May 20/2013

Bible Quotation for today/Jesus and Zacchaeus
Luke 19 /01-10/: "Jesus went on into Jericho and was passing through.  There was a chief tax collector there named Zacchaeus, who was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was a little man and could not see Jesus because of the crowd.  So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, who was going to pass that way.  When Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to Zacchaeus, “Hurry down, Zacchaeus, because I must stay in your house today.” Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed him with great joy.  All the people who saw it started grumbling, “This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner!” Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Listen, sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” Jesus said to him, “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man, also, is a descendant of Abraham.  The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.


Latest analysis, editorials, studies, reports, letters & Releases from miscellaneous sources 

Collision course/By: Toni Badran/Now Lebanon/May 20/13
Opinion: Sectarianism and Syria/By: Ghassan Al Imam/Now Lebanon/ May 20/13


Latest News Reports From Miscellaneous Sources for May 20/13
Intertwined fates: The Lebanon-Syria-Iran axis
Syrian-Hizballah’s capture of Qusayr opens direct weapons route to Lebanon

One Dead, 22 Hurt in New Clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen
Al-Qusayr rebels claim killing of Hezbollah fighters
Lebanese Rival MPs leaning toward extending Parliament’s mandate
Electoral Subcommittee to Meet again on Monday after 48-Hour Consultations

March 14 Independent MPs to Submit Candidacies if Electoral Subcommittee Fails to Reach Consensus
Suleiman Condemns Rocket Attack on Hermel, Israeli Overflights
Rockets Land in Hermel Amid Qusayr Assault, Syria Opposition Accuses Hizbullah of 'Genocide'

MP Nicolas Fattoush Proposes Parliament Mandate Extension as Berri Awaits Final Decision of Rival MPs Monday
Cautious Calm in Ain el-Hilweh after Gunbattles Leave 1 Dead
Al-Rahi Slams Officials over Failure to Agree on Vote Law, Considers it 'Shameful'
Charbel to Ask Cabinet to Convene to Guarantee Election Funds
Charbel Says to Open Door for Parliamentary Candidates on Monday
EU Mulls Putting Hizbullah on Terror Blacklist over Syria War
March 8-Backed Candidates Elected Heads of Physicians Order in Beirut, Tripoli

Church must help the poorest, not dissect theology, pope says
Netanyahu: Israel 'Acts' to Deny Syria Arms Transfer to Hizbullah
Israel warns against Russian arms supply to Syria
Israeli Defense Official: S-300 Could Reach Hizbullah
Assad Stresses He Will Not Step Down, Denies Using Chemical Weapons
Assad Says No Info on Missing Journalists, Abducted Bishops Might be Near Turkish Border
Syrian Observatory: Army Launches Assault to Recapture Qusayr

Arab League Committee to Hold Emergency Syria Meeting
N. Korea Test-fires Another Short-range Missile despite Pleas

Iran Hangs Two for Spying for Israel, U.S.
Syrian Army Storms Rebel Stronghold Qusayr


Lebanese Rival MPs leaning toward extending Parliament’s mandate
May 20, 2013/By Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Armed with their failure to agree on a new electoral law, March 8 and March 14 lawmakers are gearing up for an extension of Parliament’s four-year mandate when they meet Monday in “a final and decisive session,” parliamentary sources said Sunday.
The lawmakers, part of a parliamentary subcommittee charged with exploring a new vote law, are expected to either endorse a formula for the extension of Parliament’s term, which expires June 20, or agree on holding the June elections based on the controversial 1960 law, the sources said.
“The MPs will hold a final and decisive session Monday to agree on the next stage following the lack of agreement on a new electoral law. They will either agree on an extension of Parliament’s mandate or on holding the elections based on the 1960 law at the earliest possible time,” a subcommittee member told The Daily Star.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the March 8 MP said: “The trend is in favor of the extension of Parliament’s term because the majority of March 8 and March 14 parties support it. However, the dispute remains over the duration of the extension of Parliament’s mandate.”
He added that the next move would be for Speaker Nabih Berri to convene a session of Parliament’s general assembly to approve decisions that might be taken by the subcommittee.
Media reports said that while the Future Movement supports a six-month extension of Parliament’s mandate to endorse a hybrid vote proposal, the March 8 parties demand a one or two-year extension in order to agree on a consensus draft law.
Future MP Ahmad Fatfat, a subcommittee member, said his bloc along with the Lebanese Forces would demand during Monday’s general assembly session to discuss a hybrid vote law, arguing that this law enjoyed a majority in Parliament.
“We insist on convening a general assembly session to endorse the hybrid law which has a clear parliamentary majority,” Fatfat told The Daily Star.
Last week, the Future Movement, the LF, MP Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and independent March 14 lawmakers announced a hybrid vote proposal, which calls for 46 percent of MPs to be elected based on proportional representation and 54 percent under a winner-takes-all system. Under this proposal, Lebanon would be divided into 26 districts under the winner-takes-all system and six governorates under proportional representation.
March 8 representatives on the subcommittee, who have voiced reservations about the hybrid proposal, are still waiting for answers from the other side.
Fatfat accused Hezbollah of obstructing an agreement on a new electoral law to replace the 1960 system. “Hezbollah is pushing the country toward a vacuum,” he said.
In a statement issued Sunday, Fatfat said any extension of Parliament’s mandate should be “technical” and should come only after the approval of a new electoral law and an agreement to hold elections before the end of the year.
The failure of the MPs to agree on a new electoral law has presented the Lebanese with either the likelihood of extending Parliament’s mandate or holding the June polls based on the 1960 legislation.
Reflecting difficulties facing the subcommittee’s mission, Berri has vowed not to convene Parliament unless MPs reached consensus either on a new vote law or an extension of Parliament’s mandate.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel announced that the Interior Ministry would resume election registration starting Monday, but he said the polls could not be held as scheduled under the current 1960 law.
“On Monday I will allow hopefuls to submit their candidacies again until Saturday and I will ask the government to convene to make the needed allocations for elections and form an election supervisory committee,” Charbel said in remarks published by a local media outlet Sunday.
MPs passed a draft law last month suspending candidacies under the 1960 law, opposed by most parties, until May 19 to allow time for an agreement over a new electoral law. The government has not made the financial allocations needed for a vote and it has not formed a supervisory committee that is required to hold elections.
Speaking to a local TV station, Charbel said it was possible to hold the polls by the end of June rather than June 16, which is their scheduled date. “I will hold elections based on the current law, and let everyone assume his responsibility,” Charbel said.The subcommittee failed to make any breakthrough during Saturday’s session chaired by Berri.
MP Alain Aoun, from MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary bloc, said after the session that talks between rival groups over an election law have not produced any tangible results. “We have reached a dead end. Each group has now to think of what bitter choices to make, participating in elections under the 1960 law or extending Parliament’s term,” Aoun said.
The Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement said they would begin submitting candidacies under the 1960 law.
“The Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement will submit their candidacies based on the 1960 law not because we want such a voting system but so that we do not allow anyone to win uncontested,” LF MP George Adwan, a subcommittee member, told reporters ahead of the panel’s meeting.
Fatfat echoed a similar stance after the session, which lasted for around three hours. But he said his group’s candidates would not submit their candidacies before the subcommittee’s session Monday.
Meanwhile, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai stepped up his criticism of politicians, saying that they should not remain in their posts if they failed to form a new government and draft an electoral law.
“If they are not able to draft an electoral law and form a government, then they are not qualified to stay in their posts,” Rai said during a reception Saturday in Bogota, Colombia, as part of his current tour of South America.
“It is unacceptable that after proposing electoral draft laws for six years and consuming all this time in studying them ... they do not agree on a law,” Rai said, according to the state-run National News Agency.
Rai also criticized the rival parties for not facilitating the formation of a new government despite socio-economic challenges and the huge number of Syrian refugees entering the country.
The Cabinet formation has been stalled mainly by the March 8 demand for veto power, which Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has rejected.

One Dead, 22 Hurt in New Clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen
Naharnet/At least one person was killed and 22 others were wounded on Sunday in armed clashes between the rival Tripoli neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, state-run National News Agency reported.
MTV said "the shooting started in Bab al-Tabbaneh over reports that 12 of Sheikh Salem al-Rafehi's supporters were killed while fighting alongside the Syrian opposition in Qusayr." But later on Sunday al-Rafehi denied MTV's report. The army deployed heavily in Syria Street, which separates the rival districts, and was shooting back at the sources of gunfire. A statement issued by the Army Command said an officer and a soldier were wounded in the clashes and that army units were intensifying measures and deployment to restore normalcy in the city.Earlier, NNA reported that the intensity of the Tripoli clashes had relatively abated.
The National News Agency said machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades were being used in the clashes which were concentrated on the Haret al-Muhajirin and al-Omari frontiers and the area surrounding al-Nassri Mosque.
NNA said Mohammed Youssef died of his injuries after he was critically wounded in Jabal Mohsen. It said a policeman and 19 other civilians were wounded in the unrest. The agency identified the wounded as Imad Khaled Fayyad, Bassam al-Kaaki, Abdul Wahhab al-Baqqar, Ali Awwad, Fadlallah al-Masri, Khadija Khaled, Samar Ghiyyeh, Tareq Qassem, Dunia Mahfoud, Liliane Mustafa Hussein, Taleb Habbabeh, Ali Mustafa, Khadija Saad Mohammed, Jomaa Yassine, Taleb Dib, Sara Qureitem, Bashar Rabah, Abdul Wahhab Salam and Nagham Dib. LBCI television said al-Kaaki was wounded as five shells fell on the vegetable market in Bab al-Tabbaneh. It also said an army officer and a soldier were reportedly wounded in the clashes. NNA said a number of shells hit the vegetable market in Bab al-Tabbaneh and a shop went up in flames. "The Tripoli-Akkar international highway is witnessing intermittent sniper activity at the Bab al-Tabbaneh point, which made it dangerous for motorists," NNA added. It later reported that a passenger bus came under sniper gunfire on Bab al-Tabbaneh's highway, but noted that no one was hurt. The agency said the violence broke out after a dispute between young men erupted into an exchange of gunfire and sniper activity.
Al-Jadeed television said sniper gunfire was targeting al-Zahriyeh neighborhood, which is adjacent to Bab al-Tabbaneh.
Rifaat Eid, secretary-general of the Arab Democratic Party, the main military and political force in Jabal Mohsen, told LBCI: "We won't respond to the sources of gunfire and we were expecting clashes due to the Qusayr battle."But fighters from Bab al-Tabbaneh told LBCI they were defending themselves, accusing the Arab Democratic Party of starting the clashes "to deviate attention from the Qusayr battle."LBCI said the army urged politicians to "ask the parties to practice restraint because it will not be lenient with any deployment of gunmen." In March, at least five people were killed and 26 others were wounded, includung army troops, in clashes between the two rival neighborhoods. The army stepped up its deployment in the city in the wake of the clashes.
The Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh borders the Alawite Jabal Mohsen area, and gunmen in the two areas regularly open fire on each other. Violence has regularly broken out between the two communities as the conflict in Syria -- pitting a Sunni-led opposition against the Alawite regime -- raises tensions.


Syrian-Hizballah’s capture of Qusayr opens direct weapons route to Lebanon
DEBKAfile Special Report May 19, 2013/Shortly after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pledged Sunday, May 19, to maintain Israeli operations in Syria against the passage of advanced Iranian weapons to the Lebanese Hizballah, Syrian troops and their Hizballah comrades stormed Al-Qasayr, the northwestern town which commands the high road from Syrian Homs to Lebanon’s Hermel Mountains.
This was a major victory: Iranian arms for Hizballah can now go through from Syria to destination unobstructed.
In more than two years of battling the Assad regime, this was one of the rebels’ most devastating losses after three weeks of bitter fighting and the last of a whole row of recent setbacks.
Bashar Assad in contrast has gained huge advantages from his al Qusayr victory, as DEBKAfile’s military sources report:

1. It cuts off the Syrian rebels’ main supply and communications route via Lebanon through which their Arab backers Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE to send them fighters, arms and funds.
2. Rebel positions in the nearby town of Homs become increasingly vulnerable, as the Syrian army regains control of the main highway links between Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
3. After the rebels were pushed out of Al-Qasayr, Turkey remains their only accessible source of supplies.
However, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has made a sudden U-turn. He had promised publicly to lobby for no-fly zones in his meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House Friday, May 17, to shield rebel forces in different parts of the country from Syrian air strikes. Instead, Edrogan threw his support between the international conference sponsored by Washington and Moscow for resolving the Syrian conflict. This told the rebels that the supportive Turkish channel was closing down. It is obvious to them that the conference can only succeed if Washington comes over to the Russian-Iranian-Hizballah side and agrees to the perpetuation of the Assad party’s role in any future government.
As yet, neither of the contestants has agreed to attend the conference for which no date has been set. However, Turkish backing and arms supplies through its territory are expected to shrink progressively to squeeze the rebels into accepting a formula which would be tantamount to bowing to the defeat of their uprising.
4. For Israel, the fall of al Qusayr means that while rebel supply routes are shut down, supply routes open up for the free movement of Iranian weapons from Syria straight to HIzballah strongholds in Lebanon. This would be Hizballah’s reward for its military aid to Assad’s army. If Prime Minister Netanyahu was serious about his promise Sunday to cut off Hizballah’s weapon routes from Syria, he has three primary options to choose from – none of them easy, to say the least.

a) Military intervention in al Qusayr before the Syrian army and Hizballah clinch their takeover of this strategic byway town. This would catapult Israel into full-blown war with Syria and Hizballah and is therefore a non-starter.

b) Bombardment of the convoys carrying arms from Syria to Lebanon. This won’t do much good. Having learned its lesson from the three Israeli air strikes against arms convoys and depots this year, Syria has now transferred the hardware disassembled into component parts and passed them out among smuggling rings ato move them under cover of dark into Lebanon.
c) Attacks on the destination of those weapons – Hizballah depots in the Hermel – after their delivery. This would almost certainly trigger Hizballah war action against Israel.


Intertwined fates: The Lebanon-Syria-Iran axis
By YAAKOV LAPPIN05/20/2013/
Jerusalem has drawn red lines over the proliferation of strategic arms to Hezbollah; Syria, Iran or Hezbollah could, at any time, decide to test these, even though it would endanger Assad’s gains against the rebels.The instability rocking Syria has caused three critical security arenas – Lebanon, Syria and Iran – to become more closely intertwined than ever before.
As has been widely reported, Hezbollah, acting on Iranian orders, has mobilized a significant portion of its fighting force to Syria to help secure a turnaround for the regime of President Bashar Assad. Bolstered by highly trained Hezbollah fighters and Iranian support, Assad’s army has of late been making gains against the Sunni rebels – gains that could be seen most recently on Sunday in the town of al-Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon, where the Syrian regime began a new offensive.
Hezbollah will be seeking “rewards” for its contributions to Assad’s survival in the form of advanced Syrian and Iranian weapons. These include sophisticated air defense systems such as the SA-17 surface- to-air missile – a convoy of which, according to foreign sources, Israel bombed in Syria in January.
Also in Hezbollah’s sights are missiles such as Iran’s guided Fateh-110, several of which were reportedly destroyed in Damascus by Israel on two occasions in the past few weeks.The strikes as reported were surgical, and thanks to Israeli deterrence, have not resulted in retaliation. But the situation remains fluid, and what has held true until now may not necessarily hold up in the case of future strikes on weapons shipments.
Iran is seeking to exploit the Syrian chaos to continue to arm Hezbollah, because it knows that in any future potential clash with Jerusalem over Tehran’s military nuclear program, Hezbollah will be called in and ordered to turn its enormous rocket arsenal against targets deep in Israel. Hence, Jerusalem has now drawn red lines over the proliferation of strategic arms to Hezbollah in order to protect its home front in a possible future clash. Syria, Iran or Hezbollah could, at any time, decide to test these red lines again, even though a gamble of that kind would endanger Assad’s recent gains against the rebels. All of these factors have made the region a tinderbox, a situation in which one spark has the potential to trigger a multi-arena escalation.Such a deterioration is by no means inevitable – or even likely – due to the Israeli deterrence that remains in effect against all parties concerned. But it cannot be ruled out either. And the evaluations above have not even touched upon the deeply sensitive issue of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. For many months now, the IDF has been preparing itself for this type of multiple-front scenario to ensure that it is ready for the unexpected.

Al-Qusayr rebels claim killing of Hezbollah fighters

Now Lebanon/Rebels in Syria's Al-Qusayr on Saturday uploaded a video to YouTube in which they claimed to have killed ten Hezbollah fighters during a round of clashes and showed the corpse of one of the alleged militants from the Shiite group. In the video, the spokesperson for the Syrian Revolution General Commission group, Hadi al-Abdallah, shows the metal ID-tags he claims belonged to the alleged Hezbollah fighter. He also said that the rebels found maps and papers in the dead man’s pocket that they could use for their advantage. The fighters in the video added that several Hezbollah fighters had been injured in the clashes. Abdallah has previously narrated a video showing Al-Qusayr-based rebels showing the body of another alleged dead Hezbollah fighter. He regularly appears in videos in which he shows rebels in the Homs-based Farouq Brigades in action. In recent weeks, pro-regime Syrian troops have advanced throughout the area around the Homs town of Al-Qusayr, which activists say is surrounded by government forces on three sides, and that approximately 25,000 residents are believed to still be in the town. Reports have emerged that Hezbollah is playing a key role in the regime’s military campaign in the area, while the Shiite party’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has said that his group would defend Lebanese Shiites in the area. The area has been a strategic boon to the rebels, who used it as a base from which to block the main road from Damascus to the coast, impeding military movement and supply chains.

EU Mulls Putting Hizbullah on Terror Blacklist over Syria War

Naharnet /European Union foreign ministers will discuss end of May a British request to brand Hizbullah's military wing a terrorist organization despite reservations in Paris that are also shared by several other EU states, informed French sources said.
The sources told pan-Arab daily al-Hayat published Sunday that Britain asked the EU presidency to designate the military wing a terrorist organization over the party's involvement in the war in Syria. France, which has been the most influential opponent of the move, has lately seen a change in stance and could approve the measure given that Hizbullah members are fighting alongside Syrian regime troops against the rebels, the sources said. They told al-Hayat that the French leadership is mulling only putting some Hizbullah leaders on the terror list and not the entire military wing of the party. Germany, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece are among the 27 EU states that are resisting such a move, the sources said, despite confirmed information by France that around 1,500 Hizbullah members are participating in the battles in Syria. “The starting point of the discussions next week will be the Burgas bombing,” they said. The U.S. has urged the EU to follow Washington's lead by designating Hizbullah as a terrorist group in a move that would lead to a crackdown on its fund-raising activities over the party's alleged involvement in the deadly attack on Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian resort of Burgas last year.  The Bulgarian government accused Hizbullah in February of being behind the bomb attack that killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver.

Netanyahu: Israel 'Acts' to Deny Syria Arms Transfer to Hizbullah

Naharnet /Israel is "acting" to prevent Syrian weapons reaching Hizbullah and will continue to do so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. His remarks came two weeks after Israel carried out air strikes near Damascus, which a senior Israeli source said were aimed at preventing the transfer of sophisticated Iranian arms to Hizbullah. Netanyahu said the Middle East was going through its most sensitive period for decades, with the conflict in Syria at the center of the turmoil.
"We are closely following developments and changes there, and we are prepared for any scenario," he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
"The government of Israel is acting in a responsible, determined and prudent manner to ensure the supreme interest of the State of Israel which is the security of its citizens according to the policy we set: to prevent as far as possible leakage of advanced weapons to Hizbullah and terrorist elements," he said.
"We will ensure the security interests of the citizens of Israel in the future." Israel has repeatedly warned that it would not permit the transfer of advanced weapons or chemical agents to Hizbullah or to any other militant groups. On January 30, another strike on Syrian soil, which also was attributed to Israel by regional sources, destroyed what military intelligence officials say was a shipment of Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hizbullah.
Source/Agence France Presse.

Israeli Defense Official: S-300 Could Reach Hizbullah

Naharnet/Advanced S-300 Russian air defense weapons, which Moscow has pledged to deliver to Syria, could reach Hizbullah and beyond, a senior Israeli defense official has warned.
Amos Gilad, head of the diplomatic-security branch of Israel's defense ministry, told Channel 2 that such a transfer is a threat to the Jewish state, to the U.S. and to the Persian Gulf. “These weapons are dangerous. If Hizbullah and Iran support Syria, why shouldn’t (the Syrian regime) transfer these weapons to Hizbullah?,” he asked. The United States has long urged Russia to halt arms sales to Syria and has expressed particular concern about the planned delivery of the sophisticated S-300 air defense weapons, which officials worry could complicate any international intervention and possibly fall into the hands of Hizbullah. The U.S. military's top officer General Martin Dempsey said Friday that Russia's shipment of anti-ship missiles to Syria will "embolden" the regime and fuel the country's civil war. Gilad argued that if Syria has already transferred Scud missiles to Hizbullah, there is reason to believe the S-300 could follow the same route from Damascus to Lebanon.

Syrian Observatory: Army Launches Assault to Recapture Qusayr
Naharnet/Syrian troops backed by fighters from Hizbullah launched an assault on the rebel-held central town of Qusayr on Sunday, after months of fierce fighting in the area, a watchdog said. "The assault on Qusayr has started. There is fierce fighting between rebels and the army around the entrances to the town," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
"Soldiers and tanks are trying to advance into the town, the rebel forces are attempting to push them back," Abdel Rahman told Agence France Presse. Fighters from Hizbullah, a key ally of the Syrian regime, "are playing a central role in the battle," he added. The ground assault began after a heavy early morning bombardment of the town by aircraft and artillery, that killed at least 20 people, including 11 rebel fighters, the Observatory said. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists on the ground, also reported that Qusayr had come under intense bombardment. "A rain of shells on the city, at the same time as artillery fire and mortar fire from dawn. Homes were destroyed and burnt down," the group said. The Syrian regime has made recapturing the town of Qusayr and the surrounding district of Homs province a key objective, and fierce fighting has raged in the vicinity for months. In recent weeks, government troops backed by Hizbullah and members of the National Defense Forces, a pro-regime militia, have advanced in the region, taking a string of villages and reportedly surrounding Qusayr on three sides. Last week, a military source said the army dropped leaflets on the town, warning civilians to leave ahead of an imminent military operation. But activists denied the leaflets were dropped and said there was no safe way out of the city anyway. The Qusayr area is considered of strategic importance because it lies between the capital and the Mediterranean coast, and is close to the Lebanese border.
Source/Agence France Presse.

Rockets Land in Hermel Amid Qusayr Assault, Syria Opposition Accuses Hizbullah of 'Genocide'

Naharnet/Several rockets landed in and around Lebanon’s northeastern town of Hermel from Syria as Syrian troops backed by Hizbullah fighters launched an assault on the rebel-held central town of Qusayr. The state-run National News Agency said around eight Grad rockets hit different areas of Hermel.
According to Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3), several rockets landed in a residential neighborhood, causing limited material damage. Qusayr is home to about 20,000 residents and has been besieged for weeks by Syrian government troops. Opposition activists said Hizbullah members launched on Sunday the assault on the town along with President Bashar Assad's troops in the area. Qusayr is strategically important because it is close to the Lebanese border and it links Damascus with the coast, where regime loyalists are concentrated. This includes Alawites to which the Assad family belongs. The Syrian opposition condemned "attempts to invade" the town, which it said could render U.S.-Russian attempts to organize a peace conference "meaningless."
The Syrian National Council, a key component of the opposition, denounced the "barbaric and destructive bombing" of Qusayr.
It accused the regime of working with Hizbullah to "invade the town and wipe it and its residents off the map." "We say to the countries that are working for a political solution in Syria that allowing this invasion to go ahead in silence... will render any conference and any peace effort meaningless," the group said in a statement. The United States and Russia are working to organize a peace conference next month, in a bid to find a political solution to the conflict. The statement accused “forces from outside Syria of committing genocide and war crimes.”The U.N. Security Council should “carry out its duty in preventing members of an extremist terrorist group like Hizbullah and forces that back terrorism like Iran from violating the border of our country and invading the homes of the (Syrian) people,” it said.Source/Agence France PresseNaharnet.

Suleiman Condemns Rocket Attack on Hermel, Israeli Overflights

Naharnet/President Michel Suleiman on Sunday condemned the rocket attack from Syrian territory on the Bekaa area of Hermel and denounced the Israeli mock raids over southern Lebanon.
In a press release, Suleiman stressed the need for “all warring parties in Syria to respect Lebanon's sovereignty and avoid military acts against Lebanese border areas that are targeting peaceful citizens.”
Earlier on Sunday, several rockets landed in and around the town of Hermel from Syria as Syrian troops backed by Hizbullah fighters launched an assault on the rebel-held central town of Qusayr. The state-run National News Agency said around eight Grad rockets hit different areas of Hermel. Separately, Suleiman described the latest Israeli overflights and mock raids over the South as “a new violation of (U.N. Security Council) Resolution 1701.”
The president also called the Israeli violations “an attempt to raise tensions in the South, in a blatant defiance of the international will, which is represented by the U.N. force tasked with preserving peace in the area stretching from south of the Litani River to the international border.”

Electoral Subcommittee to Meet again on Monday after 48-Hour Consultations

Naharnet/The electoral subcommittee adjourned on Saturday its meeting for further consultations over a new electoral law as the rival parties failed once again to reach common ground over the matter. In its seventh round of talks the subcommittee reached a standstill after discussions reflected the sharp differences between lawmakers on the adoption of a consensual vote law.
The session, which was held under the auspices of Speaker Nabih Berri, was adjourned to Monday.
“We have reached a dead-end,” Change and Reform bloc MP Alain Aoun told reporters gathered at the parliament.
He pointed out that the rival parties have 48 hours to mull their options, saying: “We will either have to adopt the 1960 electoral law or extend the mandate of the current parliament.”
“This stage requires deep thinking to change our reality,” Aoun said. Al-Mustaqbal parliamentary bloc MP Ahmed Fatfat lashed out at the parties that rejected the adoption of a hybrid electoral draft-law as “it is an adequate replacement for the Orthodox Gathering proposal and the 1960 law.”
He told reporters that Hizbullah deputies will not attend any parliamentary session if the hybrid-law was put for voting “which makes the 1960 law our only option.” The March 14 alliance, excluding the Phalange party, proposed a hybrid electoral law which calls for 54 MPs to be elected under the winner-takes-all system and 46 percent via the proportional representation system.
The country would be divided into six governorates.
Fatfat said that Speaker Berri rejects calling for a parliamentary session of the rival parties failed to reach a consensual electoral law. For his part, Hizbullah's Loyalty to Resistance bloc MP Ali Fayyad said that the March 8 alliance entered the session with an intention to reach an agreement with the foes but unfortunately we failed. “We all feel responsible and are seeking a consensual electoral law,” Fayyad told reporters. Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan said that the Lebanese are not able to agree on an electoral law made-in-Lebanon. “It is shameful that we can't even reach consensus on a vote law,” Adwan said. He slammed the rival parties, noting that the only obstacle blocking consensus is that each party aims at scoring a point in politics and in the polls. “We are running out of time but I am positive that we can reach consensus without any interference,” the lawmaker said. Phalange Party MP Sami Gemayel told reporters that “the subcommittee reached a delicate stage as the problem isn't technical.”“We oppose the adoption of any standards that guarantee the victory of a party over the other,” Gemayel said. He pointed out that Phalange party will contribute positively to any solution. The parliament's electoral subcommittee has been holding consecutive meetings since Wednesday under the auspices of Berri in an attempt to reach consensus over the matter. An amended version of the 1960 law was adopted in the 2009 parliamentary elections, but the majority of the political blocs are refusing to adopt it for this year's polls. The Orthodox Gathering law has meanwhile been rejected by President Michel Suleiman, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati, the Mustaqbal bloc, MP Walid Jumblat's National Struggle Front, and independent Christian March 14 MPs. The Orthodox draft law, which considers Lebanon a single electoral district and allows each sect to vote for its own MPs under a proportional representation system, is strongly backed by Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement.

March 14 Independent MPs to Submit Candidacies if Electoral Subcommittee Fails to Reach Consensus

Naharnet/Independent March 14 lawmakers considered on Saturday that the meetings of the electoral subcommittee will lead to vacuum as foes are sharply divided over the new electoral law, pointing out that they may run their candidacies based on the 1960 law if the rivals fail to agree on an vote law.
The MPs hailed the efforts exerted by the rival parties to facilitate holding a parliamentary session to agree on an electoral law, expressing concern over the discussions between the electoral subcommittee members on the extension of the parliament's term. “Our political system is based on voting and the majority should win any vote on the matter,” a statement issued the independent lawmakers said. The MPs rejected to link setting a date for a parliamentary session based on a unanimous decision taken by the members of the electoral subcommittee. The meeting that was held at the residence of MP Butros Harb revealed that if the foes failed to reach common ground over a new electoral law then the March 14 independent MPs will submit their candidacies based on the 1960 electoral law. The attendees also agreed to exert efforts to achieve best representation, in particular for Christians, which would maintain coexistence. They warned of any “constitutional vacancy,” which will have a negative impact on the country. The parliament's electoral subcommittee has been holding consecutive meetings since Wednesday under the auspices of Speaker Nabih Berri in an attempt to reach consensus over the matter. An amended version of the 1960 law was adopted in the 2009 parliamentary elections, but the majority of the political blocs are refusing to adopt it for this year's polls. The Orthodox Gathering law has meanwhile been rejected by President Michel Suleiman, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati, the Mustaqbal bloc, MP Walid Jumblat's National Struggle Front, and independent Christian March 14 MPs.The Orthodox draft law, which considers Lebanon a single electoral district and allows each sect to vote for its own MPs under a proportional representation system, is strongly backed by Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement.

MP Nicolas Fattoush Proposes Parliament Mandate Extension as Berri Awaits Final Decision of Rival MPs Monday

Naharnet/MP Nicolas Fattoush has submitted a proposal on a two-year extension of parliament's mandate without coordinating with any side, the caretaker minister said Sunday, a day before an expected deal on running in the elections under the 1960 law.
“I made my proposal without coordinating with any party,” Fattoush told Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) without confirming a report in An Nahar daily if his proposal was aimed at making a two-year extension. “It is our constitutional duty to avoid vacuum …. The extension of parliament's mandate is aimed at thwarting the ghost of vacuum,” he said. President Michel Suleiman has rejected a long extension of the legislature's four-year mandate, which expires on June 20. Baabda palace sources told An Nahar that Suleiman would only accept a short extension to either prepare for the June elections based on the 1960 law or allow the implementation of a new law that the rival parties have failed to agree on. The sources warned that the president would challenge any law that goes against his convictions. Fattoush said that Suleiman would either approve the extension law and issue a decree or return it to parliament, which should vote on it with absolute majority so that it becomes implementable within a month. Speaker Nabih Berri, who had been chairing meetings of a parliamentary subcommittee tasked with agreeing on a new electoral law, gave the MPs until Monday to bring their responses on the timeframe of the extension of parliament's mandate. Berri's move on Saturday came after the subcommittee's rival lawmakers failed to agree on a new law. The subcommittee will hold its last meeting at noon Monday to hear their proposals on the extension of the legislature's mandate. If there is lack of agreement on that as well, then the elections would take place based on the 1960 law which was used in the 2009 elections.

Cautious Calm in Ain el-Hilweh after Gunbattles Leave 1 Dead

Naharnet /A cautious calm prevailed in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh on Sunday after a man was killed and two others were injured in clashes between rival militants.
The gunbattles erupted between Fatah and Bilal Badr brigade that is linked to Fatah al-Islam in al-Sefsaf area after midnight and lasted till dawn Sunday. The National News Agency identified the dead man as Mouawiya Mazloum. It said the popular committees met at the camp, which lies near the southern city of Sidon, to contain the incident. The reason of the clashes remained unclear. Later Sunday, the camp's residents organized a march to protest the gunbattles. Ain el-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian camp in the country, is home to about 50,000 refugees and is known to harbor extremists and fugitives.By long-standing convention, the Lebanese army does not enter the country's 12 refugee camps, leaving security inside to the Palestinians themselves.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel to Ask Cabinet to Convene to Guarantee Election Funds
Naharnet /Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel reiterated on Sunday that he would ask the government to convene to approve the necessary funding to hold the elections and establish the committee that would supervise the polls.
In remarks to al-Mustaqbal newspaper, Charbel said: “I will hold the elections based on the valid law and let everyone assume his responsibility.”“I will open the deadline for the announcement of candidacies on Monday and will ask the cabinet to meet to guarantee the necessary funds for these elections and establish the committee that would oversee the polls,” he said. Last month, the parliament approve a draft-law to suspend electoral deadlines until May 19 to allow rival MPs to agree on a new vote system as an alternative to the 1960 law that was used in the 2009 elections. The decree was signed by President Michel Suleiman and caretaker Premier Najib Miqati. But the rival lawmakers meeting as part of a parliament's subcommittee failed on Saturday to reach consensus on a new law, suggesting the extension of the legislature’s mandate. Speaker Nabih Berri, who had been chairing the meetings of the subcommittee, gave the MPs until Monday to bring their responses on the timeframe of the extension of parliament's mandate. The subcommittee will hold its last meeting at noon Monday to hear their proposals on the extension of the mandate. If there is lack of agreement on that as well, then the June elections would take place based on the 1960 law.

Al-Rahi Slams Officials over Failure to Agree on Vote Law, Considers it 'Shameful'

Naharnet /Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi lamented on Saturday the crises in Lebanon that are threatening its stability and security, holding officials accountable for their failure to adopt a new electoral law that best suits the country.
“The irresponsible dealing with the crises in Lebanon tarnished its beautiful image,” al-Rahi, who is on a pastoral visit to Latin America, said. He lashed out at politicians, saying: “They are not worth their posts and will disappoint us if they failed to agree in a new electoral law and form a new cabinet.” “It is not allowed after six year of discussions and wasting time not to reach common ground over an electoral law... They don't deserve to return to power,” al-Rahi said. The rival parties have failed so far to reach a consensual electoral law, after the March 14 forces endorsed a hybrid law that did not receive the approval of the Phalange Party and the March 8 camp, who have demanded several amendments.  The parliament's electoral subcommittee has been holding consecutive meetings since Wednesday under the auspices of Speaker Nabih Berri in an attempt to reach consensus over the matter. An amended version of the 1960 law was adopted in the 2009 parliamentary elections, but the majority of the political blocs are refusing to adopt it for this year's polls.
The Orthodox Gathering law has meanwhile been rejected by President Michel Suleiman, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati, the Mustaqbal bloc, MP Walid Jumblat's National Struggle Front, and independent Christian March 14 MPs.The Orthodox draft law, which considers Lebanon a single electoral district and allows each sect to vote for its own MPs under a proportional representation system, is strongly backed by Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement.
Concerning the crisis in Syria, al-Rahi urged the Lebanese not to interfere in the affairs of any foreign country.
“We have always demanded others not to meddle in our local affairs and it's not acceptable for us to interfere in the conflict in Syria,” the patriarch said, calling on the rival parties to abide by the Baabda Declaration.
The Baabda Declaration was unanimously adopted during a national dialogue session in June 2012. It calls for Lebanon to disassociate itself from regional crises, most notably the one in Syria. Lebanese parties are sharply divided over the crisis in Syria as the March 8 alliance continuously expresses its support to Syrian president Bashar Assad, while the March 14 camp voices its support for the popular revolt.
The international community and analysts have expressed fears that the conflict in Syria may spill over into the Lebanon.

Iran Hangs Two for Spying for Israel, U.S.
Naharnet /Iran hanged two convicted spies on Sunday, one found guilty of working for Israel, the other for the United States, the Tehran prosecutor's office announced.
Mohammad Heydari was convicted of "receiving payment to provide intelligence on various security issues and national secrets in repeated meetings with the Mossad," Israel's intelligence agency, a statement said.
Koroush Ahmadi was found guilty of "providing intelligence on various issues to the CIA."
The statement did not give further details.Iran accuses its arch foes Israel and the United States of waging a deadly campaign of sabotage against its nuclear program and has announced a string of arrests of alleged agents in recent years.In May last year, Iran executed Majid Jamali Fashi after convicting him of spying for the Mossad and of playing a key role in the January 2010 assassination of a top nuclear scientist in return for payment of $120,000. Iran is also still holding U.S.-Iranian national, Amir Mirzai Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, whom it accuses of being an operative of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, despite vigorous denials by both Washington and his family.Source/Agence France Presse.


Church must help the poorest, not dissect theology, pope says
By Philip Pullella | /VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis shared personal moments with 200,000 people on Saturday, telling them he sometimes nods off while praying at the end of a long day and that it "breaks my heart" that the death of a homeless person is not news.
Francis, who has made straight talk and simplicity a hallmark of his papacy, made his unscripted comments in answers to questions by four people at a huge international gathering of Catholic associations in St. Peter's Square. But he outdid himself in passionately discussing everything from the memory of his grandmother to his decision to become a priest, from political corruption to his worries about a Church that too often closes in on itself instead of looking outward. "If we step outside of ourselves, we will find poverty," he said, repeating his call for Catholics to do more to seek out those on the fringes of society who need help the most," he said from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. "Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don't have food - that's not news. This is grave. We can't rest easy while things are this way." The crowd, most of whom are already involved in charity work, interrupted him often with applause. "We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those (who need help most)," he said. To laughter from the crowd, he described how he prays each day before an altar before going to bed."Sometimes I doze off, the fatigue of the day makes you fall asleep, but he (God) understands," he said.
Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, said the world was going through not just an economic crisis but a crisis of values.
"This is happening today. If investments in banks fall, it is a tragedy and people say 'what are we going to do?' but if people die of hunger, have nothing to eat or suffer from poor health, that's nothing. This is our crisis today. A Church that is poor and for the poor has to fight this mentality," he said. Many in the crowd planned to stay in the square overnight to pray and prepare for Francis' Mass on Sunday, when the Catholic Church marks Pentecost, the day it teaches that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. On Saturday morning, Francis met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and discussed Europe's economic crisis. Apparently responding to his criticism of a heartless "dictatorship of the economy" earlier in the week, Merkel, who is up for re-election in September, later called for stronger regulation of financial markets. On Thursday, Francis appealed in a speech for world financial reform, saying the global economic crisis had made life worse for millions in rich and poor countries. (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Israel warns against Russian arms supply to Syria
By Maayan Lubell/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Saturday that advanced weapons supplied by Russia to war-torn Syria could end up in the wrong hands and be used against the Jewish state.
A Russian shipment of Yakhont anti-ship missiles to Syria was condemned by the United States on Friday and Israel is also alarmed by the prospect of Russia supplying S-300 advanced air defense missile systems to Damascus. While Israel has declined to take sides in the civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebels trying to topple him, Western and Israeli sources say it has launched air strikes inside Syria in a bid to destroy weapons it believes are destined for the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio: "(Weapons) could reach others in Syria or Lebanon and be used against Israel."
"These are not just any weapons, they are tie-breakers, and that's why there is a responsibility with all world powers, certainly Russia, not to supply such arms," Livni said, adding that Israel had the right to defend itself.
Israel has neither denied nor confirmed reports that it attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near Damascus this month that it believed were awaiting delivery to Hezbollah, an Assad ally which fought a war with Israel in 2006.
Senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad said the S-300 and the Yakhont would likely end up with Hezbollah and threaten both Israel and U.S. forces in the Gulf.
"If Hezbollah and Iran are supporting Syria and propping the (Assad) regime up, then why shouldn't it transfer those weapons to Hezbollah? You don't even have to be an intelligence expert, it makes sense that they will," Gilad told Channel Two television's Meet the Press. In comments to Israel Radio on Friday, Gilad said: "If you ask the Russians if these weapons will be passed on to Hezbollah, they will say: 'No, that is against Russian law.' But it's not certain that Russian law is something they will respect. So if Hezbollah can put its hands on them, it will."The two-year-old civil war in Syria between Assad's forces and rebel fighters has killed at least 80,000 people and driven 1.5 million abroad.(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Assad Stresses He Will Not Step Down, Denies Using Chemical Weapons
Naharnet/Syrian President Bashar Assad said Saturday he welcomed a U.S.-Russian peace initiative to end Syria's civil war but had no plans to resign, in an interview with an Argentine newspaper. "To resign would be to flee," he told the Clarin when asked if he would consider stepping aside as called for by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
"I don't know if Kerry or anyone else has received the power of the Syrian people to talk in their name about who should go and who should stay. That will be determined by the Syrian people in the 2014 presidential elections," Assad said. Assad spoke to Clarin and the Argentine state news agency Telam in a lengthy interview in Damascus in which he also denied that his government has used chemical weapons against the civilian population.
His comments come amid a rare joint push by the United States and Russia to convene a peace conference in Geneva that would bring together members of the regime and the rebels fighting to oust Assad.
"We have received the Russian-U.S. approach well and we hope that there will be an international conference to help Syrians overcome the crisis," Clarin quoted Assad as saying.
He added, however, that "we do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria. And we don't think that the forces that support the terrorists want a solution to the crisis.
"We must be clear," he said. "There is confusion in the world over a political solution and terrorism. They think that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground. This is unrealistic."
Pressure for action on Syria has mounted with Western intelligence reports that the regime has used chemical weapons on at least two occasions and a death toll nearing 95,000 after 26 months of war, according to a Syrian observer group. Telam quoted Assad as denying that his government has used chemical weapons against its civilian population, saying that mass casualties could not be hidden if the regime had.
"The accusations against Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons or my resignation change every day. And it is likely that this is used as a prelude to a war against our country," he said.
"They said we use chemical weapons against residential areas. If they were used in a city or a suburb with only 10 or 20 victims, would that be credible?"
Their use, he said, "would mean the death of thousands or tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Who could hide something like that?"Assad also questioned the estimates of the number of dead produced by human rights groups, but acknowledged that "thousands of Syrians have died." "We shouldn't ignore that many of the dead that they talk about are foreigners who have come to kill the Syrian people," he said, blaming "local terrorism and that coming from abroad" for the violence. Clarin said Assad denied that his government was using "fighters from outside of Syria, of other nationalities, and needs no support from any Arab or foreign state.
"There are Hizbullah people in Iran, in Syria, but they come and go in Syria from long before the crisis," he said.Source/Agence France Presse.

N. Korea Test-fires Another Short-range Missile despite Pleas
Naharnet /North Korea Sunday test-fired a short-range missile off its east coast, its fourth in two days, despite pleas from South Korea and the U.N. chief to halt the launches at a time of high tensions.
The guided missile was fired into the East Sea (Sea of Japan) on Sunday afternoon, a defense ministry spokesman told Agence France Presse without elaborating.
On Saturday the North fired three short-range missiles off its east coast, apparently as part of a military drill.
The North's short-range missile launches are not unusual but come at a time of heightened alert on the peninsula, following Pyongyang's February nuclear test which sparked tougher U.N. sanctions.Angered by the sanctions and by a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise, the North for weeks threatened nuclear or conventional attacks on Seoul and Washington.
The South and its U.S. ally had earlier been on heightened alert for any test of medium-range Musudan missiles by the North. But a U.S. defense official said early in May the two mid-range missiles had been moved from their launch site. South Korea's unification ministry, which handles cross-border relations, said the launches pose threats to the region and should be stopped immediately.
"We find it deplorable that the North does not stop provocative actions such as the launch of guided missiles yesterday," said unification ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Seok, speaking before the latest exercise.
"We call on the North to take responsible actions for our sake and for the sake of the international community."
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Moscow, also called for Pyongyang to "refrain from" further missile tests. He said it was time for it to resume talks with the international community and reduce tensions.
The U.S. State Department urged Pyongyang to exercise restraint, without specifically commenting on the launches. It was unclear what type of missiles were fired Saturday and Sunday. Seoul military officials quoted by Yonhap news agency said they may be KN-02 surface-to-surface missiles with a range of up to 160 kilometers (99 miles), or rockets of at least 300mm in caliber fired from a multiple launcher.
Cross-border relations have also been soured by the suspension of operations at a jointly-run industrial complex. Kaesong Industrial Complex, established just north of the border in 2004 as a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, fell victim to the two months of elevated military tensions. The North barred South Korean access to the zone and pulled out its own 53,000 workers early last month. Seoul withdrew the last of its nationals early this month. When the South Koreans left, they loaded up cars with bundles of products, but were still forced to leave much stock behind.
The North last week rejected the South's call for talks on removing goods from the complex, calling it "a crafty ploy" to deflect blame for the suspension of operations.
"It is very regrettable that the North denigrates our offer for talks... and shifts blame for the suspension of the Kaesong complex to us," unification ministry spokesman Kim said Sunday, urging Pyongyang to come forward for talks as soon as possible.
Source/Agence France Presse.

Collision course
By: Toni Badran/Now Lebanon/
President Obama is on a collision course with his allies on Syria. As Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, and Britain call for more aggressive steps to topple Bashar al-Assad, the US president throws the Syrian dictator a lifeline. Obama’s policy is now clear: to use the peace process with the Russians to brush aside all calls for military involvement in Syria. This policy places US allies, eager to avoid a head-on collision with the US, in an increasingly difficult position. What is clear, however, is that the differences are gaping and obvious.
Nowhere was this more evident than during Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s trip to Washington. At a joint press conference with Erdogan, President Obama dispelled whatever ambiguity there might have remained about whether or not he intends to arm the Syrian opposition. The US president pointedly avoided mention of the matter. Instead, he emphasized that “the only way” to resolve the Syrian crisis is to go through the agreed framework with Moscow of a negotiated settlement with the Assad regime.
Before Erdogan arrived in Washington, the Turks made it known that the prime minister intended to urge the US to take more assertive action. Ankara also kept highlighting the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, conducting tests and gathering evidence to bring to Obama, in the hope that he would act on his professed ‘red line’. Unsurprisingly, Erdogan got nothing from the US president.
The divergence in the Turkish and US positions was obvious at the Rose Garden. “We have views that overlap,” Erdogan said. It was a polite way of voicing that significant and disappointing differences remained on the issues that mattered to Turkey, such as arming the Syrian opposition. Obama spoke only of “humanitarian efforts” and steps being taken to strengthen the opposition “politically.” In addition, the president made clear that his ‘red line’ bluff was just that. The US will not take action in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Instead, Obama reiterated that he required “specific information about what exactly is happening there.”
In other words, having shot down his Turkish ally’s appeals – much as he has done with all other US allies from France to Saudi Arabia – Obama presented his guest with “the only way” forward: a negotiated settlement with the regime. The only consolation for the Turkish Prime Minister was Obama’s statement that this process should somehow magically lead to Assad’s departure – not that he has bothered to spell out how that would come to pass.
None of this should come as a surprise. Over the last two years, Obama has used Russia to buy time and use Moscow’s veto by proxy to shoot down any call for intervention in Syria. The new US initiative with Russia is another such deflection. The present move toward the Kremlin came on the heels of Obama’s ‘red line’ fiasco. In late April, as pressure was mounting on the president to back up his ‘red line’, the administration once again resorted to leaking to the media that it was “considering” arming the rebels. But Obama, we were told, hadn’t yet decided. First, he wanted to send Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow.
That trip was presented to the media as a last warning to the Russians: either reconsider your support for Assad, or we’ll consider providing lethal support to the opposition. Perhaps. Or it could be that Obama, in keeping with his established pattern, rightly reasoned that by resurrecting the Geneva communiqué with the Russians, he would kick start a process, which he could then use to put the breaks on all movement toward military involvement. It’s been a year since Geneva. Why not buy another year?
But it’s not just calls for US involvement that Obama has stunted with this move. Take for instance how his decision has tripped up French and British efforts to amend the European arms embargo on Syria in order to supply the rebels. The French have now signaled that they will continue to float the proposal but would delay allowing for it to take effect unless the proposed peace conference in Geneva next month fails. The French, looking at least to maintain some leverage, are trying to keep this prospect alive as a means to pressure Assad. Meanwhile the British are arguing that lifting the embargo would incentivize the Syrian opposition to buy into the process. But Paris is worried about the unclear time frame of Obama’s new process. And it has every reason to be. The head of the Syria team at the British Foreign Office, for instance, has said the process is going to be “long” and “difficult.”
That suits Obama’s purposes fine. And as the US invests more in this process, it is likely to press its allies to scale down their weapons supplies to the rebels, especially Islamist formations, so as not to compromise the peace process. It wouldn’t be surprising if Secretary Kerry relayed such a request to the Friends of Syria at the meeting in Jordan next week. Needless to say, the Russians have long maintained that requirement prior to any negotiation.
The US is already urging the Qataris to get in line and channel support exclusively through the National Coalition’s General Command, led by General Salim Idriss, with whom Washington is working to distribute its non-lethal aid. Both Kerry and Ambassador Robert Ford have been working hard to convince Idriss to send representatives of the rebels to the upcoming conference. Idriss and his colleagues will try to condition attendance on receiving military support. However, they’re likely to be given promises of such aid only in the event the peace initiative fails.
Whether the administration actually believes that the Russians will, or can, compel Assad to negotiate his own departure is unclear. Certainly, nothing the Kremlin has done since Kerry’s trip to Moscow indicates any interest in abandoning Assad, or in helping the US “change his calculation.” Rather, it has signaled it will send more advanced weapons systems to the embattled dictator. Russia’s objective is to allow Assad to consolidate his position in Damascus, Homs, and the coastal mountains, with massive help from Iran and Hezbollah, and negotiate from a position of strength. Ultimately, the Russians probably feel Obama might yet come around on Assad. Or, at the very least, he’d be forced to accept a fait accompli in order to restore stability and avoid an escalation of the Syrian conflict that engulfs Washington’s regional allies.
By now it should be clear that president Obama’s foremost interest is to avoid involvement in Syria. Frustrated with this policy, the influential Saudi columnist, Tariq al-Homayed, wrote several months ago advising concerned parties to “act as though the US was not present.” The question is whether anxious allies will continue to accommodate the US president’s preference for disengagement, to the detriment of their security and national interests.
**Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Opinion: Sectarianism and Syria
By: Ghassan Al Imam/Now Lebanon
What does the political situation in Syria look like on the ground after the recent Israeli airstrikes and the bomb attacks on the Turkish–Syrian border?
Moscow’s peace efforts are once again being overwhelmed by the increasing signs of war. The Syrian regime, supported by Hezbollah militias as well as Iranian and Iraqi volunteers, continues to counter the attacks on all fronts.
Peace, meanwhile, is limping on two crutches: one shaky and American, the other solid and Russian.
Israel has become involved in Syria, as well, as demonstrated by the airstrikes it launched on Iranian and Hezbollah arsenals near Damascus. By accusing Assad’s regime of being responsible for the bombings of Rehanlı, in the Turkish province of Hatay, it is highly probable that Turkey will become involved in the Syrian conflict as well.
Hatay is the Turkish name for the former Syrian province of İskenderun; it lies on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. During its mandate on Syria, France annexed İskenderun to Turkey in 1939, in an attempt to dissuade it from joining forces with Germany during the Second World War.
Rehanlı’s residents are Arab Alawites; they did not move to Syria after their town was annexed to Turkey. The town’s residents, along with the Turkish Alawite minority estimated to be five to ten million people, do not seem to like the Sunni regime of Erdoğan. Rather, they are biased towards the Alawite regime in Syria for emotional and sectarian reasons.
There are no permanent friends or enemies, but there are permanent interests in international relations. Over the past hundred years, Turkish–Syrian relations have witnessed boycotts, separation, talks, greetings, and even a state in the early 2000s that looked like they were dating, the two countries were so close. When the Syrian regime began to murder its own people, however, Turkey sided with the revolution, offering support through the borders. As a punishment, Bashar Al-Assad scuppered Turkey’s flourishing trade with Jordan and the Gulf.
In fact, the Alawite minority in Turkey have restricted the Erdoğan regime’s freedom to maneuver or to pressure and threaten the Assad regime. It is true that the Turkish regime supports the Syrian opposition factions; however, patience is wearing thin among the Arab Alawite remnants in Hatay/İskenderun over the influx of refugees, whether Arab or Kurdish Sunnis; the tension is directed at the Al-Nusra Front-linked armed rebels in particular.
In my opinion, the Reyhanlı bombings were committed by the hardliner jihadist Al-Nusra Front in response to the ill-treatment they suffered at the hands of the town’s Alawite residents. Yet, Turkey has accused the Syrian regime.
The ball now is in Turkey’s court: will Erdoğan react? When? How? Or will he remain silent, content to support the revolution from across the northern border? If he reacts, Turkey will be the new party involved in the Syrian civil war, after Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Israel.
Others have predicted that the Golan Heights will become the next front in this war—but this is an empty Iranian threat. Iran and Hezbollah are in an awkward situation, as they have yet to react to the Israeli bombardment of Iran’s arsenals, which is under the control of the Alawite 4th Armored Division. Fighting on the Golan front is beyond Hezbollah’s capability, particularly after Israel has destroyed the Iranian shipment of surface-to-air missiles.
In fact, failing to react is an embarrassment to Hezbollah, rather than to Iran. This is because Hezbollah is killing Syrian Arabs in their own country, using Shi’ite blood to support Bashar’s project of establishing an Alawite state that extends from Damascus in the south to Aleppo in the middle and the Syrian coast in the north and the west.
Discontent among Lebanon’s Shi’ites over Hezbollah’s involvement in the Golan Heights and in the Syrian war grows with ever funeral procession for one of the party’s dead, returning from Syria for the last time.
Besides, Sunnis in Lebanon might not agree to participate in a government whose Shi’ite members are murdering Sunni Arabs in Syria. If no government is formed, Hezbollah and Iran would lose the possibility of dominating the political apparatus in Lebanon. This is a real possibility following the resignation of the former prime minister, Najib Mikati.
The importance of Al-Qusayr, which is being besieged by the regime’s troops and Hezbollah together with other districts in Homs, lies in it being a strategic link between Damascus and the mountainous and coastal towns populated by the Alawite minority.
The confrontations in Al-Qusayr and Homs appear to be purely sectarian, as the besieged opposition forces, together with tens of thousands of civilians and injured, are predominantly jihadist forces like the Al-Nusra Front. Moreover, Hezbollah’s participation gives the conflict the appearance of a Shi’ite–Sunni war.
I think that the reason the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is hesitant to lift the siege is because the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front refuses to be under the leadership of the FSA and adopt its military tactics.
The Alawite regime rushed to close the front that Lebanese Sunni jihadist groups had opened in Baniyas and Tartus, massacring Sunni civilians along the coast. However, opening such fronts should remind Bashar and his sect that the establishment of an Alawite state among a Sunni majority is a mere delusion. Bashar is not familiar with history: Syrians have already undermined a project that aimed at partitioning their country into five sectarian states after occupation—in 1920.
The Syrian opposition had high hopes that the US and Europe would arm its factions. However, oscillations between arming and not arming the opposition by the dove-like Obama administration have pressured the opposition into negotiating with Bashar. Russia has managed to force the US to accept an unfair political solution, without it or its two partners, China and Iran, making any concessions themselves.
Events on the ground will dictate who participates in negotiations. Jihadist groups have already refused to participate in any such negotiations; the Muslim Brotherhood has already agreed to participate. The spokesman of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), Haytham Manaa, has pushed himself into the spotlight, taking on a leadership role even greater than that of the NCC head, Hassan Abdul-Azim. Michel Kilo founded a new opposition organization in Cairo that is possibly affiliated with the “secularist” General Manaf Tlass and his father, Mustafa Tlass.
In the meantime, the regime has made significant gains on more than one front. Should the Iranian and Russian weapons continue to flow, the large areas that have been liberated by the FSA would turn into besieged and fragile islands, which would thwart the revolution.
The Syrian opposition’s problem lies in its chaos and its lack of unity, both politically and militarily. The FSA is in control of large pockets of land that expand from the desert of eastern Syria all the way to Aleppo and Idlib provinces in the north and the west. Tribes rushed to dominate the oil sector, which the Assad family once controlled. By losing control of that oil money, it became impossible for Assad to fund the project of restoring the country’s legitimacy and credibility before Arabs and the world.
Perhaps a joint Saudi–Turkish–Qatari effort could settle the issue before the Moscow “agreement” turns into a bilateral, binding one at the Obama–Putin Summit scheduled for mid-June.
I believe that these three states are capable of influencing the proposed negotiations between the opposition and the regime, if they succeed in strengthening the opposition’s field gains as well as in imposing a minimal degree of unity and coordination between its factions, and should Qatar be convinced that the imported jihadist opposition must be curbed.