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Syrian Rebel Yarmouk Brigades Ditch US and Israel Allies, Defect to ISIS

By DEBKAfile (12/18/2014) & The Guardian UK (3/8/2013)

The Syrian rebel militia Al Yarmouk Shuhada Brigades, backed and trained for two years by US officers, mostly CIA experts, in Jordan, and supported by the Israeli army, has abruptly dumped these sponsors and joined up with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, DEBKAfile's exclusive military and counter-terrorism sources reveal.

The sudden defection of this 2,000-strong anti-Assad force leaves IDF defense formations on the Golan, US and Jordanian deployments in the northern part of the kingdom, and pro-Western rebel conquests in southern Syria in danger of collapse.

The Brigades' jump into the radical jihadi camp was negotiated in the last two weeks by its commander Mousab Ali Qarfan, who also goes by the name of Mousab Zaytouneh. He was in direct contact with ISIS chief Abu Baqr Al-Baghdadi, whom our sources report has recently relocated from Iraq to his northern Syrian headquarters at al-Raqqa. Unlike the Sinai Islamists, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, the Yarmouk Brigades did not pledge allegiance to ISIS. Their pact was forged as an operational alliance, which is just as grave a peril for the rebel militias' abandoned allies.

For Israel, in particular, the new development is fraught with three dangers: The Yarmouk Brigades are strung out along Israel's Golan border with Syria, from the UN peacekeepers camp opposite Kibbutz Ein Zivan in the north, down to the Israeli-Syrian-Jordanian border junction in the south. The Brigades therefore sit along 45 of the total 76 kilometers of the Syrian-Israeli border. This means that a long stretch of Israel's Golan border with Syria has fallen under the control of the Islamic State.

This militia also commands sections of the Syrian-Jordanian border, as well as districts of the southern Syrian town of Deraa. Therefore, the link between Jordan and southern Syria, which served American strategic interests, is now under military threat.

Islamic State forces are preparing to take advantage of their new asset with a buildup near the Druze Mountains for a rapid push south towards the town of Deraa, where they will join forces with their new ally.

(The original 2013 report stated that) Western training of Syrian rebels is under way in Jordan in an effort to strengthen secular elements in the opposition as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, and to begin building security forces to maintain order in the event of Bashar al-Assad's fall. Jordanian security sources say the training effort is led by the US, but involves British and French instructors.

The UK Ministry of Defense denied any British soldiers were providing direct military training to the rebels, though a small number of personnel, including special forces teams, have been in the country training the Jordanian military. But the Guardian has been told that UK intelligence teams are giving the rebels logistical and other advice in some form.

According to European and Jordanian sources the western training in Jordan has been going on since last year and is focused on senior Syrian army officers who defected....The aim of sending western-trained rebels over the border would be to create a safe area for refugees on the Syrian side of the border, to prevent chaos and to provide a counterweight to al-Qaida-linked extremists who have become a powerful force in the north.....British officials argue that training of Syrian forces to fill the security vacuum as the Assad regime collapses would be help safeguard civilian lives.

Alan Gross Released: US-Cuban Relations Normalized After 54 years

By DEBKAfile, VOA News &

Barack Obama announced the normalization of US relations with Cuba and the opening of a US embassy in Havana Wednesday, with Raul Castro making the parallel announcement in Cuba. Thus ends the 54-year American embargo on Cuba and the last remnant of the Cold War.

The White House made the announcement after Cuba released the Jewish American Alan Gross, 65, who was arrested while working to expand Internet access for Havana's Jewish community and sentenced in 2009 to 15 years in prison.

Following high-level talks since the spring, the US and Cuba made a parallel prisoner exchange of three Cuban intelligence agents for a US intelligence asset who has been imprisoned for more than 20 years. Cuba also agreed to release 53 people the U.S. considers political prisoners, some of whom have already been released, the officials said.

"Isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach," Obama said, in explaining the move toward normalizing relations. "I believe this contact will do more to empower the Cuban people." In lauding the move, Castro said, "We have decided to re-establish diplomatic relations" with the U.S. The two leaders talked by phone for more than 45 minutes on Tuesday, the first substantive presidential contact between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

The plane carrying Gross landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland Wednesday shortly after 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT). Gross, 65, had been arrested by Cuba on December 3, 2009. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.

Gross' wife, Judy, said in a recent interview that her husband was becomingly increasingly despondent. Judy Gross said earlier this month that since Gross' imprisonment, he had lost more than 100 pounds, could barely walk due to chronic pain, and had lost five teeth and much of the sight in his right eye.

Appearing in decent health and walking without support, Gross spoke to reporters at a Washington law office shortly after a US plane flew him from Cuba back to the US. He flashed a broad grin with missing teeth - lost during his imprisonment -- after taking an admiring glance at the American flags posted behind him and taking note that his release came on the first day of Chanukah.

Despite his harrowing experience, Gross said he had the utmost respect for the Cuban people and said he was pained "to see them treated so unjustly. In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected," Gross said, describing the vast majority of Cubans as "incredibly kind, generous and talented."

Meanwhile, a Department of Justice official said Wednesday that three former Cuban intelligence agents have been transferred to Cuba after Obama commuted their sentences. Justice spokesman Brian Fallon said Luis Medina, Gerardo Hernandez and Antonio Guerrero had been released from custody and flown to Cuba.

The three were part of the so-called Cuban Five, who were convicted for spying on anti-Castro exile groups in Florida and monitoring U.S. military installations, and they have spent more than 15 years in U.S. prisons.

Later Wednesday, Gross made a short statement in Washington. He said he had learned of his impending release on Tuesday. He said he was happy to be home and that he was thankful for all those who worked for his release. Obama said Gross and a man described as "one of the most important (U.S.) intelligence agents" were exchanged for three Cuban intelligence operatives who had spent more than a decade in U.S. prisons.

The two countries are expected in the coming weeks to negotiate an agreement to lead both countries to opening embassies in each other's capitals. Obama said business and travel ties will be launched, but that he will have to negotiate with the U.S. Congress over ending the country's economic blockade against Cuba.

Obama has also asked Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. "This review will be guided by the facts and the law," he said. "A nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.'' Kerry said that he would travel to Cuba at some point in the future. "I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba," Kerry said in a statement.

U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Florida Republican who is Cuban-American, said, "The White House has conceded everything, but gained little. This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba," Rubio said. "But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come."

Former Florida Governor and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said on Wednesday he opposes Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba, according to a media report. "I don't think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship,'' Bush told an event in Florida, according to USA Today.

Wednesday's news that Washington and Havana are to resume diplomatic and trade ties sent shares climbing for three Florida-based cruise line operators - American tourists, the world's most keen cruise customers, may now be able to land in Cuba and use their U.S. credit cards. Immediately following Obama's speech, Cuban Americans and other Latin Americans in Miami, Florida, had mixed feelings toward the news.

EU Court Removes Hamas from Terror Blacklist

By Reuters

The European Union's second-highest court on Wednesday annulled the bloc's decision to keep Hamas on a list of terrorist organizations, but temporarily maintained the measures for a period of three months or until an appeal is closed. The General Court of the European Union said the contested measures were not based on an examination of Hamas' acts but on imputations derived from the media and the Internet.

The court said it was nevertheless maintaining the effects of the measures in order to ensure that any possible future freezing of funds would be effective. According to the EU, the move was initially prompted by an appeal made to the European Court of Human Rights dealing with Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka. The EU says Hamas was originally defined as a terrorist organization based on American information, and European policy dictates that such a move should only be made with independent EU information.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, would be restored to the terror organizations list if the EU gets independent proof of its status as such. Hamas hailed the status change as an accomplishment, with senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk saying, "This is a victory for all those who support the right of the Palestinian people to resist the occupation."

Israel is concerned Hamas may use the opportunity to renew its activities in Europe. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called for Hamas to be immediately returned to the terrorist blacklist, saying Israel was not satisfied with the EU's explanation that the removal of Hamas from the list was merely a "technical matter."

"The burden of proof is on the European Union," Netanyahu said. "Hamas is a murderous terrorist organization, with the stated goal, in its charter, of destroying Israel. We will continue to fight against it with determination and strength, so that it will never achieve this aim."

'Mossad Operative Was In Charge of Nasrallah's Personal Security in Hizbullah'

By Israel Hayom

Following reports Tuesday that Hizbullah recently exposed a double agent who was working for Israel, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai reported that the double agent was a high-ranking Hizbullah operative who had been in charge of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's personal security and who was later promoted to the group's elite and clandestine "910" external security organization.

According to Lebanese reports, the double agent, identified only by the initials M. Sh., was a businessman who was recruited by the Mossad during a trip to western Asia. The agent reportedly relayed information to Israeli intelligence agents about Hizbullah plans to target Israelis or Jews in retribution for the assassination of former military commander Imad Mughnyieh.

Israel has never confirmed having killed Mughniyeh, who died in a car bomb blast in Syria in 2008, but Hizbullah has long accused Israel of being behind the assassination. According to the Kuwaiti report, once the agent was exposed, the entire organization underwent a significant overhaul, with several high-ranking operatives removed from their posts or reassigned to different, less sensitive units. The paper asserted that the damage to Hizbullah from the incident was immeasurable. It was not reported how the double agent was apprehended.

Iconic Six-Day War Photo Recreated at Western Wall


47 years after three soldiers were photographed gazing in amazement upon the Western Wall, they returned to recall the unforgettable moment. The three soldiers were Dr. Yitzhak Yifat, Zion Karasanti, and Haim Oshri, all members of the same paratrooper battalion that took part in the battle for Jerusalem's Old City. The moment they glimpsed the wall for the first time was captured by photographer David Rubinger. The historic photo, showing the first Israelis to reach the sacred wall since it fell into Jordanian hands in 1948, has become a symbol of the Six-Day War.

Today, Yifat and Karasanti are 70, Oshri a year younger. Rubinger turned 90 this past summer. But despite his age, he lay on the ground just as he did nearly half a century ago to recreate the exact angle. Unlike then, someone quickly sounded a shofar. People gathered around, including some who were born decades after the battle for the city, and thanked the former soldiers. "We didn't care about anything else," said Karasanti, "just the stones in the wall."

"The picture made my life," said Rubinger. "I won the Israel Prize for it, and it became an icon worldwide. A icon isn't made by a photographer. An icon is made by an audience. The audience saw in these three faces" – he pointed at the men beside him – "something it wanted to see. People still say, 'those are the guys who cried by the Kotel.' Nothing better could happen to a photographer."

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