May 16/14


Bible Quotation for today/ Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Mark 3,31-35.4,1-9./Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’  Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’


Latest analysis, editorials, studies, reports, letters & Releases from miscellaneous sources For May 16/14

What’s behind the Egyptian position on Syria’s war/By: Eyad Abu Shakra/Al Sharq Alawsat/ May 16/14

Surprise Rotation of Saudi Defense Officials/By: Simon Henderson/Washington Institute/May 16/14


Latest News Reports From Miscellaneous Sources For May 16/14

Lebanese Related News

Presidential Elections Postponed for Fourth Time over Lack of Quorum

Deja vu as Parliament adjourns without a vote

Judiciary accuses Parliament of violating its sovereignty

Geagea Accuses March 8 of 'Deliberately' Boycotting Parliamentary Session, Violating Constitution
Suleiman Hopes Officials Meet Constitutional Deadlines to Safeguard Country

Disagreements Topple Expected Maronite Summit in Bkirki
Wage Scale Session in Limbo as Christian MPs Threaten Boycott
Jumblat to Quit Political Activity as Taymour Begins Preparations for Parliamentary Life

Suleiman to Head Last Two Cabinet Sessions before End of Term
State Security Arrests Bekaa Fraud Gang Member

Kidnappers Release Iraqi but Abduct His Relative over Ransom Dispute

March 14 Officials Hold Routine Meetings over Presidential Crisis

Lebanon Eyes Tourism Boost as Saudi 'Ends Unofficial Ban'
Lebanon to set limit on refugee influx

Hezbollah cutting costs as Iranian aid dries up

Sleiman ‘to grant citizenship to 700 people’

Miscellaneous Reports And News

Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy

'Intensive and Useful' Iran Nuclear Talks Resume

Hagel’s talks in Jordan and Israel to determine if Syrian rebel Golan offensive expands to Damascus
Kerry Says Fate of Talks Lies with Israelis, Palestinians
Corruption Seeps into Aid for Syrian Refugees
Afghan Election Results Confirm Abdullah-Ghani Run-Off

British Journalists Shot and Beaten in Syria Kidnapping

'Raw data' suggest chlorine used as weapon in Syria: Kerry
UK Ups Syria Opposition Diplomatic Status, U.S. Says 'Raw Data' Suggest Chlorine Used in Conflict
Car Bomb Blast Kills 29 near Syria-Turkey Border

2 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in violent clash near Ramallah
Pakistani Christians protest travel ban to Israel

Pope to take open-top cars in Middle East trip 

Presidential Elections Postponed for Fourth Time over Lack of Quorum

Naharnet /Lawmakers once again failed on Thursday to elect a new president as differences between the March 8 and 14 alliances led to a lack of quorum in the fourth parliamentary session aimed at choosing a new head of state. Speaker Nabih Berri set May 22 as the fifth round to hold the elections. Only 73 lawmakers out of 128 were present at parliament. MPs of the March 8 Loyalty to the Resistance bloc did not attend the session, while the majority of March 14 alliance members were present, reported Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3).
March 14 MP Nabil de Freij accused the March 8 of deliberately obstructing quorum, while MP Robert Ghanem rejected calls for a constitutional amendment regarding the elections. Lebanese Forces leader and presidential candidate Samir Geagea had demanded, prior to the failure of the session, that such an amendment be introduced. MP Sami Gemayel of the Kataeb Party stated from parliament after the session that he had hoped that Berri would call for daily presidential election sessions in order to elect a head of state before the term of President Michel Suleiman ends on May 25. Commenting on the possibility of vacuum in the presidency, he said: “Some members of parliament are deliberately obstructing the election of a president.” “These MPs are responsible for the vacuum,” he added.
“They must exercise their duties to elect a president, whether through casting a blank vote or voting for a candidate,” he stressed. “They are not adopting democratic practices through boycotting parliament, but they are simply playing an obstructive role,” noted Gemayel, deeming the March 8 boycott as “unjustified.”“Those obstructing quorum will be held responsible for the consequences of the vacuum,” warned the MP. Two previous rounds of the elections were not held over the lack of quorum. The first round of the elections was held in April, but neither candidates Geagea or Democratic Gathering MP Henri Helou, obtained the necessary 86 votes at the time to be elected head state.

Geagea Accuses March 8 of 'Deliberately' Boycotting Parliamentary Session, Violating Constitution
Naharnet/Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea lashed out on Thursday at the March 8 alliance, accusing it of “intentionally obstructing the presidential elections.” “Some are stating that boycotting the parliamentary sessions to elect a president is a right guaranteed by the constitution but that's not true,” Geagea said in a press conference held at his residence in Maarab. “They are cheating the Lebanese people,” the Christian leader remarked. He pointed out that “boycotting the sessions is an exceptional right during exceptional circumstances but cannot be used to obstruct the parliamentary sessions set to elect a new head of state.” The presidential hopeful told reporters that he will not “compromise over his candidacy.”Geagea said that the March 8 alliance is accusing the March 14 coalition of obstructing the sessions because it is holding onto his candidacy. “It would be better if they support any candidate and result in loss through the ballots,” Geagea added. The LF chief held the March 8 Christians responsible for the delay in electing a new president, saying: “We have no other choice but to continue our battle.”He called on lawmakers to attend the sessions as “there is no intention to amend the constitution to renew President Michel Suleiman's term despite our positive opinion of him.”Any attempt to keep the president in power requires a constitutional amendment by the two-thirds majority of the 128-member parliament. By law, if no president has been chosen by the last 10 days of the incumbent's mandate, parliament cannot meet for legislative sessions except to elect a new president. That means, starting on Thursday, legislative action will grind to a halt. “We will not be able to agree on a single candidate that's why voting must take place,” Geagea stressed. He slammed attempts by the other political group to block the elections, which is seeking to push forward the election of its candidate or else vacuum will occur. Thursday's parliamentary session faced the similar fate of its precedents. The first presidential elections session was held on April 23, but neither Geagea nor Democratic Gathering MP Henri Helou garnered the necessary 86 votes to emerge victorious. Two other sessions were supposed to be held, but they failed over lack of quorum after a March 8 camp boycott on the ongoing disagreement over a candidate.

Suleiman Hopes Officials Meet Constitutional Deadlines to Safeguard Country
Naharnet/Outgoing President Michel Suleiman expressed hope on Thursday that officials would meet all constitutional deadlines to safeguard the nation. “The last 10 days of my term should prompt officials to safeguard the state and fortify its presence by implementing democracy,” Suleiman said in a statement. He pointed out that “meeting all constitutional deadlines shall protect the state of all the dangers threatening its existence, in particular the Israeli aggression and the surging numbers of Syrian refugees.”
The statement comes in light of the parliament's failure to elect a new president for the fourth time on Thursday. Any attempt to keep the president in power requires a constitutional amendment by the two-thirds majority of the 128-member parliament.
By law, if no president has been chosen by the last 10 days of the incumbent's mandate, parliament cannot meet for legislative sessions except to elect a new president. Thursday's session faced the similar fate of its precedents. The first presidential elections session was held on April 23, but neither Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea nor Democratic Gathering MP Henri Helou garnered the necessary 86 votes to emerge victorious. Two other sessions were supposed to be held, but they failed over lack of quorum after a March 8 camp boycott on the ongoing disagreement over a candidate.

Wage Scale Session in Limbo as Christian MPs Threaten Boycott
Naharnet/A parliamentary session set by Speaker Nabih Berri on May 27 to continue discussions on the public sector wage scale is under the threat of lack of quorum, An Nahar daily reported on Thursday. The newspaper said that Christian MPs from the March 8 and 14 alliances have threatened to boycott legislative sessions if a new head of state was not elected after the expiry of President Michel Suleiman's term on May 25. Lawmakers deliberated on the pay raise draft-law on Wednesday. But Berri adjournment the discussions to May 27 after MPs failed to agree on ways to finance the scale. The country's top Christian post will likely face vacuum on May 25 over the differences between the March 8 and 14 camps.The March 14 alliance has backed the candidacy of Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea but March 8, which has boycotted the elections, has stressed the need for a consensual president.

Suleiman to Head Last Two Cabinet Sessions before End of Term
Naharnet /Outgoing President Michel Suleiman will chair on Friday a cabinet session that will tackle a new package of appointments after positive signs loomed on filling the vacant administrative posts. The session, which will be held at the Baabda Palace at 4:00 pm, will tackle 61 articles on its agenda, local newspapers reported on Thursday. The session will be Suleiman's penultimate cabinet meeting before the end of his tenure on May 25. On May 15, the cabinet made a series of appointments in a four-hour session. The government is expected to discuss in its session on Friday the appointment of the members of the Military Council, the Inspector General and the Managing Director at the Ministry of Defense, the acting Director General of the Internal Security Forces and the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the consumer markets. Ministerial sources described the session in comments published in An Nahar daily as “important.”The sources pointed out that the meeting will also tackle the landlines and cellular tariffs and international and Arab agreements.

March 14 Officials Hold Routine Meetings over Presidential Crisis
Naharnet/March 14 alliance leaders have been holding “routine meetings” away from the media spotlight to discuss the presidential deadlock, the coalition's officials said. They told al-Joumhouria newspaper published on Thursday that the leaders are assessing each stage ahead of the expiry of President Michel Suleiman's term on May 25. The last meeting between them was held at the Center House on Tuesday, the officials, who were not identified, said. The country's top Christian post will most likely be vacant over the differences between the March 8 and 14 alliances. But Prime Minister Tammam Salam has said that his government is capable of practicing the authorities of the president in case of a failure to elect a new head of state by May 25.

Disagreements Topple Expected Maronite Summit in Bkirki

Naharnet /Efforts exerted by top Maronite leaders to hold a summit on May 17 in Bkirki were unsuccessful as sharp differences over the presidential elections widened the gap between the political arch-foes. According to An Nahar newspaper published on Thursday, Christian leaders informed two envoys tasked by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi that there's no enthusiasm voiced by any official to attend the meeting. Last week, media reports said that an initiative by Kataeb Party leader Amin Gemayel could lead to talks between Christian officials under the auspices of al-Rahi. Gemayel has met with several leaders in the country in the past week as part of his initiative to resolve the presidential deadlock. He has held talks so far with President Michel Suleiman, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, Marada movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh and Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblat. The presidency is reserved for Maronites under the National Pact of 1943. The ongoing disagreement between the March 8 and 14 camps is raising fears that they will fail to elect a president before May 25, resulting in vacuum in the country's top post.

Jumblat to Quit Political Activity as Taymour Begins Preparations for Parliamentary Life
Naharnet/Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat said that he will end his political activity at the end of the current parliamentary term as he “is seriously considering not to run for the elections.”“I will be folding my political page and my voting for a new head of state would be my last,” Jumblat said in an interview with the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat. He pointed out that his son Taymour is preparing himself to run for the parliamentary elections and running the affairs of al-Mukhtara. “Everything will be announced in its time,” Jumblat noted. The Druze leader said that he will remain at the helm of the PSP as his term ends in two years. “After 37 years in politics I have had a rich experience, which included some black marks, but it's up to history to write it... I will not write my biography... Let others do,” Jumblat said. He stressed that he “will not run for a parliamentary seat but will continue as a political observer.” In 2011, Taymour was appointed as a “guiding member” of the party, in a step that would allow him to later run for its leadership council and consequently head the party. “I am not ashamed... My conscience is at ease,” the PSP leader said. Concerning the ongoing dispute over the presidency elections among the political arch-foes, Jumblat didn't expect lawmakers to succeed in electing a new head of state during Thursday's parliamentary session. He believed that the parliamentary session will be similar to its precedents. The first presidential elections session was held on April 23, but neither Geagea nor Democratic Gathering MP Henri Helou garnered the necessary 86 votes to emerge victorious. Two other sessions were supposed to be held, but they failed over lack of quorum after a March 8 camp boycott on the ongoing disagreement over a candidate. Jumblat told the newspaper that he “accepts” vacuum at the helm of the country's top Christian post.
“I can provide either March 8 or 14 coalitions with the majority of votes for their candidates but I can't end the lack of quorum,” the veteran official said. However, he said that he doesn't want to “be biased to any of the two coalitions,” continuing that he is holding onto his candidate to the presidential elections Henri Helou, who meets all the characteristics of a head of state. “There is no vacuum but a vacant presidential post until a settlement is reached... We have a cabinet capable of running the country,” Jumblat added.
Jumblat has backed Helou's candidacy, describing him as a “voice of moderation.” The Aley MP garnered 16 votes during the first round, while 48 lawmakers voted for Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, one for Kataeb party chief ex-President Amin Gemayel and 52 MPs cast blank ballots. Asked about the repercussions of the Syrian war on Lebanon, Jumblat expected the influence of Damascus and Tehran to grow locally “more than ever.” “Some Lebanese sides rushed into concluding that the Syrian regime will swiftly fall while others got involved with the regime,” he told Asharq al-Awsat. “Engagement in the Syrian crisis was a historical and a moral mistake but my aim is to re-target the arms of the resistance against Israel,” Jumblat said.

Kidnappers Release Iraqi but Abduct His Relative over Ransom Dispute
Naharnet/A kidnapped Iraqi businessman has been released but his captors abducted his relative after he failed to pay the ransom in full, the state-run National News Agency reported on Thursday. Wael al-Jabouri was set free near the town of Hawsh al-Nabi in the eastern Baalbek district after his relative paid the abductors $50,000, NNA said. But the assailants took the man hostage pending the payment of the entire ransom, it added. The agency did not specify the amount of the ransom that the kidnappers had demanded.
Al-Jabouri was abducted on May 4 in the area of Dohat Aramoun. Al-Jabouri, who owns residential buildings in the area, was kidnapped after the assailants claimed they wanted to buy an apartment.

State Security Arrests Bekaa Fraud Gang Member
Naharnet/State Security in the eastern Bekaa Valley has arrested a member of a gang that forges documents, including passports and visas, the state-run National News Agency reported on Thursday. NNA identified the suspect with his initials as A.G., saying he was arrested in the city of Zahle on Monday. The gang specializes in forging identity cards, passports, driving licenses and visas, it said. State Security is searching for the rest of the network's members, who have arrest warrants issued against them, the agency added. Earlier this month, the General Security Department arrested 49 Syrians and Palestinians at the Rafik Hariri International Airport for trying to flee with forged documents. A unit from the department handed them over to the Syrian authorities the next day. General Security warned Arabs and foreigners, especially Syrian and Palestinian refugees, against violating residency laws and attempting to travel with forged documents.

Lebanon Eyes Tourism Boost as Saudi 'Ends Unofficial Ban'
Naharnet /Saudi Arabia and other Gulf governments have lifted an unofficial ban on travel to Lebanon, boosting prospects for the summer tourism season, tourism minister told Agence France Presse on Thursday. "There is an implicit normalization," Michel Pharaon said. "I'm not putting the words in the mouths of any Saudi officials, but I can tell you that with our meetings, implicitly, yes, if there was a ban, today it is lifted," he said. "As it was not an official ban, I would say that it's a non-official green light." Since 2012, Gulf states whose citizens used to flock to Lebanon during the summer months have warned their nationals to avoid the country because of security concerns. With a spate of kidnappings, and then increasing spillover from the war in neighboring Syria, tourists increasingly stayed away, devastating Lebanon's key tourism sector. Pharaon said there were already signs of improvement, after a nosedive in visitors last year. "When you look at the visitors to Lebanon, in 2010 it was 2.3 million, in 2013 we were at 1.3 million. "But now I would say that they are coming back slowly, the planes are full, hotels are coming up to 60-70 percent, whereas at the same time last year they were at 30-35 percent," he said. "I would say I'm optimistic, if I have to say what's in my heart. But in Lebanon, we always have to be cautious, so I'll say I'm cautiously optimistic for this season." Source/Agence France Presse

Car Bomb Blast Kills 29 near Syria-Turkey Border
Naharnet/A car bomb killed at least 29 civilians and wounded dozens more on the Syrian side of the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey on Thursday, a monitoring group said. Five women and three children were among the dead in the blast in an area used as a car park, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Gruesome photographs posted online by activists showed shocked men standing over charred, blackened bodies, some missing limbs. A video of the scene posted on YouTube showed smoke rising from the tangled remains of a blown-up car and luggage lying abandoned amid the chaos. The area around the crossing has been targeted by car bombs before. In February, a blast on the Syrian side killed six people and wounded 45. The Syrian side of the crossing is under the control of Islamist rebels who have been battling jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant since early January. Other border crossings between Turkey and Syria have also been targeted, including the Bab al-Hawa post in the northwest, where two suicide bombers killed 16 people in January. SourceAgence France Presse

UK Ups Syria Opposition Diplomatic Status, U.S. Says 'Raw Data' Suggest Chlorine Used in Conflict
Naharnet/Britain has upgraded the status of the London office of the Syrian opposition to a mission, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the Syrian presidential vote planned for June as an "insult" and a "farce."The boost to the National Coalition headed by Ahmad Jarba comes 10 days after the United States extended similar recognition to the umbrella group. After a meeting of the Friends of Syria group in London, Hague said Britain would provide an extra £30 million ($50 million) in "practical support to help the opposition" against Syrian President Bashar Assad. "We have also decided to upgrade the status of the National Coalition's representative office here in London to a mission in recognition of the strength of our partnership," Hague said. The Syrian government's last senior diplomat in London, a charge d'affaires, resigned in July 2012 in protest against the Assad regime's crackdown on protesters. Damascus had previously withdrawn its ambassador to Britain. For his part, Kerry said in London: "Together we are agreed in saying that Assad's staged elections are a farce, they are an insult and they are a fraud." Kerry also said he had seen "raw data" that suggest that chlorine has been used in the Syrian conflict. "I have seen evidence, it's not verified... but I have seen raw data that suggests that there have been a number of instances when chlorine has been used in the conduct of war," Kerry added. SourceظAgence France Presse

Corruption Seeps into Aid for Syrian Refugees
Naharnet/The Syrian refugee woman pushed through the crowd into the dusty grocery, where she was told she could register to receive donated blankets from an international aid agency. She didn't stay long. The shopkeeper demanded a $13 bribe to put her name on the list. It would take her five days to earn that, laboring in the nearby bean fields. "They won't give me anything if I don't pay," said Zein, a 36-year-old widow with six children, leaving the shop empty-handed. As a host of aid agencies struggle to provide help to the flood of Syrian refugees into Lebanon — so far numbering more than a million and counting — middlemen have worked their way into the cracks of the distribution system, demanding bribes and adding another layer of suffering for those fleeing the war.
The most affected appear to be the poorest of the refugees — the around 160,000 who are unable to afford housing in Lebanon and end up in unofficial, ramshackle tent camps. In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, refugees in one such camp near the eastern town of Kab Elias said they often must pay anywhere from $3 to $100 in bribes to shopkeepers, local strongmen or municipal officials for a variety of tasks, particularly to get some consignments of aid or speed their registration.
"They are hungry dogs at the door," said Sabha, a friend of Zein who also went with her to the grocery to seek blankets. "I don't have money to pay for bribes. Where am I going to get it from?" The two women, like others in the camp, spoke on condition they be identified only by their first names, fearing for their security. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, oversees the bulk of aid distribution in Lebanon, working with 60 partner organizations. Most refugees who register with the UNHCR receive an ATM-like card which they can directly purchase $30 worth of food each month — eliminating any bribe-seeking middleman. But the $30 runs out quickly, forcing those in the camps to turn to other charities. The smaller groups, in particular, often lack manpower to distribute aid themselves and so turn to local middlemen to register refugees to receive their shipments of food, medicine, blankets and other supplies — opening the door for abuses. "It's a common issue across all operations and we are well aware of it," said Ninette Kelley, UNHCR's representative in Lebanon. "There will always be people who try exploit refugees ... It's really so sad, because refugees are the most vulnerable in a community." She said it was unlikely to be widespread because of extensive checks. The UNHCR also conducts outreach to refugees, informing them its services are free and that they can report incidents of corruption. But oversight is difficult amid the chaos of one of the world's worst refugee crisis. Syria's civil war has driven more than 2.6 million people into neighboring nations.
The governments of Turkey and Jordan have set up large, organized camps to take in many of the refugees. Lebanon, in contrast, has not allowed official camps, leaving almost no supervision over the dozens of small, informal encampments that have cropped up, particularly in the agricultural fields of the eastern Bekaa Valley.
Each camp is typically controlled by a strongman, known colloquially as the "shawish" — usually a refugee who has built up connections with local Lebanese officials or has prominent family connections among the refugees. The shawish often oversees the building of tents, sometimes demanding rent, and provides services for the refugees like securing lines of credit with local shopkeepers, finding them work or dealing with Lebanese officials — all for a fee. For example, Zein and Sabha, a 32-year-old mother of five, each earn $4 a day each picking beans, but they have to give $1.65 a day to their camp's shawish, who got them the job. One recent day after work — their hands still stained with dirt — the two went to the grocery near their camp after hearing they could register there for blankets from the charity Caritas. Inside the store, the shopkeeper stood before a large ledger. "Is there aid coming?" asked Zein. "How much is it?" Five thousand lira up front, then another 15,000 lira after receiving the aid, he said — altogether, about $13.30. The two women walked out.
Asked about the incident, Caritas spokeswoman Joelle El Dib said the organization's policy is not to use middlemen and that the group was not aware of demands of bribes for its aid. She said the group would investigate the incident.
Seven aid workers with various organizations said relief groups are sometimes forced to use local shopkeepers or the shawish to register refugees. "The shawish is usually known as being corrupt. They can block access, and (charities) aren't allowed to see the people, unless it's with his permission," said one aid worker.
"It's almost impossible to check on whether aid is being properly delivered for a village. Now imagine for a million people," another aid worker said. The aid workers spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the problems. The shawish in Sabha and Zein's camp acknowledged that he takes money and argued that it was justified because he helps fellow refugees. His tent showed the benefits. It had electricity for a fan, while others go without power. There was a stack of extra blankets and a double bed — a contrast to the thin mattresses on the ground that most camp residents sleep on. The camp is a collection of about a dozen tents thrown together from pieces of burlap and plastic and wood planks amid the bean fields, home to about 20 families. Sabha and Zein sat with other women in one tent, smoking cheap cigarettes as they spoke about the bribes. "They control us," Zein said of the shawishes and other middlemen. One woman, Umm Ahmed, told how a driver for one charity demanded $7 to take refugees' names to receive boxes of food and soap distributed by a nearby mosque. Umm Nader, a mother of seven, said the shawish told her to pay a $30 bribe to speed up registration with the UNHCR, a service that is supposed to be free. "The land, we pay for. The tent, we pay for. We pay for everything," said another woman, Umm Hamid, mother of 10. "We've been hungry for a week." Source/Associated Press

'Intensive and Useful' Iran Nuclear Talks Resume
Naharnet/Negotiators from Iran and six world powers hunkered down Thursday to a second day of talks aimed towards what could be a historic deal on Tehran's controversial nuclear program. Indications of how the talks were progressing in a rainy Vienna were thin on the ground, however. Both sides warned on arrival on Tuesday that the negotiations would be hard. A spokesman for Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief and the powers' lead negotiator, said only that the first day's discussions were "intensive and useful" and that the "hard work" would continue Thursday. A U.S. State Department official said that "coordination and experts meetings will resume and continue throughout the day" at a hotel in the Austrian capital. After three earlier rounds, this time Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany aim to start drafting the actual text of what could be a landmark agreement. Success could help Tehran and Washington normalize relations 35 years after the Islamic revolution toppled the autocratic U.S.-backed Shah but failure could spark conflict and a regional nuclear arms race. The parties want to get a deal by July 20, when a November interim deal under which Iran froze certain activities in return for some sanctions relief expires. This could be extended but time is of the essence with hardliners on both sides -- members of the U.S. Congress and arch-conservatives in Iran -- skeptical of the process and impatient for progress. The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany want Iran to radically scale back its nuclear activities in order to make any dash for the bomb virtually impossible and easily detectable. In return the Islamic republic, which denies wanting atomic weapons, wants the lifting of all U.N. and Western sanctions, which have caused its economy major problems. Even though there have been indications of some narrowing of positions, for example on the Arak reactor, both sides are sticking to the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. "Quite frankly, this is very, very, difficult. I would caution people that just because we will be drafting it certainly doesn't mean an agreement is imminent or that we are certain to eventually get to a resolution of these issues," a senior U.S. official said Tuesday. The talks are tentatively scheduled to last until Friday, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif telling national media on Tuesday that he expected three more rounds before July 20.Source/Agence France Presse

Kerry Says Fate of Talks Lies with Israelis, Palestinians

Naharnet/Only Palestinians and Israelis can decide whether to resume talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Wednesday as he met Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for the first time since the peace process collapsed. The top U.S. diplomat told Abbas during almost two hours of talks in London that the fate of the peace process lies in the hands of the deeply-divided parties. "Secretary Kerry made clear that while the door remains open to peace, it is up to the parties to determine whether they are willing to take the steps necessary to resume negotiations," a senior State Department official said. The two met in an upscale hotel for what U.S. officials called "informal" talks, seeking to downplay any hopes of a breakthrough in Kerry's ill-fated bid to reach a long-elusive Middle East peace deal.
After weeks of angry moves by both sides, Israel suspended its participation in the talks on April 23 after Abbas announced the Palestine Liberation Organisation -- which is dominated by his moderate Fatah party -- was seeking a unity deal with the Hamas militants who run the Gaza Strip. Washington has branded Hamas a terrorist organisation since 1993 and has said it must recognise Israel and renounce violence. Kerry, who is in London for talks on Syria on Thursday, "reiterated the need for any Palestinian government to recognise Israel, commit to non-violence, and abide by previous agreements," the U.S. official said in a statement. He also "urged both sides to refrain from unhelpful steps."  Top U.S. officials have already warned that any Palestinian government which includes members of Hamas would risk a freeze in hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority. Under U.S. law the government is banned from supporting groups branded as foreign terrorist organisations. Kerry coaxed the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table in July after a three-year hiatus, and both sides agreed to keep talking for nine months. But the April 29 deadline expired with the peace process in disarray, forcing Kerry and his team to declare a "pause" in the negotiations. Washington has said both sides broke the terms of the July deal. In late March, Israel had refused to release as promised a last group of Palestinian prisoners, and announced plans for 700 new settlers homes, prompting the Palestinians to then seek to join 15 U.N. conventions.
Abbas updated Kerry on his reconciliation efforts, after also meeting earlier in the day with British Prime Minister David Cameron. "President Abbas outlined his plans for a new, technocratic Palestinian government, committed to the Quartet principles, including non-violence and the recognition of Israel," a Downing Street spokesman said. "He also expressed his readiness to resume peace talks with Israel and his hope that this could be achieved rapidly." -Impasse likely to last- Cameron had urged Abbas to make "progress towards securing the rapid resumption of peace talks, which remain the only viable route to a lasting solution." On Tuesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres said he hoped for a return to talks with the Palestinians. "The negotiations with the Palestinians, led by Secretary Kerry, are currently paused but they are not finished," he told a press conference in Oslo. "Neither side has a better alternative than peace based upon two states for two peoples. I hope that the negotiations will be re-started," he said. But Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli lawmakers "the impasse in negotiations with the Palestinians is expected to continue".He accused Abbas of having "no interest to reach a deal with Israel, no matter what Israel offers him," noting past proposals of Israeli land concessions Abbas had turned down. Source/Agence France Presse

Afghan Election Results Confirm Abdullah-Ghani Run-Off
Naharnet /Afghanistan's presidential election will go to a second-round vote on June 14 between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, final results showed Thursday. "After a thorough review, it is clear that no candidate has been able to win more than 50 percent and the election goes to a second round," Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), said. Abdullah secured 45 percent of the vote on April 5, with his main rival Ghani on 31.6 percent, according to the final results, which came after weeks of deliberation over fraud allegations. The results were closely in line with the figures released late last month when counting was completed. The run-off was originally scheduled for May 28. "Some sensitive materials that were stocked at IEC headquarters for the second round were destroyed by the Taliban attack on March 29 -- providing those materials again needs time," Nuristani said, explaining the delay. Source/Agence France Presse

British Journalists Shot and Beaten in Syria Kidnapping

Naharnet/Two British journalists were recovering in Turkey on Thursday after being shot and beaten by rebel kidnappers while covering the Syrian conflict, the Times reported. Times writer Anthony Loyd was shot twice in the leg while being held captive and photographer Jack Hill suffered a severe beating after trying to escape. They were eventually freed under the orders of a local rebel commander, and managed to cross the border into Turkey on Wednesday after receiving treatment in a Syrian hospital, according to the paper.
The pair had spent several days reporting from the restive city of Aleppo and were returning to the Turkish border early Wednesday when they were taken. They were around ten miles from the border when the car they were travelling in was forced to the side of the road by two cars, the Times said. Loyd was bound to the back seat of a car, while Hill and a local guide were put in the boot before being driven to a warehouse in the town of Tall Rifat. Hill and the guide identified the kidnappers as the men entrusted with their safe passage to the border, and burst out of the boot before overpowering a guard, reported the British publication. Hill was recaptured and severely beaten while Loyd was shot in the legs to prevent him from escaping. A commander from rebel group the Islamic Front, which is fighting against al-Qaida-linked extremists, turned up to the warehouse and demanded the hostages be released. Loyd, Hill and the guide crossed the border into Turkey late Wednesday after receiving treatment for their wounds, said the Times.
Source/Agence France Presse

Hagel’s talks in Jordan and Israel to determine if Syrian rebel Golan offensive expands to Damascus
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report May 15, 2014/US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Israel Wednesday May 14 from an inspection of the US-Jordanian underground command center manned by 273 American officers and located 10 kilometers north of the Jordanian capital, Amman, DEBKAfile’s military sources report. He arrived from attending the GCC defense ministers’ meeting in Jeddah for talks with Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in Tel Aviv Thursday. This US-Jordanian war room, known as Centcom Forward-Jordan, was established in August 2013 to direct potential US-Jordanian military action in Syria and counter any military threat posed by Syria or Hizballah to Jordan or Israel. This command center coordinates operations with the network of US air and naval forces in the Mid East. It is also connected to IDF and Israeli Air force headquarters. Hagel was joined on his visit by the Head of the Jordanian Armed Forces Lt. Gen. Mashal Mohammad Al-Zaben and Jordanian Prince Faisal Al Hussein. Hagel and party heard briefings from the US and Jordanian commanders directing the war room and monitoring the Syrian rebels' assault on Golan town of Quneitra, and their evaluations of the chances of the rebels taking the town.
It was the first visit by a high-ranking US defense persona to a US military headquarters directly involved in the Syrian war. As Hagel talked to Jordanian military and political leaders, a joint-US-Jordanian military exercise, dubbed the 8th Annual Falcon Air Meeting, took place in and around the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in eastern Jordan. This base is considered to be the likely staging-ground for any American military intervention in Syria.
DEBKAfile’s military sources say that Hagel’s talks in Jordan and Israel are to determine whether the rebel forces backed by the US open a new southern front against Bashar Assad.
The military aspect of the Syrian civil conflict gains ground as the political dimension recedes with the resignation of the UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, which UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon attributed to the failure of both sides to reach a political solution.
On Tuesday May 13, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, accompanied by senior IDF commanders, toured parts of the Golan border fence to observe the fighting in the Syrian sector. He said, looking toward the town of Quneitra: “From here we can see how the rebels have pushed Assad’s army into a corner.” Ya’alon no doubt passed this evaluation on to the Defense Secretary during his visit to the war room in Jordan, as food for the decision on whether to let the Golan battles take their course – thus far an even contest with the rebels unable to finish the Syrian forces off and capture Quneitra, the key to a wide stretch of southern Syria – or arm the rebel militias for a major push. This would demand heavy American weaponry, especially a sufficiency of TOW missiles, to tip the scales of the battle. Thus far, only a small amount has been supplied. This decision will be important in determining how the Syrian war develops, although Secretary Hagel is rarely brought into strictly operational decisions.
If he decides to provide the rebels fighting for Quneitra with enough heavy weapons to wrest the town and parts of the South from the Syrian army, they would also be armed for the option of advancing on Damascus. They could form up into two columns – one moving out of Quneitra and the other from the southern town of Deraa. This formation would directly threaten the three Syrian army bases – Al-Kiswah, Qatana and Kanaker – defending southern Damascus, that are manned by the 9th Syrian Division.
This would be a surprise development for the Syrian commanders and Iranian military advisers, led by Al Qods Brigades chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who are currently focused on the northern front up against the Turkish and Lebanese frontiers. It would catch them unprepared and lacking the strategic military reserves to defend Damascus from a new threat without exposing their other fronts. Hagel faces another major difficulty, which is to determine which Syrian militias qualify for the receipt of heavy American weapons.
The rebel militias fighting close to Israel’s Golan border are interspersed with Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) combatants. Al Qaeda’s ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) ISIS has also begun sending jihadists to the new battlefield around Quneitra. So far, the US and Jordanian officers supervising the arena from the war room near Amman have been able to keep US arms out of their hands. But what happens if those weapons are delivered in large quantities?

Surprise Rotation of Saudi Defense Officials
By: Simon Henderson/Washington Institute
May 14, 2014
An unexpected and unprecedented series of changes in the kingdom's military leadership raises questions about future Saudi strategy.
A series of royal orders issued today in the name of King Abdullah at the stated request of his heir apparent and defense minister, Crown Prince Salman, has radically changed Saudi Arabia's political and professional military command. Perhaps most newsworthy is the appointment of Prince Khaled bin Bandar as deputy defense minister. Out goes the thirty-seven-year-old Prince Salman bin Sultan, who was just appointed to the role last August after replacing a lesser royal who had assumed the post four months prior.
This and other announcements came as U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel was in Jeddah for the first consultative meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council's "joint defense council," which was attended by top defense officials from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Hagel's awareness of the imminent changes is unclear. The announcements were made after the concluding luncheon attended by Prince Salman bin Sultan, still identified at the time as deputy defense minister. Two days earlier, the prince had an official meeting with visiting U.S. assistant secretary of state Anne Patterson. Officially, he has now been "relieved of his post at his own request"; whether he was involuntarily sacked is so far unknown, as is the palace's intention to give him another official role.
The new deputy defense minister is a sixty-one-year-old former U.S.- and British-trained commander of the Royal Saudi Land Forces who has been serving as governor of the crucial Riyadh province since February 2013. Other appointments include a new assistant defense minister, a new chief and deputy chief of the general staff, and new commanders for the air force and navy.
At the very least, it is surprising that the kingdom would make such changes on the day of a major regional defense conference, where they likely confused local military allies and the U.S. delegation alike. The changes suggest that Saudi Arabia may be reconsidering its regional strategy. Riyadh has been increasingly apprehensive over what it apparently considers a poor interim nuclear deal with Iran, and it has been determined to deliver a major setback to Tehran by forcing the overthrow of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
The changes could also reflect the kingdom's internal power game. King Abdullah (age 90) has apparently been trying to undermine seventy-seven-year-old Crown Prince Salman's claim to the throne, such as by forcing the appointment of a deputy crown prince, Muqrin (70), in March. None of the crown prince's sons were promoted today, but the king's son, Prince Turki, was named the new governor of Riyadh province.
In addition, today's changes will revive speculation about last month's resignation by intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former long-serving ambassador to Washington. The departing deputy defense minister is Bandar's half-brother and perceived alter ego, and the two men had been crucial operators in the Saudi campaign to train and arm opposition fighters in Syria.
Whatever the case, the new appointments are sure to have a significant impact on Saudi military capabilities and policies -- though quite what impact is unclear. There is some evidence that the kingdom has reduced its support for jihadist fighters in Syria this year. And yesterday, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal offered to host his Iranian counterpart in Riyadh for negotiations to resolve differences between the two countries. Yet it is almost certainly too early to say that the kingdom is softening its tough approach to Iran, especially after its unprecedented April 29 parade display of Chinese-supplied missiles capable of hitting Tehran -- a gesture that followed the largest military exercise in Saudi history, involving 130,000 men.
**Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.

What’s behind the Egyptian position on Syria’s war?
By: Eyad Abu Shakra/Al Sharq Alawsat
Thursday, 15 May, 2014
The negative attitude—verging on blatant animosity—of some Egyptian media outlets, as well as Egyptian Arabists and Leftists, towards the Syrian opposition is truly surprising.
The absurdity of this recent development becomes obvious with analysis and serious contemplation, since the slogans calling for change in Egypt and Tunisia were the spark that triggered the Syrian revolution. Indeed, the events in Egypt in January 2011—particularly the famous “the people want the fall of the regime” slogan—directly inspired the uprising in Deraa in mid-March 2011.
As we all know, internal Egyptian discontent prompted the transformation that took place in Egypt on January 25, 2011. It was an expression of domestic opposition to a regime unconcerned with the needs of the people and neglectful of their individual and social freedoms. In other words, those who effected the change in Egypt were not seeking the liberation of Palestine or the unification of the Arab or Muslim worlds. Today, a large proportion of Egyptians believe that Islamist groups—which benefitted most from the change—have taken advantage of the popular uprising. Islamists rode the wave of change, adopting populist slogans while hiding their real motives, which the majority of the Egyptian public did not and still do not share.
The Egyptian Armed Forces took the wise decision to refuse to confront its own people. By avoiding a bloody confrontation, the military establishment spared Egypt a civil war, and their clear position convinced then-president Hosni Mubarak that he had to resign. Later on, when the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Mursi, seemed to be trying to consolidate his own power, he lost so much popular support the people sought an end to his rule as well. Trusted by many as “protector of the nation,” the military establishment stepped in and ousted Mursi in the summer of 2013.
In Syria, the initial popular aspirations were quite similar to those in Egypt. They were first and foremost “Syrian” in character. The Syrian uprising was and remained for at least 10 months entirely peaceful. It was the Syrian regime that chose to confront its own people with a violent crackdown, exploiting the guaranteed allegiances it had cultivated in the ranks of the army. As the regime intensified its crackdown and began waging a full-scale war on its people, it showed it had no qualms about killing civilians and destroying their cities and villages. The parochial, sectarian allegiances within the military–security establishment exposed the real role the regime had long assigned to it. The Syrian Army was never meant to defend the nation or liberate the occupied Golan Heights, and the main function of the security services was to protect an oppressive, sectarian police state and cater to its greedy ambitions.
Another marked difference between the ruling regimes and their military and security establishments in Syria and Egypt lies in their respective political discourses. The ruling elites in Egypt adopted “Egyptian” slogans, rather than socialist pan-Arabist ones. In Syria, the opposite happened, because since its inception the state has embraced a pan-Arabist, anti-Israel discourse with socialist overtones. Recent events, however, have brazenly exposed the falsehood of this discourse. They have revealed the true nature of the Damascus regime, a sectarian junta subservient to Iran, and whose very formation and practices are dedicated to the service of the interests of a parasitic family that has monopolized power in Syria for decades.
Where are we heading now? And why is the Egyptian attitude towards the Syrian uprising so negative?
To begin with, we must acknowledge that, unfortunately, this negative attitude is not limited to irresponsible media outlets. It is also evidently held by some senior political figures, who are supposed to be sympathetic to oppressed Syrians and keen on Arab brotherhood.
More significantly, the Egyptian animosity towards the Syrian uprising is largely based on the false conviction that there were common interests between post-Brotherhood Egypt and anti-Islamist Syria under Bashar Al-Assad. Some have even taken their enmity so far as to gloat over the plight of Homs and praise Assad’s gains in his war against the opposition. There are some who justify their support of Assad and Iran on the pretext that the two regimes are fighting against the Brotherhood, and they tend to think of the Syrian uprising as an Islamist fundamentalist one. But they seem to forget the following facts:
First, during his short time in power President Mursi strongly supported Iran’s active participation in the resolution of the Syrian crisis. He was the one who suggested that Iran should join Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to form a four-way commission to handle the Syrian crisis—without first seeking the opinion of either Turkey or the Kingdom.
Second, Mursi, who was keen to overturn Mubarak’s anti-Iran policies, continued to be enthusiastic about rapprochement with Iran even after its direct strategic support for Damascus was exposed.
Third, Iran has been a direct sponsor of extremist Islamist organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic Jihad and some factions within Hamas—not to mention certain other Islamist groups currently fighting the Egyptian government.
Fourth, the suspicious relationship between Iran and the Syrian regime on the one hand and ultra-fundamentalist groups such as ISIS on the other is no secret. The Syrian government warplanes busy shelling Syrian cities with barrel bombs have never targeted these groups’ strongholds, particularly in Raqqa, Hassakah and Deir Ezzor.
Fifth, before the Syrian uprising started, the Iraqi government accused the Syrian regime of facilitating the access of Al-Qaeda fighters into its territories.
Sixth, Iraqi Minister of Justice Hassan Al-Shammari said in a recent interview that the security forces overseeing Abu Ghraib prison facilitated the escape of Islamist inmates in a bid to beef up Al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria, in an attempt to intimidate the United States and convince Washington that any other future rulers of Syria could even worse than the Assad regime.
These are simple facts known among Egyptians, who now judge the situation in Syria from a vengeful and parochial perspective.
The disastrous consequences of the current conspiracy, if it were successful, would not be limited to Syria alone.

Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy

By Staff writer | Al Arabiya News/Thursday, 15 May 2014
A Sudanese judge on Thursday sentenced a woman to death for converting from Islam to Christianity, despite Western appeals calling to respect freedom of religion. "We gave you three days to recant but you insist on not returning to Islam. I sentence you to be hanged to death," Judge Abbas Mohammed al-Khalifa told the woman, addressing her by a Muslim name, Adraf Al-Hadi Mohammed Abdullah. Her Christian name is Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag. Khalifa also sentenced her to 100 lashes for "adultery". Ishag, who rights activists say is pregnant and 27 years old, reacted without emotion when Abbas delivered the verdict at a court in the Khartoum district of Haj Yousef. Earlier in the hearing, an Islamic religious leader spoke with her in the caged dock for about 30 minutes.
Then she calmly told the judge: "I am a Christian and I never committed apostasy." Sudan's Islamist regime introduced sharia law in 1983 but extreme punishments other than flogging are rare. After the verdict about 50 people demonstrated against the decision. "No to executing Meriam," said one of their signs while another proclaimed: "Religious rights are a constitutional right." In a speech, one demonstrator said they would continue their activism with sit-ins and protests until she is freed. A smaller group supporting the verdict also arrived but there was no violence. "This is a decision of the law. Why are you gathered here?" one supporter asked, prompting an activist to retort: "Why do you want to execute Meriam? Why don't you bring corruptors to the court?"
[with AFP]