December 28/18

Compiled & Prepared by: Elias Bejjani


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Bible Quotations For today
The Mastard Seed Parable & the Depth Of Faith
Matthew 13/31-35: "Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’

Titles For The Latest English LCCC Lebanese & Lebanese Related News published on December 27-28/18
Israel says finds, destroys fifth tunnel from Lebanon
Report: Aoun’s Bkirki Remarks an ‘Outcry to All’ Political Parties
Bid to revive Aoun initiative as deadlock persists
Aoun calls for prayers over Cabinet impasse
Berri Has 'Pessimistic' Outlook on Govt. Formation, Blames 'Sectarianism'
Hamadeh Fears Extended Governmental Void Sparks Street Clashes
Protesters Rally Anew in Beirut as Numbers Dwindle
Zakka's Family Says Hasn't Heard from Him since 10 Days
Saudi Arabia to Lift Travel Ban on Lebanon After Government Formation
Russia Weighs Extending Syria’s Missile Shield to Lebanon
Ibrahim to General Security: To steer clear of political strife
Abi Khalil: Zahle Electricity signed operational contract
Hezbollah Is a Terror Group. The West Needs to Wake Up

Titles For The Latest English LCCC Miscellaneous Reports And News published on December 27-28/18

UAE Reopens Embassy in Damascus
Gargash: Syria’s return to the Arab League needs Arab consensus
Israeli Army Rejects Netanyahu’s Request to End 'Northern Shield' Operation
Iraqis demand US troop pullout
Iran-affiliated militias say Trump’s Iraq visit ‘will not go unpunished’
US-led coalition in Syria questions two Russian women who escaped ISIS
Saudi Arabia's King Salman appoints new foreign minister in sweeping Cabinet reshuffle
Egypt foreign minister, spy chief visit protest-hit Sudan
Vatican hands down first money laundering sentence
Sudanese Information Minister: 19 killed in one week of protests

Titles For The Latest LCCC English analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published on December 27-28/18

Bid to revive Aoun initiative as deadlock persists/Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star/ December 28/18
Aoun calls for prayers over Cabinet impasse/Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star on December 27, 2018
Hezbollah Is a Terror Group. The West Needs to Wake Up/Azmina Siddique/CNN International/December 27/18
Analysis/Under Russia's Auspices, Syria Looks for Legitimacy in Arab World/Zvi Bar'el/Haaretz/December 27/18
UAE reopens embassy in Damascus after six years/Hashem Osseiran/The National/December 27/18
Turkey and EU: Can this Marriage be Saved/Burak Bekdil/Gatestone Institute/December 27/18
Palestinians: Silencing and Intimidating Critics/Khaled Abu Toameh/Gatestone Institute/December 27/18
Tunisia’s Best Hope for Economic Reform/Bobby Gosh/Asharq Al Awsat/December,27/18
Copts once again fall victim to deadly violence in Egypt/Ahmed Youness/Al Monitor/December 27/18
Trump on Syria Withdrawal: We Give Israel Billions of Dollars, They'll Be OK/Amir Tibon/Haaretz/December 27/18/
My wish for 2019: Conflict and more orange peel/Walid Jawad/Al Arabiya/December 27/18
How long can India sit out China’s Belt Road Initiative/Simran Sodhi/Al Arabiya/December 27/18

Latest LCCC English Lebanese & Lebanese Related News published on December 27-28/18
Israel says finds, destroys fifth tunnel from Lebanon
AFP, Jerusalem/Thursday, 27 December 2018/Israel’s army said Wednesday it had located a fifth Hezbollah attack tunnel crossing into its territory from Lebanon and destroyed it with explosives. The military launched an operation earlier this month to locate and destroy tunnels from Lebanon that it said Hezbollah was planning to use in a future conflict against Israel. The army released a video of Wednesday’s activity. It shows an officer shouting across the border and warning residents of the Lebanese village of Ayta ash Shab that they are in danger and to stand far away. The video then shows a countdown before a soldier pushes a button, and aerial footage of a powerful explosion. The military said in a statement that the new tunnel had been dug from the Lebanese village of Ayta ash Shab. It said it “holds the Lebanese government accountable for the attack tunnels dug from Lebanese territory and for the consequences of this violation.” “This is another blatant violation of UN resolution 1701 and of Israeli sovereignty,” the statement said, referring to the resolution that ended a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the tunnel operation was nearly complete. The highly publicized Israeli operation to expose and destroy the cross-border tunnels has gone ahead without drawing a military response from Hezbollah.

Report: Aoun’s Bkirki Remarks an ‘Outcry to All’ Political Parties
Naharnet/December 27/18/Circles close to President Michel Aoun insisted on “expanding the list of the accused” that the President intended to blame for the government delay, refusing reports that he was “exclusively” pointing a finger at Hizbullah or a the group of pro-Hizbullah Sunni MPs, al-Joumhouria daily reported on Thursday. The sources said the remarks Aoun made from Bkirki were “a resounding cry in the face of more than one team that seeks to change the constitutional norms when forming governments, and attempts to impose new mechanisms that were not mentioned in the constitution, which limited the task to the PM-designate in charge in coordination with the President.” On Tuesday, as he took part in a Christmas Day Mass in Bkirki, Aoun accused some parties of seeking to create “new norms” for the formation of governments in Lebanon. “A political battle is behind the failure to form a government and it seems that there is a change in traditions and norms. We are living a cabinet formation crisis. Pray so that the difficulties can be resolve,” Aoun had said. The formation of Lebanon’s government has been delayed since the designation of PM-designate Saad Hariri in May 24. Disagreements between political parties over cabinet shares and quotas the latest was a dispute with Hizbullah and a grouping of six Sunni MPs over the nomination of a Sunni minister by the aforementioned bloc.The dispute has been delaying the formation of the new government for several months now after previous and also long-running disagreements over Christian and Druze representation were resolved.

Bid to revive Aoun initiative as deadlock persists
Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star/ December 28/18
BEIRUT: The absence of contacts among officials has dimmed hopes for any imminent breakthrough in the Cabinet formation deadlock, political sources said Thursday, heightening fears of a prolonged crisis with all the dire consequences this entails for the country’s stability and battered economy. “All signs indicate that the Cabinet formation process has been put off until after the New Year holiday,” a political source familiar with the formation process told The Daily Star.
Reflecting the difficulties, Future TV said in its news bulletin preamble Thursday night: “It seems that the government formation process is on vacation.”
Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has maintained silence on the latest snags that scuttled his attempts to form a national unity government representing all the main parties ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays as he and President Michel Aoun had promised.
The only comment he made was last Sunday following Beirut street protests against worsening economic conditions during which demonstrators vented their anger against politicians for failing to form a new government. “Sometimes silence is a must in order for the others to hear,” Hariri tweeted. The gloomy Cabinet prospects came amid reported attempts to revive a stalled initiative launched by Aoun earlier this month that sought to resolve the problem of representing six Hezbollah-backed Sunni lawmakers in the next government. “Efforts are focused on reviving the stalled initiative as a gateway that leads to the government formation,” the Central News Agency said, quoting political sources.But it warned that this might not achieve the its goal, given the “current political developments” - a clear allusion to lingering differences among rival factions over portfolio distribution.
The agency expressed fear that a new round of consultations between the parties concerned with resolving the representation problem of the “Consultative Gathering,” the group of six Sunni MPs, might be doomed to fail like the previous one. The six Thursday called on Aoun to resuscitate his initiative to resolve the problem of their representation, which has held up the Cabinet formation since late October.
This comes amid warnings by Lebanese and foreign officials that a prolonged Cabinet crisis would lead to an economic collapse, as well as to street riots that might threaten the country’s security and stability.The pro-Hezbollah MPs’ call also comes after the emergence of new snags over a demand by caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil for a redistribution of some ministerial portfoliosx. “Things are at a standstill. We are waiting for the presidential initiative to be reactivated to resolve the problem of our representation in the new government,” MP Abdel-Rahim Mrad, one of the six lawmakers, told The Daily Star.
“We demand participation in a national unity government with a minister named by the Consultative Gathering who will exclusively represent us,” Mrad said. He spoke after the group met at his residence in Beirut Thursday. A statement issued after the meeting reiterated their right to be represented with a candidate who solely represents the group and does not belong to any bloc.
Mrad added that the six MPs, who are from outside the Future Movement, had sent Aoun a list of four candidates they had chosen to represent them. Last weekend, they withdrew their support for Jawad Adra, one of four candidates they had proposed, saying they reached the decision because “Jawad Adra does not consider himself a representative of the group.”
“There are the names of three candidates with President Aoun to choose one of them as our representative,” Mrad said, adding that “a new hurdle” cropped up with Bassil’s demand for a redistribution of some ministries. A key element of Aoun’s initiative calls for representing the six MPs from the president’s share with a candidate from outside their group, rather than one of the six lawmakers themselves, as they had previously demanded.
Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, also reportedly wanted Adra to be part of the FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc. Political sources had told The Daily Star that Bassil wanted the six lawmakers to be represented by a minister close to his party so that the FPM and Aoun could maintain “a veto power,” or controlling 11 ministers in a 30-member Cabinet. The Central News Agency, quoting political sources, said that an “overt struggle” was now raging between the FPM and Aoun on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other, over attaining veto power in the next Cabinet.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and other party officials have said they did not object to Aoun and the FPM attaining a veto power. But Speaker Nabih Berri, Hariri and former MP Walid Joumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, are reported to be opposing granting a veto power to the FPM.
The agency quoted the same sources as saying that the fastest and easiest way to achieve Cabinet formation lay in a return to the Constitution and to laws that the president said that some are trying to violate, seeking to imposing new norms. Caretaker Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh warned that a prolonged Cabinet crisis might lead to clashes between security forces and protesters decrying the worsening economic crisis. Speaking to the Voice of Lebanon radio station (93.3), Hamadeh called for a “compromise” over the Cabinet impasse after the New Year by agreeing on a representative of the Consultative Gathering and later launching an “immediate reform process.” “A prolonged Cabinet vacuum might lead to street clashes or to a constituent conference [designed to agree on a new political system] that might plunge Lebanon into a dangerous stage,” he said.

Aoun calls for prayers over Cabinet impasse
Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star on December 27, 2018
BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri have cast gloom over the possibility of forming a new government any time soon. The development reflects lingering differences among rival factions over portfolio distribution and threatens to plunge the country into an open-ended political crisis. “Cabinet formation efforts have been put on hold until after the New Year. Contacts to break the Cabinet formation impasse are currently at a standstill following the emergence of new snags,” a Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star Wednesday.
Although Aoun’s initiative launched earlier this month to resolve the problem of representing six Hezbollah-backed Sunni lawmakers in the next government had failed to break the deadlock, the source said: “The president’s initiative still exists.”
A key element of Aoun’s plan calls for representing the six MPs from the president’s share with a candidate from outside their group, rather than one of the six lawmakers themselves as they had previously demanded. The Baabda source said a last-minute hitch emerged after the six MPs insisted that the compromise candidate should exclusively represent their group, known as the “Consultative Gathering,” and not belong to any other bloc.
“How can the president cede a ministerial seat to someone who will not be part of his share?” the source said.
Perhaps for the first time, Aoun sounded pessimistic about the prospects of Cabinet formation, now in its eighth month of deadlock, when he called for prayers to resolve the ongoing issues.
He spoke before attending a Christmas Mass in Bkirki led by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai Tuesday. “We’re in the middle of a government formation crisis. Pray for the difficulties to be resolved. “It seems that some [parties] are creating new traditions in the Cabinet formation that we have not known before, and we need some time to find solutions to them,” Aoun told reporters after a 30-minute private meeting with Rai ahead of the Mass.
When Rai told Aoun that the Lebanese were waiting for an announcement on the new government as a gift ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays, the president said: “The reason for failing to form [a government] is a political battle. “It seems there is a change in traditions and norms.”
Aoun appeared to be hinting that some political parties were interfering in how ministerial portfolios should be allocated and thus chipping away at the powers of the president and the prime minister-designate in the Cabinet process. Asked if Aoun’s remarks targeted Hezbollah - a key ally of the president which is strongly backing the six MPs’ push for representation - the Baabda source said: “The president meant all the parties that are violating constitutional norms in the government formation.”The Central News Agency quoted sources close to Hezbollah as saying the party “did not consider itself directly concerned with President Michel Aoun’s remarks in Bkirki.”Berri also painted a bleak outlook. “Contacts are at a standstill and no one is taking any steps in the Cabinet formation issue after all these hurdles,” he was quoted as saying during his weekly meeting with lawmakers at his Ain al-Tineh residence Wednesday.
“What was needed was for the government to be formed before the holidays, but up until now, it has not seen the light of day. Speaker Berri does not want to place blame on any one side,” MP Ali Bazzi from Berri’s parliamentary bloc quoted the speaker as saying.
Berri, according to MPs, emphasized that the only solution to the country’s problems was through “a civilian state” to replace the sectarian-based political system.
“All the disasters that we are suffering from arose from confessionalism and sectarianism that are being further deepened,” he reportedly said. The Cabinet formation has been stalled since late October by the problem of representing the six MPs not affiliated with the Future Movement. Over the weekend, the lawmakers withdrew their support for Jawad Adra, one of four candidates they had chosen to represent them in the next government.
They said they had reached the decision because “Jawad Adra does not consider himself a representative of the group.”Also Wednesday, Berri chaired the weekly meeting of the Amal Movement’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc that focused on Israel’s continued violations of Lebanon’s airspace to launch attacks on Syria, and the worsening economic crisis that was reflected in street protests staged by civil activist groups in Beirut and other areas Sunday.
“The bloc affirms its full bias toward the people’s rightful demands and which must push the concerned parties to speed up the Cabinet formation and begin tackling the [socio-economic] issues and take the necessary reform measures to put an end to the decline in the financial and economic situation,” the bloc said in a statement after its meeting in Ain al-Tineh.
Taking an indirect jab at caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassi, who was reported to be demanding a redistribution of some ministries - an issue that has further compounded the government formation process - the bloc said it was surprised by the “suspension of contacts over the Cabinet formation and the attempts made for a random distribution of [Cabinet] shares and a swap of ministerial portfolios.”
Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, also reportedly wanted Adra to be part of the FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc. Political sources had told The Daily Star that Bassil wanted the six MPs to be represented by a minister close to his party so that the FPM and Aoun could maintain “a veto power,” controlling 11 ministers in a 30-member Cabinet.
MP Walid Sukkarieh, one of the six lawmakers, reiterated the group’s demand to be represented. “The ball is in the courts of the prime minister-designate and the president who form the Cabinet. “We want to be represented by one minister,” Sukkarieh, who also belongs to Hezbollah’s 13-member parliamentary bloc, told The Daily Star. He added that any candidate must exclusively represent the six lawmakers.

Berri Has 'Pessimistic' Outlook on Govt. Formation, Blames 'Sectarianism'
Naharnet/December 27/18/The usual political activities aiming to ease the government gridlock have been “absent” from the agenda of the presidential palace and the Grand Serail, amid “pessimism” expressed by Speaker Nabih Berri over the government formation, the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat reported on Thursday. “I have offered everything possible to form the government. I will not regret my effort, and I do not want to hold any political party responsible for the delay,” said Berri during his weekly Wednesday meeting with parliamentarians. He said the government should have been formed six months ago, “it should have been formed before Eid al-Fitr,” stressing the need for a “civilian state” as a solution to all of Lebanon’s problems.“All the calamities that we suffer are because of sectarianism," he added. Berri’s remarks came after President Michel Aoun’s position from Bkirki on Tuesday accusing some parties of seeking to create “new norms” for the formation of governments in Lebanon.

Hamadeh Fears Extended Governmental Void Sparks Street Clashes

Naharnet/December 27/18/Caretaker Minister of Education, Marwan Hamadeh, said that external and internal factors were hindering the formation of a new government, calling for a compromise just after the New Year, the National News Agency reported on Thursday. mWarning against the void that could lead to clashes in the street, the Minister urged President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, to meet "away from pressuring sides and elaborate the government's headlines." Interviewed by the Voice of Lebanon radio station, Hamadeh commented on the latest Israeli violation against Lebanon's sovereignty."The state must ask Hizbullah to implement resolution 1701 in order to be able to confront Israel and to encourage the international community to cooperate with Lebanon," he added.

Protesters Rally Anew in Beirut as Numbers Dwindle

Naharnet/December 27/18/Around 60 civil society protesters staged a march Wednesday in downtown Beirut demanding better living conditions and health care in the country. The activists first marched from Martyrs Square towards the Port of Beirut where they staged a sit-in calling for improved inspection and an end to customs evasion. They later returned to the Riad al-Solh Square where the government's headquarters, known as the Grand Serail, is located. Army troops, security forces and riot police escorted the demonstration to preserve order as the protesters -- whose numbers sharply dropped compared to a larger demo on Sunday – chanted slogans calling for health care cards and solutions for social crises and unemployment. The National News Agency meanwhile reported that the Charles Helou road and the Banks Street were blocked during the protest. Violence between protesters and security forces had marred Sunday's demonstrations which spread from central Beirut to the Beshara al-Khoury and Hamra areas. At least three journalists were also beaten by security forces during the protests.

Zakka's Family Says Hasn't Heard from Him since 10 Days

Naharnet/December 27/18/The family of Iran-held Lebanese national and U.S. green card holder Nizar Zakka announced Wednesday that contact has been lost with him since ten days. “We the family of Nizar Zakkar, who is being arbitrarily detained in Iran, express grave concern over the fate of our son with whom direct communication has been severed since ten days. Lebanon's embassy in Tehran has also failed to secure any contact with him,” the family said in a statement. Urging Iranian authorities to clarify his fate in a speedy manner and holding them responsible for any harm, the family urged the Lebanese government and “specifically Prime Minister Saad Hariri to act quickly and summon the Iranian ambassador to Beirut to question him about Nizar.”“We also ask the Lebanese constitutional institutions, especially the Presidency and the Speakership, to take charge of Nizar's case in order to end his plight and liberate him from his prison,” the family added. Zakka has been detained in Iran since 2015 over spying allegations. He was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine. Zakka, who lived in Washington and held resident status in the U.S., was the leader of the Arab ICT Organization, or IJMA3, an industry consortium from 13 countries that advocates for information technology in the region. Zakka disappeared Sept. 18, 2015, during his fifth trip to Iran. He had been invited to attend a conference at which President Hassan Rouhani spoke of providing more economic opportunities for women and sustainable development. On Nov. 3, Iranian state television aired a report saying he was in custody and calling him a spy with "deep links" with U.S. intelligence services. It also showed what it described as a damning photo of Zakka and three other men in army-style uniforms, two with flags and two with rifles on their shoulders. But that turned out to be from a homecoming event at Zakka's prep school, the Riverside Military Academy in Georgia, according to the school's president.

Saudi Arabia to Lift Travel Ban on Lebanon After Government Formation Thursday 27th December 2018/Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Al-Bukhari said Thursday that his country will lift the travel ban on Lebanon once a new government is formed. “We are working on institutionalizing the Lebanese-Saudi ties in different areas,” Al-Bukhari told a delegation from the Lebanese Business and Investment Council in Saudi Arabia.“The Kingdom’s foreign policy toward Lebanon has been always based on Lebanon’s sovereignty, security and stability," he stressed. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE ordered their citizens to leave Lebanon and avoid travel there, citing safety fears and political uncertainty in the wake of PM Saad Hariri's abrupt resignation back then.

Russia Weighs Extending Syria’s Missile Shield to Lebanon Thursday 27th December 2018/Russia is weighing the option of extending the range of S-300 missiles to cover Lebanon, the Debka File website reported. On Wednesday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that six Israeli F-16 jets launched a “provocative” raid on Syria at the moment when two civilian airliners were preparing to land in Damascus and Beirut, creating a “direct threat” to the aircraft. The Israeli website quoted sources as saying that this was the first time a Russian defense spokesman referred to Beirut international airport, in the context of an Israeli air strike over Syria. "This could be considered as a Russian message to Jerusalem that the Kremlin and the Russian army officials are weighing as a way to retaliate against Israeli air offensive," the sources noted. "One possibility is the extension of the Russian shield of S-400 and S-300 air defense missile systems protecting Syrian air space to the skies over Lebanon. This safety curtain would also protect Hezbollah. A decision in Moscow on how to react against Israel may take a few days," they added.

Ibrahim to General Security: To steer clear of political strife
Thu 27 Dec 2018/NNA - General Security Chief, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, addressed the officers and privates of the General Security service on the holidays, stressing that "the General Security Directorate General is a fundamental institution in Lebanon, entrusted not only with the security of the Lebanese citizens, but also with the management of their affairs. It is also entrusted to monitor all those who set foot in the Lebanese territory, and this task requires vigilance, effort and sweat."Ibrahim urged officers to focus on their work within the Directorate "away from the political strife that the country is going through," wishing the new year would bring along peace.

Abi Khalil: Zahle Electricity signed operational contract
Thu 27 Dec 2018/NNA - Outgoing Energy Minister, Cesar Abi Khalil, said in a tweet: "The Zahle Electricity Company has just signed an operational contract in accordance with Law 107; a modern contract based on performance indicators and which establishes the principle of partnership between the public and private sectors. I have asked the Electricite du Liban to put it into effect on 1/1/2019, pending the necessary approvals. Congratulations to the people of Zahle and to the electricite du Liban."

Hezbollah Is a Terror Group. The West Needs to Wake Up
Azmina Siddique/CNN International/December 27/18
Hezbollah's announcement of its impending "victory" in Syria may be a reaction against US sanctions against Iran, but the threat it poses is no less real.
Hezbollah remains one of the most capable terrorist organizations in the world, which intends to continue expanding its reach. The international community needs to take a unified step to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety and curtail its global crime and terror network before it is too late.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on Tuesday announced that it would "very soon" celebrate victory in Syria, where the Iran-backed group's militia are fighting alongside pro-Assad forces.
The announcement came days after the US imposed new sanctions on Iran, following US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.
The mounting political and financial pressure on Iran's already struggling economy from renewed sanctions will no doubt have an impact on Hezbollah's activities. And Nasrallah's latest message shows that Hezbollah is gearing up for a fight.
Even in the days before the sanctions were announced, Hezbollah -- in a show of force -- published a picture of a squadron of its drones on its al-Ahed news site to highlight its continuing "message of resistance". Given Hezbollah's history of deadly attacks and military success, these are unlikely to be empty threats or mere posturing.
Hezbollah, which emerged amid the Lebanese Civil War, embraces the principles of Iran's Islamist ideology. The group sees armed struggle not only as justified, but as a sacred imperative and has implemented this vision with devastating success, from the 1983 bombing of US Marine barracks in Beirut to a 2012 attack on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria.Much of its violence has targeted Jewish communities, including the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina, which killed 85 people. Today, Hezbollah acts as a proxy for Iran in Syria, where it has its largest deployment outside of Lebanon (between 7,000 to 10,000 fighters), challenging US and Israeli strategic regional interests.
Iran is estimated to fund Hezbollah by up to $200 million a year and financial pressures on Iran from the sanctions is likely to make Hezbollah ramp up its international funding activities. This mainly involves arms and tobacco smuggling, and narcotics trafficking from South America to and via Europe, bringing the threat out from the Syrian theater of conflict and into the international stage. A global network of shell corporations, criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking and phantom charities worth more than $1 billion a year also finances Hezbollah's global terrorist activities.
And this network is increasingly extending to Europe; a recent undercover US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigation identified a UK-based Hezbollah associate who was carrying out money laundering as part of the group's international drug trafficking network.
Yet, despite this rap sheet of criminal and terror activities, no EU member state apart from the Netherlands currently proscribes Hezbollah in its entirety. Instead, these countries separate between the group's so-called "military" and "political" wings, banning the former but not the latter. The decision to only partially proscribe Hezbollah no doubt reflects the complex nature of the organization. Hezbollah has a strong political presence in Lebanon, where the group and its allies hold more than half of parliamentary seats. And although not officially "in power," the group and its allies hold a substantial grip over ministries and state institutions under the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while also providing social welfare as a means of gaining support.
But seeing the group's political and terror activities as distinct from one another is a mistake. Even its leader Nasrallah has implied there is little distinction between the two "wings" and its deputy leader Naim Qassem has stated "we don't have a military wing and a political one". As Daniel Byman, a Professor at Georgetown, puts it: "Hezbollah's social welfare organizations feed recruits to its military, and it uses its political power in Lebanon to shield itself from international pressure to disarm...the group's political and military leadership is unified and should be considered part of one cohesive organization".
This false distinction has enabled supporters and funders of Hezbollah to coalesce openly across Europe. In the UK, protesters at the annual "anti-Zionist" Al Quds Day march openly fly Hezbollah flags bearing the group's trademark machine gun emblem in the largest demonstration of its kind in Europe. As the group faces increasing financial pressures, it will look to draw on its international support base and expand its illicit activities globally to fund its campaigns of violence in Syria and the wider Middle East.
In the UK, policymakers from across the major parties have recognized this and have called for a change in UK law. British Labour Party Member of Parliament Joan Ryan and Conservative Party Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat have been among those calling for the group's full proscription, including during a parliamentary debate on the issue earlier this year that received cross-party support. EU governments have no doubt worried that full proscription of the group would hinder political and diplomatic engagement with Lebanon. However, the United States, Canada and the Netherlands have banned Hezbollah in full, and continue to maintain full diplomatic relations with Lebanon. The UK should follow their lead and encourage our international partners, including in the EU, to follow suit. It is time to ban Hezbollah in its entirety.

Latest LCCC English Miscellaneous Reports & News published on December 27-28/18
UAE reopens Syrian embassy in Damascus
Arab News/December 28/18/DUBAI: The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus on Thursday to normalise ties and prevent the danger of "regional interference".The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Thursday that initiating communication with Damascus will not leave the region open to Iranian interference.  He told Al-Arabiya that any decision to reinstate Syria to the Arab League requires Arab consensus, and that everyone is convinced that a political path is needed to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Emirates closed the embassy in the early stages of the Syria conflict, which started in 2011, and backed rebel groups against President Bashar Al-Assad's forces. But the strengthening of Assad's position in recent years and the theat of the presence of Iranian forces and their proxy militias appears to have led to Abu Dhabi seeking to improve relations. The foreign ministry said the UAE wanted to boost the "Arab role in supporting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic." Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said: "The UAE decision...came after a conviction that the next stage requires the Arab presence and communication in the Syrian file." The UAE flag was raised at the embassy and the charge d'affaires assumed his duties on Thursday. Earlier this month, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab head of state to visit Damascus since the start of the Syrian conflict. The border crossing between Syria and Jordan, another Arab country which backed the rebels, was reopened in October. A Syrian passenger flight flew to Tunisia on Thursday for the first time in nearly eight years. The Arab League suspended Syria's membership in 2011.
*With Reuters

Gargash: Syria’s return to the Arab League needs Arab consensus
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English/Thursday, 27 December 2018/The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the UAE, Anwar Gargash, said on Thursday that the decision to return Syria to the Arab League requires Arab consensus. In private statements to Al Arabiya, Gargash stressed that everyone is convinced that there is a political path to resolve the Syrian crisis. The UAE Minister of State pointed out that opening communication with Damascus would not leave the doors open for Iranian interference. Gargash had tweeted earlier on Thursday saying that the decision of the UAE to return its political and diplomatic work in Damascus comes after careful reading of developments and it comes as a result of believing that the next stage requires Arab presence and communication with the Syrian file in the interest of Syria, its people, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United Arab Emirates had announced earlier on Thursday the reopening of its embassy in Damascus. The embassy has been shut since the early months of Syria’s conflict, which erupted in 2011.

Israeli Army Rejects Netanyahu’s Request to End 'Northern Shield' Operation

Tel Aviv – Asharq Al-Awsat/Thursday, 27 December, 2018/Israeli Army rejected the request of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benjamin Netanyahu to announce the end of the "Northern Shield" operation, launched on the 4th of this month, to uncover and destroy Hezbollah tunnels on the border between Lebanon and Israel. Amid doubts that Netanyahu will exploit the operation for election purposes, the army said it could not announce the termination of the campaign because it was still looking for other tunnels to be "neutralized". Informed political sources explained that the issue creates some tension between Netanyahu and his close associates with the army and the rest of the security services. Touring the border with Lebanon, the Prime Minister said Tuesday that 'Northern Shield' operation to expose and neutralize terror tunnels along the Israel-Lebanon border is nearly complete. The sources confirmed that one of the leaders accompanying Netanyahu in his tour "did not like" this visit, for fear that it would be used in the PM’s electoral campaign. The army leadership does not favor the involvement of the army in the elections in such a way, and noted that Netanyahu is taking advantage of his position as security minister to establish himself as the "first man of security."In the same context, Netanyahu finds himself in a tough position given that only a month ago he announced that elections should not be held early given the security conditions in Israel, and that they are in the midst of a major security operation to destroy Hezbollah tunnels. When asked about the reasons behind changing his position and what happened this month, Netanyahu replied that the operation to uncover and destroy Hezbollah’s tunnels is “mostly behind us.”The army replied that such an order was not correct in the framework of regular military activities, and it still needed to continue to search for tunnels and exhaust resources and the time needed to end the search for all tunnels. This means the army wants the government to take responsibility in funding the campaign from the reserve budget, and aims to keep the operation away from the prime minister's electoral ambitions. Netanyahu believes that continuing this process and the security tension it causes on the northern front does not benefit him in the elections, according to an army official.
However, the Israeli army is now trying to delay the termination announcement of the operation as much as possible, and promote it in the media as being of great importance. Political officials who participated in the security deliberations on the issue noted that the search for tunnels was merely an engineering operation, and all intelligence services admit that Hezbollah contained the destruction of the tunnels and does not intend to act against Israel. Meanwhile, several political officials close to Netanyahu accused the army of seeking to exaggerate the importance and complexity of the operation.

Iraqis demand US troop pullout
Arab News/December 28/18/BAGHDAD: Iraqi political parties have demanded the withdrawal of US troops from their country hours after a “surprise” visit by Donald Trump to American forces based there. The US president and his wife Melania flew into Al-Asad military base in Anbar province on Wednesday, where he stayed for three hours but did not meet Iraqi officials. Iraqi politicians told Arab News the visit was not coordinated with the government and many considered the trip an insult and a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”Several Shiite leaders said they would respond by attempting to mobilize enough support to vote on a law that compels the Iraqi government to expel US troops. Some armed factions threatened to target the US troops if Washington refused to withdraw them. “The visit of the US president … is a violation of diplomatic norms and clear evidence of US disregard for international laws that bind states together,” Salam Al-Shimiri, an MP from the Reform parliamentary bloc led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, said on Thursday. “The Parliament which is the legitimate representative of all Iraqis, must express a clear and rapid position related to the ongoing violations of Iraqi sovereignty that have been committed by the American side.”Qais Al-Khazali, commander of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the most powerful factions backed by Iran who led several attacks against US, troops in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, said Iraqis’ response to the visit will be voting in Parliament on legislation to expel American forces.
“If your troops do not come out, we have the experience and the ability to push them out,” Khazali wrote on Twitter. Trump’s visit was his first to US troops in Iraq. George W. Bush and Barack Obama made similar visits, which were covert but included meetings with Iraqi officials. The then Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki met Obama at the Victory Base, near Baghdad Airport in 2009. During his visit, Trump thanked US troops for their efforts in fighting terrorism. He arrived at an airport in Jordan before moving on to Al-Asad in a military helicopter. Phone and internet networks were blocked in the region during the visit, military sources said. The Iraqi government said it was aware of the visit, which was aimed at “congratulating the new Iraqi government and visiting the US military within the international coalition forces.” The office of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said a formal meeting was supposed to take place between the two leaders, “but the divergence of views related to the arrangements led to replacing the meeting with a phone call.”An agreement signed between Iraq and the US in 2011 required the Iraqi government’s prior permission be obtained for any visits by US officials to forces present in Iraq.
Iraqi officials familiar with security procedures related to similar visits told Arab News that any aircraft flying in Iraqi airspace, whether military or civilian, needs to coordinate with Iraqi aviation authorities to ensure a safe air route. Sources close to Abdul Mahdi told media that Trump had called Abdul Mahdi and asked to meet him at the base, but the Iraqi prime minister refused. “All things indicate that Trump contacted Abdul Mahdi after he arrived at the base not before it, so Abdul Mahdi refused his invitation to meet him there because he wanted an official visit under the protocol, not a visit going in the dark,” a senior Iraqi official close to the prime minister told Arab News.

Iran-affiliated militias say Trump’s Iraq visit ‘will not go unpunished’
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English/Thursday, 27 December 2018/Militias affiliated with Iran in Iraq threatened to respond to American President Donald Trump’s visit to Iraq on Wednesday. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujaba said Trump’s visit to Al Asad Air Base in Anbar “will not go unpunished.”Harakat al-Nujaba said it will not allow turning Iraq into an American base that threatens neighboring countries and called on the Iraqi government to expel American troops from the country as their presence harms the country’s sovereignty. Sabah al-Saadi, head of the parliamentary reform and reconstruction bloc, called for holding an emergency parliamentary session to discuss the presence of American troops in the country. An Iraqi official had revealed that the American army established two new military bases west of Iraq near the Syrian borders. The move comes less than a week after President Trump decided to withdraw American troops from Syria. According to media reports, Farhan al-Duleimi, a member of Anbar’s provisional council, said that the first base was established north of Rumana sub-district in al-Qaim district in the vicinity of the Syrian border. This is located around 360 kilometers west of Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar governorate. As for the second base, it was established east of al-Rutbah, which is around 310 km west of Ramadi and near the Syrian border.

US-led coalition in Syria questions two Russian women who escaped ISIS

Staff writer, Al Arabiya English/Thursday, 27 December 2018/The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released a video showing two Russian women wearing the niqab who were able to escape the last ISIS pocket east of the Euphrates. According to the observatory, they were questioned after being brought to a safe location. There are growing fears from more far-reaching terrorist activity after the return of more Western women belonging to ISIS to their home countries. Female members of ISIS work as recruiters and coordinators between leaders of the organization and smaller cells. They also push militants to carry out suicide attacks as they are usually not targeted by security apparatuses. According to experts on extremist movements, women who return from “the land of defeats”, as described by the organization in Syria and Iraq, are the most important part of it. In addition to carrying arms and recruiting new followers, both men and women, they are used as coordinators on specific channels on a site used between neo-extremists and experienced militants. They become a vital link between the command and combat personnel or small combat cells.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman appoints new foreign minister in sweeping Cabinet reshuffle

Arab News/December 28/18/RIYADH: King Salman appointed a new foreign minister on Thursday in a wide-ranging reshuffle of Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet. The changes were widely expected within the Saudi political and media circles, given that the previous cabinet has surpassed its four year tenure.
Ibrahim Al-Assaf was named Minister of Foreign Affairs, a position formally held by Adel Al-Jubeir, who was appointed as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Assaf previously served as finance minister for two decades until 2016. In July 2017, he led the Saudi delegation to the G20 meeting in Hamburg. Assaf was detained briefly in 2017 as part of an anti corruption crackdown but was cleared of any wrongdoing. The royal decree, announced live on television by the king, revealed a string of new appointments. Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdul Aziz was named Minister of National Guard, and Mohammed bin Saleh Al-Ghofeily was relieved as National Guard advisor. Musaed Al Aiban was appointed as Saudi Arabia's National Security adviser. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal was appointed as chairman of the General Sports Authority in place of Turki Al Asheikh, who was appointed as the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority.  Prince Sultan bin Salman was relieved as president of Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), and was replaced by Ahmad Al-Khateeb. A new entity called the General Commission for Exhibitions and Conferences is to be set up, and its CEO will be appointed by royal decree. The Minister of Commerce and Investment Dr. Majed Al-Qassabi will also be responsible for the General Commission for Exhibitions and Conferences . Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Kingdom's ambassador in London, was relieved of his post. Turki Al-Shabana was appointed as Minister of Media, and Hamad Al-Sheikh was appointed as Minister of Education. Ahmed bin Mohammad Al-Issa, who was relieved as Minister of Education, was appointed as a Royal Court advisor and head of the Saudi Public Education Evaluation Commission.
Awad bin Saleh Al Awad, who was relieved as Minister of Media, has been appointed as a Royal Court advisor. Iman Al-Mutairi was appointed as assistant to the Minister of Commerce. Turki bin Talal replaced Faisal bin Khaled as the governor of the Asir region. Prince Badr bin Sultan was relieved of his post and replaced by Prince Faisal bin Nawaf as the governor of Al-Jouf region. Mansour bin Mohammad bin Saad Al Saud was appointed as Hafr Al-Batin’s governor. Badr bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was appointed as Deputy Governor of the Makkah Region. Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammed was appointed as a Royal Court Advisor.

Egypt foreign minister, spy chief visit protest-hit Sudan
Arab News/December 28/18/CAIRO: Egypt's foreign minister on Thursday voiced support for Sudan's embattled government, as Khartoum grapples with demonstrations against price hikes in which a disputed number of protesters have been killed.Cairo's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and intelligence chief General Abbas Kamel arrived in Sudan's capital on Thursday for talks with President Omar Al-Bashir and other officials at a time when angry crowds have held anti-government rallies in Khartoum and other cities. "Egypt is confident that Sudan will overcome the present situation," Shoukry told reporters after he met Bashir at the presidential palace in Khartoum. "Egypt is always ready to support Sudan and the ability of Sudanese people as per the government of Sudan's vision and policies," he said. The "stability of Sudan means (the) stability of Egypt," Shoukry said in what were the first remarks by a top regional Arab official in support of Bashir's government since protests began on December 19. The visit of the two Egyptian officials comes after the protests evolved into deadly clashes between riot police and protesters angered by a trebling of bread prices to three Sudanese pounds (about six US cents). Sudanese authorities say eight demonstrators have been killed, but Amnesty International has put the death toll at 37, citing "credible reports". Cairo and Khartoum have recently sought to iron out their differences in a bid to improve relations roiled by a longstanding border dispute and an impasse in talks over Ethiopia's Nile dam. In October Sudan lifted a ban on agricultural imports from Egypt during a visit to Khartoum by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Vatican hands down first money laundering sentence
Agencies/December 28/18/VATICAN CITY: A Vatican court has ordered an Italian businessman jailed for money laundering, a first for the notoriously secret micro-state. The court ordered Angelo Proietti, 63, jailed for two-and-a-half years, and seized more than a million euros ($1.14 million) that he deposited in an account at the IOR or Vatican bank. The account has been frozen since the case began in 2014. Proietti is on trial in Italy for bankruptcy fraud, and was accused of illegally siphoning money from his business to his Vatican account. He is under house arrest and can appeal the sentence. He would not serve time in the Vatican itself but in an Italian prison as the Vatican only has holding cells. “This is the first time that this crime has been prosecuted in Vatican jurisprudence,” the seat of the Roman Catholic Church said in a statement Thursday about the December 17 sentence. The IOR has 15,000 clients, most of whom have connections with the Catholic Church, and manages around 5.7 billion euros in assets. The Vatican’s bank made headlines following the 1982 death of Roberto Calvi, known as “God’s banker” because of his links to the Holy See, whose corpse was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. Prosecutors believe it was a mafia killing linked to money laundering via the bank. That and other scandals prompted a clean-up in recent years, first under Pope Benedict XVI and then under the current pontiff Pope Francis, with about 5,000 bank accounts closed.

Sudanese Information Minister: 19 killed in one week of protests
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English/Thursday, 27 December 2018/Nineteen people have been killed so far in Sudan protests, in addition to the injury of 219 civilian and 187 army militants, Sudanese Information Minister announced on Thursday. The minister of Information and spokesman for the government said that the Sudanese Public Prosecution opened an investigation to find out who is responsible for shooting the protesters. Sudan is witnessing protests in several cities that began on December 19, after the government's decision to make the price of bread three times higher in a country suffering from economic stagnation, and ruled by President Omar al-Bashir since three decades.

Latest LCCC English analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published on December 27-28/18
Analysis/Under Russia's Auspices, Syria Looks for Legitimacy in Arab World
تحليل سياسي من الهآرتس بقلم زفي برئيل: تحت رعاية روسيا ، سوريا تبحث عن الشرعية في العالم العربي

Zvi Bar'el/Haaretz/December 27/18
U.S. military presence in Syria failed to stymie plans of Turkey, Russia and Iran ■ On Syrian-Turkish border, Kurds prepare for the worst ■ Assad cozies up to Egypt and Iraq as Saudi Arabia's reputation declines.
UPDATE: The Damascus embassy of the United Arab Emirates is set to be reopened on Thursday. It was shuttered in 2011.
Syria? "It's all yours," Donald Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, adding, "we are done" – as though he were an Ottoman sultan grandly giving one of its officers an estate to run. Israel would love to hear such a promise. But even if it had, it wouldn't have meant anything. The one who decides on Israel's room to maneuver in Syria isn't the U.S. It's Russia, and in Moscow, Israel has suffered a series of threatening condemnations. From Israel's perspective, Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from Syria doesn't change a thing.
It's not just that Trump's decision changes nothing for Israel; the American military involvement, which began very belatedly, after half a million Syrians had died and eight million fled, didn't stymie the plans of Turkey, Iran and mainly Russia itself. Back in the Obama administration, Washington distanced itself from political moves aiming at finding a diplomatic solution to the war, despite the fight against Islamic State. The political channel that opened at the Geneva conference, and Saudi Arabia's efforts to establish an alliance of militias, flopped and were abandoned.
In their stead, Russia created an alternative avenue called the Astana channel (after the capital of Kazakhstan, where most of the crisis management talks were held). The western coalition that America tried to lead was replaced by a triumvirate of Turkey, Russia and Iran, which decided to set up safe zones. Turkey took responsibility for Idlib and north Syria; Iran agreed to stay a little bit farther from Israel's border but remains involved in the area of Damascus; Hezbollah is running the border area between Syria and Lebanon; and Russia transitioned from fighting and supervising its and Syria's forces, and to restoring Assad's status in the Arab world, as part of a larger diplomatic move.
Assad's return to the Arab League is up for discussion this week, and no final decision has been reached. But Russia's efforts to persuade Arab leaders to take back the son they kicked out in 2011 will continue until March 2019, when the Arab League convenes in Tunisia. It's no coincidence that Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir – who is wanted in The Hague for crimes against humanity – flew to Damascus on a Russian plane, which also flew him home. He was followed by Iraqi President Barham Salih; Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is also expected to visit soon.
But the most significant meeting was on Sunday, between Ali Mamlouk – head of national security in Syria, Assad's right-hand man and the man in charge the entire Syrian intelligence apparatus – with the head of the Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel. Egypt released a laconic announcement saying the two had discussed bilateral matters on the regional situation. But the editor of the Egyptian government newspaper al-Ahram, Jamil Afifi, explained at length that Egypt's relations with Syria are "historic" ties that should not be severed, and that any threat to Syria's national security is like a threat to Egypt's.
Afifi was expressing the intentions of Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who said a year ago that he is prepared to help the Syrian army because it's a national one, as opposed to militias. And in contrast with Saudi Arabia's position, Egypt voted at the UN in favor of a Russian resolution proposal that ruled out condemning Syria. Will Egypt take the next step and support Syria's return to the League? If Egypt has until now avoided stepping on Saudi Arabia's toes, it appears that following the Jamal Khashoggi incident and the ensuing diminishment of Saudi Arabia's status in the Arab world and internationally, Egypt's decision won't be that hard to make.
Like Jordan, which opened its border with Syria, Egypt would prefer that Syria stay within the League. Expelling it did nothing to change Assad's policy; Iran grew stronger against the Arab coalition; and Turkey – nemesis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia – became the proprietor of the northern part of the country. The Russian interest in bringing Syria back to the Arab League's arms is based not only on wanting to achieve legitimacy (first Arab, later international) for it, but also on a desire to balance Iran's and Turkey's influence in Syria, a goal that the U.S. didn't make (and, it seems, didn't intend to make) a reality.
The American helplessness was reflected in statements by James Jeffrey, America's envoy for Syrian affairs, who explained that removing Iran from Syria would be achieved diplomatically and not militarily. He just didn't mention who would spearhead the diplomatic initiative and what means of diplomatic pressure the U.S. would have.
The approaches toward Assad among the Arab leaders are also happening against the backdrop of a conflict that is likely to develop on the Syrian-Turkey border between the Turkish army, the militias subordinate to it, and Kurdish forces.
On Tuesday, Erdogan's special adviser Ibrahim Kalin said that all hell will break loose if Syrian forces were to attack their Turkish counterparts. Moscow doesn't appreciate such threats, since it will have to decide how long a rope it's prepared to give to Erdogan. But the plans to expand the Turkish occupation of Syria were not formed in conjunction with the sudden American pullout. Turkey did and does see Washington as ally of the Kurds, and did not hesitate at conquering the Kurdish city of Afrin back in March despite American disapproval.
It seems that even if the 2,000 American soldiers were to remain in Syria, Turkey wouldn't exactly view them as an obstacle. The interests and moves on the ground have developed and progressed regardless of the American presence. Meanwhile, the Kurds' understandable alarm and concern for their safety are seen as, at most, "collateral damage" that will not change policy in Russia, Turkey or Iran. The Kurds are bracing for a fight, it looks like they will have to seek shelter under the Syrian wing, with help from Russia.

UAE reopens embassy in Damascus after six years
دولة الإمارات العربية تعيد فتح سفارتها في سوريا بعد اغلاق استمر ستة سنوات

Hashem Osseiran/The National/December 27/18
The return of the Emirati mission to the Syrian capital could be another sign Bashar Al Assad's government is being cautiously admitted back into the Arab fold
A Syrian flag flutters in central Damascus. The UAE has reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital. Reuters
The UAE announced the resumption of its diplomatic service in Damascus on Thursday in a sign of thawing relations between the Syrian government and the Arab world after years of diplomatic isolation.
The Emirates closed its embassy in the early phases of the Syrian conflict but the reopening ceremony on Thursday afternoon marked significant reconciliation between Damascus and Abu Dhabi, which was previously part of the international Friends of Syria collective which supported opposition groups.
Thursday's resumption of diplomatic ties is the latest sign President Bashar Al Assad has emerged unscathed from a war in which more than 500,000 Syrians are estimated to have died.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargah said the Emirate's decision comes after a "careful reading of developments" and the "birth of a conviction" that the coming phase requires Arab involvement in the "Syrian dossier" to protect Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
He said on Twitter that an Arab role in Syria has become "necessary" to combat the growing influence of Turkey and Iran.
"The UAE is working to activate this role through it's presence in Damascus," he said, adding that the Emirates is also hoping to contribute to a political solution to the war.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation said the reopening of the embassy “reaffirms the keenness of the UAE to restore relations between the two friendly countries to their normal course".
Thursday's move “will strengthen and activate the Arab role in supporting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and to prevent the dangers of regional interference in Syrian Arab affairs,” the ministry said.
On Thursday afternoon, UAE's charge d'affaires Abdul Hakim Naimi visited the embassy and witnessed his country's flag being raised again on the compound in central Damascus.
Speaking outside the embassy, he welcomed Syria back into the Arab fold and said other Arab states would soon reopen embassies in the country.
"The opening of our embassy is a first step for the return of other Arab embassies," Mr Naimi told reporters outside the compound.
Diplomatic figures, including Iraq’s ambassador to Damascus, took part in the reopening ceremony.
In October, Mr Al Assad told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a "major understanding" with Arab states.
Earlier this month, Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syria since the start of the conflict.
Vital ally Russia has been active in lobbying for the regime to be welcomed back among Arab nations. President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East said this week that Mr Al Assad remained popular. "If he wasn’t, the results of the last few years would have been different,” Mikhail Bogdanov said.
Arab League states are now considering reinstating Syria's membership of the pan-Arab body, seven years after it was expelled over the government's violent response to protests at the start of the war.
But Damascus should have never been expelled from the body, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash told The National in June. "It was a mistake to kick Syria out of the Arab league. It meant we had no political leverage at all, no open channel. We could not present an Arab prism to how the Syrian issue should be resolved," he said.
There is now a growing feeling among the league’s 22 members that Syria should be readmitted to the alliance, with the Arab Parliament arguing that Syria must be welcomed back.
Recently, the UAE has been increasingly active in promoting diplomacy as a critical tool towards increasing peace and stability in the Middle East.
Renovations have been under way on the UAE embassy compound in the Abu Ramaneh district of Damascus in recent days. On Thursday afternoon, local television showed a worker installing the UAE's seal on a wall outside the embassy.
Throughout the war, Syria maintained its consulates in the UAE.
There are also direct flights on Syria's national carrier to Dubai and between the port city of Latakia and the emirate of Sharjah.
Oman, with its policy of quiet diplomacy, is the only Gulf Arab country to have kept its embassy in Damascus open throughout the civil war. In March, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moallem visited Oman on a rare trip by a Syrian official to the Arabian Peninsula.
Also on Thursday, pro-government news outlets in Syria reported the first flight in years between Damascus and Tunisia's capital by Syria's private Sham Wings.

Turkey and EU: Can this Marriage be Saved?
Burak Bekdil/Gatestone Institute/December 27/18
In Freedom House's democracy index, Turkey belongs to the group of "not free" countries, performing worse than "partly free" countries including Mali, Nicaragua and Kenya.
Just as there cannot be a "not free" member of the EU, there cannot be a member that blatantly ignores rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
"I think that, in the long term, it would be more honest for Turkey and the EU to go down new roads and end the accession talks ... Turkish membership in the European Union is not realistic in the foreseeable future." — Johannes Kahn, EU Enlargement Commissioner; interview in Die Welt.
In September 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she will seek an end to talks for Turkish membership in the European Union. Pictured: Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meet in Berlin, September 28, 2018. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
When Turkey first applied for full membership in the European Union in 1987, the world was an entirely different place -- even the rich club had a different name: the European Economic Community. U.S. President Ronald Reagan had undergone minor surgery; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been re-elected for a third term; Macau and Hong Kong were, respectively, Portuguese and British territory; the Berlin Wall was up and running; the demonstrations at the Tiananmen Square were a couple of years away; the Iran-Contra affair was in the headlines; the First Intifada had just begun; and what are today Czech Republic and Slovakia were Czechoslovakia.
In March 2003, just a few months after he was elected Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey was "very much ready to be part of the European Union family." In October 2005, formal accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU began.
Today, 31 years after the first date, the alliance seems to be broken, with no signs in the foreseeable future of a marriage between two perfectly unsuitable adults. Knowing that, both sides in the past decade have played an unpleasant diplomatic game of pretension: not be the one that throws away the ring. This boring opera buffa is no longer sustainable.
Turkey's democratic deficit has grown just too bitterly huge to make it compatible with Europe's democratic culture. According to the advocacy group Freedom House:
"In addition to its dire consequences for detained Turkish citizens, shuttered media outlets, and seized businesses, the chaotic purge has become intertwined with an offensive against the Kurdish minority, which in turn has fueled Turkey's diplomatic and military interventions in neighboring Syria and Iraq."
In Freedom House's democracy index, Turkey belongs to the group of "not free" countries, performing worse than "partly free" countries including Mali, Nicaragua and Kenya. The EU is certainly not a club of the "not free."
Most recently, a legal dispute between Turkey and the EU highlighted, once again, the huge disparity between the understanding of the rule of law in Turkish and European democratic cultures. This time, Turkey and the EU clashed over the rights of a prominent Kurdish politician who has been in jail on flimsy charges of terror. In a November verdict, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), to which Turkey is a signatory, ruled that Turkey should swiftly process Selahattin Demirtaş's case; the court said his pre-trial detention had gone on longer than could be justified. A Turkish court, however, ignoring the ECHR's verdict, ruled against Demirtaş's release from prison. The Turkish court's decision was a clear violation of the Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution:
"In the case of a conflict between international agreements in the area of fundamental rights and freedoms duly put into effect and the domestic laws due to differences in provisions on the same matter, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail."
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu described the ECHR ruling as motivated by politics, not the law, and asserted that the case would be determined by Turkey's courts.
Just as there cannot be a "not free" member of the EU, there cannot be a member that blatantly ignores ECHR's rulings.
Fortunately, there have been signs from Brussels that the "show must not go on." In April 2017, the European Parliament called for a formal suspension of Turkey's EU membership bid, which was already effectively frozen. In September 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she will seek an end to Turkey's membership talks.
More recently, in November, the official overseeing the EU's future enlargement said that, in the long term, it would be "more honest" for the bloc to give up talks on membership for Turkey. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Kahn told German daily Die Welt, "I think that, in the long term, it would be more honest for Turkey and the EU to go down new roads and end the accession talks ... Turkish membership in the European Union is not realistic in the foreseeable future." Kahn's was honest talk, calling a cat a cat.
In fact, a month earlier than Kahn's comments, President Erdoğan proposed a most realistic solution – although not for reasons of honesty, but merely for pre-election bluffing. Evidently he is signalling exasperation with the election process. Erdogan seems to be trying to appeal to the EU-weary, nationalistic voters ahead of Turkey's municipal elections on March 31, 2019 that Europe's reluctance to let Turkey into the EU is based, supposedly, on "Islamophobla". In an October speech, Erdoğan said he would consider putting Turkey's long-stalled bid to join the EU to a referendum.
Good idea, assuming that Turkey's most popular ever leader should campaign for Leave (the negotiations). All the same, as always, Erdoğan was bluffing, in a seeming effort to remind EU's leaders of Turkey's "strategic value" for Europe. At the same time, he was playing the tough man to his usually xenophobic, conservative voter base that has grown weary of being humiliated by 'infidel Europe.'
This author believes that there should be simultaneous EU and Turkish referenda asking the Europeans if they endorse an eventual Turkish membership, and at the same time asking the Turks whether they want to drop their bid to join. A "No" vote triumphing in either referendum should suffice formally to end Turkey's membership process; two "Yes" votes would mean the show must go on, that the audience is happy with the opera buffa.
The unconvincing pretention that Turkey should be "kept at bay" for strategic reasons is dishonest.
"Pulling the plug" is honest but probably not practical one: no one will wish to take that historic responsibility. In addition, polling numbers suggest a decline in Turkish public opinion for membership. On the other side, in the EU, the sympathy for Turkish membership is dramatically lower than in previous years. Support for Turkey's entrance, for instance, is at 8% in France, 5% in Germany, 8% in the UK, 5% in Denmark, 7% in Sweden and 5% in Finland. There is no way the EU average could surpass the 50% threshold.
So, let the club members and the applicant decide on a membership bid for a marriage that will never work.
*Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from the country's most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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Palestinians: Silencing and Intimidating Critics
Khaled Abu Toameh/Gatestone Institute/December 27/18
Palestinian columnist Sami Fuda denounced the Hamas crackdown on its critics in Gaza: "Apparently, freedom of expression is unacceptable to the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip... The policy of intimidating and imprisoning writers will not deter them and is completely ineffective and unacceptable."
While these few Palestinians have expressed concern over Hamas's effort to silence its critics, international human rights organizations, including some that operate in the Gaza Strip, continue to turn a blind eye to this assault on public freedoms. They are either afraid of Hamas, or they do not give a damn about human rights violations unless they can find a way of pointing an accusatory finger at Israel.
Hamas is prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a rally marking the 31st anniversary of its founding, but says it cannot afford to provide financial aid to impoverished Palestinians. Meanwhile, any Palestinians who dare to ask Hamas the wrong questions will find themselves behind bars.
What does the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas do when it is not firing rockets at Israel or sending Palestinians to clash with Israeli soldiers along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel? It sends its security officers to arrest, interrogate, intimidate and harass anyone who dares to criticize Hamas. Pictured: Palestinians in Gaza prepare to attack Israeli soldiers at the border fence with Israel on May 14, 2018. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
What does the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas do when it is not firing rockets at Israel or sending Palestinians to clash with Israeli soldiers along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel? It sends its security officers to arrest, interrogate, intimidate and harass anyone who dares to criticize Hamas.
It is not as if anyone was expecting Hamas to act differently. The terms democracy and freedom of expression have never been in Hamas's dictionary. For Hamas, it is either you are with us or you are against us. There is no third option for Palestinians living under Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip, even for those who were previously associated with Hamas, but later changed their minds and dared to express a different opinion or, worse, criticize the Islamist movement.
In the past week alone, Hamas has arrested two Palestinian academics on suspicion that they voiced criticism of the group: professor of biology Salah Jadallah and writer Khader Mihjez.
Jadallah was arrested earlier this week after he posted a comment on Facebook in which he accused the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip of enjoying a comfortable life while Palestinians were wallowing in poverty and misery. In the December 19 post, he wrote: "It's a life of hypocrisy, lies and quackery when an official lives in luxury while his people are overstrained and impoverished." He went on to accuse the Hamas officials of stealing funds earmarked for the people in order to build villas and mansions for themselves.
On December 26, Jadallah's son, Mohammed, said that Hamas ordered his father remanded into custody and refused to release him on bail. "My father criticized corruption in general and was not talking about a specific person or family," the son said.
This was not the first time that Prof. Jadallah found himself in trouble because of his public criticism of Hamas. In March 2016, he was suspended from his job at the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip because of Facebook comments criticizing Hamas and the university administration.
The professor, according to Palestinian sources, was once considered a prominent figure in Hamas -- probably why Hamas takes him seriously. As someone who grew up in Hamas, he knows more than anyone else about the conduct of the group's top brass. Far from being an outsider or a political rival, Jadallah is the ultimate Hamas insider.
The second man, Mihjez, was detained by Hamas for several hours on December 26 -- apparently for criticizing the arrest of Jadallah. In one Facebook post, Mihjez asked: "What is the academic degree that the man who is interrogating Prof Salah Jadallah hold?" Because of this rhetorical question, Hamas summoned Mihjez for several hours of interrogation.
Two years ago, Mihjez was also arrested by Hamas after he wrote a series of articles in which he explained why he no longer supported the Muslim Brotherhood organization. Notably, Hamas is an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood.
A Gaza-based group called the Journalists Forum for Human Rights condemned the Hamas measures against Jadallah and Mihjez as a "violation of freedom of expression" and called on Hamas to explain why its men were harassing prominent figures in the Gaza Strip.
Commenting on the arrest of Jadallah, Hassan Asfour, a former Palestinian Authority (PA) cabinet minister and columnist, said that most Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip shared the professor's criticism of the Hamas leadership, but were afraid to speak out:
"Professor Jadallah did not use a sword or bullets. What he said was not a secret. According to which logic was he taken away at night and thrown in detention centers that carry several names? What kind of message of terror is Hamas trying to impose on the Gaza Strip? Hamas is panicking, and that's why it won't allow any form of criticism of its policies. Intellectual repression and the confiscation of freedom of opinion, as well as preventing the exposure of corruption, is more dangerous to the society than any disease."
Another Palestinian columnist, Sami Fuda, also denounced the Hamas crackdown on its critics:
"Apparently, freedom of expression is unacceptable to the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip... The policy of intimidating and imprisoning writers will not deter them and is completely ineffective and unacceptable."
While these few Palestinians have expressed concern over Hamas's effort to silence its critics, international human rights organizations, including some that operate in the Gaza Strip, continue to turn a blind eye to this assault on public freedoms. They are either afraid of Hamas, or they do not give a damn about human rights violations unless they can find a way of pointing an accusatory finger at Israel. The silence of the international community toward human rights violations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip allows the Islamist group to continue its policy of intimidation against its critics.
The Hamas measures against its critics are aimed at preventing Palestinians and the rest of the world from learning about the group's corrupt dictatorship. Hamas leaders want to continue living the good life while their people are facing devastating living conditions. The millions of dollars of Qatari cash that were delivered to Hamas in the past few weeks have further emboldened the group, giving it carte blanche to intimidate its critics.
Hamas is more interested in muzzling its critics than improving the lives of its people. Hamas leaders are more interested in padding their own bank accounts than in grappling with the problems of unemployment. Hamas is prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a rally marking the 31st anniversary of its founding, but says it cannot afford to provide financial aid to impoverished Palestinians. Meanwhile, any Palestinians who dare to ask Hamas the wrong questions will find themselves behind bars.
*Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.
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Tunisia’s Best Hope for Economic Reform
Bobby Gosh/Asharq Al Awsat/December,27/18
Eight years after supplying the spark that lit the Arab Spring, Tunisia is again bracing for political upheaval in 2019. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is openly scrapping with President Beji Caid Essebsi, who has in turn broken his four-year partnership with the powerful Islamist Ennahda party, the single largest party in parliament. As the head of a coalition government, Chahed is under increasing pressure from public-sector unions over salaries, and the sale of state-owned companies. Meanwhile, a new generation of jobless young people is stirring; some, inspired by France’s “gillets jaunes” protests, seek to create a “red jackets” movement.
None of this bodes well for the Tunisian economy. Chahed needs to build a new national constituency ahead of a likely run for the presidency next year. So he is unlikely to have the stomach for the strong medicine prescribed by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a staggered $2.9 billion loan. Civil servants, whose salaries make up half of the national budget, and who are a powerful voting block, oppose many reforms.
The best hope for any economic discipline may lie with someone far removed from the country’s messy politics: Marouane El Abassi, the governor of Tunisia’s central bank. Appointed in February, the former World Bank official and economics professor has managed to impose a tight monetary policy. He is also coordinating with other ministries to meet the IMF’s conditions, and is negotiating deals with Algeria and Libya that would allow Tunisia to buy oil in its own currency, easing pressure on its foreign-currency reserves. “In a government marked by a lack of economists, and where the economic culture is missing, [Abassi] is sensitizing his colleagues to the gravity of the situation... and convincing them to act energetically,” says Hachemi Alaya, chief economist at the Arab Tunisian Bank.
Abassi has restrained spending by tightening access to credit, and raising the bank’s key interest rate, from 5 percent to 5.75 percent in March, and then to 6.75 percent in June. Since then, he has resisted IMF calls for further rate hikes, and defied dire predictions by holding the inflation rate to 7.5 percent. He has also allowed the dinar to weaken steadily, in line with the IMF’s recommendation. By Tunisian standards, these are significant achievements. “He’s done a very good job of containing things,” says Francis Ghiles, who studies North Africa and the Western Mediterranean at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs. His performance is already attracting comparisons with Abdellatif Jouahri of Morocco, North Africa’s most respected central banker.
Abassi has had several things in his favor. In a year when central bankers from the US to India have come under pressure from populist political masters, Abassi has enjoyed a high degree of independence, thanks to a 2016 law that shields the central bank from the government, and gives it total control over monetary policy. He also benefits from a reputation for personal probity and competence, and a lack of ties to any political party.
The economy boasts some other bright spots. The IMF prescription has helped reduce the budget deficit, thanks in part to higher (and unpopular) taxes, and GDP growth is expected to be 2.8 percent, up from 2 percent in 2017. Tourism, vital to the economy, seems to have recovered from the shock of the 2015 terrorist attacks.
But 2019 will bring greater challenges. “Between now and the elections, you're going to see more pressure [on Abassi] from the prime minister,” Yerkes says. The civil servants, who called a nationwide strike in November, are threatening another, and their demands for pay hikes will get progressively more strident. Strikes and an ugly election campaign would dampen the tourism recovery.
Maintaining tight monetary policies in the midst of a rancorous election campaign would be hard enough; Abassi has other pressing problems on hand. The current account deficit is expected to end the year at around 9 percent of GDP; foreign-currency reserves, at $4.6 billion, cover less than three months’ worth of imports. Servicing Tunisia’s foreign-currency debt, at $30 billion, will cost $3 billion in 2019.
Not all of these problems are the central banker’s to solve, but they will hamper his ability to deal with those that are. So in the middle of what promises to be a tumultuous year for Tunis, keep a close eye on Marouane El Abassi.

Copts once again fall victim to deadly violence in Egypt
Ahmed Youness/Al Monitor/December 27/18
CAIRO — A police sergeant tasked with guarding a Christian church has been charged with premeditated murder in the shooting deaths of a Coptic man and his son who had been working nearby.
The inhabitants of Minya governorate in southern Egypt awoke Dec. 13 to the news that the evening before, Sgt. Rabie Mostafa Khalifa had allegedly opened fire on the men when a dispute erupted as the sergeant was guarding Nahdet al-Qadasa Church.
Dead are Emad Kamal Sadiq, 49, and his son David, 21.
The father and son were contractors removing the ruins of a demolished house facing the church when an altercation broke out between Sadiq and Khalifa, witnesses said. Khalifa allegedly shot the men around 6 p.m. Dec. 12, according to a statement by the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas.
Coptic activist and Minya citizen Mina Bashay told Al-Monitor by phone that the sergeant had told the workers to steer clear of the area he was patrolling around the church, and the three of them got into an intense brawl that later resulted in the shootings.
Bashay added that the argument doesn't justify the policeman's alleged premeditated murder of the two Copts using a machine gun — a weapon meant to protect Christians, not kill them.
Bashay said anger has been rising in church circles, especially in the Minya and Abu Qurqas diocese, but this anger remained muffled due to intensified security measures that prohibited discussing the incident in an attempt to contain the situation and ward off sectarian strife. Bashay ruled out the possibility of the government taking action to curb aggression against Copts because it classifies such incidents as “personal” and believes they don't reflect persecution against a vulnerable minority.
The Minya prosecutor's office issued a decision Dec. 14 to jail the accused sergeant for four days for investigation purposes. Before issuing the decision, a prosecution team had headed to the church that day and retrieved surveillance footage to review.
Initially the sergeant had been accused of simple murder, but on Dec. 17, the prosecutor amended the charge to premeditated murder, rights activist Mohammed Hamed told Al-Monitor. Khalifa could be sentenced to death by hanging, as per the Egyptian Criminal Code.
On Dec. 19, the prosecutor's office issued a statement detailing the latest developments, which appear to show that the sergeant had actually been waiting to see the victims with the intent of killing them.
Minya Bishop Anba Makarios told Al-Monitor by phone that in the past, he had repeatedly asked officials for comprehensive security. Copts frequently are attacked and killed in Minya. According to Makarios, such incidents sound the alarm for the state to revisit the services it offers to the governorate and to focus on education and awareness for citizens to avoid such painful occurrences.
Makarios said the slayings of Sadiq and his son are even more disturbing than a Nov. 2 incident, when armed men attacked a bus carrying Copts who were on a visit to St. Samuel Monastery in Minya governorate. Eight of the Copts died as a result of the attack.
He said the St. Samuel Monastery attack was committed by Islamic State members who are enemies of all Egyptians. The recent attack, he noted, was perpetrated by a policeman who was meant to guard churchgoers, not kill them.
Makarios called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to intervene to deal with the repeated attacks on Copts.
A source from the Egyptian Ministry of Interior told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that security forces arrested the accused policeman as soon as they learned of the shooting and put him in solitary confinement until the prosecution began questioning him the next day.
The source added that the prosecutor is investigating the incident impartially and transparently, asserting that it is a heinous personal incident whose motives can only be explained by the involved police sergeant.
The source refused to blame the Ministry of Interior for what happened, saying, “The Ministry of Interior has taken several measures to ensure the ... safety of individuals and soldiers. But it cannot detect the movement of each person and know what is going on in their heads. Whether the victims are Christian or Muslim, this is a crime — a heinous one at that.”
Found in: Ethnic/Religious Minorities
*Ahmed Youness covers Egypt’s judicial affairs for Al-Shorouk newspaper. He worked for Mantiqti, the first completely local newspaper in Egypt. He is also a translator with the Egyptian Researchers’ Initiative and is interested in social sciences and literature. He is the author of a collection of stories, “Softer Death.”

Trump on Syria Withdrawal: We Give Israel Billions of Dollars, They'll Be OK
هآرتس: علق ترامب على سحب القوات الأميركية قائلاً: نحن نعطي البلايين لإسرائيل وووضعها سيكون جيداً

Amir Tibon/Haaretz/December 27/18/
Trump: 'We are going to take great care of Israel. Israel is going to be good'
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday in reply to a question on how the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will impact Israel that "we give Israel $4.5 billion" security every year, and so "Israel will be very good."
Speaking to reporters on the way back from a trip to American troops stationed in Iraq, Trump said: "I spoke with Bibi," he saidm, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "I told Bibi, you know we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they are doing very well at defending themselves."
He added, "I’m the one that moved the embassy to Jerusalem. I was the one who was willing to do that. So that’s the way it is – we are going to take great care of Israel. Israel is going to be good. We give Israel 4.5 billion a year. And we give frankly a lot more than that if you look at the books. They’ve been doing a good job.”
In an abrupt policy shift, Trump announced on December 19 that Washington would withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, upending a pillar of American policy in the Middle East and alarming U.S. allies.
In an unannounced trip to Iraq, Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, where they have been helping battle Islamic State militants.
"I think that a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking. It's time for us to start using our head," Trump told reporters at the Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq.
Speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu addressed Trump's withdrawal from Syria on Sunday, saying that it "will not change our policy. We are standing steadfast on our red lines in Syria and everywhere else." He added: "We will not be deterred from doing what is necessary."
Netanyahu alluded Wednesday to Israel's activity in the north, saying, 'We are not prepared to accept the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria." A day after an airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel, Netanyahu said at an Israel Air Force graduation ceremony: "We will act against it vigorously and continuously, including during the current period."
The prime minister added that "no other country in the world has" some of the special capabilities developed by Israel Aerospace Industries. "In the history of the Middle East, there has never been aerial activity such as this. Aircraft ascend and descend, take off and land, and reach arenas both near and far, very far."Syrian state media reported Tuesday that Israeli aircraft struck an arms depot west of Syria's capital city of Damascus from Lebanese airspace. According to reports, three Syrian soldiers were wounded in the attack that targeted Hezbollah depots.
A report in the American weekly Newsweek said several senior Hezbollah officials were wounded in the alleged attack.
Russia criticized the airstrikes on Wednesday, saying they had endangered civilian flights. An Israeli official said, however, that Israel alerted Russia about the airstrikes ahead of time.

My wish for 2019: Conflict and more orange peel
Walid Jawad/Al Arabiya/December 27/18
Conflicts around the world from the unfathomable against the Rohingya in Myanmar to the Brexit dispute are highlighted in the news and rightly so. But these are a small number of conflicts people around the world are mired in. As conflict breaks, news organizations check them against their criteria for newsworthy events and against its editorial-line, bottom-line, and redlines. Only those that make the cut become headlines.
Death, destruction, kidnapping, revenge, punishment, political deadlock, diplomatic impasse, and the quest for justice within the courts or in extrajudicial fashion are some of the manifestations of conflict we typical read about in the news.
Yet, conflict takes many more forms. Human interactions are a constant exercise in conflict resolution negotiations from ones’ relations with employers or employees to the exchange of money for goods or services to interactions within one’s family, friends, and society.
The dynamic nature of our existence offers plenty of opportunity for agreements and potential conflict. The inability to reach a satisfactory outcome typically results in conflict prompting a search for alternatives. Negotiating a compromise, coming up with alternative goals, and reframing/redefining sought after outcomes are tactics we utilize every day.
Negotiations over basic needs of existence and rights require similar tactics, but with a real need for a clear-eyed understanding of underlying issues instead of dwelling in the treacherous minefield of arguing the positions people fight over. Although these seem tricky to engage on, such conflicts are the type that is most worthy of our efforts as they are the most consequential. Contrary to popular belief, conflict is not a negative state of affairs in and by itself. Nonviolent conflict is what gave us many of the positive things we are enjoying today.
While human conflict with nature over millennia made it necessary for man to innovate survival tactics and create tools to overcome challenges, social conflicts gave us concepts such as equality and equitable wealth distribution
The upside of conflict
While human conflict with nature over millennia made it necessary for man to innovate survival tactics and create tools to overcome challenges, social conflicts gave us concepts such as equality and equitable wealth distribution. It gave us the larger framework citizens to work through: government. Social norms codified and turned into laws constitute the ultimate arbiter in conflicts within a society. This system strives to be as just and fair as possible to prevent conflicts from becoming violent. The rule of law is a construct that works effectively when applied uniformly within a society.
The latest #MeToo movement has ushered a new era for gender equality and rights. The last midterm elections prompted more women to run for public office than ever before. Indeed more women won their races including the first female Muslim Arab-American to Congress.
International conflict in the last century gave us military innovations which we use on a daily basis including reading these words on the Internet. If it weren’t for the US Department of Defense, the Internet would only live on the pages of creative fiction writers. International conflicts gave us other advantages such as establishing the concept of sovereignty and international borderlines.
In 1648 the peace agreement between warring groups in Europe planted the idea of nation-states which the basis of our current world order. As consequential as the signed Peace of Westphalia was, the people of that era did not enjoy real peace. For them it was a theoretical exercise which brought them temporary peace; i.e. negative peace.
Negative vs. positive peace
Negative peace is the situation where a cessation of violence is reached based on an understanding between fighting groups. It is the type of peace that is celebrated globally and for good reasons. Humans are averse to living in fear and loss of life especially one’s own or that of loved ones. Negative peace neutralizes the source of threat allowing people to attempt rebuilding their lives. Localized violence in faraway lands theoretically poses no threat beyond the local battlefield, but in reality, violence anywhere in the world has unintended global consequences. From a human perspective, we are all connected in this global village. Suffering befalling fellow humans anywhere in the world should be of concern to us.
Refugees dying as they cross the Mediterranean, persecuted Muslim Uighurs in China, oppressed North Korean citizens, Syrians dying in a multiparty conflict on Syrian soil, Houthis and the suffering Yemeni people, Libyans in the crossfire of their civil war, and unrest in Africa and Latin American are some of the glaring examples. My apologies to all of the other groups of people suffering whom I didn’t mention.
But if that concept sympathy is too lofty of an ideal to exist in our consciousness as we battle the hours of our days, the economic fallout is a tangible impact we can all feel. In no subtle ways, global oil prices fluctuate in extreme fashion as a result of wars and the threat of war.
Tracking oil prices over the last three decades of the last century shows an undeniable correlation between wars and spikes in crude oil prices: the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the second oil crisis of 1979 due to the Iranian revolution, and the oil shock of 1990 as a result of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The effects were immediate as we all paid higher prices at the gas pump.
Negative peace as a concept is fragile and should be invested as a transitional period to negotiate a lasting peace. The US Navy is quoted describing negative peace as a “perpetual state of pre-hostilities.”Positive peace is one that addresses needs and resolves issues. Getting caught up in the positional demands of the conflicting parties only leads to a return to violence. Smart negotiators understand the difference between positions and issues.
The orange
The fable goes like this: A mother burst into the living room where her two daughters are fighting over an Orange, demanding to know the cause of the ruckus. One of the two insisted she has the right to have the Orange because she reached for it first. The mother thought to resolve the conflict in a way that is clearly fair to ensure her daughters’ acceptance.
She quickly takes the orange to the kitchen, cuts it in half giving each one of the girls an equal share. The simple and easy solution seems fair and should resolve the conflict between the two, but satisfaction is proven to be elusive.
One girl peels her half eating the orange throwing the peel in the trash, while the other throws the orange keeping the peel to make an orange sorbet. Had the sisters engaged in a discussion, their negotiation would have revealed the reasons behind their position. The positional demand was over who has the right to the orange.
The issue was in fact what each of them wanted to get out of the orange. Effective negotiations would have allowed both to realize they can share one orange yet end up with the whole portion of the fruit according to each of their wants - one would get the peel and the other to eat it. Of course, when the parties in conflict are too deep into the weeds, positional negotiation become the default. Here is when a neutral third party becomes critical. This outside party can mediate to steer the parties toward negotiating the underlying issues. Positional negotiations can lead to a win-lose outcome, while issue based negotiations can help the parties achieve a win-win situation.
There are many complicated conflicts on the horizon of 2019. Many of which are ongoing while others can be anticipated. The one conflict I predict becoming more contentious in the next few months. The conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. As we await for Jared Kushner to reveal his peace plan, I can only hope it prompts the conflicting parties to work through the “issues” as defined by them.
Framing the conflict by a third party such as the US and defining the issues for the conflicting parties instead of allowing both the Palestinians and the Israelis to express and define their issues is worse for the prospect of peace than not engaging in the first place.
Wishing all of humanity in the new year 2019, a hopeful reprieve grounded in inspiring conflict and positive peace!

How long can India sit out China’s Belt Road Initiative?
Simran Sodhi/Al Arabiya/December 27/18
With the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) China has made it boldly plain to the world that it intends to shape the world in an image of itself. Or at least an image where the Chinese imprint on everything, from roads to dams to ports and to technology is evident.
Some suspect that this imprint will slowly start to emerge on the militaries around the world too. While today more than 70 countries from across Europe, Asia and Africa have come on board this ambitious Chinese initiative, there are still some that are sitting outside.
The European Union, for one, isn’t entirely happy with the BRI. The United States feels it is the latest Chinese trick to take on the mantle of the world’s lone superpower, something which under Xi Jinping’s leadership is quite possible, given again US President Donald Trump’s stance to move his country away from a position of global leadership.
In the Asian continent, it is India that is holding up. It has steadfastly refused to join the BRI and going a step further, today sounds increasingly critical of the BRI and its many projects. For India, there are primarily two problems it sees with the BRI and its many projects.
One, the Chinese economy is far stronger than the Indian economy and China can afford to dole out billions of dollars as loans to smaller countries, something India is unable to match. According to 2018 data released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the Chinese economy is today the world’s second largest economy worth $14 trillion.
India stands at position seven with a worth of $2.85 trillion. Add to this the fact that the BRI and its projects are totaled at $1trillion and one begins to understand India’s dilemma.
China apart from lending billion dollar loans around the world and especially in India’s neighborhood has also started a “debt-trap” diplomacy in South Asia. Bangladesh has been a recipient of Chinese generosity as has been Sri Lanka.
Chinese loans to Dhaka and Colombo both undermine India’s desire to be seen as the regional super power and also upset security and strategic networks that India has with its smaller neighbors
Debt trap diplomacy
But then the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has also today become an example of the Chinese debt trap diplomacy. (The port in Sri Lanka cost more than a billion dollars to build and China loaned the sum. But now with Colombo unable to re pay the debt, the port has been leased to China for 99 years). The Chinese loans to Dhaka and Colombo both undermine India’s desire to be seen as the regional super power and also upset security and strategic networks that India has with its smaller neighbors.
Former Foreign Secretary Shashank points out that in some projects India and China are already co-operating and it is only in CPEC that India has objections. “CPEC passes through Gilgit and Baltistan which are parts of India. China will have to come to some understating with India on this.”He gives the example of Afghanistan where India, China and Afghanistan are working on a trilateral project, as an example of how India and China don’t necessarily work at cross purposes.
“There are some infrastructure projects that we are a part of with China. Then we have joint membership of the SCO. Our concern is when China undertakes projects like in Sri Lanka where Chinese submarines were to be docked and that then becomes a threat to our national security. Otherwise if other countries want to work with China, how can we object?”
The BRI was first projected in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was then called the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. In May 2017, China hosted the ‘Silk Road Summit for International Cooperation’, which was attended by over 60 countries (excluding India).
Today, under the BRI China has reached out to the European Union, ASEAN and SCO members and West Asian countries. China has also entered into BRI-related construction agreements with countries of the Middle East. It has obtained affirmations of support for BRI from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman.
As more and more countries join the BRI, India increasingly looks isolated on the global stage. Earlier this year in June, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao city, India was the only country that refused to endorse BRI.
Pakistan corridor
India’s second problem with BRI is the part of the project that runs through Pakistan, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India has strongly criticized the project as it runs through parts of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).
CPEC is a $50 million transportation project that Pakistan hopes will infuse money and jobs into its faltering economy while for China the gains are many. With CPEC, many now regard Pakistan as a satellite state of China. India is wary of this close China-Pak relationship which it feels is a major security issue.
Former ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar said that in his view more and more countries are now getting “anxious” and “wary” of the BRI. “I feel that the opposition to BRI is growing. The bids are closed, projects don’t seem economically viable, most countries feel that they don’t need these projects and most countries are landing in debt trap because of this.”
In response to the fact that it is not just Chinese money but other international organizations too that are today lending money for BRI, Sajjanhar pointed out that there is a need for ‘transparency’ in the projects. To counter China and the BRI projects, India, Sajjanhar said cannot do it alone, other countries like Japan and the US will also have to come forward to provide alternatives to smaller countries and also alternative funding.
India’s official stance on the BRI and specifically on CPEC has remained constant through this year. The official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a statement earlier this year laid out India’s concerns and said, “Our position on OBOR/BRI is clear and there is no change.
Territorial integrity
The so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ violates India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. “We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality, and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.” While both of the above two concerns expressed by India vocally, at many domestic and international forum are valid, the question now is how long can India afford to sulk and sit out?
As more South Asian countries in its neighborhood from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh make a bee line to be part of BRI, how long before India also joins the bandwagon and protects its interests from the inside than outside? India joining the BRI may not be an easy sell in the domestic politics too. For far too long, all political parties have used Pakistan and China as the enemies India needs to protect itself against. The economics of it might make sense but politically it may be bad arithmetic.
As India goes into election mode 2019, any concrete policy movement on BRI is unlikely till a new government is elected. But New Delhi needs a fresh take on BRI and simply a sit out in protest is hardly going to get it any strategic gains.