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Latest analysis, editorials, studies, reports, letters & Releases from miscellaneous sources For March 22/14
Latest News Reports From Miscellaneous Sources For March 22/14
Lebanese Related News
Miscellaneous Reports And News'
Tripoli clashes intensify, death toll
March 21, 2014/By Antoine Amrieh, Misbah al-Ali/The Daily Star
TRIPOLI: Fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the northern city of Tripoli intensified Friday, with no end in sight to the violence that has increasingly targeted Lebanese soldiers.
The death toll from the eight-day clashes between the predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen district rose to 24 with 160 people wounded so far, security sources said.
Two people were killed by sniper fire Friday as three others succumbed to wounds sustained earlier this week.
The Army said four soldiers were wounded when the military responded to sources of fire, bringing the total number of wounded soldiers to 33 since the clashes began on March 13.
The Army announced it had carried out raids in Al-Qibbeh, Hariri project, Al-Amrikan Street, Al-Biqar and Al-Riva streets, confiscating a number of light and heavy weapons as well as military gear.
Earlier in the day, a roadside bomb hit a military patrol unit in the Bahsas neighborhood, damaging a number of vehicles, the Army said in another statement.
A military expert estimated that the makeshift bomb contained 1,700 grams of explosives and was placed inside a dumpster, a security source said.
Fighting intensified after midnight Thursday as the warring sides traded mortar bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and B-10 recoilless rifles.
One B-10 rocket hit Street 33, which is famous for its restaurants, causing material damage only.
The sound of explosions rocked many parts of the city before fighting eased around 8 a.m. But sniper fire continued to reverberate across Tripoli.
An RPG struck the residence of Mahmoud Qeys in the Beddawi Refugee camp, causing material damage, while another person was wounded by sniper fire inside his house.
This is the 20th round of fighting between the rival neighborhoods since the uprising in Syria began in March of 2011.
In a bid to curb the cycle of violence in the city, the government decided in December to place Tripoli under the command of the Army for a period of six months, but the plan was undermined by two rounds of fighting this year.
Schools and universities remained closed for a ninth day as students voiced fears over the forced closure.
"They [gunmen] have made us lose a whole [school] year," complained Nour Sharif, a senior at the private Rawdat al-Faihaa school.
She also expressed frustration at the schools' handling of the security situation, saying the administration sends text messages informing students that classes are open but that their safety is their responsibility.
Meanwhile, the head of the Merchants' Association in Tripoli, Asaad Hariri, warned that residents will take matters into their own hands should the fighting persist.
"It the government continues to abandon its role [in ending the clashes], we will call for civil disobedience in one week," Hariri told The Daily Star.
"We will stop paying water, electricity and telephone bills because the [poor economic] conditions in Tripoli are no longer bearable," he added.
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly condemned the violence in Tripoli, after a meeting with Prime Minister Tammam Salam Friday.
“We have all been deeply disturbed by the ongoing violence in Tripoli, by the repeated and totally unacceptable violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty along Lebanon’s northern and eastern borders with Syria and by the consequent loss of life,” he said in a statement.
International community frustrated
March 21, 2014/By Elise Knutsen/The Daily Star
Is the international community losing its patience with Lebanon? A well-positioned source has hinted as much to The Daily Star.
While encouraged by the formation of the Cabinet, some members of the international community are frustrated that a number of development projects are stalling due to an effective standstill in government work, the source said.“Frankly, it’s irritating,” the source added.The same source noted that more than $600 million in development projects for Lebanon are awaiting governmental approval. More than a third of that sum comes from France.
Diplomats and members of the international community consider it “urgent” that the government begin functioning normally.
Increasingly, the international community, and France in particular, has acknowledged the importance of supporting Lebanese institutions during this fraught time. Earlier this month, Elysee Palace hosted a meeting for the International Support Group for Lebanon during which participants underscored the importance of bolstering the Lebanese Army.
With the country’s military set to receive $3 billion in French arms, equipment and training paid for by Saudi Arabia, France has been forced to defend itself from accusations that it is meddling in Lebanese politics.
But “ France has no veto” over what arms the Army can receive, the source told The Daily Star. Details of the arms agreement are expected to be hashed out at an expert level meeting to be held in Rome on April 10. The arms agreement does not require the approval of Lebanon’s Parliament, the source added.
Elysee Palace is also keeping a close eye on the situation in Arsal. Unlike various parties in the March 8 camp, most of whom have decried the erstwhile sleepy town for being a terrorist haven, Paris considers the crisis in Arsal to be “primarily humanitarian” but admits that the fall of Yabroud just across the border in Syria has added a “security element” to the town’s situation.
The international community, the source said, is well aware that the political-security situation is fluid and, as a result, is working to ensure Lebanon “doesn’t sink.”
The statement is hardly encouraging but reflects the country’s new reality where incidents of “spillover” from the Syrian war are becoming increasingly common.
But although Western countries have repeated ad infinitum their desire to support Lebanese institutions, many ask where exactly is the evidence of this much promised assistance?
Only a handful of countries have contributed to the World Bank multidonor trust fund for Lebanon so far, and less than $50 million has actually been received to date.
Given the above mentioned foot dragging of the Lebanese authorities, reticence in donating directly to the government might be forgiven. Furthermore, the source said, members of the international community were growing weary of the constant Lebanese clamoring for more help with the refugee crisis. “Stop saying that nothing is being done,” said the source, chiding an imagined Lebanese audience. “Maybe the aid is not sufficient, but there has been an outpouring [of support].”
National Dialogue session set for
March 21, 2014 /The Daily Star/BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman Friday called for a National Dialogue session at the end of the month for the resumption of talks on the national defense strategy aimed at resolving the controversy over Hezbollah’s arsenal. “The Lebanese presidency invited members of the National Dialogue committee to convene a session on Monday, March 31, at 11 a.m., to continue discussion on the national defense strategy,” a statement from Baabda Palace said. The last Dialogue session was held on Nov. 12, 2012, two months after Sleiman proposed a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its weapons but under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would enjoy a monopoly on the use of force. Hezbollah’s arsenal would be used by the state until the Army is able to take over all defense responsibilities.
The majority of political parties, barring the Lebanese Forces, attended the last Dialogue sessions. The LF, which recently voiced willingness for “serious dialogue” with Hezbollah, argued that the sessions were futile so long as Hezbollah is unwilling to hand over the party’s weapons to the state. Sleiman said he sent the invitations after the formation of an all-embracing, national interest Cabinet and deliberations in Parliament that culminated with a vote of confidence in the new Cabinet. He also said that the Dialogue session would convene in light of “critical developments and the magnitude of its repercussion on Lebanon which is tied to the decisive events on the regional and international levels.” “I am pleased to invite you to attend the National Dialogue session on the basis that dialogue is the only means to agree on how to cope with the risks facing Lebanon, namely the Israeli enemy, terrorism, and the proliferation of arms in the hands of citizens and residents,” the invite read.
March 21, 2014/The Daily Star
In what has almost become a national sport, Parliament played its part in blocking roads over the last two days, meeting to pass a confidence vote on the new Cabinet’s policy statement, an outcome no one was surprised by.
Whether for a wedding, a funeral, workers’ disputes or outbreaks of violence, roads are closed, somewhere in Lebanon, on what must now be a daily basis. And while the security forces and authorities continue to denounce such closures, anyone who works in Downtown Beirut, or who has the misfortune to have to transit through the area, saw over the last two days that the needs of politicians themselves are the exception to the rule.
And for what? Every party with members in the Cabinet had already made their position on the policy statement abundantly clear. We have been inundated, over recent days, with MPs from every bloc speaking on the issue, when really we needed just one statement from each group. It was clear that for many the talking point served as little more than an opportunity to remind the electorate that they still exist, in the absence of any tangible political or legislative developments. While many of the members of the new government may have the best intentions, the contents of the policy statement are unnecessarily and characteristically grandiose. Some articles have been floating around in policy statements for the last 60-plus years, with little to show on the ground. All the Lebanese really seek, at this moment in time, is some sense of security and normalcy.
Now that the theatrics of the last few days are over, perhaps the government can get to work on these issues.
Salam Enters Grand Serail after Confidence Vote, Meets Plumbly
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/Prime Minister Tammam Salam entered the Grand Serail on Friday in an official ceremony a day after his 24-member government received a vote of confidence.
Senior staff welcomed him at the government house in downtown Beirut. An Internal Security Forces band played patriotic music as Salam walked on the red carpet. Ninety Six MPs of the 128-member parliament backed on Thursday Salam's government after a two-day debate on its policy statement. Four lawmakers voted against it while a fifth abstained. Salam thanked the MPs “for their valuable suggestions” and said his cabinet shares their concerns. “We promise that we will put the legitimate demands on the track of implementation,” Salam said in a speech that preceded the vote of confidence. “Let no one expect miracles and we will do everything in our capacity to address the problems,” he said, calling for “strengthening accord so that it becomes a net of safety for our country." He also promised to hold the presidential elections on time to prevent vacuum. U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly, was the first diplomat to meet with Salam after the ceremony to congratulate him on the vote of confidence. The major support that the premier got in parliament is a sign that that the Lebanese people are determined to preserve stability and the continuity of the state's institutions, Plumbly said after the talks. The diplomat also welcomed a decision by the government to give priority to security issues.
“The United Nations looks forward to working closely with the government in addressing many of the subjects highlighted in the ministerial statement, including the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the implementation of resolution 1701,” he said. “We have all been deeply disturbed by the ongoing violence in Tripoli, by the repeated and totally unacceptable violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty along Lebanon’s northern and eastern borders with Syria and by the consequent loss of life,” he added. Plumbly lauded the Lebanese army and security forces that “have been working tirelessly to safeguard the country in these difficult times.”
Egyptian FM holds talks with Lebanon
March 21, 2014/The Daily Star/BEIRUT: Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmi, held talks Friday with senior Lebanese officials to discuss local and regional developments.
Fahmi arrived in Lebanon accompanied by a delegation of Egyptian officials for a three-day visit.
He held talks with President Michel Sleiman over the bilateral ties between Lebanon and Egypt and conveyed the greetings of Egyptian President Adli Mansour to the president.
Fahmi also met with Parliament speaker Nabih Berri in the latter’s Ain al-Tineh residence. The Egyptian official described his visit to Beirut as a “message” to assure that “ Egypt will resume the glory of its Arab role.”
“ Egypt intends to build a good future free of any sort of terrorism,” he said. Fahmi also met with his Lebanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and is set to meet later in the day with Prime Minister Tammam Salam.
George Kahmazian Released after Payment of Ransom
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/Lebanese citizen George Kahmazian, who was abducted in Baalbek on Thursday, has been released after the payment of a ransom to his kidnappers, the state-run National News Agency said. NNA said Kahmazian was set free at dawn Friday after the abductors were paid a 12,000 dollar ransom. Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) said, however, that the man was released near the entrance to the town of al-Taybeh without the payment of a ransom. Kahmazian was kidnapped by gunmen riding a yellow Toyota FJ Cruiser and a white Grand Cherokee, who intercepted his gray Cherokee Laredo near the Dar al-Ajaza al-Islamia center in the Baalbek region town of Shlifa, NNA said Thursday. The agency said Kahmazian's brother Ara received a phone call from the kidnappers, who asked for a $50,000 ransom. Several residents of Douris and relatives of Kahmazian blocked the town's entrance with burning tires, cutting off the route that leads to Baalbek and northern Bekaa to protest the abduction.
Lebanese Cabinet to Hold First Session Next Week after Winning Confidence Vote
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/The cabinet is set to hold a meeting next week after President Michel Suleiman returns from Kuwait where he will attend the Arab Summit, which is expected to tackle the latest developments in Lebanon. Sources told al-Joumhouria newspaper published on Friday that the cabinet will hold it's first meeting after it won a confidence vote in parliament on Thursday.
Suleiman is expected to head to Kuwait on Monday to attend a two-day Arab summit. Sources close to Prime Minister Tammam Salam told the newspaper that the premier will discuss the timing of the first session.
Salam's government garnered the support of 96 out of 101 lawmakers who attended Thursday's vote. His 24-person Cabinet includes members of March 8 and 14 coalitions. Following more than 10 months of political wrangling, Salam cobbled together his government in February after bridging a political divide among the political forces. The government is not expected to remain in office long. A new Cabinet should be formed after Suleiman's six-year term ends in May and a new head of state is elected.
Hezbollah's mouthpiece: Syria-border attack – game changer
By: Roi Kais/Ynetnews/21.March/14/Paper affiliated with the organization claims Israel believed its Lebanon strike will be unanswered – and was wrong. Hezbollah sees the attack on the Israel-Syria border on Tuesday and the injuring of four IDF soldiers as "new ground rules according to the resistance." In an opinion piece written by Ibrahim Al-Amin, editor of Lebanon's heavily pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar, it is claimed that Hezbollah knows everything about Israel – however Israel does not know much about the organization, thus did not anticipate the response. "Israel tried its luck when bombing the Hezbollah facility on the Syria-Lebanon border in the Lebanon Valley area," the article read. "Israel did not ignore Hezbollah's message, that stressed there will be a response, but it did not know how and when. And then the tables have turned: Rocket fire towards a Mount Hermon outpost and an attempt to place an explosive in the Golan Heights."
The writer further noted that even though Hezbollah did not claim responsibility for the attack, Israel accused the organization out of hope that it was the anticipated response. "In such a situation, Israel can use the space of denial and thus shut down the game. Hezbollah knows Israel well and knows what happens within it a lot more than really needed. The organization knows when Israel gets the message and helps it take it in, and even pulls the strings to have Israel operate according to its wishes." In the article that somewhat signifies the terror organization's responsibility for the recent attack, Al-Amin added that Hezbollah's desire to set new ground rules led its people to place two explosives on the northern Israeli border, after a special commando force managed to cross all security barriers.
"One (explosive device) exploded when a command patrol passed and the other was left for the soldiers, for them to find it at a later time. The nature and power of the devices were prepared within 'a small and special mailbox' so that Israel would know the sender's identity." It was further claimed in the article in that the explosive in the Golan, which Israel claims was skillfully prepared, made Israel attack an outpost within Syria. According to Al-Amin, "the non-fatal hits caused Israel to not be able to expressly say Hezbollah is behind the attack, but it responded against Syrian army outposts and claimed they were liable for the action."
Al-Amin, who is considered Nasrallah's mouthpiece, wrote that compared to the Syrian arena, where according to reports Israel had struck and calm was maintained, in Lebanon the situation is different. "Israel's problem is not only its wrongful speculation about the nature of the response of the Syrian regime or Hezbollah over the ongoing escalating tensions, but it thinks that things can be done while it chooses to act unilaterally," it was claimed.
"It is true that enemy forces attacked Syrian outposts in front of the occupied Golan, but Israel knows that an attack would not change a thing in the new reality."
Hezbollah defined their recent operation as an incident designed to draw the attention of Israel to the reality in the field. "It forces Israel to face to limited options: Either hide the pain, scream to resolve the problem or respond with an under-the-belt attack that would make the other side retreat," Al-Amin wrote.
General Security Slams Wahhab, Says Ibrahim's Visits to Syria under State's Authority
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/The General Security Directorate slammed on Friday criticism by Arab Tawhid Party leader Wiam Wahhab concerning the continuous visits by its chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim to foreign countries, in particular to Syria. “Ibrahim cares to clarify that his visits to foreign countries and specifically to Syria fall under the state's authority, including President Michel Suleiman,” a communique issued by the General Security Directorate stressed. Wahhab said in an interview on Thursday night with LBCI's Kalam Ennas talk show that Ibrahim is a close friend of Syrian Security Chief Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, who is charged by the Lebanese judiciary along with former Information Minister Michel Samaha with forming a group to commit terrorist crimes in Lebanon. The two were also charged with plotting to assassinate political and religious figures.
Wahhab said that Ibrahim holds weekly meetings with Mamlouk in Syria. The General Security's statement pointed out that “these visits were to grant freedom to the Lebanese abducted in Syria” and to resolve the pending issues between the two countries. The statement wondered “what their visits (those who are criticizing the head of the directorate) to Syria or other countries over the past decades helped resolve other than their personal interests.”“The tasks carried out by the General Security Directorate and its productivity are not evaluated by (former) Minister Wahhab or others but only the competent Lebanese authorities and the Lebanese people.”The statement continued: “The systematic blackmailing through cheap pens or by the exploitation of television programs will not benefit the personal interests of those people.”“The General Security Directorate, since Ibrahim was appointed at its head, was keen not to reply to offenders or critics in the belief that engaging in verbal spats with anyone is useless,” the communique noted.
Syrian Forces Kill 2 Shepherds on Outskirts of Bekaa Towns
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/A Lebanese and a Syrian shepherd were killed on Friday after Syrian forces opened fire on them on the outskirts of neighboring towns in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Yasser Mohammed Yassine, a 44-year-old Lebanese, and his Syrian relative, Ahmed Nader, from the town of Kfaryabous were killed on the outskirts of Anjar and Majdal Anjar, a security source said. The two men own a small farm in the area, the source said. According to media reports and after the shooting, the town's residents gathered to head to the area where they were killed in coordination with the security forces to take their bodies to a local hospital.
Suleiman Says Resistance Overstepped Authority Given to it
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/President Michel Suleiman lashed out at the resistance on Friday, saying that it transcended the power given to it when it decided to engage in battles in the neighboring country Syria.
“I am committed to my inauguration oath but when the resistance surpassed the authority given to it I had to be honest with the public and say what my responsibilities compel my as per my constitutional post,” Suleiman said in comments published in al-Joumhouria newspaper. Suleiman said that the campaigns against him over his recent remark that “wooden equations” should be evaded, the “people-army-resistance formula was proven to be void.”
He addressed those who are behind the political campaign targeting him, saying: “You agreed to adopt the Baabda declaration then backed down... It was established to safeguard the country from all dangers.”
Suleiman wondered if the involvement in battles in Syria safeguards the country. He ruled out reports saying that the term “wooden” he used during a speech at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK) in February to describe the people-army-resistance formula is the mistake of an adviser. “They still don't know who Michel Suleiman is,” the president stressed. Suleiman's comments had enraged Hizbullah, accusing him of not being able to differentiate between “what's golden and what's wooden. The party said that Baabda Palace has come to require “special care."The president reiterated calls on Hizbullah to withdraw from the neighboring country Syria as the matter had a negative impact on Lebanon. Hizbullah has dispatched fighters to battle alongside the Syrian regime against rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar Assad. The conflict, pitting a Sunni-dominated rebel movement against Assad, has raised sectarian tensions in Lebanon and Lebanese Sunni fighters have also been killed while fighting alongside Syrian rebels. mThe 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. Concerning the upcoming presidential elections, Suleiman said that the constitutional deadlines should be respected. “I will hand over my post and go back home, knowing that I did what my national duty and conscience compel me,”Suleiman told the newspaper. Suleiman’s tenure ends in May 2014, but the constitutional period to elect a new head of state begins on March 25, two months prior to the expiration of Suleiman’s mandate.
Weapons, Ammunition Seized at Naameh Arms Depot
Naharnet Newsdesk 20 March 2014/..A cache of weapons and military equipment was seized Thursday in the coastal town of Naameh, around 20 kilometers south of Beirut. “State Security agents raided an arms depot in Naameh and seized weapons, ammunition, hand grenades and military equipment,” al-Jadeed television reported. The TV network published pictures of the confiscated items on its website. Earlier on Thursday, al-Mayadeen TV said “security forces raided an arms depot and arrested a man belonging to the Salafist movement in the Naameh area."In August 2013, around 250 kilograms of TNT and other explosive material, fuses and detonators were found in a car parked in an underground garage in Naameh. Detained top Qaida-linked militant Naim Abbas has recently confessed that the Naameh car bombing ring busted in August 2013 had links to the the Qaida-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades. The Naameh cell members are allegedly involved in the Ruweis bombing that shook Beirut's southern suburbs on August 15 2013, killing more than 20 people and wounding at least 300 others. The Naameh ring members Issa Aa., Wissam Aa.and Khaled M. were arrested, however the whereabouts of S. B. and M. A. are still unknown.
Syria Army Advances Bolstered by Hizbullah, Rebel Divisions
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/Syria's army has been making advances against the opposition in recent days by exploiting divisions among rebel fighters and by relying on elite fighters from Hizbullah, analysts say.
On Sunday, the regime seized the rebel bastion of Yabrud, near the Lebanese border, dealing a powerfully symbolic and strategic blow. And on Thursday, its forces recaptured the famed Krak des Chevaliers Crusader castle in central Homs province, which had been seized by rebels shortly after the uprising began in March 2011. The advances have been aided by a new strategy developed in the wake of truces negotiated between the government and opposition in areas around Damascus, an army official told Agence France Presse. "The army has learned the lessons of the truces around Damascus," where exhausted fighters have laid down their arms. "It completely encircles an area and allows fighters to leave if they turn over their arms and pledge not to resume fighting," he added. "That creates serious divisions between the local rebels and the hardliners, particularly the jihadists, and then the army attacks." The description accords with accounts given by fighters and activists in both Yabrud, where jihadists accused moderate rebels of abandoning the town, and the Krak des Chevaliers battle. "The fort area was under army siege for more than two years," an activist with ties to rebel commanders in Homs told AFP. "To get food in, the fighters had to pay bribes at the military checkpoints."He said the rebels were left exhausted, and were further demoralized after troops took the nearby town of Al-Zara. "The situation became even more difficult, and there was an agreement where the regime agreed to open a safe passage for the fighters to leave to Lebanon so they could withdraw, and that's what happened," he said. Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said that had become a familiar scenario in the conflict, now in its fourth year. "Free Syrian Army-linked groups have consistently demonstrated a willingness to pragmatically withdraw when the defense of a certain locality has become futile," he told AFP. Jihadist fighters, including the al-Qaida affiliated Al-Nusra Front, have been less willing to do so in some cases, leading to "recriminations," he added. The divisions have been exacerbated by infighting in rebel-held areas in the north, where opposition groups have turned against the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. And fighters say new weapons pledged by outside backers and the opposition National Coalition never arrived at the Yabrud front. Fabrice Balanche, a Syria specialist and geographer, also cited the opposition divisions. "A divided opposition facing a united regime cannot win," he said. But he noted that Hizbullah and the National Defense Forces, a local pro-regime militia, had help bolster the army.
"Since the recapture of Qusayr, the regime has gone on the offensive," he said, referring to a Homs provincial town the army took from the rebels last June.
"The National Defense Forces are protecting the territory that the government has taken, which has freed up the soldiers to launch new offensives, strengthened by Hizbullah," he told AFP. The Lebanese group is believed to have played a key role in the army's recapture of Yabrud, which lies close to the Lebanese border. The fall of the town and subsequent operations nearby to seal off the border will sever rebel supply lines that ran across it.
The town's capture came after a lengthy regime operation in the surrounding Qalamun region last year, during which it captured a string of nearby towns and began shelling Yabrud.
Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh, also emphasized Hizbullah's role in the capture of Yabrud and broader Qalamun. "The regime's success in Qalamun was due to Hizbullah's strong involvement because of the area's proximity to Lebanon," he said. But he cautioned against assuming the regime's recent advances marked a turning point in the conflict, noting rebel success elsewhere. "I think that we need to do away with these generalizations, between these military developments are highly local," he said. "The regime advances in some areas; it is pushed back in others." Source/Agence France Presse.
Putin Signs Crimea Seizure into Law in Kremlin Ceremony
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/President Vladimir Putin on Friday sealed the absorption of Crimea into Russia after the upper house of parliament unanimously ratified the treaty in the face of international condemnation.
In a televised ceremony in the Kremlin, Putin signed the legal documents then received a standing ovation from lawmakers and the singing of the Russian anthem. "Today we have a serious, momentous event. Today we are completing the legal procedures connected with the addition of Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia," Putin said. "I want to congratulate you, all the inhabitants of the country, Russian citizens, the inhabitants of Crimea and Sevastopol on this landmark -- without any exaggeration -- event." Putin signed the initial agreement on Tuesday, which then had to be ratified by the lower and upper houses of parliament in a swift formality. The Kremlin has said that it considers Crimea part of Russia since the signing of the treaty. The treaty creates two new Russian administrative regions: Crimea and the port city of Sevastopol where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based. Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, vowed that a new map showing Crimea as part of Russia would be hung in its offices by Monday. "Thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, for your will, for your courage, for not giving into any pressure, and I hope you felt that all the time we were with you," said Matviyenko, who is one of the Russian lawmakers to be targeted by U.S. sanctions.
The upper house earlier on Friday voted unanimously to ratify the treaty, a day after the lower house of parliament, the Duma, ratified it with just one MP voting against. The citizens of Crimea "clearly and unambiguously made their choice to return to the Motherland and the Motherland was waiting for them," said the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, who has also been blacklisted by the U.S. Putin warned lawmakers: "We have a lot of work ahead on adapting Crimea to the Russian legal system, into the Russian economy, the social sphere", asking them to ensure the transition was "not only painless but beneficial to all Russia and the Crimeans."
Source/Agence France Presse.
Rockets Hit Runway in Libya's Tripoli, Halting Flights
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/Two rockets struck a runway at the international airport in Libya's capital Tripoli on Friday, forcing the suspension of flights, an airport source said. "Two rockets exploded on the main runway of the airport, causing damage. For security reasons, flights were suspended until further notice," the source said on condition of anonymity. The blasts took place at around 05:00 am (03:00 GMT), at a time when the day's inbound and outbound traffic had yet to begin. An airline representative in the capital told Agence France Presse that the authorities had informed firms operating at the airport that flights would remain suspended until 1030 GMT on Saturday. Since long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi was deposed in 2011 and killed by rebels in October that year, the international airport has been under the control of former insurgents from Zintan, 170 kilometers (105 miles) southwest of Tripoli. It is at Zintan that Gadhafi's son and one-time presumed heir Seif al-Islam is being held by ex-rebels. The North African country's transitional authorities have so far failed to disarm former rebel militias or integrate them into Libya's nascent armed forces. Eastern Libya has become a bastion of Islamist extremists, with authorities avoiding a full-blown confrontation with heavily armed former rebels pending the formation of a regular army and police force. On Thursday, however, the government announced it was mobilizing its security forces after acknowledging for the first time that "terrorist groups" were behind dozens of attacks against security services and Westerners. "The nation finds itself in a confrontation with terrorist groups, and it falls upon the government to mobilize its military and security forces to fight this scourge," said a statement published on the government's website. Source/Agence France Presse.
Australian Planes Search Remote Seas for Malaysia Jet Debris
Naharnet Newsdesk 21 March 2014/Spotter planes on Friday scoured a remote, storm-tossed stretch of the Indian Ocean for wreckage from a Malaysian jet, as Chinese relatives of the missing passengers clashed with Malaysian officials over their handling of the search operation. The Australian and U.S. aircraft criss-crossed an isolated section of ocean 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) southwest of Perth, looking for two floating objects that had shown up on grainy satellite photos taken several days before. Although the images were too indistinct to confirm as debris from Flight MH370, Australian and Malaysian officials said they represented the most "credible" leads to date in the hunt for the plane and its 239 passengers and crew. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the planes flew low under the cloud cover Friday rather than rely on radar, after poor weather the day before hampered the search. "We replanned the search to be visual, so aircraft flying relatively low, with very highly skilled observers looking out of the windows," said AMSA official John Young.
"This means aircraft operating more closely together and we will need more aircraft for this task." Friday's aerial contingent comprised three Australian air force P-3 Orions, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon and a civil Bombardier Global Express jet. "We have not found anything concrete yet," said Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. "This is going to be a long haul," Hishammuddin told a daily press briefing in Kuala Lumpur.
The great distance from the west coast of Australia allows the planes only about two hours of actual search time before they must turn around with enough fuel to get back to Perth.
A Norwegian merchant ship is already helping at the search area, but Australia's HMAS Success, which is capable of retrieving any wreckage, was still days away. - 'We owe it to the families' -The satellite images were first announced in parliament by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who defended himself Friday against suggestions he may have "jumped the gun." "We owe it to the families and the friends and the loved ones ... to give them information as soon as it's to hand," he said. Abbott said he had spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping who he described as "devastated" by the disappearance of MH370 and the 153 Chinese nationals on board.
"This has been a gut-wrenching business for so many people," the prime minister said. Malaysia has been criticized for its handling of the crisis, especially by Chinese relatives who have accused authorities and the flag-carrier airline of providing insufficient or misleading information. A delegation of Malaysian government and military officials flew to Beijing for what turned out to be a bad-tempered meeting with relatives.
The event began with family members yelling at delegates to stand up when they were being introduced.
"You have wasted so much time," shouted one anguished relative. The nature of the events that diverted MH370 from its intended flight path on March 8 remain shrouded in mystery, although Malaysian investigators have stuck to their assumption that it was the result of a "deliberate action" by someone on board. - Three scenarios -Three scenarios have gained particular attention: hijacking, pilot sabotage, and a sudden mid-air crisis that incapacitated the flight crew and left the plane to fly on auto-pilot for several hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed. If the objects in the remote southern Indian Ocean are shown to have come from MH370, some analysts believe the hijacking theory will lose ground. "The reasonable motives for forcing the plane to fly there are very, very few," Gerry Soejatman, a Jakarta-based independent aviation analyst, told Agene France Presse.
The area is far from recognized shipping lanes, and the Norwegian car transporter was understood to have taken two days to reach it. "It's really off the beaten track," said Tim Huxley, chief executive of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings in Hong Kong. "It's a lonely, lonely place." Sarah Bajc, the partner of American passenger Philip Wood, said she had clung to the notion of a hijacking plot that might result in the passengers' eventual safe return. "So if this debris is indeed part of that plane, then it kind of dashes that wishful thinking to pieces," Bajc told CNN. "So I really hope it's not a part of the plane, but, you know, if it is, then at least we can go down another path of deciding that maybe we need to start preparing for another scenario instead." The satellite images were taken on March 16, meaning the objects would have been drifting for days in a volatile maritime region. If debris is found, the mammoth task remains of locating the "black box" flight data recorder, which offers the best chance of peeling back the layers of confusion and mystery surrounding MH370.
There has been little progress in what essentially became a criminal investigation after it was determined that the disappearance of the plane was probably deliberate. Malaysia has asked the FBI to help recover data it said was deleted from a home flight simulator belonging to the plane's chief pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, but otherwise no evidence has emerged to implicate him.
Source/Agence France Presse.
Canada Strongly Condemns Attack in Kabul
March 21, 2014 - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird today issued the following statement:
“Canada condemns this brazen and cowardly terrorist attack on the Serena Hotel, in Kabul, which has claimed the lives of many and left several people injured.
“On behalf of all Canadians, we extend our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of those who were killed and injured. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of two Canadian citizens who were killed in this attack. “Many of these people dedicated their lives to helping everyday Afghans build a better country for themselves, including education, and enhancing the role of women and girls in Afghan society. For this selfless work to be met with violence, especially on the occasion of Nowruz, just further proves the depravity of the Taliban and those who support them. “Acts of terror must not go unpunished, and those who perpetrated and supported this violence must be held accountable. “While events like this highlight the security challenges that remain in parts of Afghanistan, it only strengthens our resolve to combat the scourge of terrorism in all its forms.
“Canadian consular officials in Kabul are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information and are providing consular assistance.
“Due to privacy concerns, and out of respect for the families of those Canadians killed in today's attack, further information will not be made available.”
A New Year for Iran's Christians: Will Anything Change?
3/20/2014 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) - As millions of Iranians celebrate the start of a New Year, International Christian Concern (ICC) continues to call attention to the flagrant persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran. As the new Iranian president took office this past summer, his words promised a change in the respect of fundamental rights for Iranians. Unfortunately, those promises have not been met with action. Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini is still serving out an eight-year prison sentence. He is just one of 49 Christians who remain imprisoned in Iran as a result of their faith. If this past year is a sign of things to come, many others may join them in prison this year.
The ordeal for Saeed Abedini continues to drag on. It has been more than 540 days since he was imprisoned in Iran. "Praying and hoping that the kids would not have to celebrate another birthday without their dad and we can bring him home soon," Naghmeh Abedini wrote on March 17, the day they celebrated their son's sixth birthday, yet another family celebration without Saeed. "I've been holding onto Romans 8:18: 'Our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed,'" Naghmeh told ICC. She has continually spoken out on behalf of her husband, taking the case before international media, congress, and the United Nations. As the United States is engaged with Iran at the highest level in decades, it is shocking that the administration has not compelled Iran to release Saeed, an American citizen, who is being held on charges solely based on his faith.
Iran has severely cracked down on Christians and churches, especially those which carry out any activities in Farsi. "In 2013 alone, the authorities reportedly arrested at least 42 Christians, of whom 35 were convicted for participation in informal 'house churches,'" wrote Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, in a March 2014 report."Iranian authorities at the highest levels have designated house churches and evangelical Christians as threats to national security," wrote Shaheed. In an interview with ICC, Naghmeh Abedini said that Saeed had been told he was committing "soft war" as a Christian. Despite the fact that he had stopped these activities and was working with the government's permission, he was arrested and convicted on the basis of previous activities.
Saeed's case has brought international attention to the horrific abuses that are occurring in Iran, many of which are never known to the outside world. Lazarus Yeghnazar, writing for Farsi Christian News Network, reflected on the intense abuse Saeed has faced and then said, "It would not be hard to imagine what is happening to many Iranian Christians incarcerated in prisons from Zahedan to Tabriz, from Mashad to Abadan and for whom no foreign power intercedes!"
As the Iranian people celebrate the New Year, there should be many interceding on their behalf. The global Church should be the voice speaking for the Iranian people, both to government officials and speaking out in prayer. Reflecting on the message she has for the church, Naghmeh said, "I would ask for prayer for the Iranian people, that this would be the year that many find saving Grace in Jesus and follow Him as their Lord and Savior and for prayer for Saeed's freedom, and that the Lord Jesus Christ would be glorified through it."
Todd Daniels, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, "As the people of Iran celebrate this New Year, we call on the government of Iran to treat their citizens with respect and to protect their most fundamental freedom, the freedom to worship God. We appeal to President Rouhani for the release of Saeed Abedini that he may return home to his wife and children. We urge President Obama and the government of the United States as they engage with Iran, to continue to press for the release of Saeed and to demonstrate their commitment to human rights and religious freedom for all peoples."
The Strategies Required from the Arab and Gulf Summits
By: Raghida Dergham
(Translation - Karim Traboulsi)
On the eve of the GCC summit in Kuwait last year, Saudi-Omani differences came out into the open, with the Iranian issue being the main reason for the dispute. Now, on the eve of the Arab summit in Kuwait next week, a development unprecedented in the history of the GCC has taken place, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors from Qatar, primarily to protest the latter’s role in Egypt. These are not minor differences inside the Gulf grouping, which comprises Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain. At issue are the conflicting policies by the six countries, which had once set for themselves the joint goal of building a Gulf Union similar to the European Union, which has a single representative of European foreign policy.
The Arab summit, which will be held on March 15, will be followed by President Barack Obama’s visit to Riyadh on March 28, where he will hold meetings with GCC leaders in addition to his bilateral meetings with the Saudi king. Obama’s visit follows Russia’s absorption of the Crimea, and subsequent U.S. and European sanctions on Russia that will definitely aggravate the climate of confrontation. The deterioration in American-Russian relations will no doubt cast a shadow on the Arab summit, the American-Saudi summit, and the American-Gulf summit, at least as a result of reduced American-Russian accords that would have led to a grand bargain.
This is a radical development that will impact the agenda of the Arab summit, Gulf propositions to the U.S. president, and also Iranian calculations. While the events in Ukraine are not at all minor, the major policies of the Arab countries must not get ahead of themselves and conclude that American-Arab and American-Gulf relations would suddenly be elevated to new levels or that American-Iranian relations would collapse. But the Ukrainian developments should no doubt be taken into account when preparing for future summits, because they will echo in more than one Arab country, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, where Russian-Iranian cooperation is poised to intensify.
The Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah will probably succeed in containing differences between GCC countries and stop them from dominating the Arab summit. Prior to the GCC summit, Sheikh Sabah convened a tripartite summit with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Qatar’s new young Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. Understandings were reached with the bottom line being that Qatar should scale back its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE see as a security and strategic threat in Egypt and other Arab countries.
The Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini charge against Qatar is that the latter has not honored its pledge not to open its doors to Gulf dissidents, that it did not stop aiding the Muslim Brotherhood in various ways, and that it did not halt its campaign against Egypt, after the ouster of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood administration.
The Kuwaiti mediation efforts will seek to tone down the falling out instead of solving it radically in the few days leading up to the Arab summit. Kuwait will try to convince Qatar to keep a low profile instead of escalating in the media against the administration in Egypt, which Qatar accuses of carrying a “coup” against the Muslim Brotherhood, vowing to undermine it. On the other hand, the Kuwaitis will seek to ensure that the Egyptian leadership does not carry requests to the Arab summit to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, since such a move would cause the summit to unravel and would institutionalize Arab divisions.
In other words, at best, an agreement will be reached whereby silence would be chosen over a loud campaign. To be sure, at this juncture, it is not required of Qatar to be positive in the sense of fully complying with the Saudi and Emirati narrative in Egypt; what is required of it instead is not to be negative.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain must enter into an in-depth dialogue with Qatar over Egypt and also Iran. For one thing, Qatar stands accused of sympathizing with pro-Iranian Gulf factions and encouraging them to carry out acts that the three countries see as a threat to their security and stability.
Egypt has become a crucial matter for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and is also important for the rest of the GCC countries in varying degrees. Riyadh believes that Doha must not undermine the administration in Cairo, because this would mean undermining the liberal, non-Nasserist, non-Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Egypt. Liberal and moderate Egypt is at the core of Gulf interests. Today, Egypt represents a major weight and a fundamental cornerstone for an Arab presence in the regional balance of power.
For these reasons, Saudi policy is strict with Qatar when it comes to Egypt. Saudi is equally determined – together with the UAE – to thwart all efforts to resurrect the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab landscape, be they Qatari or U.S.-backed efforts.
Because the Obama administration continues to be seen by many Egyptians and Gulf stakeholders as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, today as yesterday, the talks with President Obama will definitely tackle the Egyptian question, with a lot of firmness and determination.
The Saudi and Emirati determination could lead to a Qatari pushback. In that case, a crack will emerge in the foundations of the GCC. If Qatar refuses to endorse the Saudi and Emirati position on Egypt during talks with Obama, there will be a rift in the Gulf ranks in the first meeting between the GCC and the U.S. president.
The Iranian question may become the other threat to the cohesion of the GCC, not necessarily through Qatar, but possibly through Oman, which has a special relation with Iran in the midst of a Saudi-Iranian dispute. Saudi-Omani relations carry many layers of tension because of Riyadh’s insistence on establishing a union for the six countries and Muscat’s opposition to the idea, and also because of Saudi Arabia’s objection to the Iranian role in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, compared to Oman’s near complete indulgence of that role.
Iraq is not only a source of concern for the Gulf countries, but also for the Arab summit. The Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict is raging, and the Iranian grip on Iraq is tightening through Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is clinging to his post and wants it for another term. Today, Iraq is the Iranian gateway to Syria. Both Syria and Iraq now orbit Iran instead of the Arab world, of which they were the heart and core.
The Arab summit may overlook this reality to avoid confrontation. It might determine that it is best for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to attend, because if does he would obstruct and undermine it. The summit might find it helpful if Maliki does not attend either, because he is now swimming against the Arab current.
All this does not negate the need for the Arab summit to sincerely and realistically tackle the issue of Syria and Iraq’s split from the Arab fold, instead joining forces with Iran. This development has important implications, and it would be imprudent to pretend they are marginal or transient.
The Arab summit must launch a “thinking workshop” focusing on what is happening in Iraq and Syria, and what it will entail for Lebanon as a result of its political and geographical reality as a neighbor of Syria under the influence of Iran, thanks to Hezbollah. If the Arab summit decides that nothing can be done and cedes Iraq and Syria from the Arab umbrella, then the implications of this admission would be extremely important. If it decides it has options to bring back Iraq and Syria to the Arab identity, then it must develop a strategy on how to co-opt these two important nations back to the Arab fold.
At this juncture, the Arab summit, the American-Saudi summit, and the American-Gulf summit will remain bleary and unfocused on the Syrian question, unless important decisions are made.
It is clear now that the Iranian and Russian strategy seeks to ensure the election of Bashar al-Assad for another 7-year term, by insisting on holding the presidential election in June this year. This election effectively demolishes the Geneva 2 process, aimed at establishing a transitional governing body with full powers.
From the outset, Tehran has made it clear that its objective is to keep Assad in power until the election in 2014, and now, Iran is clear in its claim that the election would take place on time. From the outset too, Tehran made it clear that it did not accept the authority of the Geneva communiqué, and hence, opposed creating a transitional authority that would replace Assad. For this reason, it refused to endorse Geneva 1 as a condition for attending Geneva 2 in Montreux.
For its part, Russia has been evasive, agreeing then reneging on Geneva 1. Russia wagered on the failure to convene Geneva 2; when the conference went ahead, Russia forced in counterterrorism as a priority in a bid to hinder it. Russia claimed that it did not cling to Assad in power, but now, Russia wants to hold a presidential vote to get him re-elected.
Joint UN-Arab Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi now understands that his faith that an American-Russian accord would push things in favor of a political solution in Syria is now weaker. He understands that holding presidential elections in Syria means the end of Geneva 2. When he spoke about this in public, Damascus turned against him and accused him of interfering in its internal affairs. Now, with the developments in Ukraine, Brahimi realizes that American-Russian accord has reached an impasse.
These facts require new and different Arab strategies. If Saudi policy is about to acknowledge that Assad is going to remain in power, then let it make this clear. If it is determined to change the regime in Syria at any cost, then let it produce a strategy to counter that of Iran, by providing potent weapons to the opposition, with or without Washington’s consent.
What matters is that no party should think that “victory” in Syria lies in further “Afghanization” there. This country has paid enough a price for inadequate and feckless policies. It is time for decisiveness, whether to accept the fait accompli no matter how objectionable Assad is, to upend the military equation in earnest, or to work hard for radical accord with Iran.
Barack Obama may prefer the tiresome status quo, and could welcome a shift in the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Ultimately, Obama will not become directly involved in the Syrian arena no matter how bad his relationship with Russia becomes, and regardless of whether Moscow and Tehran decide that their victory in Syria is an absolute priority for them in the Arab region.
The Arab summit may not put Syria at the top of its priorities, except rhetorically and emotionally. The Saudi-American summit requires an in-depth consideration of available practical options, rather than “patching over” differences and pretending that waters are back under the bridge. Syria is at the forefront of the challenges.
Perhaps the outcome of the American-Gulf summit or the American-Saudi summit will be accord over the need to back Egypt together, and the conviction that patience is needed in Syria, in parallel with measures to pull the rug from under the feet of the terrorist and extremist forces that have hijacked the Syrian revolution. However, it is important for the Syrian people not to be asked, through the moderate opposition, to fight a war with the terrorist forces to satisfy American priorities, as this would be another suicidal mission imposed a people whose country has paid the price for terrible local, regional, and international mistakes.
Iran's leader calls for self-reliance in face of sanctions
March 21, 2014 /By Mohammad Davari/Agence France Presse
TEHRAN: Iran's supreme leader on Friday sounded a battle cry for self-reliance in the face of international sanctions, saying Iranians should not pin their hopes on a nuclear deal with world powers.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful authority, has lent his support to nuclear talks that have brought limited sanctions relief, but harbours a deep mistrust of the West, believing it is bent on destroying the Islamic republic. "Iran must strengthen itself," he said in an annual speech marking the Persian New Year which is widely seen as establishing guidelines for the elected president, in this case Hassan Rouhani, who has championed diplomatic engagement with the West.
"The extortionists in the world will blackmail a weak nation, insult it, attack it, and trample it under their feet," Khamenei said.
Reeling from double-digit inflation, high unemployment, stagnation and mismanagement, Iran's oil-reliant economy has struggled to cope with US-led sanctions aimed at curtailing its nuclear ambitions.
Western powers and Israel suspect Iran is covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability alongside its civilian programme, charges adamantly denied by Tehran.
Hopes for an economic recovery have been rekindled since Rouhani took office in August, vowing to repair relations with the world and find a lasting solution to the decade-long nuclear standoff.
In his own address Thursday, Rouhani said he had tackled inflation and restored calm to currency markets, thanks to an interim deal struck in November under which Iran curbed or froze some nuclear activities in exchange for a modest easing of sanctions.
The so-called P5+1 group -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany -- hopes to reach a final accord with Iran by July 20 which would lift all sanctions in exchange for Iran scaling back its programme to the point where it would be difficult if not impossible to develop nuclear weapons.
But Khamenei said Iran "should not be pinning its hopes on when the enemy will lift the sanctions."
"The hell with them. We should look into what we can do ourselves," Khamenei said, calling for greater self-reliance through boosting productivity and pursuing a buy- Iran campaign under the title "economy of resistance."
In another jab at the West, Khamenei reiterated his doubts about the Holocaust, and appeared to draw parallels between "red lines" about questioning the event in the West and Iran's own policies on freedom of expression.
"Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West. They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country," said Khamenei, who has repeatedly called the Holocaust a "myth."
"They passionately defend their red lines ... How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs."
In contrast to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who often dismissed Nazi Germany's murder of six million Jews as a fabrication, Rouhani has adopted a softer line, going to far as to condemn "the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis."
Rouhani, a self-declared moderate, has vowed to improve social freedoms in a country where more than half the population is under 30 years old.
But this has proved difficult in face of aggressive opposition from conservatives and hardliners in the establishment who have long viewed liberalisation as a soft war by the West against Iran's Islamic values.
Khamenei drew attention to the issue of culture, which he said "is even more important than the economy."
"It is the air you breathe. If it is clean it has one effect, and another if it is dirty," he said, adding that authorities must be vigilant in repelling "cultural breaches."
"The focus of the enemy is on the culture more than anything else," Khamenei said.
Iran defends its human rights records and the restrictions it places on freedom of expression as being rooted in Islam and the country's cultural traditions.
Tehran banned two pro-reform newspapers in recent months after they published comments that were seen as critical of Islam.
Last week UN chief Ban Ki-moon scolded Iran for an increase in executions, the detention of dissidents and discrimination against women.
US-Russian tit-for-tat sanctions
potentially bite into global banking sector, including Israel’s
DEBKAfile Special Report March 20, 2014/The US and Russian presidents locked horns in earnest over their Ukraine dispute Thursday, March 20 with two sets of serious reciprocal sanctions. International financial circles warn that in their determination to outplay one another, the US and Russian leaders risk causing havoc in world trade centers.
The American and Russian sanctions are different in nature.
The executive order disclosed by President Barack Obama Thursday covers 20 targets that strike deep inside President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and personal interests. The Russian president’s list was political but is seen as no more than his first shot.
Obama’s list includes top officials and the “oligarchs” who support him politically and financially on the assumption that the Kremlin depends on individuals who owe their wealth to their close ties with Putin to buttress Russia’s central government.
Obama’s list therefore places a ban on dollar transactions by Bank Rossiya of St. Petersburg, which has some $10 billion dollars in assets and where Putin is believed to hold his personal accounts.
The list also includes such names as Aleksey Gromov, First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration; Sergey Ivanov, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office; and Sergey Naryshkin, Speaker of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament.
He has also listed prominent businessmen close to the Russian president, including the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg and businessman Gennady Timchenko, head of the giant Volga Group (gas, oil, international trading, transport, insurance etc, which employs some 90,000 workers). Timchenko, 61, is reputed to be one of Putin’s “private wallets." Another target was Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, the main transport for moving military personnel and equipment cross country and from Russia to Crimea.
By these sanctions, Obama evened a personal score with Putin for crossing him by annexing Crimea.
Putin's reported list of sanctioned Americans is seen by DEBKAfile’s Moscow sources as his opening shot in response to Obama. The individuals banned from visiting Russia – not yet confirmed - may cover well-known political figures such as Congressman John Boehner, and Senators John McCain and the leaders of the anti-Russian sanctions drive, Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Corker, as well as Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, who worked with the Ukrainian opposition that ousted the Yanokovich government.
Moscow is widely expected to go for the US and Europe by political and possibly military steps in relation to Iran and Syria.
The economic repercussions of the steps taken till now are substantial given the dramatic asymmetry between US and Russian foreign investments. Financial experts assess US investments in Russia as amounting to $14 billion compared with an estimated $500 billion of Russian investments in the West.
The US president has not yet touched the mountainous Russian assets in the West for fear of bringing western financial markets and banks crashing down. The London City which holds massive Russian assets, would bear the brunt of such action. Even the first, limited steps Obama’s directive initiated Thursday have already sent shock waves through the markets as financial institutions begin to move their money to “safe havens”. Russian assets held in Israeli banks will also be affected.
Controlling the media scene
Friday, 21 March 2014/Abdulrahman al-Rashed/Al Arabiya
The head of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (or the religious police) wanted to convey a simple message that society needs authority to deal with chaos. Without authority, he said, people would not even be able to protect their behinds.
This controversial statement kept people busy for a week with more than a million funny comments. In the past, the head of the religious police was not obliged to be so descriptive in his statements and nobody would have been able to view the response to such an out-of-context statement. Today, however, we live in an interactive world, what we write echoes instantly, regardless of whether the response is logical or abusive
In the past, the media scene was easy to control, dominating it was achievable either by controlling it through decisions - like granting or denying licenses for printed or audiovisual media - or through big investments. Nowadays, no licenses are necessary to communicate with the public in the open media space. On some platforms, only minor investments are needed to create media outlets which can, through some partnerships and recycling news, represent a fair chunk of the media market.
Are the critics of the old media scene satisfied with the new one? Not quite. The media market has grown exponentially and is scattered among thousands of individuals. Between trade and entertainment, other groups who had dreamed of breaking the government and business monopolies found themselves lost.
The digital media market is still crawling in terms of growth and transformation
Saudi Arabia, for instance, is one of the biggest users of smartphones. It is even considered by a U.N. report as having the highest mobile phone ratio per capita; 180 mobiles for every 100 residents. Of course, this doesn’t reflect the real value of the digital market, as the digital media market is still crawling in terms of growth and transformation. In my opinion, despite what others say, we will revert to the old situation in due time: the era of the domination of big organizations and licensing authorities. This is because data exchange is slowly changing from being an individual activity to a public market activity, and the market will definitely lead companies to expand, develop and dominate.
The regional market is chaotic; it is not split into two markets as some predicted. Those in charge of the market are embroiled in personal attacks against each other with never-ending scandals and pornography, verbal and audiovisual, spreading more than any time in the past. Nothing is controllable anymore in terms of organizing the digital market.
At the moment, chaos reigns and everybody is striving to control the biggest possible chunk of the media. Some are building themselves media kingdoms while others seek to form groups or intellectual blocs to gather people of common interests.
In the era of technological openness, it is no longer easy for one person to impact public opinion because of the magnitude of plurality in reporting. Hence there are no dominant opinion trends, those who opposed the current of unipolar media wanted and wished for this.
Chaos, or plurality if we want to be more accurate, is a characteristic that best describes the current situation. With an unlimited number of broadcasting and receiving devices, the losers do not only include government bodies and their satellites but other forces who had hoped to see the end of monopolies so they could have the opportunity to exist and exert greater influence.
The only agent that remains impactful, efficient and catalyst is the content now available; be it a message, a tweet, a video or an item in the newspaper or on TV. The content developer is the only body which dominates the scene and this has always been the main challenge facing traditional media; to find creative content developers, copywriters or scriptwriters, or just people with new and fresh ideas.
With time, every party will be content with his audience, backing off from colonial ambitions to control multiple audiences.
Because of the multiple horizontal fissions, which are often positive for the development of the industry, new media or communication channels have emerged. Some are extremely profession oriented; forums for doctors, astrologists or special interest groups for example. There are also those who are only interested in informing and impacting public opinion without any professional rules or ethics and without an understanding of the difference between integrity and falsification.
**This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on March 21, 2014.
West Bank Violence and Gaza Rockets
Could Spark Wider Conflict
Matthew Levitt/Washington Institute
There is no guarantee that a peace deal will be reached within the current timeline, but a Palestinian return to armed struggle would be a far greater political, economic, and humanitarian disaster than any short-term frustration with the negotiations.
Peace processes are rarely peaceful processes, and the current U.S.-led effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian "framework agreement" is no exception. As the tempo of negotiations between the main parties picks up speed, more radical actors have reemerged to violently oppose the process, from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Resistance Committees, to Salafi jihadist groups, to Marxist factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Many observers have focused on the sharp increase in rockets fired at Israel from Gaza in the past few weeks and the prospect of another Gaza war. But that issue, while crucial, has drawn media attention away from two equally troubling trends: the increase in violence across the West Bank, and new signs that some officials from the Palestinian Authority and its leading party, Fatah, may be hedging their bets and preparing for wider violence if the peace process fails.
WEST BANK INSTABILITY
The growth of West Bank violence in recent months raises several concerns. First, while overall Israeli deaths from terrorist attacks declined from 2012 to 2013, none of the fatal 2012 attacks originated from the West Bank. But this flipped in 2013, with five of that year's six Israeli fatalities stemming from the West Bank. Second, Israeli and Palestinian sources agree that PA security forces have been weak in the face of recent unrest. Residents of West Bank refugee camps in particular are becoming increasingly hostile, and the PA has been pulling back as a result. The Israel Defense Forces have taken up some of the slack -- IDF arrests in the West Bank went up by a third from 2012 to 2013. Yet as violent activity intensifies, successful attacks will become ever more likely.
A number of factors have contributed to the deteriorating security situation. The PA suffered a serious blow when Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned in April 2013, and the territories are in dire economic straits. Meanwhile, Hamas appears to be expanding its presence in the West Bank from its Gaza stronghold. A spate of recent reports have mentioned the presence of various group members in the West Bank, indicating an intent to take advantage of the PA's declining capabilities. In January, for example, newspaper reports noted that Israel had arrested sixteen men in Jerusalem over the previous several weeks on suspicion of running a Hamas headquarters in the city. A February story mentioned fifteen West Bank arrests in connection with fire bombings and rock attacks on Israeli vehicles. And last week, a Hamas operative in east Jerusalem was arrested on suspicion of cutting gas pipes in residential buildings as part of a one-man terrorist campaign.
Unsurprisingly, these developments have led some Fatah officials to hedge their bets by either looking the other way when certain incidents occur or publicly warning of greater violence to come. For instance, during a January service held in Jenin to memorialize a slain PIJ operative, a member of Hamas's military "wing," the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, showed up in full militant garb despite a PA ban on such displays. Far from being arrested, however, he was flanked by members of PIJ as well as Fatah's own military wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. That same month, Fatah Central Committee member Tawfiq al-Tirawi supported the resumption of armed resistance to Israel during an interview with Lebanese media. According to a Times of Israel account of his remarks, he declared, "We, all Palestinian factions, must return to the cycle of action...There must be something on the ground as well...The big explosion in Palestine is coming. All of Israel's actions have placed the Palestinian public under immense pressure. They have no choice but to explode in the face of occupation."
ESCALATION FROM GAZA
Palestinian leaders have blamed Israel for the escalation that began last week, during which an estimated eighty rockets were launched from Gaza within a three-day period. Yet even before that spate of launches, Gaza militants had reportedly fired twenty-eight rockets into southern Israel since the beginning of the year, twenty in the first three weeks of January alone -- compared to about forty in all of 2013. Of these, five were headed toward the city of Ashkelon and were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. Several others were launched toward the January 13 funeral of former prime minister Ariel Sharon. In both cases -- one strike aimed at a major Israeli population center, another at a state funeral attended by foreign dignitaries -- Hamas risked massive retaliation had any of the rockets hit their intended targets, whether it launched them itself or permitted others to do so. The group also claimed to have test-fired an antiaircraft missile in mid-January, though it missed its target and the incident went unreported by Israeli media.
Hamas has allowed the Gaza situation to escalate due to the increasing pressure it feels. Egypt's July 2013 ouster of the Morsi government, a key Hamas supporter, was a disaster for the group. Cairo's subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood was also directed at Hamas, leading the Egyptian military to close most of the tunnels into Gaza. And last week, Cairo reportedly sidestepped Hamas and negotiated a truce directly with PIJ after the salvo of rocket strikes on Israel.
Unable to tax goods flowing through the tunnels from Egypt, and lacking any significant support from Iran, Hamas is also facing an acute financial crisis. According to some reports, the group's leadership recently passed a budget covering a mere 25 percent of expected expenditures in Gaza. Therefore, a major military confrontation with Israel is not in Hamas's interest at the moment -- its overarching objective of late has been to remain in power, not open a new conflict. Following Israel's retaliatory strikes in January, for example, Hamas military commanders reportedly wanted to strike back, but the group's political leaders limited their response to temporarily redeploying rocket-prevention forces away from the border in early February.
Even so, Hamas continues to lay the groundwork for a future battle with Israel. In addition to steady weapons production, radicalization efforts continue unabated, as highlighted by remarks that Hamas officials delivered to an audience of thousands attending a January 13 graduation ceremony for a "jihadi education" youth camp. "This generation, Allah willing, will vanquish Israel," Interior Minister Fathi Hamad predicted.
Meanwhile, the mounting pressure on Hamas has benefited smaller, more militant groups who are not constrained by the reins of power and receive financial incentives from Iran to continue bombarding Israel. Some factions reportedly receive thousands of dollars from Iran for each rocket launched at Israel. The latest salvos were launched not by Hamas, but by PIJ, while other groups such as the PFLP and Salafi jihadist factions have fired heavy mortars or short-range Qassam and Grad rockets. Moreover, evidence suggests that the Iranian weapons seized aboard the Klos C smuggling ship earlier this month were primarily intended for PIJ, not Hamas.
President Mahmoud Abbas's White House meeting with President Obama this week was intended to spark support for the peace process among Palestinians and a sense of urgency among all parties. There is no guarantee that a deal will be reached within the current timeline. Yet as frustrating as the current lack of progress is, a return to armed struggle -- by Fatah, Hamas, or others -- would be a disaster for Palestinians. Even apart from the diplomatic setback and potential loss of life, a wider armed struggle would destroy the Palestinian economy at a time when traditional donors are occupied by the more pressing disaster in Syria, the Ukraine crisis, and Iranian nuclear negotiations.
**Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute.
By: Soner Cagaptay/Hurriyet Daily News/
The rise of a middle class in Turkey has resulted in a society where rival political blocs and formerly violent factions are forced to coexist despite their enduring rancor.
Turkey has long been defined by political schisms. Recent tensions between the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulen movement have made the country appear once more to be teetering.
It is tempting to cast Turkey as yet another Middle Eastern country a la Egypt, paralyzed by bouts of undemocratic misrule and crisis. But Turkey will end up neither undemocratic nor in bloodshed. This country -- boasting the Middle East's largest economy, worth $1.4 trillion -- is too big to fail; it's so big that no one of its political factions can take it over in its entirety.
Take, for instance, the recent clash between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Gulen movement. On Jan. 7, Erdogan replaced police chiefs in the Turkish city of Izmir, suspecting them to be Gulenists conspiring against him by investigating him for corruption. However, Erdogan was startled when the new chiefs he appointed in their place launched their own graft probe days after taking office. Perhaps the new chiefs are indeed Gulenists. But they could as easily be liberals who despise Erdogan, or just law enforcement officials doing their job -- protecting the rule of law.
The lesson from Izmir is that Turkey is too big for any single person to control every lever of power. Not even a prime minister who has singlehandedly ruled the country for over a decade can fill every post with sympathetic bureaucrats.
Having become a majority middle-class society in 2010, Turkey has moved beyond the politics of violence. The country's Kurds, who had hitherto resorted to terror, have moved forward to embrace politics as the legitimate venue to seek their rights. Turkey's Kurdish insurgency is dying out. The rules of the game have been set; disputes will be resolved and political scores settled within their boundaries. Turkey's politics will resemble the Middle East's version of "Monopoly" rather than "Game of Thrones."
Even if the dynamics of Turkish politics bring to mind the politics of other Middle Eastern countries, Turkish politics will be different in style. Turkey will continue to have Islamists, in the various shades of this movement, as well as secularists and liberals and nationalists (of the Turkish and Kurdish persuasion) in its political game. And while these groups will play political hardball against each other, even getting quite nasty, in the end, people won't get hurt. A major factor shaping this libertarian trend is the country's economic transformation over the past decade. Thanks to the sound economic policies of the AKP, Turkish incomes have more than doubled since the AKP came to power, and most Turks now live as comfortably as average southern Europeans.
Almost as soon as Turkey became a majority middle-class country, middle-class politics emerged. Millions of Turks took to the streets last year, for instance, in order to make some very middle-class demands: respect for the environment, urban space, and freedom of assembly and media. This was a shock for Erdogan. Known for strait-jacket conservatism, the AKP, until recently thought to have no rivals, appears to have created its own opposition: a growing liberal voice anchored in a rising middle class.
A similar balance also exists between the Islamists -- those who want to impose religion on every aspect of society -- and the secularists who don't want to see any religion in society. Polls suggest that both groups constitute only around 10-15 percent of the electorate, providing for what is a permanent but tolerable seesaw between religion and politics in Turkey.
Turkey's political system has also found a balance between Turkish and Kurdish nationalists. The Kurdish nationalists' abandonment of violence has muted the Turkish nationalist reaction to the emergence of Kurdish as a public language in Turkey. The Kurds, long impoverished, are now benefitting from the spread of wealth across the country. Diyarbakir, the county's largest Kurdish city, and once famous for its urban poverty, now boasts nearly as many shopping malls per capita as the wealthier cites in the rest of Turkey. The arrival of consumerism and middle-class lifestyle among Turkey's Kurds has helped moderate their politics away from violence.
The rise of a middle class in Turkey has resulted in a society in which political blocs, though they still despise each other, are nevertheless forced to live side by side. This new Turkey will usher in the birth of a new Muslim-majority society: Libertarian by convenience, if not by its political nature.
**Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. His latest book is The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century's First Muslim Power (Potomac Books).
Iran's Khamenei questions 'certainty' of Holocaust
By JPOST.COM STAFF/03/21/2014
The "Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it's uncertain how it has happened," Khamenei was quoted as saying on his Twitter account. In the latest instance of an Iranian leader's refusal to recognize the Holocaust, Khamenei claimed that Europe remained silent over its occurrence. The remarks by Iran's most powerful leader came a day after President Shimon Peres reached out to the Iranian people in a holiday greeting, appealing for Israel and the Islamic Republic to "forget war and threatening" and have a year of "silence and peace".In his speech made to large crowds in Iran's northeastern city of Mashhad, Khamenei turned to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and chided the US in its role in what he said were failed negotiations. He also accused the US alongside Israel of conspiring to rid the region of Palestinians - both Muslim and Christian.
“The US has failed in Palestine. They devised a scheme against Palestine and spared no efforts [in carrying it out],” Iran's official Press TV quoted Khamenei as saying. Khamenei's rhetoric came as "moderate" President Hassan Rouhani has pledged to improve Iran's image in the international arena after his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had tarnished it often, made inflammatory remarks about Israel and denying the Holocaust. In September, Rouhani was quoted by CNN as condemning the Holocaust. Iranian media later accused CNN of fabricating Rouhani's comments. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif apparently receive backlash in February over public comments condemning the Holocaust when Islamic hardliners in Iran's parliament reportedly summoned him after making the remarks. Zarif caused an uproar among conservatives in the Islamic Republic when he called the Holocaust a "horrifying tragedy" in an interview with a German television station late last month.
Reuters contributed to this report.