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President Assad in Maaloula

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During his trip to Maaloula, President Bashar al-Assad has attracted the anguish of his security service by offering a walkabout.

President Assad in Maaloula: The Syrian state confirms its supremacy

By Ghaleb Kandil

A week after its liberation from extremist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda, President Bashar al-Assad visited the historic town of Maaloula, where he celebrated Easter with residents, full of joy and sadness because at the destructions provoked by the terrorists. While visiting the city, including the famous monastery of St. Sergius and Bacchus, looted and damaged by terrorists, the Syrian leader has reaffirmed its determination to fight against the "barbarism and obscurantism that target the homeland."
Addressing the people gathered around him, Assad assured that the people and the Syrian state will rebuild Syria, which will be "even more beautiful than before." "Even the worst terrorists cannot destroy our heritage and civilization," said the Syrian president."Maaloula like other sites of humanity and the Syrian civilization still stand face to barbarism and obscurantism that target the homeland."
Elias Zakhem, a young resident, told AFP: "We came back home and have found all destroyed. But God willing, we will return (live) here and we will rebuild. This is our city."
Journalists on site saw houses burned and broken windows. In the orphanage of Mar Takla (St. Thecla) monastery, children’s clothes lying on the ground. In the dining hall, dozens of plates are broken.
The visit of President Assad to Maaloula marks the military and popular supremacy of the state, despite the universal war launched against the country by a coalition led by the United States and including NATO, the Arab countries Gulf and Turkey, and actively supported by Israel.
This supremacy is illustrated by several indices:
- First: Walking through the 55 kilometers between Damascus and Maaloula, north of the capital, the convoy of President Assad has shown that the state controls the ground and terrorist threats did not prevent him to go to his people. On March 10, the Syrian leader had visited at Adra, in a suburb of Damascus, a shelter for refugees, driven from their homes by the extremists.
- Second: At Ain el-Tine, on the road to Maaloula, Assad took a walkabout. He mingled with his people, without bodyguards, proving that his popularity remains intact despite three years of war and propaganda unparalleled in modern history.
- Third: On the way to Maaloula, a Christian city whose inhabitants still speak the language of Christ, Aramaic, Assad positioned himself not as the protector of minorities, such as the Western media are trying to tell, but as the guarantor of a pluralist, tolerant and modern Syria, where all religious beliefs are protected by a state equidistant from all its citizens. This was Syria in the past and will remain so in the future.
- Fourth: The state expressed its political supremacy face to mercenaries without project, handled by foreigners. In this regard, the President of Parliament, Mohammad al-Laham said that the presidential election will be held on June 3 "I fixed the date of the election of a president for the Syrian Arab Republic for citizens living in Syria, It will take place on Tuesday, June 3," has he announced at a formal meeting of Parliament.
Candidacies may be made from Tuesday until 1 May, he said.

Statements

MICHEL SLEIMAN, Lebanese President
«I say once again that extension of any mandate is undemocratic. The presidential election platform of Samir Geagea is national and sovereign. I aspire to implement this platform and congratulate any president who does

SHEIKH NAÏM QASSEM, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General
«The president who believes in the tripartite formula of sovereignty, resistance and building the state is the president we will elect. I think you know him well, even if we have not mentioned his name. We call for a president who believes in Lebanese sovereignty over all the country’s territory, does not except foreign tutelage from anyone, and does not sell political positions or pay for them at the expense of Lebanese citizens

BESHARA RAÏ, Maronite Patriarch
«The occasion we are celebrating today calls the Lebanese politicians, especially the members of the parliament and the cabinet to practice their political work and legislative duties. Politicians must preserve the state and reinforce its entity, people and institutions

TAMMAM SALAM, Lebanese Prime Minister
«Uncertainty is the prevalent condition as far as election of a president for the Republic of Lebanon is concerned. All possibilities are open. Il is possible that Lebanon’s top position would be left vacant. Anyone who claims to know the result of Wednesday’s parliamentary session is wrong.The current level of consciousness being displayed by all political players in Lebanon would not allow the country to slip in to civil war.»

TALAL ARSLAN, Lebanese Democratic Party leader
«The current situation and crucial deadlines in Lebanon call for the election of a strong president capable of protecting the state and its institutions, establishing security and stability, and preserving civil peace and communal life. The strong president is patriotic and believes that resistance is a [national] path and one of the foundations of Lebanon’s strength. No president can be strong if he relinquishes Lebanon’s primary source of strength, which is represented by the resistance. We refuse extension of President Michel Suleiman’s term under any excuse, and in any circumstances. The constitutional deadline must be respected. A president who enjoys popular and national authority must be elected.»

Events

• Lebanese army intelligence troops detained a group of Syrian fighters from an extremist group after performing an ambush, the National News Agency reported Saturday. The operation was carried out in the town of Beit Lahia in the southern Beqaa’s Rashaya province. Later Saturday, an army statement reported that: “at around 12:40 a.m. the Lebanese Armed Forces arrested six Syrian nationals in the area around Beit Lahia for illegally entering Lebanese territory.”

• The bodyguard and nephew of Islamic radical leader Oussama al-Shehabi was killed in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. The man identified as Ali Khalil died early on Monday after being shot in the camp’s Al-Safsaf neighborhood, NOW’s correspondent in the South reported. Heightened tension prevailed in the camp following the incident.

• Israeli occupation forces crossed into Lebanon on Thursday and abducted five people from the Bastra farms of the southern town of Shebaa, state news reported. Lebanon’s National News Agency identified the kidnapped as Hassan and Ismail Qassem Zahra, Nouhad Awad, Wafa Moussa, Woroud Moussa. Television networks Al-Manar and NBN reported that the three women in the group have been released, while brothers Hassan and Ismail, who work as shepherds, remain in Israeli custody. Israeli forces reportedly crossed about 100 meters into Lebanese territory to kidnap the group who were taken to the occupied Shebaa farms. The town of Shebaa itself is not occupied. The NNA added that forces from UNIFIL and the Lebanese army are coordinating to release the men.

Press Review

AS SAFIR (LEBANESE DAILY CLOSE TO MARCH-8 COALITION)
(APRIL 17,2014)
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said that he would not reveal to which presidential candidate his vote would go before the day of the election.
“Those who want to know for whom I will vote have to wait until Wednesday [April 23rd]. I will not unveil my choice before that day,” Jumblatt told As Safir.
The PSP leader also reiterated his rejection of the ranks and salaries scale system and warned that it would cause an economic crisis similar to that in Greece. “The ranks and salaries scale should be annulled and not just amended,” he said.
“Among the odd things about this ranks and salaries scale is that the amounts of pensions that the retired employees get are huge compared to the state’s financial capabilities. Next thing we know, we will be allocating [pensions] to the dead,” he added.

AN NAHAR (LEBANESE DAILY CLOSE TO MARCH-14 COALITION)
(APRIL 19, 2014)
Speaker Nabih Berri said that he wanted the presidential election to be a purely Lebanese affair. “I insist on making the election [a Lebanese affair] more than anyone else and I will call a session within the legal norms without any omissions or additions,” Berri told An Nahar.
Berri also said that the president would probably be elected on the second round of the presidential election. “The [real] work will be on the second round to get half-plus-one majority [65 votes], and achieving this is not difficult or impossible,” Berri added.
Berri also denied any foreign interventions in the presidential election process, saying that no ambassador has talked to him about any of the candidates. Berri did not send invitations to diplomats or ambassadors to attend the parliament session on Wednesday April 23rd, which means that this rules out that a president would be elected on that day.

AL HAYAT (SAUDI DAILY, APRIL 19, 2014)
Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said in remarks published Saturday that the competition between Kataeb party leader Amin Gemayel and Lebanese Forces party leader Samir Geagea was normal.
“Gemayel and Geagea will not be running against each other during the first round of the presidential election on April 23rd, but the [two parties] have not agreed yet on how to contest the election, because the negotiations on the issue have not started yet,” Azzi told Al-Hayat.
“LF MP Strida Geagea called Gemayel and asked to meet him to discuss the presidential election. The meeting will be held in the next couple of days,” he added.
Azzi also said that the parliamentary session on April 23rd would be experimental, noting that the new president would not be elected on that day.
Azzi had reported earlier that Gemayel will announce his candidacy for the seat of the President of the Republic in the coming days.

AL AKHBAR (LEBANESE DAILY CLOSE TO THE LEBANESE RESISTANCE)
AMAL AL-KHALIL (APRIL 19, 2014)
Qataris truly believe that the old famous slogan, “thank you Qatar,” shall resonate once again on the streets of Lebanon and even Syria. The small Gulf emirate, which stood by the Resistance during the 2006 Israeli aggression and helped rebuild the South, is gradually returning to the resistance axis. In fact, this presumed reconciliation will be in the best interest of all parties involved, as both Lebanese and Syrians are seeking to take advantage of Qatar’s rise, while Qataris themselves wish to invest in Syria’s reconstruction and to have the upper hand in the decision making process in the country.
On a rising hill in Doha, lays the palace of Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa al-Thani. However, he has another residence also waiting for him, his palace in Damascus.
Recently, Qatar began recalculating its position in regards to the Syrian conflict, and rejoining the resistance axis. Only then will this small emirate recover the old glorious days when Lebanese would say “thank you Qatar.”
In mid March, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Ramihi- envoy of Prince Tamim- led a Qatari delegation to Iran to meet with high-ranking officials at the Iranian foreign ministry, including Foreign Minister Mohammed Jawad Zarif.
Rahimi co-chaired with his Iranian counterpart the first ever meeting of the Iran-Qatar joint political committee. The two sides also discussed ways to reach a political solution in Syria, fighting terrorism and the Qatari plan to resort to maritime shipping through Iran in case Saudi Arabia and the UAE carried out their threats and closed their land borders and airways to Doha.
According to the Qatari envoy, Prince Tamim received a written letter from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday, inviting him to visit Tehran, which was handed to him by Iranian Ambassador Mohammed Jawad Asayash.
Two days later, Iranian Assistant Minister of Interior Ali Abdullah and his accompanying delegation arrived in Doha to sign the minutes of the committee’s meeting while the Qatari side was represented by Major-General Saad bin Jassim al-Khulaifi.
The Iranian-Qatari rapprochement has ramifications both in the Gulf and the Levant. Lebanese in Qatar are no longer worried of deportation due to sectarian and political reasons. Just last month, Doha resumed issuing visitation and tourism visas for Lebanese after it had suspended them almost completely following the Syrian crisis.
In fact, Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah had promised his Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil during their meeting on the sidelines of the Arab summit in Kuwait to ease restrictions on Lebanese. Bassil also issued a circular calling for Lebanese in Doha to resort to their country’s embassy if they are having any concerns involving business and residency permits, so that the embassy can coordinate with the concerned authorities.
Informed sources within the Lebanese community in Doha reported that they were assured by Qatari officials that there will be “no new mass deportations of Lebanese,” reminding them that Prince Tamim had expected during a meeting with a Lebanese delegation led by former Prime Minister Najib Mikati last November, that the number of Lebanese in the country would double from 25 thousand to 50 thousand. The sources explained that 30 Lebanese Shia, who were scheduled to be deported last year, are still in the country, now that authorities have canceled the decision.
Meanwhile, Lebanese are present in every aspect of Doha, “there are tens of Lebanese shops and restaurants while contracting and engineering companies are contributing remarkably to the massive infrastructure projects in the country.”
Syrians are also here and are expressing their heritage. Restaurant and shop signs carry Syrian symbols, some even belonging to supporters of the regime. Even relatives of people close to the regime are still living in Qatar and working normally without being affected by the political conflict between the two countries. Though some attempt to hide their affiliation, Qatari security services are quite aware of them but they haven’t deported any Syrians yet. However, visitation and work permits are still suspended while Qatar isn’t taking in any refugees.
For their part, Qatari businessmen have their eye on a role in Syria’s reconstruction process, and they are almost sure that there will be a shift in political positions.
Interestingly, observers say that the Qatari position doesn’t reflect a dispute within the Qatari leadership but rather an attempt to find middle ground. A few days ago, Sheikh Tamimi held a royal reception for the 11 Lebanese who were kidnapped in Ezaz in Syria. Quite aware of their sectarian and political affiliations, Prince Tamimi expressed his love for Lebanon and particularly for Shia. He also promised them to deploy all efforts to release Lebanese Sky News cameraman Samir Kassab and his Mauritanian colleague, journalist Ishac Mokhtar.
In the meantime, Doha is getting ready to host the Maaloula nuns who were liberated with Qatari assistance last March.

AL AKHBAR (APRIL 19, 2014)
Change and Reform bloc MP Michel Aoun said that the next president of the Lebanese republic would be chosen by foreign countries and not by the Lebanese parties.
“Aoun is convinced that the president will not be [chosen] in Lebanon, but will be the result of a US-Iranian agreement – or disagreement – and all the US-Saudi and Iranian-Saudi discussions that come before,” a source close to Aoun told Al-Akhbar.
The source also said that Aoun’s ties with the Future Movement were improving, adding that Aoun wanted to get Hariri’s approval of him becoming a president in case international countries approved of him.
“The ties with the Future Movement are getting stronger, but Aoun will not be Hariri’s candidate for presidency because the secret code was not given to him yet,” the source added. “The Saudi embassy has not yet asked for a meeting with Aoun to deliver to him an invitation from the Saudi king to visit Saudi Arabia.”

AL AKHBAR (APRIL 19, 2014)
GHASSAN SAOUD
We will not have another presidential election like this one. Since 1990, people have hoped that a strong president would return to the Baabda presidential palace to create a balance between Christian, Sunni, and Shia influence in the government.
A strong president does not mean someone with a track record of crimes or someone who has mastered the art of sectarian incitement, or someone who oversaw official institutions being stripped of all their credentials during their six-year term. Rather, a strong president is someone who has a political career established in the army leadership before it became what it is today. Someone who won the support of 70 percent of the Christian population, who has a 27-member parliamentary bloc, who had 10 ministers in a previous cabinet and who participates in leading his political alliance instead of being led. I am talking here about Michel Aoun specifically. Aoun’s candidacy was not likely in previous elections but rarely has a presidential election come by without people thinking of a time when a president would occupy that post instead of merely being assigned to Baabda.
Some candidates are wealthy, others are intellectuals, and others are cartoonish, traditional, or power hungry. But they are all average. Dozens like them will come and go without anyone noticing. For the first time however, and most probably the last, Aoun will be a presidential candidate. Some might ask why would we bet on Aoun to build the republic when he failed at building a small political party. And how will he be trusted with the system of consensual democracy in the country when he does not believe in democracy in his political household. Dozens of questions can be asked, but more important than all these questions is that this is the last time that Christians will have a strong candidate for president.
Aoun does not derive his strength from his past only, but from his ability to restore balance to the government in the future. All the rumors about Aoun reassuring Hezbollah in order to proceed with a serious dialogue about the defense strategy are nothing but details. And so are the rumors about Aoun’s guarantees to US oil corporations. The most important item on Aoun’s presidential agenda is restoring balance in the government.
A source close to Aoun explains that the regional balance today prevents the Sunni sect from retaining a bigger and more important role in the government than the Shia role. The regional balance itself makes it impossible to convene a new Taif Agreement that would divide the government in a clear way between Sunnis and Shias. Herein lies the importance of Aoun’s role. He is able to ask the Future Movement to give back to the Christian community what was originally theirs. What the Future Movement gives up will not be interpreted as a defeat for the Sunni community and a victory for the Shia. That is how the regional balance would translate domestically without anyone feeling as though they won or lost, and Lebanon’s fragile stability would be maintained as the international community hopes.
This is not only Aoun’s last chance, it is the Taif Agreement’s last chance. Nothing suggests that anyone else has Aoun’s political experience or popular political representation. Aoun has an amazing network of relationships and the trust of his allies and party members. A US diplomat was not joking when he told a Lebanese friend a few days ago: “We are facing a clear equation, either Michel Aoun or chaos.”
Aoun does not want car convoys and rallies chanting his name. He does not want radio ads or a lobby that puts his friends’ capabilities at the service of his presidential campaign. He is adamant that his front-line would consist of him only. Behind Aoun comes Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil and there is nobody behind them. The others will lose if Aoun loses but without having the honor of fighting. Friends can talk positively about him, the media can do what its deems fit and his supporters can pray and light candles for him. He will not ask for any of that. He could care less about making appearances or exaggerating his chances. He adheres, this time more than anytime before, to the idea that he is a one-man machine.
According to his visitors, Aoun always deals with the presidential elections with a lucid mind, distinguishing between reality and dreams. If a guest asks him about an article or a piece of news or a new candidate, Aoun urges him not to be distracted by these games. A few months ago, he decided not to waste time in small battles and absurd enmities that distract him and hinder his progress. For example, why would he antagonize the president? He knows now that the president is not made in Lebanon and it is not a personal decision taken by Hariri or the Future Movement. It is the result of a US-Iranian understanding or a clash preceded by US-Saudi-Iranian-Syrian consultations.
He has no illusions that Hariri - irrespective of their personal relationship - will fight his presidential battle for him. His personal overtures to Hariri were meant to guarantee that Hariri would welcome Aoun’s election if an international agreement is reached around him instead of being resentful and mobilizing his relations to undermine his chances. His relationship with Hariri’s advisor, former MP Ghattas Khoury, has become very strong and he speaks with admiration of Nader Hariri. He was happy that Hariri and Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk invited themselves to visit Bassil. They asked: “When do we have dinner at your place?” The relationship between them is getting stronger but Aoun will not be Hariri’s candidate. The Saudi embassy has not asked for an appointment to hand Aoun an invitation from the Saudi king to visit the kingdom.
Aoun is walking a tightrope between the US and Iran, one wrong step and he will fall. He knows that appearing like the candidate who can restore balance to the government is one of his strongest traits but it is also his weakness in the eyes of those who believe that restoring balance means confiscating some of their gains.
What has been reported about conversations with Aoun indicates that one reason he insists on fighting his battle alone is that he knows that he will not get a conclusive answer from the US now or in the future. Getting carried away in exaggerating America’s positive attitude and making it seem like a final endorsement will prompt the US embassy in Beirut to issue a statement denying such claims and to move in the opposite direction. He does not meet the US Ambassador David Hill as much as the media claims, although Hill has a good relationship with Bassil. The text messages between them are reminiscent of the text messages between former US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman and March 14 figures.
Aoun knows that the civilized nature of US interests drives them to make rational, instead of emotional decisions, which makes his job easier. The priority of domestic stability for them prompted the formation of the new government, even if it meant Hezbollah’s participation. Their priority of fighting terrorism drove them to fight alongside Hezbollah. How would they feel then If Aoun’s election guarantees these two priorities and more?
Aoun is worried that constant gossip and MP rivalries might adversely affect his relationship with Speaker of the House Nabih Berri. This time, he will not be satisfied with counting on Hezbollah’s pressure on Berri as he did in the past and will reach out to him personally.
As for Walid Jumblatt, Aoun asks, what would reassure him that his election would not interfere with his leadership or undermine his role as the deciding factor in Lebanese politics. Away from the rumors circulating, Aoun is trying make a deal with Jumblatt that would give the Interior Ministry to him or possibly to his son.
Anyone who knows Aoun well knows that contrary to appearances, he does not like to appease anyone. But he has to do all this and more. He entered Lebanese history when he rejected the US-Syrian production of the Lebanese president calling on the Lebanese people to have their say. Here he is today admitting that the Lebanese are not capable of producing a president, as he waits for the US approval of his election.
He is far from being a consensus figure but he refuses to talk about what would follow May 24 and acts as though his political future is subject to the approval of regional power players. But if he is elected, his loss in terms of being forced to join the game that he tried so hard to destroy is incomparable to the loss of all those who banded together to destroy him. And here they are, recognizing his popular and political legitimacy and declaring him president.

AL AKHBAR (APRIL 18, 2014)
A plan to stifle the Lebanese press is in the works, but this time it’s being orchestrated in the name of international justice. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has moved to force the Lebanese media to refrain from publishing any information about the court’s work that the STL does not disclose officially. Their decision undercuts a main prerogative of the press and aims to turn the Lebanese media into a mouthpiece for the STL.
The International Commission of Inquiry, the STL’s forerunner, and the STL itself, have not dealt transparently with the investigations from the beginning. And yet, there are those in the international tribunal who continue to exploit the lack of interest in upholding national sovereignty among Lebanon’s rulers, and continue to undermine all requirements for transparency, a prerequisite for achieving justice.
The STL has now taken a procedural step to further restrict coverage of its work, with the knowledge and consent of the Lebanese authorities. According to a report broadcast by the Lebanese New TV channel on Thursday, the international tribunal has asked the Ministry of Justice via the Public Prosecutor to notify the Ministry of Information and Lebanese media outlets to stick to official texts released by the STL, asking the press to refrain from publishing any information related to its proceedings unless endorsed by the tribunal through official resolutions, communiqués, or in transcripts of its sessions.
According to New TV’s report, the STL wants to bar the Lebanese public and press from having any access to confidential material leaked from inside the tribunal, even though said material is not officially designated as “confidential” or “top secret.”
The onus would thus fall on the public and the media to refrain from disseminating this information, when it is the STL that must take action to discover the source of the leaks and protect its confidential information from reaching the public and the media. In other words, the STL has opted for dictatorial methods in dealing with the media.
The decision recalls the three previous ones, which call for maintaining the secrecy of the supporting material for the STL’s indictments, to protect witnesses and ensure the proper functioning of the ongoing investigations, in addition to preventing third parties, meaning the press, from publishing any unauthorized material related to the tribunal.
Perhaps we should remind the tribunal that its sessions are public and are aired live by broadcasters. This can only mean that its decisions are a blatant attempt to suppress critical media coverage, meant to hold the STL accountable for its errors and excesses, especially as the tribunal is suspicious to at least half of the Lebanese population, who believe it to be deeply politicized.
It would have been more prudent for the STL, when it was still in the investigating stage for example, to protect its sources and keep them secret from the media – including Future TV, CBC, Der Spiegel, and New TV itself, which carried leaked audio recordings obtained from inside the tribunal, shedding light on the false witnesses scandal.
Instead of trying to interfere in the work of the media, and threatening media workers with prison sentences of up to seven years and fines of up to 100 thousand euros, the STL should fulfill its responsibilities in controlling its staff who leak confidential material and to prosecute them.

AL AKHBAR (APRIL 18, 2014)
Less than 24 hours after three Al-Manar reporters were gunned down in the Syrian town of Maaloula, March 14 and the Syrian opposition set out to deny that armed Syrian opposition groups were responsible for the crime. Instead they pointed their fingers at the Syrian army, accusing them of being behind their murder.
March 14 and the Syrian opposition’s propaganda machine went even further by concocting the scenario that there were clashes between the Syrian army and Hezbollah. The Resistance struck back by revealing the investigation of what happened, which is usually saved for its own internal reports.
Hezbollah’s leadership investigates everything done by its fighters and has a detailed report on every mission it has carried out. When incidents happen that lead to casualties, investigations are expanded in order to provide comprehensive details to the families of the martyrs when they ask about what happened.
After journalists Hamza al-Hajj Hassan, Mohammed Muntish, and Halim Alou were killed, Hezbollah began its investigations. Al-Akhbar found out that all the details of Hezbollah’s investigation confirm the responsibility of the armed Syrian opposition for the crime and for the death of four Syrian army soldiers.
Information from the investigation reveals the following story that we present with some modification.
After taking control of the town of al-Sarkha, military units advanced towards the town of Maaloula from two directions. First they advanced from the north, taking control of the surrounding hills, the Safir Hotel, and the western part of the town. Then they advanced east, liberating the rest of Maaloula. Homes were raided and some weapons that the gunmen had left behind were found. After all the town’s buildings were searched, Maaloula was declared liberated.
Once Hezbollah and the Syrian army declared that the town was under their control, a Syrian TV crew along with Al-Manar TV reporter Jaafar Mhanna arrived. At 2:10 pm they began broadcasting live in front of the Safir Hotel. In the meantime, Al-Manar’s team arrived with a number of people at around 3:10 pm. Muntish, a military journalist who knew all the details of the area, led them. Al-Manar coordinated with Muntish to begin live broadcasting from the square close to St. Takla monastery.
Al-Manar’s TV crew was riding in a convoy of three cars. The first car was being driven by Muntish, the second car carried the equipment for live broadcasting, and the third car belonged to reporter Hamza al-Hajj Hassan. When the convoy arrived at the square near the monastery, the atmosphere appeared normal, with Syrian soldiers patrolling the area. When they turned left towards the monastery at 3:30 pm, their convoy came under heavy fire from three gunmen that were seen stationed at the Safir Hotel overlooking the square.
Due to the heavy shooting, everyone inside their cars was injured and Muntish and Alou were killed on the spot. Hamza attempted to drive away but was hit by a bullet and killed. The shooting also led to the deaths of four Syrian soldiers who were in the area. Afterwards, the situation on the ground was assessed and the place of the gunmen was determined. Hezbollah fighters repelled their attack, and sent a military vehicle to transfer those killed and injured out of the area. Calm returned after about an hour.
It was discovered later on that the three gunmen were hiding in the caves adjacent St. Takla monastery. The investigators believe that it would be difficult to pursue the rest of the fighters who fled the town. When Hezbollah fighters and the Syrian army arrived to the same hill that lies right above the monastery, the three gunmen sensed danger and headed down to the nearby houses where they began shooting at Al-Manar’s convoy. No one knew that Al-Manar’s television crew was coming from Beirut since broadcasting from Maaloula had been a last minute decision.

AL AKHBAR (APRIL 17, 2014)
JEAN AZIZ
As Al-Akhbar predicted, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri has chosen Wednesday, April 23 as the date for the first session for parliament to elect a new president for Lebanon. Some have seen the move as a knee-jerk reaction to parliament’s about-face regarding the wage hike for public sector employees on Tuesday. However, sources close to Berri confirm that it is indeed the first round in the presidential face-off.
The first round of voting will clarify the identity of the candidates, the key players, and the odds for victory or defeat for each candidate. But more importantly, Wednesday’s session is approaching amid rapid international developments, which seem to be hinting that electing a new president is not as impossible as previously thought.
For a while, Lebanese politicians believed that the regional status quo was not ripe enough to permit the election of a new Lebanese president before May 25. But recent developments have proven otherwise.
The view now is that regardless of any international tensions, the consensus to keep Lebanon stable that emerged since February may well continue throughout May. In other words, the convergence between the views of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and Russia – which helped form a new government in Lebanon, formulate its policy statement, and implement the security plan in Tripoli and the Bekaa – can also press ahead and produce a new president.
In this particular context, the same factors above point towards the most likely scenario of Michel Aoun being elected president. However, this is being fiercely debated among those in favor and those who are against his election within the Hariri camp and his allies in Riyadh.
For this reason, the April 23 session seems more like a grace period for the decision makers in Beirut and Riyadh to reach a deal on the matter and select a new president by May 25.
Domestically, there have been several indications related to the decision to possibly elect Aoun. The Future Movement has been cooperating within the cabinet and helped in filling several high-level administrative posts. All of this was thought to be unachievable just a few months ago.
Other similar developments include: agreeing to postpone the wage hike, where Fouad Siniora personally joined Aoun in the committee studying the pay raise; the compromise list for the Beirut’s Order of Engineers’ elections; and a visit by senior figures of the Future Movement to Riyadh and their return prior to the parliament session and cabinet meeting to facilitate both.
Interestingly these figures were absent from Samir Geagea’s election rally during which he outlined his presidential platform. Simultaneously, there are reports that other figures from March 14 are being encouraged to announce their candidacies in parallel with Geagea.
Boutros Harb has made a step in this direction. Robert Ghanem too has felt emboldened to the point that he went to meet with Michel Aoun himself to discuss the elections. Even Amine Gemayel, a veteran of the presidential game, is being encouraged to run to ratchet up the number of March 14 candidates as a way for its leaders to keep all options open.
Internationally, there have also been developments that are conducive to holding a successful presidential election in Lebanon, including the official and final dismissal of Bandar bin Sultan, amid rumors that the new third man in Saudi Arabia, Prince Muqrin, is the architect of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. This is in addition to other hints from Riyadh that the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon would soon return to Beirut.
This also suggests that there is an accompanying US effort, with a decisive decision that Washington has been reiterating regarding the need for a new Lebanese president on the morning of May 25 in Baabda. The US effort is expected to culminate within a few hours with a visit by Ambassador David Hale to Riyadh.
Meanwhile, French hopes for extending President Michel Suleiman’s term are nearly extinguished despite Paris’ bid to reduce the proposed term extension to one-two years, and to take advantage of the $3 billion Saudi arms deal to force through an agreement.
The French gambit has failed. Even Michel Suleiman has started preparing for his exit from Baabda Palace. Suleiman also began preparations for his next electoral battle in October, when he will be competing against Canadian candidate Michaëlle Jean for the post of secretary general of the International Organization of la Francophonie.
A quick recap of the above shows that all the ingredients for electing a new president are there. Only the time frame for agreeing on the right candidate is unknown but the ball is already rolling with Berri’s call for holding a session come April 23. It is now up to the major international and domestic players to see the election through and declare that the deal on the next president is ready.

AL AKHBAR (APRIL 16, 2014)
After weeks of rumors and unsubstantiated information, a royal decree has put an end to countless political rumours. Bandar bin Sultan is out of the picture, and this time for good. It is a pivotal occasion, which sheds new light on the past and opens the door to speculation about the future.
"Upon his request:" This phrase not only terminates Bandar bin Sultan’s job as chief of Saudi General Intelligence, it also marks the end of his political career. The royal order did not come as a routine administrative procedure, instead it was part of the fierce power-sharing disagreements between the various factions of the House of Saud.
The royal decree appointed General Youssef bin Ali al-Idrissi to carry out the duties of the general intelligence chief. The decree suggests that Prince Sultan’s faction in the royal monarchy is completely out of the power equation. Bandar bin Sultan and Khaled bin Sultan, who had been relieved from his position as deputy defence minister earlier, will be followed by current deputy Defence Minister Salman bin Sultan. He is getting ready to hand over his position to one of the sons of Prince Salman, the crown prince and defence minister.
Frequently the man who carried out dirty jobs, Bandar bin Sultan surrounded himself with strict regulations in relation to the royal family and its allies, especially the US. It should be remembered that Bandar was absent from major political decisions on more than four occasions since being appointed as general secretary of the National Security Council in 2006. His absence each time was due to a conflict within the royal family or the failure of a mission warranting the suspension of his political activity. His return in July 2012, alongside former CIA Director David Petraeus, was his final bet on the success of his political future.
Bandar had been bold enough to invest all his cards, including al-Qaeda, to win the deal of his life by overthrowing the Syrian regime. However, a royal order issued on February 3 criminalizing all Saudi fighters, civilians and military, was an indirect announcement of the failure of Bandar’s mission and the need to get him entirely out of the picture. The period following the royal decree concerning the fighters was merely in preparation for the royal decree ending his political career.
It was an expected step, based on several indicators. The first could be Bandar’s departure from Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago under the pretext of medical treatment. At the time, it was merely an excuse to keep him away from the decision center in Riyadh as different factions in the Saudi monarchy were wrangling over the direction of its foreign policy. It was not long before Muqrin bin Abdulaziz was appointed deputy crown prince on the eve of a crucial visit by US President Barack Obama, which had been delayed for several days.
The reason behind the delay was not made clear then, neither were the three-hour deliberations between the US president on one hand and King Abdullah, crown prince Sultan, and Muqrin, on the other. But people continued to speculate, and some insinuated that the meeting was not amicable as evidenced by the reception Obama received at the airport, which did not befit a head of state. Obama left the kingdom unceremoniously, with just an announcement broadcast by the Saudi Press Agency. However, a few days later, some spoke of Bandar’s triumphant return to the kingdom, where it was rumored he had arrived a few days earlier. These rumours ended with the royal decree issued against Bandar.
The confirmation of the leaks poses a range of questions centered around the kingdom’s next phase based on Bandar’s resignation. They relate to the distribution of power inside the royal family, bilateral relations in the region, and Saudi’s alliances. Will the leaks about the imminent stepping down of King Abdullah also turn out to be true? How will the Saudis treat the Syrian crisis? What about the relationship with Iran in light of information about Saudi-Iranian meetings taking place in the shadows recently, which aimed to mend the relations between the two countries? How will this impact the situation in Iraq or on Lebanon’s upcoming presidential elections? There is no doubt that Bandar had caused a sudden shift in the direction of Saudi foreign policy. His country became the center of great disputes in the region and globally. This should force decision-makers to undertake a radical reassessment and reevaluation of the period when Bandar spearheaded the kingdom’s foreign policy.
Relieving Bandar from his duties could indicate a period of sharp conflict between the various factions of the royal family. However, with Bandar out of the way, in addition to the isolation of Ahmed, as one of the pillars of the Sudairis in the equation of inheritance, the future will be extremely uncertain and probably bloody unless the state witnesses substantial political, economic, and judicial reforms, which could save the throne from collapsing.

ASHARQ ALAWSAT (SAUDI DAILY, APRIL 21, 2014)
Future bloc MP Mohammad al-Hajjar said that all indicators suggest that Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea will be March 14’s presidential candidate. “All indicators until now suggest that [Geagea] will be March 14’s candidate,” Hajjar told Asharq al-Awsat. The lawmaker also said that “Kataeb leader Amin Gemayel possesses all the qualities that qualify him to be a presidential candidate but he wants, like all allies, to reach consensus within the [March 14] alliance.”

AS-SEYASSAH (KUWAITI DAILY, APRIL 21, 2014)
Change and Reform bloc MP Alain Aoun ruled out the possibility that bloc leader MP Michel Aoun would announce his candidacy for the presidential elections on Tuesday ahead of the schedule April 23 parliament session to vote on a new president.
“It is unlikely that [Aoun] announces his candidacy for the first round of presidential elections on Tuesday,” Aoun told As-Seyassah in an interview Monday.
Aoun also said that “the road leading to the election of a new president is obstructed until now.”
The MP predicted that a new president will not be elected in due time since “not all blocs have announced their stances because some are still waiting for [some foreign event].”

Source
New Orient News

Wassim Raad

New Orient Center for Strategic Policies

 
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