February 14/2018
Compiled & Prepared by: Elias Bejjani


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Bible Quotations
Who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke 18/10-14: "He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others. “Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published on February 13-14/18
Liberman On Syria: This Is Not The Time To Bark, But To Bite/Anna Ahronheim/.Jerusalem Post/February 13/18
Damascus Warns Israel Of More Surprises In Syria/Jerusalem Post/February 13/18
Israel's Downed Jet Means One Thing to Assad, Another to the Opposition/Jack Khoury/Haaretz/February 13/18
Analysis After Years of Covert Proxy Wars, Iran Shifts to Direct Contact With Israel/Anshel Pfeffer/Haaretz/February 13/18
Hundreds of pro-Assad Mercenaries and Russian Troops Killed by U.S. Strikes in Syria This Month/Haaretz/February 13/18
Erdogan's Turkey: Making Trouble Everywhere/Burak Bekdil/Gatestone Institute/February 13/18
Macron Vows to Reform Islam in France/"It is time to bring in a new generation."/Soeren Kern/Gatestone Institute/February 13/18
The Regional Dimensions of the Syrian Conflict/Abdulrahman Al-Rashed/Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18
The Odds of Fixing US Infrastructure Just Got Better/Barry Ritholtz/Bloomberg/February 13/18
How Elon Musk Beat Russia's Space Program/Leonid Bershidsky/Bloomberg/February 13/18
Dozens of Russians Are Believed Killed in U.S.-Led Syria Attack/Ivan Nechepurenko, Neil MacFarquhar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff/New York times/February 13/18
Khamenei And Clerics Starting To Show/Dr. Majid Rafizadeh/Arab Times/February 13/18
US, Turkey could be on collision course in Syria/Metin Gurcan/Al Monitor/ February 13/18
The metastases of Syrian crisis/Christian Chesnot/Al Arabiya/February 13/18

Titles For Latest LCCC Lebanese Related News published on February 13-14/18
Aoun meets Polish PM in Baabda, receives invitation to visit Poland
Rome II Conference to Be Held on March 15
Lebanon’s Top Officials Meet to Unify Position ahead of Tillerson’s Arrival
Cabinet to meet at Baabda Thursday: presidency
Iraqi Militia Vows to Back Hizbullah in War with Israel
Aoun Says 'Keep Backing Middle Class' as Housing Bank Toughens Terms
Bassil Calls for Large-Scale Aid at Rome II, Says Terror Will Stay Until Refugees Return Home
Polish PM Pledges $10 Million in Aid to Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
Hariri Hails Jumblat Ties as Mustaqbal Stresses Loyalty to Rafik Hariri
British Ambassador Hosts Reception for Women Parliament Candidates
Report: Hizbullah Stages Maneuvers to 'Penetrate Cement Block Walls'
Kataeb: 'Hizbullah Communications Grid' in Rmeileh Poses Security Risk
Kanaan after Change and Reform meeting: To finalize 2018 state budget
Land Transportation postpones Thursday's strike
Army Commander meets Jumblatt in Yarze
More than 6000 activties carried out by Italian sector west UNIFIL peacekeepers in last 3 months
Mashnouq explains vote law to diplomats, maintains polls enhance stability
Khoury, Armenian Ambassador tackle cooperation prospects
Hariri in FTTX launching ceremony: A quantum leap for Lebanon
Riachy partakes in Tele Liban Directors' Council meeting

Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published on February 13-14/18

Iranian intellectuals demand referendum to change regime
Iran unveils new homemade nuclear-capable ballistic missiles
Putin’s Intervention Ended the Israeli-Iranian Confrontation
Iranian Academics Demand Authorities Probe ‘Suicide’ of Prominent Environmentalist
Erdogan: US Decision to Finance YPG Will Affect Turkey's Decisions
Tillerson from Kuwait: Continued Coalition Support Needed to Achieve Enduring ISIS Defeat
Egypt forces have killed 38 militants in major operation
Sami Anan blackmail documents revealed, Egyptian army investigates
Israeli military trial of Palestinian teen opens behind closed doors
Palestinian leader Abbas tells Putin he wants US peace role diluted
Washington denies discussing annexation of settlements with Netanyahu
Israel accuses Turkey of aiding Hamas
ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is ‘alive but wounded’ in Syria hideout
North Korea's Kim Lauds South's Hospitality
Canada supports reconstruction efforts in Iraq and the region

Latest Lebanese Related News published on February 13-14/18
Aoun meets Polish PM in Baabda, receives invitation to visit Poland
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - President of the Republic, General Michel Aoun, on Tuesday welcomed at the Baabda palace Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, currently on an official visit to Lebanon. President Aoun told the Polish PM that Lebanon looks forward to bolstering ties with Poland in all spheres, hailing the Polish experience in the fight against corruption. Aoun welcomed the Polish companies' desire to partake in development and construction projects in Lebanon, including the field of oil and gas exploration. The President briefed Morawiecki on the current situation in Lebanon and challenges facing the Lebanese at the current phase, particularly the Israeli threats against Lebanese waters and land, as well the impact of the Syrian displacement to Lebanon. Aoun asked Poland in its capacity as member of the UN Security Council until 2019, to work within the United Nations to ensure the return of the displaced Syrians to their homeland after ensuring appropriate security conditions. The President also informed Morawiecki of Lebanon's aspiration to be an international center for dialogue of religions, civilizations and cultures, soliciting Poland's support in this regard. Morawiecki, for his part, conveyed to Aoun the greetings of the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who wished him success in leading the country towards the safe shores. The Polish PM also expressed his country's desire to bolster bilateral relations between the two countries, notably in the economic, social and trade fields. He proposed expanding cooperation between Lebanon and Poland by contributing to development projects, such as roads, electricity and oil, in addition to benefitting from the Polish experience in the fight against corruption. Morawiecki also conveyed to Aoun an official invitation from his Polish counterpart to visit Poland. The president duly accepted the invitation, whose date to be fixed later through diplomatic channels.

Rome II Conference to Be Held on March 15
Beirut- Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18 /Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said that the Rome II Conference for the Support of Lebanese Army and Security Forces would be held on March 15 in Italy. Following a meeting on Monday at the Grand Serail, in the presence of Italian Ambassador to Lebanon Massimo Marotti as well as senior politicians, security officials and diplomats, Machnouk affirmed that the conference, which aims to rally support for the Lebanese Army and security forces, would be held in mid-March. “The conference is a historic opportunity to establish practical rules for security in Lebanon, from which we will get our military needs for a secure future not only for Lebanon but for the whole world,” Machnouk said. The Interior Minister denied reports about the refusal of some Arab countries to participate in the conference.
He noted in this regard that some countries did not confirm their participation immediately, but no Arab country has refused to join. “Setting March 15 as the date affirms that there is a positive atmosphere regarding the attendance of all countries that are being reported as not attending,” he said. Monday’s preparatory meeting was held at the Grand Serail at the invitation of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and under the auspices of the International Support Group for Lebanon, with the participation of Machnouk, Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, ambassadors and representatives of the League of Arab States, the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and a number of Arab and European countries. The Rome II conference is one of three donor conferences to rally international community’s support for Lebanon and its economy. A similar conference was held in Rome in 2014 and was attended by representatives of 43 countries as well as international and regional organizations.

Lebanon’s Top Officials Meet to Unify Position ahead of Tillerson’s Arrival
Beirut - Caroline Akoum/Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18 /Lebanon’s top officials held intense talks on Monday ahead of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s scheduled visit to Beirut later this week amid tensions with Israel over offshore energy exploration and its construction of a border wall in the South. President Michel Aoun met on Monday Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Presidential Palace in Baabda to discuss the latest Israeli threats, including the separation wall that it started to build in Ras Naqoura last week, and Beirut’s plans to explore Bloc 9, which Tel Aviv claims is within its maritime border. Their meeting was preceded by a tripartite military meeting in Ras Naqoura to discuss Israel's position on Lebanon's objection to the construction of the concrete wall. At the end of the Baabda meeting, Hariri said: "Our direction is to always have a unified position from any Israeli aggression against Lebanon."Sources informed on the meeting told Asharq Al-Awsat that Lebanon is committed to its land and maritime borders and is open to the US mediation, kicked off by US Deputy Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, during his recent visit to Beirut. “The US proposal is similar to the so-called Hoff Line, presented by former ambassador Frederick Hoff, who had suggested an agreement in 2011 to demarcate the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel, by giving Lebanon about 550 square kilometers from the 860 square kilometers area,” the sources explained. Although Lebanon rejected this proposal, Beirut remains open to the US mediation, the sources added. They explained that the Lebanese decision regarding the dispute with Israel will be finalized after carefully studying the suggestions carried by Tillerson during his talks in Lebanon. The US official is set to arrive in Beirut on Thursday. Concerning the separation wall that Israel is currently building along its Lebanese border, the sources said that Beirut’s stance is not open to debate.
“Lebanon informed Israel through the UN during Monday’s meeting in Naqoura that it rejects giving up an inch of land to Israel.”

Cabinet to meet at Baabda Thursday: presidency
The Daily Star/February 13/18 /BEIRUT: Cabinet will meet Thursday, the presidency’s Twitter reported Tuesday. "Cabinet will meet at the Baabda Palace at 4 p.m., headed by President Michel Aoun," the tweet read. The session will be held on the same day U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make his one-day visit to Beirut. Tillerson is expected to meet Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri as part of his regional tour.
STL President Says Absence of Defendants Won't Obstruct Justice
Naharnet/February 13/18President of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) Judge Ivana Hrdlickovca stressed on Tuesday that justice shall be served in the assassination case of ex-PM Rafik Hariri, pointing out that the defendants' absence from the proceedings will not thwart the tribunal's goal. “The court will not allow defendants to obstruct the achievement of justice through their absence,” Hrdlickovca said in opening remarks for an ad hoc colloquium in The Hague. She added: “The Special Tribunal is not only a court for Lebanon, but a court of many precedents. It is the first court to try crimes in the Middle East and the first to prosecute terrorist crimes in peacetimes.”Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive and shocking suicide bombing in 2005 that destabilized the country. Five Hizbullah suspects are being tried in absentia by The Hague-based STL over the attack.

Iraqi Militia Vows to Back Hizbullah in War with Israel
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/February 13/18/The head of the powerful Iraqi militia Harakat al-Nujaba pledged on Tuesday to stand alongside its Lebanese ally Hizbullah if a new war breaks out with Israel. Harakat al-Nujaba and Hizbullah have fought side-by-side to bolster Syrian government troops since 2013, most prominently against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria. On Tuesday, the movement's secretary general Akram al-Kaabi visited the tomb of top Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh to commemorate the 10 years since his death. "We in the Iraqi resistance stand with Hizbullah, and we will stand with Hizbullah in any Israeli attack or action against it," Kaabi said. He pledged to fight "with Hizbullah in a single row, on a single front, just as we stood with them on a single front in Iraq or Syria."Kaabi spoke in Beirut's southern suburbs, where Hizbullah has a strong support base.
Both Harakat al-Nujaba and Hizbullah are backed by Iran. They fought alongside Syrian government troops and other allied militia to oust IS from key cities in eastern Syria last year, including Albu Kamal. Hizbullah has also dispatched top commanders and advisers to Iraq to help the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi force. In June, Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned that hundreds of thousands of Arab and Muslim fighters would be ready to fight against Israel if it waged a new attack. It "would open the door for hundreds of thousands of fighters from all around the Arab and Islamic world to participate in this fight -- from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan," he said. Kaabi is the second top Iraqi militia leader in recent months to come to Lebanon in a show of support to Hizbullah. Senior Hashed commander Qais al-Khazali, who heads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, visited southern Lebanon in December.

Aoun Says 'Keep Backing Middle Class' as Housing Bank Toughens Terms
Naharnet/February 13/18/President Michel Aoun on Tuesday urged banks to continue to offer loans aimed at propping up the country's middle class, after Banque de L'Habitat (housing bank) toughened its lending terms. Aoun voiced his remarks during a meeting with a delegation from the Association of Banks in Lebanon. “The president instructed us to continue to offer loans that support the middle class,” ABL chief Joseph Torbey said after the meeting. “There is great confidence in the financial sector and in the central bank that oversees these issues,” Torbey added, reassuring that “we are not in a crisis.” Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh meanwhile held talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Grand Serail.The meetings come after the central bank issued a memo adjusting the interests of loans backed by it and amid reports that the housing banks has sharply toughened its lending terms. According to reports, the housing bank has raised the interest rate from 3% to 3.75% as it lowered the payment period from 30 to 20 years. The interest rate for Lebanese expats was meanwhile raised from 2% to 2.75% with an unchanged 30-year payment period. Under the new reported terms, the bank will also withhold loans from anyone who inherits a house outside Beirut and anyone who benefited from a housing bank loan in the past. A central bank source meanwhile told LBCI TV that the central bank “has nothing to do with measures taken by the housing bank or commercial banks regarding housing loans.”“These measures are part of the policy of each bank,” the source added.

Bassil Calls for Large-Scale Aid at Rome II, Says Terror Will Stay Until Refugees Return Home
Naharnet/February 13/18/Lebanon's army has liberated the parts of land used to be occupied by the Islamic State extremist group with the help of the Resistance, as we urge aid countries to provide assistance for the country's security and military at the Rome II Aid conference scheduled on March 15, Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil said on Tuesday. Bassil, speaking at a meeting in Kuwait of the U.S-led global coalition against the Islamic State, also said that terrorism will linger on until the refugees return back to their homeland.Basisl was speaking in the presence of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kuwait Sheikh Khalid al-Hamad al-Sabah, US Secretary of State Rex Tilerson, foreign ministers of 44 states and a number of representatives of regional and international organizations. “My country's national army is poor in its equipment but rich in determination. It was able to liberate the land with the help of resistance people. We appeal to you to participate and provide assistance at the Rome II conference on March 15 which is dedicated to provide aid for the Lebanese army and security forces so we can eradicate terrorism,” said Bassil. The Minister highlighted the pre-emptive measures undertaken by the security forces that succeeded at foiling several terror attacks. The army has “a successful public policy in dismantling and eradicating terrorist cells based on the integration of our country's components and cooperation between its apparatuses and yours.” Pointing to the influx of Syrian refugees and their impact on Lebanon, the Minister said: “Lebanon has fought for itself and is now fighting for you. It has paid for the policies that made it the most country to receive displaced people in the history of mankind. It is known that mass exodus can only be accompanied by terrorism or violence.”“In the past, some had planted the eradication of the Palestinian state, and Lebanon has been besieged by a Palestinian refugee, accompanied by violence and extremism. Today, some have planted manipulation in the affairs of states and we have witnessed an unprecedented displacement,” he added. “Terrorism will not end unless you open the way for the safe and dignified return of displaced people to their country,” he concluded.

Polish PM Pledges $10 Million in Aid to Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
Associated Press/Naharnet/February 13/18/Poland's prime minister has visited a school and clinic for Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon, reiterating his country's position that aiding those uprooted by the war should take place closer to their home.
In a statement Tuesday, Mateusz Morawiecki's office said he has declared $10 million to help Lebanon build housing for 1,000 refugees from Syria. Morawiecki said aid to refugees close to the countries they want to return to is the most efficient form of aid. Morawiecki was received by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday for a working dinner. On Tuesday, he held talks with President Michel Aoun in Baabda and invited him to visit Warsaw. Citing security concerns, Poland's conservative government rejected a European Union plan to distribute refugees currently in Greece and Italy to countries around Europe. Poland has come under criticism and warning of sanctions from EU leaders. Lebanon hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees and asks the international community to share the burden.

Hariri Hails Jumblat Ties as Mustaqbal Stresses Loyalty to Rafik Hariri
Naharnet/February 13/18/Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced Tuesday that al-Mustaqbal Movement “will continue the journey with Democratic Gathering chief MP Walid Jumblat,” describing the relation with him as “historic.”“It started with Rafik Hariri and, God wiling, Saad Hariri will carry on with it along with Walid Beik and my brother Taimur (Jumblat),” Hariri told a Mustaqbal delegation that came from the Chouf area of Iqlim al-Kharroub. Al-Mustaqbal parliamentary bloc meanwhile reiterated its “adherence to the approach and policies” of Rafik Hariri and “the rest of the martyrs of the Independence Uprising.” In a statement issued after its weekly meeting, the bloc also expressed its continued support for the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon “in order to unveil the truth, fulfill justice and put an end to impunity from prosecution.”Noting that slain PM Rafik Hariri had worked for “Lebanon's independence, Arab identity, freedom, full sovereignty over its land, national unity, civil peace and unique Muslim-Christian coexistence formula,” Mustaqbal underlined its support for his son, Saad Hariri, as he moves to defend “Lebanon's freedom, independence, sovereignty, Arab identity, economic and social rise” and to “confront Israeli attacks and threats.”Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive suicide truck bombing on February 14, 2005. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is trying four Hizbullah suspects in absentia over the crime.

British Ambassador Hosts Reception for Women Parliament Candidates
Naharnet/February 13/18/British Ambassador to Lebanon Hugo Shorter has hosted a reception to call on Lebanese political parties, voters and women to increase women’s representation in parliament in the upcoming elections, the British embassy said on Tuesday. The event was also an opportunity to celebrate “100 years of votes for women in the UK.”The reception was attended by Minister of State for Women Affairs Jean Oghassabian, more than seventy women, mainly candidates, and men and women from all walks of life. In a statement, the British embassy in Lebanon noted that it has been working on women’s rights and empowerment for a number of years, including promoting the role of women in politics. Ambassador Shorter has been amongst the most prominent advocates first for a women’s quota to be included in the new electoral law, and then for parties to promote women’s candidacies on their lists.
During his address at the event, Shorter said: "This is a symbolic year for women in the UK. I hope it will be a symbolic year for women in Lebanon too. 100 years ago this month, women in the UK were granted the vote for the first time. It wasn't total suffrage: only women over 30 who owned property could vote. But it was a milestone moment that started a sea-change: 10 years later, the vote had been extended to all women over the age of 21.” Shorter added that, nonetheless, the UK is still “on a journey.”“Nine out of 28 ministers attending our Cabinet are women. 32% of our MPs are women. Not bad, but we could do better. The descendants of those courageous women – and a few men – who campaigned for women’s suffrage, continue their work,” he said. “Lebanon is on that journey too. It started well: Lebanese women won the vote ahead of many, in 1952. But then something stalled,” the envoy added. “Votes for Women was the slogan of the past. Today, it's Seats for Women. Women are fighting for their rights. But they also need the people in power -- the men -- to be willing to share that power, to build a better society. Women are succeeding in all walks of life. It is not competence or lack of will that is holding them back,” Shorter said. He stressed that the time has come for “50% of Lebanon's population” to be represented by “more than 3% of its parliament.”“The time has come for seats for women. And so I say to political parties, to voters and to women themselves: Yalla!,” Shorter added, using a Lebanese dialect word.

Report: Hizbullah Stages Maneuvers to 'Penetrate Cement Block Walls'

Naharnet/February 13/18/Hizbullah has reportedly “completed maneuvers” in the central region of Syria where special equipment were used to “penetrate” concrete block walls similar to the separation wall Israel is building on the border with Lebanon, Ad Diyar daily reported on Tuesday. Quoting unnamed ministerial sources, the daily said talks between “two accredited diplomats on the sidelines of a social event touched on the issue.” “A Western diplomat told his Arab counterpart that intelligence data acquired by his embassy assert that Hizbullah carried out maneuvers in the central region of Syria last week, using special equipment for the penetration of concrete walls similar to those constructed by Israel on the border with southern Lebanon,” the sources said. They added, that the “maneuvers have focused on ways to breach electronic sensors, surveillance cameras, and the harmonization between ground advancement and the use of unmanned drones in addition to other exercises to violate Israeli measures along the border.”Hizbullah's alleged exercise “is a concern for the decision-making circles,” they added. For its part, Hizbullah sources refused to comment on the report, said the daily. They considered Israel's measures on the border express concern and fear of the capabilities of Hizbullah's Resistance. “The Israelis realize that what they are doing is only to delay the fieldwork of the Resistance and not to prevent it,” the daily said quoting Hizbullah sources.

Kataeb: 'Hizbullah Communications Grid' in Rmeileh Poses Security Risk
Naharnet/February 13/18/The Kataeb Party on Monday warned that a reported military communications grid in the coastal town of Rmeileh near Sidon poses a “security risk to residents.”“The installation of a Hizbullah communications grid in the town of Rmeileh is a blatant attack on the state's sovereignty and it poses a security risk to residents,” Kataeb said in a statement issued after the weekly meeting of its political bureau. “The Kataeb Party is worriedly following up on reports coming from some of the area's figures about a cover-up by some ministries for these suspicious activities,” the party added.Turning to the latest flare-up in Syria, Kataeb cautioned against “entangling Lebanon in the inferno of the region's conflicts and axes or turning it into a proxy war arena.”“The Lebanese diplomacy should urgently communicate with the U.N. and the international community to confront Israeli attacks and the territorial, maritime and aerial violations of sovereignty, and to confirm the separation of the Lebanese and Syrian tracks,” the party added. It also urged the state to “regain the initiative and preserve the country's higher interest through monopolizing the decisions of war and peace and adhering to legitimate Lebanese forces to protect security inside the country and defend the border.”

Kanaan after Change and Reform meeting: To finalize 2018 state budget
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - MP Ibrahim Kanaan on Tuesday reiterated calls to settle on the 2018 state budget bill and forward it for endorsement, stressing that the Free Patriotic Movement will mobilize on the governmental and parliamentary levels to help achieve that goal. "The Change and Reform bloc renews its position calling to refer the budget (...) As a parliamentary and ministerial bloc, we have our ways to deal with the issue through pressure first, and mobilization inside the government and the Parliament," Kanaan said following the bloc's weekly meeting. According to Kanaan, talks touched on the looming international conferences in support for Lebanon. "As Lebanese, we are asked to shoulder our responsibility and to devise our vision through a budget that tackles all issues, concerns, and the reforms we agreed upon in 2017," he said. Moreover, the bloc shone light on the Syrian refugees' issue, urging the state to adopt a serious and clear plan to end the crisis.

Land Transportation postpones Thursday's strike
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - Head of the Land Transportation sector's union, Bassam Tleis, announced that the union decided to postpone Thursday's strike, after receiving promises to meet their demands from Interior Minister Nohad Mashnouq, whom they visited on Tuesday.

Army Commander meets Jumblatt in Yarze
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - Army Commander, General Joseph Aoun, on Tuesday received at his Yarze office head of the Democratic Gathering MP Walid Jumblatt. Talks between the pair reportedly touched on most recent developments in the country.

More than 6000 activties carried out by Italian sector west UNIFIL peacekeepers in last 3 months
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - There are about 6000 activities carried out by the peacekeepers of the "Folgore" Brigade, framed in ITALBATT during the first 3 months of the mission. Over 500 of these operational activities were carried out, mostly along the demarcation line called Blue Line, in close coordination by the Italian soldiers of "Savoia Cavalleria" and 183 "Reggimento Paracadusiti" Nembo "with the Lebanese Armed Forces. These activities, ranging from training courses with local security forces, to meetings with local authorities to support activities for the local population, have guaranteed in recent months a marked increase in the stability of the area, favoring a greater feeling of security and of the improvement of living conditions for citizens as well as increased freedom and security of movement throughout the area of operation. In these days the second course in favor of the sharpshooters of the General State Security is in progress, and a training aimed at perfecting the use of the supplied individual armament will soon start. There are about 70 meetings in the 30 schools that insist on the territory, with over 15 donations of educational material and the 800 patients have been exceeded during the Medical Care activities carried out by the doctors of the Italian battalion. During one of the last meetings, Col. Cristian Margheriti, Commander of ITALBATT, underlined the excellent relations existing with the inhabitants and local leaders. The Mayor, Bahji Husseini, warmly commented: "the Italian battalion is the lung through which we breathe."

Mashnouq explains vote law to diplomats, maintains polls enhance stability
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - Ambassadors from 24 countries and representatives of the United Nations and the European Union participated in the "Elections' Forum" on Tuesday, where Interior Minister Nohad Mashnouq and his technical and administrative team elaborated Lebanon's new vote law and the details of the electoral process. In his intervention, Mashnouq highlighted the "importance of the legislative polls in protecting the democratic system and enhancing political stability in Lebanon.""The unprecedented reforms made to the vote law will allow a better representation of different Lebanese segments," he said. "The Ministry is now ready to conduct the elections," he maintained. For her part, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Pernille Dahler Kardel saw that the team's presentation was "encouraging" and "promising." In turn, EU Ambassador Christina Lassen maintained that the "EU supports all the electoral reforms as they are compliant with the recommendations included in the EU report following the monitoring of Lebanon's 2009 legislative elections."

Khoury, Armenian Ambassador tackle cooperation prospects

Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - Culture Minister, Dr Ghattas Khoury, on Tuesday met at his ministerial office with Armenian Ambassador to Lebanon, Samvel Mkrtchian, with talks reportedly touching on most recent developments and the overall situation. Cooperation relations between Lebanon and Armenia, notably the executive program for cultural cooperation, featured high on their talks.

Hariri in FTTX launching ceremony: A quantum leap for Lebanon
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - The President of the Council of Ministers Saad Hariri described the completion of the high-speed Internet project (fiber optics from central stations to end users FTTX) as very important for Lebanon because citizens need this kind of technology that contributes to facilitating their work and creating many job opportunities for them. Hariri sponsored the launching ceremony of the high-speed Internet project organized by the Ministry of Communications at the Grand Serail. He said: "This project is one of the most important projects for Lebanon and for every Lebanese citizen. We, in the government, chose to work, while others in other governments chose not to do any work and just watch. However, this government, with the Minister of Communications and the officials at the ministry have taken a decision to make a quantum leap in this country that needs this kind of technology, so it reaches all houses in Lebanon and contributes to providing many jobs." He added: "The private sector really needs this project, and will invest in this service to facilitate its work. We were late in introducing the FTTX. This is a very important project for Lebanon. I congratulate the Ministry of Communications and Minister Jamal Jarrah for their efforts. Yes, it took time and was well studied. We decided to apply it and we will not listen to those who want to disrupt the state progress and just tell u what to do. We achieved success in the Internal security forces and the Lebanese army, through decision-making in the government. Talk is not my work and my duty is to provide services to citizens. It is our duty in this government to serve the citizens. We are employees of the Lebanese citizen and this is the spirit in which we work. Congratulations to the Lebanese and I will follow this project day by day."He concluded: "We hope to provide 600 thousand lines at the end of this year".Separately, Hariri received today the US ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard and discussed with her the preparations for the visit of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Lebanon. Hariri also received the Head of Defense office at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Francois Roux. Hariri also sent cables to the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev offering his condolences for the victims of the Russian plane that crashed near Moscow.

Riachy partakes in Tele Liban Directors' Council meeting
Tue 13 Feb 2018/NNA - Information Minister, Melhem Riachy, took part on Tuesday in Tele Liban Directors Council's weekly meeting during which he implored the Council of Ministers to place the TV channel's dossier on the agenda of the forthcoming cabinet session. Moreover, the Minister confirmed that the appointment of a new administrative council had nothing to do with the nature of relations with the Free Patriotic Movement. "I have never dealt with this issue from a political perspective," the Minister confirmed. The TL Directors' Council gave a briefing to the Minister on the situation of the institution at the absence of an administrative council. Following the meeting, Riachy said that he was keen on forming a Directors' Council in a bid to mitigate the escalating tension at the absence of the much-needed appointments by the council of ministers for almost nine months.
"We're hoping that Tele Liban will rank among the first TV channels within the first 16 months after the appointment of a new administrative council," Riachy added.

Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published
on February 13-14/18
Iranian intellectuals demand referendum to change regime
Mohammed Hamid – Al, 13 February 2018/Iranian human rights activists, authors and politicians said in a statement issued Sunday that the Iranian regime has proved its failure and called for an internationally-supervised referendum “to specify the features of the future regime.”The statement, which was signed by 15 prominent political, cultural and social figures, slammed the “oppressive irreparable regime” in Iran. “It has hidden behind religion for the past four decades leading to a political deadlock and destroying the opportunity towards reform,” they said, adding that the regime “obstructs the Iranian people’s freedom.”Their call to hold a general referendum is based on people’s right to self-determination. They also slammed the judicial authority and said officials in the judicial and legislative apparatuses were “ignorant people who lack competency. They added that laws were “unjust as they promoted discrimination and violence” which led to corruption and looting of public funds. They also condemned harassing and detaining lawyers, journalists and activists for criticizing the regime and demanding to separate religion from politics. “To overcome this crisis, the current Islamic regime must be peacefully abandoned. (The country) must move forward towards establishing a parliamentarian system according to democratic bases that guarantee freedom of expression, end discrimination against women and solidify the principle of equality among men and women and people of different religions and sects,” they added. Those who signed the statement include lawyers Nasrin Sotoudeh, Shirin Ebadi, who has received a Nobel peace prize, directors Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, philosopher Mohsen Kadivar and political activists Mohsen Sazegara and Hassan Shariatmadari.

Iran unveils new homemade nuclear-capable ballistic missiles
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English/Tuesday, 13 February 2018/Iran has unveiled a series of new homemade nuclear-capable ballistic missiles during military parades held this week.The parades come after a confrontation between an Iranian drone and Israeli forces in Syria on Saturday. The arsenal included a nuclear-capable medium-range missile that appears to share similarities with North Korean technology, according to experts cited by the Washington Free Beacon news site. “The nuclear-capable missile can strike Israel even when fired from Iranian territory,” the site reported. Iran's state-controlled media quoted military officials as saying that the missile "can be launched from mobile platforms or silos in different positions and can escape missile defense shields due to their radar-evading capability."

Putin’s Intervention Ended the Israeli-Iranian Confrontation
Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18 /Moscow continued on Monday its diplomatic efforts to contain the repercussions of the downing of an Israeli warplane and the massive air strikes on Syria, with Russian President Vladimir Putin acting like a “referee” to end the Israeli-Iranian clash. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov stressed that his country was working with “partners” to prevent the escalation of the dispute, and warned that the situation “should not be allowed to further deteriorate.”Earlier on Monday, the Israeli Army told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet that about half of the Iranian-Syrian surface-to-air missiles were destroyed during the raids on Saturday. It was reported that Israel “intended to continue destroying the rest of the missile launchers, but Netanyahu ordered a halt to the operation following a telephone conversation with Putin,” in which he was informed that Moscow opposes “the escalation and warns against harming its interests in Syria.” Well-informed Israeli sources said that the impression prevailing among Israeli officials was that Putin had acted like the referee of the match, blowing the final whistle to end the confrontation between Israel and Iran and all the players obeyed his decision.”Meanwhile, Bogdanov noted that Russia was exerting efforts to overcome differences that have recently emerged between Tehran and Ankara, adding that the three parties agreed to hold a meeting at the level of foreign ministers next month in Astana. Bogdanov emphasized the importance of abiding by agreements signed on the de-escalation zones in Syria, adding that the extension of the agreements would likely be announced in the upcoming tripartite meeting. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Russia’s remaining contingent in Syria had the necessary potential to deter terrorist activity.
“As far as terrorist attacks are concerned, everybody understood that those attacks could not be stopped overnight. But the Russian air force, which is tasked with continuing to help the Syrian regime forces in fighting terrorism, has the necessary potential to keep suppressing terrorist activity,” Peskov told reporters.He also reiterated Russia’s ongoing diplomatic efforts on Syria. “This is the continuation of the Astana and Sochi efforts. As you know, the president continued regular contacts with his colleagues from Turkey and Iran in recent weeks. This work will continue,” he said.

Iranian Academics Demand Authorities Probe ‘Suicide’ of Prominent Environmentalist
Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18 /Top Iranian academics and human rights advocates demanded on Monday that the suspicious death, identified as suicide by authorities, of prominent sociologist and environmental activist Dr. Kavous Seyed Emami be probed.
“The Revolutionary Guard has announced its readiness to provide documents and evidence to the parliament about the suicide of Emami,” said Mohammad Reza Tabash, a member of the environment Bloc. “The parliament will hold a meeting with officials of the judiciary, the prison guard, the Revolutionary Guard, intelligence and the Environment Organization in the next few days,” he added. On January 24 and 25, security forces reportedly arrested seven environmental activists, including Emami, 63, a well-known Iranian-Canadian academic and a faculty member of Imam Sadegh University. On February 10, Ramin Emami, his son, wrote on social media that authorities had summoned his mother the day before to inform her that her husband had “committed suicide” in detention. Emami’s death ignited waves of local and international anger. Farideh Oladghobad, Iranian educator and reformist politician who is currently a member of the Parliament of Iran representing Tehran, Rey, Shemiranat and Eslamshahr electoral district, refused to charge environmentalists with espionage. Meanwhile, Iran’s Deputy Head of Iran's Department of Environment Kaveh Madani, appointed by President Hassan Rouhani last year, published a video recording that appeared to confirm he had been briefly detained in recent days. A well-known water conservation activist trained in the United States, Madani was plucked in September from his job at Imperial College London to join the government, signaling President Hassan Rouhani's efforts to encourage the return of Iranians from abroad. Emami is the second Canadian citizen to die in Iran's prisons following the murder in 2003 of 54-year-old Zahra Kazemi, who had been arrested for taking photos outside Evin prison.The vice-president at the time, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, stated that she died from "a brain hemorrhage caused by a beating".

Erdogan: US Decision to Finance YPG Will Affect Turkey's Decisions
Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18 /Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned on Tuesday the United States’ decision to continue on financing the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). He said that the move will affect Turkey's decisions. He made his remarks ahead of a two-day visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Turkey, which he kicks off on Thursday. US officials have said that Tillerson expects to have difficult conversations when he visits the country, given that the NATO allies have starkly diverging interests in Syria. Turkey has been enraged by US support for the YPG, which Ankara sees as a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Washington has backed the YPG in the fight against ISIS in Syria. “Our ally’s decision to give financial support to the YPG... will surely affect the decisions we will take,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his ruling AK Party in parliament. His comments followed the release of the US Department of Defense's 2019 budget, which includes funds to train and equip local forces in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey last month launched an incursion into Syria, which it calls “Operation Olive Branch” to sweep the YPG from its southern border. It has also threatened to press on to the Syrian town of Manbij, under the control of a YPG-led force, and has warned American troops stationed there not to get in the way. Washington says it has no plans to withdraw its soldiers from Manbij and two US commanders visited the town last week to reinforce that message. “It is very clear that those who say ‘we will respond aggressively if you hit us’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap,” Erdogan said in parliament. That was an apparent reference to comments made by US Lieutenant General Paul Funk during a visit to Manbij. On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused American forces in Syria of intentionally stalling the fight against ISIS as an excuse not to cut ties with the YPG. He told reporters in Istanbul that US forces are leaving "pockets" with ISIS terrorists intact to justify continued cooperation with the YPG. He added that Ankara’s Turkey's ties with Washington are at a make-or-break stage and that it needs to take "concrete steps" to regain Turkey's trust. "Our relations are at a very critical stage," Cavusoglu said. "Either we will improve ties or these ties will totally break down."

Tillerson from Kuwait: Continued Coalition Support Needed to Achieve Enduring ISIS Defeat

Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18 /US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday before the international coalition against ISIS that the military operations on the ground have not spelled the end of the terrorist organization. He stated: "Without continued attention and support from coalition members, we risk the return of extremist groups like ISIS in liberated areas of Iraq and Syria and their spread to new locations." He made his remarks at a coalition gathering in Kuwait. "The end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS," Tillerson said. "ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe," he said. The Trump administration is increasingly concerned that the 74-strong coalition it cobbled together to destroy ISIS is losing sight of the prime objective. Tillerson pressed partners to refocus their efforts, overcome rivalries and concentrate on the task at hand: the eradication from Iraq and Syria of the extremist group. Distractions are adding up, such as Turkey's fighting with US-backed Kurds in Syria and renewed spillover from Syria's civil war. Meanwhile, hostilities between non-coalition actors — Iran, its proxies in Syria, and Israel — risk creating a new conflict in an already crowded battle space. Tillerson announced that the United States would contribute an additional $200 million "to further support critical stabilization and early recovery initiatives in liberated areas of Syria," bringing Washington's total contribution to humanitarian efforts to nearly $7.9 billion since the conflict in Syria began in 2011. It was not immediately clear how that money would be distributed. Tillerson reaffirmed that the US "would maintain a conditions-based and ISIS-focused military presence in Syria" that would in part continue to train local security forces. US officials said the thrust of Tillerson's message was that "eyes have to be on the prize" and anything that hinders ISIS' defeat will impair broader objectives such as a political transition in Syria that ultimately leads to an end of the war and blunts Iranian behavior throughout the region.Rising tensions between the US and NATO ally Turkey over Turkish military operations against the Syrian Kurds are a primary concern and Tillerson will end his five-nation swing through the region in Ankara on Friday after stops in Jordan and Lebanon. Turkey's foreign minister said Monday that Tillerson's visit, which follows a similar trip by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, comes at a make or break time for relations. "Our relations are at a very critical stage," Melvut Cavusoglu said. "Either we will improve ties or these ties will totally break down."
Ankara is riled over Washington's support for the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG — the top US ally in the fight against ISIS. Turkey considers the YPG a "terrorist" group linked to Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey's own borders.
At the meeting in Kuwait, Tillerson made a point of noting concerns about the situation and urged "all parties to remain focused on defeating ISIS, deescalating and resolving the Syrian conflict and protecting innocent civilians."In addition to keeping the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria on the front burner, Tuesday's meetings in Kuwait will also focus on preventing the spread into Europe and elsewhere of retreating ISIS terrorists.
Tillerson said the US supports a new blueprint for boosting intelligence and information sharing and law enforcement cooperation to halt the flow of those fighters. "In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is attempting to morph into an insurgency. In places like Afghanistan, the Philippines, Libya, West Africa and others it is trying to carve out and secure safe havens," Tillerson said. "We have seen in Iraq and Syria the consequences of an ISIS territorial presence. History must not be allowed to repeat itself elsewhere."Turning to Iraq, Tillerson urged members of the coalition to help rebuild the country or risk the reversal of the gains made against ISIS there. Donors and investors have gathered in Kuwait this week to discuss efforts to rebuild Iraq’s economy and infrastructure as it emerges from a devastating three-year conflict with the terrorists, who seized almost a third of the country.
Iraq declared victory over ISIS in December, having taken back all the territory captured by the group in 2014 and 2015. The group has also been largely defeated in neighboring Syria. The US appreciates the “generous contributions” of coalition members over the past year, but more is needed, Tillerson told the Kuwait meeting. “If communities in Iraq and Syria cannot return to normal life, we risk the return of conditions that allowed ISIS to take and control vast territory,” he said. “We must continue to clear unexploded remnants of war left behind by ISIS, enable hospitals to reopen, restore water and electricity services, and get boys and girls back in school.”The US is not expected to make a direct government contribution at the conference, however. “It’s not in the question of a pledging thing where we go out with requests, it’s underscoring – there is a need for support. It’s investment, it’s private company engagement, it’s DFI,” a senior state department official traveling with Tillerson told reporters on Monday. The term DFI generally refers to development finance institutions such as multilateral development banks.

Egypt forces have killed 38 militants in major operation
AFP/Tuesday, 13 February 2018/Egypt's military said Tuesday it has killed 38 militants and arrested more than 500 militants and suspects days after launching a major operation against an ISIS group affiliate in Sinai. The military said it had killed 10 "extremely dangerous" extremists, in addition to 28 militant fighters it had previously announced as having been killed. A statement added that 400 "criminal elements and suspects" had been arrested, having previously announced the arrest of 126 people. The dead militants had been "hiding inside a house in the vicinity of El-Arish city (North Sinai province's capital) following a shoot-out," spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifai said in the statement. The operation has also destroyed several vehicles and warehouses, he said. On Friday, the military announced the start of "Operation Sinai 2018" in the Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel, the central Nile Delta and the Western Desert near the border with Libya. The security sweep comes as President Abdelfattah al-Sisi seeks re-election in March, after a first term in office that has seen him crack down on a terrorist insurgency. Egypt's security forces have been increasingly targeted by militants since the army -- then headed by Sisi -- overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Militants linked to ISIS and based in North Sinai have waged a deadly insurgency against the country's security forces and coptic churches.

Sami Anan blackmail documents revealed, Egyptian army investigates
Staff Writer, Al Arabiya English/Tuesday, 13 February 2018/The Egyptian military said Monday it would take legal action against the country’s former anti-corruption chief Hisham Geneina and former military chief-of-staff Sami Anan, who is currently under arrest. Geneina, who was a leading figure in Anan’s brief presidential campaign before he was banned from the nomination and detained by authorities, was quoted in an interview published on Sunday saying that Anan possesses documents “containing state secrets” and “major deadly incidents”. In response, the Egyptian military said Geneina’s claims “amount to crimes and aim to raise doubts about the state and its institutions” as his statements coincided with the army’s battles to uproot terrorism in the Sinai region. The case will be transferred to investigators, according to the military, who added that they will take the necessary action against Anan and Geneina. They said that they will “use all constitutional and legal powers to preserve national security.”Anan’s son, Samir, denied statements attributed by Geneina to his father, and said his father did not possess documents that condemn the state or its leaders. In a statement on Facebook, Lawyer Nasser Amin described the claims as “unfounded, untrue and bearing no relation to reality.”Amin said that they would take legal action against anyone who gives statements to the media “attributing any words or acts to Anan that would undermine [Anan’s] legal status or expose him to the danger of legal or social liability.”

Israeli military trial of Palestinian teen opens behind closed doors

AFP, Ofer Military Court, Palestinian Territories/Tuesday, 13 February 2018/The Israeli military trial of a Palestinian teenager charged after a viral video showed her hitting two soldiers in the occupied West Bank began Tuesday behind closed doors. The judge in the trial ordered journalists removed from the courtroom, ruling that open proceedings would not be in the interest of 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi, who is being tried as a minor. Only family members were allowed to remain in the courtroom, with diplomats present to observe also asked to leave. A large crowd of journalists had shown up to cover the trial of Tamimi, whose case has gained international attention. Trials of minors in military court are typically closed, but Tamimi’s lawyer said previous hearings for the teenager were open and she argued for it to remain that way. “They understand that people outside Ofer military court are interested in Ahed’s case, they understand that her rights are being infringed and her trial is something that shouldn’t be happening,” Tamimi’s lawyer Gaby Lasky told journalists after having unsuccessfully objected to the judge’s decision to close the trial. “So the way to keep it out of everybody’s eyes is to close doors and not allow people inside the court for her hearing.” Tamimi has been hailed as a hero by Palestinians who see her as bravely standing up to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Israelis accuse her family of using her as a pawn in staged provocations. She has been charged with 12 counts including assault and could face a lengthy jail term if convicted. The charges relate to events in the video and five other incidents. They include stone-throwing, incitement and making threats.

Palestinian leader Abbas tells Putin he wants US peace role diluted
Reuters/Tuesday, 13 February 2018/Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday he could no longer accept the role of the United States as a mediator in talks with Israel because of Washington’s behavior, the Interfax news agency reported. “We state that from now on we refuse to cooperate in any form with the US in its status of a mediator, as we stand against its actions,” Abbas told Putin at the start of talks in Moscow. Abbas was quoted as saying he wanted an expanded new mediation mechanism to replace the Middle East Quartet. “For instance, ‘the quartet’ plus some other countries like the model used to achieve the deal on Iran,” Abbas said, referring to international talks about Tehran’s nuclear program. Abbas and his allies were left furious in December when US President Donald Trump reversed decades of US policy to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and set in motion the process of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv.

Washington denies discussing annexation of settlements with Netanyahu
Staff writer, Al Arabiya English /Tuesday, 13 February 2018/The White House denied on Monday that the United States had discussed with Israel a plan to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank. White House spokesman Josh Raffle, who works with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, and who is in charge of this file, said the statements were "wrong" and that "the United States and Israel never discussed such a proposal, adding that the US president is focusing on his peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians."On Monday, Netanyahu announced that he was discussing with the US administration a bill that would lead to annexing settlements in the occupied West Bank. A spokesman quoted Netanyahu talking to his right-wing Likud deputies about the issue of imposing Israeli sovereignty: “I can tell you that I have been talking to the Americans about it for a while."Netanyahu explained that he wanted to coordinate these steps with the United States due to its strategic importance for Israel.

Israel accuses Turkey of aiding Hamas
AFP/Tuesday, 13 February 2018/Israel on Monday accused Turkey of helping the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas to gain in military strength, following its arrest and deportation of a Turkish citizen. The Shin Bet intelligence agency said the movement's "economic and military activity in Turkey takes place unhindered as Turkish officials turn a blind eye and -- on occasion -- encourage it". "This activity relies on -- inter alia -- business platforms that serve Hamas in laundering funds that are transferred to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and used in recruiting Israelis to its ranks," it said. Shin Bet said Turkish national Cemil Tekeli was arrested on January 1 on suspicion of aiding Hamas and later deported. His alleged accomplice, Dharam Jabarin, an Arab Israeli, had also been arrested and is to be put on trial, the agency said.
"In Tekeli's investigation, it was learned that Turkey contributes to the military strengthening of Hamas," according to Shin Bet, which said the movement had laundered millions of dollars through Turkey. Turkey has condemned a US decision to put the head of Hamas, which rules Gaza, on its terror blacklist, saying it hoped the move would not have a negative impact on Ankara's humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territory.

ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is ‘alive but wounded’ in Syria hideout
AFP, Baghdad/Tuesday, 13 February 2018/An Iraqi interior ministry official said ISIS's head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive and being treated at a field hospital in Syria after being wounded in an air strike. "We have irrefutable information and documents from sources within the terrorist organization that al-Baghdadi is still alive and hiding" in Syria's northeastern Jazira region, said intelligence and counterterrorism department head Abu Ali al-Basri, quoted today in the government daily As-Sabah. ISIS retains a significant presence in the desert plains of northeastern Syria's Hasakeh province despite having lost most of its cross-border "caliphate" which once also covered a third of neighboring Iraq. Basri said that Baghdadi was suffering from "injuries, diabetes and fractures to the body and legs that prevent him from walking without assistance". The militant chief had been wounded in "air raids against ISIS strongholds in Iraq". Iraqi authorities last week published a list of "internationally wanted terrorist leaders" headed by the self-proclaimed ISIS "caliph", born in 1971, under the name Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. Last June, Russia said it had probably killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a late May air raid near Raqa in Syria, but later said it was still trying to verify his fate. In September, an American military chief said the jihadist chief was still alive and probably hiding in eastern Syria's Euphrates Valley.

North Korea's Kim Lauds South's Hospitality
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/February 13/18/North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has praised the welcome the South gave his sister and said it was important to build on the Olympics-driven momentum for dialogue on the divided peninsula. Kim's younger sister Kim Yo Jong -- one of his closest confidantes -- was part of the nuclear-armed North's diplomatic delegation to the Games that made worldwide headlines. She delivered his invitation for the South's President Moon Jae-in to come to a summit in Pyongyang -- which he did not immediately accept, saying the "right conditions" were needed. The North is subject to multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and conducted dozens of weapons tests last year. But the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have triggered extraordinary scenes, with Moon and Kim cheering a unified Korean women's ice hockey team together -- along with the North's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam -- and attending a concert by Pyongyang's artistes. Even so analysts warn that the positive mood could evaporate quickly after the Games, when the US and South are due to hold major joint military exercises that always infuriate the North. Kim Jong Un met the delegation on Monday after it returned to Pyongyang, the official KCNA news agency reported. It indirectly cited Kim as saying it was important to enhance "the warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue" created by the Winter Olympics -- which for months the North refused to say whether it would attend.He gave instructions for "practical measures" to do so, it added, without giving details. The South's appreciation of the North's presence and the welcome it gave its representatives were "impressive", he said, thanking Seoul for its "sincere efforts".
- Close scrutiny -The KCNA report is the first official reaction from Kim -- the third generation of the dynasty to rule the isolated and impoverished North -- since his sister's charm offensive in the South. Kim Yo Jong's visit made her the first member of the family to set foot in the country since the end of the Korean War. Every detail of her trip was scrutinised, from the clothes she wore and her facial expressions to the bag she was carrying and even her handwriting. But it left South Koreans divided, with some hoping it might usher in a real opportunity for reconciliation while others angrily burned the North Korean flag and criticised Moon for being too soft on Pyongyang. How deep the rapprochement runs, how far it will go and how long it will last once the Games are over remain very open to question, analysts say. Pyongyang's Olympic diplomacy has also highlighted differences between Seoul and its key protector the United States over how to handle the reclusive regime and its nuclear weapons programme. Washington insists that Pyongyang must take concrete steps towards denuclearisation before any talks can begin, while Moon -- whose parents escaped from the North in a US evacuation during the war -- has long argued for closer involvement to bring it to the negotiating table.

Canada supports reconstruction efforts in Iraq and the region
February 13, 2018 - Ottawa, Canada - Global Affairs Canada
Canada is a strong member of the Global Coalition against Daesh and remains committed to supporting the people of Iraq.
The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, today announced support totalling nearly $12 million to help rebuild areas liberated from Daesh and to enhance the stability of Iraq.
This funding will support the rehabilitation of critical infrastructure in Iraq such as roads, hospitals and government buildings. In addition, it will help law enforcement authorities keep their communities safe. Finally, these initiatives will enhance women’s participation in rebuilding and reconciliation efforts and leadership roles.
Canada’s ongoing commitment to Iraq already includes working with the United Nations Development Programme’s Funding Facility for Stabilization and Mines Advisory Group. This multimillion dollar funding helps internally displaced people in Iraq return home safely and also supports the clearance of explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices in areas newly liberated from Daesh.
“Canada’s commitment to the Global Coalition against Daesh remains steadfast and is an integral part of our work with our allies to advance security and stability in the Middle East.
“Today’s announcement will contribute to the reconstruction of critical services in areas that have been liberated from Daesh and will concretely encourage women’s empowerment in Iraq by promoting their participation in reconciliation efforts and advancing the economic involvement of women in their communities.’’
- Hon. Chrystia Freeland, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs
Quick facts
Today’s announcement is part of Canada’s Middle East strategy. The Government of Canada is contributing $2 billion over the course of three years toward security, stabilization, and humanitarian and development assistance in response to the crises in Iraq and Syria and their impacts on Jordan and Lebanon.
Canada is one of 74 members of the Global Coalition against Daesh and contributes to all five of the Coalition’s lines of effort: supporting the Coalition’s military operations in Iraq, tackling Daesh’s financing and economic infrastructure, preventing the flow of foreign terrorist fighters across borders, supporting stabilization and the restoration of essential public services to areas liberated from Daesh, and countering the group’s propaganda.
Related products
Backgrounder - Minister of Foreign Affairs announces support to help stabilize Iraq and region
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Canada’s Middle East engagement strategy

Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published on February 13-14/18
Liberman On Syria: This Is Not The Time To Bark, But To Bite
Anna Ahronheim/.Jerusalem Post/February 13/18
Israel "acted with determination" during Saturday's military engagement with Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Tuesday.
"There are no restrictions, we do not accept any restrictions. We acted with determination and responded to every provocation. We will continue to defend our vital security interests. To paraphrase the well-known proverb, "This is not the time to bark, but to bite." We are bitten hard, I hope we do not have to do it," he said on a visit to the northern city of Kiryat Shmona. On Saturday, an Iranian drone took off from Syria’s T4 airbase in the northern Homs province of Syria and flew through Jordanian territory before it infiltrated into Israel and flew for about a minute-and-a-half in the northern Jordan Valley before it was shot down. In retaliation for the incursion eight Israeli jets took off to strike the drone’s launch site. During the operation Syrian around 20 anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Israeli jets, bringing one of them down. The Syrian government said on Tuesday that Israel would face "more surprises" in future attacks on Syrian territory. Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised because it thought this war - this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years - had made it incapable of confronting attacks," assistant foreign minister Ayman Sussan said during a news conference in the capital of Damascus.
"God willing they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly warned of the growing entrenchment of Iran in Syria. Following the escalation in the north, the IDF accused Iran and the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards of operating at the T4 base for several months, backed by Syrian army forces and with the approval of the Syrian regime. In November, Liberman asked for an increase of NIS 4.8 billion to the IDF's budget, citing “significant” security changes that have dramatically changed Israel’s security situation, including precision weapons in the hands of groups like Hezbollah, as well as the dramatic acceleration of Iran’s military industry and the massive Russian presence in Syria. Israel and Russia implemented a deconfliction mechanism system over Syria to prevent accidental clashes between the two militaries and, according to Liberman, the deconfliction mechanism with Russia is “a connection that proves itself.”
“It is clear that each side has its own interests. Each side sees the picture differently. In the years of civil war in Syria, we were able to avoid direct friction, and that is an achievement in itself,” he said. “This is an effective relationship.”
The IDF believes that the next war on the northern border will not be contained to one front, but along the entire northern border with both Lebanon and Syria. The military also expects that during the next war with Hezbollah, the terror group will try to bring the fight to the home front by infiltrating Israeli communities to inflict significant civilian and military casualties. Kiryat Shmona, where Liberman visited on Tuesday is located about five kilometers south of the Lebanese border with Israel. “I think we should note that after many years and after a considerable effort, I agreed with the finance minister to budget NIS 150 million, outside the total budget, on the issue of fortifying the home front here in the north, and this is certainly one of the issues that we are currently examining,” the defense minister said.
*/Reuters contributed to this report

Damascus Warns Israel Of More Surprises In Syria
Jerusalem Post/February 13/18
God willing they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria," assistant foreign minister Ayman Sussan said during a Damascus news conference.
DAMASCUS - The Syrian government said on Tuesday that Israel would face "more surprises" in future attacks on Syria's territory, after Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 jet. Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed the F-16 as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria early on Saturday. Both Iran and Russia are supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war. Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised because it thought this war - this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years - had made it incapable of confronting attacks," assistant foreign minister Ayman Sussan said. "God willing they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria," Sussan said during a Damascus news conference. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli forces would press ahead with Syria operations despite their loss of the advanced warplane, the first it has lost to enemy fire in 36 years. In Kiryat Shmona on Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters: "There are no limitations (on military operations), and nor do we accept any limitations ... We will respond to every provocation."
"We will continue to defend our vital security and other interests. And I would like to paraphrase the well-known saying: 'This is not the time to bark, this is the time to bite.'"Iran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel, which has said it would counter any threat and has mounted regular attacks into Syria. Israel also has accused Iran of planning to build precision-guided missile factories in Lebanon, which is home to the powerful Hezbollah movement, one of the groups fighting in support of Assad in Syria.

Israel's Downed Jet Means One Thing to Assad, Another to the Opposition
Jack Khoury/Haaretz/February 13/18
The government considers the downing of the jet a very important turning point. To the Syrian opposition, it's another 'Iranian adventure'
Despite the quiet in the north following the downing of an Israeli fighter jet and the massive Israeli attack in Syria that followed, a political battle over the implications of the affair is raging between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. The government considers the downing of the jet a very important turning point in PR strategy, a senior public affairs official in the Syrian government told Haaretz from Damascus. “To see people handing out candy in the streets of Damascus and Beirut, that shows a change in the atmosphere and the government wants to take full advantage of it," he said. The official said what he called the victory photo of the downed aircraft, and the phone call afterward between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin designed to prevent escalation and deterioration, shows that “in Israel as well they’re starting to reassess things.” Regarding the claim that the regime completely concealed reports of a counter-attack by Israel against numerous targets in a Damascus suburb, in the Dar’a district in the south and as far afield as the T4 airport in Tadmor, the official said there was no concealment either in Syria, Arab countries or in Israel.
The official also stated that the self-confidence of the Syrian army has risen due to its recent successes against terror groups, especially the Islamic State and opposition militias. In contrast, a Syrian opposition figure told Haaretz that the attempt to conceal the results of the Israeli attack after the downing of the plane was a cover-up of what he called the “Iranian adventure.” “Despite all the statements about fundamental change in the strategy vis a vis Israel, the assessment is that in the near and more distant future, we’ll see more Israeli attacks without real ability in terms of Syrian air defenses to respond.""There’s no doubt that the Russians here are the key players but the Russians, from talks they’ve held with the parties, are already convinced of the need to move ahead a diplomatic solution and so they didn’t allow the situation to deteriorate to a direct and open clash,” he said. The opposition figure said that from talks the opposition was holding it seemed too early to count out the United States “in the framework of the international struggle in Syrian territory regarding a future arrangement.”

Analysis After Years of Covert Proxy Wars, Iran Shifts to Direct Contact With Israel
Anshel Pfeffer/Haaretz/February 13/18
Israel and Iran have essentially been at war since the early 1980s through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, but at no point has there been a direct military confrontation between the two
The shock that many Israelis felt seeing a fighter jet of their invincible air force scattered into a thousand pieces in the Galilee dominated much of the coverage of Saturday morning’s air battle. But a much more important question is why did the Syrians succeed for the first time since 1982 in shooting down an Israeli aircraft? (Realistically, after Israel’s 100-plus airstrikes on targets in Syria over the last seven years, the loss of just one plane is an excellent record by all standards.)  While there have been a number of incursions into Israeli airspace since 2006 by Iranian-made drones, these have all been carried out by Hezbollah or Hamas. Of course, Iranian officers would have been closely involved, but early Saturday marked the first instance, as far as we know, where the drone was directly operated by Iranians, not just a proxy. The precedent doesn’t relate just to drones.
Israel and Iran have essentially been at war since the early 1980s, when under Iranian influence, Hezbollah was formed as a Shi’ite militia fighting Israel’s military presence in southern Lebanon. In all the time since then, Iran has pursued its campaign against Israel through proxies – Hezbollah and at various points Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Assad regime in Syria. Israel’s own campaign against Iran has been waged in secret intelligence operations occasionally – according to foreign media sources – also using proxies from the opposition groups to the Islamist regime in Tehran. But at no point has there been a direct military confrontation between the two countries. There doesn’t even exist an official state of war, as still exists by law between Israel and some Arab countries since 1948. Only in 2011 was the law prohibiting trade with “enemy countries” updated to include Iran.
This sudden departure from established Iranian strategy, in which the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force has for the first time carried out its own incursion of Israeli airspace, still has many Israeli officials baffled. In a briefing Monday, the Israel Air Force’s second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, admitted that he still had no idea what mission the Shahed-141 drone was on.
“It could be anything between an intelligence-gathering operation and an attack operation,” he said. “They may have been trying to test our capabilities and alertness and the degree to which we protect Israel’s skies. It’s very important for us to understand what the objective of the mission was, but I can’t say at this point.” That it was an attack mission is unlikely, as no weapon or explosives have so far been found among the drone’s fragments, which are in Israel’s hands. A reconnaissance operation would perhaps make more sense, but if this is the case, why didn’t the Quds Force use one of its proxies to carry out the mission, as it has in the past? Some Israeli analysts have advanced the theory that the incursion was a successful effort to “draw Israeli aircraft into a missile trap.” But if the Iranians were using the drone to lure Israel into a counterattack, why sacrifice the Shahed-141? It’s the latest model by Iran’s aerospace industry, cloning the American RQ-170 spy plane, an example of which fell into the Iranians’ hands in 2011. The same objective could have been achieved using an older and less valuable drone.
One explanation that has been made by Iranian exiles, ostensibly based on sources within the Revolutionary Guards’ air force, was that the plan was to obtain footage of Israeli bases that would be used on Sunday’s 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Such pictures, the explanation goes, would have been proof of Iran’s strategic capabilities and superiority over the Zionist enemy; this would have diverted attention from Iran’s domestic unrest. If that was the case, the mission was a complete failure: The drone was shot down the moment it entered Israeli airspace. On Sunday, at the anniversary marches and celebrations, Israel was barely mentioned and the theme was internal unity.
Four decades ago, before the revolution, Iran and Israel were strategic allies – two non-Arab nations in the Middle East sharing a rivalry and often enmity with the Sunni Arab regimes. For Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a never-ending war with Israel was a cornerstone of the Islamic Revolution, but 39 years later, as revolutionary fervor seems to be waning in Iran, his successors may feel they need a more direct confrontation to keep the embers alive.

Hundreds of pro-Assad Mercenaries and Russian Troops Killed by U.S. Strikes in Syria This Month

Haaretz/February 13/18
Putin's years-long incursion into Syria is deeply unpopular in Russia and it has been documented that the Russian government underreports the official death toll of Russians in Syria for political reasons.
Russian fighters were among those killed when U.S.-led coalition forces clashed with pro-government forces in Syria this month, former associates of the dead said on Monday - however the majority of casualties were hired mercenaries from shadowy para-military company Wagner. A U.S. official has said more than 100 fighters aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad died when coalition and local coalition-backed forces thwarted a large attack overnight on Feb. 7. However, other local reports place the death toll as high as 200. Russia's Defence Ministry, which supports Assad's forces in the Syrian civil war, said at the time that pro-government militias involved in the incident had been carrying out reconnaissance and no Russian servicemen had been in the area. But at least two Russian men fighting informally with pro-government forces were killed in the incident in Deir al-Zor province, their associates told Reuters on Monday. Putin's years-long incursion into Syria is deeply unpopular domestically and has long been plagued by reports that the Russian government under reports the official death toll of Russians in Syria for political reasons. One of the dead was named as Vladimir Loginov, a Cossack from Russia's Kaliningrad exclave. Maxim Buga, a leader of the Cossack community there, said Loginov had been killed around Feb. 7 along with "dozens" of other Russian fighters. The other man killed was named as Kirill Ananiev, described as a radical Russian nationalist. Alexander Averin, a spokesman for the nationalist party he was linked to, told Reuters Ananiev had been killed in shelling in the same fighting on Feb. 7. Reuters was unable to independently confirm either man's death. Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician who is running for president in elections next month, called on President Vladimir Putin to disclose how many Russians had been killed in Syria and in what circumstances. "If there was large-scale loss of life of Russian citizens, the relevant officials, including the commander-in-chief of our armed forces (Putin), are obliged to tell the country about it and decide who carries responsibility for this," Yavlinsky said in a statement released by his Yabloko party.

Erdogan's Turkey: Making Trouble Everywhere
Burak Bekdil/Gatestone Institute/February 13/18
Since the failed coup in August 2016, the government says, it has purged more than 107,000 government employees for alleged links to the coup attempt. Worse, according to a Supreme Court justice, the Turkish government is investigating a total of 6.9 million citizens, or about 8.6% of all Turks.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned international companies drilling for oil and gas off Cyprus that these hydrocarbons are within Turkey's continental shelf. Cavusoglu said that Turkey "is prepared to take all necessary measures" to protect its rights, and those of the Turkish Cypriots, in the eastern Mediterranean.
On January 26, several thousand Turkish Cypriots marched against what they say is Turkey's unwanted influence. Protesters braved pounding rain to voice their opposition to Turkey's agitation of "fascist and extremist" segments of their society.
Erdogan's Turkey apparently has an ideological incompatibility with the word "peace." This outright bullying can target any nation at any time. Optimists who think it might fade away will be proven wrong once again.
In official language, Turkey is in a state of emergency ever since a failed putsch, allegedly masterminded by a self-exiled cleric, killed nearly 250 people on the evening of July 15, 2016. Since then, the government says, it has purged more than 107,000 government employees for alleged links to the coup attempt. Worse, according to a Supreme Court justice, the Turkish government is investigating a total of 6.9 million citizens, or about 8.6% of all Turks.
Even "not-warmongering" can be associated with being a terrorist. More than 300 activists were arrested for their opposition to Turkey's military incursion into northern Syria. That number did not include the 11 doctors who are members of the Turkish Medical Association who were arrested for calling for a halt to the offensive. (They were later released but will stand trial). In addition, Turkey has asked Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to remove posts on the military offensive.
Outside its borders, hardly a day passes without confrontation, clashes or tensions. Turkey says it had "neutralized" nearly 1,000 Kurdish militiamen since Operation Olive Branch in Syria took off on January 20. But not all of Turkey's wars involve artillery, bombings and casualties.
On Jan. 26, for instance, hundreds of Kurds living in Beirut gathered in front of the Turkish embassy in order to protest Operation Olive Branch. France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian has told Ankara not to worsen the situation in Syria. He also, while condemning civilian casualties, called Turkey's military operation in Afrin (in northern Syria) a violation of international law. A week before that, thousands rallied in Paris to protest the Turkish operation.
Germany's foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has said that the government would freeze the decision about whether to grant Turkey's request for more modernized tanks -- which Turkey intends to use at the Syrian war theater.
The German decision came amid allegations that the ancient Ain Dara Hittite temple complex in northern Syria, at least 3,000 years old, was bombed into rubble by Turkish fighter pilots in an operation that appears to have rivaled the destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State terrorists.
On February 5, the Dutch Foreign Ministry formally withdrew its ambassador to Turkey; the ambassador had been physically barred from the country for almost a year, over a dispute that began during March 2017. The Netherlands will also not accept the appointment of a new Turkish ambassador to the Netherlands.
On February 8, members of Sweden's parliament also demanded that their government recall its ambassador to Turkey.
The seas surrounding some of Turkey's coasts do not look peaceful, either. On January 29, two Turkish warships tried to keep Greece's nationalist defense minister, Panos Kammenos, from reaching the rocky Aegean islet of Imia, which both countries claim, to throw a wreath marking a 1996 incident there that almost brought them to war. A few days later, one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief advisors, Yigit Bulut, warned that any Greek who steps foot on the islet will "feel the anger of Turkey, worse than that in Afrin." He added: "We will break the arms and legs of any officers, of the [Greek] Prime Minister or of any minister who dares to step onto Imia in the Aegean".
Turkey's southern littoral zone is in no better shape these days. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned international companies drilling for oil and gas off Cyprus that these hydrocarbons are within Turkey's continental shelf.
Cavusoglu said that Turkey "is prepared to take all necessary measures" to protect its rights, and those of the Turkish Cypriots, in the eastern Mediterranean. This is not a fresh dispute in eastern Mediterranean. Since Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in 1974, Cyprus has remained a divided territory, with a Greek Cypriot state recognized internationally and a Turkish statelet recognized only by Turkey. That division lies at the heart of the drilling issue and Turkey says it acts in order to protect the interests of Turkish Cypriots.
Not all of Turkey's good services, however, are wanted among the Turkish Cypriots. On January 26, several thousand Turkish Cypriots marched against what they say is Turkey's unwanted influence that has emboldened hard-right groups to try and silence opposing views. Protesters braved pounding rain to voice their opposition to Turkey's agitation of "fascist and extremist" segments of their society.
Erdogan's Turkey apparently has an ideological incompatibility with the word "peace." Its wars with various parts of the world, including big chunks of the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot societies, is not a bad omen only for those involved: This outright bullying can target any nation at any time. Optimists who think it might fade away will be proven wrong once again.
*Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from Turkey's leading newspaper after 29 years, for writing what was taking place in Turkey for Gatestone. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
© 2018 Gatestone Institute. All rights reserved. The articles printed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editors or of Gatestone Institute. No part of the Gatestone website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied or modified, without the prior written consent of Gatestone Institute.

Macron Vows to Reform Islam in France/"It is time to bring in a new generation."/
Soeren Kern/Gatestone Institute/February 13/18
The overall objective of President Macron's plan is to ensure that French law takes precedence over Islamic law for Muslims living in the country.
The plan, as currently conceived, is vague and short on details, but appears to involve three broad pillars: determining who will represent Muslims in France; delineating how Islam in France will be financed; and defining how imams in France will be trained.
"It is time to bring in a new generation. We have seen fifteen years of debate to defend the interests of foreign states." — Hakim el-Karoui, a French-Tunisian expert on Islam who is advising Macron on the reforms.
French President Emmanuel Macron, in a declared effort to "fight fundamentalism" and "preserve national cohesion," has promised to "lay the groundwork for the entire reorganization of Islam in France."
According to Macron, the plan, similar in ambition to Austria's Islam Law, is aimed at seeking to "better integrate" Islam in France in order to "place it in a more peaceful relationship with the state."
A key priority is to reduce outside interference by restricting foreign funding for mosques, imams and Muslim organizations in France. The plan's overall objective is to ensure that French law takes precedence over Islamic law for Muslims living in the country.
In a February 11 interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Macron said that the plan, which is being coordinated by the Interior Ministry, will be announced within the next six months: "We are working on the structuring of Islam in France and also on how to explain it," Macron said. "My goal is to rediscover what lies at the heart of secularism—the possibility of being able to believe as well as not to believe—in order to preserve national cohesion and the possibility of having free religious conscience."
Macron also said that he was consulting a broad array of experts and religious leaders for their input into the reform plan: "I see intellectuals and academics, such as [French Islam expert] Gilles Kepel, and representatives of all religions, because I think we need to draw heavily on our history, the history of Catholics and Protestants." He added:
"I will never ask any French citizen to be moderate in his religion or to believe moderately in his God. That would not make much sense. But I will ask everyone, constantly, to absolutely respect all the rules of the Republic."
Macron's plan, as currently conceived, is vague and short on details, but appears to involve three broad pillars: determining who will represent Muslims in France; delineating how Islam in France will be financed; and defining how imams in France will be trained.
Representation of Muslims in France
A key aspect of Macron's plan is to reform the French Council of the Muslim Faith (Conseil français du culte musulman, CFCM), the official interlocutor between Muslims and the state in the regulation of Islam in France. The organization, which represents approximately 2,500 mosques in France, was established in 2003 by then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
The CFCM has long faced criticism for being ineffective and contentious, largely because the rotating presidency has allowed interference by foreign countries—mainly Algeria, Morocco and Turkey—seemingly to prevent Muslims from integrating into French society. Macron said the objective was to end what he called "consular Islam" and to open the CFCM to "the most integrated" Muslims.
"It is time to bring in a new generation," said Hakim el-Karoui, a French-Tunisian expert on Islam who is advising Macron on the reforms. "We have seen fifteen years of debate to defend the interests of foreign states."
The Interior Ministry intends to have its reforms in place by 2019, when the CFCM will hold elections to renew its leadership. "The moment is propitious for advancing the necessary reforms," said Anouar Kbibech, former president of the CFCM.
Macron's plan also reportedly involves establishing a "Grand Imam of France," modeled on the position of Chief Rabbi. The individual would have the "moral authority" to represent Islam in front of the state. It remains unclear how such an individual would reconcile the competing strains of Islam to be able to represent them all.
Financing Islam in France
Macron's second priority is to "reduce the influence of Arab countries," which, he argues, "prevent French Islam from returning to modernity." His plan would restrict foreign governments or entities from funding Muslim places of worship and training imams in France. Hundreds of French mosques are being financed by countries in the North African Maghreb and Persian Gulf.
The new plan would also attempt to illuminate the financial dealings of mosques by bringing them under the jurisdiction of a French law that regulates cultural associations. French mosques currently adhere to a law that regulates non-profit associations, which allows for more opaque bookkeeping.
Macron raised the possibility of revising the 1905 "Law on the Separation of the Churches and State," which established state secularism in France. The 1905 law, among other provisions, banned government funding of religious groups in France. Addressing the prospect that French taxpayers might soon be asked to pay for Muslims to worship in France, Macron said: "The 1905 law is part of a treasure that is ours, but it did not consider the religious fact of Islam because it was not present in our society, as it is today."
Macron's plan reportedly also envisages establishing a so-called Halal Tax, a sales tax on halal products to finance Islam in France. The proposal faces fierce resistance from French Muslims, 70% of whom are opposed to establishing the tax, according to an Ifop poll for JDD.
Training Imams in France
Several hundred imams in France are civil servants whose salaries are paid by foreign governments. Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said the French government "should intervene" in the training of imams so that they are "imams of the French Republic," not "imams of foreign countries."
In an interview with Radio France Inter, Collomb said: "We can see that today we have a number of difficulties simply because nowadays everyone can proclaim himself to be an imam."
Macron's plan has been received with a mix of optimism, skepticism and derision.
Ghaleb Bencheikh, a French-Algerian Islamic reformist and a former president of the Great Mosque of Paris, said that Macron's approach was "legitimate" and "interesting." In an interview with Radio France, Bencheikh said: "There is a terrible paradox that you have to know how to break. We are in a secular state and this sacrosanct principle of secularism stipulates that political authority should not interfere in the structure of a cult, whatever it may be. At the same time, there must be structure and privileged interlocutors of political power. The Muslim leaders are cautious, pusillanimous, they have not managed this structure. As a result, it is legitimate for both the President of the Republic and Interior Minister Gérard Collomb to insist on a healthy structure."
Le Figaro noted with skepticism that previous French presidents have made similar pledges which ended in failure: "Will Emmanuel Macron succeed where his predecessors have failed? The urgency, in any event, is very real. Last December, a Muslim leader from Bouches-du-Rhône declared: 'The Salafists have taken control of the ground in France. There is a void, notably with the problem of imams who do not speak French.'"
In an interview with Les Echos, National Front Leader Marine Le Pen said she was worried about a possible challenge to the law separating churches and state: "There are a whole series of tracks, some of which are unbearable, unacceptable: for example, the idea of ​​a Concordat, the idea of ​​touching the law of 1905."She called for France to take hard line on foreign financing of Islam: "I suggest stopping foreign financing of mosques and closing Salafist mosques. Any foreign imam who makes a speech contrary to the values ​​of the Republic must be expelled."
Florian Philippot, former vice president of the National Front and a Member of the European Parliament, said that Macron's plan was not aimed at returning to a "secular Republic" but to "protect Muslims."
In early January, during a meeting at the Elysée Palace with representatives of the six main religions in France (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist), Macron announced that he would deliver a "major" but "dispassionate" speech on secularism during his presidency: "My wish for 2018 is that France become, with you, a model of secularism, knowing how to listen to the country's voices in their diversity, capable of building on this diversity a great nation reconciled and open to the future."
Less than a week later, however, Macron abruptly backtracked. The speech apparently was "removed from the agenda" because talking about secularism "in the context only of Islam" would be a "fatal mistake."
Columnist Hélène Jouan accused Macron of trying to play both sides against the middle: "Emmanuel Macron is credited with holding a subtle balance between unfailing attachment to Republican principles, and absolute firmness vis-à-vis radical Islam.
"The president prefers to evade. I'm not sure that this will last. A tragic event in France would push him, of course, to reveal himself, at the risk, then, of alienating those who would judge, from the right or left, that he does too much or not enough, to lose his position of 'centrality' which he thinks he holds on the question. In the meantime, however, he buys time."
*Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.
© 2018 Gatestone Institute. All rights reserved. The articles printed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editors or of Gatestone Institute. No part of the Gatestone website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied or modified, without the prior written consent of Gatestone Institute.

The Regional Dimensions of the Syrian Conflict
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed/Asharq Al Awsat/February 13/18
The Russian-American dispute in Ukraine and other areas of competition can also be seen in Syria. Iran’s project to control the Arab north all the way to Turkey’s border is going as planned, just like it’s been warned.
Turkey’s worry that the crisis will spill over into its territories led it to shift its defensive policy to an offensive one by launching an operation in Syria’s Afrin. Israel has also become a major party in the war there.
It is normal for the region to be affected by the quick developments and the power struggles in Syria. The neighboring countries or Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, as well as the Arab Gulf and Iran are likely to suffer the consequences of the conflict.
The Iranians have intentionally opened the Yemeni front against Saudi Arabia to weaken and get it out of the conflict in Syria so they can easily win there. We must admit that they succeeded at that.
Yemen’s developments are a result of the severe regional conflict and they show that letting Iran take over Syria, Lebanon and Iraq will not simply end there. Iran’s control over Lebanon enabled it to take over Syria by using “Hezbollah,” which it nurtured to be its regional force. Iran also used some Lebanese institutions to support its operations in Syria and it used Lebanon to support its Yemeni proxy, the Houthis.
The conflict in Syria is open to all possibilities as the recent clashes can either serve as a positive factor that forces all major parties to agree on solutions that avoid direct wars and minimize losses or they can have negative results and expand the conflict.
The latter scenario is more likely to happen. Although the US secretary of defense reiterated that they are militarily present in Syria to confront ISIS, this does not deny the fact that fighting terrorism calls for confronting Iranian and Syrian powers that used organizations, like ISIS, to justify their military activity against civilians. They have even allied themselves with terror groups against Syrian rebels.
I think when controlling the conflict between Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and Israel fails, then Iraq will be the most vulnerable to danger. It is still recovering from its many battles with ISIS, the Kurdish secession bid and the increased divisions between sectarian powers, which include Shi’ites, Sunnis and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). These divisions are like a time bomb that threatens the central authority.
Turkey is also more vulnerable to danger if it engages in battles against the Syrian regime’s allies or if it insists on pursuing Kurds who are allied with the US. Israel is in the eye of the storm as well, but it has enough power and alliances that make it less vulnerable to threats despite the blow it was dealt with the downing of one of its jets and the Iranians’ infiltration of its airspace.
We cannot discuss the repercussions of the conflict in Syria without stating that Iran itself is vulnerable to danger. Iran resembles a glass house following the protests, which erupted in dozens of cities and raised slogans demanding its withdrawal from Syria and suspend financial and military support to regime allies, the Lebanese “Hezbollah” and the Hamas Movement in Gaza.
The expansion of the war in Syria threatens the Khamenei regime in Tehran because it will lead to more bloodshed, money and defeats. The Iraqi war in the last decade proved that the entire region is vulnerable to conflict and divisions no matter how much it looks like it is controlled by clear rules of engagement.
Guaranteeing the security and stability of countries that are surrounded with war lies in believing in collective security and putting an end to greedy and expansive political projects.

The Odds of Fixing US Infrastructure Just Got Better

Barry Ritholtz/Bloomberg/February 13/18
After all the complaints I have made about the need for a big improvement in American infrastructure, I am genuinely excited by the prospect that something might happen this time.
My optimism isn’t the result of President Donald Trump’s claim in last night’s State of the Union address that he’s interested in an infrastructure program; history teaches us that the speech offers little guidance in whether future projects come to fruition. 1 Rather, my optimism springs from a schism between two of the major players on the political right, who disagree about things like taxes, spending and the role of government.
On one side is Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce; on the other is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. Both have unimpeachable conservative bona fides.
Two weeks ago, Donohue proposed a big infrastructure plan, including a 25-cent-a-gallon increase -- phased in over five years -- in the federal tax that supports the Highway Trust Fund. The chamber has made a substantial push for this, issuing position papers and even setting up a separate website, Just as an aside, the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon isn’t indexed to inflation and hasn’t been raised since 1993. In today’s dollars, the tax is equal to about 10.8 cents.
Norquist opposes this tax increase along with any and all others, and has expressed opposition to states that want to raise their own gas taxes.
Norquist has helped to kill every infrastructure bill proposed for more than a decade. That is why I have suggested in the past that you should be sending your auto repair bills for flat tires, broken axles and other damage resulting from neglected infrastructure directly to him.
The Chamber was at best lukewarm in its past support for a big infrastructure bill, suggesting “increasing the federal gas tax as the simplest, fairest and most straightforward way to raise more money for projects.” The new position is a much bigger, bolder and more vocal proposal. Such taxes are opposed not only by Norquist, but also by the influential Koch political network. Koch Industries, by the way, is a major energy producer, so I guess it’s not too surprising that it opposes tax increases on one of its main products.
The Chamber’s positions on climate change, minimum wages and the fiduciary rule for retirement-savings accounts have been woefully out of step with America’s business community. As I’ve said before, the Chamber often look more like a conservative think tank than an advocate for business interests. And yet businesses generally support infrastructure upgrades and maintenance. So this shift seems to be a realignment of the Chamber with its members’ interests.
The Chamber’s proposal strikes me as particularly enlightened. In addition to raising the tax by 25 cents a gallon by 2024, the Chamber also calls for it to be indexed to inflation. The failure to do this originally is one of the reasons the Highway Trust Fund has been running out of money the past few years. In total, Donohue’s proposal would raise about $400 billion over the next decade. That’s not enough to fix everything that needs to be repaired, but it’s certainly a good start.
If the U.S. wants to stay competitive with China and other advanced or even developing countries, it needs a modern, robust transportation system; efficient mass transit; an advanced electrical grid, broadband, cellular networks; and a state-of-the-art shipping and port system. Despite pioneering many of these public-sector programs, the U.S. has fallen far behind other industrial nations and will fall even further behind unless dramatic reforms are adopted. It is long past due that America modernizes its infrastructure. We may have a glimmer of a shot at it this time.

How Elon Musk Beat Russia's Space Program
Leonid Bershidsky/Bloomberg/February 13/18
Nowhere did Tuesday's launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket echo as powerfully as in Russia. The private US company continues to produce technical feats on which the Russian space industry has given up: First the consistent reuse of rockets, and now the successful launch of a rocket with as many as 27 engines.The Soviet Union tried something similar in the 1960s and early 1970s. Sergei Korolev, the rocket designer who launched the first satellite and the first man into space, began the development of what came to be known as the N-1, a 30-engine superheavy rocket capable of taking a 75-ton space station to orbit and perhaps to the Moon, Mars and Venus. Finished after Korolev's death in 1966, the N-1 was test-launched four times. Each of the launches failed, largely because of the difficulty of running so many engines at the same time. Now SpaceX has pulled off a similar task, and even though it's not clear yet who will contract for the Falcon Heavy's services, SpaceX founder Elon Musk now has the most capable missile in the world: It can deliver up to 64 tons into orbit. Russia's plans to build such a rocket, capable of flying to the Moon or to Mars, aren't even complete yet, and certainly not fully funded, though Igor Komarov, head of Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, has promised a first launch in 2028. Even China is likely to have a superheavy launch vehicle before Russia. But it's the success of upstart Musk that smarts. Roskosmos has the full power of the state behind it, after all. And yet here's this boyish-looking showman launching his roadster into space, David Bowie blasting from the car's speakers and "Don't Panic" -- a quote from Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" -- lit up on the central console.
The corniness didn't make it less bitter. Russians laugh when it hurts and there were plenty of Russian memes that gamely acknowledged defeat by suggesting what Russia could have launched into space in place of a Tesla Roadster:
But the undertone is serious. Vitaly Egorov, spokesman for Dauria Aerospace, a private Russian satellite manufacturer that works with Roskosmos, posted bitterly on Facebook:
In fact, Musk hasn't done anything fantastical. Korolev has done this kind of thing, and so did [rocket engine designer Valentin] Glushko. Soviets did it, and Russians can do it too. But now we're onlookers and we see it as the stuff of fantasy. Many people have asked me: "Could we replicate the success of SpaceX?" Technically, we can. In the final accounting, landing a stage or making a superheavy rocket is a mathematical task, and we aren't out of mathematicians. What we are out of is dreamers. To know how to fly and where to fly, we need to know why we're flying.
Musk, with his crude salesmanship and nerdish cultural references, has a dream, described in a white paper he published last year: To colonize Mars. Musk admitted in the white paper that was his only motivation for getting rich.
Russia doesn't really have a dreamer to match. It has Dmitri Rogozin, the nationalist deputy prime minister in charge of the defense and aerospace industry, who publicly squabbled with the Roskosmos management after the latest launch failure in November. Roskosmos officials hired a private Gulfstream jet to fly to the launch from a new pad in Russia's Far East, but the Soyuz rocket, carrying 18 satellites, burned up in the atmosphere. Rogozin then accused Roskosmos of programming the Fregat upper stage for a launch from a different pad. "One tailor sews the pocket, another the lapel, but the suit doesn't work as a whole," Rogozin said. Roskosmos denied making the error. But, after a series of criminal investigations in the Russian aerospace industry -- with cases including the improper use of cheap components in building rockets -- not even the silliest explanations are out of the question.
Ever since the Soviet Union's collapse, the Russian space program has been run pragmatically for cash. Using time-tested technology, Russia seized leadership in the commercial launch market. But SpaceX's persistence and ingenuity, and its success in bringing down costs by reusing rockets, made it the likely market leader last year and possibly even profitable. The Falcon 9 was certainly the most successfully launched rocket in the world.

Dozens of Russians Are Believed Killed in U.S.-Led Syria Attack
Ivan Nechepurenko, Neil MacFarquhar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff/New York times/February 13/18
MOSCOW — Four Russian nationals, and perhaps dozens more, were killed in fighting between pro-government forces in eastern Syria and members of the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, according to Russian and Syrian officials.
A Syrian military officer said that about 100 Russian soldiers had been killed in the fighting on Feb. 7 and 8, but news about Russian casualties has dribbled out only slowly, through Russian news organizations and social media.
American forces came under attack on those two days, near Al Tabiyeh, Syria. “Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” according to Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the American military. “Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.”
Colonel Dillon said the military was not aware of any direct United States strike on Russian forces. He said the toll from the two days of fighting was not yet clear. Then, on Saturday, American forces struck a Russian-designed T-72 tank in roughly the same location as the previous fighting.
“The tank had been maneuvering with coordinated indirect fire on a defensive position occupied by Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition advisers,” Colonel Dillon. “The defensive position was within effective range of the hostile weapons systems. Coalition officials maintained regular contact with Russian counterparts via established deconfliction lines to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations that could endanger each other’s forces.”
The Kremlin — seeking to play down its involvement in the fighting in Syria and seemingly hoping to avoid escalating tensions with the United States — has sidestepped questions about the episode.
It has stressed repeatedly since last Wednesday that no members of the Russian armed forces were killed, and that any Russians fighting alongside the Syrians were mercenaries.
“We only handle the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said at a news briefing on Tuesday. “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.
The Kremlin said much the same about the nature of the forces in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, claiming they were volunteers and men on vacation, only to admit later that they were regular soldiers.
Mr. Putin has said at least three times since 2016 that combat operations in Syria were winding down, including once during a surprise visit to a Russian air base in Syria last December. Yet there are hundreds if not thousands of contract soldiers in Syria, however, which the Russian government has never acknowledged.
They were deployed both to help keep the official cost down and to try to avoid the Afghanistan scenario, when ordinary Russians soured on the intervention there in the 1980s due to the rising toll of young soldiers. Even though the Kremlin changed the law during Ukraine crisis in 2015 to make battlefield casualties a secret, the funerals for regular soldiers killed in combat need to be more official than those for mercenaries.
Also, even if President Vladimir V. Putin made Russia a player in the Middle East again by sending his miliary into Syria in September 2015, the intervention has never been particularly popular at home. Mr. Putin, running a re-election campaign that he is sure to win, has sought to take the spotlight away from overseas issues and to stress that his main concerns are domestic.
But individual Russians have begun speaking out. Some announced the specific names of victims, others claimed “scores” of Russian fighters died in an American airstrike near Deir-el Zour, between the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border.
Aleksandr Ionov, a Russian businessman working in Syria, offering security and other services, said his associates in several private military organizations had estimated heavy losses of possibly more than 200 killed.
Aleksandr Averin, a member of the Other Russia nationalist party, confirmed that Kirill Ananiev, a party member who left for Syria about a year ago, was killed in the airstrike, noting that there were other “substantial losses.”
Mr. Ionov said not all those killed were Russian, some of the paid fighters came from other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. “More than 200 is the current estimate, we cannot know the exact number yet, but most of them were Russian,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Ionov said he was speaking out, like a growing number of opposition and other voices, because he wants the Russians killed to be officially recognized for their sacrifice.
“The truth has to be told,” he said. “If people died, then this should be recognized and respects should be paid to people who fought against terrorists.”He called on the government to give a fuller version of events, adding, “People are outraged because they want to know the truth.”
What exactly sparked the battle also remains unclear. Some reports suggested that the fight was over control of a gas field. Mr. Ionov said he believed that it was some manner of the fog of battle, with the American-backed Kurdish troops interpreting the movement of government ground forces as an attack to control an oil field and calling in an airstrike.
Other sources like Mr. Averin have also suggested that many Russians died.
“I can confirm that Kirill died on Feb. 7 in Syria, near the Euphrates River, as a result of a strike by the American coalition,” Mr. Averin said in an interview, adding that he was aware of “substantial losses” suffered by “paramilitary structures with ties to Russia.” He refused to elaborate.
Another victim, Vladimir N. Loginov, died “in an unequal fight on Feb. 7 in the area of Syria’s Deir al-Zour,” according to a statement published online by his paramilitary organization.
“He died, heroically defending our motherland in the far reaches against the invasion of maddened barbarians,” the Baltic Cossack Union in Kaliningrad said in the statement.
Mr. Loginov, 51, has been a member of the local Cossack group, a pro-government paramilitary organization, since 2014.
In another case, Lubava Kocheva, a Russian woman from central Russia, said in a brief online chat that two of her male friends in Syria, Igor Kosoturov and Stanislav Matveev, also died in Syria on Feb. 7.
“We don’t know anything, whether they will bring them or not,” said Mrs. Kocheva, 41, referring to the men’s corpses. “This is very difficult and frightening.”
The names of most of the victims identified so far were first reported by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian investigative bloggers. The exact circumstances of their deaths could not be established by The New York Times.The Russian Defense Ministry, which supports President Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing civil war, said none of its servicemen were involved in the clash and that only 25 pro-government Syrian insurgents were wounded. It took pains to distance itself from the battle.
“The reason for the incident was lack of coordination between the reconnaissance movements of the Syrian insurgents and the Russian operative command,” the ministry said in its statement on Thursday.
The number and exact nature of private Russian security firms operating in Syria is unclear, although there have been persistent reports in the Russian media that some militiamen who fought on the side of the Russian-backed separatists the war in eastern Ukraine later deployed to Syria.
The main attention has focused on the so-called Wagner Group, a name drawn from the nickname of the retired Russian officer who leads it. The Russian paramilitary organization, with murky and unconfirmed ties with the Kremlin, has been operating in Syria in various capacities, including protecting some oil fields, according to multiple reports by the Russian media. The organization’s leaders have reportedly received awards in the Kremlin and its mercenaries are trained at the Russian Defense Ministry’s facilities.
Grigory A. Yavlinsky, a veteran Russian opposition politician, who is running for president in an election next month, called on President Vladimir V. Putin to disclose the number of Russians who died in Syria.
“I demand an explanation as to why Russian nationals take part in ground military operations in Syria, despite the statements by the president and defense minister that Russian military formations will be withdrawn from this country,” Mr. Yavlinsky said in a statement. “I also think there needs to be a public report about relations with the U.S., as there is a growing threat of an accidental or deliberate direct military clash between Russia and America.”
The official Kremlin stance is that its military deployment in Syria is now centered around two permanent bases, one for the air force and one for the navy, there by invitation from the Syrian government.
Russian political analysts said that Russia’s reluctance to confirm that its citizen died as a result of a U.S.-led airstrike is actually a sign that Moscow does not want to further worsen the already fractured bilateral relations with Washington.
“This is a very rare case, where the positions of Russia and the U.S. got closer,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, a leading expert in the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank in Moscow. “No one wants to take steps that will do irreparable damage to the already broken Russia-U.S. relations.”
**Ivan Nechepurenko and Neil MacFarquhar reported from Moscow, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Washington. Oleg Matsnev and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.

Khamenei And Clerics Starting To Show

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh/Arab Times/February 13/18
Cracks between ‘pharaoh’ Khamenei and clerics starting to show
Several Farsi news outlets last week focused on the arrest of the son of a famous Shiite cleric in the city of Qom. Hussein Al-Shirazi, the son of Grand Ayatollah Sadiq Al-Shirazi, was arrested for pointing out that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is similar to a “pharaoh.” He also compared the governance of the Iranian regime to that of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Intriguingly, comparing governments or political figures to pharaohs has been mostly used as an analogy by Khamenei himself. Most recently, he called the United States and Israel “today’s pharaohs.”
The term pharaoh in the Persian language is equated with tyranny, dictatorship and injustice. Hussein Al-Shirazi also criticized the regime for human rights violations, such as oppressing and mistreating dissidents, protesters and political prisoners, as well as ruling the nation through a religious dictatorship. The well-known Shiite cleric stated: “The (regime’s) leaders justify the death or injuries of millions of people by stating that it was for the sake of ‘holy defense.’ This nation has been wasted and ruined; it has moved 50 years backwards when it comes to the economy and standard of living; millions of people have become paralyzed; and then the regime states that their achievements were linked to the holy defense.”
There exists a misconception in viewing Iran’s clerical establishment and leadership as monolithic, but Hussein Al-Shirazi’s statements highlight the deep divisions within the leadership.
Many high-level Iranian clerics question the underlying legitimacy of the Iranian regime’s rule. One of the fundamental differences is linked to the concept of “Velayat-e Faqih” (the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), which was introduced into Shiite theology by Khomeini and Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. Montazeri’s view of Velayat-e Faqih held that a qualified Islamist Jurist should only play the role of an advisor, not an executive role in the government. However, Khomeini took the concept to a different level, directly entering the Shiite clerics into political affairs and giving the Faqih (the representative of the Hidden Imam, Al-Mahdi) custodianship over people. This revolutionary concept continues to be criticized by other powerful Shiite clerics, who believe that religion should remain separate from political affairs until the return of Imam Al-Mahdi.
The Iranian regime has always strongly attempted to depict its clerical establishment and leadership as a united front with one voice and one opinion, but the arrest of Al-Shirazi reveals that divisions have reached an unprecedented level.
Another issue is that, even among some of those clergies who believe that a Shiite Islamist Jurist must rule the nation, Khamenei is viewed as unqualified to be Iran’s supreme leader. This is partially due to the fact that Khamenei was not a grand marja (high-level religious authority) or an ayatollah when he succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini. Montazeri, who was supposed to be Khomeini’s successor, was replaced with Khamenei at the last moment due to the former’s criticism of the establishment.
Furthermore, some clerics question the foreign policy of the regime and its hemorrhaging of billions of dollars to keep dictators such as Bashar Assad, and proxies such as Hezbollah, in power. They believe that the government should focus on the nation’s desperate economic needs.
It is also worth noting that the arrest of Hussein Al-Shirazi shows that the regime is sending a robust message to the ordinary people and Qom’s clerics that opposition and criticism will not be tolerated, no matter the background of the individual concerned. The Iranian regime has previously detained and arrested high-level officials, such as Iran’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the daughter of the late ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic.
For almost four decades, the Iranian regime has strongly attempted to depict its clerical establishment and leadership as a united front with one voice and one opinion. It has tried to show that the clerical establishment believes in the regime’s revolutionary principles, the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih and the current system of governance. Nevertheless, the latest developments reveal that the division between Iran’s clerics has reached an unprecedented level. This could pose a grave threat to the hold on power of the Iranian regime and bring about fundamental changes within it.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

US, Turkey could be on collision course in Syria
Metin Gurcan/Al Monitor/ February 13/18
Neither side is backing down as Ankara and Washington exchange tough talk over potential confrontations in Syria.
As the situation in Syria heats up among all players — including Israel — Turkey and the United States so far have limited their exchanges to a war of words. However, signs aren't encouraging that it will end there.
Decision-makers in Ankara have toughened their rhetoric against the United States, and many senior figures in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are hinting at the possibility of armed confrontation between Turkish and US soldiers.
“If US soldiers wear the garb of terrorists and hang around with them, and if they attack Turkish soldiers, no doubt we will not have a chance to distinguish between them,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said last week.
In a Feb. 6 speech before AKP parliamentarians, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, speaking to the United States, “Get out of Manbij. We will come there to deliver the land to its true owners."
Turkey started its assault on Afrin in January to drive out the Kurds, specifically the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara appears insistent on expanding the Afrin offensive to Manbij, about 60 miles east, after gaining full control of the area west of the Euphrates River.
The United States, for its part, sounds determined not to abandon Manbij, even though it has no permanent military outposts there. As Ankara hardened its stance, a coalition team including Lt. Gen. Paul Funk and Maj. Gen. James Jarrard visited Manbij on Feb. 7 and had plenty to say.
“We’re very proud of our positions here, and we want to make sure everybody knows it,” said Jarrard, the special operations commander for the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
“You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves,” Funk added, raising the stakes.
An armed confrontation Feb. 7 between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and President Bashar al-Assad's forces — backed by Russia — escalated to a major battle in Deir ez-Zor, an oil-rich town in eastern Syria. War planes were involved — yet another sign the United States intends to hold on to the territory it has brought under its control in the post-IS setting.
Is an armed confrontation in Manbij between Turkish and US soldiers really a possibility? The key consideration here is whether Turkey is genuinely willing to challenge the United States militarily in Syria. Or is Ankara’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric just part of its effort to deter the US military from working more closely with the YPG in Manbij?
The situation on the ground now seems very similar to the one that led to the notorious “hood incident” in July 2003, which ended with US forces based in Kirkuk, Iraq, capturing Turkish special forces personnel operating in Sulaimaniyah in Iraq's Kurdish region.
The 2003 incident began when an unmarked building in Sulaimaniyah used by Turkish special forces operating secretly in Iraqi Kurdistan was raided by American soldiers on the pretext of stopping an alleged assassination plot against the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk. Turkish special forces were detained with hoods over their heads and were questioned for days at a Kirkuk air base. During the interrogation, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan militants misled the American soldiers and provided false translations, thus stalling the Turkish soldiers' release for days. The resulting crisis of confidence became a major trauma that still has a place in Turkey’s strategic culture.
As a former special forces officer, I was assigned as a liaison team commander of Turkish special forces with the US 173rd Airborne between November 2003 and May 2004. Today I shudder, sensing the same operational environment at Manbij.
Exactly as in the April-July 2003 period, Turkish and American soldiers are moving all over Manbij in the same operational environment without coordination, practically as hostile forces on the ground, again guided by local forces and translators. In a Jan. 25 Al-Monitor article, I had described Turkey’s Afrin offensive as an “effect-based operation” that targets US cooperation with the YPG forces east and west of the Euphrates River.
This is why Ankara will keep pressure on the United States as much as it can over Manbij. How long will US decision-makers resist this pressure? I think we will get some indicators of the US response with the visits to Ankara of US national security adviser H.R. McMaster last week and by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week. From developments, I sense the United States is trying to stall a showdown by using a good cop/bad cop tactic. But it's also obvious that strategy doesn’t work with Ankara.
At the end of the day, special forces that serve in chaotic areas like Manbij have to rely on the guidance of local forces and translators. As happened during the hood incident, if the local guides and translators want to ignite a conflict, they can easily do it — which is the dynamic that frightens me now. The blood feud between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements that provide guidance to Turkish troops and the Kurdish YPG elements that do the same for the Americans are well-known. Because of that all-consuming feud, even if Turkish and American soldiers try to avoid direct contact, they can be manipulated well by a process of which they are not even conscious.
The harassment-fire exchanges between the FSA and YPG at Manbij could get out of control and escalate to a major clash that will reduce the distance between Turkish and American soldiers and put them in range of direct fire from tanks and anti-aircraft guns, and indirect fire of artillery, mortar and rockets. The best method to minimize these hot contacts would be to deploy US liaison teams with Turkish troops and to set up a joint operations center to coordinate their moves. Such a mechanism doesn’t exist today, but I hope one would be set up before we experience another traumatic event like the 2003 hood incident. We all hope a decision is made soon to set up this mechanism. If that can’t be done, I would suggest getting ready for another hood incident.
But this time, those captured and hooded may not be Turkish.

The metastases of Syrian crisis
Christian Chesnot/Al Arabiya/February 13/18
With Israeli F-16 being shot down by Damascus anti-aircraft defenses, two Turkish helicopters downed by the Kurdish Peshmerga of Afrin, Idlib rebels shooting down a Russian MIG with an air ground missile: it is safe to say that Syrian skies are seriously dangerous for anyone who ventures there.
In any case, these three recent aerial incidents show that the Syrian crisis is mutating into a regional conflict. Similarly to what happened during the Lebanese civil war, everyone – major and regional powers – want to put their two cents, push their pawns and, ultimately, play a role in the final denouement.
In doing so, the risks of confrontation will increase considerably, because it is no longer an internal crisis but an entanglement of wars with different agenda and dynamics. The loss of an F-16 is a major turning point for Israel. During the so-called “33 days” war in Lebanon in 2006, the Hebrew state had encountered serious difficulties on the ground, with heavy losses in armored vehicles. One of its ships had even been damaged by a missile fire from Hezbollah. It is a proxy confrontation between Israel and Iran which happens to be between the Golan Heights and the Mediterranean
Air supremacy
But, at the time, Israel retained air supremacy. Today, the destruction of F-16 is a warning shot. From now on, Israeli bombers will have to take even greater precaution before venturing into Syrian skies. The absolute control of the sky by the Jewish state is partly called into question.
It is not so much the regime of Bashar Al-Assad that scares the Israeli state but Hezbollah and especially Iran’s striking force. Indeed, Tehran dreams of bringing the front line to the gates of Israel. The Hebrew state is waiting for any suspicious convoys or installations that could pose a threat, either in southern Syria or in southern Lebanon. To summarize, it is a proxy confrontation between Israel and Iran which happens to be between the Golan Heights and the Mediterranean. In this very tight game, it is up to Russia to play the referees. In other words: reassure the Israelis and dissuade the Iranians from provocation. Because in the end, it is the Russians who control the airspace of Syria. However, no one is immune to other incidents in air or in land, even though no one has interest to ignite fire.
The metastases
Further north, the Syrian crisis has also developed its metastases. It revived the old conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. We suspected that this would happen, but the operation “olive branch” triggered by Recep Tayip Edorgan, is not a long quiet river.
On the contrary, all indications point to the fact that the Turkish army is getting bogged down and missing a decisive victory. The loss of two helicopters in the space of a few days does not bode well for the generals of Ankara. Turkey has opened a front that closing again victoriously will prove to be a difficult task.
As for Russia, the dominant power in Syria, it is probably time for reconsideration. The failure of the Sochi conference, the loss of a Mig, and especially the American presence in the east of the country alongside with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a somewhat Arab-Kurdish militia, show that Moscow still has a lot of work to do to find a way out of the crisis. But the strength of Russia is that whenever it sets a goal, it does so with patient and tenacity. Russia is now at the center of the game, which also involves responsibilities.We will see in the coming weeks and months, if Vladimir Putin is able to impose and enforce the “Pax Russia” in Syria to different regional and local actors (Turkey, Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, the Kurds and Al Assad’s regime). Behind the scenes, red lines will be drawn for each player. This is probably also why, each of the protagonists are showing their muscles to establish a favorable balance of power on the ground. With all the risks of a possible deterioration.