March 16/17

Compiled & Prepared by: Elias Bejjani

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Bible Quotations For Today
So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands
Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew 17/10-13/:"And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist."

Be sure that Almighty God shows no partiality
Letter to the Galatians 02/01-07/:"Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us
we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised."

Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published On March 15-16/17
UN report: Israel imposes 'apartheid regime' on PalestiniansYnetnews/Reuters/March 15/17
On wresting control over religious discourse/Abdulrahman al-Rashed/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
The US withdrawal brings back Russia to Afghanistan/Huda al Husseini/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
Should we seek comfort in the death of Arab liberalism/Mamdouh AlMuhaini/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
An optimistic book during troubled times/Turki Aldakhil/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
OPEC and non-OPEC production agreement: To renew or not to renew/Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady/Al Arabiya/March 15/17

Titles For Latest Lebanese Related News published On March 15-16/17
House of Parliament endorses 11% VAT
ISF thwarts abduction attempt in Bikfaya
Alain Aoun eulogizes salary scale via twitter
Aoun in Rome to Meet Pope Francis
Legislature Tackles Crucial Wage Scale File Amid Mounting Protests
Jumblat Lashes Out at Bassil's Suggestion for Christian-Chaired Senate
Gemayel Warns of 'Revolution' if New Taxes Approved
Hizbullah Says Damascus Blasts 'Mark 2011 Conspiracy'
Central Bank Governor Denies Resignation Reports
Missing Child Found Dead on Seashore in North Lebanon
Bassil: Rejecting the Other and Proportional Representation Leads to Civil War, Disintegration
Reports: Morocco Arrests Hizbullah-Linked Businessman at Washington's Request
Hezbollah condemns terrorist dual bombings in Syria
Media & Youth: A hatelove relationship?
Hajj Hasan: We adhere to every drop of water, we will defend our resources

Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published On March 15-16/17
Consensus on strong US-Saudi strategic relationship
UN envoy urges speedier Syria talks to avoid seventh year of war
Latest Russian-Backed Talks on Syria Flop after Rebel No-Show
Syrian Rebels Deny They'll Attend Astana Talks
Bombings Kill 32 in Damascus as War Enters Seventh Year
Iraqi forces seize Iron Bridge in battle for Mosul
Dutch Vote in Key Test for Far-Right
Israel ex-Defense Chief Says Erdogan Seeking 'Neo-Ottoman Empire'
13 Held for 'Corruption' at Israel Weapons Giant
Trump Envoy Holds Fresh Talks on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Nearly 100,000 Iraqis Flee Battle for West Mosul
Libya Government Forces Overrun Tripoli Militia HQ
Saudi soldier killed by gunmen: ministry
Saudi policeman shot dead by unknown assailants in Qatif
After EU headscarf ruling, UK says govt should not tell women what to wear

Links From Jihad Watch Site for March 15-16/17

Federal judge blocks new Trump travel ban
Saudi prince hails Trump as “strong President” in fight against “dangerous” Iran
Former jihadist turned Christian evangelist warns of educational jihad against West
Switzerland: 500 Muslims accused of spreading jihadist propaganda online
Hugh Fitzgerald: One Minute and 33 Seconds, Or Pauline Hanson Ill-Prepared
Clarion Project tries to show that Islamic reform is possible, instead only shows how easy it is to be fooled
Robert Spencer Video: Why Trump is Wise to Refer to “Radical Islamic Terrorism”
Zuhdi Jasser’s assistant attended Garland jihad shooters’ mosque in Phoenix
Dallas: Imam targeted by the Islamic State, but says “I’m more afraid of my wife walking into Walmart”
Robert Spencer: Fake University Harvard Uses Fake Professor’s List to Smear Real News Sites
Mattis withdraws pro-Muslim Brotherhood Obama-era Mattis pick for undersecretary for policy
Iranian official boasts of “guerrilla movement” in US from Iran and “all Islamic countries”
Robert Spencer in PJ Media: CNN’s Reza Aslan Losing Fight to Make ‘Islamophobia’ Happen
Pakistan PM: Blasphemy “unpardonable sin,” international orgs should eliminate all blasphemous content

Links From Christian Today Site On March 15-16/17
Now Manchester University dragged into Holocaust denial row over David Irving books
Sir Mo Farah says he is 'completely devastated' by East Africa crisis as charities launch major appeal
Samaritans' Purse workers kidnapped by rebels in South Sudan have been released
Don't fear refugees, say US evangelical leaders: 'Jesus threw off the protections of heaven'
Surprising research reveals 'mostly Catholic' colleges have higher rates of sexual encounters
God is great', cry Islamist extremists as they shoot dead a Christian mum and son, wound husband
Pakistani Christian asylum seekers face pressure to leave Thailand
Religious groups slam EU court ruling allowing companies to ban displays of faith
Ma'agan Michael sails again: boat from biblical times discovered off coast of Israel to be 'relaunched'
Pope Francis victim of 'fake news' story that God ordered him to change the Ten Commandments
First ever Anglican Evensong service takes place at St Peter's Basilica in Rome

Latest Lebanese Related News published On March 15-16/17
House of Parliament endorses 11% VAT
Wed 15 Mar 2017/NNA - The House of Parliament has endorsed a 1% increase to the Value Added Tax (VAT) to become 11% instead of 10%. The price of stamps has also increased from LBP 3000 to LBP 4000. It is to note that the House of Parliament is currently convening in session under the chairmanship of Deputy House Speaker, Farid Makari.

ISF thwarts abduction attempt in Bikfaya
Wed 15 Mar 2017/NNA - The Internal Security Forces and a patrol of the Intelligence branch have managed to foil an attempt to kidnap a Syrian national on Bhersaf-Bikfaya highway, according to a statement issued by the ISF. A Lebanese man was arrested and his pistol and car were confiscated. The inmate admitted to having planned this operation. Meanwhile, work is underway to arrest the other people involved in this case.

Alain Aoun eulogizes salary scale via twitter
Wed 15 Mar 2017/NNA - Member of Parliament, Alain Aoun, eulogized the heatedly debated salary scale via twitter on Wednesday evening, warning that it is currently in danger of being "hit by snipers who have taken their positions amid the ongoing parliament session.""The wages scale has been thrown in the middle of the ring. May God have mercy," a very pessimistic Alain Aoun tweeted.

Aoun in Rome to Meet Pope Francis
Naharnet/March 15/17/President Michel Aoun made his first official visit to Europe and has traveled on Wednesday to Rome where he is scheduled to hold a meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday to discuss the latest developments since his election as president. Upon his arrival at Rome's Ciampino Airport, Aoun told reporters: “On behalf of the Lebanese I bring to the Pope a message of love that Lebanon has recovered and is on the road to unity. “Levantine Christians are looking forward to this visit with a glimmer of hope to emphasize that Lebanon remains to be the most powerful model for the future of the East and world.”The President's first official visit to Europe did not take place in Paris, as the tradition calls, but in the Vatican which could be due to the fact that the mandate of the current French presidency will end in May. Aoun will hold a closed meeting with the Pope on Thursday before noon. Talks will focus on issues of concern for Lebanon and the Vatican, and about the Christians in Lebanon and the region in light of the developments threatening their presence at more than one level, al-Joumhouria daily reported. According to media reports, the president will inform Pope Francis of the revival of Lebanon's state institutions, a beneficial effect according to him of the end of the presidential vacancy, and the return of Lebanon on the international and Arab political scene. He will also keep him informed of the ongoing discussions to adopt a new electoral law. Before the President leaves the Vatican, he will meet Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State. Aoun will also deliver two speeches at two meetings during his stay, one of them will be on Thursday where he will address the Lebanese community in an assembly called upon by Lebanese chargé d'affaires to the Vatican, Albert Samaha.
Aoun is accompanied by his wife, his son-in-law Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil and all the family members.

Legislature Tackles Crucial Wage Scale File Amid Mounting Protests
Naharnet/March 15/17/A legislative session to tackle several pressing issues including the long-awaited wage scale file began at the parliament at noon on Wednesday in parallel with protests staged outside the parliament by the secondary, elementary and technical school teachers in a bid to pressure the interlocutors into approving a “fair” salary scale. Deputy Speaker Farid Makari chaired the meeting instead of Speaker Nabih Berri because of family reasons. The parliament is set to discuss 26 items on its agenda amid mounting doubts about approving the wage scale due to the various demands surfacing by economic bodies and public sector teachers. Before the session began, MP Emile Rahmeh said: “Approving the wage scale is the people's right. We must fight corruption to be able to fund it,” and stressed the need to approve a wage scale that meets approval of teachers, judges and the military.
For his part, MP Serje Tersarkisian announced that he will propose the cancellation of a tax, known as R8, that imposes taxes on multiple job employees. Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan said: “Failure to approve the salary scale is shameful. The potentials are available if we stop wasting money.” In parallel with the parliament session, secondary, elementary and technical school teachers held a protest in Riad al-Solh Square objecting against what they described as “unfair scale for their employment positions."
Lebanon's economic bodies have also held an “emergency” meeting Tuesday evening, on the eve of the parliament convention, and announced total refusal of imposing taxes to finance the salary scale for what they described as “disastrous repercussions on the overall economic situation, which is suffering primarily from recession."They also pointed out that the damage will reflect on the working class and the low-income earners.

Jumblat Lashes Out at Bassil's Suggestion for Christian-Chaired Senate
Leader of the Democratic Gathering bloc MP Walid Jumblat lashed out at a proposal made by Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil to create a Senate under a Christian leadership and stressed that the proposal violates the Taef Accord. The Druze leader explained that establishing a Senate was first suggested in the Taef accord so as to eliminate political sectarianism. “A Senate is linked to the abolition of politician sectarianism according to the Taef accord,” said Jumblat in a tweet on Wednesday. Free Patriotic Movement leader Jebran Bassil suggested the creation of a Christian-chaired Senate although the Taef Agreement stipulates that its chairmanship should be allotted to the Druze community. Bassil had announced early this week a proposal for the upcoming parliamentary polls that calls for electing 64 MPs according to the proportional representation system in five electorates whereas the other 64 would be elected by their respective sects under a winner-takes-all system in 14 electorates. He said it would pave way for the creation of a Senate under a "Christian non-Maronite leadership to respect parity." The Taef Agreement -negotiated in Saudi Arabia-was an agreement reached to provide the basis for the ending of the civil war and the return to political normalcy in Lebanon. It was designed to end the decades-long Lebanese Civil War, reassert Lebanese authority in Southern Lebanon.

Gemayel Warns of 'Revolution' if New Taxes Approved
Naharnet/March 15/17/Kataeb Party chief MP Sami Gemayel warned during Wednesday's legislative session that a “revolution” might erupt in the country should parliament approve new taxes to fund the long-stalled new wage scale. “Should the revenues be approved and a revolution erupts in the country, don't blame anyone but yourselves,” Gemayel told parliament. “I wonder how it is possible to approve millions of dollars for developmental projects in five minutes whereas a wage scale that costs $800 million is taking hours,” he added. “Which is better: impoverishing people with taxes or addressing the sources of the squandering of public funds?” Gemayel asked rhetorically. Lebanon's Economic Committees have held an “emergency” meeting after which they announced their total refusal of imposing taxes to finance the salary scale, warning of “disastrous repercussions on the overall economic situation.” They also pointed out that such a move would reflect negatively on the working class and low-income earners. Gemayel had recently launched a scathing attack on the country's ruling class, accusing it of impotence and of stealing public money. He warned that any attempt to impose new taxes would be an “extortion” attempt “seeing as the money will end up in the pockets of officials.”“The new wage scale should be funded through putting an end to the squandering and theft of public money and through introducing real reform and change... not through hiking taxes,” Gemayel emphasized.

Hizbullah Says Damascus Blasts 'Mark 2011 Conspiracy'
Naharnet/March 15/17/Hizbullah on Wednesday condemned the twin suicide bombings that rocked Syria's capital Damascus, describing them as “a terrorist crime that comes on the anniversary of the conspiracy that started targeting Syria and its State and people in 2011.”The attacks “confirm that what this State is facing is nothing but a foreign criminal plot that is being implemented by local players in order to break the Syrian will and hand over the country to greedy foreign and Arab conspirators,” Hizbullah's media department said in a statement. “This terrorist crime is also a futile response to the grand victories that the Syrian army and its allies are achieving on more than one front in Syria against takfiri terrorism and the criminal militants,” the party added. Wednesday's first attack saw a suicide bomber rush inside a courthouse in central Damascus and blow himself up, leaving 32 people dead and 100 others wounded. The second blast hit a restaurant in the Rabweh district in the west of the city less than two hours later, injuring 25 people. More than 320,000 people have been killed in the nearly six years of Syria's conflict, which started with peaceful anti-regime protests in March 2011 before spiraling into a complex and brutal civil war involving regional and international players. Hizbullah has sent thousands of its fighters across the border in support of the regime, arguing that its intervention was necessary to protect Lebanon from extremist groups and prevent the fall of Syria into the hands of hostile forces including its archenemy Israel.

Central Bank Governor Denies Resignation Reports

Naharnet/March 15/17/Governor of Central Bank of Lebanon Riad Salameh denied on Wednesday reports claiming that he submitted his resignation to President Michel Aoun, Salameh's media office said in a statement. “Media outlets have circulated news reports on Wednesday claiming that the Central Bank Governor has placed his resignation at the disposal of the President,” said a statement issued by Salameh's media office. “The Central Bank governor's media office assures that the news are inaccurate and have no relevance to the truth,” concluded the statement.

Missing Child Found Dead on Seashore in North Lebanon
Naharnet/March 15/17/A Syrian child who went missing on Tuesday in the outskirts of the northern town of al-Mhammara was found dead on the seashore in Abdeh port north Lebanon, the State-run National News Agency reported on Wednesday. Lebanese Army troops found the dead body of Rasoul Mamdouh Shehadeh lying on the seashore near the fishermen port in said area, reported NNA. The Lebanese Red Cross transported the child's body to Abdullah al-Rasi State Hospital in Halba. NNA added that the father of the child had filed a missing complaint at the police station in the area. He said his son went missing at 14:30 on Tuesday. The child was lastly seen near his tent in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared area in the outskirts of al-Mhammara.

Bassil: Rejecting the Other and Proportional Representation Leads to Civil War, Disintegration
Naharnet/March 15/17/Free Patriotic Movement chief Jebran Bassil warned Tuesday that rejecting a proportional representation system that allows political minorities to be represented in the political system would lead the country into “civil war and disintegration.”“Whoever rejects proportional representation would be rejecting the other and the right to diversity, and whoever rejects the right to diversity would be leading the country into civil war and disintegration,” said Bassil during the FPM's annual dinner. “That's why we have endorsed proportional representation in the FPM and are demanding it for the country,” he added. “We are proud that we are a popular majority that is demanding proportional representation, and we're being subjected to blackmail and political enticing for the sake of some parliamentary seats but we won't back down,” Bassil went on to say. He added: “We want to eliminate corruption, feudalism and monopolization, that's why we want proportional representation, even if it comes at our expense.”Bassil had on Monday proposed an electoral law format under which 64 MPs would be elected according to the proportional representation system in five electorates whereas the other 64 would be elected by their respective sects under a winner-takes-all system in 14 electorates. Hizbullah has repeatedly called for an electoral law fully based on proportional representation but al-Mustaqbal Movement and Druze leader MP Walid Jumblat have both rejected the proposal. Mustaqbal argues that Hizbullah's arms would prevent serious competition in the party's strongholds while Jumblat has warned that such an electoral system would “marginalize” the minority Druze community whose presence is concentrated in the Chouf and Aley areas.

Reports: Morocco Arrests Hizbullah-Linked Businessman at Washington's Request
Naharnet/March 15/17/Prominent Lebanese businessman Qassem Tajeddine, who is close to Hizbullah, has been arrested in Morocco at Washington's request, media reports said on Tuesday. LBCI television said Tajeddine, 61, was arrested at Casablanca's airport on Monday morning. Information obtained by LBCI said the arrest was made “at the request of U.S. intelligence.”MTV said Tajeddine arrived at Casablanca's airport from Africa and was scheduled to travel to Beirut aboard a Royal Air Maroc plane. Residents of the southern town of Hanaway, Tajeddine's hometown, described the arrest as a “kidnap,” noting that “U.S. intelligence agencies have pressed Morocco to detain him.”According to MTV, Tajeddine's family has communicated with the Foreign Ministry and Minister Jebran Bassil is “following up on the case in person.” “Speaker Nabih Berri has also been following up on the issue from the very first moment,” MTV added. Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblat had on Monday urged Lebanese authorities to follow up on the case. “Regardless of the motives and circumstances behind Hajj Qassem Tajeddine's arrest, logic says that our State should ask about him,” Jumblat tweeted. The man and his brothers, Hussein and Ali, have been blacklisted by the United States since 2009. According to reports, the U.S. Treasury has put him on its sanctions lists and accused him of laundering money and using the funds to “support terrorist activities.”Tajeddine is also accused of running several companies that “cover up for Hizbullah's activities in Africa.”Angola had frozen the economic activities of the Tajeddine family in recent years, “also at Washington's request,” media reports have said. Together with his two brothers, Qassem Tajeddine has built a global foodstuffs and real estate network in several countries across the world. The man is also involved in real estate projects in Lebanon. In 2003, he was jailed for two months in Belgium where he was interrogated over charges of “laundering money on behalf of Hizbullah.”

Hezbollah condemns terrorist dual bombings in Syria

Wed 15 Mar 2017/NNA - Hezbollah on Wednesday issued a statement condemning and deploring the dual terrorist bombings that rocked Damascus today, considering such cruel action as committed by inner hands for the purpose of breaking the Syrian will and handing Syria to foreign greedy seekers, foreign and some Arabs. Hezbollah called for besieging the terrorists and destroying them.

Media & Youth: A hatelove relationship?
Wed 15 Mar 2017/NNA - To reflect on the issues concerning the relationship between youth and media in North Africa and the Levant, the Forum "Media & Youth: A Hate-Love Relationship?", organised on 15 and 16 March in Beirut, gives the floor to 80 young people from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, and Syria, who have launched media projects and initiatives that enable the youth to speak out or to participate in public debate. The Forum is discussing a range of topics: the role of media in helping young people find employment, media literacy, holding authorities accountable through the media, youth expectations about the media, and more.
The programme includes two major debates:
- Traditional Media and Youth: Disenchantment
- Media, a gateway for youth employment?
Twelve workshops and nine presentations of projects or initiatives complete the programme.Funded by the European Union in the framework of the Neighbourhood Policy with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the Forum is organised in partnership with CFI, the French media cooperation agency, and the Lebanese Samir Kassir Foundation. The event was opened on 15 March by Ambassador Christina Lassen, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon, in the presence of Mrs Gisèle Khoury, President of the Samir Kassir Foundation and Mr Etienne Fiatte, Managing Director of CFI.

Hajj Hasan: We adhere to every drop of water, we will defend our resources

Tue 14 Mar 2017/NNA - Industry Minister, Hussein Hajj Hasan, said, "We adhere to every drop of water and we are here to defend our interests, resources and land."Minister Hajj Hasan's words came Tuesday during opening a conference on oil resources in Lebanon organized by the Sciences faculty of Lebanese University in Fanar.

Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published 
On March 15-16/17
Consensus on strong US-Saudi strategic relationship
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Wednesday, 15 March 2017
US President Donald J. Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at their meeting at the White House on Tuesday, reaffirmed their support for a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region. The two leaders directed their teams to explore additional steps across a broad range of political, military, security, economic, cultural, and social dimensions to further strengthen and elevate the United States-Saudi strategic relationship for the benefit of both countries.
US and Saudi officials intend to consult on additional steps to deepen commercial ties and promote investment, and to expand cooperation in the energy sector. The US President and the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, who is also the Saudi Minister of Defense, noted the importance of confronting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities while continuing to evaluate and strictly enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. President Trump expressed his strong desire to achieve a comprehensive, just, and lasting settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to continue the two countries’ consultations to help reach solutions for regional issues.
Ongoing security cooperation
More broadly, the President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman noted the ongoing security and military cooperation between the two countries in confronting ISIS and other transnational terrorist organizations that pose a threat to all nations. The US and Saudi Arabia also announced their determination to strengthen their cooperation in the economic, commercial, investment, and energy fields, with the aim of realizing growth and prosperity in the two countries and the global economy. President Trump provided his support for developing a new United States-Saudi program, undertaken by joint US-Saudi working groups, and its unique initiatives in energy, industry, infrastructure, and technology worth potentially more than $200 billion in direct and indirect investments within the next four years.
Support for US investments
Trump also provided his support for United States investments in Saudi Arabia and the facilitation of bilateral trade, which will result in sizable opportunities for both countries. On energy, the two countries affirmed their desire to continue bilateral consultations in a way that enhances the growth of the global economy and limits supply disruption and market volatility. The two countries highlighted that expanded economic cooperation could create as many as one million direct American jobs within the next four years, millions of indirect American jobs, as well as jobs in Saudi Arabia.
The Deputy Crown Prince reviewed Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 program for the President and agreed to put in place specific bilateral programs to help both countries benefit from new opportunities created by the Kingdom’s implementation of those new economic plans.

UN envoy urges speedier Syria talks to avoid seventh year of war
Reuters, Geneva Wednesday, 15 March 2017/Negotiations to end the war in Syria must speed up, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura told Reuters on Wednesday, on the sixth anniversary of the start of the conflict. So far talks to end the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands, driven 5 million into neighbouring countries and left 13.5 million in urgent need of humanitarian aid, have gone almost nowhere.“It’s becoming one of the longest and most cruel wars of recent years,” de Mistura said. “That’s why there is a need for an acceleration of any type of negotiations - in Astana, in Geneva, in New York, wherever.”De Mistura is trying to mediate a political agreement between Syria’s warring sides, and after a procedural round of talks in Geneva ended on March 3, he plans to bring the negotiators back for in-depth discussions on March 23. Complementary talks on Syria’s shaky ceasefire and confidence-building measures such as prisoner releases are now nearing the end of a third round in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. They have made no real progress either. The Astana talks are run by Russia, Turkey and Iran, backers of the warring sides, and have little UN involvement.
Britain’s special representative for Syria Gareth Bayley said the Astana talks were never meant to replace Geneva, but were a good thing if they reduced violence, improved the humanitarian situation and freed detainees. “That means the pressure is now on the Astana process to ensure any ceasefire holds,” Bayley said in an emailed statement to mark the anniversary.Rebel groups say they cannot be expected to negotiate if the ceasefire is not observed. They blame forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for continually breaking it. “The forced surrender deal on the besieged areas of Al-Waer this week, as well as continued pressure on opposition-held areas in the Damascus suburbs, are not encouraging. They highlight the need for Russia to pressure the Assad regime to uphold the ceasefire,” Bayley said. Assad has made major advances on the battlefield with Russian and Iranian help, but the UN has repeatedly warned there can be no military solution to the war, and UN investigators say pro-Assad forces have continued to commit war crimes despite the supposed ceasefire. De Mistura has said the Geneva talks are not hostage to progress in Astana, but they go hand-in-hand: the ceasefire needs to take hold to support the political process, and political progress is needed to make the ceasefire last. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the warring sides to “enhance (the ceasefire) further” and to make the Geneva talks succeed, while UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien urged them to “regain their sense of humanity”.“We join Syrians in hoping that 2017 will be the year the carnage finally ends,” O’Brien said in a statement to mark the anniversary.

Latest Russian-Backed Talks on Syria Flop after Rebel No-Show
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/Russian-led peace efforts for Syria floundered Wednesday as a third round of talks ended with no progress after rebels refused to show up to a meeting in Kazakhstan. Regime supporters Russia and Iran along with rebel-backer Turkey have been pushing negotiations in Astana since January after gains on the ground by Damascus turned the tables in the six-year war. The latest two-day meeting saw a delegation from Damascus meet with representatives from the three powers, but leaders of armed rebel groups stayed away for the first time over alleged violations of a fragile ceasefire deal. Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Syrian regime negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari slammed the opposition's no-show and said it was a blow to any peace efforts. "They want to break up political negotiations. There are forces that insist on a military solution," complained Lavrentiev after the end of the meeting. Jaafari said the rebel boycott signaled the opposition's "disrespect for the process as a whole."The failure of the latest round of talks casts a further cloud over stuttering Russian attempts to turn itself from a military player into a peacebroker after its intervention to support leader Bashar Assad. Lavrentiev announced that a new meeting was planned for April 18-19 in Tehran, but it seems unlikely that rebels would agree to head to talks hosted by one of Assad's main backers. Kazakhstan's deputy foreign minister Akylbek Kamaldinov said that there would be a future round of negotiations in Astana on May 3-4. The Astana talks were initially seen as an attempt by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran to sideline the West over Syria but they have increasingly been billed as a supplement to U.N.-led talks in Geneva, the most recent of which ended this month with no breakthrough. Both sides have been invited to a new round of talks in Geneva from March 23. Over 320,000 people have died in the conflict in Syria that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Tuesday called the "worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II."

Syrian Rebels Deny They'll Attend Astana Talks
Associated Press/Naharnet/March 15/17/An official from one of Syria's rebel factions has denied reports that rebels will send representatives to the present round of talks with the Syrian government underway in Astana, Kazakhstan. Mamoun Haj Mousa, from the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, says there are no plans for factions to attend the talks — contrary to reports by the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry. Another opposition official, Yahya al-Aridi, said of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry announcement: "Let them say what they wish." The Astana talks, brokered by Russia and Turkey, are centered on reaching a cease-fire in Syria and getting humanitarian relief to millions of suffering civilians. They run parallel to the U.N.-mediated political talks in Geneva aimed at ending Syria's civil war. Rebels announced earlier this week they would not attend Astana because of repeated cease-fire violations by the government. Kazakhstan says peace talks in the capital, Astana, over ending the fighting in Syria have been extended and will be attended by representatives of Syrian rebel forces. "We expect the arrival of representatives from the Northern and Southern fronts of the armed Syrian opposition," Foreign Ministry spokesman Onuar Zhainakov said Wednesday, according to Russia's Interfax news agency. Syrian rebels had previously boycotted this third summit in Astana, citing the government's continued bombardment of opposition-held areas in Homs and Damascus. A government delegation led by Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, began meetings Tuesday with Russian officials in Astana. Talks in Astana are running parallel to political talks in Geneva between the government and the opposition. The Astana talks are centered on cease-fire and humanitarian efforts, but have brought few results.

Bombings Kill 32 in Damascus as War Enters Seventh Year
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/Two suicide bombings hit Damascus Wednesday including an attack at a central courthouse that killed at least 32 people, as Syria's war entered its seventh year with the regime now claiming the upper hand. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts, the second wave of deadly attacks in the capital in less than a week after twin bombings killed 74 on Saturday. But they came with the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's regime increasingly divided and dispirited after a series of battlefield setbacks. Negotiations to end the conflict have meanwhile made little progress, with rebels this week declining to attend negotiations in Kazakhstan. Wednesday's first attack saw a suicide bomber rush inside the building and blow himself up when police tried to prevent him from entering the courthouse in the centre of Damascus, state media reported. A police source told AFP that 32 people were killed and 100 wounded. The second blast hit a restaurant in the western Rabweh neighborhood, wounding 25 people, the source said. "We were terrified because the sound of the explosion was enormous," a lawyer who was in the courthouse during the first attack told AFP. "We took refuge in the library which is on a higher floor," the lawyer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It was a bloody scene." State television broadcast scenes from the building showing blood smeared on the floor of the lobby but also splattered across its ceiling. It interviewed a man receiving treatment with a bandage over his eye who said the attacker was wearing a military jacket. "He had his hands up and screamed 'God is greatest' and then the blast happened," he told state television. "I fell to the ground and blood came out of my eye." AFP correspondents in Damascus said the streets emptied after the two blasts, with several roads also blocked by security forces.
Rebels under pressure
Damascus was already reeling from Saturday's bombings, which mainly killed Iraqi pilgrims in the city to visit Shiite shrines. That attack was claimed by former al-Qaida affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, part of a rebel alliance that controls large parts of the northwestern Idlib province. Rebel forces suffered a series of reversals during the sixth year of the war, including being forced from their onetime stronghold of east Aleppo in December. The loss was an especially difficult blow to rebels who had imagined marching on Damascus in the early days of the civil war. The conflict began in 2011 with peaceful demonstrations inspired by similar movements during the so-called "Arab Spring", calling on Assad to implement reforms. They started on March 15 after the arrest and torture of a group of students from the southern province of Daraa accused of writing anti-Assad graffiti. The protests were put down violently, prompting demonstrators to pick up weapons and causing the uprising to spiral into an increasingly complex and brutal civil war that has also drawn in regional and international players. Rebel forces captured large parts of the country and several key cities. The Islamic State jihadist group emerged from the chaos to seize control of significant territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq. But a key turning point came in September 2015 when Russia began a military intervention in support of Assad's government, which has since regained much of the ground it lost. Under pressure from air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition, IS has also retreated to bastions like its de facto Syrian capital Raqa. - 'Savage horror' -The conflict has killed more than 320,000 people, with over the half the country's population displaced either within Syria or becoming refugees. The war has also ravaged the country's infrastructure and set the economy back decades."When we began to demonstrate, I never thought it would come to this. We thought it would end in two, three months, a year at most," Abdallah al-Hussein, a 32-year-old footballer from the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, told AFP. "Whether this war is ended with weapons or peacefully doesn't matter. People want to live in peace."The brutality of the war has provoked international outcry, with the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein this week describing the country as "a torture chamber, a place of savage horror and absolute injustice." But the international community has remained divided between a pro-regime bloc led by Russia and Iran, and a pro-opposition bloc led by the United States, Turkey and Gulf nations, along with European countries. In recent months the opposition's backers have dialed back their support, with Turkey now working with former rival Russia on peace talks and U.S. President Donald Trump's administration showing little interest in the conflict or negotiations to end it.

Iraqi forces seize Iron Bridge in battle for Mosul
Agencies Wednesday, 15 March 2017/Iraqi government forces battling ISIS militants in Mosul on Wednesday took control of the Iron Bridge linking the eastern sector with the ISIS-held Old City, federal police said. Federal police and Interior Ministry Rapid Response units seized the bridge, a police statement said, quoting a commander. The government now hold three of the five bridges crossing the Tigris river which bisects Mosul. Nearly 100,000 Iraqis flee battle for west Mosul . Nearly 100,000 Iraqis have fled the battle to retake west Mosul from ISIS, the International Organization for Migration said on Wednesday. Iraqi forces launched a major push last month to recapture west Mosul, which is the most populated urban area still held by ISIS, with an estimated 750,000 residents when the battle began. Between February 25 and March 15, more than 97,000 people have been displaced from west Mosul, the IOM said on its official Twitter account. Displaced residents from Mosul's al-Nasser neighbourhood evacuate the area on March 14, 2017 as Iraqi forces continue to advance in the embattled city combatting ISIS. (AFP) It marks an increase of around 17,000 from the displacement figure the IOM released the previous day, though this does not necessarily indicate that all of those additional people fled in the past 24 hours. According to the IOM, more than 238,000 people are currently displaced due to fighting in the Mosul area, while more fled but later returned to their homes.

Dutch Vote in Key Test for Far-Right
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/Millions of Dutch voters went to the polls Wednesday in a key test of the "patriotic revolution" promised by far-right MP Geert Wilders, as final opinion polls showed his support deflating. Following last year's shock Brexit referendum, and Donald Trump's victory in the US, the Dutch vote is being closely watched to gauge support for populism in Europe ahead of key elections in France and Germany this year. Wilders voted in a school in The Hague, mobbed by television cameras, just after final polls showed he was trailing the Liberal VVD party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte. "Whatever the outcome of the election today the genie will not go back into the bottle. And this patriotic revolution, whether today or tomorrow, will stay," Wilders said. "I think that with what's happening in America, perhaps in other European countries, that once again the normal people want to be patriotic in their own country that has its own sovereignty again."Amid the tussle between Rutte and Wilders, many of the 12.9 million eligible voters were still hesitating between 28 parties in the running. "This is a crucial election for The Netherlands," Rutte said as he voted. "This is a chance for a big democracy like The Netherlands to make a point... to stop this... domino effect of the wrong sort of populism."Rutte is bidding for a third term as premier of the country -- one of the largest economies in the eurozone and a founding father of the European Union.
'Patriot or irritating?' -Final polls appeared to show Rutte consolidating a lead over Wilders, crediting the VVD with 24 to 28 seats -- well down on its 40 outgoing seats. After months leading the polls, Wilders has slipped recently and was seen barely clinging onto second place with between 19 and 22 MPs -- up on the 12 MPs his Freedom Party (PVV) had before. Wilders has pledged to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, shut mosques, ban sales of the Koran and leave the EU. "I see this rightwing populist making gains and I will not live in such a world," said Esther Zand, 52, who voted for Labour.
"He's a rather irritating gentleman," she added of Wilders. Snapping at his heels are long-standing parties the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), credited with 19 to 21 seats, and the Democracy Party (D66) with around 17 to 19 MPs. Both would be natural coalition partners for Rutte. "I am hoping for a strong centre" coalition, said Alexander van der Hooft. "But I'm afraid it's going to be very fragmented and difficult to form a government," he told AFP. Seeking to highlight his differences with the fiery, Twitter-loving Wilders, Rutte has been highlighting the country's economic growth and stability during his six years in power. Complicating the political landscape, Turkey has gatecrashed the scene with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashing a string of invective and Nazi jibes at the Dutch for barring his ministers from addressing a pro-Ankara rally in Rotterdam. Rutte's handling of the crisis -- barring one Turkish minister from flying into the country, and expelling another -- appears to have boosted his image. Wilders though won support Tuesday from ideological ally French far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen who called him "a patriot".
- 'Breath of fresh air' -Lines formed early at some polling stations, and first estimates showed turnout was slightly higher at this point in the day than in the last vote in 2012, when final participation was about 74 percent.
Voting ends at 2000 GMT with exit polls expected soon after. The official count is being done by hand following fears of possible hacking. It reportedly takes an average of three months to form a coalition, but observers say it may take longer with four or even five parties needed to reach the 76-seat majority. "I voted strategically," said Roger Overdevest, 47, adding that he voted VVD, not "as a vote against Wilders, but as a vote against the left". While traditional Labour appears to be sinking, the ecologist left-wing GroenLinks and its charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver could win 16 to 18 seats. "I hope GroenLinks will win. Jesse Klaver is a breath of fresh air. To me the current cabinet has not done enough for the environment," said lawyer Marloes van Heugten.

Israel ex-Defense Chief Says Erdogan Seeking 'Neo-Ottoman Empire'

Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/Israeli ex-defense minister Moshe Yaalon accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday of seeking a "neo-Ottoman empire" while warning of growing instability in the Middle East. Yaalon, seeking to build a campaign to become Israel's next prime minister, spoke of his concerns while addressing regional issues in a meeting with foreign journalists. The ex-minister, forced out of office last year as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to expand his right-wing coalition, accused Erdogan of pursuing "hegemony by establishing (a) neo-Ottoman empire using the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, not just within Turkey." He also accused NATO-member Turkey of working against Western interests. His comments came with Turkey and the European Union undergoing an explosive crisis after key EU members the Netherlands and Germany blocked Turkish ministers from holding rallies to back constitutional changes expanding Erdogan's powers. Yaalon named Turkey under Erdogan as one of three "radical" elements seeking to expand their influence in the Middle East, also mentioning Iran and jihadists such as the Islamic State group. He said he believed the situation had evolved in that way because of what he called former U.S. president Barack Obama's administration's decision to "disengage" from the Middle East. "And the vacuum has been filled by these three elements struggling for hegemony in the region," he said. Yaalon also took implicit shots at Israel's influential far-right while seeking to build his campaign to become the country's next premier.With four-term premier Netanyahu's legal woes mounting, challengers have circled in anticipation of the possibility that he would be forced to resign. Yaalon, who has also served as military chief of staff, has sought to present himself as a practical and experienced hand who can move the country away from what some see as a drift too far to the right.Earlier this week, he quit Netanyahu's Likud party and has announced plans to start his own. "All the slogans, the ideas which are good for likes on Facebook, this is not a policy," Yaalon said, implicitly referring to far-right figures such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also aims to be premier. "I've heard too many slogans in our politics in the last couple of years, ignoring the reality on the ground, ignoring the facts -- at the end, ignoring our interest." Yaalon said those advocating drastic steps such as annexing most of the occupied West Bank -- as Bennett has done -- were more concerned with populist rhetoric than solving the problem. The 66-year-old clashed with Bennett and other hardliners before leaving the government last year, particularly over the case of an Israeli soldier caught on video shooting dead a wounded Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground. Yaalon and top military brass condemned the actions of the soldier, since convicted of manslaughter, while Bennett and others defended him. Yaalon said the conflict with the Palestinians should be managed for now to avoid further eruptions of violence. "We are not going to reach a final settlement in the coming future," he said.

13 Held for 'Corruption' at Israel Weapons Giant
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/More than a dozen employees of Israel's giant state-owned weapons manufacturer have been arrested over allegations of "systematic" corruption, police said on Wednesday. The 13 staff of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) included top directors, heads of department and a prominent former military official, police said in a statement. The investigation concerns suspicions of bribes paid to win IAI tenders, as well as allegations of theft, breaches of trust and money laundering. The police did not provide any further details on the suspects or say whether the alleged corruption affected trade with foreign countries. But "the investigation revealed systematic criminal practices," the police said. Everywhere we looked, we found elements of corruption," police spokesman Meirav Lapidot told army radio. Investigators searched the homes and offices of suspects. A court was expected to rule on the extension of their custody on Wednesday, police said. IAI is wholly owned by the Israeli government and is the country's leading weapons manufacturer. The company employed nearly 16,000 people, according to 2015 figures, and had revenues of $3.7 billion (3.48 billion euros) last year. The group accounts for nearly half of Israeli arms exports, with more than three quarters of its sales abroad. With US firm Boeing, it has developed Israel's anti-ballistic missile system, the Arrow 3.

Trump Envoy Holds Fresh Talks on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/A top adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump held further talks on the Middle East conflict Wednesday, meeting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin as he seeks to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. Jason Greenblatt, Trump's special representative for international negotiations, met with Rivlin after holding talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the week. Rivlin's spokesman said the president, whose role is mainly ceremonial, told Greenblatt the "building of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians was a first and critically important step toward any possible solution." Greenblatt thanked Rivlin for his thoughts on how Israelis and Palestinians could live side by side, a statement from the president's office said. He was expected to visit a Palestinian refugee camp and meet religious leaders before leaving on Thursday. Before the visit, U.S. officials said he was seeking to lay the groundwork for renewed peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. A U.S. consulate statement on the meeting with Abbas on Tuesday evening said the two men reaffirmed their commitment to a "genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.""President Abbas told Mr Greenblatt that he believes that under President Trump's leadership a historic peace deal is possible," the statement said, adding that Abbas committed to tackling Palestinian incitement. "Greenblatt underscored President Trump's commitment to working with Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a lasting peace through direct negotiations."The meeting followed five hours of talks with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday night. The peace process has been deadlocked since April 2014 following the collapse of indirect negotiations led by then US secretary of state John Kerry. The visit comes after Trump cast uncertainty over years of international efforts to foster a two-state solution to the conflict when he met Netanyahu at the White House last month. At that meeting, Trump broke with decades of U.S. policy by saying he was not bound to a two-state solution to the conflict and would be open to one state if it meant peace. The consulate statement Tuesday said Abbas stressed to Greenblatt the two-state solution was the best route to peace, but did not give the U.S. envoy's response. Settlements in the occupied West Bank are also a key area of contention. The international community considers continuing settlement growth in the West Bank a major obstacle to peace. Israeli media reported on Wednesday that Netanyahu expects to reach understandings with the United States on settlement construction in the West Bank in the coming weeks. The Jerusalem Post newspaper reported Netanyahu had discussed with Greenblatt plans to build a new settlement for residents of Amona, an outpost that was demolished last month in accordance with a high court ruling.

Nearly 100,000 Iraqis Flee Battle for West Mosul
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/Nearly 100,000 Iraqis have fled the battle to retake west Mosul from the Islamic State jihadist group, the International Organization for Migration said on Wednesday. Iraqi forces launched a major push last month to recapture west Mosul, which is the most populated urban area still held by IS, with an estimated 750,000 residents when the battle began. Between February 25 and March 15, more than 97,000 people have been displaced from west Mosul, the IOM said on its official Twitter account. It marks an increase of around 17,000 from the displacement figure the IOM released the previous day, though this does not necessarily indicate that all of those additional people fled in the past 24 hours. IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes have since retaken most of the territory they lost. Iraqi forces launched the operation to recapture Mosul from IS in October, retaking its east before setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west. According to the IOM, more than 238,000 people are currently displaced due to fighting in the Mosul area, while more fled but later returned to their homes.

Libya Government Forces Overrun Tripoli Militia HQ
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 15/17/Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government overran the headquarters of a rival militia on Wednesday as artillery exchanges rocked the capital for a third day, a security source said. Libya has experienced years of violence and lawlessness since the NATO-backed ouster of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with rival parliaments and governments trading barbs and militias fighting over territory and the country's vast oil wealth. Militia loyal to former prime minister Khalifa Ghweil, whose administration was replaced by the UN-backed Government of National Accord last year, have stepped up a campaign of defiance against its authority. But overnight, government forces launched an assault on the militia's headquarters in the Guest Palace, a complex of luxury villas in the city centre, and overran it after heavy fighting. "It's over. Ghweil's forces have pulled out and GNA forces have taken control of the area," a witness told AFP. A security source confirmed the militia's withdrawal. He had no immediate word on any casualties. It was the third straight day of fighting between government forces and the militia, who are mainly drawn from Ghweil's hometown, third city Misrata. The sound of gunfire and explosions was heard from multiple neighbourhoods of the capital. A rocket hit the Al-Khadhra Hospital without causing any casualties, a medic said. Overnight, gunmen stormed the headquarters of Al-Nabaa television, a privately owned channel known for its Islamist leanings, witnesses said. The channel remained off the air on Wednesday. The fighting brought life in the capital to a standstill with schools and shops closed. It came despite an appeal from UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler on Tuesday for an "immediate ceasefire". "Civilians at grave risk in ongoing clashes," Kobler said on Twitter. The clashes erupted in the neighbourhoods of Hay al-Andalus and Gargaresh on Monday evening, prompting the government to deploy tanks. They came as heavy fighting rocked the east of Libya where forces loyal to military strongman Khalifa Haftar announced their recapture of two key oil ports on Tuesday. Haftar's forces, which do not recognise the UN-backed government, mounted a day-long assault by land, sea and air to retake the ports of Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra, after they were seized by a rival, Islamist-led force earlier this month.

Saudi soldier killed by gunmen: ministry
Wed 15 Mar 2017 /NNA - A Saudi soldier was killed by gunmen late on Tuesday in the Eastern city of Qatif, in an incident the interior ministry said was carried out by "terrorist elements."The security patrol came under fire upon approaching a suspicious vehicle, the statement carried by state news agency SPA, adding that the gunmen fled the area.There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.--Reuters

Saudi policeman shot dead by unknown assailants in Qatif
Wed 15 Mar 2017/NNA - Saudi Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that a policeman was shot dead by unknown assailants in Qatif on the Gulf coast yesterday evening. The interior ministry said in a statement gunfire broke out at about 7:30 pm on Tuesday when police tried to intercept a suspicious car near the central hospital in Qatif. Someone in the car started shooting, mortally wounding one of the officers, it said. Police stopped the suspects’ car but they managed to escape "while shooting randomly." They made their getaway after stealing the car of a doctor, the ministry added.Police found Molotov cocktails in the suspects' abandoned vehicle, which also had been stolen.--Al Arabiya

After EU headscarf ruling, UK says govt should not tell women what to wear
Reuters, London Wednesday, 15 March 2017/It is not right for government to tell women what to wear, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday, after the European Union’s top court ruled that companies may ban staff from wearing Islamic headscarves under certain conditions.
The Court of Justice’s ruling on Tuesday, which also applied to other visible religious symbols, set off a storm of complaints from rights groups and religious leaders.Asked about the ruling, May told parliament: “We have ... a strong tradition in this country of freedom of expression, and it is the right of all women to choose how they dress and we don’t intend to legislate on this issue.”“There will be times when it is right for a veil to be asked to be removed, such as border security or perhaps in courts, and individual institutions can make their own policies, but it is not for government to tell women what they can and can’t wear.”

Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published On March 15-16/17
UN report: Israel imposes 'apartheid regime' on Palestinians
Ynetnews/Reuters/March 15/17
For the first time, a UN body makes the charge that 'Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole'; report cites 'strategic fragmentation' of Palestinians and 'distinct laws, policies and practices' as the method employed by Israel to impose its 'racist' dominion; UN spokesman says report 'does not relect the views of the secretary-general.'A UN agency published a report on Wednesday accusing Israel of imposing an "apartheid regime" of racial discrimination on the Palestinian people, and said it was the first time a UN body had clearly made the charge.
The report commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) concluded "Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole". The accusation—often directed at Israel by its critics - is fiercely rejected by the Jewish state.
UN Under-Secretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf said the report was the "first of its type" from a UN body that "clearly and frankly concludes that Israel is a racist state that has established an apartheid system that persecutes the Palestinian people".
Khalaf was speaking at an event to launch the report at ESCWA's Beirut headquarters. ESCWA comprises 18 Arab states in Western Asia, according to its website. Its aims include to support economic and social development in member states. The report was prepared at the request of member states, Khalaf said. The report said it had established on the "basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid". However, only a ruling by an international tribunal in that sense would make such an assessment truly authoritative," it added.
The report said the "strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people" was the main method through which Israel imposes apartheid, with Palestinians divided into four groups oppressed through "distinct laws, policies and practices".
It identified the four sets of Palestinians as: Palestinian citizens of Israel; Palestinians in east Jerusalem; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon harshly attacked the report. “The UN Secretary-General must categorically denounce this lying report. The attempts to discredit the only democracy in the Middle East are shameful and shocking,” he said. “It is not surprising that a committee that stands at the head of calls for boycotts against Israel and compares Israel to the most horrific regimes in human history publishes a report like this.”Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman likened the report to Der Sturmer—a Nazi propaganda publication that was strongly anti-Semitic. Shortly after news broke of the report, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, sought calm tensions which risked spilling over into yet another a diplomatic sparring match between Israel and the world body, by assuring that the report had been compiled without consultation with the UN secretariat and that it therefore does not reflect Guterres's position.
"The report as it stands does not reflect the views of the secretary-general (Antonio Guterres)," said Dujarric, adding that the report itself notes that it reflects the views of the authors. ESCWA hoped the report would inform further deliberations on the root causes of the problem in the United Nations, among member states, and in society, Khalaf said. It was authored by Richard Falk, a former UN human rights investigator for the Palestinian territories and a fierce critic of Israel, and Virginia Tilley, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. Before leaving his post as UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories in 2014, Falk said Israeli policies bore unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. The United States accused him of being biased against Israel.'

On wresting control over religious discourse
Abdulrahman al-Rashed/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
Due to the international crisis confronting Islam and Muslims, figures from across the world concerned over the state of affairs gathered for a meeting in Al-Azhar in Egypt’s Cairo. These figures include muftis, preachers, scholars and politicians from China, Uganda and North and South America. They agree that extremism is a major threat and must be confronted by all means. At the international conference of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, the best and most direct address came from Tawfiq al-Sudairi, the Saudi deputy minister for Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Dawa and Guidance. He called for wresting the religious discourse from extremists and half-educated people “who harmed the religion’s tolerant teachings and who’ve been directed by opportunists.” He also called for “unifying efforts on the political, intellectual, security and religious fronts to confront deviant ideologies.”
There is no controversy over their consensus against terrorism. This is a settled matter and perhaps no longer requires reiteration. The more important matter, which requires consensus and a plan of action, is extremism, which has developed into a broad challenge. No one can say that terrorism exists without any form of extremism embracing it. It is impossible for a terrorist to be born in a moderate and centrist environment. Even terrorists who came out of liberal or tolerant societies are the victims of extremist ideology that surrounds them in their virtual environment, like chat rooms and social networking websites. Tens of thousands have joined terrorist groups and all of them are graduates of extremist rhetoric. Terrorism is the final step in the ladder of extremism. It is not possible to neutralize terrorism without fighting extremism. Those concerned must keep this in mind
Challenge of extremism
Truth be told, terrorists, despite their threat to the world, are less threatening than extremists as the harm caused by the latter is more grave on Muslim societies as well as other communities. What extremists do is worse than the acts of organizations like ISIS and al-Nusra Front whose members are few among a sea of extremists. Terrorism is the final step in the ladder of extremism. It is not possible to neutralize terrorism without fighting extremism. Those concerned must keep this in mind. When we talk of extremism, we must not confuse it with extremist tendencies of some individual Muslims. Conservatives have the right to their beliefs within the capacity they see as appropriate. This is their right, and this is the case in all religions. However, this becomes extremism when they try to impose what they want on everyone. Most dangerous extremist activities are generally based on exploiting religious activities that had no political purpose in the past. These are related to collecting of funds, education, dawa, media and charity. They hijack them and even expand their operations to include students, women and foreigners. These extremist movements even have organized activities, which include travelling across the world to poor and progressive countries to exploit wars and famine. They also use the injustice being done to some Muslims and use it to plant the seeds of extremism, which stays for a long time and eventually becomes a local culture. If you can imagine this, you can understand how extremism spreads and how terrorism emerged. You will also realize that fighting extremism is more important than fighting terrorism. Sudairi’s statements at the conference in Cairo leads us to the core of this crisis. A plan of action, which requires collective efforts, must be devised to achieve what he called for.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on March 14, 2017.

The US withdrawal brings back Russia to Afghanistan
Huda al Husseini/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
The reason behind Russia’s return to the Afghan scene through its openness to Taliban is because it believes that the Western military presence led by the United States in that country is no longer efficient, exposing the region to the consequences of the possible American withdrawal. In mid-eighties, Afghanistan was considered as the “bleeding wound” of the Soviet Union. At the end of that decade, many said that it was the Russian Vietnam, from which it withdrew after its defeat. Last month, Moscow hosted a conference on Afghanistan. The first was held in December, and with Iran, China, India and Afghanistan participating. The US was not invited. The return of the Russian influence in Afghanistan overlaps now with the broader approach of Russian foreign policy, where Moscow is seeking to mediate agreements that allow Russia to expand on the geopolitical level at Washington’s expense. It is trying to broker an Afghan peace deal, hoping it would be able then to replace United States as the protector of Afghanistan. Russia has presented itself as a main interlocutor in South Asia. It wants to use this influence to stop the expansion of terror to its territories and prevent the smuggling of drugs to its people.
Triggering chaos
Russia is asking the US to withdraw from Central Asia, but at the same time it fears that any rushed withdrawal would trigger a state of chaos in Afghanistan, endangering Russia and the neighboring countries. Moscow is worried about two things: unstable Afghanistan becoming a fertile land for cross-border terrorism, and the resumption of opium flows towards Russia and Central Asia. According to UN reports, Russia has the world’s highest number of opium consumers, leading to deaths through overdoses and the spread of AIDS. The return of the Russian influence in Afghanistan overlaps now with the broader approach of Russian foreign policy, where Moscow is seeking to mediate agreements that allow Russia to expand on the geopolitical level at Washington’s expense. In 2013, Moscow considered Taliban to be the main cause of these two problems. It expressed its reservations about the US efforts to conduct negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar. However, since 2013, Russian and Taliban representatives started to hold discussions in Tajikistan, along with envoys from several countries in Central Asia. A Western diplomat says: “We must wait to understand the return of Russia to Afghanistan in the context of its continuous interventions in Syria and its geopolitical ambitions in the broader Middle East. Add to that, its role in Syria has made it a target for extremist Islamists who have established cells in Afghanistan.”“It seems that Russia wants to use the rivalry between Taliban and ISIS, so that it can ensure that Afghanistan would not become another haven for ISIS, threatening Moscow,” he adds.
Filling the vacuum
During the presidency of former US President Barack Obama, the United States showed a desire to withdraw from the Middle East. This was clear because Obama refused to intervene in Syria. Russia then sought to fill the vacuum, so it strengthened its relations with Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, and to some extent, some of the Gulf States. As for Southern Asia, Russia has deepened its relations with Pakistan while maintaining good relations with India. “Russia will not become the main foreign sponsor of these countries and replace the United States, but a broader presence in Afghanistan would allow Moscow to influence any development in the countries which previously represented by the former Soviet Union,” a source revealed to this writer.In December of last year, Zamir Kabulov, the Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan, said that their concerns are that ISIS threatens Afghanistan and all Central Asian countries, namely Pakistan, China, Iran, India and even Russia. “We have good relations with Taliban to ensure the security of our political offices, consulates and the security of Central Asia,” he says.
On the other hand, Ahmad Murid Partaw, who is the former Afghan Senior National Representative to the US central command, states in February in an article that he wrote in the ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine under the title: ‘The delusion of the Islamic State in Afghanistan’ that “Russia, China and Iran are exaggerating when talking about the ISIS in Afghanistan. They are using this pretext to interfere in our internal affairs and counter the dominant US influence in the region”. Moscow is surely aware that the international intervention led by the United States failed to put Afghanistan on the path of stability and progress. The Russian Ambassador Kabulov says that the 1 trillion dollars spent by the United States during the past 15 years, went in vain. He described the ongoing US presence (with thousands of soldiers and a bilateral convention on security that was recently signed with Kabul) as a long-term US desire to maintain a foothold in the center of Eurasia, after it had lost in 1979 an Iranian regime that was loyal to the US, and after the expulsion of US troops from Central Asia.
Moscow believes that Taliban is less threatening to its interests in the long term, and is better than the chaotic Afghanistan, especially with the pro-US government in Kabul, and the presence of US forces all over the country.
Moscow says that Taliban with its Pashtun majority, has proved to be considerably flexible during the past two decades. It differs from those cross-border extremist groups, namely ISIS and al-Qaeda that are targeting Russia and the West, and accuses them of plotting against Islam.
Russia has also taken into account the branches of Taliban, like Haqqani’s network, but it believes that it is time to accept Taliban in an Afghan political frame! Taliban has interacted with Moscow that wants to put an end to the US military presence in Afghanistan. It started to uncover its plan as Sayyed Mohammad Akbar Agha, a former commander of Taliban living in Kabul and endorsing the Islamic rule in Afghanistan, said that Taliban wants closer ties with Moscow to save Afghanistan from the US curse. In an interview with the Moscow Time newspaper published on February 13, he said: “We are ready to work with Russia in order to liberate ourselves from the US; history has proven that we are closer to Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union than those of the West.”Neither the legitimate government of Afghanistan nor Washington was able to uproot Taliban or stabilize the region. This is why Moscow believes that the best way to protect its borders and its allies’ borders in Central Asia from the infiltration of terrorists is to strengthen Taliban’s calls seeking a new political framework.
Russia believes that financial and military aid might encourage Taliban to face the real threat, i.e. cross-border extremists. Moscow is convinced that Taliban’s reinforced influence at the expense of the Afghan government, leading to the withdrawal of the US troops, would be better for its interestd.
It is clear that Russia and Taliban have common interests in facing ISIS and the US military presence in Afghanistan. Iran and China share these interests at a time when the Afghan regular forces continue to confront Taliban’s terrorism, which has increased its operations in various areas, among which was the attack that killed the UAE Ambassador to Afghanistan and the Kandahar governor.
It is worth noting that further evidence have appeared in Afghanistan, showing that Chinese ground forces are operating in Afghanistan and conducting joint patrols with Afghan forces all over the 50 km joint borders between the two countries in order to stop Uighur fighters returning from Mosul and Raqqa. In addition to that, there are speculations that Beijing is getting ready to play a greater role in stabilizing the security in Afghanistan “when the United States and NATO withdraw from the country.”
The big role of China in Afghanistan is not clear yet. The US Department of Defense refuses to discuss this development. The US spokesman said on Monday: “We know that the Chinese troops are present there!”
According to a political analyst, Taliban is not interested in peace and security. It wants to win the war in Afghanistan and take advantage of the negotiations with the regional and international powers to improve its position. Thus, it is very unlikely that Taliban will stop their terrorist activities.
Consequently, Moscow will not be able to achieve reconciliation between Kabul and Taliban. Moreover, the memory of the Soviet invasion has not faded yet for Afghans, so Russia does not have good chances to succeed as long as the United States is military present in Afghanistan.
**This feature first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Should we seek comfort in the death of Arab liberalism?

Mamdouh AlMuhaini/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
Arab liberal intellectuals receive little attention when they are alive and are almost completely forgotten after death. Apart from a thorough report, which published, liberal Kuwaiti author and intellectual Ahmad al-Rubei was completely forgotten during the ninth anniversary of his death last week. Few years ago, famous liberal Algerian thinker Mohammed Arkun died and was silently buried in Morocco. I have recently watched what may be the only documentary about Arkun’s life and enlightening ideas.
I recall my meeting with late Syrian philosopher Georges Tarabichi few years ago in Paris. He seemed isolated and alone. He was pleased in a sad way when I told him that there a number of youth read his books and are influenced by them.
There is nothing strange about that. Arab liberals’ ideas spread during the first half of the past century which was called the phase of the second Arab renaissance. However, these ideas died quickly as suppressive military regimes rose to power with their eliminatory nationalistic rhetoric. These ideas further receded as waves of religious extremism raged in the end of the 1970s.
The control of revolutionary and Islamic movements over the street, media, schools and universities greatly weakened liberal rhetoric and liberal figures who were besieged with all sorts of accusations. Enthusiastic nationalists accused them of being agents of foreign parties while religious extremists accused them of apostasy. Ordinary people viewed them as Europeanized and Americanized but no more than that.
However, does this mean Arab liberalism, which was stained by intellectuals, clerics and a wide category of people, is dead? Are we ready to bury them and accept condolences? The truth is the complete opposite. Liberal ideas, despite the educational blackout and people’s disregard, are restoring life in a stronger manner than before. There are several reasons that have led to this vital recovery. The most important reason relates to the nature of liberal ideas which rationality increases with time. Almost everything these liberals said turned out to be right despite the constant resistance against it.
Liberal principles are viable and can be developed but the nature of the new and changing world suit them more than any other intellectual order
Religious tolerance
The idea of religious tolerance is one of their most important principles. They have called for religious reforms and personally embraced modern and enlightening concepts. As we know, these ideas only received a little attention.
The tragic situation in Arab countries, where sectarianism and political problems escalated and where terrorist groups spread, proves that these liberals were right. Unfortunately, they were proved right after a lot of bloodshed. The idea of scientific method which liberal thinkers, like Salama Moussa, called for decades ago has proved itself to be valid particularly given Arab universities’ retreating educational levels and the increase of scientific miracles’ scientists who are mere swindlers. Most countries compete over scientific awards, like the Nobel Prize and others, and it’s shameful that Arab scientists are absent in this field.Awards themselves are not important, however, they do reflect the extent of nations’ civilization. Since academic institutions fought real scientists and embraced ideologically-oriented figures, their level dropped, just as expected. The same applies to medical or research institutions, which flourished in other countries. Liberals are lecturers of the political realism which hates slogans and conspiracy theories and which believes in communication and openness. Their political school did not succeed and afterwards we witnessed how Arab leaders who raised slogans of Arabism and one nation killed their own people before they were dragged out to be hanged, and murdered. These liberals have also called for individual personal freedoms. If we take a quick look around the world, we would realize that the happiest cities and capitals are the ones that guarantee individual freedom while the most miserable ones are those which restrain people.
The intellectual order
Liberal principles are viable and can be developed but the nature of the new and changing world suit them more than any other intellectual order. The international order is in fact a liberal system that has been established following the 30-year war between the Catholics and the Protestants and it was formally established after the signing the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This order developed with time while the telecommunications and aviation revolution ended national borders among countries. Communist countries tried to establish their own private global order but they eventually failed after China, the last of those which opposed this new order, joined the others. Economic development and the development of concepts related to human rights have become major supporters of the liberal spirit. Economic development is mostly based on the freedom of market, movement and thought. Major financial hubs are present in New York and London and not in Kabul and Mogadishu. The development of human right is a development of the concept of freedom and reflects respect for humankind. This is why racists and people who believe in ethnic or national superiority have become outcasts. The new liberal world expelled them just like it expelled terrorists like Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri and forced them to hide in caves. Slavery vanished thanks to humane thoughts and the development of women’s rights, which transformed women from being follower of men to becoming his supervisor. This is how the liberal world flourished outside Arab countries and regressed within the region. A long time ago, Arab liberal thinkers called for joining this civilized club but no one listened to them. Considering the failure of other ideological movements’ rhetoric, which produced ISIS, Popular Mobilization, Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, and after its been proven that liberal formula is the most successful across the world, Arab liberal thoughts have restored some credibility and legitimacy which its rivals undermined.
This article is also available in Arabic.

An optimistic book during troubled times
Turki Aldakhil/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
During a recent event, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed read excerpts of the book Reflections on Happiness and Positivity which is written by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Vice President, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. The book discussed visions and goals on the social and individual levels. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed then commented: “The worst thing you can do is to wait.”We don’t commend this book just because it is written by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, who is very popular across the region due to his successful development model. We also praise it considering the circumstances in which it was released. There is widespread chaos in the region as violence has spread and blood is being shed. Failed states surrounding the Gulf has unfortunately increased the huge burden on the region and the world. The book comes is mean to reassure generations that sustainable development based on well-devised plans is what guarantees an affluent life for people and provides fulfillment and comfort. This is the best-selling book at the most important exhibition in the Arab world, the Riyadh International Book Fair. Young men and women are the fair’s most frequent visitors. This clearly indicates that the new generations desire a better future and want to overcome calamities, difficulties and the events of the past five years.
Ideologies alone do not achieve development. It is also important to be inspired by the experiences of other rising nations
Essential elements
A longing for life’s essential elements always exists. First of them would be good education which has been achieved through Gulf scholarship programs. Gulf students, both male and female, tour the world and learn about new cultures. They interact with people who speak a different language and whose heritage is completely different than everything they’re used to. Then comes the quality of life. Gulf leaders emphasize its importance as good life implies good healthcare, which ensures a decent living for people and their families without having to immigrate or finding a job outside their country. Amid all this controversy and the growing desire to improve living conditions, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s book talks about an atmosphere of optimism for the future generations. “In it, we propose an administrative and developmental vision that’s based on optimism and positivity. In this book, I tried to answer many of the deep questions related to development. I based my answers on my experience in life and I adopted a simple narrative style to make the book closer to youths. ‘Reflections on Happiness and Positivity’ narrates lessons, models and stories based on a different life philosophy: positivity as a perspective and making people happy as an aim and way of life. It’s through this book that we try– even if slightly – to create hope, transfer our experience to our region and revive civilization in the Arab world,” Sheikh Mohammed writes in the book.
Collapse of regimes
It is painful to watch countries that used to be pillars of the Arab world 25 years ago fall apart one after another due to slogans wise people warn against. Some of these slogans are leftist, reactionary xenophobic while some of them just simply oppose the West. All these have resulted in the collapse of regimes and everything the wise men warned of happened. Ideologies alone do not achieve development. It is also important to be inspired by the experiences of other rising nations. This is what creates civilized and developed experiences and the West has been the pioneer of modern renaissance.
The significance of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s book is marked by its historic release. In it, he also bravely voices his opinion and accurately conveys his ideas. Talking about this book inevitably leads to discussing the future. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed noted that he was not praising the book because its author is a ruler and a prominent figure. He was praising it because of its content, which is based on the experiences of the majestic place called Dubai.
**This article was first published in Al-Bayan on March 15, 2016.

OPEC and non-OPEC production agreement: To renew or not to renew?

Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady/Al Arabiya/March 15/17
With crude oil prices dipping below $50 a barrel for the West Texas Intermediate benchmark on hedge fund short selling, although there was a later rally, market speculation is again turning to the levels of compliance and the odds on an extension of the OPEC-non OPEC oil output agreement reached last November in Vienna. Saudi Arabia and Russia, the architects of an oil production cut that has stabilized prices, presented a united front on compliance just as rising US inventories have sparked doubts about the OPEC and non-OPEC deal. This is the catch 22 situation that the oil producers are facing, as higher oil prices invite more US oil production, with further cycles of potential cuts to prop up prices. The figures for US oil production make for grim reading for OPEC. The US Energy Information Administration lifted its forecast for US crude oil output, which will average 9.21 million barrels a day in 2017, up from 8.98 million projected in February 2017. For 2018, US production will rise to an average 9.73 million barrels a day, up from 9.53 million barrels projected in February 2017, and it will exceed 10 million barrels a day in December 2018.
Is the energy market justified in panicking over oil producer’s agreement intentions? Since the OPEC and some of its rivals, including Russia, agreed to cut output in late 2016, oil prices have stabilized at around $50-$55 a barrel, up from $45-$50 a barrel before. With the market starting to believe the cuts were backfiring by reviving US oil production, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih and his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak offered a united front, and insisted the cuts will work.“The market had low expectations, which we have exceeded by a large degree,” Al-Falih said about the compliance level. "We are definitely on the right track and are picking up speed in terms of delivery. “Novak, who personally negotiated the cuts with Al-Falih last year, said that compliance with the curbs would improve in the next three months and promised that Moscow would cut production further.
Russian cuts
Russia has to date trimmed output by perhaps 118,000 bpd, or a little over a third of its target 300,000 bpd in cuts under the terms of the Vienna agreement. However, Novak reassured al-Falih that another 40,000 bpd in cuts was coming “soon” and that Russia will be fully compliant with the targeted 300,000 bpd in cuts by the May 25 OPEC ministerial meeting in Vienna. The Iraqi oil minister and Mexico’s deputy energy minister, alongside the OPEC secretary general, repeated similar upbeat messages as these countries are lagging behind their cut commitments. Khalid Al-Falih, acknowledged that global crude inventories aren’t draining as quickly as he expected, opening the door for an extension of the production cuts into the second half of the year. Under current circumstances, Saudi Arabia is highly likely to extend its 538,000 bpd of output cuts under the terms of the Vienna agreement when it comes up for review at the ministerial meeting in late May
The potential rollover is a subtle yet significant shift from just six weeks ago, when the minister said that an extension probably wouldn’t be needed. Under current circumstances, Saudi Arabia is highly likely to extend its 538,000 bpd of output cuts under the terms of the Vienna agreement when it comes up for review at the ministerial meeting in late May.
That extension however, will be contingent on the non-OPEC producing countries, including Russia, and the other OPEC producers, bringing their compliance fully in line with the agreed output cuts by the time of the technical committee review in mid-May.
Once again all eyes are on the key oil producer Saudi Arabia and under what scenario would the Kingdom acquiesce to cut production further to keep prices stable and not slip below the psychological $ 50 barrier. The Saudis might be further willing to trim output below its current 9.8 million bpd, if needed, to ensure this does not happen, as OPEC seems to be eyeing a $55 average as the equilibrium price that should bring global supply and demand into balance some time in the second half of this year.
Deepening strategic alliance
Saudi confidence in oil prices stabilizing above the $50 floor is largely built on Riyadh’s deepening strategic alliance with Moscow on oil policy and on the Mideast regional developments. This is a relationship the Saudis have been methodically nurturing through all of last year when the emphasis moved from the futile freeze talks to actual production cuts, with OPEC taking the first step in the Algiers meeting in August. The Russians made it clear then that any participation from their side, along with other non-OPEC countries, can only come about after concrete OPEC decisions were taken. Since December 2016, Russia is now no longer hanging back to see how OPEC manages its oil policy but is increasingly integrated into and leading OPEC oil policy alongside Saudi Arabia as the two key global oil powers. Russia’s Novak, for instance, co-chairs with the Kuwaiti oil minister Essam Al-Marzouq, the OPEC-non OPEC compliance committee, which will next meet in Kuwait on March 26 to review the levels of compliance among the 26 participating oil producers through mid-March.
The next key meeting will be in the technical committee review of compliance levels in mid-May, followed by the full ministerial OPEC-non OPEC meeting in Vienna on May 25, when the November output agreement will be considered for another six-month extension.
The issue of Iran and how to accommodate it following its production cut exemption in December is also an important one for Saudi Arabia, in particular, and there is likelihood that Iran will at the May meeting accept an end to its exemption from the quota agreement and to cap its output at around its current levels of 3.6 million bpd. The Iranians have found it very difficult to push their output much beyond current levels.
What’s more, Tehran may feel more cooperative on a hard quota cap by the time of the May 25 meeting because Washington under President Donald Trump, may re-impose or continue to threaten to re-impose US sanctions, which could make it even more difficult for Tehran to find the investment and technology to boost its oil field output. Despite the implied threat of a return to the November 2014 market share strategy if the other OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers fail to comply with their promised output cuts, the Saudis are in fact limited by how much they can endure a bout of oil market instability, much less another collapse in oil prices.
Maximizing revenues
While Riyadh is not hurting as much as other oil producers, it still needs to maximize its crude oil revenues while its undergoes the dramatic economic transformation that entails among other changes a shift to new state revenue through investment income and other sources of non-crude oil revenue like petrochemical sales. Another critical driver to the Saudi oil policy to keep oil prices reasonably stable and above $50 and around that $55 equilibrium price benchmark is to provide the ideal financial and economic backdrop to its on-going bond issues and its eventual partial IPO of Saudi Aramco.
While there are limits to output cuts much below the current 9.8 million bpd in output, there may be room for further output cuts through lower domestic energy demand due to subsidy cuts and demand rationalization.
In the final analysis, for a renewal to take place, it is imperative that all sides comply with their commitments, as Minister Falih pointed out that “it is unfair for Saudi Arabia to bear all the burden and have free riders gain from the current agreement”.
This should indeed focus the minds of all the production cut participants, for without Saudi Arabia, the pact cannot survive.