March 18/17

Compiled & Prepared by: Elias Bejjani

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Bible Quotations For Today
If you had known what this means, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice", you would not have condemned the guiltless
Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew 12/01-14/:'At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice", you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath? ’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him."

In the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman & implacable
Second Letter to Timothy 03/01-09/:"You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth.
But they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of those two men, their folly will become plain to everyone."

Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published On March 17-18/17
Israel’s Next Big War/Yossi Alpher/Forward/March 16, 2017
Israeli air strikes in Syria. Reprisal threatened/DEBKAfile/March 17/17
Israeli air strikes in Syria, intercepts missile/DEBKAfile/March 17/17
Saudi Columnist: The Future of Arabs and Muslims Will Remain Dark Unless They Subject Their Values And Heritage To A Critical Assessment/MEMRI/March 17/17
Compulsions surrounding Russia and Israel over Syria/Abdulrahman al-Rashed/Al Arabiya/March 17/17
Where are the stars of the Arab Spring/Mashari Althaydi/Al Arabiya/March 17/17
Entertainment and partisan prohibitions/Abdullah bin Bijad Al-Otaibi/Al Arabiya/March 17/17
Analysis: Politics of Class and Identity Dividing Aleppo – and Syria/Preethi Nallu/Syria Deeply/March 17/17
Analysis: Why the War in Syria May Not Be About Demographic Change/Aymenn al-Tamimi/Syria Deeply/March 17/17

Titles For Latest Lebanese Related News published On March 17-18/17
Israel strikes Hezbollah in Syria, intercepts ground-to-air missile
Tensions Flare as Israel Bombs Syrian Targets and Damascus Retaliates
Netanyahu Says Syria Raid Targeted 'Advanced' Hizbullah Arms
Lebanon charges 18 with transferring $19 million to ISIS
Hezbollah arms can be used to fend off Israel: Machnouk
Lebanon Policy Leaves ‘Second-Class’ Syrians Vulnerable to Return: HRW
Lebanese Govt. 'Finalizes' Budget, Shops Fined over Hiked Prices as Tax Protests Continue
Sami Gemayel Shrugs off Blames for Thwarting Wage Scale Approval
Mashnouq Says to Call for June 18 Elections 'within Two Days'
Tajeddine's Lawyer Confirms Presence of 'Extradition Order from U.S.
British Minister: Lebanon's Generosity Should be Matched by Further Int'l Support
Jumblat Calls for Axing Free Flights for Officials, Military
PSP Hails FPM Statement amid Tensions
Aoun from Rome Says Displaced Syrians Putting Burden on Lebanon
Report: New Tax Hikes Pave Way for 'Social Revolution'
Hariri following Cabinet session: Imposed taxes known since 2014
Abu Faour: PSP seeks election law able to develop political system
Civil movement activists stage sit in at Riad Solh Square in protest at tax hike
Sidon Tyre Highway opened to traffic after short closure
Protestors cut off Minieh Abdeh highway in rejection of tax hike
Dozens of people stage sit in at Jamal Abdel Nasser Square in Tripoli in rejection of tax hike
Israel’s Next Big War/Yossi Alpher

Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published On March 17-18/17
Iran: Rafsanjani’s daughter imprisoned for criticizing the regime
Trump welcomes Merkel to White House for high stakes visit
700,000 documents highlight appalling tortures in Assad’s prisons
Pentagon denies hitting Syria mosque, offers photo as proof
Intensive meetings by Syrian opposition in Riyadh for Geneva talks
Syrian Kurdish YPG says Raqqa attack to start in early April
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince meets US Defense Secretary to discuss Iran, ISIS
At least 34 people killed in Houthi mosque attack in Yemen’s Marib
Yemeni army, backed by Arab coalition, advance toward Sanaa
US places Bahrainis backed by Iran on terrorist list, imposes sanctions
Iranian pilgrims will participate in the Hajj season of this year
UN chief wants report on ‘apartheid’ Israel taken off web
Morocco’s king names PJD’s Othmani as new prime minister
Iraq commander announces gains in Mosul old city
Military Action Against N. Korea an 'Option'

Links From Jihad Watch Site for March 17-18/17
Quebec imam says Islamic ruling allowing slave girls is still in force
Toronto: Muslim prof says “nothing radical” about wanting Sharia and caliphate
Canadian poll: Only 14% like anti-Islamophobia motion M-103
Raymond Ibrahim: More Evidence that McMaster Shares Obama’s Views on Islam and Terror
“You are the future of Europe”: Erdogan urges Turks in EU to have at least 5 kids
UK: Police scrambled as enraged Muslim mob gathers over Qur’ans found in dumpster
Plaintiff behind Trump immigration ban suit runs Muslim Brotherhood mosque
UK: Muslim pharmacist showed beheading films to children
Glenn Beck hits Trump immigration ban for failing to differentiate Islamists and Muslims
Kashmir: Jihadi imam killed, 70,000 people attend his funeral
New York: Al-Qaeda jihadi convicted in civilian court of killing Americans in Afghanistan
Paris: Muslim screaming “Allahu akbar” slits throats of father and son, cops search for motive
Glazov Gang: Biblical Values vs. Islamic Values

Links From Christian Today Site For March 17-18/17
UN blames South Sudan government for famine, says it is still buying arms
Turkey in furious 'holy war' threat after EU headscarf ruling: 'This is a clash between cross and crescent'
Former Queen's Chaplain Gavin Ashenden quits 'liberal' Church of England
Christian churches pledge funds to help Jewish community centre after wave of bomb threats
Was St Patrick married? This folklore researcher thinks so
Bar Mitzvah in Israel halted after boy found to be wearing 'Christian' prayer shawl
Anglican Church in Australia 'deeply ashamed' about child abuse
Remember you will die: nun offers five ways to 'divorce' your smart-phone and stop wasting time
Pornography and illegal drugs to blame for increase in demonic activity, says exorcist
Christian pastor finds massive diamond worth millions of dollars
Theresa May hints she will block second Scottish independence vote
Christians 'denied vital aid' as famine sweeps sub-Saharan Africa
Trump's travel ban in chaos as it is blocked by federal judge and new figures show more Muslims than Christians are entering US

Latest Lebanese Related News published On March 17-18/17
Israel strikes Hezbollah in Syria, intercepts ground-to-air missile
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Friday, 17 March 2017/Israeli fighter jets launched three raids targeting Lebanese militia Hezbollah in Syria overnight, Al Arabiya’s correspondent reported. The aircraft also carried out several other strikes, prompting the launch of ground-to-air missiles in response, one of which was intercepted, the army said on Friday. “Overnight... aircraft targeted several targets in Syria,” an Israeli army statement said. “Several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria following the mission and (army) aerial defense systems intercepted one of the missiles.”The Associated Press had earlier reported that anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria into Israeli-controlled territory early Friday following a series of Israeli airstrikes in Syria, the Israeli military said. The military said its warplanes struck several targets in Syria and were back in Israeli-controlled airspace when several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria toward the Israeli jets. Israeli aerial defense systems intercepted one of the missiles, the army said. It would not say whether any other missiles struck Israeli-held territory, but it said the safety of Israeli civilians and the safety of the Israeli aircraft “were not compromised.”The army said the incident was the cause of sirens that wailed in Jewish settlement communities in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank. The military would not immediately comment on media reports that explosions were heard in the area. Israel is widely believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes on advanced weapons systems in Syria - including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles, as well as Hezbollah positions - but it rarely confirms them. The firing of missiles from Syria toward Israeli aircraft is rare.(With AP, AFP)

Tensions Flare as Israel Bombs Syrian Targets and Damascus Retaliates
Agence France Presse/Associated Press/Naharnet/March 17/17/
Israeli warplanes struck several targets in Syria early Friday, prompting retaliatory missile launches, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago. Syria's military said it had downed an Israeli plane and hit another as they were carrying out pre-dawn strikes near the famed desert city of Palmyra that it recaptured from jihadists this month. "Our air defense engaged them and shot down one warplane over occupied territory, hit another one, and forced the rest to flee," the army said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA. The Israeli military denied that any planes had been struck. The Syrian government has made similar unfounded claims in the past. "The safety of Israeli civilians or the Israeli air force aircraft was at no point compromised," Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner told AFP. Nevertheless, analysts said the incident represented a significant shift in Syria's response to Israeli airstrikes inside its territory. The Israeli air force said earlier that it had carried out several strikes on Syria overnight, but that none of the ground-to-air missiles fired by Syrian forces in response had hit Israeli aircraft.
It was an unusual confirmation by Israel of air raids inside Syria.
"Overnight... aircraft targeted several targets in Syria," an Israeli army statement said. "Several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria following the mission and (Israeli) aerial defense systems intercepted one of the missiles," it said. None of the missiles fired from Syria hit their targets, the army added.
One missile was intercepted by Israel's Arrow air defense system, Israeli media reported. It would be one of the first times the system has been used. The firing of missiles from Syria toward Israeli aircraft is extremely rare, though Israeli military officials reported a shoulder-fired missile a few months ago.
A Syrian military statement said four Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace -- flying into Syria through Lebanese territory -- and targeted a military position in central Syria.
Syria's Foreign Ministry sent letters to the U.N. chief and the president of the Security Council calling on them to "condemn the blatant Israeli aggression that is considered a violation of international law."Israeli Channel 10 TV reported that Israel deployed its Arrow defense system for the first time against a real threat and hit an incoming missile, intercepting it before it exploded in Israel. The station said the Israeli military had been on a mission to destroy a weapons convoy destined for Hizbullah.
There was no immediate comment from Hizbullah. The pan-Arab al-Mayadeen TV, which has good sources within the militant Lebanese group, dismissed reports by other Arab media outlets that a Hizbullah commander, Badee Hamiyeh, was killed in one of the airstrikes. It said Hamiyeh was killed Thursday in the southern Syrian region of Quneitra, near the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Jordan, which borders both Israel and Syria, said parts of the missiles fell in its rural northern areas, including the Irbid district. The Jordanian military said the debris came from the Israeli interception of missiles fired from Syria.
Radwan Otoum, the Irbid governor, told the state news agency Petra that the missile parts caused only minor damage. A chunk of missile crashed into the courtyard of a home in the community of Inbeh in northern Jordan, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Syrian border. Umm Bilal al-Khatib, a local resident, said she heard a blast and initially thought a gas cylinder had exploded. When she went outside she found a small crater and a 3-meter-long (10-foot) cylinder. She said her husband contacted Jordanian authorities, who removed the debris. The Haaretz daily said the interception took place north of Jerusalem. However, the Arrow is designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles high in the stratosphere, so it remained unclear why the system would have been used in this particular incident.The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the reports. The Arrow is part of what Israel calls its "multilayer missile defense," comprised of different systems meant to protect against short and long range threats, including the thousands of missiles possessed by Hizbullah in Lebanon and rockets used by Hamas and other Islamic militant groups in Gaza.
'Significant shift' -
In April 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted for the first time that Israel had attacked “dozens” of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Lebanon's Hizbullah, which fought a devastating 2006 war with Israel and is now fighting alongside the Damascus regime. The Jewish state does not usually confirm or deny each individual raid but may have been led to do so this time by the circumstances of the incident. The missile fire from Syria prompted air raid sirens to go off in the Jordan Valley during the night, the Israeli army said. Israel and Syria are still technically at war, though the border had remained largely quiet for decades until 2011 when the Syrian conflict broke out. Assaf Orion, senior research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said Syria's response was a "significant" shift. Until now, he said, when Israel attacked Hizbullah convoys in the country, it "usually went without a response or with an insignificant response from the Syrian side." "(With this attack) the Syrian regime is trying to tell Israel it can't stand it anymore and those actions will not be free of charge."
President Bashar Assad's position has been strengthened in recent months with his forces reclaiming the whole of Syria's second city Aleppo, as well as enjoying continuing Russian support. Orion said the Syrian leader was feeling emboldened."Assad is not feeling he is looking down a gun barrel so his future is now more guaranteed than it was in the past.""He is saying: 'Don’t push me. I am not as weak as I used to be.'"Yaakov Amidror, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said weapons convoys of the Iran-backed Hizbullah remained a "red line" for Israel and that it would continue to attack them when deemed necessary. Witnesses cited by the Israeli press reported two explosions that could have been caused by the launch of the anti-missile system. The Arrow 3 interceptor, designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, was handed to Israeli air force ground crews in January after successful testing by Israel and the United States. Israel seized most of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981, in a move never recognized by the international community. Israel pays close attention to developments in the Syrian conflict for fear that it could be exploited by its arch-rival Iran to install allies close to the armistice line on the Golan and Israel's borders.

Netanyahu Says Syria Raid Targeted 'Advanced' Hizbullah Arms
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 17/17/Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that Israel's latest air strikes into Syria targeted weapons bound for Hizbullah, and that it will continue to carry out such raids. "When we identify attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hizbullah and we have intelligence and it is operationally feasible, we act to prevent it," he said in footage aired on Israel's major television networks. "That's how it was yesterday and that's how we shall continue to act," he said. "We are fully determined and the evidence of that is that we are acting. Everybody must take that into account -- everybody," Netanyahu went on to say. In April 2016, Netanyahu admitted for the first time that Israel had attacked "dozens" of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Hizbullah, which fought a devastating 2006 war with Israel and is now fighting alongside the Damascus regime.

Lebanon charges 18 with transferring $19 million to ISIS
AFP, Beirut Friday, 17 March 2017/A Lebanese military court on Friday charged 18 people, most of them Syrians, with transferring more than $19 million from Lebanon to the ISIS, a judicial source said. Fifteen Syrians, one Palestinian and two others were accused of “belonging to Daesh (ISIS), creating a money smuggling network and transferring money out of Lebanon for ISIS’s benefit”, the source said. The network had “transferred $19,300,000 to IS in Syria and Iraq from 2014 until now”. The suspects were referred to a military investigator for further questioning, the source added. Lebanese security forces in early March raided currency exchange offices and money transfer companies on suspicion they had sent huge sums of money to ISIS. The judicial source said the accused “rented currency exchange offices from Lebanese nationals at very attractive prices and began transferring money to ISIS in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.” “Each transfer was valued between $10,000 and $100,000... Most of the money would eventually reach ISIS’s stronghold in Mosul in Iraq, or in Raqqa, Aleppo, Palmyra, or Qalamun in Syria,” he said. While money to ISIS in Iraq was transferred directly, the wires to Syria always went through Turkey first. Lebanon has been heavily impacted by the war in neighboring Syria since it erupted in March 2011. Security forces have on several occasions arrested suspected ISIS members, including in February when two men were detained on suspicion of planning an attack in central Beirut. Lebanon’s central bank imposes strict rules on financial institutions intended to prevent money laundering and terrorism financing, including caps on the amount that can be transferred overseas without additional supporting paperwork.

Hezbollah arms can be used to fend off Israel: Machnouk
The Daily Star/March 17/17/BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun should broker an understanding between rival parties regarding Lebanon’s national defense strategy, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said in an interview Thursday. The interior minister touched on national security issues, the refugee crisis and the parliamentary elections in the interview with Egyptian channel CBC Extra News.“The defense strategy should determine how to benefit from Hezbollah’s arms, to fend off any [future] Israeli aggression,” Machnouk said. Last month, Aoun defended the government’s continued toleration of Hezbollah’s munitions, saying the group’s armaments “do not contradict the state’s [power],” so long as they are not used in a civil conflict. Aoun’s statements were met with a flurry of antagonistic responses calling for the surrender of all “illegitimate” arms. Machnouk also said that Hezbollah’s arms were being discussed in the context of “the tactical planning of Lebanon’s defense strategy.” Hezbollah is a recognized political actor in the Lebanese government. It was one of the first parties to back Aoun’s presidential bid, which ultimately led to his election on Oct. 31, 2016. But Hezbollah’s militarized component remains contentious. Several major Lebanese parties consider Hezbollah’s weapons illegitimate and are calling for their surrender to the state. Commenting on the upcoming parliamentary elections – originally planned for May, but likely to be delayed due to political deadlock – Machnouk reiterated that they would be held, “even if not on schedule.” The minister added that he would consult with Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to “agree on the timing of the elections.”The elections were initially scheduled to take place between May 21 and June 21.Political rivals have struggled to agree on a new electoral law; the debate is primarily between proponents of a new proportional electoral law and those favoring a hybrid law that combines a proportional approach with the existing majoritarian law, dating from 1960. Lebanon’s Parliament has extended its term twice since 2013, citing the country’s precarious security situation.
Machnouk also said Thursday that the naturalization of Syrian nationals in Lebanon was unlikely – a sentiment that has been voiced across the political spectrum ever since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011. The Lebanese government estimates that around 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in unofficial camps around the country in desperate economic conditions, while 1 million Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations’ refugee agency in Lebanon. The Lebanese government directed UNHCR to stop registering Syrian nationals as refugees in May 2015.

Lebanon Policy Leaves ‘Second-Class’ Syrians Vulnerable to Return: HRW

Bassam Khawaja/Syria Deeply/March 17/17
BEIRUT – A new residency policy announced last month waiving hefty residency fees for some Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a step forward for many people desperate for a secure legal status. But it leaves many others out in the cold.
Lebanon tightened its residency policy two years ago, requiring Syrians to pay a hefty $200 annual fee to maintain legal status in the country. Since then, more than 60 percent of refugees are estimated to have lost their legal status, restricting their ability to move freely for fear of arrest. This has made it much harder for them to work, get healthcare and education, and register births and marriages. The lack of legal status contributes to widespread poverty, a risk of statelessness for the refugees’ newborn children, early marriage and barriers that keep 250,000 Syrian children out of school.
For many Syrians in Lebanon, the new fee waiver will be life changing. But it excludes a large part of the refugee population, raising troubling questions as to Lebanon’s continued efforts to delegitimize Syrians’ claims to refugee status. The order excludes an estimated 500,000 Syrians not registered with UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, even though the government directed UNHCR to stop registering Syrians as refugees in May 2015. It also excludes anyone who has used a Lebanese sponsor to maintain legal residency, even though Lebanese General Security officers have required many Syrians to secure sponsors – in contravention of official policies.
Lebanese General Security offices also have a history of applying new directives inconsistently. Human Rights Watch called several General Security offices and received contradictory information about how the directive would be carried out. One office still requires refugees to sign a pledge not to work, though that requirement was dropped last summer. Meanwhile, Lebanese security services have continued mass raids on refugee communities, arresting those without legal residency.
Lebanese authorities have long pursued a policy of undermining Syrians’ claims to refugee status and limiting the number of refugees registered with UNHCR. Lebanon refers to people who fled here from Syria after March 2011 as “temporarily displaced individuals” as opposed to “refugees.” In January 2015, General Security began enforcing new border entry regulations that effectively sealed the border to many Syrians fleeing armed conflict and persecution.
The residency renewal announcement comes amid troubling public statements about the possible return of refugees, including reports of negotiations between Hezbollah and Syrian opposition forces to return refugees from Lebanon to Syria. Lebanon’s president recently called for the return of refugees to “safe” zones inside Syria. And in February, Lebanon’s foreign minister called for adopting “a policy to encourage the Syrians to return to their country.”
The situation inside Syria simply does not permit the creation of truly safe zones. As the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said last month, “Let’s not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safe enough for people to go back.” Areas that appear safe today could come under attack tomorrow. And refugees I have spoken with in recent months certainly don’t feel that conditions are safe enough for them to return. Yet this new policy risks cementing a second class of refugees living without residency, who could be among the first to go should coerced returns ever take place. International law on this is clear: Any forced or coerced return of refugees from Lebanon would be unlawful, whether or not they are registered with UNHCR or have legal status in Lebanon. Yet this new policy risks cementing a second class of refugees living without residency, who could be among the first to go should coerced returns ever take place.
Although Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is bound by the customary international law principle of non-refoulement – not to return anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads refugees to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face these risks. Under international refugee practice, repatriation is only considered voluntary if refugees have a genuinely free choice about whether to return and are fully informed about conditions in their home country.
Lebanese authorities should expand the new fee waiver to cover all Syrian refugees in Lebanon and ensure that they are able to live in safety until conditions permit their safe and voluntary return to Syria. Lebanese officials should also reaffirm their commitment not to forcibly return anyone to Syria.
Lebanon has put richer and more powerful countries to shame by taking in as many as 1.5 million refugees – 25 percent of its population – at a time when others have closed their doors. It deserves far greater international respect and support for that. But Syrians excluded from the new policy are still stuck in legal limbo, with disastrous consequences. Lebanon should extend legal status to all Syrian refugees in the country, and not exclude those who are among the most vulnerable.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
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Lebanese Govt. 'Finalizes' Budget, Shops Fined over Hiked Prices as Tax Protests Continue
Naharnet/March 17/17/The Cabinet on Friday conducted a “very positive” final reading of the draft state budget and a session will be set for approving it after consultations with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced after a Cabinet meeting. “The final version will be distributed to the ministers and we will approve it as soon as possible,” Hariri told reporters. Asked whether “WhatsApp rumors” about the new taxes were to blame for the parliament's failure to pass the long-stalled new wage scale in Thursday's session, Hariri said a certain “atmosphere was being prepared in parliament and it was clear that there was an inclination to block this wage scale.”He however insisted that the government and the parliament are determined to approve the wage scale. Economy Minister Raed Khoury had announced before the Cabinet session that the ministry has issued a statement warning against hiking prices illegally “after some shops made such a step.”“We have fined a number of violators today,” Khoury added. According to media reports, it only took some retailers a few hours to hike the prices of certain goods in the wake of the parliament's approval of the new taxes – although the law has not yet entered into force.On the ground, protesters rejecting the new taxes took to the streets across Lebanon for a second consecutive day. A central demonstration was held outside the Grand Serail in downtown Beirut during the Cabinet session as several regions witnessed sits-ins and road-blocking protests. Several civil society groups and activists from the Progressive Socialist Party, the Kataeb Party and the National Liberal Party took part in the Beirut demo. “Our sit-in today is a warning message, especially that we in Lebanon are on the verge of a social explosion,” Neamat Badreddine of the We Want Accountability campaign said. She accused the political class of impoverishing citizens and destroying the middle class through its “flawed taxation policies and failure to endorse a progressive tax system.”Elsewhere, protesters blocked the Sidon-Tyre highway in the South, the Minieh-Abdeh highway in the North and the Qsarnaba highway in the Bekaa to voiced their rejection of the new taxes. Sit-ins were also held in Tripoli's al-Tal area and the northern city of Zgharta. In addition to a 1% VAT increase new taxes have been imposed on bank interests, cement, cigarettes and alcohol in addition to a host of taxes related to financial and real estate transactions. The Syndicate Coordination Committee, a coalition of private and public school teachers and public sector employees, has been pushing for the approval of the new wage scale for several years now and has organized numerous street protests and strikes to this end. The SCC has however rejected hiking taxes on citizens to fund the wage scale and has instead called for putting an end to rampant corruption and the squandering of public funds.

Sami Gemayel Shrugs off Blames for Thwarting Wage Scale Approval

Naharnet/March 17/17/After the Kataeb party was blamed for the parliament's failure to approve Lebanon's long-stalled wage scale file, the party's leader held a press conference on Friday and asked the authorities to take a serious decision to fight corruption and announced readiness to lift his own parliamentary immunity.“You agreed beforehand to obstruct the session's quorum and lay the blame on the Kataeb,” said Gemayel referring to an adjourned parliamentary session that tackled the salary scale on Thursday. “Although it is the authority's responsibility to devise alternative sources for funding the scale, but the Kataeb were the first to do so,” he added. Deputy Speaker Farid Makari on Thursday adjourned a legislative session due to a lack of quorum and accused “those practicing obstruction” and Gemayel of jeopardizing the fate of the pay scale.
“Shall there be evidence proving that the Kataeb have spread the rumors about the new taxes, then I am ready to lift off my parliamentary immunity,” said Gemayel, referring to accusations that his party has circulated on social media a list of “inaccurate” taxes that the parliament plans to impose which triggered a wave of protests. “The protests we witnessed yesterday prove that the Lebanese haven't surrendered or yielded to injustice,” he said. “Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil himself told Assafir newspaper that money wasted in Customs amount to $700 million. Experts estimate squandering at $1.2 billion. That's the sum we need to finance the salary scale.”The MP added: “A historical opportunity lies ahead of us to turn this crisis into a chance to salvage Lebanon and give a glimmer of hope for the Lebanese. A serious decision to fight corruption must be taken instead of trading accusations.”On the imposition of new taxes, he remarked: “We won't accept new levies without offering services in return for the Lebanese services, we reject all forms of dictatorship. “The state should adopt an austerity policy away from expensive and unimportant projects so as to spare the treasury's funds,” he concluded.

Mashnouq Says to Call for June 18 Elections 'within Two Days'
Naharnet/March 17/17/Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq announced Friday that he will call for June 18 parliamentary elections “within two day” after consulting with President Michel Aoun, although the date would coincide with the holy month of Ramadan. “After consulting with the president, I will within two days call on the electoral bodies once again to organize elections on June 18,” Mashnouq told reporters ahead of a cabinet session at the Grand Serail. He however noted that the president might once again refuse to sign the decree. The country has not organized parliamentary elections since 2009 and the parliament has since extended its own mandate twice. 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. The political parties are meanwhile discussing a so-called hybrid electoral law that mixes proportional representation with the winner-takes-all system.

Tajeddine's Lawyer Confirms Presence of 'Extradition Order from U.S.
Associated Press/Naharnet/March 17/17/A Lebanese businessman that the U.S. says has provided millions of dollars to Hizbullah has been arrested by Moroccan authorities, his lawyer has confirmed. The lawyer for Qassem Tajeddine said he was arrested in Casablanca on Sunday while on his way from Guinea to Beirut. "We now know there is an extradition order from the U.S. authorities," attorney Chibli Mallat said in an emailed response to questions from The Associated Press. Mallat said another lawyer who was appointed in Morocco saw Tajeddine in prison in Sale, near the capital, Rabat. "He is in good spirits and is treated adequately," Mallat said. The U.S. Treasury Department says Tajeddine is "an important financial contributor to Hizbullah" who was listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in May 2009. Tajeddine's family issued a short statement saying the businessman is with Moroccan authorities and "is in good health." It urged those seeking further information about Tajeddine to contact the family. The U.S. treasury says Tajeddine funneled proceeds from Tajco, a multi-national business venture, to Hizbullah. Hizbullah, which has members in Lebanon's parliament and Cabinet, is considered a “terrorist organization” by Washington.

British Minister: Lebanon's Generosity Should be Matched by Further Int'l Support
Naharnet/March 17/17/Rory Stewart, the UK Minister of State for International Development visited Lebanon on Thursday and Friday of this week, ahead of the Brussels “Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” scheduled for 4-5 April.In the Bekaa and Beirut, Stewart saw how the UK is helping Lebanese host communities cope with the impact of hosting large numbers of refugees, and how children in public schools are “benefiting from free, quality education, supported by UK Aid,” a British Embassy statement said. Stewart welcomed Lebanon’s participation in the forthcoming Brussels Conference, “where we expect the international community to increase efforts to build the resilience of countries neighboring Syria, including Lebanon,” the Embassy added. He also met with Minister of Education Marwan Hamadeh, Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Mouein al-Merehbi, MP Bahia Hariri and advisers to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. During a roundtable on non-formal education with Hamadeh, Bahia Hariri and education stakeholders, Stewart emphasized the importance of effective non-formal education to equip children with the literacy and numeracy standards needed to join the formal system.
According to the Embassy statement, the UK is investing in a £60m program with UNICEF, which will help 100,000 children access quality non-formal education over the next four years, along with child protection services. Minister Stewart also visited an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa.
UNHCR officials briefed him about the difficult circumstances faced by the refugees and how they are helping the most vulnerable, with UK support. As for the local community, at the municipality the minister heard about “the brand new flood retaining wall and public market constructed with UK support which is changing the daily lives of 8,500 people in Bar Elias village.”Rory Stewart, accompanied by British Ambassador Hugo Shorter, Minister Marwan Hamadeh and MP Bahia Hariri also met teachers and students at the Furn El Chebbak public middle school. Speaking at the end of the visit, Stewart said: “I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the Lebanese people, under difficult circumstances. I truly believe that the Lebanese are doing the Syrians -- and the world -- a great act by temporarily hosting the refugees in their country. This should be matched by further international support to meet the needs of both the Lebanese and Syrians.”

Jumblat Calls for Axing Free Flights for Officials, Military
Naharnet/March 17/17/Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblat did not welcome a parliament's decision to impose a new batch of taxes to fund the wage scale, and has urged the government to put and end to corruption and to axe free travel entitlements for Lebanese ministers, deputies and military figures. “Flight entitlements that are almost half-price for ministers, lawmakers on the Middle East Airlines must be stopped,” said Jumblat in a tweet on Friday. He also said that other officials are benefiting from the half-price travel services under the pretext of having a special pass.
“Stopping the squander (of public funds) and addressing corruption in a scientific manner can provide for the wage scale and save us from this enormous amount of taxes,” added the MP. The Democratic Gathering bloc leader stressed the need to eliminate the “central sources of corruption in order to avoid that kind of taxes,” and allocate the needed funds for the salary scale. Jumblat has also called for “unifying the wage scale in all sectors including the civil and military personnel, and to address the surplus in the number of employees.”Jumblat's comments came after the parliament imposed on Thursday a series of new taxes that included an increase in the value-added tax (VAT) from 10 to 11% , an increase in levies on financial transactions and other taxes related to cement, stamps, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. The parliament says the new taxes are aimed at allocating the needed funds for the pay scale for government employees which include judges, teachers and military personnel. Kataeb party MPs have strongly denounced the measures. Kataeb chief Sami Gemayel urged the government to address corruption instead of “emptying the citizen's pockets.”The controversial move was decried by the majority of Lebanese and protesters took to the squares in Beirut and Tripoli on Thursday to reject the new taxes following calls on social networking websites. Protesters at Beirut's Riad al-Solh Square were led by activists from the Kataeb Party, the National Liberal Party and others from March 14 and the civil society.

PSP Hails FPM Statement amid Tensions
Naharnet/March 17/17/The Progressive Socialist Party on Friday said it "highly values" the statement that was issued by the Free Patriotic Movement on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of PSP founder Kamal Jumblat. The PSP “stresses the importance of preserving the bilateral relation between the two parties and of improving it in the future,” the party said in a statement. “The common keenness of the FPM and the PSP on the 2001 historic reconciliation between (the then-Maronite) patriarch (Nasrallah) Sfeir and MP Walid Jumblat and its consolidation in 2016 with (Maronite) Patriarch (Beshara) al-Rahi reinforces national partnership, especially in Mount Lebanon, which has always been characterized by pluralism and diversity,” the PSP added. “This formula must be protected and strengthened during all circumstances and junctures,” the party underlined. It added: “On this occasion, the PSP emphasizes that any short-lived disagreements linked to specific political topics have nothing to do, whatsoever, with the positive atmospheres that engulfed Mount Lebanon with the return of the displaced people and the reinforcement of the approach of reconciliations, coexistence and partnership.”In this regard, the party recalled “President Michel Aoun's visit to Mukhtara in the year 2010,” saying it “turned the page on the painful past.”The PSP-FPM relation has witnessed tensions in recent months in connection with the ongoing efforts to draft a new electoral law. While the FPM and Aoun have voiced support for an electoral law based on or containing the proportional representation system, the PSP and Jumblat have rejected such proposals, warning that proportional representation would “marginalize” the minority Druze community whose presence is concentrated in the Chouf and Aley districts.Jumblat has instead called for holding the elections under an “amended” version of the controversial 1960 electoral law.

Aoun from Rome Says Displaced Syrians Putting Burden on Lebanon
Naharnet/March 17/17/President Michel Aoun announced on Friday that Lebanon is bearing the burden of the displaced Syrians on its territory which has amounted to more than half the number of its own population. “No country in the entire world is capable of affording this along with the economic and security repercussions,” Aoun said, pointing out that the number of displaced Syrians have grown to more than %50 of the Lebanese population. More than one 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon from the devastating conflict in their homeland that has killed more than 310,000 people. Addressing the Lebanese community during a reception at the Maronite School, the President referred to the economic situation and said: “The Lebanese crisis is relatively stable because the economic cycle was launched after the presidential election, but the global crises still reflect on the country.”Lebanon is home to more than one million registered Syrian refugees -- equal to about a quarter of the country's 4.5 million people. It's the highest refugee population in the world per capita. Lebanon says that another half a million Syrians live in the country as well, unregistered, and officials say their presence has generated a severe burden that Lebanon can no longer handle alone.

Report: New Tax Hikes Pave Way for 'Social Revolution'
Naharnet/March 17/17/As the parliament continues to grapple over finding sources of funding for the long-awaited wage scale through the imposition of new taxes, political sources warned that tax hikes would set grounds for a “social revolution” in Lebanon, al-Joumhouria daily reported on Friday.
“The raises in taxes under the pretext of funding the wage scale will only be a source, not to only finance it, but also for squander, corruption, tax evasion and increase in smuggling. It will pave way for a social revolution” well-informed sources told the daily on condition of anonymity. They warned that such a tax hike will “cause a contraction in purchasing power and in tourism. Many have warned that what will be given to the employees through the wage scale will be taken from them through new imposed taxes.”They noted that the political class continue to inflict new levies instead of addressing something more important which is squandering of public funds. Referring to other sources to fund the pay scale for government employees which include judges, teachers and military personnel, they said: “Funding the wage scale can be done by stopping the waste of money in the airport, customs, shipping and by stopping bargains and projects that involve huge kickbacks.”The sources pointed out that "through this act, the authority today is establishing for a social revolution that could slip out of control.” The parliament has hiked the value-added tax (VAT) from 10 to 11% , increased levies on financial transactions and increased other taxes related to cement, stamps, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages.Protesters meanwhile took to the squares in Beirut and Tripoli on Thursday to reject the new taxes following calls on social networking websites. Protesters at Beirut's Riad al-Solh Square were led by activists from the Kataeb Party, the National Liberal Party and others from March 14 and the civil society. Kataeb had repeatedly rejected any tax hike aimed at funding the new wage scale, calling on authorities to secure funds through putting an end to “corruption” and “the squandering of public money.”

Hariri following Cabinet session: Imposed taxes known since 2014
Fri 17 Mar 2017/NNA - Prime Minister Saad Hariri indicated on Friday that the newly imposed taxes to fund the salary scale have been known since 2014, denying any new taxes on daily goods. "This is a trust restoration government, because we want to build this relationship with the Lebanese with all transparency," Hariri told reporters following a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail. "We must all fight corruption and work on eradicating it," he said. "We are working on endorsing the state budget in order to cease waste that is happening in numerous institutions," he added. "We shall resume appointments at all the state institutions, until the waste of public funds stops. And we will be clear with the Lebanese, regarding everything we do," he reassured."The state budget talks are positive and we hope to endorse it in the nearest time possible," he said.

Abu Faour: PSP seeks election law able to develop political system
Fri 17 Mar 2017/NNA - MP Wael Abu Faour indicated on Friday that the Progressive Socialist Party was seeking an election law that would be able to develop Lebanon's political system, voicing rejection of any vote mode that would sow division among the Lebanese.Speaking during a ceremony to commemorate the 40th martyrdom anniversary of Kamal Jumblatt, Abu Faour reminded that the late leader was the first to have called for adopting proportionality in Lebanon. "We want an election law that can develop the political system and that leads to the unity of the Lebanese. We do not want a law that divides the Lebanese," he said. "We do not represent the Druze community in this country; we only represent part of it. Not all Druze belong to the PSP," he concluded.

Civil movement activists stage sit in at Riad Solh Square in protest at tax hike

Fri 17 Mar 2017/NNA - Civil movement groups staged a sit in at Riad Solh Square coinciding with the meeting of the Council of Ministers at the Grand Serail, in protest at the tax hike, NNA field reporter said on Friday. The sit in took place in the presence of a symbolic participation of partisans and supporters of the Progressive Socialist Party, the Progressive Youth, Liberals' Party and the Lebanese Kataeb Party. Delivered words called for a wide participation in the move called forth on Sunday, in rejection of securing funds and revenues for the salary scale from the "pockets of citizens."

Sidon Tyre Highway opened to traffic after short closure
Fri 17 Mar 2017/NNA - Sidon-Tyre Highway at Abu Aswad neighborhood was reopened to traffic after being cut off by citizens for a short while with burning tires, in rejection of the new tax hike, Traffic Control Center reported on Friday. Heavy traffic movement is registered in said region.

Protestors cut off Minieh Abdeh highway in rejection of tax hike

Fri 17 Mar 2017/NNA - Activists of the civil society in Minieh blocked Minieh-Abdeh Highway in both directions, in rejection of the new tax hike, the matter that caused heavy traffic, NNA field reporter said on Friday.
Drivers had to divert their way towards secondary roads in a bid to reach their destinations, which caused heavy traffic on said roads too.

Dozens of people stage sit in at Jamal Abdel Nasser Square in Tripoli in rejection of tax hike
Fri 17 Mar 2017/NNA - Dozens of people gathered at Jamal Abdel Nasser al-Tal Square in Tripoli, rejecting the new tax hike, called forth by "Aman" Gathering and the civil movement in Tripoli. The sit in took place in the presence of the union of workers and part time employees in the north.

Israel’s Next Big War/حرب إسرائيل الكبيرة القادمة
Yossi Alpher/Forward/March 16, 2017

Israel’s next big war is almost certainly going to pit it against some combination of Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah forces along its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon. To be sure, an additional confrontation with Hamas in Gaza (Israel’s opponent in the costly 2014 Gaza War. which led to the death of roughly 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis) could also be in the offing. But the forthcoming war in Israel’s North — home to an estimated 1.2 million people — could be closer to the kind of all-out war that the Jewish state hasn’t fought since 1973.
The reasons have far less to do with the Arab-Israel conflict than with the ongoing civil war in Syria and the continuing confrontation between Iran and Israel. The outcome could result in considerable destruction inside Israel, but also in a strengthening of Israel’s burgeoning strategic ties with its Sunni neighbors — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who alongside their reservations on the Palestinian issue share Israel’s concerns regarding Iran’s aggressive regional ambitions. In this sense, a confrontation in Israel’s north would decisively reflect current far-reaching changes in the Middle East strategic balance of power.
Syria’s civil war is winding down, at least in the Western or non-desert part of Syria facing the Mediterranean — appropriately termed “Useful Syria” — and in the South, along Syria’s borders with the Israeli Golan Heights and Jordan. Iranian and Russian intervention has turned the tide in favor of the Assad regime in Damascus. In helping Bashar al-Assad to win on the ground, Tehran has mustered a broad war coalition of Shiite mercenaries from as near as southern Lebanon’s Hezbollah and as far afield as Afghanistan and Iraq. The end of fighting in Useful Syria is liable to leave all these battle-tested forces near the Golan. Alongside them will be al-Assad’s ally, Hezbollah, with its estimated arsenal of close to 100,000 rockets and missiles capable of targeting most of Israel, as far south as the Dimona nuclear reactor.
True, Iran’s proxy army, as well as Hezbollah, suffered losses in Syria and is battle weary. But Iran now has the financial resources to speed its return to battle-readiness. This force is understood by Israeli military intelligence to represent the primary military threat to the country for several reasons. First, both Iran and Hezbollah continue to issue a barrage of threats against Israel — hardly the pose of someone shying away from a fight. In February, Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, pictured above, referred to Israel as “a cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut.”
Second, victory in Syria will represent a major Iranian strategic success in projecting its power in the region. Iran, which is zealously buying top-flight weapons from Russia, is trying to develop a Mediterranean naval presence as well, with a port on the Syrian coast.
Third, a combination of Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah pressure has spurred a political shift in Lebanon. President Michel Aoun, a Christian who owes his recent election to Hezbollah support, stated on February 12 that Hezbollah’s weapons are complementary to those of the Lebanese army: “The resistance’s [meaning Hezbollah’s] arms are … an essential part of Lebanon’s defense.”
This groundbreaking and, inside Lebanon, controversial statement abrogates Lebanese policy that once proclaimed that only the Lebanese army defends the country. Lebanon used to at least project a certain distance between Hezbollah’s strategic aims and activities and those of sovereign Lebanon. Already there are signs that the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon is deferring to Hezbollah forces along Israel’s border. Given the between the Lebanese military and Hezbollah’s forces, Israel is justified in deeming another attack by Hezbollah an act of war by Lebanon itself and responding militarily against the Lebanese army and the country’s infrastructure. Yet this could have a devastating effect on both Lebanon’s delicate internal ethnic equilibrium and Israel’s otherwise improving relations with the Arab world.
On March 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow for a summit with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, for the fourth time in the past 18 months. Since Russian forces entered Syria in September 2015 to rescue the Assad regime, Jerusalem and Moscow have had much to talk about, including ways to ensure that Israeli and Russian combat aircraft don’t get into dogfights in the skies over Damascus. Changed global strategic circumstances may also now dictate that Netanyahu exploit his close contacts with both Putin and President Trump to pass messages between the two. But Netanyahu very pointedly stated after his meeting that the main agenda item was Iran: not the Iran nuclear deal, which is a fait accompli, but the growing Iranian military threat to Israel from Syria and Lebanon.
These developments raise weighty questions. Can Putin be persuaded to escort Iran’s forces and proxies out of Syria as part of the Russian endgame there? Will the Israeli threat to target all of Lebanon next time around succeed in deterring another war with Hezbollah, or could it have the unfortunate effect of widening that war? And if war breaks out and Hezbollah rains tens of thousands of missiles over most of Israel, will an all-out Israeli response that targets large portions of both Syria and Lebanon succeed in ending the next war quickly? Will Iranian forces suffer enough damage in the fighting to deter Tehran in the future? Will Israel, too, suffer heavy civilian and infrastructure damage?
Last but not least, where does the Trump administration weigh in regarding the increasing Iranian threat to Israel from Syrian and Lebanese soil? The United States and Russia are potentially the only parties capable of changing the reality on the ground in Syria. The Arab world certainly won’t.
**Yossi Alpher served in the Mossad and as director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center For Strategic Studies. His latest books are “Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies,” and “No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine.”

Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published On March 17-18/17
Iran: Rafsanjani’s daughter imprisoned for criticizing the regime
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Friday, 17 March 2017/The daughter of kbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, has been jailed for six months for “propaganda against the regime,” local media sources said. According to Iranian reformist website Kalma, Faezah Rafsanjani was put on trial on charges of anti-regime propaganda including “spreading lies against judiciary systems and Revolutionary Guards forces in order to mislead public opinion.”The daughter of the late president has directed her strongest criticism towards the head of the Judiciary authority, Ayatullah Sadiq Amli Larajani, who is being accused by reformist lawmakers of corruption benefitting from bails paid in courts. Rafsanjai’s statements attracted the ire of the hardliners, and has been convicted of “anti-state propaganda” and sentenced to six months in prison, according to Kalma.

Trump welcomes Merkel to White House for high stakes visit
The Associated Press, Washington Friday, 17 March 2017/It was all smiles as President Donald Trump welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House on Friday, their first personal encounter since he frequently criticized her during the 2016 presidential campaign. Their agenda included discussions on strengthening NATO, fighting ISIS and resolving Ukraine’s conflict, all matters that require close cooperation between the US and Germany. The meeting, which was postponed from Tuesday because of a snowstorm, will be capped with a joint news conference. Trump and Merkel smiled in front of cameras in the Oval Office at the start of their meeting, with the president urging journalists to “send a good picture back to Germany, please.” The new president told reporters merely that he and Merkel would be discussing “many things” in their first face-to-face exchange of his presidency.Their sit-down could be a restart of a relationship complicated by Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail. He spent a good part of 2016 bashing the chancellor, accusing her of “ruining” Germany for allowing an influx of refugees and other migrants from Syria. “You watch what happens to Angela Merkel, who I always thought of as a very good leader until she did this. I don’t know what went wrong with her,” said then-candidate Trump at an August rally in Virginia. “What went wrong? Angela, what happened?”
Then, Trump seemed to care little about the potentially awkward ramifications were he to win. He invoked Merkel as a foil at his rallies, accusing his campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, of wanting to be “America’s Angela Merkel.” He lashed out at Time magazine when it named Merkel “Person of the Year” in 2015 instead of him. Trump, at the time, did find ways to voice his respect. When a television station in September asked him to name a world leader he admired, he cited Merkel. In his meetings with world leaders since the inauguration, Trump has adopted a more diplomatic public persona. He recently spent a weekend bonding with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, golfing and dining with Abe at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. He has cultivated a closer friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he has known for years. But Merkel is used to an altogether different type of American leader, having shared a strong bond with President Barack Obama. She was the last of Obama’s key European allies still in power when he left office. And as the leader of Europe’s biggest economy and most stable government, Merkel emerged in recent years as the leading voice for a continent struggling with slow growth, identity issues and increased security threats after a string of terrorist attacks.
Reflecting their connection, Obama and his wife called Merkel and her husband on the day before Trump’s inauguration to thank her for “her strong, courageous and steady leadership.” It was Obama’s final call with a foreign leader, his advisers said. Merkel’s first major encounter with Trump comes as she seeks a fourth term as chancellor in elections later this year. She has acknowledged the contest could be difficult and has stressed a need for stability after Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. She reportedly has studied Trump’s speeches and policies in advance of her trip, eager to find areas for cooperation. Steven Keil, a fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Merkel has little reason to dwell on Trump’s past comments. “Merkel is extremely pragmatic in her approach here, but she’s also going to have some situations in which it will be tough for her to give too much,” Keil said. Trump has rattled European leaders with his “America first” mantra. He also backed Brexit and is skeptical of multilateral trade agreements. Merkel is expected to reiterate her belief that a strong EU remains in America’s strategic and economic interests, a message she shared last month in Munich with Vice President Mike Pence. She was accompanied by a trade delegation that includes top executives of BMW and Siemens, employers of tens of thousands of Americans. Many live in Southern states that Trump won in the US election. Military matters may be testy. Trump declared NATO “obsolete” before telling European leaders the alliance remains important. But he is expected to reiterate calls for NATO members to meet a minimum commitment for defense spending. Only the US and four other members currently reach the benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Germany lags significantly behind.

700,000 documents highlight appalling tortures in Assad’s prisons
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Thursday, 17March /A new documentary film shed light on hundreds of thousands of documents and evidence that exposes widespread torture and murder of Syrian detainees by Bashar al Assad’s regime. Through a secret network, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an independent group of legal experts, has managed to smuggle more than 700,000 pages of Syrian intelligence and security archives. Criminal investigators have built a case documenting the gruesome torture and murder of detainees, relying on official photos and authentic documents. According to the documentary “Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad”, which tracks William Wiley and his group’s work in Syria, investigators had access to 55,000 photos of detainees’ bodes - some with gouged out eyes - smuggled out by a former forensic photographer who worked at Tishreen military hospital. The documentary had its premiere at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva this week. Wiley, a member of CIJA who has worked for UN war crimes tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, said in the film: “We are trying to lay the foundation for persecution along the lines of Nuremberg.”

Pentagon denies hitting Syria mosque, offers photo as proof
AFP, Washington Friday, 17 March 2017/A US air strike in northern Syria did not hit a mosque, but rather a nearby building with “dozens” of Al-Qaeda members inside, the Pentagon said Friday as it published a photo of the strike's aftermath. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said warplanes had targeted a mosque in Aleppo province during evening prayers, killing 42 people. “The mosque is still standing and relatively unscathed,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said. “The building we targeted was adjacent” and the strike “clearly hit the intended target,” he added. The Pentagon provided a black-and-white image depicting what appeared to be an old mosque with a flattened building a short distance away. Davis did not say what that destroyed building's purpose had been or whether it could have been somehow connected to the old mosque in the village of Al-Jineh. The Pentagon does not currently believe there were any civilian casualties resulting from the strike, but Davis said “several terrorists” were killed when the meeting of “dozens” of Al-Qaeda leadership figures in the building was hit. The head of the Britain-based Observatory said that aside from the 42 people killed, more than 100 were wounded and that many remained trapped under the collapsed structure. Rescue workers struggled to pull survivors from rubble, and dozens of residents were still unaccounted for, the Observatory said. Abu Muhammed, a village resident, told AFP that he “heard powerful explosions when the mosque was hit. It was right after the prayer at a time when there is usually religious lessons for men in it.”An AFP reporter at the scene said rescuers earlier left the wreckage site but were forced to double back when they heard moaning coming from the debris.

Intensive meetings by Syrian opposition in Riyadh for Geneva talks
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Friday, 17 March 2017/The supreme body of the Syrian Opposition is holding intensive meetings in Riyadh on Friday and Saturday, to discuss the agenda for the next round of the Geneva peace talks due on March 23. Further meetings with the negotiating team will take place on Sunday and Monday. The political body of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is studying the channels of negotiations in Geneva with Members of the Supreme Commission for negotiations, the negotiating team and advisors and media delegations. In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Fouad Alikou, member of the supreme commission for negotiations, stressed the importance of classifying the peace solutions in the three files: the political transition, the constitution and the elections, with no refusal to seek the cause of terrorism. Alikou was of the opinion that the success rate of the next round was very small to non-existent.

Syrian Kurdish YPG says Raqqa attack to start in early April
Reuters, Beirut Friday, 17 March 2017/The head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said a US-backed assault to drive ISIS from its de-facto capital Raqqa would begin at the start of April and the YPG would be taking part, despite fierce opposition from neighboring Turkey. A spokesman for the US Pentagon, Navy Captain Jeff Davis, said no decision had been made yet on the Raqqa offensive, which is part of a two pronged attempt to dismantle the caliphate declared by ISIS in parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.US-backed forces, including the YPG, are closing in on the city and President Donald Trump has said he wants to accelerate efforts to crush the hardline militants, who are under siege by US-backed Iraqi forces in the much larger city of Mosul. The comments by YPG commander Sipan Hemo to Reuters were the first indication of a date of an attack. In a written reply to questions, Hemo, who rarely if ever appears in the media, said: “Regarding the decision to liberate Raqqa and storm it, the matter is decided and at the start of the month of April the military operation will begin.”He added: “We believe that liberating Raqqa will not take more than a number weeks.” His comments were relayed via a YPG spokesman.
Ankara has been pressing the United States to drop its military alliance with the Syrian Kurdish group, which it views as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting an insurgency for three decades in Turkey.
Major point of contention
The role of the YPG is a major point of contention between the United States and its NATO ally Turkey, which wants Washington to draw instead on Syrian Arab rebel groups backed by Ankara for the final assault on Raqqa, a predominantly Arab city. Hemo said YPG militia would storm Raqqa alongside Arab fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “Of the total force for storming Raqqa, 25 percent are YPG, who are set apart in their combat experience and high-level command skills directing battles in cities,” he said. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told broadcaster Haberturk in an interview late on Thursday that parts of the US military favored incorporating the YPG into the assault force because of its earlier successes on the ground. “But we also see that there are different stances within the US administration. Right now, they do not have a clear stance on this. They are going through a transition period,” he said, adding: “The talks are ongoing.”The Pentagon has said that Arab fighters account for about 75 percent of the alliance of militias fighting to isolate Raqqa.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince meets US Defense Secretary to discuss Iran, ISIS
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Friday, 17 March 2017/Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with the United States’ Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon on Thursday to discuss ways to further enhance military cooperation between the two countries.
In a meeting that lasted over three hours, the two also discussed the battle against ISIS as well as halting Iran’s intervention in the region. Al Arabiya's envoy stressed that the both the deputy crown prince and Mattis had agreed on several initiatives, having matching attitudes and ideas during the meeting.
The deputy crown prince met with US President Donald Trump on Tuesday during his trip to Washington, marking a historic moment in being the first Gulf leader to meet with the newly elected president.

At least 34 people killed in Houthi mosque attack in Yemen’s Marib
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Friday, 17 March 2017/At least 34 civilians and military personnel were killed in a Houthi attack on a mosque during Friday prayers inside a military base in Yemen’s Marib province, local officials said.Houthi militias fired two missiles at the mosque located inside the military camp of Kofal in the west of Marib, officials said. The attack was carried out with Katyusha-type rockets, said a military official in Marib. Houthi news agency Saba said the militia had carried out the attack. It said the main weapon used was Zelzal-1 Iranian-made missiles and it was followed by artillery fire. “Dozens of bodies of burned soldiers were evacuated from the site,” it said, without mentioning that a mosque had been hit. Maj Gen Mohsen Kasroof, Chief of the Moral Guidance Department at the Yemeni armed forces said the Houthi’s attack on the mosque demonstrates the criminal inclination of the militia. It is the same message expressed when Abdul Rab al Shadadi's funeral tent was attacked, he added. (With Reuters, AFP)

Yemeni army, backed by Arab coalition, advance toward Sanaa
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Friday, 17 March 2017/Yemen’s national army that is loyal to the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi is making advances towards Houthi-held Sanaa, Al Arabiya correspondent reported on the ground. The advance is receiving air support from the Arab coalition and have already taken control of Arhab district in the Houthi-held capital, according to the report. The advancing troops have claimed that they are likely to reach close to Sanaa airport any time soon.

US places Bahrainis backed by Iran on terrorist list, imposes sanctions
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Saturday, 18 March 2017/The US government has imposed sanctions on two men from Bahrain and has placed them on a terrorist list on Friday. The two, Ahmad Hassan Yousuf and Mortada Majid Ramadan Alawi, have been placed by the US Treasury Department on the list of economic sanctions and banned financial dealings with them. he US state department said in a statement that the two have been placed on the terrorist list in accordance with a previous executive order for those who pose threats to US interests. The US foreign ministry explained that the decision to place the two on the list came “after the escalation of rebel attacks in Bahrain, where Iran has provided arms, funding and training the rebels.”It added that this was “a further step in the ongoing effort to forcefully confront Iran's activities that seek to destabilize the region and promote activities relating to terrorism.”

Iranian pilgrims will participate in the Hajj season of this year

Staff writer, Al Arabiya English Friday, 17 March 2017/The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umra and the Pilgrimage Organization of Iran completed all the necessary arrangements for the participation of Iranian pilgrims in the Hajj season of 2017 (1438AH), according to the approved procedures with various Islamic countries. This comes from the directives of the Saudi Government led by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the Crown Prince and the deputy Crown Prince. The Minister of Hajj and Umra Dr. Mohammed Benten met with the President of the Pilgrimage Organization Hamid Mohammedi and his accompanying delegation, to discuss Iranian pilgrims’ affairs arrangements for Hajj this year 2017 (1438AH). In the past year, no Iranian participated in the Hajj, which was a first in three decades, following a diplomatic crisis between Tehran and Riyadh after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

UN chief wants report on ‘apartheid’ Israel taken off web
Reuters, New York/Beirut Friday, 17 March 2017/United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked the UN regional commission that represents most Arab countries to remove from its website a report accusing Israel of practicing an “apartheid regime” against Palestinians, a UN official said on Friday. The report for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, which comprises 18 Arab states, concluded, “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”The accusation - often directed against Israel by its critics - has never before been made by a United Nations body. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday the report was published without prior consultation with the UN secretariat. Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman likened the report to a Nazi propaganda publication that was strongly anti-Semitic and described it as “despicable and a blatant lie.”The report was still visible on ESCWA’s website on Friday. Head of UN’s ESCWA resigns over report/The head of the United Nation’s West Asia commission resigned after what she described as pressure from the secretary general to withdraw the report.UN Under-Secretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf announced her resignation at a news conference in Beirut.

Morocco’s king names PJD’s Othmani as new prime minister
Reuters, Rabat Friday, 17 March 2017/Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has named Saadeddine El Othmani of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) as the country’s new prime minister and asked him to form a government, a statement carried by MAP state news agency said on Friday.
The king announced on Wednesday he would replace Abdelilah Benkirane as prime minister with another member of the PJD in an effort to break a five-month post-election deadlock. Othmani was foreign minister from 2011-2013 and had since served as the head of the PJD’s parliamentary group.

Iraq commander announces gains in Mosul old city
AFP, Mosul Friday, 17 March 2017/A commander said Friday that Iraqi forces have gained ground from jihadists inside the Old City of Mosul, an area that could see some of the toughest fighting of the battle for the northern metropolis.Iraqi forces launched an operation on February 19 to retake the west side of Mosul – the most populous area still held by ISIS – and have retaken several neighborhoods. But the pace of their advance has periodically slowed because of bad weather that has hampered air support. The Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to have stayed on under IS rule, is a warren of narrow streets that restricts the use of large armored vehicles. “Federal police and Rapid Response units imposed their complete control over the Al-Basha Mosque... and the Bab al-Saray market in the Old City,” federal police Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the federal police, said in a statement. Iraqi forces launched the operation to recapture Mosul -- the jihadists' last major urban bastion in the country -- in October, retaking its east side before setting their sites on the smaller but more densely populated west.

Military Action Against N. Korea an 'Option'
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/March 17/17/US military action against nuclear-armed North Korea is an "option on the table", Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday after warning the policy of strategic patience with Pyongyang was over. In strong statements that appear to signal a sea change in American policy towards the isolated country, the United States' top diplomat said North Korea's burgeoning missile and nuclear programmes must be halted. "Certainly we do not want to, for things to get to military conflict," he told reporters in Seoul, but added: "If they elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, then that option's on the table.""The policy of strategic patience has ended," Tillerson told a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-Se. "We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table.""Strategic patience" is the term given to the US policy under former President Barack Obama when the United States ruled out engaging the North until it made a tangible commitment to denuclearisation, hoping that internal stresses would bring about change. Tillerson's visit to Asia -- South Korea is the second leg of the tour -- is his first foray into crisis management. His remarks on Friday came a day after he said in Tokyo that 20 years of efforts to denuclearise the North had "failed" and promised a new approach. North Korea has a long-standing ambition to become a nuclear power and conducted its first underground atomic test in 2006, in the teeth of global opposition. Four more test blasts have followed, two of them last year. Allowing the North to retain its present level of weapons technology was not appropriate, Tillerson said in Seoul. "That would leave North Korea with significant capabilities that would represent a true threat."The United Nations has imposed multiple sets of sanctions on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programmes, but its main diplomatic protector and trade partner China is accused of not fully enforcing them. Tillerson will be going on to Beijing on Saturday to press it to do more.
"I don't believe we have ever fully achieved the maximum level of action that can be taken under the UN Security Council resolution with full participation of all countries. "We know that other nations can take actions."Earlier in the day, Tillerson had visited the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas to gaze on the North for himself. Under the glaring eyes of alert North Korean soldiers, Tillerson toured the Panmunjom joint security area, guarded by both North Korea and the US-led United Nations Command since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. North Korean soldiers watched from their side of the demarcation line -- marked by cement blocks on the ground. At one point they were only a few feet from Tillerson, with one taking either video or photos.

Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published On March 17-18/17
Israeli air strikes in Syria. Reprisal threatened
DEBKAfile Special Report March 17, 2017
The Israeli military said its fighter jets had struck several targets in Syria early Friday, March 17, and were back in Israeli-controlled airspace, when Syria launched several anti-aircraft missiles toward the Israeli jets. Israel’s Arrow air defense missile intercepted one of the missiles, the army said, but would not elaborate on whether any other hostile missiles had struck Israeli territory. The safety of Israeli civilians and the safety of the Israeli aircraft “were not compromised,” the IDF spokesman stressed.
debkafile’s military sources: The official IDF communiqué raises questions. It does not make sense for Israeli Arrow missiles to be aimed at Syrian ground-to-air rockets fired against the Israeli warplanes. The Arrow would only be used to intercept an incoming Syrian or Hizballah ground-to-ground missile heading for a target in Israel.
That too would explain the huge blast that resounded from the eastern Jordan Valley as far as Jerusalem, 150km away in the small hours of Friday.
This explanation gained credibility from the Syrian army account: “A total of four Israeli jets breached Syrian airspace on Friday morning. They hit a “military target” near Palmyra. In retaliation the jets were targeted by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, which shot down on Israeli plane over “occupied ground.” Following the breach of the country's airspace, the Syrian Army warned Israel of "direct" retaliation "with all means at its disposal,"
The Israeli Army stressed that none of the IAE planes was harmed. "At no point was the safety of Israeli civilians or the IAF [Israeli Air Force] aircraft compromised," an Israeli military spokesman said.
debkafile’s military sources add: The big T4 Syrian air base is located near Palmyra. If that was indeed the target of the Israeli raid, it would have been the northernmost point in Syria ever attacked by Israeli warplanes.
The fact that fragments of the Arrow missile landed in the north Jordanian village of Anbata in the Irbid district, as revealed by social media, is added evidence that it was launched against a missile fired into Israel. Had the Arrow intercepted anti-air missiles in northern Syria, the fragments falling from the interception would not have reached Jordan or alerted rocket sirens close by in the Jordan Valley on the Israeli side of the border.

Israeli air strikes in Syria, intercepts missile

DEBKAfile Special Report March 17, 2017

Early Friday, March 17, the Israeli Air Force attacked a number of targets in Syria. In the course of the attack, Syrian anti-air missiles were fired and intercepted by Israeli anti-missile systems from Israel. Fragments of the interceptors dropped over Jordan. A mighty explosion and rocket alarms heard over the eastern Israeli Jordan Valley region as far as Jerusalem 150km away before dawn Friday were caused by the interception of the Syrian missiles. This was the first time that an Israeli official had reported an attack on a target in Syria. It was also the first time that an Israeli interception system had been activated to protect Israeli air force planes from attack. No details were given on the targets of the Israeli air strike.

Saudi Columnist: The Future of Arabs and Muslims Will Remain Dark Unless They Subject Their Values And Heritage To A Critical Assessment
MEMRI/March 17/17
In an article titled "A Critical Look at the Past Is an Absolute Must," posted on Alarabiya's English-language website, Saudi columnist Mohammed Al-Shaikh wrote that the current rise of the radical right in the West is a reaction to violent Islamic extremism that espouses the values and culture of the past. He argued that the West discarded such backward ideas by subjecting them to logical critical thinking, and that the Arabs and Muslims will never move forward unless they do the same – namely renew their cultural beliefs using tools of logical criticism and confront the reasons that produced the culture of hate.
The following is the English version of his article.[1]
"It is said that if the Europeans hadn't subjected their legacies, which they inherited from the Middle Ages, to scientific and logical criticism, they would still be repeating priestly statements that call for violence and base them on sectarian and religious pillars. Criticism based on reason does not care about emotions as much about logic and facts.
"Criticism cannot be scientific unless it is logical and emotions and wishful thinking should have nothing to do with criticism. I am completely convinced that as Arabs and Muslims we will not exit the whirlpool we are living in and will continue to suffer unless we adopt the same critical approach.
"Yes, we will eliminate ISIS and al-Qaeda, and perhaps also the Muslim Brotherhood. However, parts of our legacy, which led to the rise of these terrorist groups, is greatly capable of producing another ISIS, al-Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood.
"The situation will continue unless we address the roots of this legacy, and criticize and analyze them in a way that has been done before. I know giving up emotions is very difficult especially if the matter is intertwined with identity but it is critical that we do so. There is no cure to the underdevelopment which bred terrorism unless through this painful confrontation.
"I believe that this is a necessary condition to survive in this era and co-exist. I am also aware there are 'traders' in underdevelopment and parties which thrive on keeping this legacy and presenting it as a sacred territory that cannot be touched. Those who observe the catastrophic consequences the Arab region is witnessing will inevitably reach the conclusion I am talking about.
"The second point we must note, particularly these days, is summed up by this law of physics – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The rise of extremist right-wing [in the West] was a reaction to Islamic extremism [that] became a reality by importing past concepts and culture and imposing it via violence and the power of weapons. This made the West and East fear us and our cultural heritage. They began to think of ways to protect their people of this lurking beast called 'Islamic terrorism' and this is what pushed communities, particularly in the West, to gather around right-wing politicians whose rhetoric is based on hostility toward foreigners and on restraining immigrants, particularly those form Muslim countries.
"I am of a firm belief that if we do not address our situation, renew our true cultural beliefs and tackle the reasons that resulted in this culture of hate, the future of Arabs and Muslims will remain dark.
"There is no other solution but to renew the legacy and differentiate between what is sacred and untouchable, like the Quran, and what is capable of being developed. We can either take the path to harmony with the modern times or wait for the downfall."
[1], March 14, 2017. The Arabic version of the article was published March 12, 2017 in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah.

Compulsions surrounding Russia and Israel over Syria
Abdulrahman al-Rashed/Al Arabiya/March 17/17
All stakeholders in the region are trying to re-reposition themselves to prepare for the expected Russian plan, anticipating an agreement to end the war in Syria. This is indeed an important period in terms of the re-arrangements on the ground situation. We do not know if it is for better or worse.
One of the most important developments is that Israel now got involved in it, and I wrote about this few days ago. Even if they do not overtly appear on the scene, the Israelis are key players in their so-called security zones, i.e. their neighboring countries.
We want to know what happened in Moscow. According to both Russia and Israel, Syria was the main headline in the meetings that were held between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu is not against internal agreement between Syrian fighting parties, under the Russia plan, which stipulates that Bashar al-Assad stays and the opposition gets limited powers. This is the best solution for Israel: a weak regime and an exhausted opposition.
Sources said that Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to obtain a promise from his friend Putin about “undermining” the Iranian presence as well as Hezbollah and the rest of the pro-Iranian militias in Syria. “Undermining” most probably means in this context, to impose a peace agreement forced on them to get out of Syria.
According to sources, the shocking reply of Putin was as follow: Moscow cannot show its arrangements with Israel to undermine the Iranian presence and influence in Syria at the moment, because Moscow considers that it still needs the Iranian presence in Syria “until the end of the war with ISIS and reaching a political solution there.”
We are not assuming that Israel will eliminate Hezbollah from Lebanon but it will work to undermine it even though Hezbollah is strong enough to resist
Unfulfilled promises
However, we know that promises in such uncertain times cannot be reliable, and often do not get fulfilled. Moscow has promised to reduce the presence of Iran and its allies later on, but the realization of such a promise requires explicit international guarantees.
The Syrian forces entered Lebanon in 1976 under the pretext of stopping the war there. It withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 after assassinating a large number of Lebanese leaders, including Rafik Hariri. Syria’s occupation in Lebanon lasted for almost three decades and Tehran might occupy Syria for a long time.
The source also stated that Moscow assumes that Israel will accept the Russian proposal because Russia had previously helped Israel by providing intelligence data to carry out strikes targeting Hezbollah in Syria as a good intention initiative from Russia to Israel. This supports the story stating that Russians gave Israel information that Mughniyeh was near Kenaytra so it can assassinate him.
It seems that Moscow gave Israel one option: the acceptance of the Iranian presence in Syria because it either needs it or cannot face it. The source mentions that Moscow does not mind if Israel wanted to weaken Hezbollah’s role in Syria, allowing Israel to target Hezbollah in Lebanon.
We are not assuming that Israel will eliminate Hezbollah from Lebanon but it will work to undermine it even though Hezbollah is strong enough to resist. Russians believe that a major attack will force Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria and focus on the possible Israeli attack in Lebanon.
This explains the return of Israeli threats against Hezbollah in Lebanon; Israel wants to drain Hezbollah missiles’ force in a war controlled by Israel. According to Russian and Israeli opinions, this will weaken the presence of Iranians in Damascus.
In my opinion, the Syrian project based on external wars will lead to more tension while expanding the circle of turbulence. Without forcing Iran and its allies to get out of Syria as a condition for ending the war, the situation in Syria will remain as is.
*This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on March 17, 2017.

Where are the stars of the Arab Spring?
Mashari Althaydi/Al Arabiya/March 17/17
In his most recent piece for Kuwaiti Newspaper Ayyam, marking 6th anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, writer and researcher Khalil Ali Haidar enquired about the fate of the Egyptian Arab Spring political activist and journalist Israa Abdul Fattah?
It is a rhetorical question because “he asked the question knowing the answer”. So it is our turn to ask: Where is the revolution person, the star of Google Wael Ghoneim? He became famous for his tears and was praised highly by US former President Barrack Obama.
Where is Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Domah, Nawara Nejm, Khaled Daoud, Mohamed al-Baradei, Abdul Moneim Abou al-Fotouh and many more? Where is Monsef Marzouki, Tawakol Kerman and his fellow “revolutionaries” in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and many other countries?
Let us go back to Israa Abdul Fattah who was nominated by a few to win the Nobel Peace Prizel. Khalil Ali Haidar reminds us that “she was disregarded last year and was quoted in a newspaper saying that some people are saying that I am a traitor and an agent.”
A Qabas report on January 26, 2016 said: “The 29-year-old journalist is living alone in her small apartment, hoping that Egyptians will rise again to call for democracy.”
The challenges continue to be the same and not we were told during the euphoria surrounding the Arab Spring
The myth
We are not gloating here, but we want to take a moment to think about what has happened during the last six years, back when they wanted us to stop thinking and get dragged behind the emotional momentum and Obama’s international support of the Arab Spring myth. It was to be an Arab Spring for the Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeini’s forces as well as naive leftist teenagers and social media fools.
The world now is what we have gotten used to; back to square one. The challenges continue to be the same and not we were told during the euphoria surrounding the Arab Spring: development and justice, not democracy and freedom according to Israa Abdel Fattah’s point of view.
Does this make the current situation in Egypt and Tunisia great examples? It is surely not as there are many difficulties on the economic and living levels. What is certain is that Israa’s dreams about another Arab Spring and chaotic revolution is not the solution. The only solution is the slow and difficult work on the development along with accountability and control.
By the way, a few days ago, my Saudi friend and writer in this newspaper, Abdullah bin Bejad-Otaibi released a book entitled “against the Arab Spring”, in which he documented pages about the chronicles of those days.
Abdullah and few others had written about the chaos following Arab revolution, warning people of the outcome of the revolution…and this is what happened.
**The article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Entertainment and partisan prohibitions
Abdullah bin Bijad Al-Otaibi/Al Arabiya/March 17/17
Entertainment has been a human need since ancient times, although its manifestations have varied among different communities. It develops as humans develop. Individuals, societies, communities and nations need it all the more as modern life gets more complex and complicated.
Life’s difficulties have increased. The conditions for a decent life represent great pressure on individuals and societies as they constantly need to entertain themselves and their families in order to confront daily challenges, renew their energy and thus continue to develop.
Some philosophers have said that a part of a state’s task is to provide entertainment to its citizens. Entertainment is an offshoot of prosperity and well being, and religions, including Islam, does not prohibit it as a form of recreation. Some extremists have condemned the entertainment activities sponsored by the Saudi kingdom as part of its Vision 2030.
Doctrinal issues
Most of these topics they discuss are, however, controversial doctrinal issues that are well-known among respectable scholars. However, what we must realize is that there are some significant differences between what’s prohibited by religion and what’s prohibited by what’s known as sahwa (Islamic awakening) or political Islam. The former is motivated by faith while the latter is motivated by partisanship.
Islamic sahwa distanced itself from the rest of Muslims by escalating some well-known doctrinal controversies to definitive matters not because these matters are definitively prohibited according to jurisprudential logic, but because there is a desire to control the society under the name of religion and Islam. Islam, which is a heavenly religion whose followers today are more than 1.5 billion, include several definitive prohibitions that form Islam’s pillars. However, part of political Islam’s mistake has been that it turned controversial matters into definitive matters where discussion on these issues is unacceptable for them. Entertainment is an offshoot of prosperity and well being, and religions, including Islam, does not prohibit it as a form of recreation
Human understanding
The human understanding of the need for entertainment, leisure and adornment is noted in Quranic and Sunnah texts. The prophet used to make jokes. Al-Nuayman, one of the prophet’s companions, was well-known for making the prophet laugh. Some of the prophet’s followers were also known for their humor. An example is the doctrinal stance on singing. There is a huge doctrinal controversy regarding this. Many scholars used to listen to songs and believed they were permitted. Those who claim there is a doctrinal consensus on this matter are liars or mistaken. In Bukhari wa Muslim, it’s narrated that Aisha, one of the prophet’s wives, had two maids who sang. Abu Bakr warned of the devil’s psalms but the prophet said: “People have their feast, and this is our feast”. Imam Ibn Hazm, the well-known scholar, said “singing, playing and dancing during the days of Eid is fine in the mosque and elsewhere. Allah’s Prophet heard Abu Bakr talk about the devil’s psalms and prohibited that, while not prohibit the maids from singing. No one can argue with that.”
In his book ‘The Revival’, Imam Al-Ghazali said: “The Prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, used to hear the two maids sing as he lied down. This indicates that women’s voices are not prohibited, like the sound of the flute, but were prohibited when there is fear of strife. These standards and texts indicate permitting singing, dancing, and playing the tambourine and watching Al-Habash and black people dance during times of happiness, compared to the day of a feast.”
Ibn Taymiyyah said: “The slaves’ singing which men heard was heard by their companions at weddings.”
Respectable scholars’ statements are many regarding this matter. Those who read jurisprudence books will know the scale of the dispute regarding this issue and will realize that this issue is in fact simple and does not call for all this mobilization and tensions.
I apologize to the reader for going into jurisprudential details but they are important in this context so as to clarify that much of the confusion caused by symbols of political Islam or by so-called preachers aim to serve partisan interests and achieve the desire of controlling society in any way possible, even if it includes talking in the name of religion or exploiting it to incite society against the state’s activities and citizens’ needs.
‘Partisan prohibitions’
Movements in political Islam use “partisan prohibitions” as a tool to mobilize and impose control. If we review their history, we see that once they find that matters which they have once prohibited have spread, they change their minds and go back to their senses – or worse, they compete with others over how supportive they are. There are many examples to that, from permitting coffee drinking, to permitting girls’ education or to permitting photography, television and satellite channels. The examples are countless.
People’s needs change over time and place, along with all the different givens imposed during certain developments in societiy. These developments become part of the reality which imposes itself on everyone. Throughout history, reality imposed on scholars certain changes and amendments to their doctrinal choices. They were thus forced to restructure their priorities all over again. Sects that do not change and renew will disappear and die.
The General Authority for Entertainment which Saudi Arabia announced as part of the Vision 2030 is a body which handles organizing entertainment activities that harmonize with society’s developments and seek to meet the societies’ needs via different means. It provides entertainment to people and does not force anyone to attend or practice something they do not want to do. Finally, it was so delightful that Mohammed Abdu, the favorite artist of Arabs, and Rashid al-Majid performed beautiful patriotic songs at the King Fahd Cultural Center.
**This article is also available in Arabic.

Analysis: Politics of Class and Identity Dividing Aleppo – and Syria
Preethi Nallu/Syria Deeply/March 17/17
BEIRUT – In late January, a train to eastern Aleppo left the city’s main railway station for the first time in four years. The station, which was built before World War I as part of the Berlin-Baghdad network and is still referred to by some locals as “Gare de Baghdad”, has witnessed several conflicts in the course of almost a century, but none as devastating as the siege of Aleppo and the subsequent military offensive by the Syrian government in December.
As the train chugged through bombed-out eastern Aleppo as part of its daily route through the city, passengers peered through the windows at the wreckage in bewildered silence; their city had become unrecognizable. Some residents could be seen returning to their homes, clambering over the remnants of destroyed buildings, many of them without power, water and, in some cases, roofs and walls.
Syria entered its seventh year of conflict on Wednesday and many mourned the destruction of Aleppo. But bombed-out buildings are just one of the many obstacles to rebuilding the city. It has also suffered a significant loss of people, capital, intellectual capacity and diversity. Aleppo has in fact become emblematic of the prolonged sectarian, socioeconomic and rural/urban rifts across the country that could have a serious impact on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Despite centuries of multicultural existence, the last few years of war have fragmented Syria’s largest city, creating a pronounced division between the east and west, and reducing some 35,722 structures to rubble. Human rights groups have labelled Aleppo “the worst place in the world,” due in large part to the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the government-imposed siege.
With much of Aleppo’s population denied basic services and their economic lifeline severed by fighting, many have fled to other parts of Syria and across its borders. Most recently, 37,500 people were led out of the city in December in a mass evacuation brokered by Turkey and Russia during the so-called “liberation” of the eastern side of the city. By early January, the United Nations reported, only about 2,200 families had returned. Aleppo has undergone ostensibly permanent demographic changes, according to several organizations, including the U.N. refugee agency.
“Reversing such a drain of people and resources will require a very large investment, if we want to get back to the pre-conflict situation,” researchers at the National Agenda for the Future of Syria (NAFS) told a conference in Beirut last November. Launched by the the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the program is mapping out the social, political and economic factors shaping any future reconstruction.
Bassel Kaghadou, lead consultant at the NAFS project, notes that there is now heavy “identity polarization” stoked by the warring parties and their proxies. The “identities and micro-identities” of different cities that have hardened over the conflict years should be taken into account by the U.N.’s political and humanitarian branches, says Kaghadou.
“The conflict in the Damascus area, for example, has more of a financial and a rural/urban dimension, whereas in areas like Homs it’s more of a sectarian dimension. In areas like Aleppo, it’s more of a poor/rich divide – those who have, those who don’t have.”
Understanding the nature of conflicts in the different urban centres is vital for assessing the feasibility and nature of returns, Kaghadou adds.
Disappearing Diversity
Aleppo has set an alarming precedent for dozens of other places under siege across the country, according to internal U.N. reports and local observer groups – and the city may be a bellwether for other returnees and the rebuilding of not only infrastructure but also the social fabric. Government forces recently encircled three rebel-held neighborhoods in eastern Damascus in order to secure Eastern Ghouta, an agricultural area home to an estimated 250,000 civilians, which may be the next instance of mass displacement.
“Few places are as ancient and diverse,” writes Philip Mansel in his book “Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City,” which was published last summer before the government offensive in late December. This followed an on-and-off siege by opposing sides that had been in effect since 2012.
Mansel’s exploration of one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities – part of a lifeline linking Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and a key port on the Silk Road – is even more striking today. The Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and French who at various times competed for control of this venerable merchant city – which Mansel describes as an artery pumping economic gain and cultural exchange between the Far East and the West – would not recognize it. Today’s Aleppo epitomizes the impact of sustained violence.
Speaking to News Deeply, Mansel expresses his concern that the near-demise of centuries of multicultural coexistence in Aleppo is a worrying sign for the future of mixed communities in Syria.
The difficulty of assessing demographic change, especially as a result of a lack of verifiable data, means the situation on the ground is changing nearly every week, Mansel says.
“A lot of minorities are also leaving Aleppo and they are often well-connected. Armenians are going to independent Armenia and Christians have been leaving even before the conflict. Although many Sunni Muslims are leaving, many also cannot leave.”
The Russian-led “scorched earth” campaign – akin to the Battle of Grozny in Chechen – emptied swathes of the city of its residents, making it easier for government forces to take over. During the latest Syrian peace talks in Geneva, U.N. human rights investigators accused all sides of war crimes in Aleppo. They also concluded that the mass evacuations of the rebel-held enclave in eastern Aleppo amounted to “forced displacement.” French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has gone so far as to call Aleppo one of history’s costliest lessons in “urbicide,” with returns of refugees and IDPs a challenge for the foreseeable future.
Establishing a concrete process to ensure long-term civilian returns is more pressing than ever, particularly as safe zones become a less viable option and neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, seal their borders.
“There are no safe zones. When you take a civilian from eastern Aleppo or eastern parts of Aleppo out to Idlib, there are still threats of brutal government airstrikes and the armed opposition, which is also abusive and repressive,” Syrian-Canadian writer and independent analyst Yazan al-Saadi told News Deeply.
Complex Divides, Difficult Returns
In the light of rapidly changing demographic realities in Syrian cities, media outlets have voiced concerns that a majority of the refugees and IDPs, who are Sunni Muslims, might not be able to return to their homes. This is particularly true in Aleppo, where the western side is currently dominated by minorities – Alawites, Christians, Armenians, Druze – and the eastern neighborhoods are mainly Sunni.
“One has to be very careful when making such claims,” said al-Saadi, adding that the Syrian government is unlikely to assess civilian returns based on a “black and white” assessment of sectarian identity. “It is not a case of ‘you are Sunni, so you cannot come back.’ It is about whether you are with ‘us’ [the Syrian regime] or not.”
Mansel says the divisions of identity among the people of Aleppo, especially over the conflict years, go beyond religious affiliations. The city “has been drawn into wars between Sunni and Shiite; Salafis and other Muslims; secularists and clericalists; dictators and liberals; armies and civilians; the city and the country.”
The rural/urban identities added yet another dimension to the divides, whereby a vast majority of the “bourgeoisie in the city were afraid of this uprising, and perceived it as coming from rural areas and seeking more social justice,” said Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian academic, originally from Aleppo, speaking from Geneva.
Daher and al-Saadi point to “class divisions” as the most important dynamics in Aleppo’s case.
These entangled strands of identity have prevented the return of most civilians who fled the city. At the same time observers caution that the siege of Aleppo and the ensuing relocation of residents is part of a concerted strategy to orchestrate long-term changes of identity and social make-up across the country.
Control of the key urban centers along the spine of Syria has been a goal for all warring sides. The government takeover of Aleppo, and the “crushing of opposition presence in the city was crucial for the regime ahead of new negotiations [that took place in January in Astana and February in Geneva],” Daher added.
The so-called liberation of Aleppo was a major turning point in entrenching the Syrian government’s hold on the spine of the country. Politically and physically controlling these cities is key for the regime to regain control of the entire country. With Idlib – still under rebel control – being a key vertebra of this spine, many fear the evacuees from Aleppo who have been sent to IDP camps in the northwestern province have essentially gone from one siege to another. The mass evacuations from eastern parts of Aleppo have also brought the competing and oft-conflicting notions of safe passage versus depopulation to the fore.
Evacuation or Forced Displacement?
Months before the Aleppo offensive, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien explicitly called mass evacuations and prolonged sieges violations of international humanitarian law. “All sieges, a medieval tactic, must be lifted,” he said. “This should not [occur] through any type of agreement which results in the forced displacement of the civilian population.”
While depopulation to create demographic changes is indeed a flagrant violation of international law, ascertaining the voluntary nature of civilian evacuations amid conflict is a difficult process. Most humanitarian workers insist that it is equally dangerous to delay evacuations when the basic lifelines for food, shelter and medicine are severed with no guarantees of safety.
When civilians and opposition fighters boarded buses in Aleppo heading toward Idlib, the U.N. stated that while evacuations were not within their remit, they were ready to assist anyone “voluntarily” leaving the city. The absence of impartial monitors on the ground to document instances of forced relocation points to a glaring gap in civilian protection. Given that at least half of the Syrian population fled their homes over the past six years, population transfer of native residents, with no guarantees of return, remains a gray zone.
“The U.N. is inherently biased because of the way it is set up [where it has to engage with states]. INGOs are also obliged to deal with international laws and humanitarianism that at times clash with the needs of a society,” al-Saadi said. “The only solution that is I see is an international organization or international body of civilians.”
Those dealing with returns must also be mindful that depopulation is not necessarily a concern for the Syrian government, given that the country experienced a significant growth spurt in the 1960s, al-Saadi added.
The Economics of Returns
In Aleppo’s case, socioeconomic divides appear to play as influential a role as the sectarian make-up. One has to look at the “social geography” of the fighting in the city, visible as early as the summer of 2012, to understand the possibilities of returns, claim Jean Claude David and Thierry Boissière, authors of “Alep et ses territoires,” which explores the relationship between urban spaces and the societies of Aleppo.
The authors point out that journalists and observers seeking explanations through geopolitics sometimes overlook localized conflicts and the intertwined social and economic tensions that inflame hostilities, as in the case of Syria’s urban centers.
“The organization of [public] space into two large socioeconomic groups is still blatant nowadays between a rich West quarter [of the Medina] and the more popular three-quarters, North, East, and South, with the economic classes traversing confessional and religious identities,” according to the authors. But the blockade of trade in the city and decreased interactions between the different quarters during the conflict has further alienated the two sides.
Across the country, extreme class divisions and the rural/urban flight due to loss of livelihoods are at the root of the eruption of conflict, says Abdullatif El Ali, a Syrian researcher completing his international relations degree in Turkey. The class divide gradually “transformed into an identity divide,” he adds.
Ali, who is from Al-Muslimiyah in the governorate of Aleppo, cites his own family’s experience. In an interview with News Deeply he recalled how his uncles, who were farmers, struggled to make a living in the village before the uprisings started. A significant percentage of working-age men moved to urban centers. Aleppo was the closest economic hub for many.
Alongside the “pro-government” or “anti-government” divide is the issue of the indispensability of returnees to the future economic growth of Syria, said al-Saadi. The instrumentalization of people as “tools rather than multi-dimensional individuals” will dictate the Syrian government policies with returns, he added.
Syria’s GDP has dropped 40 percent since the start of the conflict, meaning that “attracting capital back into the country will go hand-in-hand with reversing brain drain” and ensuring a safety net for returnees, according to the NAFS program.
The Need For a Refugee Policy
Discussion of the feasibility of returns for Syrians of differing economic, social and sectarian identities begs a fundamental question: What is the Syrian government’s refugee policy? The simple answer, according to all the researchers News Deeply interviewed, is that there is none.
“If we were to take the government’s statements that everyone is free to return at face value, what guarantees is the government willing to provide, not just with safe passage but also with social protection, economic stability and access to their homes?” asked al-Saadi.
El Ali points to what he calls “accumulating evidence of dispelled people’s homes [that were] looted, ruined and became [the] property of the state.”
For civilians to return in significant numbers, it appears that the reconciliation process must address the social, economic and religious-sectarian divides that have left a significant footprint on Syria’s communal balance and identity. Failing to do this risks turning Syria’s cities into versions of Sarajevo, where, decades after the armed occupation, ethnic divisions continue to challenge the return of native residents, says Galen Lamphere-Englund at the Aleppo Project.
A concrete “returns” policy, which has yet to be explicitly addressed in international negotiations, is a pivotal issue that will determine the futures of millions of displaced Syrians. However, according to Kaghadou, “peacebuilding [in Syria] will require forging a new social contract,” without which many refugees will not return. Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Syria Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.

Analysis: Why the War in Syria May Not Be About Demographic Change
Aymenn al-Tamimi/Syria Deeply/March 17/2017
QUNEITRA, Syria – Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the Syrian conflict is the concept of “demographic change”: the allegation that the Syrian government, with the support and participation of its ally Iran, is trying to engineer a new sectarian balance. According to this argument, featured prominently in a wide range of media outlets, the government is trying to reduce the proportion of Sunnis who may pose a threat to its rule, and repopulate majority-Sunni areas with foreign and/or native Shiites – alongside Iranian efforts to pursue broader Shiification: that is, conversions to Shiite Islam among the wider population.
Some allegations used to prove this theory, such as those of sectarian cleansing and Shiification, are rooted in empirical reality. But on their own, they are not enough to prove a deliberately engineered population change policy and there may be alternative explanations. Other claims – for example, that the government is resettling Sunni areas with Shiites – do more closely support the narrative, but are not as well supported by the evidence. Some cases, such as those of population transfer agreements, reflect an overlap of these two strands.
First, the concrete points. Sectarian cleansing – the displacement of Sunni Arab populations from multiple areas – has been a part of the war since at least 2012. Iran’s property purchases in Syria, and the establishment of recruitment offices for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah, also speak to the narrative of broader demographic change.
Within this context emerged Syrian Hezbollah, a group of Syrian Shiite militias tied to Iran that operate similarly to Lebanese Hezbollah. It is most apparent in existing Syrian Shiite communities, such as the villages of Nubl and Zahara’ north of Aleppo city, areas of Homs province and Homs city and some neighborhoods of Damascus city. One example tying Syrian Hezbollah to the broader goal of Shiification is the creation of Liwa al-Baqir, a militia that claims 3,000 fighters and traces its origins to 2012. Rooted in Bekara tribesmen who have converted to Shiite Islam, the militia has played an important role in the Aleppo fighting and received training from the IRGC and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has also recruited Syrians in predominantly non-Shiite areas, even in eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the so-called Islamic State has been trying to take the last government-held outposts. In January 2017, at least two Syrians from Deir Ezzor were killed fighting in Hezbollah’s ranks while pushing back the ISIS offensive. There is also a Syrian Hezbollah group in Deir Ezzor under the name of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin. In a conversation in early February, Abu Aboud, the group’s military leader and a petroleum engineer by profession, confirmed that the militia is still fighting in the province.
Some Iran-backed foreign militias have even integrated into the apparatus of local forces: The Iraqi group Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, for example, is a part of Dir’ al-Watan, a set of militias affiliated with the al-Bustan Association, a charity organization bankrolled by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf. The militia’s leader, Hayder al-Juburi, assumes a military command role in Dir’ al-Watan. Another Iraqi Shiite militia, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, overlaps with the 4th Armored Division, an elite Syrian army unit. Some Iraqi groups have also formed close working relations with the private militia Suqur al-Sahara’ and operated in its ranks.
However, even when combined, these facts do not definitively illustrate a plan of demographic change. The sectarian cleansing has mostly taken place along Alawite–Sunni lines. The Alawites are the minority sect from which Assad comes, but contrary to popular perception, they are distinct from the Shiites. Alawite militiamen have engaged in sectarian cleansing, in places such as Homs and Baniyas. But this was more because they saw rebellious Sunni populations as a security threat to key Alawite areas, rather than to engineer a broader Iranian-backed demographic shift.
The development of “Syrian Hezbollah” and the integration of foreign militias do reflect Iranian aims in Syria – but do not necessarily point to demographic change. Both developments give Iran lasting leverage in Syria’s security affairs, thus reducing the risk that Syrians will resent what they perceive as an occupation by unintegrated foreign forces. Logically, Iran will want to establish a long-term or permanent presence in Syria – particularly for the estimated several thousand personnel in the Afghan Shiite units of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the majority of whom were refugees living in harsh conditions in Iran before the IRGC recruited them. At least four contingents of the Fatemiyoun Brigade were manning the front line in the area around Palmyra when ISIS retook it last December; it’s possible Iran may even plan to establish large bases there, integrated with Syria’s armed forces, that will amount to settlements for these fighters.
The rise of Syrian Hezbollah among existing Syrian Shiite communities and the resultant affinities with Iran undoubtedly fit in with Tehran’s desire to promote its ideology among Shiite communities and position itself as their protector and guarantor of their interests. However, the clearest example of Shiification, in the case of Liwa al-Baqir, is actually not a wartime phenomenon: Conversions among Bekara tribesmen, driven by Iranian-backed proselytization, were already occurring before the war. These conversion initiatives were successful partly because of the connection drawn between the tribe’s origins and the fifth Shiite imam, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir.
Other examples cited to support the narrative of demographic change better fit the argument, but are less substantiated. One such case is the Damascus suburb of Darayya. Four years of government siege saw a significant drop in the suburb’s original population, culminating in a final evacuation agreement for the remaining rebels and civilians in August 2016. The Guardian claimed that the government then resettled “more than 300 Iraqi Shia families” in Darayya, which is home to a Shiite shrine. The Guardian attributed its claim to Syria’s “state media.” But while this claim is a staple of Saudi-funded media outlets such as Asharq al-Awsat – avowed enemies of the Syrian government and Iran – a search of Syria’s pro-government media revealed only a report by pro-government site Damascus Now. It mentions the arrival in Damascus – not Darayya – of Iraqi families fleeing the Islamic State in Mosul. It does not specify their sect.
Speaking to Syria Deeply in January 2017, Damascus Now denied that Darayya had any inhabitants at the time. Abu Haydar al-Harbi, an Iraqi member of Hezbollah forces in Syria, corroborated this claim, describing the area as a military zone. According to open-source evidence, there are reportedly ongoing discussions within government circles about the return of civilians to Darayya, with some steps taken toward allowing farmers to go to agricultural areas for the purpose of agriculture only.
Discussions of demographic change frequently turn to the “Four Towns” agreement, which binds the fate of the Shiite towns of Fou’a and Kafraya in northern Idlib to the Sunni towns of Zabadani and Madaya, west of Damascus near the border with Lebanon. Rebels have largely kept Fou’a and Kafraya under siege since expelling government forces from most of Idlib province in the spring and summer of 2015. Meanwhile, government forces and their allies – including Hezbollah – have besieged Zabadani and Madaya since July 2015. Under the terms of a cease-fire agreement dating back to September 2015, humanitarian aid can enter one town only if simultaneous deliveries are made to the others.
In the initial negotiations, Iran reportedly proposed a population swap that would see the people of Fou’a and Kafraya go to government-held areas, and the people of Zabadani and Madaya go to rebel-held areas. Though this proposal is certainly interesting, it does not necessarily support a demographic change argument. Rather, it can be tied to Iran’s aforementioned interest in promoting itself as the protector and upholder of the interests of Shiite communities.
The proposal also reportedly came up again as the last residents and rebels of east Aleppo were being evacuated in December 2016, but, despite certain misconceptions, no agreement was made. Speaking privately to Syria Deeply between January 18 and 19, organizers of the Facebook page “Besieged al-Fu’a and Kafariya News Network” denied that there was any plan to evacuate residents of the two villages, whose original population stood at 20,000 civilians. Only 1,000 people had been allowed to leave by that point, as part of an agreement to evacuate 4,000 women, children, wounded and ill.
Even if all the inhabitants were evacuated, it is unclear how such numbers could bring about a meaningful demographic change in Syria. It is more likely that, rather than a full evacuation of Fou’a and Kafraya, government forces and their allies will try to break the siege by advancing into Idlib province, a theory discussed by Iran-backed Shiite militias. There have also been repeated demonstrations calling to break the siege of Fou’a and Kafraya.
In broader terms, the demographic change narrative does not account for the government’s multifaceted approach to retaking and managing rebel-controlled areas, which varies according to circumstance and need. What’s more, the government is not in a position to ignore the fact that Syria has a Sunni Arab majority. As it seeks to regain more territory, and particularly as it struggles with manpower deficiencies in the face of widespread army draft evasion and desertion, the government will need some level of consent and participation from the Sunni majority. Therefore, the recent increase of militias seeking to recruit locals in reconquered areas and the pursuit of “reconciliation” deals in opposition-held areas is not surprising.
In this regard, the Guardian’s claim that Syria and Iran don’t want Sunnis along the border with Lebanon from Damascus to Homs – based solely on quotes from an anonymous Lebanese official – does not stand up to scrutiny. It does not account for the pro-government militias in the Qalamoun area that have been recruiting in areas with Sunni populations since the beginning of 2014. More recently, as the government seeks to retake the last rebel-held areas in the countryside west of Damascus around Mt. Hermon, near the borders with Lebanon and the occupied Golan Heights, it has established the Hermon Regiment militia to recruit locals –including former rebels – in the villages that have agreed to its “reconciliation” deals.
If the government continues to gain ground and remains on the path of political ascendancy, nuanced analysis of events and trends inside government-held territory will become more important than ever. The narrative of demographic change may seem tempting at first, but it ultimately fails to stand up to in-depth examination.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
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