Israel-Iran Fight Steps Into The Open

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

No longer shrouded by ‘foreign reports,’ Israel-Iran fight steps into the open

Long-heard warnings of war between Jerusalem and Tehran are poised to become reality – unless someone can stop it

Judah Ari Gross

Israeli soldiers survey the border with Syria from a military post in the Golan Heights, following a series of aerial clashes with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, on February 10, 2018. (Flash90)

Israeli soldiers survey the border with Syria from a military post in the Golan Heights, following a series of aerial clashes with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, on February 10, 2018. (Flash90)

On Thursday, the International Crisis Group think tank and advocacy firm warned in a new comprehensive report that Israel and Iran (plus its proxies) were barreling toward open conflict in Syria.

Those prescient warnings came true — in part, at least — throughout Saturday morning, beginning shortly before 4:30 a.m., with the violation of Israeli airspace by a drone that the Israeli military says was piloted by an Iranian operator from an airfield that Tehran had taken control of months before, with Syrian permission.

Israeli jets conducted reprisal raids in Syria, during which one of the F-16 fighter planes was apparently hit by shrapnel from an exploding anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel, in what appears to be the first downing of an Israeli plane since 1982.

The aircraft’s pilots bailed out; one of them was seriously injured.

A picture taken in the northern Israeli Jezreel Valley on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses during attacks against ‘Iranian targets’ in the war-torn country. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

Air force jets then completed a second set of retaliatory strikes. In the two rounds, the Israeli military said, its aircraft targeted several Syrian air defense systems as well as four Iranian positions in the country.

This was the first time Israel publicly acknowledged conducting airstrikes against Iranian-held locations in Syria, though not the first time it had done so, according to foreign reports.

In the aftermath of the Saturday morning clash, Israeli, Syrian and Iranian politicians released tough, threatening statements aimed at one another. The United States backed Israel’s right to self-defense. Russia called for calm on all sides, but singled out Israel for violating Syrian sovereignty with its strikes, while conspicuously ignoring the Iranian drone’s airspace violation.

The aerial exchange thrust what had previously been a long-simmering but largely quiet conflict into the international spotlight and raised concerns that this bout will be the first of many clashes — and, in the nightmare scenario, the start of a full-fledged war across Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.

I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see such an event, but for the time being both sides will restrain their responses

However, the prevailing belief among Israeli defense analysts is that Saturday’s events were not the prelude to open war, but the beginning of an extended period of increased tension, which is liable to see additional clashes.

“I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see such an event, but for the time being both sides will restrain their responses,” Sima Shine, a career defense official and current senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told reporters on Sunday.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) attends a briefing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) in response to the escalation of tensions along the northern border on February 10, 2018. (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)

She added, during the phone briefing organized by the Media Central group, that escalation is in neither side’s best interest.

Amos Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and Military Intelligence chief, described Saturday as the “most significant day of fighting” in what Israel describes as its “campaign between wars,” often referred to in Hebrew by its acronym, Mabam.

“Despite the containment of the incident, the campaign is expected to continue,” Yadlin said.

In its report, released two days before Saturday’s flareup, the Crisis Group laid out how this campaign between Israel and the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis has developed and how it can be prevented from escalating further.

The organization tracks the current tensions to the Syrian regime’s battlefield victories over the past two and a half years, which it has achieved in large part due to support from the Russian military, which has provided significant air power since September 2015.

These have opened the Iran-led axis to shift toward preparing for a future conflict with Israel.

Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation

According to the think tank, Russia is also the only entity able to prevent such a bloody war, having emerged from the Syrian civil war as the region’s sole remaining superpower after the United States dramatically scaled back its involvement in the conflict.

“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation,” according to the report.

In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The group outlines three main issues that need to be addressed: the presence of Iranian and Shiite forces near the Israeli Golan Heights; the construction of Iranian military infrastructure in Syria; and ensuring any clashes that do take place remain confined to Syria.

The Crisis Group has also been working directly with Russia to try to persuade it to accept the role of mediator between Israel, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.

“And we are seeing some traction with Russian officials,” Ofer Zalzberg, a senior Jerusalem-based analyst for the group and one of the report’s authors, told The Times of Israel last Wednesday ahead of the document’s publication.

The recipe for disaster

As Syrian dictator Bashar Assad vanquishes the remaining pockets of resistance in the country, the Israeli concern is that his allies — Iran, Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shiite militias — will be freed to focus on establishing positions along the Israeli border from which to antagonize the Jewish state, as well as permanent naval and air bases to bring in more advanced weaponry and conduct attacks.

Israel has designated these issues to be “red lines,” which it will not allow to be violated, and has said it will take military action if they are.

In its report, the Crisis Group warned that if the Iranian axis presses on with these efforts and Israel retaliates in kind, there is significant potential for escalation or even a large-scale war that could destabilize the entire region.

Israeli security forces inspect damage to a house after a Katyusha rocket attack by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, July 15, 2006. (Pierre Terdjman / Flash90)

The military assessments of what a war between Israel and Hezbollah would look like are chilling: Hezbollah launching over 1,000 rockets and missiles at Israeli cities and strategic sites each day, along with attempted infiltrations of Israeli communities along the Lebanese border. Israel conducting wave after wave of airstrikes against Hezbollah infrastructure, which the terrorist group has embedded deep inside civilian areas, ensuring significant noncombatant deaths, as well as large-scale IDF ground force maneuvers in southern Lebanon.

Zalzberg said a major part of the problem is that there are no established “rules of the game” between Israel and Iranian proxies in Syria, as there are in Lebanon, where Israel has been fighting Hezbollah off-and-on for decades.

That means the “rules” will be sorted out through back-and-forth, tit-for-tat clashes like Saturday’s. But this is a perilous path, fraught with opportunities for miscalculation and resulting in unintended casualties on both sides.

For instance, Israeli officials often refer to the “proverbial kindergarten” — the type of target that if hit, even accidentally, would prompt Israeli citizens to demand harsh and swift reprisals. As Iran and Hezbollah lack civilian targets in Syria, their equivalent might be a case of significant casualties from an Israeli airstrike, which would forced them to retaliate.

This is a current concern, following Saturday’s exchange, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group, reported that at least six pro-regime fighters — including both Syrians and foreign nationals — were killed in Israel’s strikes and that “the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.”

Zalzberg added the potential for escalation in Syria is driven higher by the fact that different sides do not have a clear grasp of one another’s goals and viewpoints, citing a year’s worth of interviews by the Crisis Group with officials in Jerusalem, Tehran, Beirut, Amman, Moscow and Washington.

The report and its authors argue that it is ultimately in Russia’s best interest to avoid an all-out war between Israel and the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which would have the potential to completely destabilize the region.

Unlike in the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah when the fighting was primarily limited to northern Israel and southern Lebanon, the view of both Israeli and Hezbollah officials is that the next conflict between the two groups would also include fighting in Syria.

Israeli artillery howitzers fire on Hezbollah targets at the Israeli-Lebanese border on July 18, 2006. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“A massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to [Damascus and its backers’] achievements, perhaps even destabilizing the regime itself,” the report noted.

According to Zalzberg, this is not a desirable situation for Russia, as Moscow would like to see Assad regain near-total control over Syria.

The analyst noted that this is at odds with Iran, which wants to see Assad in power, but does not necessarily want to see him becoming too powerful, preferring instead to have Syria controlled by a coalition, similar to Lebanon, so that its Shiite militias could play a more significant role in the country.

Russia and only Russia

Moscow’s active support for Assad and his other main supporters, Iran and Hezbollah, has left Israeli officials decidedly wary of their Russian counterparts.

The Crisis Group report quotes an unnamed Israeli Foreign Ministry official as saying of the Russians, “It’s hard to trust them. They tell us they are not selling weapons to Hezbollah, but we know for a fact that they do. Their policies are cynical. They are not an enticing mediator.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, January 29, 2018. (Vasily MAXIMOV/AFP)

Yet there is an understanding among some in Israel that, while not enticing, Russia is the only mediator that has significant leverage over Iran and Hezbollah.

Israel has already had to maintain a close, if uneasy, relationship with Moscow due to its involvement in the region.

After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jets that had invaded its airspace, Moscow installed an S-400 missile defense system in Syria. With the system, one of the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft batteries, Russia can monitor the overwhelming majority of Israel’s active airspace, including Israeli military flights.

Or, as one Israeli official told the Crisis Group, “A fly can’t buzz above Syria without Russian consent nowadays.”

This came as a shocking blow to the Israeli Air Force, which had, until then, enjoyed aerial superiority in the region, and required Jerusalem and Moscow to set up a hotline to prevent any potential conflicts between the two militaries.

Israel has also worked diplomatically with Russia to secure a buffer zone around the southwestern Syrian border, in which Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias would not be allowed to maintain a presence.

In this photo released on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian government forces stand next to a bus which is waiting to evacuate Syrian rebels and their families from Beit Jinn village, in the southern province of Daraa, Syria. (SANA via AP)

The border area has naturally been of significant concern for Israel, which is loath to see Hezbollah set up military positions along the Golan Heights to join the significant infrastructure it has already put in place in southern Lebanon.

Last month, the Syrian military, with some assistance from Shiite militias, regained control over the area of Beit Jinn, or Beit Jann, which is located just 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Israel’s Mount Hermon ski resort.

Though it is currently focused on retaking the area of Idlib in northwestern Syria, this coalition is likely to soon focus its attention on the Quneitra and Daraa regions, near the Israeli border.

Though Israel secured its buffer zone for that area this summer, the Crisis Group report notes that it would be relatively easy for these groups to get around the restriction, “for instance by integrating the fighters into the Syrian army or simply having them don its uniforms.”

The advocacy group argues that before the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis moves toward the southwest, Russia should work to negotiate an agreement between it and Israel.

There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives

The Crisis Group notes that Israel’s insistence that Iranian and Iran-backed troops stay out of southern Syria will be the most difficult to negotiate, as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias would not be inclined to accept it and could easily cheat by disguising themselves as Syrians.

However, the authors say this could be resolved by getting Russia to agree to prevent Iran from setting up the types of infrastructure most concerning to Israel, like a seaport through which the Islamic Republic could carry out attacks against Israeli natural gas fields, an airport to transport weapons to Hezbollah, or a factory for the production of precise missiles.

“There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives,” the Crisis Group wrote.

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Syria shoots down Israeli warplane as conflict escalates

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BBC)

(The Devil is in Tehran, His name is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the un-elected Dictator who calls himself the ‘Supreme Leader’)(trs) 

Syria shoots down Israeli warplane as conflict escalates

Crash site of an Israeli F-16 jet in northern Israel. Photo: 10 February 2018Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe Israeli F-16 jet crashed near a village in northern Israel

An Israeli F-16 fighter jet has crashed after being hit by Syrian air defences during an offensive in Syria, the Israeli military says.

The two pilots parachuted to safety before the crash in northern Israel. It is believed to be the first time Israel has lost a jet in the Syrian conflict.

The plane was hit during air strikes in response to an Iranian drone launch into Israeli territory, Israel says.

The drone was shot down. Israel later launched further strikes in Syria.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) say they hit aerial defence batteries and Iranian military sites in the latest strikes.

Israeli air strikes in Syria are not unusual, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Tom Bateman says, but the loss of an Israeli fighter jet marks a serious escalation.

In other developments in the Syrian conflict on Saturday:

  • A Turkish helicopter was shot down as the country continued its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Two soldiers on board were killed, the Turkish military says
  • UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said the past week was one of the bloodiest in Syria since the conflict began in 2011 – with at least 277 civilian deaths reported

How did events unfold on Saturday morning?

The Israeli military says a “combat helicopter successfully intercepted an Iranian UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that was launched from Syria and infiltrated Israel”.

It tweeted footage which it says shows the drone flying into Israeli territory before being hit.

In a further response, the IDF “targeted Iranian targets in Syria”, according to the military. The mission deep inside Syrian territory was successfully completed, it said.

After coming under Syrian anti-aircraft fire, the F-16’s two crew members ejected and were later taken to hospital. One of them was “severely injured as a result of an emergency evacuation”, the IDF said.

It is the first time Israel has lost an aircraft in combat since 2006 when an Israeli helicopter was shot down over Lebanon by a Hezbollah rocket, the Jerusalem Post reports.

All five crew on board – including a female flight mechanic – were killed in that incident.

Anti-aircraft effects over the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights. Photo: 10 February 20218Image copyrightEPA
Image captionAnti-aircraft fire smoke over the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights

Alert sirens sounded in areas of northern Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights because of Syrian anti-aircraft fire.

Residents reported hearing a number of explosions and heavy aerial activity in the area near Israel’s borders with Jordan and Syria.

An Israeli F-16 takes off. File photoImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe fighter jet was carrying out strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, the Israelis say (file picture)

Syrian state media quoted a military source as saying that the country’s air defences had opened fire in response to Israeli “aggression” against a military base on Saturday, hitting “more than one plane”.

What did Israel do next?

Israel launched its second wave of strikes in Syria. Eight of the Syrian targets belonged to the fourth Syrian division near Damascus, IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus said.

All the Israeli aircraft from this sortie returned safely.

“Syrians are playing with fire when they allow Iranians to attack Israel,” the spokesman warned.

He added that Israel was willing to exact a heavy price in response but was “are not looking to escalate the situation”.

Meanwhile Iran and the Tehran-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon – which are allied with the Syrian government – dismissed reports that an Iranian drone had entered Israeli airspace as a “lie”.

Russia expressed “serious concern” over the Israeli air strikes and called for all sides to show restraint.

What is the Iranian presence in Syria?

Iran is Israel’s arch-enemy, and Iranian troops have been fighting rebel groups since 2011.

Tehran has sent military advisers, volunteer militias and, reportedly, hundreds of fighters from its Quds Force, the overseas arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

It is also believed to have supplied thousands of tonnes of weaponry and munitions to help President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, which is fighting on Syria’s side.

Tehran has faced accusations that it is seeking to establish not just an arc of influence but a logistical land supply line from Iran through to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Presentational grey line

A powerful new element

Analysis by BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus

For years Israel has been striking at weapons stores and other facilities in Syria with a single goal – to disrupt and, as far as possible, to prevent advanced Iranian missiles being delivered to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria has often been the conduit for these shipments, but the changing balance of power there, with the Assad regime’s survival bolstered by Iranian help, has introduced a powerful new element – a direct Iranian role in the crisis.

A more confident Iran is alleged by Israel to be setting up bases in Syria(whether for its own or its proxy Shia Muslim militia forces is unclear).

But it is also alleged to be developing missile factories, both there and in Lebanon, to make the supply lines to Hezbollah less vulnerable.

Israel’s campaign to disrupt missile supplies is becoming ever more complex.

And Iran risks becoming a direct actor in this conflict, ever closer to Israel’s own borders.

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Presentational grey line

Russian delegation ‘sought to stop Israeli strikes in Syria, Lebanon’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Russian delegation ‘sought to stop Israeli strikes in Syria, Lebanon’

Arabic daily says high-level team visiting from Moscow came to Jerusalem to discourage action against Iran and Hezbollah

Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, February 1, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 1, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A delegation of senior Russian security officials visiting Israel this weekreportedly sought to dissuade Jerusalem from striking Iranian and Hezbollah weapons facilities in Syria and Lebanon.

According to the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, quoted by Israel’s Channel 10 news, the purpose of Wednesday’s visit, headed by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, was Moscow’s desire to discourage Israeli intervention across the border, Channel 10 news reported.

The Russian delegation, which also included deputy ministers, army generals and intelligence officers, held talks with Israel’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat as well as heads of Israel’s National Security Council and top military, defense and intelligence officials.

Patrushev himself met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel has been negotiating with the United States and Russia, the main brokers in Syria, to keep Iran-backed Shiite militias and the Hezbollah terrorist group away from the border.

Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and others have all said that Israel’s policy is to target shipments of advanced weaponry, including accurate long-range missiles, that are heading to or in the possession of Hezbollah. Foreign media reports have attributed dozens of airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria to Israel.

Last week’s visit by the Russian officials came on the heels of Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss Iranian military entrenchment in the region.

A satellite image showing the results of an alleged Israeli airstrike on a reported Iranian base being set up outside Damascus, from December 4, 2017. (ImageSat International ISI)

Netanyahu said his meeting with Putin focused on Iran, with the prime minister saying if Tehran continues to try and deepen its influence in Syria, Israel would work to “stop it.”

“The question is: Does Iran entrench itself in Syria, or will this process be stopped. If it doesn’t stop by itself, we will stop it,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters during a telephone briefing.

“We also spoke about Lebanon, which is becoming a factory for precision-guided missiles that threaten Israel. These missiles pose a grave threat to Israel, and we will not accept this threat,” he added.

Netanyahu said that the weapons factories are currently “in the process of being built” by Iran. Israel is determined to do whatever is necessary to prevent those two developments, Netanyahu said.

Last month, Israel’s envoy to the United Nations said there are 3,000 soldiers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps currently fighting in Syria, and accused Tehran of seeking to turn the country “into the largest military base in the world.”

Danny Danon told the Security Council that Iran controls 82,000 fighters in Syria, including 9,000 members of Hezbollah, 10,000 Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and another 60,000 Syrians.

Danon urged member states not to “allow Iran to continue funding worldwide terror, pursue its dangerous internal arms buildup, and grow its military presence abroad.”

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Iran’s Supreme Murderer Ali Khamenei Blames Iran’s Enemy’s For Protests

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

 

LONDON — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, blamed “enemies” of Iran on Tuesday for protests that have left more than 20 people dead, in his first comments since the unrest started last week.

“In recent events, enemies of Iran have allied & used the various means they possess, including money, weapons, politics & intelligence services, to trouble the Islamic Republic,” said a post in English on Ayatollah Khamenei’s Twitter account. “The enemy is always looking for an opportunity & any crevice to infiltrate & strike the Iranian nation.”

As of Tuesday morning, the death toll from the protests across the country and the ensuing crackdown by the government and security services was at least 21. About 450 people had been taken into custody in the capital, Tehran, alone, according to the semiofficial news agency ILNA, and arrests have also been reported elsewhere.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who has been a target of the protesters, did not specify which individuals or countries he was referring to, saying he would “speak to the dear people when the time is right.”

In his stream of posts on Twitter, he did, however, implicitly compare the current demonstrations to Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, when the United States, its European allies and the Persian Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed the Baath Party government of Saddam Hussein against Tehran.

 

“During Saddam’s imposed war on #Iran, If the Ba’thi enemies had entered Iran, they would show no mercy towards anything or anyone,” Ayatollah Khamenei wrote in another tweet. “Iran’s situation would be worse off than today’s #Libya or #Syria.”

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies are all backing the rebels fighting the Iranian-backed government in Syria.

In Libya, NATO led a bombing campaign that helped remove Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, and both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have continued to back allied groups inside Libya in the continuing civil strife there.

“The Iranian nation will forever owe the dear martyrs, who left behind their homes and families, to stand against the wicked enemies backed by westerners, easterners, as well as reactionaries of the region,” Ayatollah Khamenei wrote, apparently in another reference to the Iran-Iraq war.

His remarks came a day after President Trump criticized Iran, saying the country’s leaders had repressed their people for years. Mr. Trump again addressed the situation there on Tuesday, in another Twitter post that appeared shortly after the supreme leader’s, in which he expressed solidarity with the Iranian people, even though he has sought to prevent them from entering the United States.

That drew an angry response from Iran, with Bahram Qasemi, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, describing Mr. Trump’s comments as insulting, useless and counterproductive, the state news media reported.

“It is better for him to try to address the internal issues, like the murder of scores killed on a daily basis in the United States during armed clashes and shootings, as well as millions of the homeless and hungry people in the country,” Mr. Qasemi said, according to the state-run news agency IRNA.

The protests are the largest in Iran since 2009, during the so-called Green Movement, which took place after the election of the hard-line leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and transitioned into a wider protest against the country’s leadership.

The latest demonstrations, which largely seemed to come out of nowhere and have surprised the authorities with their size and intensity, appear to be rooted in anger toward President Hassan Rouhani, who is regarded as a moderate, and his inability to bring change to an economy that has long suffered under the weight of sanctions.

As the protests have continued, however, they have taken on a political bent directed at the establishment, with demonstrators calling for the death of Mr. Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Rouhani has tried to acknowledge the protesters’ complaints, asking them to avoid violence while saying they had a right to be heard, but others in the government have called for a firmer response.

Brig. Gen Esmaeil Kowsari, deputy chief of the main Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps base in Tehran, told the semiofficial news agency ISNA: “If this situation continues, the officials will definitely make some decisions, and at that point this business will be finished.”

Iran is battling with the Saudi-led Persian Gulf states for dominance across several unstable countries around the region.

In addition to providing military support for Damascus against Syrian rebels who receive backing from Gulf states, Tehran is providing aid to Houthis in Yemen who are fighting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

21COMMENTS

Iran has provided support for protesters and militants opposing the Saudi-backed monarchy in Bahrain, and Iran-assisted factions dominate the politics of Lebanon and Iraq against opponents Saudi Arabia backs.

In most cases, the contest for power plays out through sectarian rivalries. Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchs are backing fellow Sunni Muslims in each arena, and the Shiite government of Iran is backing Shiites in Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, as well as allied heterodox Muslim sects like the Alawites in Syria or the Houthis in Yemen.

Iraqi Christians in Mosul Celebrate Christmas For First Time in 3 Years

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE CHRISTIAN POST)

 

Iraqi Christians in Mosul Celebrate Christmas For First Time in 3 Years

(PHOTO: REUTERS/MUHAMMAD HAMED)Ameen Mukdad, a violinist from Mosul who lived under ISIS’s rule for two and a half years where they destroyed his musical instruments, performs at Nabi Yunus shrine in eastern Mosul, Iraq, April 19, 2017.

Christians in Iraq attended a Christmas service in Mosul for the first time since Islamic State militants took over the city in 2014, hoping they will soon be able to return to their homes.

Armoured vehicles guarded Saint Paul’s, the only functioning church in Mosul. Its bombed-out window frames were covered with white sheets during the Christmas service, the BBC reports.

The patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Raphael Sako, urged the worshipers to pray for “peace and stability in Mosul, Iraq and the world.”

Islamic state, also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, was driven out of Mosul in July, but Christians are yet to rebuild their lives and their homes. Less than a dozen Christian families have been able to return to the city thus far.

“The situation made us so sad,” Voice of America quoted Fadi, a worshiper, as saying. “This is our city, our grandparents’ city. We lived here, we grew up here. We built our schools, universities, churches families and friends here.”

In the Nineveh Plains, which was also liberated from IS a few months ago, Christians earlier this month celebrated the reconsecration of the first church, St. George’s, to be reopened there since IS was driven out of the region.

“ISIS wanted to eliminate the Christian presence here — but ISIS is gone and the Christians of Telleskuf are back,” Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan, said at the ceremony in Telleskuf.

“I am moved by the fact that the church of St. George has not only been reopened, but that it has become more beautiful and glorious than before. That is the way God’s Providence work,” the archbishop declared.

About 80,000 Christians have yet to return home and remain displaced inside of the country as winter has arrived, Juliana Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Christian who founded the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and serves as a senior fellow at the Philos Project, told The Christian Post last week.

She said as many as 50,000 Christians have returned to their homes. Between 150,000 and 180,000 Iraqi Christians were displaced when IS took over in 2014.

“There are many who left Iraq. They went to Turkey. They went to Lebanon. They went to Jordan. The number of Iraqi Christians that are in Turkey is about 45,000. In Jordan, it is about 20,000. In Northern Iraq, we probably would want to say that there are at least 80,000 to 100,000 are displaced in the Northern Part of Iraq.”

Taimoorazy added: “While those aren’t official numbers, as there isn’t a way of counting these people with no census system in place, these numbers are provided to Iraqi Christian Relief Council by various aid organizations and officials from Iraq.”

Iran & Hezbollah Prove They Don’t Give A Damn About Lebanon’s Laws

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

Lebanon Investigates Visit of Iraqi Militia Leader to the South

Sunday, 10 December, 2017 – 10:30
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks after a cabinet meeting in Baabda near Beirut, Lebanon December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/ File Photo
Beirut- Caroline Akoum

The appearance of the head of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia during a visit to Lebanon’s border with Israel, accompanied by Hezbollah fighters, sparked a wave of anger, especially as it came shortly after the government announced the adoption of a policy to dissociate the country from external conflicts.

In a video released on Saturday, Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iraqi paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, declared his readiness “to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause”, just four days after the Lebanese political parties announced the adoption of the policy of “dissociation” from external and regional conflicts.

The video showed an unidentified commander, presumably from Hezbollah, gesturing toward military outposts located along the borders, while Khazali was talking to another person through a wireless device, telling him: “ I am now with the brothers in Hezbollah in the area of Kfarkila, which is a few meters away from occupied Palestine; we declare the full readiness to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri ordered the security apparatus to conduct the necessary investigations into the presence of the Iraqi leader on the Lebanese territories, which he said violated the Lebanese laws.

Presidential sources told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that President Michel Aoun has requested further information about the video, while military sources denied that Khazali has entered the Lebanese territories in a legitimate way.

“The entry of any foreigner to this border area requires a permit from the Lebanese Army, which did not happen,” the sources said, stressing that Khazali has entered the area illegaly.

A statement issued by the premier’s office said: “Hariri contacted the concerned military and security officials to conduct the necessary investigations and take measures to prevent any person or party from carrying out any military activity on the Lebanese territory, and to thwart any illegal act as shown in the video.”

The Lebanese prime minister also ordered that Qais Al-Khazali would be banned from entering Lebanon again, the statement added.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince calls Iran’s supreme leader ‘new Hitler’ of the Middle East

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF FOX NEWS AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

 

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince calls Iran’s supreme leader ‘new Hitler’ of the Middle East

Amid his sweeping cultural reforms and systematic purges from the royal family, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince this week called Iran’s supreme leader the “new Hitler of the Middle East,” comments that are sure to ratchet up the conflict between the two rival Muslim powers.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made the statements about Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an interview with The New York Times that was published Thursday. Salman told The Times that Iran’s efforts to expand “needed to be confronted.”

The prince, 32, who is expected to succeed his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 81, compared Iran and Saudi Arabia’s power struggle in the region to those fighting for Europe in World War II.

“But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East,” Salman told The New York Times.

RETURNING PM ATTENDS LEBANON’S MILITARY PARADE

The Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia support rival sides in the various wars and political battles occurring throughout the region. Saudi Arabia backs Sunni Muslims while Tehran backs Shiite Muslims.

Tensions between the two countries escalated earlier this month when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced in Saudi Arabia that he was resigning from his position. Hariri accused Iran-backed Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and terror group based in Lebanon, of holding his country hostage and plotting against him. Saudi Arabia has also accused Hezbollah of meddling on Iran’s behalf in regional affairs.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during a regional banking conference, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. Hariri told the conference that the country's stability is his primary concern. The remarks, a day after Hariri suspended his resignation, sought to assure the Hariri's government would keep up the effort to have Lebanon remain a top Mideast destination for finance. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said earlier this month he was resigning from his position.  (AP)

Hezbollah, however, accused Saudi Arabia of engineering Hariri’s resignation, calling it “an act of war,” Reuters reported.

Hariri returned to Lebanon this week and said he was putting his resignation on hold.

 

UN CHIEF NUKE INSPECTOR: IRAN COMPLYING WITH NUCLEAR DEAL

Salman also told The New York Times the war in Yemen was “going in its favor.” The war, which has raged since 2015, has pitted a Saudi-led coalition backed by the U.S. against the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Yemen’s ousted president. The war has left over 10,000 people dead, driven 3 million from their homes and destroyed the country’s already fragile infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of sending aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen while Tehran has denied the accusations, the BBC reported.

Iran did not immediately responded to Salman’s comments but Khamenei has previously called Saudi Arabia’s royal family, the House of Saud, an “accursed tree” and accused the kingdom of “spreading terrorism.”

A November crackdown saw the arrests of 11 members of the House of Saud on various charges related to “corruption.” In the midst of the arrests and constant countering of Iran, Saudi Arabia has also worked to institute reforms such as allowing women to drive vehicles in the Kingdom.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Arab League Condemns Iran’s Terrorist Ally: Hezbollah

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

 

Saudi Arabia ramped up its campaign against Iran’s growing influence in the Arab World Sunday by persuading most of the 22 member states of the Arab League to condemn Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, as a “terrorist organization.”

Arab foreign ministers gathered at the League’s headquarters in Cairo Sunday for an emergency meeting called by Saudi Arabia. Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gibran Bassil, did not attend, and the Lebanese representative at the meeting expressed reservations over the final communique.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari also did not attend the meeting. Iran, along with the US-led international coalition, has been a major supporter of Baghdad in its war against ISIS.
“We want to hold everyone responsible,” Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa said during the deliberations. “We want to hold countries where Hezbollah is a partner in government responsible, specifically Lebanon.” Al-Khalifa claimed that Lebanon “is subject to full control by this terrorist group.”

Arab ministers attend a meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Sunday.

The cabinet, led by outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, includes several ministers affiliated with Hezbollah.
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Commenting on the Bahraini foreign minister’s statement, American University of Beirut professor Rami Khouri told CNN that “Hezbollah is certainly the single most powerful political group in Lebanon, where governance requires complex consensus building in which Hezbollah is clearly preeminent. But it is not in total control.”
This latest flare-up between Saudi Arabia and Iran was sparked by a November 4 incident in which Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh’s international airport. Saudi Arabia subsequently accused Hezbollah and Iran of being behind the attack. Both have denied any involvement in the incident. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been rocky since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Saudi Arabia subsequently expressed its anger at Hezbollah, which maintains close ties with Iran. Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamar Sabah has warned the Lebanese they must choose “either peace or to live within the political fold of Hezbollah.”
Hariri announced his resignation as prime minister of Lebanon on November 4 from Riyadh on the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya news network, accusing Iran of destabilizing Lebanon and the region. Many Lebanese, including President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, have said they believe Hariri resigned under Saudi pressure.
Hariri flew to Paris Saturday and vowed to return to Lebanon to attend celebrations marking the country’s independence day on November 22.
It’s not clear whether Sunday’s Arab League meeting will translate into concrete action. The League is notorious for passing resolutions and issuing communiques which are rarely acted upon. It is, however, the first time the Arab League has taken such a strong public stand against Hezbollah.
Reacting to the emergency meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, “Unfortunately countries like the Saudi regime are pursuing divisions and creating differences, and because of this they don’t see any results other than divisions.”
While the Arab foreign ministers deliberated in Cairo, Iran’s growing power across the region was on display in Syria. On Sunday evening Hezbollah’s media unit posted on YouTube a video of Qassem Suleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, meeting with what appeared to be Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian fighters in the newly liberated Syrian town of Albu Kamal. The town, on the Iraqi-Syrian border, was the last significant population center in Syria to be held by ISIS.
Iranian forces have played a key role in backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in its war against the rebels and ISIS.

Saudi Arabia Threatens Hezbollah In Lebanon

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Saudi Arabia calls on Hezbollah to disarm, threatens its ouster from Lebanon

Riyadh’s foreign minister says ‘peace-loving countries’ exploring ways to reduce terrorist group’s influence in Beirut

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir addresses a joint press conference with his French counterpart in the Saudi capital Riyadh on November 16, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Fayez Nureldine)

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir addresses a joint press conference with his French counterpart in the Saudi capital Riyadh on November 16, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Fayez Nureldine)

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Thursday called on the Hezbollah terrorist organization to disarm, warning the group that regional efforts were underway to oust them from the Lebanese government.

At a press conference in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, al-Jubeir denounced Hezbollah as “a tool of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards” and “a first-class terrorist organization used by Iran to destabilize Lebanon and the region.”

“Hezbollah has kidnapped the Lebanese system,” he said.

Al-Jubeir added that “consultations and coordination between peace-loving countries and Lebanon-loving countries are underway to try to find a way that would restore sovereignty to Lebanon and reduce the negative action which Hezbollah is conducting in Lebanon.”

The minister’s remarks came as the kingdom rejected accusations that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was being detained in Riyadh following his shock resignation earlier this month.

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri gives his first televised interview on November 12, 2017, eight days after announcing his resignation. (Future TV via AP)

“The accusation that the kingdom would hold a prime minister or a former prime minister is not true, especially a political ally like” Hariri, al-Jubeir said at the news conference flanked by his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

“I don’t know the source of these accusations. But they are rejected and are baseless and untrue,” al-Jubeir said, adding that Hariri is in Saudi Arabia of his own free will and “he leaves when he wants to.”

Hariri has been in Riyadh since giving a statement on television on November 4 that he was stepping down because he feared for his life while also accusing Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilizing Lebanon.

But Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused to accept his resignation from abroad, and accused Saudi authorities of “detaining” Hariri in Riyadh against his will.

At Thursday’s press conference, it was announced that Hariri had accepted an invitation to visit France in the coming days.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil delivers a press conference in Paris, November 14, 2017. (AFP/Lionel BONAVENTURE)

Aoun confirmed that Hariri and his family would arrive Saturday in France, “where he will rest for a few days” before returning to Beirut to make “a decision regarding the resignation.”

He welcomed Hariri’s decision to accept the French invitation, saying he hoped it “opened the door for a resolution” of the political crisis in Lebanon.

“I wait for the return of President (of the council of ministers) Hariri to decide the next move regarding the government,” Aoun told journalists.

Separately on Thursday, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, on a European tour over the crisis, told reporters that “our concern is that he (Hariri) returns and takes the decision that he wants.”

Bassil spoke at a news conference in Berlin with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who called the situation in Lebanon “very dangerous.”

He warned other countries not to interfere or do anything to threaten the unity and stability of Lebanon, saying “every attack will backfire and will make the entire region suffer.”

READ MORE:

Saudi Arabia: 24 Hours That Have Shaken The Middle East

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

 

A resignation, detentions and missiles: 24 hours that shook the Middle East

Story highlights

  • Weekend’s events serve as an opening salvo for a new period in the region’s crisis-ridden history, analysts say
  • They represent an escalation in a years-long proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran

(CNN)When 32-year-old Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power two years ago, many predicted that change was afoot. The events of November 4 have shown that change would not just be swift, but also seismic, extending unremittingly beyond the kingdom’s boundaries.

A 24-hour sequence of political bombshells began on Saturday afternoon, when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, blindsided his country’s political establishment. Hours later, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency reported that the country’s military had intercepted a Yemen-borne ballistic missile over Riyadh. Even as images of the blast were flashing on TV sets around the region, similarly dramatic news began to trickle in: Some of Saudi Arabia’s most high-profile princes and businessmen were being sacked and detained in an anti-corruption drive led by bin Salman.
The events serve as an opening salvo for a new period in the region’s crisis-ridden history, analysts say. They represent an escalation in a years long proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, threatening to activate new fronts in the region, with the Saudi show of force beginning with a sweeping consolidation of power from within.
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On Friday, ISIS’ last strongholds in Iraq and Syria fell. It marked a major milestone in a fight that saw archrivals converge on the extremist group until its so-called caliphate was on its last legs. On Saturday, regional powerhouses appear to have trained their sights on one another.
“I think the end of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, does not really mean the end of geostrategic struggles,” London School of Economics Professor Fawaz Gerges told CNN’s George Howell.
“On the contrary, the dismantling of the so-called caliphate will basically intensify the geostrategic struggles between the pro-Iranian camp led by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and its allies in the region, including the United States.”

A resignation sets the stage

On Friday evening, Lebanon’s Saad Hariri was summoned to the Saudi capital. It was his second visit to the country in a week. Hariri is a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen and the regional powerhouse is widely seen as his political patron.
Just a week before, it appeared the Prime Minister had averted a major crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. He had met with the Crown Prince and outspoken Saudi Minister Thamer al-Sabhan, appeasing their fears about the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has members in his Cabinet.
“A long and fruitful meeting with my brother Prime Minister Saad Hariri. We’ve agreed on many issues that concern the good people of Lebanon. God willing, the best is yet to come,” Sabhan wrote in a tweet.
The meeting came on the heels of a series of tweets in which Sabhan chastised the Lebanese government for its inclusion of Hezbollah. Hariri appeared to have defused tensions with his visit.
Lebanese MP Yassin Jaber, a member of a pro-Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, told CNN that he met with Hariri just as he returned from Saudi Arabia, and described the premier as cheery and in a “joking” mood.
But when Hariri returned to Saudi Arabia the second time, it was an altogether different matter.
It would be the first time a Lebanese premier submitted his resignation from outside the country. Multiple local media reported that nearly all Hariri’s closest aides were caught unawares.
“Over the past decades, Hezbollah has unfortunately managed to impose a fait accompli in Lebanon by the force of its weapons, which it alleges is a resistance weapon,” Hariri said in his resignation speech.
“I want to tell Iran and its followers that they are losing their interferences in the Arab nation affairs. Our nation will rise just as it did before and the hands that want to harm it will be cut,” he said in remarks apparently aimed at Hezbollah, which he shared a coalition government with.
Hariri’s resignation spells the collapse of a 30-member government of national unity that saw Saudi-backed Hariri fill the post of prime minister, and Hezbollah-backed Michel Aoun occupies the presidency. That government, analysts say, was one of the byproducts of the Obama administration’s landmark Iran nuclear deal.
“With this arrangement, we saw some sort of appeasement where we saw mutual steps from the US and Iran in improving relations and lowering tensions in various areas,” said Riad Kahwaji, director of Institute for Near East and Gulf Military.
The period marked a brief time of stability, in which Lebanon seemed to have steered clear of regional fault-lines.
“With (Hariri’s) resignation yesterday, this arrangement has come to an end and we are back to an escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Lebanese front. Lebanon is back in the arena of the showdown between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Everyone in Lebanon is holding tight and worried … we’re seeing now that we may again be engulfed in conflict,” said Jaber.

Riyadh intercepts ballistic missiles

Hariri’s resignation triggered a crescendo of war drums. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the remarks were a “wake-up call” to “take action” against Iran. Saudi Minister Sabhan promptly tweeted: “The hands of treachery and aggression must be cut off,” echoing Hariri’s threats against Hezbollah.
Just hours later, Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched a ballistic missile targeting King Khalid International Airport in the Saudi capital. Saudi forces intercepted the missile over northeast Riyadh, the Saudi Ministry of Defense said, but the Houthis hailed it as a “success” that “shook the Saudi capital.”
The attack was conducted using a Yemeni-made, long-range missile called the Burqan 2H, the rebels said. The missile launch was the first time the heart of the Saudi capital has been attacked.
The Saudi-led coalition accused a regional state of providing material support to the Houthi rebels, saying the firing of a ballistic missile at Riyadh “threatens the security of the Kingdom and regional and international security,” according to a statement carried by Saudi state-TV al-Ekbariya.
The coalition didn’t name the country. Saudi Arabia has been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran, which it accuses of arming the Houthi rebels.
Analysts dubbed this a “major escalation” in the Yemeni war.
“This is a major escalation and will have tremendous implications on the situation in Yemen itself, because Saudi Arabia now feels extremely the urge to retaliate against the Houthi movement that controls the government in Sanaa,” said Gerges.
Gerges added that combined with the political rupture in Lebanon, the ballistic missile attack spells an outbreak of tensions “throughout the region.”

Saudi Arabia wages war within and without

Saudi Arabia was still putting out the fires caused by the missile attack when state TV announced the onset of an anti-corruption crackdown led by the crown prince. Over 17 princes and top officials were arrested on graft charges, according to a list obtained by CNN and cited by a senior royal court official.
The list includes billionaire business magnate Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns 95% of Kingdom Holding, which holds stakes in global companies such as Citigroup, Twitter, Apple and News Corp.
The list also includes the formal head of the royal court Khaled Al-Tuwaijri, Saudi media mogul Waleed Al-Ibrahim and Prince Turki Bin Nasser.
“Some of the wealthiest figures in the Arab world are in apprehension today,” said military analyst Riad Kahwaji.
“This is unprecedented. We’re seeing it for the first time and it’s definitely causing shock waves across the region.”
Reportedly, the detainees are being held at the lavish Ritz-Carlton hotel. “I think there’s a lovely irony in that many of these corrupt deals happened at the Ritz-Carlton and now these guys are locked up there,” said historian Robert Lacey, who wrote two books about the kingdom.
“In historical terms, what we’ve seen in the last few months is nothing short of revolutionary,” said Lacey. “I’ve been waiting for 40 years for these things to happen, and they happened in four months.”
Mohammed bin Salman’s campaign of “two fronts,” as analysts have dubbed it, is being met by cheers and apprehension. But there is near consensus that these are uncharted waters, and the results will be dramatic.

 

 

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