Archive for June, 2014

Jordan expels Syrian envoy in diplomatic tussle

May 26, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan expelled Syria’s top envoy Monday, prompting Damascus to do the same in a diplomatic tussle that could signal the start of unraveling ties between the neighbors.

The move came a week before an election in Syria expected to keep President Bashar Assad in power. The highly contentious vote, being held amid a ferocious civil war, has been called a mockery by Western countries.

It was unclear what specifically caused Jordan to expel Syrian Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman. Jordan has hosted an envoy from Syria since the start of the 2011 uprising despite quietly supporting rebels trying to overthrow Assad.

Suleiman was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours in a humiliating public announcement first made on state-run media. He was declared persona non grata because of “continued offensive statements, through his personal contacts or writing in the media and the social media, against the kingdom,” Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sabah al-Rafie said in a statement carried by the state-run Petra news agency.

His statements were a “sheer departure from all diplomatic norms and conventions,” she said. Al-Rafie said Suleiman used Jordan as a platform to offend other Arab countries, likely referring to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both chief supporters of the Syrian rebels.

Syrian officials and diplomats regularly launch diatribes against the leaders of those countries and Turkey. Soon after the announcement from Amman about Suleiman, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it would expel the Jordanian charge d’affaires in retaliation, although he was not in the country. It said it requested the Jordanian Embassy in Damascus to inform the diplomat that he is banned from entering Syria.

“Jordan’s reprehensible and unjustifiable decision does not reflect the deep fraternal relations between the two peoples in Syria and Jordan,” it said. Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad al-Momani said the ambassador to Syria retired a month ago and a replacement had not been assigned.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed Jordan’s move, calling it an “important step” in supporting the Syrian people. In a statement, the coalition urged other Arab states to follow Jordan’s lead to increase the Assad government’s isolation.

Experts expressed surprise at the Jordanian announcement, saying it was not in keeping with diplomatic protocol. “The dramatic way he was expelled was strange. It’s as if Jordan is cutting off its diplomatic relations with Syria,” said analyst Hisham Jaber, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese military.

“The ambassador could have been summoned, and a complaint could have been lodged. But to say: ‘Get out’ — that’s very tough.” A Facebook page created by Suleiman’s supporters suggested his defiance and loyalty to Assad. The “Network of those who love Mr. Ambassador Dr. Bahjat Suleiman” posted what it said was his expulsion notice from Jordan. The page later contained a photo claiming to show Suleiman being carried on the shoulders of his backers. “Syria needs you more,” was emblazoned across it.

Suleiman had headed one of Syria’s most powerful internal intelligence branches and was sent to Jordan as ambassador in 2009, perhaps after a falling out with Assad’s inner circle, Jaber and Syria analyst Aron Lund said.

It was unclear if the diplomatic tussle will have any long-lasting repercussions, including on the two countries’ shared border. Rebels control Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey, leaving only the Lebanese and Jordanian border posts in the government’s hands. The corridor with Jordan allows Syrian products to reach wealthy Gulf markets, helping an economy shattered by three years of civil war.

Jordan also hosts nearly 600,000 registered Syrian refugees — although Jordanian officials say the number is far higher. In an interview with The Associated Press, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, said the upcoming election will be the resounding answer to those who doubt Assad’s government will prevail in the conflict. He said he expects a huge turnout for the vote, to be held abroad Wednesday and inside Syria on June 3.

He said Western leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande criticize and oppose the election because they fear the results.

“The Syrian people will say their word in these elections, and their word is the one that counts. Not Obama’s word, Cameron’s or Hollande’s,” Ali said. Assad is all but guaranteed victory because opposition groups are boycotting the vote, which will only be held in government-held areas of the fragmented country. Rebels control vast territory of Syria.

More than 160,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the uprising began in March 2011 and became a civil war.

Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.

Pope to see Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan

May 24, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — On the first leg of his three-day Mideast trip, Pope Francis will get a firsthand look at the plight of Syrian refugees and witness the toll the civil war next door is taking on Jordan.

Francis frequently has lamented the plight of refugees, denouncing the “globalization of indifference” that often greets them in their newly adopted homelands. At the same time, he and his predecessors have decried the flight of Christians from the Holy Land, insisting recently: “We will not be resigned to think about the Middle East without Christians!”

After meeting with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at the royal palace, Francis is due to celebrate Mass on Saturday in Amman’s International Stadium. The Vatican expects some 25,000 people to attend, many of them Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Later, he will meet one-on-one with refugees and disabled children at a church in Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism.

Christians make up about 5 percent of Syria’s population, but assaults on predominantly Christian towns by rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad’s rule have fueled fears among the country’s religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt. Christians believe they are being targeted in part because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and partly as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said Francis wants to offer comfort to all Christians who live in the region and encourage them to stay. “These Christians are living stones, and without their presence, the Holy Land and its holy sites risk becoming a museum,” Parolin told Vatican Television on the eve of the trip.

Jordan last month opened a third camp for Syrian refugees, a stark indication of the strains the civil war is creating for the country. The sprawling facility is designed to accommodate up to 130,000 people and potentially become the world’s second-largest refugee camp. Jordan is hosting 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, or 10 percent of its population. Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million.

For the Syrian Christians who will greet Francis, his presence is a chance to show the world their hopelessness as the conflict drags on. “We are very happy because he will see Christians in the Arab world, he will see us and see our suffering,” said Nazik Malko, a Syrian Orthodox Christian refugee from Maaloula who will be among the 600 or so people to greet the pope at Bethany beyond the Jordan. “We wish that peace will be restored in the whole world, and in Syria.”

Another Orthodox Christian from Maaloula, Yacoub Josef, said he couldn’t wait to leave. “We wish that the situation in Syria would be better, but we hope to immigrate because we have had enough of being homeless,” he said.

Francis will visit a Palestinian refugee camp on Sunday when he travels from Amman directly to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It’s the first time a pope has landed in the West Bank rather than Tel Aviv first, and Palestinian officials are eager to show Francis the limbo endured by generations of Palestinians forced or driven out in the war over Israel’s 1948 creation. Today, along with their descendants, these refugees make up more than 5 million people scattered across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Parolin, the Vatican No. 2, said Francis would emphasize the Vatican’s longstanding position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The right of Israel to exist and enjoy peace and security inside its internationally recognized borders, and the right of the Palestinian people to have a sovereign, independent homeland, freedom of movement and the right to live in dignity.”

Technically, the main reason for the trip is for Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting in Jerusalem by their predecessors which ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. That highlight will come on Sunday, when Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

Representatives of other churches also will be present, including Cardinal Bechara Rai, the first leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, the Maronite Catholic Church, to visit Jerusalem since Israel captured the city’s eastern sector. Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel or having business dealings with Israelis.

Underscoring the sensitive political nature of the trip, Rai’s plans to visit Israel have drawn criticism. He angrily walked out of an interview with France 24 on Friday while in Amman, after the reporter pressed him on the motives for his visit.

“I don’t come to the Holy Land for political, economic or military goals. … Jerusalem is our city and we are in the Holy Land since hundreds of years, we cannot leave our land and our people,” he said.

Francis will spend Monday in Jerusalem, visiting the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Israel’s chief rabbis, albeit separately. He’ll also pray at the Western Wall and visit the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and will become the first pope to lay a wreath of flowers on Mount Herzl, named for the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. He returns to the Vatican Monday night.

Winfield reported from Rome.

Israel chooses veteran hard-liner as president

June 10, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s parliament on Tuesday chose Reuven Rivlin, a veteran nationalist politician and supporter of the Jewish settlement movement, as the country’s next president, putting a man opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state into the ceremonial but influential post.

Rivlin, a stalwart in the governing Likud Party, now faces the difficult task of succeeding Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate who became an all-star on the international stage. While the presidency is largely ceremonial, Rivlin’s political views could be a liability when he represents the country overseas. His opposition to Palestinian independence puts him at odds with the international community and Israel’s own prime minister.

Rivlin has been a longtime supporter of Jewish settlements in occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians. While rejecting Palestinian independence, he has proposed a special union with the Palestinians in which Jews and Arabs would hold common citizenship but vote for separate parliaments.

The president is meant to serve as a unifying figure and moral compass for the country, and Rivlin has said that in contrast to Peres, he would focus on domestic affairs if selected to the post. Speaking at a Knesset ceremony to celebrate his election, Rivlin said his new position “commits me to remove the robe of politics,” an indication that he may subdue his political beliefs as president.

“I am not a man of a (political) movement. I am a man of everyone. A man of the people,” said Rivlin, visibly moved as he made his acceptance speech. While most political power is held by the prime minister, the president plays several key roles in Israel, with the power to pardon prisoners and authority to choose the prime minister after national elections.

In this role, the president selects a member of parliament, or Knesset, to form a majority coalition after elections. This has usually been the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament. But with the rise of a number of midsize parties in parliament, Rivlin could theoretically have more influence over choosing the country’s prime minister.

Rivlin dismissed speculation that he might be upset at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Likud rival who tried to block his candidacy, saying he was “not angry at anyone.” In a bid to lay to rest the rivalry, Netanyahu congratulated Rivlin and said he would work with him.

“I know you will do all you can as president and I promise that I as prime minister … will do the same with you,” he said. Rivlin is to be sworn into office for a single, seven-year term on July 24. After Tuesday’s vote, Peres called to congratulate him. Rivlin said it would be tough to follow Peres.

Rivlin, 74, currently a lawmaker for the right-wing Likud, has previously served as speaker of parliament and as a Cabinet minister. He defeated Meir Sheetrit, another veteran politician, 63 to 53, in a secret runoff ballot. Three other candidates were eliminated in a first round of voting in the 120-member parliament earlier in the day.

Rivlin will have big shoes to fill, after Peres, 90, steps down. Peres, whose political career stretches back decades and who has been an outspoken proponent of peace with the Palestinians, brought the office international renown. He also restored honor to the position, which was tarnished after his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, was forced to step down by a sex scandal. Katsav is now in prison after being convicted of rape.

Although Rivlin will play no role in Israeli foreign policy, Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Palestinian official, said the election of a man with his views sent a bad message. “I don’t see how he will contribute anything to peacemaking in the region. He is opposed to the two-state solution,” he said.

A statement from the White House on Tuesday said, “President-elect Rivlin has a long and dedicated record of public service and we look forward to continued strong ties, to the benefit of both our nations.”

The vote capped a nasty presidential campaign that saw mudslinging, political intrigue and scandals that forced two hopefuls to pull out of the running. Netanyahu’s public standing also took a hit during the campaign due to his attempts to shape the race and block Rivlin’s candidacy. He and Rivlin are longtime rivals in the Likud.

Rivlin, a vegetarian, is married and has four children. He has built a reputation for congeniality and as speaker of parliament, lawmakers considered him respectful of all opinions, even those of his fiercest rivals.

The other candidates included Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court judge. Former parliamentary speaker Dalia Itzik and Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Dan Shechtman also vied for the job.

Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed.