February 27/2018
Compiled & Prepared by: Elias Bejjani


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Bible Quotations
Woe to those who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah05/01-30: "I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.  I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” 
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Woes and Judgments Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: “Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants. A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath[a] of wine; a homer[b] of seed will yield only an ephah of grain.”Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine.
They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of his hands. Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; those of high rank will die of hunger and the common people will be parched with thirst. Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers. So people will be brought low and everyone humbled, the eyes of the arrogant humbled. But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts. 
Then sheep will graze as in their own pasture; lambs will feed among the ruins of the rich. Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit, and wickedness as with cart ropes,  to those who say, “Let God hurry; let him hasten his work so we may see it.
The plan of the Holy One of Israel— let it approach, let it come into view, so we may know it.” 
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. 
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.
Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down The mountains shake, and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.  He lifts up a banner for the distant nations, he whistles for those at the ends of the earth. Here they come, swiftly and speedily! Not one of them grows tired or stumbles, not one slumbers or sleeps; not a belt is loosened at the waist, not a sandal strap is broken. Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung; their horses’ hooves seem like flint, their chariot wheels like a whirlwind. Their roar is like that of the lion, they roar like young lions; they growl as they seize their prey and carry it off with no one to rescue. In that day they will roar over it like the roaring of the sea. And if one looks at the land, there is only darkness and distress; even the sun will be darkened by clouds.

Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published on February 26-27/18
Sayyed decries Hariri's involvement in case against anchorwoman/Georgi Azar/Annahar/February 26/2018
Obama's Shadow Looms Over US Lebanon Policy/Ari Lieberman/Front Page/February 26/18
Iran Wants to Join the World Order It Undermines/Eli Lake/Bloomberg/February 26/18
The Syria Memory Hole Is Opening Up a Bigger Danger/Tyler Cowen/Bloomberg/February 26/18
"Don't Dare Sit with Us if You Want to Live"/Muslim Persecution of Christians, September 2017/Raymond Ibrahim/Gatestone Institute/February 25/18
With Red Syrian Ink/Ghassan Charbel/Asharq Al Awsat/February 26/18
The Nature of Humanitarian Assistance Must Change/José Graziano Da Silva/Asharq Al Awsat/February 26/18
Palestinians: Israel is One Big Settlement/Bassam Tawil/Gatestone Institute/February 26/2018
Russia's Mercenary Debacle in Syria/Is the Kremlin Losing Control/Neil Hauer/Foreign Affairs/February 26/18

Titles For Latest LCCC Lebanese Related News published on February 26-27/18
President Aoun talks security with Gen. Aoun
Aoun Meets UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations
Aoun Accuses Israel of 'Ethnic Cleansing' in Wake of Tax Imposition on Churches
Aoun talks southern security with top UN peacekeeping official
Aoun condemns Israel for Jerusalem church tax
AlAloula invites Hariri to Saudi Arabia
Hariri Receives Phone Call from UK Foreign Secretary
Saudi Envoy in Beirut to Meet Senior Lebanese Officials
LF Weighing Alliances with Mustaqbal, FPM
Bassil meets his Indonesian counterpart over bilateral ties
Khoury announces Francophone month program in Lebanon
Othman meets UN Safety and Security diplomat
Japan supports school rehabilitation in Ghubairi through INNODEV
Ibrahim meets Drennan, Lacroix
Saudi king affirms strong ties with Lebanon in message to Aoun
Mashnouq Says State Decisions 'Governed' by Weapons
Al-Rahi, Daryan in Vienna for Dialogue Conference Held by King Abdullah Center
Foreign Ministry deplores Israeli occupation's incessant measures against Christian and Islamic sites in alQuds
Sayyed decries Hariri's involvement in case against anchorwoman
Obama's Shadow Looms Over US Lebanon Policy

Titles For Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published on February 26-27/18
Fresh Strikes on Syria's Ghouta Enclave Kill 10
Turkey Sends Special Forces for New Fight in Afrin
Russia Blasts 'Bogus' Reports of Syria Chemical Attack
2 Lions from Iraq, Syria Head to South African Refuge
Security Council Discusses Resolution to Call Out Iran
Family of 9 Killed in Eastern Ghouta as UN Calls for Ending ‘Hell on Earth’
South Sudan Close to Famine, New Report Says
Canada calls for immediate implementation of ceasefire in Syria
Four Killed in Building Fire in Central English City
Macron Tells Erdogan Syria Ceasefire Must Apply to Afrin
Latest Lebanese Related News published on February 26-27/18
Saudi king affirms strong ties with Lebanon in message to Aoun
The Daily Star/February 26, 2018/BEIRUT: Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula Monday delivered a message to President Michel Aoun from Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud that underscored the strength of the Lebanese-Saudi ties.The verbal message relayed to Aoun by Aloula came during a meeting between the two at Baabda Palace at around 3 p.m., local media reported. The message affirmed Saudi Arabia's support for Lebanon's sovereignty and stability as well as solid bilateral ties. LBCI News reported that Aloula informed Aoun that he will invite Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh. The meeting with Aoun lasted for 10 minutes, before the Saudi diplomat left without giving public comment. The high-ranking Saudi envoy arrived at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport at around 2 p.m., accompanied by a delegation that included former Saudi Embassy Charge d’Affaires Walid Bukhari. The visit marks the first official visit of a high-ranking Saudi official to Lebanon since Hariri resigned from the premiership last year before rescinding his decision. The shock decision, announced from Riyadh on Nov. 4, put Lebanese-Saudi relations under strain after President Michel Aoun accused the kingdom of detaining the prime minister against his will. Upon his arrival in Beirut, Aloula told reporters that he was indeed going to extend an invite to Hariri to visit Saudi Arabia. The two are set to meet at the Grand Serail at 5 p.m.

President Aoun talks security with Gen. Aoun
The Daily Star/Feb. 26, 2018/BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun met with Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun at the Army’s headquarters in Yarze Monday, discussing the security situation and the Army’s needs, an Army statement reported. The meeting was held in the presence of several other high-ranking military officials. The president reportedly praised the Army’s efforts in maintaining stability across Lebanon and “defending the homeland in the face of the Israeli enemy and terrorism.” He also affirmed official and public support for the Army’s preparedness to guarantee Lebanon’s “rights” at the southern border. These rights include Lebanon’s sovereignty over its land and sea borders and its right to exploit its oil and other economic resources, the statement said. Tensions at the southern border have been heightened in recent weeks after an uptick in Israeli rhetoric against Lebanon. These include comments by the Israeli defense minister, who described Lebanon’s moves towards exploring a southern oil block as “very provocative.” Israel also recently began construction of a southern border wall. President Aoun and other Lebanese officials have raised concerns over several points where they expect the wall will be constructed inside Lebanese territory. This has led Lebanese political and security officials to reaffirm the Army’s readiness to confront any attack on Lebanese sovereignty.

Aoun Meets UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations
Naharnet/February 26/18/President Michel Aoun met on Monday at Baabda Palace with the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, affirming Lebanon's readiness to “defend itself” against Israel's violations, the National News Agency reported.
“Lebanon is keen on maintaining stability and calm in South Lebanon, but it is also ready to defend itself shall Israel carry out an assault,” Aoun told Lacroix. Aoun referred to Israel's continued violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and the violation of Lebanese airspace by shelling Syrian territory. “Lebanon refuses Israel's violations. Building a cement separation wall on the southern border is an additional violation of Lebanon's sovereignty,” said Aoun. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Lacroix affirmed the UNIFIL's role in serving peace in Lebanon, “it is a role that we will continue to do in collaboration with Lebanese authorities,” he said. “The UNIFIL's role has become more important today with the recent Israeli declarations and the construction of a cement separation Israeli wall with Lebanon,” he added. Lacroix assured that the UNIFIL plays the role of a “mediator between Lebanon and Israel in order to allow dialogue and appease tension.”

Aoun Accuses Israel of 'Ethnic Cleansing' in Wake of Tax Imposition on Churches
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/February 26/18/President Michel Aoun denounced Israel's imposition of taxes on churches and religious sites saying the measure "targets the presence of Christians," Aoun's media office said on Twitter on Monday. The President condemned the “decision taken by Israeli occupation authorities to impose taxes on churches and religious shrines in Jerusalem, in contravention of international laws revoking conventions on places of worship in Jerusalem.”Aoun considered it “a systematic decision targeting the remaining presence of Christians in the occupied territories,” accusing it of “ethnic cleansing.”Christian leaders Sunday took the rare step of closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site of Jesus's burial in Jerusalem, in protest at Israeli tax measures and a proposed property law. The church is considered the holiest site in Christianity, built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, and is a major pilgrimage site. Christian leaders have been angered over attempts by Israeli authorities in Jerusalem to enforce tax collection on church property they consider commercial, saying exemptions only apply to places of worship or religious teaching.

Aoun talks southern security with top UN peacekeeping official
The Daily Star/Feb. 26, 2018/BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun said Monday that Lebanon sought stability in the south, but was ready to defend itself if attacked by Israel, in a meeting with the top U.N. peacekeeper Monday at the presidential palace in Baabda. United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix over the weekend made his first visit to U.N. peacekeeping forces in south Lebanon since taking up his position last April. Aoun pointed Lacroix to Israel's near-daily violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, in addition to Israel’s use of Lebanese airspace to bomb Syria on multiple occasions, according to a statement from the president’s office. Aoun said that recent cuts to UNIFIL’s budget would have a “negative impact on the effectiveness of its role,” which he said was particularly important at the current time given Israel’s construction of a southern border wall. $600 million were cut from the U.N.’s annual peacekeeping budget starting July 1, 2017, following pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. Additionally, the US State Department budget proposal for 2019 is reportedly seeking a 42 percent cut over 2017's budget for UNIFIL, from $146.1 million to $84.2 million. Aoun also reportedly raised the topic of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, of which there are reportedly roughly 1.5 million. Fewer than 1 million are registered with the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
After the meet, Lacroix reaffirmed the U.N.’s role as a vehicle for communication and dialogue between Lebanon and Israel through the regular tripartite meetings that are mediated by UNIFIL in Naqoura. Lacroix reportedly said the meetings calmed tensions, and played “a special role [after] the declaration of Israel’s intention to build [a border] wall.” Construction of the wall has led to increased tension in the south. “What we are doing is contributing to the reduction of tension, and is consistent with what UNIFIL is doing to prevent any incident that can fuel the tension,” he was quoted as saying.Lacroix also said UNIFIL cooperated well with Lebanese authorities. "We have close cooperation with the Lebanese Army, which has recently doubled its presence in the UNIFIL area of operation, and we welcome this very positively,” he said. He said UNIFIL was in Lebanon “to maintain the cease-fire [between Lebanon and Israel] and help to create the conditions for a truce, and [we] are determined to carry forward this mission.”Lacroix’s visit comes after a colorful report was published in Le Journal du Dimanche, which contained allegations that the Lebanese Army was failing to cooperate well with UNIFIL, adversely impacting their ability to fulfill their duties in south Lebanon. An unidentified French captain with the French contingent was quoted as saying, “in the evening we never leave the barracks because the Lebanese forces are not friendly.”
Lacroix refused to comment on the report in an interview with The Daily Star published Monday.
Aoun condemns Israel for Jerusalem church tax
The Daily Star/Feb. 26, 2018/BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun Monday condemned a decision by the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality to begin levying taxes on church-owned properties in the city, tweets from his official account said. Aoun condemned “the decision of the Israeli occupation authorities” to impose taxes on churches and other religious sites in Jerusalem, “in contravention of international laws and conventions.” Aoun said he considered the move “a deliberate targeting of the remaining Christian presence in the territories occupied by Israel.” He said that Israel “deliberately cleanses the ethnic and religious rights of all non-Jewish [people] in order to achieve all aspects of its racist project.” Christian churches are some of the largest landowners in the city. They also reportedly object to a draft bill in Israeli parliament that would make it harder for them to sell this property. Christian leaders in the city on Sunday responded to the Israeli moves by shutting Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, due to what they called a “systematic campaign” by Israeli authorities.

AlAloula invites Hariri to Saudi Arabia
Mon 26 Feb 2018/NNA - The President of the Council of Ministers Saad Hariri received today at the Grand Serail the envoy of the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the Advisor at the Royal court Nizar al-Aloula, accompanied by the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid al-Yacoub, and the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Royal court Walid al-Bukhari. After that, al-Aloula, Al-Yacoub and Al-Bukhari visited the grave of Martyr Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in Beirut Central District. After praying for his soul and the souls of his martyr companions, the Saudi envoy wrote the following in the record book: "Martyr Prime Minister Rafic Hariri will remain a national and Arab symbol and Lebanon will return as the martyr wanted it, free and a beacon to the world."
For his part, Prime Minister Hariri said that the talks with the Saudi envoy were excellent, adding that al-Aloula presented to him an invitation to visit the Kingdom and that he will do that as soon as possible. In a chat with reporters after the meeting, Hariri said: "Saudi Arabia's main objective is for Lebanon to be sovereign. It is also keen on the full independence of Lebanon and we will see how to cooperate with the kingdom regarding the upcoming international conferences." Regarding the meeting of the ministerial committee tasked with studying the 2018 budget draft law, held today, Hariri said: "The country needs reforms, the budgets of ministries should be reduced and we have to send real positive signs to the states participating in the forthcoming international conferences. There is progress in studying the budget and we will hold consecutive sessions to finish it before the date set by Speaker Nabih Berri on March 5, because everyone will be busy afterwards to prepare for the parliamentary elections." Regarding the electoral law, he said: "In my opinion no one has a clear picture of the alliances yet. Negotiations are underway and things will become clearer gradually. The importance of this law is that it shows the dimension of each person. The names of the "Future movement" candidates will be announced soon".
Hariri Receives Phone Call from UK Foreign Secretary
Naharnet/February 26/18/Prime Minister Saad Hariri received a phone call at noon Sunday from British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the premier's office said. Talks tackled "the bilateral relations and the regional developments as well as the ongoing preparations for the Rome conference for supporting the army and security forces and the CEDRE conference in Paris for backing investment in Lebanon," Hariri's office said. The prime minister thanked Johnson for "the aid that Britain is offering Lebanon in the fields of security and economy and for its humanitarian assistance that is aimed at confronting the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis."

Saudi Envoy in Beirut to Meet Senior Lebanese Officials

Naharnet/February 26/18/Saudi envoy Nizar al-Aloula arrived in Beirut on Monday, a first for a Saudi diplomat since the now-reversed resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri from Riyadh in November. Aloula is scheduled to meet with senior Lebanese officials including President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri. He will reportedly meet with officials of the March 14 camp mainly Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea and Kataeb party leader Sami Gemayel, former Minister Ashraf Rifi and ex-PM Najib Miqati. Ties between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were strained in the wake of Hariri's November resignation from Riyadh which he has since rescinded. The kingdom was widely seen as having orchestrated the botched move as part of its regional feud with Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah. Monday's visit comes amid preparations by the Lebanese political forces for the May parliamentary elections.

LF Weighing Alliances with Mustaqbal, FPM
Naharnet/February 26/18/Lebanese Forces MP Fadi Karam on Monday said the current week will be decisive at the level of electoral negotiations among political parties in preparation for the upcoming elections in May, the National News Agency reported. “The LF is holding consultations with the Free Patriotic Movement and al-Mustaqbal Movement to assess electoral coalition chances,” the lawmaker told VDL (93.3) radio. “The LF had sought an alliance with the Kataeb party in all regions, but the latter's request to withdraw LF's Batroun candidate in favor of MP Samer Saadeh has prevented our alliance with Kataeb party," the lawmaker added. He finally stressed the LF's position seeking strong ties with Saudi Arabia for the benefit of Lebanon at all levels. Political parties are gearing up for the May 6 polls announcing the names of their candidates and striking alliances to be listed on unified lists. Lebanon will hold its first national referendum in nine years in May. The parliament has postponed elections several times over security reasons. Its term was supposed to expire in 2013 but lawmakers approved several extensions since then, the last one in June for another 11 months.

Mashnouq Says State Decisions 'Governed' by Weapons
Naharnet/February 26/18/Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq on Monday said "Lebanon's major problem" lies in the existence of illegal "weapons” and their effect on the country's state decisions, pointing out that a motion will be raised after the parliamentary elections to put these arms under the state's authority, Asharq al-Awsat daily reported on Monday. “A serious part of Lebanon's decisions are doomed to weapons, in addition to sectarianism. All other problems can be solved,” he told the daily, revealing that demands for a national defensive strategy to put the weapons under the state's control will be raised after the May elections. On Lebanon's stability at the security level, the Minister hailed the security force’s strenuous efforts in maintaining stability, noting that “several regional and international circumstances have helped us maintain this stability.”
He pointed out that the British Interior Minister drew his attention to the fact that Beirut has not been subjected to any major security attack for nearly three years now, while the European capitals like London, Paris and Brussels were the most prominent.
“This is due, of course, to the cohesion of the security services, especially the Information Directorate which is doing a great job, the last of which is the liberation of a girl kidnapped from Bekaa, less than 9 hours after her abduction,” he said.
On developmental plans for the capital Beirut, he said: “We have taken great steps to achieve independent services in Beirut mainly in electricity, water, waste treatment and public transport.”

Al-Rahi, Daryan in Vienna for Dialogue Conference Held by King Abdullah Center
Naharnet/February 26/18/Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan and representatives of Lebanon's religious communities arrived Sunday in Vienna to take part in a religious dialogue conference. The conference is organized by the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), an inter-governmental organization that promotes inter-religious dialogue to prevent and resolve conflict. KAICIID was opened in 2012 by Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain, following an initiative by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Holy See is a founding observer. The Lebanese participants were welcomed at the airport by Lebanese Ambassador Ibrahim Assaf, Lebanese consul Jean Mrad, general president of the Congregation of the Lebanese Maronite Missionaries Father Malek Bou Tanous, the head of the Maronite Mission of Vienna Father Michel Harb, a number of Lebanese expats and organizers from the conference.

Foreign Ministry deplores Israeli occupation's incessant measures against Christian and Islamic sites in alQuds
Mon 26 Feb 2018/NNA - Foreign and Expatriates Ministry on Monday vehemently deplored the Israeli Occupation's incessant arbitrary practices and measures against the Christian and Islamic sites in al-Quds, most recently its decision to impose taxes on churches and their owned properties in the city.
"These systematic Israeli measures against churches in the holy lands and its daily assault on the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque pose a threat to the Christian and Islamic presence in al-Quds," Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Ministry considered such measures fall within the framework of the ongoing Israeli attempts to Judaize the city of al-Quds and to change its legal and historical status quo, not to mention seizing properties owned by churches and confiscating Christian and Islamic endowments. "The Israeli attacks on the holy sites constitute a blatant violation of all international laws and conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and
Belief, as well as the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities," statement added.
"These universal declarations emphasize that discrimination amongst human beings on the basis of religion or belief constitutes an insult to human dignity and a denial of the principles of the United Nations," statement read. The Foreign Ministry also deemed "the extraordinary step taken by the churches in Palestine to close the Church of the Resurrection a resounding shout to the international community and all international legal institutions about the need to put limits to Israel's intransigence and its violation of the sanctity of Christian and Islamic sites in al-Quds."The statement concluded by calling on all parties to take serious and effective action to stop the unwanted abhorrent and reprehensible Israeli practices, and to force the occupation authorities to retract their decision to impose taxes on church-owned properties.

Bassil meets his Indonesian counterpart over bilateral ties
Mon 26 Feb 2018/NNA - Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on Monday welcomed at his ministerial office his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, with whom he discussed the bilateral ties between the two countries. Minister Bassil underlined during the meeting Lebanon's support for Indonesia's candidacy for non-permanent membership in the Security Council. Bassil also asked Indonesia to stand by Lebanon in the face of Israel's recurrent violations of Lebanon's sovereignty by air and sea. Bassil also stressed Lebanon's adherence to its rights in the offshore oil Block 9, calling for the application of international laws to resolve any dispute. The Foreign Minister also called on Indonesia to stand by Lebanon in the delineation of land and sea southern borders, and the international conferences to be held in support of Lebanon economically and its army in the face of terrorism. Minister Marsudi, for her part, affirmed Indonesia's stand by Lebanon and its demands, voicing her country's rejection of the American resolutions concerning the Quds city.

Khoury announces Francophone month program in Lebanon
Mon 26 Feb 2018/NNA - Culture Minister Dr Ghattas Khoury announced on Monday during a press conference at the National Museum's headquarters the program of upcoming Francophone month in Lebanon. The press conference was attended by French Ambassador to Lebanon Bruno Foucher, Belgian Ambassador Alex Lenhart, Romanian Ambassador Romanian Ambassador Victor Mircea, Swiss Ambassador, Monika Schmutz Kirg'z, Canadian Ambassador Emmanuelle Lamoureux, Ambassador of Uruguay Marta Inés Pizzanelli, Armenian Ambassador Samvel Mkrtchian, and Regional Director of the Francophonie Universal Agency Hervé Sabourin. In his delivered word, Ambassador Foucher said that Francophone is celebrated in particular in Lebanon every March, and he deemed relations between France and Lebanon as excellent based on the common values of the French and Lebanese languages. Minister Khoury, for his part, highlighted the importance of Lebanon's position within the international Francophone family and its active role in its various activities, starting with the International Organization of Francophonie and Francophone Games, not to mention the cooperation and cultural exchange between Lebanon, France, and Francophone countries. Khoury noted that the Ministry organizes the francophone month in Lebanon For the eighth year in a row, in cooperation with the Francophone embassies and the World Organization of Francophonie. "The program includes a range of cultural and artistic activities," Khoury said, announcing that the Francophone month shall be kicked off upcoming March 2nd. He declared that "our homeland has been and continues to be the advanced cultural platform in its surroundings.. an attribute that we all have to support and maintain," Khoury concluded.

Othman meets UN Safety and Security diplomat
Mon 26 Feb 2018/NNA - Internal Security Forces' chief, General Imad Othman, on Monday met with the United Nations' Under Secretary General for Safety and Security, Peter Drennan, with whom he discussed the current situation in Lebanon.

Japan supports school rehabilitation in Ghubairi through INNODEV
Mon 26 Feb 2018/NNA - In a press release by the Embassy of Japan in Lebanon, it said: "The Embassy supports school rehabilitation in Baabda, in order to provide better education to local residents and refugees. To start the project, on February 26 2018, Mr. Matahiro Yamaguchi, Ambassador of Japan to Lebanon signed a grant contract with Layal Nehme, Executive Director of Innovation Development Association (INNODEV), a local NGO that has been supporting public school students with a variety of educational activities since 2015. The Embassy provides the grant of USD 90,780 for the rehabilitation of El Ghubairi first mixed elementary public school through the Grant Assistance for Grass-roots Human Security Program (GGP). The funding will allow the NGO to renovate the school facilities and to obtain new desks for the students in the school. After the project, at least 375 students including Syrian refugees will receive proper education in a safer environment."

Ibrahim meets Drennan, Lacroix
Mon 26 Feb 2018/NNA - General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim on Monday morning welcomed at his office UN Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security, Peter Drennan, on top of a delegation, with whom he discussed security threats in Lebanon, particularly regarding the safety of United Nations personnel and facilities. The delegation thanked the General Directorate for its efforts in facilitating the functions of the United Nations institutions in Lebanon and their programs. This afternoon, Major General Ibrahim met with the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, accompanied by the Force Commander and Head of mission of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Major General Michael Beary. Talks reportedly touched on the situation on the southern borders, especially concerning the controversial separation wall along the Blue Line, in addition to the role of UNIFIL in stabilizing the border areas.

Sayyed decries Hariri's involvement in case against anchorwoman
Georgi Azar/Annahar/February 26/2018
The latest saga pitting Sayyed against Azar took another twist early on Monday, after Sayed took to Twitter to remind Hariri of the “backing he received” during his detention in Saudi Arabia.
BEIRUT: Former chief of Lebanon’s General Security agency Jamil el-Sayyed blasted Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s intervention in his case against MTV channel anchorwoman Jessica Azar, accusing him of attempting to score political points. The latest saga pitting Sayyed against Azar took another twist early on Monday, after Sayed took to Twitter to remind Hariri of the “backing he received” during his detention in Saudi Arabia.“When they humiliated you in Saudi Arabia, we stood by your side in line with our principles,” Sayyed said, in reference to the backing Hariri received from President Michel Aoun, an ally of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah, who called for the premier's return to Beirut amid reports that he was being detained in the kingdom against his will. Hariri had resigned from Saudi Arabia, an archfoe of Iran, citing Hezbollah's dominion over Lebanon and meddling in the affairs of Arab states, before retracting his resignation upon his arrival in Beirut. Sayyed also sarcastically apologized to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who reportedly was behind Hariri's brief detention in Saudi Arabia. Sayyed’s scathing remarks come against the backdrop of Hariri’s show of support for Azar, who thanked the Premier for “his commitment to freedom of speech and expression.” Sayyed first threatened the MTV anchorwoman last week with charges of libel and defamation after she retweeted a post by another Lebanese journalist accusing Sayyed of “having mischief on his hands.”According to Azar, she received a letter to her office ordering her to take down the tweet or face being sued. Speaking to Annahar, Azar said she was “honored by this threat,” while vowing to preserve her and the country’s right to freedom of expression. The former commander of Lebanon’s security establishment is a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections running on Hezbollah’s list, a staunch opponent of Hariri’s Future Movement. Hariri and Sayyed’s feud dates back to 2005 after he was arrested on charges of murder, attempted murder and terrorism in connection with the assassination of Hariri’s late father, Rafik Hariri. Sayyed was held in Roumieh prison from 2005 until April 2009, when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon ordered his release.

Obama's Shadow Looms Over US Lebanon Policy
Ari Lieberman/Front Page/February 26/18
While Treasury and Justice Departments break free of the Swamp.
Early this week, Lebanon’s top army commander, Joseph Aoun, threatened to “confront any Israeli aggression, whatever that costs.” Aoun was referring to Lebanon’s contrived maritime and land border disputes with Israel. Aoun further noted that the Lebanese Armed Forces “would not spare any method” in challenging Israel. With those words, Aoun signed the LAF’s death warrant. The dispute, which was provoked by Hezbollah and Iran, centers on a triangular area of sea of around 330 square miles that falls squarely within Israel’s maritime borders. Hezbollah also opposes the construction of a land barrier that Israel is building on its side of the border to prevent infiltration.
Aoun’s bellicose tone echoes that of Hezbollah, which has been offering similar rhetoric in recent weeks with increasing shrill and frequency. Hezbollah, which operates as Iran’s mercenary army, has in recent years slowly subsumed Lebanese state institutions, including Lebanon’s army, like a cancerous, flesh-eating malignancy.
In 2008, the Lebanese government tried to reassert control by assuming some measure of authority over Beirut International Airport and by preventing Hezbollah from constructing its own separate telecommunication infrastructure. Hezbollah thwarted these efforts in May 2008 when its forces seized key strategic sites and government media institutions. The clashes, though sharp and violent, were brief but underscored the point that in Lebanon, it is Iran through its proxy Hezbollah that pulls the strings. The impotent Lebanese Army, itself a fractured mosaic of Shia, Sunni, Christians and Druse, stood by helplessly and did not interfere.
Israel doesn’t have much to fear from the ineffectual Lebanese Army. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the LAF remained neutral, and in at least one instance, maintained courteous exchanges with advancing Israeli forces, even serving them tea. But Aoun’s comment struck an ominous tone for other reasons. By parroting Hezbollah talking points, Aoun is now broadcasting to the world that he is putting the Lebanese Army at Hezbollah’s disposal.
Aoun merely confirmed what has been the de-facto case for the past several years. The LAF has done nothing to advance United Nations Security Council resolutions 1701 and 1559, which call for Hezbollah’s disarmament. In fact, the LAF has acted an auxiliary force for Hezbollah, securing logistical routes for the terrorist group and participating in the shelling of Syrian rebel groups hostile to Hezbollah. There is also a body of credible evidence suggesting that Hezbollah has been pilfering LAF supplies and equipment with the LAF’s consent. Even elements of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) now regard the LAF as a hostile body which acts as an agent for Hezbollah. Prominent Lebanese writer Hanin Ghaddar, who for understandable reasons no longer resides in Lebanon, acknowledged the obvious when he insightfully noted that “Hezbollah used to be considered a state within the Lebanese state. Today, it is Lebanon that is a small state within the Hezbollah state.”
Israel has fully come to terms with the fact that the LAF and Hezbollah have become one and the same. Israeli security officials have repeatedly been sounding the alarm noting that the LAF is now an integral part of Hezbollah. Accordingly, Israeli military planners have modified their offensive doctrine to include the LAF as an active belligerent in any future conflict against Hezbollah.
Notwithstanding the obvious writing on the wall, the United States is still demonstrating signs of confusion and disarray when it comes to Lebanon. Despite the LAF’s demonstrable close cooperation with Hezbollah and Lebanon’s increasingly aggressive tone vis-à-vis Israel, the LAF remains the fifth largest recipient of U.S. military assistance. Stipulations attached to the military aid program have been routinely and openly contravened by the LAF.
Of equal significance is the fact that the U.S. State Department, headed by its ill-informed secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, continues to peddle the ridiculous notion that there’s some vestige of sovereignty left within the Lebanese government. On February 15, Tillerson met with Lebanese government officials where he was deliberately humiliated by his Lebanese hosts and compounded the humiliation by making a series of contradictory and banal statements concerning Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.
A day prior, while in Jordan, Tillerson appeared to lend some legitimacy to Hezbollah by stating that “We also have to acknowledge the reality that [Hezbollah] are part of the political process in Lebanon.” That statement drew sharp criticism and prompted the State Department to go into damage control mode, issuing vague and incoherent statements which only added to the confusion.
It appears that Tillerson has adopted a regurgitated form of the same gibberish touted by Barack Obama’s CIA director, John “Al-Quds” Brennan. Brennan absurdly believed that Hezbollah’s “political wing” was part of the framework of the Lebanese government and there were “moderate” elements of Hezbollah with whom the United States could negotiate. Obama was heavily influenced by this line of thinking and consequently, ignored the telltale signs of Lebanon’s demise as a sovereign nation. Others like analyst Tony Badran expressed the view that Obama, besotted by the notion of establishing détente with the Islamic Republic, deliberately pursued policies aimed at strengthening Iran’s position in Lebanon (and Syria).
It is clear that the United States must adopt a more robust policy against Hezbollah and there has been significant movement in that direction. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has revived the DEA’s Project Cassandra and Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury Department has slapped new sanctions on Hezbollah and Iran. But the State Department is still infested with the “The Swamp” mindset and has yet to come to terms with certain unwavering truths. The State Department must once and for all face the reality that Lebanon, as a sovereign independent nation, is no more. It has been wholly transformed into nothing more than a marionette with the strings being pulled by the Islamic Republic.
As for the LAF, this once proud independent institution sealed its fate when it decided to cast its lot with the fortunes of Hezbollah. In 2006, Israel pummeled Hezbollah, reducing large swaths of Hezbollah-controlled territory into cratered parking lots but largely ignored the LAF. In the coming war, the LAF will not be so fortunate.
**Ari Lieberman is an attorney and former prosecutor who has authored numerous articles and publications on matters concerning the Middle East and is considered an authority on geo-political and military developments affecting the region.
Latest LCCC Bulletin For Miscellaneous Reports And News published on February 26-27/18
Fresh Strikes on Syria's Ghouta Enclave Kill 10
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/February 26/18/Fresh bombardment by the Syrian regime on Monday killed at least 10 civilians in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, including nine members of a same family, a monitor said. Air strikes destroyed a building in Douma, the main town in the Eastern Ghouta area east of Damascus, and buried alive an entire family, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "Nine civilians from a same family were killed in regime air strikes in Douma, after midnight," the head of the Britain-based Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, said. "Some of the bodies are still stuck in the rubble," he said. An AFP correspondent in Douma said the bombardment had been very heavy overnight and impeded rescuers in their work. The Observatory said another civilian was killed by regime rocket fire in Harasta, an area of Eastern Ghouta which is directly adjacent to the capital's eastern neighbourhoods. More than 500 civilians have been killed in regime and Russian bombardment on the enclave, which is controlled by Islamist and jihadist fighters, since February 18, according to the Observatory. Among the dead are more than 130 children.

Turkey Sends Special Forces for New Fight in Afrin
Asharq Al Awsat/February 26/18/Turkey deployed on Monday special forces to the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin for a “new battle” in its five-week campaign against the Kurdish YPG militia, despite a UN call at the weekend for a ceasefire across Syria. Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies, supported by Turkish air strikes, have pushed the Kurdish fighters back from most of Turkey’s border with Afrin since they launched their assault on Jan. 20. "Deploying special forces is part of the preparation for a new fight that is approaching," Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, also government spokesman, said. An unknown number of gendarmerie and police special forces entered the region on Sunday night, state news agency Anadolu said. Bozdag said the fight continued in villages and countryside far from Afrin's center. "The fight will shift to places where there are civilians, as the area (of fighting) narrows," Bozdag said during an interview with NTV broadcaster. The deputy prime minister said the special forces had experience fighting against militants in residential areas of Turkey "without harming civilians". Turkey views the YPG as a "terrorist" Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. The PKK is blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union. But the YPG has been working closely with the US against the ISIS extremist group in Syria, much to Ankara's infuriation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week said Turkey would lay siege to the center of the town of Afrin "in the coming days". The UN Security Council on Saturday adopted a resolution on a 30-day truce in Syria to allow for humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations after intense regime bombardment of the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, which killed hundreds. French President Emmanuel Macron told Erdogan during a telephone call on Monday that the ceasefire for Syria must be applied across the country, including Afrin. "The President of the Republic stressed that the humanitarian truce applied to all of Syria, including Afrin, and should be implemented everywhere and by all without any delay to stop the ongoing spiral of violence that could lead to a regional explosion and push away any hope of a political solution," Macron's office said in a statement. Macron told Erdogan that France's monitoring of humanitarian access and chemical weapons was "total and permanent". Bozdag said earlier on Monday that the UN decision "did not affect the Afrin operation".

Russia Blasts 'Bogus' Reports of Syria Chemical Attack

Agence France Presse/Naharnet/February 26/18/Moscow on Monday said reports of an alleged chemical attack on Syria's rebel-held Eastern Ghouta were planted "bogus stories" and insisted armed groups attacked by regime forces there were terrorist allies.
"There are already bogus stories in the media that yesterday chlorine was used in Eastern Ghouta, citing an anonymous individual living in the United States," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press-conference. A child died and at least 13 other people suffered breathing difficulties in a village in the Eastern Ghouta region after the suspected chemical attack Sunday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a medic who treated those affected. Eastern Ghouta has been under one of the most ferocious assaults of Syria's civil war in recent days, with over 500 people killed in a bombing campaign by President Bashar al-Assad's forces over the course of a week. The UN Security Council on Saturday passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, but the document did not specify when the truce would go into force. In a concession to Russia, the resolution also added wording saying that "individuals, groups, undertakings and entities" associated with Al-Qaeda would not fall under the ceasefire. Lavrov on Monday said Eastern Ghouta has groups associated with terrorist al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, such as Jaish al-Islam. "This makes Nusra's partners unprotected by the ceasefire," Lavrov said. "They are also subject to actions by the Syrian air force." Fresh strikes on Monday killed at least 10 civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which lies east of Damascus, according to the Observatory monitor. The United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres demanded that the ceasefire is immediately implemented. Russia is a key ally of Assad, and fought a campaign for over two years in Syria in his support, helping to turn around the multi-front war.

2 Lions from Iraq, Syria Head to South African Refuge
Asharq Al Awsat/February 26/18/Two lions rescued from neglected zoos in war zones in Iraq and Syria will start their recovery from physical and psychological trauma at a big cat sanctuary in South Africa. The male lions have arrived in Johannesburg after leaving an animal refuge in Jordan, The Associated Press quoted Fiona Miles with animal welfare group Four Paws as saying on Monday. The lions arrived emaciated, dehydrated and psychologically scarred in Jordan last year. Now 4-year-old Simba and 2-year-old Saeed are headed to the Lionsrock facility near the town of Bethlehem. Some of the 80 lions at the facility came from a German circus and zoos in France, Romania and Congo. Others are from South African captive-bred lion operations that often earmark the predators for "trophy" killings by customers.

Security Council Discusses Resolution to Call Out Iran

Asharq Al-Awsat/February 26/18/The United Nations Security Council is set to discuss on Monday a resolution to call out Iran over its weapons falling into the hands of Yemen's Houthi insurgents. But Russia has laid the groundwork for a likely veto. The 15-member Security Council has to renew its targeted sanctions on Yemen on Monday. The United States has been lobbying for months for Iran to be held accountable at the United Nations, while at the same time threatening to quit a 2015 deal among world powers to curb Iran's nuclear program if "disastrous flaws" are not fixed.
Britain drafted a resolution in consultation with the United States and France that initially wanted to condemn Iran for violating an arms embargo on Houthi leaders and include a council commitment to take action over it. The latest British draft drops the condemnation and instead expresses concern that UN experts monitoring the sanctions reported Iran had violated a targeted arms embargo by failing to stop missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles reaching the Houthis. A UN Security Council resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, France or Britain to pass.
Russia has proposed a rival resolution that would simply extend the mandate of the sanctions regime for one year and not mention Iran. Both resolutions seek to renew a UN ban on the supply of weapons to Houthi leaders and "those acting on their behalf or at their direction." It can also blacklist individuals and entities for threatening the peace and stability of Yemen or hindering aid access.

Family of 9 Killed in Eastern Ghouta as UN Calls for Ending ‘Hell on Earth’

Asharq Al-Awsat/February 26/18/A family of nine was killed in Syrian regime bombardment of the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta near Damascus overnight, where air strikes and fighting have persisted despite a UN Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire. "Eastern Ghouta cannot wait, it is high time to stop this hell on earth," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. "I expect the resolution to be immediately implemented and sustained," he said. The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, also spoke at the Council, echoing calls for a "full implementation" of the truce. Zeid decried "seven years of failure to stop the violence, seven years of unremitting and frightful mass killing" in Syria. The bombardment of eastern Ghouta over the past week has been one of the heaviest of Syria's war, killing at least 522 people in seven days, according to a toll compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor. It said two bodies had been pulled from the rubble of a home destroyed by an air strike in the Ghouta town of Douma, with seven others from the same family dead underneath. The Security Council, including Russia, approved the resolution demanding the 30-day truce on Saturday. The intensity of the bombardment has diminished since then but has still killed two dozen people, the Observatory said. Health authorities in eastern Ghouta said late on Sunday that several people had suffered symptoms consistent with chlorine gas exposure, killing one child, after an explosion. But Moscow on Monday said reports of the chemical attack were planted "bogus stories."

South Sudan Close to Famine, New Report Says
Asharq Al-Awsat/February 26/18/South Sudan is nearing another famine, aid officials warned on Monday, after five years of devastating fighting and failed ceasefires in the world’s youngest nation. Almost two-thirds of the population will need food aid this year to stave off starvation and malnutrition as aid groups prepare for the “toughest year on record”, members of a working group including South Sudanese and UN officials said. According to a report published Monday by the United Nations and South Sudan's government, more than six million people, up about 40 percent from a year ago, are at threat without aid. It says 150,000 people in 11 counties in Jonglei, Upper Nile, Unity and Western Bahr el Ghazal states could slip into famine this year. “The situation is extremely fragile, and we are close to seeing another famine. The projections are stark. If we ignore them, we’ll be faced with a growing tragedy,” said Serge Tissot, from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in South Sudan. A total of 5.3 million people, 48 percent of the population, are already in “crisis” or “emergency” - stages three and four on a five-point scale, according to a survey published by the working group. The oil-rich east African nation has been torn apart by an ethnically charged civil war since late 2013, when troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar clashed. Since then, more than 4 million people have been forced to flee their homes, creating Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The UN declared last year a famine in two districts where 100,000 people faced starvation. After a rapid aid response, further crisis was averted and the famine declaration was lifted in June. One in three people in South Sudan have been forced from their homes by the civil war, resulting in the worst production of the country's staple grains since the conflict began in late 2013, the FAO said. “We are expecting to face the toughest year on record,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator Alain Noudehou told a press conference in the South Sudanese capital Juba. Records for South Sudan began when it declared independence from Sudan in July, 2011. While supportive of the aid response, South Sudan's government worries that it is crippling the nation. "If a country relies on aid it'll develop a dependency syndrome," said Hussein Mar Nyot, minister of humanitarian affairs and disaster management. People will forget their skills the longer they aren't able to cultivate the land, he said. The UN humanitarian response plan for South Sudan has received less than 4 percent of its funding for 2018, with a gap of more than $1.7 billion. Last year Kiir ordered unrestricted access for aid groups, but aid workers say the situation hasn't changed and the current dry season could make it worse.

Canada calls for immediate implementation of ceasefire in Syria
February 26, 2018 - Ottawa, Ontario - Global Affairs Canada
The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, today issued the following statement regarding yesterday’s UNSC resolution on Syria:
“Canada calls for the full implementation of the UNSC’s resolution on a humanitarian ceasefire in Syria, including eastern Ghouta.
“It is vital that all parties respect the ceasefire unconditionally to stop the massacre of civilians and allow the delivery of humanitarian supplies.
“We are very concerned by reports that the ceasefire has been violated less than 48 hours after it being agreed upon.
“Canada condemns the approach of the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran. The regime has targeted civilians and public services, such as schools and hospitals, and has used siege and starvation tactics, chemical weapons, and barrel bombs.
“Canada has been providing funding to groups working as first responders in eastern Ghouta, including the White Helmets. We hail the courage of those working to save lives.
“The protection of civilians is an obligation under international humanitarian law.”
Four Killed in Building Fire in Central English City
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/February 26/18/Four people were killed and four more were in hospital on Monday after an explosion and fire destroyed a three-storey building in the central English city of Leicester, police said. The cause of the blast on Sunday evening has yet to be determined but police say the incident is not being linked to terrorism. "At this stage, there are four confirmed fatalities and four people remain in hospital, one with serious injuries," Leicestershire Police said in a statement. Neighbours reported that their own homes shook with the force of the blast, which sparked a fire that engulfed the ground floor shop and two-storey flat above it. "We believe there may be people who have not yet been accounted for and rescue efforts continue in order to locate any further casualties," Superintendent Shane O'Neill said. Six fire crews are at the scene and emergency services will remain at the site throughout Monday. Major roads in the area are closed and electricity to a number of homes nearby was affected, but no properties were evacuated overnight. "Once the site is deemed to be safe a joint investigation with Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service will begin looking into the circumstances surrounding the incident, which at this stage are not being linked to terrorism," O'Neill said. Firefighters worked through the night to control the blaze, which broke out shortly after 7:00 pm (1900 GMT)on Sunday. "We've now got specialist search and rescue teams supported by search dogs on scene," Matt Cane, from Leicestershire Fire and Rescue, told AFP at the site. Pictures and videos posted on social media showed a property engulfed in flames, with rubble and debris scattered around. "It was very scary," local resident Graeme Hudson told AFP. "I live five minutes away... but my house shook. I went out and saw massive smoke and big flames."Another witness, Tahir Khan, who was driving past when it happened, said: "I looked on the road and half the building was on the road. "Literally the whole of the side of the building had been blown out. I couldn't believe it, it was like a Hollywood movie."
Macron Tells Erdogan Syria Ceasefire Must Apply to Afrin
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/February 26/18/French President Emmanuel Macron told his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday that a proposed UN ceasefire for Syria must be applied across the country, including in Afrin where Turkey is waging an offensive against a Kurdish militia. During a telephone call between the two leaders, Macron said the 30-day ceasefire "involved all Syrian territory, including in Afrin, and must be put into effect everywhere and by everyone without delay", the French presidency said. He added that Turkey, Russia and Iran, the three countries overseeing talks in Astana aimed at ending the nearly seven-year civil war, "have a direct responsibility in this regard that must be applied on the ground". Ankara last month launched an offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in Afrin in northern Syria. On Sunday the Turkish government said the proposed UN ceasefire would not affect its operation, which it claims is aimed at fighting "terrorist organisations that threaten the territorial integrity and political unity of Syria". Turkey sees the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which for more than three decades has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state and is banned by Turkey, the US and the European Union as a terror group. But the offensive has raised tensions with Washington, which works closely with the YPG in the fight against jihadists in Syria. The Syrian conflict has intensified with attacks by Damascus on the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, with at least 10 civilians killed in the area on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. Macron told Erdogan he was "deeply worried" about the bombardments of Eastern Ghouta, saying France would remain "vigilant" concerning humanitarian access to the area and any use of chemical weapons. On Saturday the UN Security Council approved a resolution calling for the ceasefire "without delay" to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations in Eastern Ghouta.

Latest LCCC Bulletin analysis & editorials from miscellaneous sources published
on February 26-27/18
Iran Wants to Join the World Order It Undermines

Eli Lake/Bloomberg/February 26/18
If you are a fan of unintentional comedy, I recommend checking out the Financial Action Task Force. This is the global organization of big banks and government agencies dedicated to combating money laundering and terrorism finance.
This week it met in Paris to discuss, among other things, whether or not Iran’s banking system should receive a clean bill of health.
The joke writes itself. The US Treasury Department has spent more than 20 years tracing how Iran’s banks are used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, to finance terror groups. As National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told a conference in Munich this week: “When you invest in Iran, you’re investing in the IRGC. You might as well cut the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a check and say, ‘Please use this to commit more murder across the Middle East.’ ”
And yet, the world body dedicated to stopping the finance of terrorism punted. In the dry prose of bureaucrats, it called on Iran to “fully address its remaining action items.” This includes a loophole in a law pending before Iran’s parliament to address the state’s financing of terrorism. There is an exemption for groups “attempting to end foreign occupation, colonialism and racism.” And yet, the door remains open if the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism could just address some of these technical details.
All of this illustrates the problem with integrating states like Iran into the world order. Government envoys and ministers can be quite sensible one-on-one, but get a bunch of them in a room under the imprimatur of the “international community” and nonsense ensues. This is particularly true when it comes to Iran after the 2015 nuclear deal.
Consider an Interpol conference last July in Tehran. Law-enforcement experts from Central and South Asia met to discuss “Project Kalkan,” a new early-warning system to share terrorist information to prevent future attacks. What’s next, a prison-reform summit in Pyongyang?
The most egregious violator in this regard has long been the United Nations Human Rights Council. Next week, for its annual meeting, Iran’s delegation will include the country’s justice minister, Alireza Avaie. He is an Iranian Torquemada. As a prosecutor, he is alleged to have overseen the torture and arbitrary detention of activists from the Green Movement. As a younger man, he was the prosecutor who sentenced thousands of members of the anti-regime group People’s Mujahedin to the gallows in 1988, during one of the regime’s many purges. The European Union imposed a travel ban and sanctions on Avaie in 2011. And yet he is due to arrive in Geneva next week to participate in an international conference on human rights.
All of these examples rightly cry out for mockery. But there are serious implications as well. One of the many downsides of the 2015 nuclear deal is that it raised expectations for the Iranian regime that it could rejoin the international community for a temporary suspension of its nuclear program. Just listen to Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, explain away all of Iran’s misdeeds and predations to get a flavor of this.
The problem is that the nuclear deal was narrow. It promised the lifting of severe nuclear sanctions in exchange for Iran allowing access to some of its sites for inspection and removing most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Big banks and corporations, though, are still are wary of investing in Iran.
This bothers Iran’s diplomats. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi threatened this week that Iran may withdraw from the 2015 deal if major banks continue to shun its economy. How unfair! A regime that routinely arrests dual nationals on trumped-up charges, allows its banks to finance terror, and elevates tormentors of its citizens to high office is being singled out.
I realize this must be a real dilemma for Araqchi and other regime officials. But there is no need to overcomplicate the matter: If Iran wants be treated like a normal country, its leaders should stop acting like a bunch of terrorists.

The Syria Memory Hole Is Opening Up a Bigger Danger
Tyler Cowen/Bloomberg/February 26/18
Sometimes the biggest events are those that don’t get the most publicity, and the lack of notice itself is part of the story. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes referred to the dog that didn’t bark as a telltale sign that something unusual was going on during a horse theft. The relative lack of attention being paid to the news that US-backed forces killed 200 to 300 Russian mercenary soldiers this month in Syria seems like a non-barking dog to me.
In many years, this might have been the most disruptive story, holding the headlines for weeks or maybe months. Circa February 2018, it didn’t command a single major news cycle.
What outsiders know about the event is still fragmentary, but it sounds pretty ominous. One Bloomberg account notes: “More than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, died in a failed attack on a base held by US and mainly Kurdish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.” It is described as the biggest clash between US and Russian forces since the Cold War. It seems that the Russian mercenaries are pretty closely tied to the Russian government.
One Russian commentator called this event “a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis.” American foreign policy expert Ian Bremmer noted, “At some level, it’s startling that isn’t the biggest news of the year.” Yet I have found that I know plenty of well-educated people, with graduate degrees and living in and near Washington, who aren’t even aware this occurred. The story has fallen into a memory hole, in part because neither the Americans nor the Russians wish to escalate the conflict.
Is this unusual affair a one-off, or an indication of a more basic shift in the world? I am starting to believe the latter.
It could be argued that the international order is now less fragile, that a minor clash can occur without major escalation. This is both good and bad news.
The good news is that when such conflicts arise, they may dwindle into insignificance. That seems to be the case with this fighting. Politicians think that larger values are at stake in the international world order, and they don’t want to disrupt peace because of a single unfortunate incident. For a variety of reasons, which of course may include state control, the news media in both countries have gone along with this decision.
In essence, this is the opposite of a world where a minor diplomatic slight can lead to a war, as with the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870.
This newfound international robustness may also be showing up in the North Korean crisis. US President Donald Trump’s insulting tweets, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “short and fat,” are extremely unusual by the standards of any recent diplomatic era. I don’t approve of these communications, but it’s quite possible that they won’t much affect the final outcome of the two Koreas dilemma. For better or worse, the world is learning to ignore much of what Trump says and does.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case in human affairs, the bad news is very closely tied to the good. If the world is developing a greater robustness with respect to armed conflict and diplomatic slights, perhaps that’s because it needs to. The fundamental underlying determinants of international order may be growing weaker, and the greater tolerance for bad events reflects a broader decline. There is some evidence -- admittedly fragmentary -- that international conflicts are starting to become more violent, and hardly anyone believes that Pax Americana is what it used to be.
As for American voters and social media activists, they seem far more interested in a continuing series of culture wars and debates over President Trump. That’s not a good sign for American international influence.
But it is worse yet. As the tolerance for particular instances of conflict rises, the temptation to allow or initiate such conflicts rises, if only because the penalties won’t be so large. Eventually more parties will experiment with violent sorties. Do we really think that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ordering the summary execution of the Russian “rogue” attacking forces, as Stalin might have done? Probably not.
The sorry truth is that a world tolerant of conflict will probably end up as a world full of conflict.
So is the Russian attack in Syria the biggest story of the year? Probably not. But our deliberate disavowal of its newsworthiness is the true novelty, and it is a disturbing one indeed.

"Don't Dare Sit with Us if You Want to Live"/Muslim Persecution of Christians, September 2017
Raymond Ibrahim/Gatestone Institute/February 25/18
"They get paid for every Coptic Christian girl they bring in. In some cases, police provide the kidnappers with drugs they seize. The drugs are then given to the girls to weaken their resistance... I even know of cases in which police offered helped to beat up the girls to make them recite the Islamic creed." — World Watch Monitor, Egypt; September 14, 2017.
On September 14, a court sentenced a Christian man to death for "blasphemy" against the prophet of Islam. Nadeem James, a 27-year-old father of two, was originally arrested in July 2016, after a Muslim angry with him for personal reasons falsely accused James, who is illiterate, of texting a poem deemed "blasphemous" of Muhammad. — Pakistan.
School textbooks taught her that "it was the Christians who wanted to plunder the lands and the riches of the Muslim world" and Turks merely responded by "defend[ing] what was rightfully theirs." (In reality, modern day Turkey consists of territory that was Christian for more than a thousand years before it was conquered by Turks in the name of jihad.) "Everything is used to make the Christians look like villains," she said, adding, "It's the same all through Muslim countries." — Turkey.
Muslim Slaughter of Christians
Pakistan: Sharoon, a Christian boy who achieved academic excellence despite years of entrenched discrimination and bullying—and whose poverty-stricken parents had worked hard to put him in MC Model Boys Government High School—was beaten to death by Muslim pupils. On his first day at the school, the teacher slapped him across the face while blurting an anti-Christian slur. Having set a precedent, the rest of the classroom of Muslim boys continued harassing him throughout the same first day: they hurled out derogatory terms against Christians, denied him access to drinking water, and told him, "You're a Christian don't dare sit with us if you want to live." According to one report: "His academic prowess ... only added to the disdain for him felt by other pupils." Another report said, "there were repeated attempts to convert him to Islam. Sharoon however, never quit his faith to the chagrin of the Muslim children around him, exacerbating his pariah status." Then, on August 27—his fourth day at the prestigious Model school—Muslim students attacked him in the classroom (the teacher supposedly did not notice; he was reading his paper). "The violence," continues the report, "was of such sickening ferocity that poor Sharoon died where he was in the classroom." A cacophony of insults accompanied the beating; he was called a "filthy Christian" and a "demon." According to the murdered teen's mother:
"My son was a kind-hearted, hard-working and affable boy. He has always been loved by teachers and pupils alike and shared great sorrow that he was being targeted by students at his new school because of his faith. Sharoon and I cried every night as he described the daily torture he was subjected to.... The evil boys that hated my child are now refusing to reveal who else was involved in his murder. Nevertheless one day God will have His judgement."
Kenya: Islamic militants from Al Shabaab, centered in neighboring Somalia, beheaded four Christian men in two separate attacks. Approximately 30 heavily-armed assailants surrounded several homes in two different areas; they called victims out by name, before pulling them out and slitting their throats or decapitating them. In the previous two months (August and July), Al Shabaab militants slaughtered thirteen other Christians in a similar manner. "The knock at the door confirmed our fears that what happened in nearby Malamande village in 2014 [was] happening again," recounts one of the slain men's wives:
We were reluctant to open [the door] and that is when the gang of about 20 broke in and dragged my husband out. I climbed and hid in a space up the roof and I heard everything that was going on. My husband was struggling and screaming for help but the gang overpowered him, slit his throat and chopped off his head. I am very bitter and worried about how I will live without [Gerald]. I treasured him because he loved me and provided everything that I needed. I am still in shock from what I saw that night; blood all over, his body lying lifeless and the head a few meters away. Why did they kill my husband?"
Separately, suspected Islamist militants opened fire on and killed two police officers guarding a church. After the gunmen encountered police standing guard at the entrance of an Anglican church, they "sprayed the officers with bullets," notes the report, before fleeing on motorbikes. "One officer was shot in the head and died on the spot while the other," police confirmed, "died in hospital."
"Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab's beheadings and attacks against Christians will continue to rise," according to another report, "with the Somali-based militants having an estimated 9,000 jihadis at their disposal." It quotes the American Center for Law and Justice as saying:
[Y]et another radical Islamic jihadist army — just like ISIS, the Islamic State — is ruthlessly murdering Christians, targeting them for their faith. This global and historic persecution continues.... Al-Shabaab's actions are clearly deadly, demented, disturbing, and disgusting. We must defeat and destroy these Islamic jihadists."
Nigeria: Muslim Fulani herdsmen, accompanied by known "Islamic extremist militants," states a report, raided a Christian village and massacred 20 Christians, including a three-month-old baby and eight other children, as they slept sometime after midnight, Friday September 8. Police, who apparently treated the incident with some indifference, said it was a "reprisal" attack for the discovery of a decapitated Muslim boy; but dumbfounded Christians argued that the murder happened in another village more than a year ago and that they had nothing to do with it.
In another incident, a Catholic priest, Cyriacus Onunkwo, was abducted by Islamic gunmen on Friday, September 1 and found slaughtered in the bushes the following day. Nothing was stolen from his car and no ransom was demanded for his release.
Muslim mob uprisings in Jos also left scores of Christians wounded and one dead. On September 15, a mob attacked a vehicle with four Christians who were leaving a weekly prayer meeting at the University of Jos chapel. "Just as I pulled out of the main gate and [was] about to make a left turn," Professor Timothy Oyetunde recalled, "the mob, from the Muslim-dominated neighborhood opposite the campus, ran across the street, surrounded us and started smashing the van" with clubs, stones and actual weapons. Two of the passengers, including another professor, were stabbed; they all fled the van before the Muslim mob torched it. "In a separate attack," the report continued, "two university students were attacked in a different Muslim-dominated area of downtown Jos and stabbed. One student died in the hospital while receiving treatment."
Muslim Rape of Christians
Pakistan: On September 13, a Christian boy (age not provided) was misled to an isolated area, beaten, "gang raped," and ordered to recite the Islamic profession of faith by seven Muslim men. According to the report, "initially they started beating him violently and stripped off his clothes. They sexually assaulted Sher Dil [the youth] and forced him to recite Kalma. Sher Dil was again beaten and fell unconscious, and was taken to a local hospital by the alleged rapists. They warned him of dire consequences if he would disclose the details of the incident to anyone." Police were "reluctant" to respond and, when pressed to act by the victim's father, "took sides" with the rapists, noted the report. The boy is under threat of death from his tormenters for going to the police, even as his father implored the Ministry of Human Rights for help.
Egypt: An ex-kidnapper, an ex-kidnapper known only as "G," explained the process of how Christian girls are targeted for abduction, forced conversions and "marriages" to Muslims. According to the report, he related that "they get paid for every Coptic Christian girl they bring in. In some cases, police provide the kidnappers with drugs they seize. The drugs are then given to the girls to weaken their resistance as they put them under pressure. I even know of cases in which police offered helped to beat up the girls to make them recite the Islamic creed." He "admits he was in a network actively targeting Coptic girls for years before he left Islam." Although such networks have been around since the 1970s, they reached their "highest levels now, in the era of President Sisi," he said. A portion of his testimony notes that:
A group of kidnappers meets in a mosque to discuss potential victims. They keep a close eye on Christians' houses and monitor everything that's going on. On that basis, they weave a spider's web around [the girls].... I remember a Coptic Christian girl from a rich, well-known family in Minya. She was kidnapped by five Muslim men. They held her in a house, stripped her and filmed her naked. In the video, one of them also undressed. They threatened to make the video public if the girl wouldn't marry him.... The kidnappers receive large amounts of money. Police can help them in different ways, and when they do, they might also receive a part of the financial reward the kidnappers are paid by the Islamisation organisations.... And the value of the reward increases whenever the girl has a position. For example, when she is the daughter of a priest or comes from a well-known family.... The Salafist group I knew rented apartments in different areas of Egypt to hide kidnapped Coptic. There, they put them under pressure and threaten them to convert to Islam. And once they reach the legal age, a specially arranged Islamic representative comes in to make the conversion official, issue a certificate and accordingly they change their ID.... If all goes to plan, the girls are also forced into marriage with a strict Muslim. Their husbands don't love them, they just marry her to make her a Muslim. She will be hit and humiliated. And if she tries to escape, or convert back to her original religion, she will be killed.
Muslim Attacks on Apostates to Christianity
Germany: A group of Muslims attacked a 23-year-old Muslim convert to Christianity. He was assaulted because "his attackers saw his Christian cross and were angry he had converted from Islam, says the report. "They asked him why he had changed his religion," before "one of the attackers tore the chain off him and threw it to the ground." The report continues:
The unidentified man then punched the Afghan in the face several times. The second attacker then held the Christian by the arms as the first man took out a blade and cut him twice on the upper body with it..... The attack happened less than a mile away from the most notorious radical Islamist mosque in Berlin, the Al-Nur Mosque. An attack of this nature is also not the first to happen this year in Berlin. In August, another man ... was attacked by three men of North African appearance who also objected to his cross. The three men brutally beat the 39-year-old and shouted abuse at him. Earlier this year in May ...yet another man was attacked for wearing a cross necklace. ...The Christian charity Open Doors claim to have recorded thousands of cases of violence and abuse directed towards Christians in Germany. Earlier this year, an Arabic translator working with asylum seekers in Germany said that many of the Muslims in asylum homes express hatred toward Christians. "Pure hatred against non-believers is preached, and children are brought here from an early age here in Germany. It's very similar in asylum housing, where Muslim boys refuse to play with Christians," the translator said.
Nigeria: The Muslim family of a man, Bulus, a convert to Christianity, harassed, ostracized, threatened to kill, and finally made false charges against him that landed him in prison—possibly for as much as ten years. His family responded by trying to do "whatever they could to make him return to their faith," according to a report. "When Bulus refused, his father threatened to disown him. Bulus lost his inheritance, the support from the extended family circle for everyday life, the protection of the status of the clan and the privilege of an arranged marriage—in other words, and from their perspective, his entire future. When he still refused to change his mind, his family threatened to kill him. That was when Bulus says he knew it was time to go. He fled to Jos, further south, where no-one knew him, and enrolled in theological training." During his training, "I learned a lot about forgiveness," says Bulus. "After I graduated I wanted to go home to see if there was any way my parents and I could be reunited." He instead discovered that:
"Their hatred had increased, especially when they heard I had become a pastor. Before I could leave, relatives trapped me and started beating me. I thought I was going to die, but they dragged me to the police station and accused me of stealing some of their goats. Despite the fact that there was no proof, the police locked me up. Five days later they took me to court. I did not have the opportunity to defend myself but was kept in prison anyway."
As of the last report, Bulus was incarcerated under extremely unhealthy and unhygienic conditions. "He doesn't know when this ordeal will end," said the report, "and dares not fuel any expectations of a speedy release."
Maldives: Although "Christians in the Maldives [already] have few rights," a September report notes:
"the government is increasingly controlling the courts and simply ignoring the law, leaving Christians in an even more vulnerable state.... Despite being a popular tourist destination, the Maldives is one of the most difficult places in the world to be a Christian. The 2008 Maldivian constitution bans Muslims from becoming Christians, which leaves open the question as to whether someone who becomes a Christian could be stripped of their citizenship."
Earlier the government "arrested 50 Maldivians suspected of having become Christians, and is thought to have tortured them. Any Maldivian even found to have a Bible in their house faces a prison sentence."
Iran: Iranian national media reported that several Christians, almost all of whom are converts, in Tehran, Rey, and Pardis, were arrested after a video surfaced showing dozens of Bibles and other Christian literature, allegedly also confiscated by authorities. Little other information is provided.
Muslim Attacks on "Blasphemous" Christians
Egypt: In response to an old Facebook post, a Muslim mob attacked Christians in Tawa village and destroyed several homes, buildings, and cars on September 14. After the slaughter of several Christians traveling to a monastery four months earlier, in May, Bassem, a 22-year-old Christian from the village, had written:
"Are we [Christian] Egyptians not from Egypt? No matter that you try to hurt us, one day all your ways will fail.... When you demolish the homes of his [Jesus'] children, you attack him. I ask Jesus to touch your heart and change you. Our Lord knows and sees what is happening to us. Continue and increase your terrorism, but I'm not afraid because it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God."
Although he deleted the post one day later, a cached copy was seen by and shared with other Muslims four months later. Deeming it "an insult to Islam ... [m]any Muslims gathered and the mob began to attack Christian homes and shops," notes an eyewitness. "They were pelting stones at the homes while shouting 'Allah Akbar.' They hurled bricks and stones at Mar Girgis (St. George) Coptic Orthodox Church..."
Pakistan: On September 14, a court sentenced a Christian man to death for "blasphemy" against the prophet of Islam. Nadeem James, a 27-year-old father of two, was originally arrested in July 2016, after a Muslim angry with him for personal reasons falsely accused James, who is illiterate, of texting a poem deemed "blasphemous" of Muhammad. The condemned's brother explained what next transpired: "We were not at home when the police raided our house to arrest Nadeem. However, when the cops couldn't find any of us in the premises, they took away two women of the family – my wife and the wife of my elder brother, Faryad." Around the same time, local mosques began calling on megaphones that if he did not surrender himself, Christian homes would burn. Nadeem surrendered himself and the women were released. "The charge against my brother is completely baseless," the brother maintains. "Nadeem is uneducated and could not have possibly sent that text message. I'm certain that Yasir Bashir [Muslim accuser] downloaded the supposedly blasphemous text onto Nadeem's phone and then forwarded it to his cell number to build a case against my brother." Nadeem's lawyer said they will challenge the conviction in a high court.
Separately—and despite being "mentally challenged"—a Christian teen accused of blasphemy against Islam had his first court hearing in September. A Muslim, Muhammed Nawaz, had accused Asif Stephen, 16, of stealing at a local bazaar; he beat the boy, and then told the local imam—who, according to the initial report, "has a history of preaching hatred towards minority Christians"—that the youth had also burned a Koran. Nawaz and the imam tracked down the boy and beat him again. When a passerby saw the violence and contacted police, "instead of protecting the teenager from his attackers, [police] arrested and booked him into prison on blasphemy charges." Hours later, the imam and "a mob of more than 300 Muslim fundamentalists surrounded the prison, calling for a public lynching of Stephen. As the mob overwhelmed local police, Stephen was removed from his cell and handed over to the mob, which consequently beat him until reinforcement officers stepped in to calm the situation. Police then moved Stephen to a higher security district jail where he pleaded guilty to blasphemy in what his family believed was a coerced confession." His father said that "Muhammed Nawaz has always had a grudge against my son" and "has often threatened Asif and told him that the tomb area is designated for him to collect recyclables as he is a Muslim and Asif is only a worthless and untouchable Christian."
Indonesia: The world's largest Muslim nation "made it clear that the country's dangerously ambiguous blasphemy law is here to stay – which is bad news for beleaguered religious minorities," Human Rights Watch said after the nation rejected the UN's stated recommendations that it "introduce legislation to repeal the blasphemy law." Indonesia further "rejected a recommendation it amend or revoke laws that limit the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the country," Human Rights Watch said. Among those recently to suffer from these laws is Ahok, a Christian and former governor of Jakarta, who was sentenced to two years in prison for blaspheming against Islam. "By rejecting pleas from U.N. member states to abolish the blasphemy law," continued Human Rights Watch, "the Indonesian government is telling the world that it will continue to pander to bigotry and discrimination at the expense of the rights of religious minorities."
Indonesia joined other repressive Muslim nations in May 2017 when it sentenced the Christian governor of Jakarta, known as "Ahok," to a two-year prison term on the charge that he committed "blasphemy" against Islam. Pictured: Ahok on the day of his election, February 15, 2017. (Photo by Oscar Siagian/Getty Images)
Muslim Attacks on Christian Churches
Mali: Not only were several Catholic churches "ransacked and torched, forcing parishioners to flee" throughout September, but "militants told Christians they would be killed if they were seen in church," a report noted. A Catholic church leader explained:
"Our churches and chapels are now being targeted by extremists who've told Christians not to gather to pray.... But we're also alarmed the attacks are being mounted by isolated Islamist groups, acting in their own name.... On previous occasions, the government has deployed military units in our parishes. But this still hasn't been done against these new attacks."
Turkey: Photos taken clandestinely of the largest Armenian cathedral in the Middle East "reveal considerable damage to the sanctuary and walls of the now desecrated church in southeast Turkey," a report disclosed. Its crucifix was "defaced," its windows smashed, and its pews used as firewood; garbage was dumped in its sanctuary. First built in the 1600s, Surp Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church is one of six Christian churches in the Sur district to be confiscated by the state. For three years now, Christians—Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Protestant—have been unable to worship in their churches as authorities placed all Christian property in Diyarbakir on the Turkish cabinet's expropriation plan. "We have been exposed to ethnic and religious discrimination for years," said a local pastor.
Malaysia: Police managed to foil an Islamic State terror plot targeting Christian churches and other non-Muslim places of worship after they arrested a 21-year-old Muslim affiliated with the jihadi group. According to the General of Police, the Muslim youth had "received instructions from a Malaysian Daesh (Islamic State) member in Syria to buy a pistol, a M-16 rifle, an AK-47 rifle and hand grenades from a neighbouring country with the aim of launching attacks on non-Muslims and their places of worship." Chemicals used to assemble the devices were discovered in his house. Although Malaysia is Muslim majority, sizeable populations of Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus also live there.
Muslim Hate Preaching and General Contempt for Christians
Turkey: A former Muslim woman who converted to Christianity explained how "her opinion of Christians was very low because of the things she and others were taught to believe about Christians in a Muslim society," noted a report. According to the convert, who now lives in the U.S. and goes by the pseudonym Derya Little, "An anti-Christian attitude is a big part of the national identity, so anyone or anything that promotes Christianity is automatically suspicious." School textbooks taught her that "it was the Christians who wanted to plunder the lands and the riches of the Muslim world" and Turks merely responded by "defend[ing] what was rightfully theirs." (In reality, modern day Turkey consists of territory that was Christian for more than a thousand years before it was conquered by Turks in the name of jihad.) "Everything is used to make the Christians look like villains," she said, adding, "It's the same all through Muslim countries."
Saudi Arabia: School textbooks continue to promote animosity for, and violence against, non-Muslims. "As early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought," said Human Rights Watch. "The lessons in hate are reinforced with each following year," Textbooks teach that Christians are "kafirs" (or infidels) and that it is the duty of Muslims to disavow them: "For whoever does not or whoever doubts their religious infidelity is himself an unbeliever." Another textbook teaches that "The hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews and Muslims will kill the Jews. The Jew will hide under the rock and tree and the rock or tree will say O Muslim, servant of Allah, this Jew is behind me, kill him."
Iran: The government "ordered children belonging to families of one of the country's largest house church movements to study the Koran and Shi'a Islam teachings or face expulsion from school," another report relates. This policy "deprives Christian children of primary and secondary education unless they agree to religious instruction that does not conform to their faith." According to Firouz Khandjani, a Church of Iran council member who lives in hiding:
"Right now [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani wants to prove that he is a good Muslim by persecuting Christians.... Most of the new Christians are former Muslims.... The authorities are trying to eradicate Christianity, just as the Islamic State group, but smarter."
Sudan: "Christian children in Sudan's refugee camps are not receiving food unless they say Islamic prayers," according to a report. After describing South Sudanese Christian refugees as living "in a terrible situation," a local source elaborated:
"We have heard stories where children are conditioned to say Islamic prayers before [being] given food. This is not right. These children are Christian. They should be respected for that.... The majority are left in camps, some in a very terrible situation. They are confined in those places. They are not allowed to go further north to the cities."
About this Series
While not all, or even most, Muslims are involved, persecution of Christians by Muslims is growing. The report posits that such Muslim persecution is not random but rather systematic, and takes place irrespective of language, ethnicity, or location.
**Raymond Ibrahim is the author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam's New War on Christians (published by Regnery with Gatestone Institute, April 2013).

With Red Syrian Ink
Ghassan Charbel/Asharq Al Awsat/February 26/18
Russia cannot afford to fail in Syria. The country put its entire reputation there. Failure means the collapse of Vladimir Putin's major vengeance project, which he submitted to the Kremlin, and which he initially hid under his smile, awaiting the appropriate timing for execution. Taking revenge on the forces that drove the Soviet Union into history museums… On the world of the single superpower… On NATO, for deploying its pawns near the Russian Federation borders… On colorful revolutions, the civil society and all forms of soft power, which does not need permission to cross the borders…
Russia cannot afford defeat on the Syrian arena. It is about its status, the prestige of its army, its diplomatic capacity and its image as a trustworthy ally which can be relied on in times of adversity. Failure means the collapse of the dream of restoring the status and forcing the United States to deal rightfully with the countries that emerged wounded from the Soviet rubble.
Success in Syria means for Russia to impose a political solution according to its perception. This issue is neither easy nor simple. The more Moscow fails to impose a solution that suits it, the more it wants to go further in search of a victory that will resolve the battle on the ground. A full resolution collides with many difficulties, in addition to being expensive.
Moscow's concerns mounted over the past few months, as Washington seemed to abandon the policy of allegiance to the Russian solution and to firmly grip the papers of the Syrian arena.
This may explain Russia’s position during the strenuous negotiations that preceded the recent Security Council resolution on Syria. Moscow feels that time, which was running in its favor in the past, is now turning against it. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s message was honest. He did not rule out repeating the scenario of Aleppo in eastern Ghouta. He is putting the forces opposing the Syrian regime before a single option: surrender and go to Sochi.
This does not mean that Russia has not made great gains across the Syrian arena. There are those who believe that the Russian cook used Syrian fire to impose fundamental changes on the international scene. The chapters of the Syrian tragedy showed that the world of the sole superpower did not last long.
Russia has executed its threat that it will not allow the repetition of scenes similar to those that led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime and later that of Muammar Gaddafi. It has also fulfilled its threat that it will not allow the West to benefit from deliberate confusion in Security Council resolutions in order to use force against a regime that is regarded as an enemy, as happened in Libya.
At the beginning of the bloody chapters in Syria, Putin received an Arab visitor. He told him that many people mistakenly believed that Russia was defending a man or a family in Syria. He also said a lengthy stay in power would lead to the accumulation of errors. But Putin stressed that the question of who governs Syria must be decided by the Syrian people themselves, and not by foreign countries through force or soft power. Putin has also executed his threats in this area.
Putin showed during the crisis that he was not exposed to any serious pressure from the inside. Before he went abroad to carry out his program, he secured the wisest control internally. He restored the Red Army, its spirit and weapons. He tightened his grip on the business world and the media. He has no public opinion to worry about. His position is quite different from that of Western leaders.
Tragic images coming from Syria did not embarrass him. His media is quick to portray the devastated hospitals as a victim of terrorists, even if they were destroyed by Russian or Syrian missiles.
Putin has invested to the fullest extent in America’s image after the famous story of the red line. Obama’s position was the beginning of the decline of the US role in Syria. Today, Moscow is betting on a battle that seems imminent. It is clear that Iran is increasing its pressure on Haider al-Abadi to demand full American withdrawal from Iraq. The US departure from there will also accelerate its exit from Syria, which is initially associated with its presence in Iraq to fight ISIS.
Putin also succeeded in highlighting the limited role of NATO. There is no desire for NATO to engage in the Syrian fire. Turkey has the second largest army in the Alliance. Its political leadership is co-sponsoring the Sochi process. The Turkish army is fighting in Afrin after receiving a green light from Russia and Turkey’s Atlantic side will protect its atmosphere through missiles coming from the Russian arsenal.
Putin has also exhausted the Security Council. His representative there holds the veto sword to stop any decision that could hinder the Russian project in Syria. The Russian delegate allows the adoption of a resolution only after depleting its content and including statements that preserve the Russian and Syrian forces’ right to use military force “against the terrorists.”
There is no doubt that terrorists are still present on the Syrian territory; but Russia, which is seeking to strike those groups, is trying at the same time to bend the rest of the Syrian opposition and to force it to walk towards the Russian solution, which is so far committed to the Iranian project in Syria, while understanding Israel’s concerns over its “interests”.
A senior diplomat goes even further. He believes that what is happening in Syria is greater than the country itself; and that the course of the lingering tragedy carries with it the formation of a new international order that restores the prominent place of power in international relations and prevails stability over change, democracy, human rights and the civil society’s aspirations.
The diplomat notes the decline of the role of the United Nations system, the Western leadership of the world, the role of popular pressure groups and the impact of demonstrations and information. He believes that Syria is the starting point for a new regional order. The tragedy, as seen by the diplomat, is that these features are painted with the blood of Syrian civilians. New features are written in red Syrian ink.

The Nature of Humanitarian Assistance Must Change
José Graziano Da Silva/Asharq Al Awsat/February 26/18
After decades of progress in eliminating hunger, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced a rise last year in the number of hungry people in the world. This year’s analysis indicates there will be a further increase in the number of people under the risk of famine.
This means we, collectively, have not been effective enough in our response to humanitarian crises — despite enormous efforts. To improve results, we need to better combine humanitarian assistance with development actions on the ground. To save lives, we need to save livelihoods.
This is the message I am taking to the inaugural Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this week. When a pastoralist family loses their herd in a humanitarian crisis, they also lose their hope. They are without any productive activity and they are quickly unable to feed themselves. Their livelihood must be protected in order to save their lives. In fact, up to 80 percent of those at risk of severe hunger during a crisis rely on crops, fishing, livestock and forests for their survival.
Even in the midst of a crisis, agricultural production continues. A 2017 FAO assessment of the impact of conflict on agriculture in Syria shows that despite six years of violence, 75 percent of rural families continue to produce their own food. In 2016, South Sudan’s smallholders produced almost one million tonnes of cereals despite intensifying conflict that forced many from their fields during harvest.
Investing in the resilience of agricultural sectors is also cost effective. During the 2017 main planting season in northeastern Nigeria, with just $20 million, FAO enabled one million people to produce enough food to meet their needs for the next six months, easing pressure on the entire humanitarian system well into 2018. Each kit cost just $86 per family. In Somalia, where livestock is vital to survival for many, treatments costing just $0.40 can protect an animal that would cost $40 to replace. With greater demand for limited resources, we must also be more innovative in how we respond to increasingly protracted crises.
FAO has recently partnered with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to explore how, when and where multiyear funding can have the greatest effect in the humanitarian context. More flexible funding allows agencies to prioritize the most urgent needs.
In this regard, let me acknowledge the recent pledge of $1 billion by the Saudi-led coalition in support of the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen. We welcome the decision to allocate these funds according to need, with a significant amount dedicated to addressing the growing prevalence of severe hunger. After decades of progress toward eradicating hunger, now is the time to renew the commitment to the Sustainable Development Goal of “zero hunger.”What is absolutely clear is that business as usual is not an option. Agriculture and local food production cannot be afterthoughts. Investing in agriculture not only saves lives and protects livelihoods, but it lays the foundations for recovery and resilience building. We must change the nature of humanitarian assistance to grow the seeds of zero hunger.
**Director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) José Graziano da Silva

Palestinians: Israel is One Big Settlement
Bassam Tawil/Gatestone Institute/February 26/2018
Let us be clear about this: When Palestinians -- and some of their supporters in the international community, including Europe -- say that they want an end to the "occupation," they mean they want to see an end to Israel's existence, full stop. They do not want to throw the Jews out of their homes in the settlements; rather, they want Jews to be expelled from the whole country.
The conflict, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, did not begin in 1967, when east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli control. In the eyes of the Palestinians, all Jews are "settlers" and "colonialists." All the land, they argue, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, is Muslim-owned land, and no Muslim is entitled to give up any part of it to a non-Muslim. For the Palestinians, accepting Israel's "right to exist" with Jews is seen as an act of treason.
What is really bothering the Palestinians is that Israel, with Jews, exists, period. The Palestinians want all of Jerusalem. They want all of "Palestine." They want Israel removed from the planet. It is time to listen carefully to what the Palestinians are saying -- in Arabic -- to understand that the conflict is not about Jerusalem and not about settlements.
No doubt Ismail Radwan is a terrorist, but, unlike other Palestinian leaders and spokesmen, he is at least an honest one.
At a time when most Palestinian leaders are telling the world that settlements are the real "obstacle" to peace, Radwan, a senior Hamas official, last week made it clear that the conflict with Israel is not about Jews living in a settlement in the West Bank. The truth is that the Palestinians see Israel as one big settlement that needs to be uprooted from the Middle East.
The Palestinians do not differentiate between a Jew living in a settlement on the outskirts of Bethlehem, in the West Bank, and a Jew living in the cities of Haifa, Tel Aviv or Eilat. All the Jews, they say, are "occupiers" and "settlers" who need to "go back to where they came from."
For the Palestinians, the real "occupation" began with the establishment of Israel in 1948.
The Palestinians do not differentiate between a Jew living in a settlement on the outskirts of Bethlehem, in the West Bank, and a Jew living in the cities of Haifa, Tel Aviv or Eilat. All the Jews, they say, are "occupiers" and "settlers." Pictured: The skyline of Tel Aviv.
Let us be clear about this: When Palestinians -- and some of their supporters in the international community, including Europe -- say that they want an end to the "occupation," they mean they want to see an end to Israel's existence, full stop. They do not want to throw the Jews out of their homes in the settlements; rather, they want Jews to be expelled from the whole country.
The conflict, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, did not begin in 1967, when east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli control. In the eyes of the Palestinians, all Jews are "settlers" and "colonialists." All the land, they argue, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, is Muslim-owned land, and no Muslim is entitled to give up any part of it to a non-Muslim.
In other words, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim himself, will be considered a kaffir," an "apostate" and a traitor if he ever agreed to cede control over "Muslim owned" land to Jews.
That is why it is naïve to assume that Abbas would ever sign any deal with Israel.
Neither Abbas nor any other Palestinian leader can accept anything less than 100 percent; and 100 percent means all of Israel. It does not mean a 100 percent of the "'67 borders" or of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Yes, the Palestinians want "peace," but that that means peace without Israel, not peace with Israel. Real peace, the Palestinians argue, will be achieved only when Israel is eliminated and the Jews disappear.
For the Palestinians, accepting Israel's "right to exist" with Jews is seen as an act of treason. Muslims are not supposed to accept the presence of Jews on Muslim-owned land.
Each time Abbas states his commitment to a two-state solution, he is immediately condemned by his people and other Arabs and Muslims. For them, a "two-state solution" means accepting Israel's presence in the Middle East; it also means allowing Jews to live on "Muslim-owned" land -- a "crime," according to Islamic teachings, punishable by death.
Now back to the Hamas official, Ismail Radwan.
Why is it fair to say that, although he is a terrorist and Jew-hater, he is still honest? To his credit, he speaks the truth and does not hesitate to conceal what most Palestinians merely think. There are many Palestinian terrorists and terror groups who never miss an opportunity to remind us that their real goal is to destroy Israel, not make peace with it.
During a Hamas rally in the Gaza Strip on February 23, Radwan told the thousands of supporters of his terror group that there is no such thing as east and west Jerusalem. "The whole city belongs to Palestinians and Muslims," he said. "The united city of Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Palestine."
Why is this an important statement that needs to be brought to the attention of the US administration and the rest of the international community? Because it basically sums up the essence of the entire Israeli-Arab conflict: namely, that many Arabs and Muslims have still not accepted Israel's right to exist inside any borders.
Radwan's statement came in response to US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Palestinians, revealingly, are totally opposed to the relocation of the embassy -- even though it will be established in the western, and not eastern part of the city. Why would any Palestinian who supported a two-state solution (with east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state) oppose the transfer of any embassy to west Jerusalem? Do the Palestinians really accept Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem? Do they accept Israeli sovereignty over any land, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River? Do they accept Israeli sovereignty over Tel Aviv?
The answer is clear and simple: No.
Radwan is refreshingly frank about this issue. His views do not represent those of a minority of Palestinians: such views have long become part of the mainstream thinking among the Palestinians.
The last time Hamas, which openly seeks the destruction of Israel, ran in a free and fair Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006, its candidates won the vote handily. If elections were held tomorrow, Hamas would win the vote again.
To put it simply: a majority of Palestinians continues to see Israel as a foreign entity and an alien body that was imposed on the Arabs and Muslims by Western superpowers, despite the Jews having lived there for four thousand years, as evidenced every by archeological findings, which corroborate material in the Bible. The Palestinians want to liberate "all of Palestine" – meaning all of current-day Israel. This is what the entire Palestinian "national struggle" is about. It is not about "liberating" a certain part of "historical Palestine." Instead, it is about "liberating every inch of Palestine" and driving the Jews out of the land and out of the region.
Mahmoud Abbas is a known liar who has not only questioned the Holocaust, but also specializes in distorting history. In a speech before the Palestinian Central Council in January this year, Abbas said that Israel was a "colonialist project that has nothing to do with Judaism." Behind him appeared a large placard with a map of "Palestine" that made no reference to Israel.
This time Abbas, like Hamas, is being honest. His talk about a "colonialist project" shows that he, like many Palestinians, has a problem with Israel's very existence.
For Abbas, the problem is not settlements or borders or the status of Jerusalem. He sees Jews as an occupying force and as settlers, regardless of where they live. The map behind him tells the story, namely that Abbas and most Palestinians are fighting to drive the Jews out of the land and replace Israel with an Islamic Arab regime.
Such maps are not new in the Palestinian landscape; they can be found in school textbooks and various media outlets. Anyone who watches the weather forecast on Palestinian television stations will see that Haifa, Tel Aviv, Tiberias and Jaffa are "occupied" cities.
Anyone who follows the news on Palestinian media outlets will see how all Jews, whether they are living in a West Bank settlement or in Tel Aviv, are referred to as "settlers."
To sum up, it is not Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital or to move the US embassy to the city that is behind the current Palestinian outrage.
What is really bothering the Palestinians is that Israel, with Jews, exists, period. The Palestinians want all of Jerusalem. They want all of "Palestine." They want Israel removed from the planet. It is time to listen carefully to what the Palestinians are saying -- in Arabic -- to understand that the conflict is not about Jerusalem and not about settlements.
*Bassam Tawil is a Muslim based in the Middle East.
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Russia's Mercenary Debacle in Syria/Is the Kremlin Losing Control?
Neil Hauer/Foreign Affairs/February 26/18
On the night of February 7, a Kurdish-held oil field in northeastern Syria came under sudden attack by forces allied with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Heavy U.S. air strikes and artillery fire repelled the assault, with initial reports suggesting that at least 100 pro-government fighters were killed in the span of three hours.
The next week, information began to emerge that many of those killed were Russian mercenaries contracted to the Wagner Group, a private military company with close ties to the Kremlin. A pair of Russian-language audio recordings described 200 dead Wagner fighters; other sources gave casualty figures as high as 600. Although these figures sounded absurd at first, with other Russian sources estimating only 20 to 25 dead, corroborating evidence increasingly backed a casualty tally in the hundreds. Former Wagner fighters with links to those killed reported between 80 and 100 dead and 200 injured, while Russian hospitals treated hundreds of wounded. A Chechen-language recording from Syria claimed that 170 of 200 Wagner fighters involved in the attack were dead. Three hundred casualties now appears not only a plausible but a probable figure.
The recent operation seems to have caught the Russian government totally unprepared. Initial Kremlin statements were limited to a single quip on February 14 that there “may be citizens of the Russian Federation” fighting in Syria, but that these were “not connected” to Russia’s armed forces. The next day, the Russian Foreign Ministry admitted that “five Russians may have died” in Wagner’s attack. In the interim, several interviews with family members of the deceased emerged, as did independent confirmation of at least ten deaths. On February 20, the Foreign Ministry raised that number, stating that “several dozen” citizens of Russia and other Russian-speaking countries were killed or wounded in Syria. Moscow’s behavior seems to have been born from genuine confusion rather than calculated misinformation.
Over the past five years, Wagner has evolved into the preeminent Russian military contractor, playing a central role in Moscow’s military operations in Syria and Ukraine. This confusion surrounding the attack, however, suggests that Wagner’s offensive actions resulted in a debacle the Kremlin did not expect. With its ability to control the Assad regime already in question, Russia appears to now be facing issues restraining even its own mercenary contractors. With its ability to control the Assad regime already in question, Russia now appears to be facing issues restraining even its own mercenary contractors.
If the February 7 attack indeed came as a surprise for the Kremlin, how and why did it happen at all? In this case, a report from the Russian daily Kommersant provides crucial details. A former Wagner employee and comrade of several of those killed in the incident stated that it was an attempt by “local big businessmen currently supporting Bashar Assad” to seize oil and gas fields controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurds. The plan, apparently, was to attack the Kurdish base and seize it before U.S. airpower could drive them off.
At first glance, such a move is unprecedented: since Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, there have been no reliable indications of Wagner operating outside the Kremlin’s command. Yet an incident in 2013 holds more clues. That year, the Slavonic Corps, a predecessor of Wagner, was contracted by an unknown Syrian client to seize oil fields in the east, in roughly the same area where the February 7 fighting took place. This, too, was a debacle—the group was poorly outfitted and driven off by Syrian rebel fighters. It demonstrates, though, that such attacks can occur without the express knowledge of Moscow.
A sensational scoop in The Washington Post late last week revealed that the order for the assault came from a remarkably high-placed source: Yevgeny Prigozhin. A member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in control of a number of powerful enterprises, Prigozhin is not only closely linked to Wagner but possesses other interests in Syria’s northeast. He heads the firm Evro Polis, which inked a contract with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corporation early last year to secure production rights for 25 percent of all Syrian oil and gas fields. With most of those fields under Kurdish control, Prigozhin coordinated with senior Syrian officials to plan “a good surprise” for Assad’s government. It appears Prigozhin secured not only promises of additional pay from Damascus but also at least tacit agreement from the Kremlin: the oligarch was in contact with Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino, in the days before and after the attack.
This revelation raises more questions than it answers, the most important of which involve the degree to which the Russian government approved the attack and whether Prigozhin and the Syrians were aware of the U.S. presence in the area. The most likely answer at this point is that the Kremlin was aware that Wagner and Prigozhin planned to send the Kurds a signal at Damascus’ behest but anticipated little if any response from U.S. forces, and certainly not the drubbing that Wagner received.
The February 7 incident has also highlighted the role that Wagner has come to play as an instrument of Russian foreign policy. After its inauspicious start as the Slavonic Corps in Syria in 2013, the group was allegedly involved in the February 2014 takeover of Crimea. Wagner mercenaries participated heavily in Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine in 2014, including the battle for Debaltseve in January and February 2015. And although private military companies remain technically illegal in Russia itself, Moscow contracted the group for a number of tasks in Syria following its 2015 intervention there. Wagner was especially active in the country’s center and east: its fighters participated in the March 2016 capture of Palmyra as well as the late 2017 campaign for the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor.
Current best estimates place Wagner’s numbers in Syria at around 2,500 servicemen. For perspective, in September 2016 Russia was estimated to have just under 5,000 personnel in Syria, making the Wagner detachment equal to about half the size of the official one. The mercenaries have often played a light infantry role, reconnoitering territory and spotting for air strikes, but they have also been employed on the frontlines. The utility of such a group is obvious—it allows Russia to employ ground forces without incurring the political risk of potential casualties. This is particularly useful when there is heavy fighting—in September 2017 alone, Wagner reportedly suffered 54 combat deaths. The group’s service has been publicly rewarded: Putin was seen presenting a medal to Wagner head Dmitry Utkin at a Kremlin ceremony in December 2016.
As the events of February 7 demonstrate, however, Wagner may diminish the political risk of casualties but cannot eliminate the threat altogether. A battle producing 100 deaths is impossible to hide in the social media age, and some journalists have already spoken to family members of the deceased. The mother of one dead fighter, in a small town in the Urals, said that the members of his unit were treated “like pigs… sent to slaughter.” Another was similarly indignant, saying that the Russian government is “responsible for its actions.” The damaging publicity is not what Putin needs with the Russian general election scheduled for mid-March.
But as bad as the February 7 attack is on the Russian domestic front, its impact on the Syrian conflict is likely to be worse. Moscow is already finding it difficult to control the course of the crisis, with its much-vaunted Syrian peace congress in Sochi having recently ended in debacle. Conflict continues to rage between Syrian Kurds and Turkey in the northwest, and reports indicate that the Kurds and the Syrian regime—ostensibly Moscow’s client—spurned Russian involvement in their negotiations. Even if Wagner’s assault was tacitly sanctioned in some form by the Kremlin, its disastrous results and the scale of the battle that ensued will do little for Moscow’s legitimacy as a force for stabilization in Syria. The revelation that the Kremlin either cannot or will not exercise control over proxies such as Wagner only further challenges Russia’s narrative as kingmaker in Syria.
As for Wagner itself, the next steps are unclear. Moscow will certainly seek to rein in the group, likely by redeploying elements from the area of the February 7 incident to the outskirts of Damascus, where a major regime offensive is looming. Wagner is also likely to become more involved in Idlib Province in Syria’s northwest, now becoming a focus of combat between the regime and surviving rebel groups. The revelation that Prigozhin effectively used Wagner as a tool for his personal enrichment in conjunction with Syrian officials, even if sanctioned to a degree by the Kremlin, demonstrates an unsettling and heretofore unknown potential for escalation. The United States gave Wagner a substantial bruising sure to make its commanders think twice before attempting such a stunt again—but the precedent of the group fighting U.S.-backed forces has nonetheless been set. For Putin, this attack appears to be just the latest in a series of unwelcome escalations in a country where he declared victory just two months ago—and proof that proxy forces such as Wagner can backfire in an unintended fashion.