 5km of the centre of the capital.

ISIL fighters on Monday night waged street battles against a loose coalition of Syrian rebels in Asali, part of the southern Qadam district, after seizing two streets there over the weekend.

Rebels, who control several districts in southern Damascus, are battling on two fronts, ISIL from the south and troops belonging to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from the north.

Opposition-held Qadam has been relatively quiet since a truce there a year ago between rebel groups and regime forces, who still have a strong grip over the centre of the capital.

Since its expulsion from the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus last year, IS has used Al-Hajar Al-Aswad as a base for attacks on the capital.

From there, it tried to seize the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in April, but was pushed back.

That same month, IS kidnapped two opposition fighters from Qadam and beheaded them in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.

In the north-west province of Idlib, the powerful Army of Conquest alliance edged closer to Fuaa, one of two remaining regime-held villages in the province.

The alliance, a collection of Islamist and jihadist groups including al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, seized the village of Sawaghiya on the southeast edge of Fuaa early Monday after overnight clashes.

The fighting left nine fighters from both sides and two civilians dead.

After capturing the majority of Idlib province, the Army of Conquest surrounded and began heavily shelling the Shia Muslim villages of Fuaa and Kafraya.

This month saw two failed attempts at reaching broad ceasefire deals including Fuaa, Kafraya, and the rebel stronghold of Zabadani in Damascus province.

More than 240,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which began with popular anti-government protests in March 2011 but has evolved into a protracted civil war.

The conflict has seen the embattled regime of President Assad lose swaths of territory across the country.

 

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3 Al-Jazeera Reporters Sentenced To Three Years In Prison

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An Egyptian court sentenced three Al-Jazeera reporters to three years in prison on Saturday, in a shock ruling following global demands for their acquittal.

The ruling was the latest turn in a winding 20-month legal battle in which journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste had already spent more than 400 days in prison.

The case has been a high-profile illustration of the erosion of media freedom in Egypt in the two years since the military removed the country’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, from power.

One of the defendants, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, was convicted in absentia on Saturday, despite having been released from prison and deported in February.

His colleagues Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian national who has renounced his Egyptian citizenship, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were present in the Cairo courtroom. They had been free on bail during the trial, but were quickly taken into custody after the verdict, as their families gasped and shouted disapproval of the decision.

The three men were originally arrested in December 2013 and charged with broadcasting false reports and colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now outlawed as a terrorist group in Egypt.

They were detained following a raid on a Marriott hotel in Cairo. Footage of security agents interrogating Fahmy and Greste during the raid was later broadcast on television.

They remained in custody through a first trial and were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison in June 2014. They were granted a retrial after an appeal in January and released on bail, while Mr. Greste was deported.

The Al Jazeera trial has drawn international condemnation from human and journalists’ rights groups and focused attention on Egypt’s judiciary, which has been accused by the defendants and legal analysts of acting to suppress popular dissent on behalf of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s administration.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera denounced the verdict against the trio, who were accused of broadcasting false news, as a deliberate attack on press freedom.

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