January 04/15

Bible Quotation for today/Jesus the Real Vine
John 15/01-17: " “I am the real vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He breaks off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will be clean and bear more fruit.  You have been made clean already by the teaching I have given you.  Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; it can do so only if it remains in the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.  Those who do not remain in me are thrown out like a branch and dry up; such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, where they are burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, then you will ask for anything you wish, and you shall have it.  My Father's glory is shown by your bearing much fruit; and in this way you become my disciples.  I love you just as the Father loves me; remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My commandment is this: love one another, just as I love you.  The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them.  And you are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you servants any longer, because servants do not know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because I have told you everything I heard from my Father.  You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit, the kind of fruit that endures. And so the Father will give you whatever you ask of him in my name.  This, then, is what I command you: love one another

Latest analysis, editorials from miscellaneous sources published on January 03-04/15
What can we expect from Washington in 2015?/Eyad Abu Shakra/Asharq Al Awsat/January 03/15
Make 2015 the year of state institutions/By: Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst/head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon./January 03/15
As Hezbollah grows, corruption takes root/Nicholas Blanford/The Daily Star/January 03/15
The crude reality of declining crude oil prices/Hisham Melhem/Al Arabiya/ January 03/15
Will Israel target Abbas after its embarrassment/Abdulrahman al-Rashed/Al Arabiya/January 03/15

Lebanese Related News published on January 03-04/15
Nusra Front Attacks Hizbullah Posts in Fleita Killing Two Members
Nusra Front Attacks Hizbullah Posts in Fleita Killing Two Members
Vatican Shies Away from Lebanese Presidential Deadlock as Girault Continues Initiative
Report: Al-Rahi Urges Hizbullah to Convince Aoun to End Presidential Stalemate
Lebanese Cabinet Exerting Efforts to Resolve Case of Abducted Servicemen: Only Ibrahim Tasked with Negotiation
U.N. renews special tribunal for three years
Rai: Aoun-Geagea meeting important step to end vacuum
Martyrs’ Square: a public space of tolerance
Make 2015 the year of state institutions
Only Lebanese can rescue country: Derian
As Hezbollah grows, corruption takes root
New entry rules for Syrians won’t bar dire cases
Lebanon bids farewell to ex-PM Karami
Rival politicians mourn Karami
Karami, two-time PM ousted by tumultuous events
Low oil prices unlikely to hurt railroads
Lebanon Imposes Visas on Syrians for First Time
Syrian Ambassador Calls for Cooperation in Measures Across Border
Airport Customs Arrest Smuggler Hiding Cocaine in Underwear

Miscellaneous Reports And News published on January 03-04/15
At Least 20 Egyptian Christians Kidnapped in Libya
Oil at five-year low below $56 amid supply glut
Pessimism as Syria opposition weighs Moscow talks
Iran: Saudis should move to curb oil price fall
Saudi to Reopen Iraq Embassy after Nearly 25 Years
Israel Mulls War Crimes Suits against Top Palestinians
Palestinian Fisherman Critically Wounded by Israeli Gunfire
Iran Rejects Controversial New Hijab Law
Father of Captured Pilot Asks IS to Treat Him Well

French military intervention in Libya within three months: diplomat

Moderate rebel factions unite in southern Syria
Iraq: Anbar delegation to call for more US assistance in fight against ISIS
Turkey permits first new church in 90 years

Jihad Watch Site Latest Posts
France: Muslim screaming “Allahu akbar” tries to strangle police officer
Moderate” Fatah posts image of huge pile of Jewish skulls
Germany: Journalist played “racist” to smear anti-Islamization movement
Moderate” Syrian rebels burned churches, destroyed Christian graves
Nigeria: Islamic jihadists murder at least 28 Christians
“I could chop you up into little pieces and put you in the Thames”
General Allen: US must “defeat the idea” of the Islamic State
Muslim cleric killed fighting for the Islamic State
Islamic jihadist says slavery biggest honor for non-Muslim women
Turkey: Janissary chases Santa out of town in anti-New Year’s celebration
Islamic Republic of Iran: Police arrest 50 women for “un-Islamic” dress
Florida Muslim had letter that talked about “uniting a Muslim army under one flag to wage Islamic war”
Robert Spencer in PJ Media: The 10 Most Important Jihad Stories of 2014
Georgetown Panel Promotes One-Way Interfaith ‘Dialogue’

The Maronite Patriarch: Al Raei: Detachment from the Patriarchate Historical Convictions
Elias Bejjani
January 03/15
Sadly our Maronite Patriarch His Beatitude Bchara Al Raei is not acting as he is expected to do in numerous administrative, religious, national and political domains. Since he was elected after the resignation of Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Sfier and most of his rhetoric, stances, alliances, abroad visits, and arrogance are all controversial and unprecedented in the recent history of the Maronite Patriarchate.
Administrative wise he is not protecting or safeguarding the real state property of the church, while openly and without any kind of deterrence what so ever had freely granted a piece of this property to one of his close aids to build a palace on it.
Tens of letters from different sources, ecclesial, clerical, political and otherwise were sent to him requesting an immediate correction of this unlawful and unethical stance, but with stubbornness and arrogance he has refused to do so.
His responses were all denial, projection and accusations of treason for each and every person who addressed this very sensitive issue. This issue is still not solved yet, and apparently His Beatitude is not willing to do so in spite of all the criticism that is taking place on an ongoing pattern.
Politically Al Raei joined the Syrian Axis of Evil and ignored totally the historical role of the Maronite Patriarchate in being a holy and sold bastion of Lebanese patriotism, independence, sovereignty freedoms and democracy.
The puzzling question is, what our Maronite Patriarch, Al Raei is thinking?
Does he really believe that he is a God and we, the Maronites must worship him!!
Is he fooling himself that the Maronites will accept with silence and indifference all the atrocities that are taking place in Bkerki on all level?
We definitely assure His beatitude that the free, faithful and patriotic Maronites in Lebanon and Diaspora will not keep quite and their voices are going to be louder and louder every day till he is back to Bkerki and to its historical convictions.
The irony with Al Raei's kind of conduct and controversies lies in the fact that while Pope Frances is leading a revolution in the Vatican to modernize the Catholic Church and bring it to the 21 century, His beatitude is dragging the Maronite Church to the dark ages.
Does Al Raei recognize that we are in the 21 century and not in the oppressive European inquisition horrible era? Hopefully he does for the sake of our Church!!
We call on our Maronite Patriarch Al Raei to safeguard our Church, Honor its historical convictions and to be meek and fully abide by his priesthood vows of poverty, obedience and celibacy.

Elias Bejjani
Canadian-Lebanese Human Rights activist, journalist and political commentator
Web sites & http://www.10452lccc.comm &
Tweets on
Face Book LCCC group

At Least 20 Egyptian Christians Kidnapped in Libya
Naharnet /A priest and a witness say masked gunmen in central Libya have kidnapped 20 Coptic Christians from Egypt. Witness Hanna Aziz told The Associated Press that the gunmen in the Libyan city of Sirte went room by room in their residence at 1 a.m. Saturday and asked for identification papers to separate Muslim workers from Christians. Aziz says the gunmen handcuffed and drove away with the Christians. Abu Makar, a Coptic priest in the workers' hometown of Samalout in southern Egypt, confirmed the abduction took place. He said seven other Coptic Christians from Samalout were taken trying to escape Sirte a few days earlier. Sirte has become a safe haven for extremist Islamist groups like Ansar al-Shariah, blamed for the 2013 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Agence France Presse

Nusra Front Attacks Hizbullah Posts in Fleita Killing Two Members
Naharnet /The al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front reportedly attacked posts controlled by Hizbullah in the town of Fleita in the Syrian al-Qalamoun region killing two of its members. According to LBCI, al-Nusra Front militants attacked the positions overnight. Reports also stated that Hizbullah members Ali Bakri and Fadl Fakih have been killed in the battles. However, the Nusra Front announced on its account on Twitter that its fighters planted mines in areas near posts controlled by Hizbullah and the Lebanese army.
“The engineering team planted mines in the areas near the Iranian Hizbollat & the Nusayri army in Qalamoun,” the group said in a tweet. LBCI later reported that heavy clashes erupted between Hizbullah and al-Nusra Front on the outskirts of Fleita.
Fleita is just across the Lebanese border to Arsal, a crossing point 20 kilometers to the northwest which rebels and refugees have used regularly. Hizbullah is a close ally of the Syrian regime and has been fighting alongside government troops against an uprising there.
Its involvement has helped the army to recapture key territory, but drawn the ire of many in Lebanon. The Lebanese army have been battling the Syria-based Islamic militants who are entrenched on the porous border between Lebanon and Syria, including the extremist Islamic State group and the al-Nusra Front.

Vatican Shies Away from Lebanese Presidential Deadlock as Girault Continues Initiative
Naharnet/03.01.15/Director of the department of the Middle East and North Africa at the French Foreign Ministry Jean-François Girault visited last week the Vatican to discuss the presidential crisis in Lebanon, As Safir newspaper reported on Saturday. Girault reportedly met with the Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura Archbishop Dominique Mamberti , who informed him that the Vatican has no veto on any Lebanese presidential candidate. “Both sides agreed to support France's initiative” to end the presidential deadlock in Lebanon, a diplomatic source close to Girault told the newspaper. The source stressed that the Vatican and France have no veto on any presidential candidate, pointing out that priority is to elect a new head of state that is acceptable to all parties. The source also revealed that the Vatican has no initiative to end the presidential stalemate, adding that it supports endeavors exerted by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi to unify the Christians and agree on a consensual candidate. As Safir reported that Girault will head on Monday to the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh as part of his ongoing efforts to resolve the vacuum in the presidency in Lebanon. The French official is expected to meet with senior Saudi officials, in particular, head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence Prince Khaled bin Bandar, who is reportedly following up the presidential stalemate in Lebanon. Girault will later on visit Iran, where he is expected to relay to Iranian officials the details of the talks he held on the presidency during his recent meetings with Lebanese officials. Girault had held meetings during his two-day visit to Lebanon with Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil, former PM Najib Miqati, al-Mustaqbal bloc head MP Fouad Saniora, al-Rahi, Head of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, Kataeb Party leader Amin Gemayel, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat and former President Michel Suleiman. He said during his talks that “France is concerned about the presidential vacuum in Lebanon” and that it is exerting all efforts to help the nation cross that stage. Lebanon has been left without a president since May, when the tenure of Suleiman ended, because of sharp differences between the rival March 8 and March 14 alliances.

Lebanese Cabinet Exerting Efforts to Resolve Case of Abducted Servicemen: Only Ibrahim Tasked with Negotiations
Naharnet /03.01.15/Cabinet endeavors to resolve the hostage crisis contributed in the positive path that the case is witnessing, al-Akhbar news paper reported on Saturday. Ministerial sources told the newspaper that the government's decision to limit negotiations to General Security chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim and adopting the secrecy policy succeeded in receiving positive signs by the abductors. The sources said that Salafist Sheikh Wissam al-Masri is acting upon his own will and “his statements are not being handled in a serious manner by the cabinet.”“There are several sides contacting Ibrahim and Masri isn't one of them,” the sources added. “The families of the abducted servicemen are convinced that their escalatory moves and blackmailing the country are useless.” On Tuesday, al-Masri announced after a brief visit to Islamic State militants on Arsal's outskirts that the group is demanding a border “buffer zone” to “protect” Syrian refugees in the area as well as a “hospital” for treating the wounded and the release of women prisoners from Lebanese jails. The Lebanese policemen and soldiers were taken hostage during deadly clashes in and around Arsal in early August with the Qaida-affiliate al-Nusra Front and the IS group. Sixteen policemen and soldiers are still being held by al-Nusra while nine are in the captivity of the IS.
Al-Nusra has said previously that the hostage crisis would end if 10 inmates held at Lebanese prisons would be freed for each hostage or seven Lebanese inmates and 30 female prisoners held in Syria would be released for each abducted soldier and policeman or if five Lebanese and 50 women inmates would be freed. The group added that the swap with the prisoners held at Syrian prisons should take place in Turkey or Qatar, while the exchange with the Lebanese authorities should take place on the outskirts of the town of Arsal.

Syrian Ambassador Calls for Cooperation in Measures Across Border
Naharnet /Syria's ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul Karim Ali expressed understanding to the measures taken by the Lebanese state to organize the movement of Syrians into and out of Lebanon, calling for further cooperation. “The measures are to organize the operation due to the high pressure imposed by the policies adopted and the conditions in Lebanon,” Ali told reporters after talks with former Prime Minister Salim el-Hoss at his residence in Beirut's Aisha Bakkar. “We understand and appreciate the measures.” However, he stressed that such endeavors require complete coordination between the authorities of the two countries. Lebanon has all but shut its frontiers to new refugees, allowing only humanitarian exceptions across, and the state is beyond its absorption capacities and urgently needs other countries to share its burden. The Lebanese General Security is also set to impose visa restrictions on Syrians for the first time after citizens of both countries have for decades been able to travel freely across their shared border. More than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have put massive pressure on the country's limited resources and contributed to rising tensions. The refugees have stretched the country's already fragile infrastructure and compete with Lebanon's poorest for low-paid jobs, causing tensions. Tens of thousands of Syrian children are out of school because there is nowhere to place them. There are no formal camps. Many of the refugees live in encampments, collective shelters and abandoned construction sites. Many make out a living hand-to-mouth on U.N. cash aid and food vouchers.

Report: Al-Rahi Urges Hizbullah to Convince Aoun to End Presidential Stalemate
Naharnet /03.01.15/Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi reportedly asked Hizbullah to convince its ally Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun to head to the parliament to elect a new head of state or withdraw from the presidential race and choose a compromise candidate that would be acceptable to all sides. According to al-Joumhouria newspaper published on Saturday, Hizbullah rejected al-Rahi's request and informed him that the party backs Aoun's candidacy until the end. Hizbullah's response was reportedly conveyed by the party's politburo chief Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed during his recent visit to Bkirki. Al-Sayyed reiterated after talks with al-Rahi last week Hizbullah's staunch support for Aoun to reach the Baabda Palace. “Aoun is a competent person who is capable of playing a positive role if he was elected as a president and he can assume responsibilities amid the difficult situation” the country is passing through, al-Sayyed stressed. The delegation met with al-Rahi to extend its greetings to him on the occasion of Christmas.
Al-Joumhouria said that the hour and a half meeting between al-Rahi and Hizbullah's delegation was held in away from media and popular spotlight. Lebanon's presidential crisis has spilled over into parliament, which has failed to hold legislative sessions to elect a new head of state. The Lebanese parliament is tasked by the constitution to select a president, a decision that has already been put off more than a dozen times as the war in Syria continues to divide rival political blocs. Aoun and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea have announced their candidacies for the presidency. Their differences, in addition to the rivalry between the March 8 and 14 alliances, have left the presidential post vacant. The term of President Michel Suleiman ended in May.

As Hezbollah grows, corruption takes root
Nicholas Blanford/The Daily Star/Jan. 03, 2015
BEIRUT: The revelation that yet another spy working for Israel has been exposed inside the ranks of Hezbollah raises serious questions about the integrity of the organization at a time when it faces allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Hezbollah once had an enviable reputation for financial probity in a country where sleaze and nepotism is endemic. Yet Hezbollah’s enormous expansion in manpower, military assets and cash generation since 2006 has perhaps inevitably led to a weakening of the party’s internal control mechanisms, making it susceptible to the lure of corruption and penetration by Israeli intelligence agencies.
In the years ahead, the phenomenon of corruption will pose an even graver threat to Hezbollah than Israel’s military might.
The alleged arrest of Mohammad Shawraba, variously described as a former top official in Hezbollah’s external operations unit and Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s personal security chief, is said to have been the most serious infiltration yet of the party by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Shawraba reportedly offered Israel information that allowed it to thwart a number of attacks that were intended to serve as revenge of the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s former military commander.
If the allegations are confirmed – and Hezbollah has not yet denied the reports – Shawraba would be only the latest of several Hezbollah members or Shiite figures trusted by the party to have been caught spying for Israel in the past eight years. Others include Mohammad “Abu Abed” Slim, one of the original members of Hezbollah who reportedly served in the party’s counter-intelligence apparatus and was financial chief for external operations. He defected to Israel in 2011, apparently by jumping on board the bucket of an Israeli poclain excavator which lifted him over the border fence near Rmeish. Hezbollah subsequently said Slim had never been a member of the party.
In 2009, Hezbollah arrested Marwan Faqih, a car dealer from Nabatiyah who was sufficiently well trusted by the party to supply the cadres with vehicles. Hezbollah discovered that Faqih’s cars were fitted with GPS transmitting devices that tracked the movements of the vehicles. The recorded GPS tracks presumably allowed the Israelis to build up a map of secret Hezbollah facilities across Lebanon.
Then in 2012, Hussein Fahs, reportedly a top financial officer and head of Hezbollah’s communications network, was said to have fled to Israel, taking with him $5 million along with sensitive maps and documents, after Hezbollah discovered that he was involved in a massive fraud operation involving the party’s fiber-optic communications network. Fahs was an embezzler rather than an Israeli spy prior to his departure for Israel, although the distinction would have made little difference to Hezbollah, which had to assess and contain the damage caused by his defection.
Twenty years ago, however, allegations of corruption and Israel’s recruiting of Hezbollah officials were unheard of. That may in part be explained by the fact that it is only in the past decade or so that Hezbollah has fielded an effective counter-intelligence unit to track down spies within its ranks.
But then again, Hezbollah was a much smaller organization in the 1990s with tighter discipline and internal controls and a deeper sense of personal security among the cadres. At the time, Hezbollah was focused on confronting Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon which won it a swath of admirers across the sectarian divide. Politically, Hezbollah had an effective parliamentary presence and was steadily building up its support base and challenging the Amal Movement’s then leadership of the Shiite community.
Israel had few covert successes against Hezbollah in the 1990s due to the air-tight security in which the party operated. It assassinated then Hezbollah chief Sayyed Abbas Mussawi in 1992, although that operation backfired as Israel lost an embassy in Buenos Aires a month later and Mussawi was replaced by the even more effective Nasrallah. Israel was able to recruit some non-Shiite Lebanese agents in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most damaging for Hezbollah was Mahmoud Rafeh, a retired policeman from Hasbaya who, following his arrest in 2006, admitted responsibility for the 1999 road-side bomb assassination of Ali “Abu Hasan” Deeb, the head of Hezbollah’s special operations unit in south Lebanon, and the 2006 car bomb killing of Nidal and Mahmoud Majzoub, two top Islamic Jihad commanders.
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has grown immensely in political and martial power and its army of fighters is perhaps five times larger than before 2006, representing a genuine challenge for Israel in any future war. Yet, paradoxically, its rapid expansion has also made it more vulnerable internally. In some respects, Hezbollah has become a victim of its own success, turning from the relatively small streamlined resistance group of two decades ago into a sprawling bureaucracy with looser internal controls which is dissolving its previously impermeable wall of security. Even within Shiite circles, among Hezbollah’s general support base, there is talk of how the party has lost its aura of integrity compared to before 2006.
It is telling that the resignation last week of Ghaleb Abu Zeinab from his post as Hezbollah’s liaison with the Christian community was accompanied by allegations that he was dismissed over charges of corruption. No evidence has emerged to suggest there is any truth to the claims, but the fact that the allegations were raised in the first place illustrates, perhaps, how closely the words “Hezbollah” and “corruption” have become associated in the minds of some people.
Nasrallah is believed to have worked hard to clamp down on graft and pilfering within his organization, but corruption, once it takes root, is hard to remove.
Uri Lubrani, Israel’s veteran Lebanon coordinator during the occupation years, once said Hezbollah would only be defeated when it caught the disease of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, in other words become lazy, bourgeois and corrupt. Hezbollah’s leaders have watched both the PLO in Lebanon and the Amal Movement succumb to the cancer of corruption over the decades and now face a challenge to reverse the party’s descent along the same insidious path.

Make 2015 the year of state institutions
By: Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst/head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon.
Jan. 03, 2015
During a recent gathering for Grand Serail employees, Prime Minister Tammam Salam was quoted as saying: We will not celebrate New Year in Lebanon and we will not feel happy until the Army and internal security servicemen are freed. Mr. Salam’s words reveal the strong responsibility he feels for his country and for the security and safety of his fellow countrymen and women. They reflect the general mood of the public, one of anxiety and concern.
Rarely have the inhabitants of this part of the world been faced with direct accounts and images of violent acts. Those who by their own nature or beliefs walk the life of tolerance, moderation and openness increasingly feel they are a minority.
The quest of many in the past year in Lebanon was: How could it all get so far and what is still to come? How low can a boy or girl fall in order to be attracted to join a group of brutal torturers and murderers? How far can women and men go in teaching and spreading violence with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group?
Today’s “extremism” in the Middle East and vast parts of Africa and Asia keeps academics, opinion and policymakers increasingly busy. Last week’s The Daily Star feature article by Venetia Rainey on “Understanding the drive to extremism” sums up the combination of factors that prompt a person to wreak havoc, often in the name of religion.
Governments across the region make strong calls for and contributions to yet another coalition against terrorism. Many agree that military action is not the answer.
Real efforts are most needed in building a contemporary civil state, starting with schools, universities, high-tech institutes; in providing top notch health services and jobs – the oxygen and space to breathe and prosper.
Few would disagree with the need for a functioning state, but many of those who are not expected to give their lives defending the nation seem to prefer a mood of apathy, inaction, even cynics.
Some choose to fight virtually; they read, write, observe, comment, share. They tick “like,” “‘delete” or “block” disturbing commentaries. They scroll and turn to the next page, away from what they see. Leaving the one-way virtual remarks behind, and a vacuum to be filled.
It is remarkable how many let existing vacuums grow, confirming Hegel’s notion that “nature abhors vacuums.” They leave people to resort to defiance of the state and its institutions, rather than obliging by values which should be set in stone, just as traffic rules are there to be followed. a
For years we have observed and commented on how individuals, as described by Venetia Rainey, were recruited by extremists in this region. There was hardly any reaction against it. The critical analyses were mostly left to academics. In most cases there was no authority concerned with the fate of the fragile future recruits. Few parents dared to face their children heads-on to bring them back to reason.
My own first direct experience with organized crime of terrorist nature was in Somalia where militant Islamist groups started to take over parts of the country during the 1991-92 war. The connection with “moderate” Somalis was militarized; there was no real development effort to give hope to the people: There was no functioning state. It was a most bloody war indeed and Somalia was left to pretty much struggle on its own.

Back in Egypt in 1993, when I ran interviews for Dutch media, I was shocked to see the number of “extremist recruits” on the rise since I had been there last, only three years earlier, during the first Gulf War. Youngsters, too poor to leave the country, easily bought into the “Islam Huwa al-Hal” [Islam is the Solution] concept. Others moved to the Gulf region for money, only to return – once a year – with the most conservative religious ideas the mainstream could not recognize. At best, they would shrug their shoulders: nobody would dare to speak out “against religion,” while few faced the potential recruits head-on. Egypt was – and still is – a functioning state, but, over the years, the state did very little to give hope to the yearly hundreds of thousands who reached school age and had no place to learn, develop and feel safe.
Between 1995 and 2004 I worked in the EU Brussels institutions on “human and social security and development,” a crucial period during which one saw a vast increase of extremist sentiments across the southern flank of Europe. The European Union was working on the premises of the magic wand offered by free trade agreements for all our southern neighbors, trying to move the region forward, despite the Arab-Israeli conflict. There was a general, typically European, acknowledgement of the need for state-building, the strengthening of public institutions, but resources were simply too limited. Some argued against the European Union investing billions of euros in the region. I believe to the contrary that more could have been done on the ground to help fight for a contemporary civil state.
And while there was intellectual concern about “how to dialogue with political Islam,” there was not enough regard for “how to support state-builders and advance on citizenship.”
The importance of a functioning state, providing security, rule of law and a minimum of quality services only took a true form after the Arab awakenings, when we saw countries with functioning institutions, through elections and popular participation, removing their respective dictatorial leaderships and withholding – albeit with huge challenges – the forces of anarchy, violence, anger and atrocities.
The majority of the people working in these state institutions have received education in their own country, are locally grounded and ready to work for the nation-state, with true allegiance to the public good. In Lebanon, one should therefore never forget that there are men and women who are ready to fight for their country, ready to work peacefully on the building of a contemporary civil state where there are no vacuums left to be filled by inhumanity. I therefore hope this coming year will be a year of “fighting for,” rather than “fighting against.” A year of bringing forward the hard work and positive examples of all women and men in Lebanon, who wish for their dreams of a bright future to come true.
*Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst is the head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon.


U.N. renews Hariri special tribunal mandate for three years
Kareem Shaheen/The Daily Star/Jan. 03, 2015
BEIRUT: The U.N. Secretary-General renewed the mandate of the court trying the alleged assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri for three additional years, his spokesperson announced Friday. The extension means the Hague-based tribunal is now set to continue operations until March 2018. A statement on the U.N. website said: “The Secretary-General reaffirms the commitment of the United Nations to support the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to bring those responsible to justice and to ensure that impunity for such major crimes will not be tolerated. The United Nations looks forward to the continued support and cooperation of the Government of Lebanon.”The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the Valentine’s Day 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and plunged Lebanon into turmoil. Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted by the court, and their trial in absentia began in The Hague last January. The extension was expected, as prosecutors have made it clear they will need months to lay out all of the complex telecommunications data they are relying on to implicate the suspects. After that, defense lawyers will likely need months to present their own case theories. Judges will also require time to deliberate before sentencing, and any appeals are expected to last at least six months.
The court may end up requiring an additional mandate extension if it decides to try the suspects in other attacks that occurred in Lebanon around the Hariri assassination.

Rai: Aoun-Geagea meeting important step to end vacuum
Jan. 03, 2015
Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai has lent support for the planned dialogue between the country’s two rival Christian leaders, describing it as an “important step” toward ending the deadlock that has left Lebanon without a president for more than seven months, Bkirki officials said Friday.
“Patriarch Rai has given his blessing to the [upcoming] meeting between Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea and MP Michel Aoun and considers it to be an important step toward breaking the presidential impasse,” Hares Chehab, secretary-general of the Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee, told The Daily Star.
Chehab, who represents the Maronite patriarch on the Dialogue Committee, said talks between Aoun, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and Geagea was “also important because it involves two major factions who represent the biggest segment in the Maronite community, which is essentially concerned with the presidential election.”
“Filling the vacant presidency post represents the Christian party’s participation in running the country’s public affairs. Unless this post is filled, there can be no real participation [in power-sharing between Muslims and Christians] and no coexistence,” he added.
The influential Catholic Maronite Church, which had played a key role in the past in supporting candidates to the country’s top post customarily held by a Maronite, has voiced concerns over Parliament’s repeated failures since April due to a lack of quorum to choose a successor to former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year mandate ended on May 25.
Speaker Nabih Berri has called for a new Parliament session to elect a president on Jan. 7 amid signs that the session was doomed to fail like the previous 17 abortive attempts as the rival March 8 and March 14 parties remain split over a consensus candidate to break the deadlock.
Earlier Friday, MP Ibrahim Kanaan from Aoun’s bloc said a meeting between the FPM and LF leaders was imminent.
“No final date has been set yet for the meeting, but it is not far off,” Kanaan told the Voice of Lebanon radio station. “Agreement has been reached on the broad lines of the [dialogue] agenda and fine tuning is being done to some issues.”
Kanaan stressed the need to organize relations between rival Christian parties in order to adopt “a unified vision regarding state institutions and the political system.”
“We hope this move [dialogue] would bring the Christians closer to adopting a common ground that would make them stronger and more effective in politics,” he said. “The presidential election is a gateway to all solutions.”
In a move seen as facilitating the launch of dialogue between Aoun and Geagea, both of whom are vying for the presidency seat, the FPM and LF have announced that all lawsuits over libel and slander filed against each other’s media outlets and journalists would be dropped. Rai said the Maronite Church encouraged all dialogue initiatives that aim to search for solutions to the country’s myriad political and security woes. “We bless and encourage all dialogue initiatives among various political parties in Lebanon to end the stagnation and defuse tensions and begin mutual steps to find solutions for our political, economic and security problems,” Rai said during a New Year’s Day sermon Thursday.

‘Our Daddy is in Heaven’ — Daughters of Christian Family Slaughtered in Libya
by Raymond Ibrahim on January 3, 2015 in From The Arab World, Muslim Persecution of Christians
More information about the Coptic Christian family — mother, father, and daughter — killed in Libya continues to surface. In an interview with the mother’s brother, he explained how the murderers broke into the house in the middle of the night. They handcuffed and killed the father. Then they entered the children’s bedroom, three girls. The mother was there, cried out, tried to fight back, and was killed. They took the oldest daughter, 14-year-old Katherine, and fled with her. The girl’s body was later found in the desert, shot three times (graphic pictures here). The other two younger daughters were left for two-and-a-half hours in their bedroom with the body of their slain mother. In the early morning, they fled the house and ran toward their school where they were intercepted by the principal who asked them, “Why are you coming to school alone today? Where’s your father?” They answered, “Daddy is in heaven.”

New entry measures for Syrians won’t bar dire humanitarian cases
Samya Kullab/The Daily Star/Jan. 03, 2015
BEIRUT: Revised entry measures approved by General Security this week will not exclude “extreme humanitarian cases” from crossing into Lebanon, a government source said Friday, adding that the criteria for these would soon be shared with the UNHCR. Lebanon’s General Security approved revised entry measures for Syrian nationals who will no longer be able to enter Lebanon without a visa, in a move aimed at curbing the entry of refugees fleeing almost four years of conflict.
A statement released by General Security on New Year’s Eve said that under the new regulations, which will go into effect on Jan. 5, 2015, Syrian nationals can apply for six types of entry visas, including tourist, business, student, transit, short stay and medical.
“These are not entry restrictions, these are procedures in place to regulate the entry of Syrians in general,” said Social Affairs Ministry spokesperson Hala al-Helou. “Of course it respects extreme humanitarian cases.”
The criteria for such cases, she added, has been drafted by the government and will be shared with partner organizations involved with refugee response.
“It’s criteria that applies to extremely vulnerable individuals, severe medical cases, people with severe disabilities and children at risk who have family in Lebanon,” she said, adding that the ministry was following up with General Security over such cases.
According to the statement, tourists should provide a hotel booking and cash worth $1,000, as well as valid passports and identification papers in order to get a visa for the duration of their hotel reservation.
Business visitors should be able to submit additional papers proving they have business interests in Lebanon or are invited by local or Lebanon-based companies, to be granted a maximum one-month visa, the statement said.
Syrians who own properties in Lebanon must also present supporting documents, whereas students are required to provide official admission letters proving they are enrolled in Lebanese schools and universities.
Two-day transit visas are granted to Syrian travelers through Lebanese ports and the airport, and to applicants to foreign embassies that had closed down their offices in Syria and relocated to Lebanon, the statement added.
Lebanon, which hosts over 1.2 million Syrian refugees, started tightening control on the entry of Syrian refugees last year by limiting access to extreme humanitarian and medical cases.
The new measures at the borders are considered to be the second step in implementing a three-point policy paper adopted by the Cabinet in October, Helou said. The first was considered the joint launch of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, which underscores stability concerns in the country as well as humanitarian response.
The document set out the government’s parameters with respect to the Syrian presence in the country, highlighting its main concerns including reducing the number of individuals registered as refugees from Syria, addressing rising security concerns in the country and expanding humanitarian response to include an institutional and development approach.
The next step, Helou added, would entail re-evaluating the status of refugees registered with the UNHCR, with cooperation from the agency.
“The implementation of this policy has been ongoing for some months, but it hadn’t been formalized [in writing], it was more verbal,” said a government source with knowledge of the file who requested anonymity.
For now, General Security’s border management officials cannot apply the humanitarian criteria alone. Rather, the source said, the decision is ultimately made by either the of social affairs or interior minister.

Palestinian Fisherman Critically Wounded by Israeli Gunfire
Naharnet/A Palestinian fisherman was severely wounded on Saturday after the Israeli navy opened fire at his vessel off the coast of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. “A fisherman was critically wounded and admitted to the hospital,” a Palestinian medical source said.
Witnesses said that the boat was completely destroyed by direct rockets. Around 4,000 fishermen work in Gaza, but more than half live below the poverty line. The waters off Rafah town straddling the Gaza-Egypt border have become an increasingly important smuggling route since Egyptian security forces destroyed a network of tunnels under the border. Agence France Presse

Iran Rejects Controversial New Hijab Law
Naharnet/A draft law that would give greater powers to Iran's police and volunteer militias to enforce women's compulsory wearing of the veil has been ruled unconstitutional, state media reported Saturday. Under Islamic law in force in Iran since the 1979 revolution, women must wear loose clothing, known as hijab, that covers the head and neck and which conceals their hair. But many now push the boundaries by wearing thin head scarves, tight leggings and fashionable coats rather than a chador, a long and traditional black garment that covers the entire body from head to toe. This has led to claims from lawmakers and religious leaders that the rules are being skirted and not maintained by morality police whose job is to ensure Islamic dress code is complied with in public places. The draft law, called the "Plan on Protection of Promoters of Virtue and Vice" was rejected by the country's influential Guardian Council, a 12-member group that scrutinizes legislation. The official IRNA news agency, quoting a council spokesman, said the 24-point plan contained 14 flaws and it "contradicted the constitution and was not approved". The report did not give specifics. However, the council's decision is not the end of the law, under which lawmakers want to give members of the Basij, a religious volunteer force established by the country's revolutionary leaders, power and protection to verbally caution women they deem improperly dressed. The council has sent the law back to parliament for amendment, IRNA said. The wearing of hijab is an emotive issue in the Islamic republic, with supporters saying it is an essential part of Islamic culture for women, but opponents argue that it is an ill-defined legal requirement.  The draft law, which was approved by parliament in December, also aimed to place responsibility on employers to ensure hijab is observed by workers, with companies facing fines for non-compliance. President Hassan Rouhani, who has been under pressure from hardline lawmakers to pursue a tougher police stand on the veil, distanced himself from the planned law in a speech on October 25. "We should not be overly focused on one issue, such as bad hijab, to prevent vice," he said, alluding to the Islamic duty to promote virtue. Agence France Presse

What can we expect from Washington in 2015?
Eyad Abu Shakra/Asharq Al Awsat
Saturday, 3 Jan, 2015
Having just bidden farewell to 2014 with a failure at the UN Security Council to pass a resolution ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories within three years, let’s wish everybody a happy new year.
In fact, the US had made its intentions clear by claiming the resolution failed to address Israel’s security concerns; thus observers became interested to know how far Washington would go and whether it would resort, yet again, to the ‘veto’. Thankfully, for Washington, the ‘veto’ was not required after it secured two abstentions from Nigeria and Rwanda, depriving the Palestinians of the magic nine votes needed to pass the resolution.
So another year passed with no marked American change of position on the Palestinian crisis. This ‘no movement’ however, has not been universal with regard to other Middle East crises. The emergence of the “jihadist-takfirist” strain of Sunni fundamentalist Islam has provided Washington and others with an opportunity to redefine their vital political and security priorities. Washington, for a start, does not view the Iranian regime as hostile anymore but, rather implicitly, as an ally in the new war against the “jihadist-takfirist” groups.
This week American–Israeli columnist and journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a revealing article in The Atlantic about President Barack Obama’s position towards Iran, and subsequently, Syria. It is worth mentioning here that it was Goldberg who was the first journalist to highlight the early signs of the White House’s radical shift towards Tehran and the Sunni-Shi’ite friction, in an interview with Obama published by Bloomberg View last May.
In this week’s article Goldberg recalls another interview he conducted in 2006 with the then Senator Obama. Goldberg asked him to talk about the challenges to rational deterrence theory posed by the behavior of rogue states. Obama replied “Whatever you want to say about the Soviets, they were essentially conservative. The North Korean regime and the Iranians are driven more by ideology and fantasy.”
Goldberg then goes on to discuss last May’s interview with Obama in Bloomberg View, writing: “Earlier this year, I asked Obama the following question: ‘What is more dangerous: Sunni extremism or Shia extremism?’ His answer was revealing, suggestive of an important change in the way he has come to view the Iranian regime. He started by saying, as would be expected, ‘I’m not big on extremism generally.’ And then he argued—in part by omission—that he finds the principal proponent of Shi’ite extremism, the regime in Tehran, more rational, and more malleable, than the main promoters of Sunni radicalism.
‘I don’t think you’ll get me to choose on those two issues,’ he said. ‘What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits . . .’”
In Goldberg’s words: “Since becoming president, Obama has made the argument that Iran could be induced, cajoled, and pressured into compromise, a view that has been proven provisionally, partially, correct: Sanctions, plus Obama’s repeated (and, to my mind, at least, credible) threat of military action, convinced Iran to temporarily halt many aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. But Obama and his international partners have been less successful at bringing Iran to permanent denuclearization . . .Without Iran’s assistance, Assad would have fallen a long time ago.”
He also points out that Obama “seems to believe that a nuclear deal is, in a way, like Casaubon’s key to all mythologies: Many good things, he believes, could flow from a nuclear compromise . . .and would be good for everybody,” i.e. the United States and the Middle East “and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.” Here, however, Goldberg expresses his doubts about the Obama approach. He says “This is a wonderful notion, the idea that the end of Iran’s isolation could lead it to moderate its more extreme impulses. But there isn’t much in the way of proof to suggest that Iran’s rulers are looking to join an international order whose norms are defined by the United States and its allies. In fact, there is proof of something quite opposite: Iran seems as interested as ever in becoming a regional hegemon, on its own terms. And its supreme leader, and his closest confidants, have made it clear, over and over again, that he is not interested in normalizing relations with the United States.”
He then details Iran’s “blunt” and “brutal” interventions across the greater Middle East, where it supports Shi’ite insurrections in Yemen and Bahrain, attempts to manipulate Lebanese politics through its Beirut-based proxy Hezbollah, intervenes in Gaza and against the already-fading hope for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Arab crisis; and continuously threatens to eradicate Israel.
Touching on all the above to suggest that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “has a vision for Iran that differs from Obama’s,” Goldberg then reaches his target: Iran’s role in Syria. Here he says that “nothing underscores the Iranian regime’s imperialistic, hegemonic nature more than its support for the Assad regime in Damascus. Without Iran’s assistance, Assad would have fallen a long time ago. The death toll in Syria is more than 200,000; half of Syria’s population has been displaced. These dark achievements of the Assad regime would not have been possible without Iran. Thousands of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops and advisers, plus Iranian weaponry, have made all the difference for Assad.”
He adds: “Today, the US and its allies are fighting in the Syrian theater, but they are fighting Assad’s putative enemies, the Sunni extremists of ISIS, not Assad and his Iranian allies. And yet ISIS is a derivative problem of a larger crisis: Without Assad—which is to say, without Iran—there would be no ISIS “caliphate” in Syria in the first place. The midwives of ISIS are Assad, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and Ayatollah Khamenei.”
This lengthy, but clear account is neither authored by Syrians or Arabs in the anti-Assad camp, nor by fundamentalists and extremists in the region, but by a pro-Israel American journalist and analyst who is now worried about the dangers of extremism–regardless of sectarian identity–in the Middle East.
Mr. Goldberg, as I understand him, neither wishes nor expects President Obama to take sides in the ongoing confrontation between Sunni extremists and Shi’ite extremists, based on traditional sensitivities of affinities in the region, but is simply making the old logical argument that “extremism begets extremism”. Thus, in order to encourage moderation a credible twin-track effort is required without prejudice, illusions and miscalculations.
If the Obama administration really believes that preventing the spread of chaos in Iraq is today a top priority, then is it possible to imagine the costs of chaos on a wider scale if it continues to escape forward?
Encouraging moderation, simply put, must begin by confronting Iran’s regional hegemony scheme, not ignoring it or make light of its impact, en route to justifying and accepting it as a fait accompli.

Will Israel target Abbas after its embarrassment?
Abdulrahman al-Rashed/Al Arabiya
Saturday, 3 January 2015
Rejecting the Palestinian statehood bid was so easy that the United States did not have to resort to its veto power at the U.N. Security Council. The draft resolution did not even garner the simple required majority of votes due to Nigeria who also stood against the Palestinian plan! The eight countries who voted in favor of the draft resolution were Russia, China, Jordan, Chad, Argentina, France, Luxembourg and Chile. Those who voted against it were the U.S. and Australia while the countries who abstained were Britain, Lithuania, Rwanda, South Korea and Nigeria, which appeared to have disappointed Arabs by changing its position shortly before the vote. After the Arab team's defeat at the United Nations, we must think what Israel's upcoming measure will be against the Palestinian presidency. Israel may tighten the internal siege on the Palestinian presidency after it failed to curtail it on the foreign level.
Of course, we did not expect the U.N. Security Council to approve and recognize a Palestinian state. If it happened it would've been the most important event in 70 years and would have marked the beginning of a new history for the region and the Palestinian people. This demand of a Palestinian statehood is certainly essential however achieving it exceeds our capabilities and requires political influence, a change in the balance of regional powers and long and complicated diplomatic efforts. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' team must've been expecting this negative result of rejecting the draft resolution before it even submitted. But the Palestinian team certainly didn't act while under the illusion of a possible victory. Abbas may have made this move as a political maneuver to embarrass Israel and the U.S. or may have done so in hope to negotiate other demands like ending settlements or resuming peace negotiations or restraining Israeli security forces' violence in the West Bank. Failure is expected at the UNSC but the only surprise is the Arabs' incapability to carry out the easy task of gathering nine votes in support and thus force the U.S. to use its veto power and send a message to the world that it's only through the veto power that the Palestinians' right was not achieved.
Israel’s next move?
The Israelis stopped threatening the Palestinian authority about resorting to the UNSC or attempting to join the International Criminal Court - which is the next step. This makes it possible for Abu Mazen to keep going. The Israelis had warned Abu Mazen that his acts may violate the security Oslo agreements but this is an empty accusation that resembles Abu Mazen's threat to end security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank. However it's not only extremist Jews who threaten the West Bank's stability but there are also Hamas movement cells previously arrested for planning operations that fall within the context of the struggle between the two states in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel also plays the role of the protector of Gaza from Fatah's security who seeks to alter the political situation in the strip.
“Failure is expected at the UNSC but the only surprise is the Arabs' incapability to carry out the easy task of gathering nine votes”
U.S. President Barack Obama was insulted many times by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu; however his stance remained weak and he didn't do anything to curb the Israelis over the course of six years of clear violations of agreements signed under the sponsorship of Washington. Therefore, no one expects any important development by Obama during the remaining time of his presidential term, and we actually fear that the Israelis exploit his weak stance to push Ramallah's government to collapse via adopting a series of practices and committing violations that increase the number of settlements, allow extremist Jews to attack Palestinians in al-Aqsa mosque and spark confrontations that end Abbas' term as president after embarrassing and weakening him.
**This article was first published on Asharq Al-Awsat on Jan. 3, 2015.

The crude reality of declining crude oil prices
Saturday, 3 January 2015
Hisham Melhem/Al Arabiya
The crashing price of oil, which dominated the world of energy in the last six months, and promises to stay with us for much of 2015, has brought cheers to American consumers and tears to the oil tsars of Russia, Iran and Venezuela in particular. If the price of oil remains in the neighborhood of $60 per barrel (bbl) for much of this year, the economic impact on Russia, Iran, Venezuela and maybe Iraq, Algeria, Nigeria and Libya could be ruinous. The sharp decline in oil revenues could force both Russia and Iran to review and maybe reduce their financial and material support for the Assad regime in Syria. Some optimists speculated that the crude reality brought about by the changing energy landscape may force Iran to show more flexibility in its nuclear negotiations with the P 5 + 1 in return for a quicker process of sanction relief. The precipitous fall in the price of oil has forced governments all over the world as well as the international financial institutions to review their investments and risk assessments for 2015 and beyond.
The foreign currency reserves that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have accumulated will help them navigate the turbulent markets in the immediate future, but even these economies will be forced to adjust their balance payments and maybe cut back on subsidies and social programs, in the absence of a market “correction” that would restore the price range that prevailed in the last 5 years. A sustained low price of oil could lead a country like Venezuela to default on its debts, a severe contraction in the Russian economy, and dramatic and unprecedented consequences on the Iranian economy, which is – like Russia’s economy- already teetering because of painful international sanctions. In Iraq, Libya and Yemen, very low oil prices could plunge these countries deeper into violence. So far, the three largest economies in the world; the United States, China and Japan (two major importers of oil) have benefitted from the decline of oil prices. However, if the current low price prevails for some time, this could impact those American companies that have invested large resources in the production of shale oil in States like Texas and North Dakota, who incur higher production costs.
Wild fluctuations
The story of energy, specifically the production of oil and gas in the last 20 years has been one of wild transient fluctuations in global oil prices. Prices swung from a record high of $145 bbl in July 2008 to a precipitous low of $30 bbl in December of the same year in the wake of the financial crisis. The price of oil completely collapsed in 1998 to an incredible low of $10 in the middle of the Asian economic crisis. Last June, the price of Brent crude hovered around $115, by January 2, benchmark Brent has plummeted to $57.11 bbl. But for all the turmoil in the energy markets in the last few decades, most analysts kept saying that the “fundamentals” of the market i.e. energy prices will continue to rise, that the market will remain susceptible to the production levels of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other major producers notably Russia, and that we are not likely to see a radical change in this supply model any time soon. But a “made in America” revolution may be changing some of the old energy assumptions.
The Shale revolution
In recent years the traditional energy landscape based on the production of fossil fuel, has seen radical changes particularly the increased use of wind and solar power, the production of electric vehicles and the notable advances in battery technologies which are reducing the consumption of fossil fuel, something that environmentalists and others who are concerned about climate change have been calling for. But, parallel with this alternative technological revolution, the United States initiated another energy revolution of unprecedented nature; fracking shale oil. American technical ingenuity and the fact that the U.S. has the largest deposits of shale oil in the world led American oil companies during the years of high oil prices to invest in the production of shale oil to limit imports of conventional oil.
“The sharp decline in oil revenues could force both Russia and Iran to review and maybe reduce their financial support for the Assad regime”
The result has been truly historic and put the U.S. (and Canada) at an energy inflection point. The rapid increase in shale oil production in the last few years brought America’s oil output from five million barrels per day in 2008 to an astonishing average of 9 million (bpd) in 2014. This four million bpd is more than what Iraq produces (3 million bpd). And this huge production was achieved in only six years. Even with declining oil prices, it is still expected that overall U.S. oil production will increase another 700,000 bpd this year.
Crude awakening
Much has been written about the immediate reasons for the swift decline of the price of oil in the last few months, most of it speculative and some of it downright conspiratorial. There were those who said that Saudi Arabia in collusion with the United States, decided to allow the price of oil to decline by refusing to accept cuts in production in order to punish Russia for its support of Syria. Others went even further claiming that Saudi Arabia wants to get rid of Assad to prevent the building of a pipeline from Iran to Syria running through Iraq to consolidate the so-called “Shiite Crescent” and give it an economic underpinning. The pipeline is purported to carry Gas from Iran’s South Pars gas field in the Gulf to a Mediterranean port to supply European markets.
But a more conventional economic explanation makes a lot of sense. Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi made it clear that Saudi Arabia prefers keeping its market share rather than cut production, and that the low price of oil could curb future drilling elsewhere including the production of shale oil in North America. Now if in this context some of the intended or unintended consequences included tightening the screws on Russia and Iran and make it more difficult for them to continue their aggressive policies, then that would be the icing on the cake. Already both Russia and Iran are claiming that the fall in oil prices is a result of foreign machinations, and as Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani claimed a “politically motivated” conspiracy against the Muslim world.
Russia as a giant gas station
Russia’s economy was anemic even before the U.S. and Europe imposed sanctions on it following Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and before the collapse of oil prices. Russia’s claim to power on the international scene is due to the fact that it is a huge gas station, armed with a nuclear arsenal, but lacking a real functioning economy. Russia is almost a “one crop nation” since it derives 68 percent of its export revenues from sales of oil and gas, with oil revenues accounting for 45 percent of the government’s budget. A steep decline in oil prices exposes the Russian colossus as a third world country with nuclear teeth. In the first half of 2014 Russia’s economy grew by a meager 0.8 percent. Economists now predict that Russia’s GDP will contract by 4.5 percent, a dramatic decline. The country’s currency, the Ruble has lost 50 percent of its value in few months, a disaster no viable economy can withstand.
Will Russia’s economic travails lead it to rethink its economic and military commitments to the Assad regime, and to seriously contemplate a negotiated outcome and a genuine political transition that requires the Assad regime to make meaningful concessions? Given Vladimir Putin’s stubbornness, such an outcome may not materialize, but clearly the Assad regime, which is barely surviving economically, will find it extremely difficult if not impossible to survive and remain afloat now that its two main bakers, Russia and Iran are literally on the ropes.
Iran; hard times are getting harder
To balance its budget, Iran needs oil prices to hover around $140 bbl. At less than $60 bbl the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei needs an economic miracle to survive the treacherous New Year, particularly if he fails to accept serious compromises that could lead to a nuclear deal with the P-5 + 1. The irony is that Iran was slowly moving towards economic growth before the oil prices began to unravel. Iran’s reliance on oil and gas revenues is greater than Russia’s. The international sanctions have decimated Iran’s currency and reduced its oil export from 2.5 million bpd in 2011 to barely 1,050,000 bpd currently. Iran is saddled by a complex web of sanctions, and a steep decline in oil prices at a time when its commitments to the survival of the Assad regime has grown significantly in the last two years. Syria has been an economic – and human- drain on Iran. It is Iran’s military and financial support to the Assad regime, directly and through its proxy forces, particularly the Lebanese Hezbollah that saved the Assad regime from falling. Iran’s significant influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen came with a high price tag in term of human and material resources. How long can Iran bleed in Syria (and Iraq) while trying to address the basic economic needs and expectations of its growing population? Will Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the military leader Qasem Soleimani that he appointed to run Iran’s military campaigns in Syria and Iraq begin to rethink their commitment to the Assad regime, if the price of that commitment becomes more prohibitive this year as is likely the case? With harder times, come harder choices.
Will Khamenei in 2015 make the necessary and painful choices and compromises needed to reach a nuclear deal that could lead to sanction relief? American officials say that they believe President Rowhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif are truly interested in reaching a nuclear deal, but they doubt that the Supreme leader is willing to compromise. In the summer of 1988 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decided to accept cease fire in the long war with Iraq, he likened his decision to drinking from “poisoned chalice”. Time will tell whether Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will decide to save his regime by drinking from a similar chalice by accommodating the International community’s concerns over his nuclear ambitions and maybe over Syria’s plight.